Secrets Of Sirpur

Sirpur is a village located in the Mahasamund district of Chhattisgarh, situated 35 km from Mahasamund city and 78 km from Raipur, on the banks of the Mahanadi River
Stone sculptures at Surang Tila, Sirpur, Chhattisgarh

Stepping off the plane in Raipur, the sweltering sun greeted me with a stifling embrace. Beads of sweat formed on my brow but I couldn't help but smile. Smaller Indian cities hold secrets and untapped treasures for those willing to explore beyond the bustling metropolises.

My visit was to speak on my latest book, "The Asura Way," at the Young Chamber of Commerce's book club. But I knew this trip promised more than just another engagement. Raipur once used to be the gateway to an enigmatic world—the ancient realm of Sripura (or Sirpur), roughly 70 km away in distance and 5,000 years in time.

The taxi grumbled as it slowly departed from Raipur, leaving behind the bustling city life. We drove past endless fields with rolling hills. Swirls of rusty dust followed our path along the road.

As we neared Sirpur the terrain changed dramatically. The land became verdant with tall trees blocking sunlight. Except for a lone goatherd with his countless goats who briefly held up my journey, I couldn’t see a human being for many kilometres. Before I could completely succumb to sleep, we arrived at Sirpur without any indication. This Indian town was unlike any other I had seen, void of the usual sights of tyre repair shops, small eateries, and roadside shrines.

The viharas are now in ruins but it is captivating to envision the past standing below the decaying columns

Sirpur, once the magnificent capital of the Panduvanshi dynasty in the 5th century, is now a forgotten hamlet. Its extravagant monuments still stand as mute witnesses to its faded glory days. Despite being an unpopular tourist spot, it holds an irresistible allure for history buffs like me, especially as it was once home to the famed Chinese-Buddhist traveller Hiuen Tsang.

The place was surprisingly well-maintained with none of the garbage piles that mark Indian pilgrimage places. In a deserted garden, ASI oversees a collection of temples and a museum. I had to wait for an eternity until a drowsy ticket clerk reluctantly appeared and handed me my pass with a scowl. Our indifference to our history and heritage is baffling. Maybe we have too much history and monuments to be excited about anything. In any other country, such a place would be teeming with tourists.

The 7th century Laxman Temple at Sirpur,  Chhattisgarh
The 7th century Laxman Temple at Sirpur, ChhattisgarhPhoto: Shutterstock

I was struck by the uniquely red laterite stone from which the monuments had been fashioned. Unusual for temples, the deep, rusted hues lent the structures an earthy, primordial quality. As I made my way through the barren ASI lawn, I caught my first glimpse of the Laxman Temple. It stood tall in the centre, stunningly contrasting the otherwise featureless surroundings. The temple was built entirely out of red laterite stone, similar to most other structures in Sirpur. Its intricate carvings and delicate details were a testament to the exceptional skills of the craftsmen who had created it centuries ago.

Between the 5th and 8th centuries, Sirpur was a megacity with substantial influence in the region. It would have easily been one of the biggest cities in the world during its time. During the reign of the South Kosala kingdom, this region blossomed into an influential hub where Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain faiths intermingled. It was famous enough to attract Tsang to live in one of its viharas (a meeting place of Buddhist monks) for many years. I could almost envision him wandering these busy lanes, marvelling at the sacred shrines and viharas dotting the landscape. His detailed accounts had first piqued my curiosity about this fabled settlement of many centuries ago. An air of mystery and reverence still clung to the crumbling ruins, remnants of Sirpur's hallowed past.

Recent excavations by the ASI have gradually resurrected slumbering memories from the layers of the earth. Twelve Buddhist viharas, one Jain vihara, and a stunning array of monolithic Buddha and Mahavira statues were among the treasures disinterred.

There is a nice yet desolate museum housed within the premises of the ancient Laxman Temple. Despite its modest appearance, it cradles a remarkable collection of artefacts recovered from Sirpur's hallowed soil.

There are other monuments around the Laxman Temple. The crown jewel of Sirpur was undoubtedly the Surang Tila temple complex, its grandeur humbling even from afar. As I approached, the imposing structure revealed itself—a raised pillared terrace connected to the ruins of an ornate mandapa platform below. The viharas are now in ruins but it is captivating to envision the past while standing beneath the decaying columns.

A short amble brought me to the serene Gandheshwar Temple situated on the banks of the languid Mahanadi river. The peace was almost palpable, reminiscent of scenes from colonial paintings where Hindu ascetics sat insouciantly by the riverside. I sat under the sprawling banyan tree in the ghat, watching the river flow by. As if on cue, a group of sadhus materialised straight out of a colonial-era painting. I watched, entranced, as a slithering snake momentarily broke the tableau, gliding perilously close to the unperturbed holy men. Neither the snake nor the holy men were bothered by each other’s presence.

As I wandered past the haunting relics, I couldn't shake the profound sense that I was an insignificant speck in the river of ages that had flowed through these ancient stones. Somewhere under the soil lay the remnants of a once-thriving market that would have buzzed with life and commerce along this riverbank.

I closed my eyes, letting the gentle lapping of the Mahanadi transport my mind's eye back through the centuries. I could almost discern the echoing thrum of distant conches and drums heralding the arrival of trade boats heavy with exotic wares. Far away from the hell hole of Indian cities with its pollution, chaos, overflowing drains, honking and madness, such an India also exists.

Getting There

Raipur is the closest railway station on the Bombay-Howrah main line, while Mahasamund is the nearest stop on the Raipur-Waltair line. Regular buses and taxis are available from Raipur and Mahasamund. The nearest airport, Raipur, is 84 kilometres away and connects with major cities.

Anand Neelakantan is a bestselling author of 17 books, doubling as a columnist, screenwriter, and public speaker

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller