On a drive around Raipur, Tej Narayan discovers lost civilisations in the heart of Chhattisgarh
It’s the journey that matters more than the destination. The thought plays on my mind as our SU V zips through the smooth highways of Chhattisgarh. We are not even 50 km from the state capital Raipur but we are already driving into the wilderness, having left the high-rises of smartly-planned Naya Raipur far behind. As the morning sun peeps through the clouds hanging low, the road glistens, washed clean by a night of rain. On both sides of the road lay acres of lush farmland, bordered by a hint of dense forests at the horizon. Small villages, bridges spanning several rivers, including the mighty Mahanadi, temples on distant hillocks and clusters of townships under construction flash past, even before we can register their names. The road seems to have a mind of its own, sometimes running in a strict straight line and at others, dancing into an S, rising and dipping and disappearing into the azure sky!
Soon, we reach Arang, a quaint village famous for its temples. Once the seat of the powerful Haihaya dynasty, Arang was a flourishing centre for Hindu and Jain preachers in its glorious days. A local legend says the name Arang is derived from two words; ara meaning saw and anga,meaning body. A lore says Lord Krishna tested the faith of king Murddhawaja of the Haihaya dynasty by asking him to saw his body in half as a sacrifice. The king did so without regret and the Lord blessed him. The village, with several temples, stands shaded by old trees with gnarled branches. Among the structures, the most famous is Bhand Dewal, a Jain temple from the 11th century. Standing on a plinth, this five-storey shrine is a story of contrast against the blue sky. Inside are three gigantic sculptures of Jain tirthankaras in shiny black stone.
Spending an hour around the village, we hit the road again, heading to Sirpur, just 45 km away. Veering off the main highway, we pass through a soothing tunnel of trees to reach Sirpur, located on the banks of the Mahanadi river. Our driver informs us that the popular Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary is just an hour away.
Also known as the city of wealth, Sirpur has seen a varying tide of fortunes since the ancient times. It was once the capital of the Sarbhpuria Somvanshi kings of south Kaushal state and a centre of Buddhism in the 6th and 8th centuries. Chinese traveller Hsüan-tsang too mentioned Sirpur as a flourishing town known for trade, religions and Ayurvedic studies. It was wiped into oblivion maybe by a natural calamity or an enemy attack, only to be discovered in 1872 but then forgotten again, till the present times.
We weave our way between a line of cars to approach the ruins of the many temples Sirpur is known for. Today, it’s a bustling tourist spot, but just a few decades ago, before the discovery of its buried heritage, it was a sleepy nondescript town. Recent excavations have led to the discovery of this ancient civilisation, with traces of Hindu temples and a Buddha vihara, which is said to be four times the size of the famed Nalanda university in Bihar. In total, Sirpur is home to 22 Shiva temples, four Vishnu temples, 10 Buddha viharas, and three Jain temples – asserting its position as a centre of multiple religions!
As we walk, first comes the Lakshman (Laxman) temple. Cited as one of the most significant examples of sculpted brick