Chhattisgarh came into existence about 17 years ago, yet remains an off-beat travel destination. When my husband was invited to a conference in Pt Ravishankar Shukla University, the opportunity was too good to pass up and so I packed my bags too! My main motivation was to visit Sirpur, which was in the news for the internationally acclaimed archaeological excavations of ancient temples by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
On arrival in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, we checked into Gagan Regency near the University. The next day we hired a taxi and embarked on our day-long trip to Sirpur, about 80 km from Raipur. Sirpur is a tiny village on the banks of Mahanadi, essentially hosting Sirpur group of monuments. The temples excavated by ASI in 2006 are believed to have been in existence since 5th century AD. We visited three of these monuments, namely Surang Tila, Teevardev monastery and Laxman Temple all situated within 1 km radius.
Surang Tila is a 7th century Shiva Temple built by Mahashivagupta Balarjun. The place used to be a soil mound with tunnels ('surang') used by locals, before excavation. The imposing structure with 37 steep steps is a sight to behold. Immediately you notice that part of the steps has caved in and the climbers have to 'dance' their way through them to reach the top. The steps lead up to a pillared terrace perhaps a Mantapa, but now its open to the sky. The remains of the broken pillars, 32 of them, hold magnificent carvings.
The terrace or mantapa also holds five shrines built with white granites in pyramid style. Four of the sanctums were dedicated to Shiva and contains coloured Shiva lingas (white, red, yellow and black). The fifth sanctum contains a Ganesh idol.
A platform opposite to the temple contains the remains of Tantric temples dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Our next stop was Teevardev (or Teevardeo) Monastery, which was discovered during excavation in 2003. According to an inscription found, it was constructed during the time of Somavamsi King Teevardeo and continued to remain in use during the reign of Harshgupta and grandson Mahashivgupta Balarjuna in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The central part of the temple is the main shrine and on either side are the dwelling chambers. The sculptures are syncretic, in that they represent both Buddhist and Hindu arts. The way to the main shrine is sheer poetry containing intricate carvings depicting different phases of Buddha's life and some Panchatantra stories. The inner sanctum contains a stone image of Buddha in meditative posture flanked by standing Padmapanis on either side.
The middle space surrounded by ornate pillars is used by disciples to sit and learn from the masters. The beauty and the serenity of the place are magical. His Holiness Dalai Lama visited this place in 2014. The dwelling chambers where both the disciples and their masters used to reside are in ruins. Our final stop was Laxman Temple, built in seventh century. Although referred to as Laxman Temple, it is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The temple is in the middle of a large compound with well-maintained gardens, thanks to ASI.
The temple stands on an impressive stone platform. The entire structure is made up of bricks and the carvings just take your breath away. The top of the sanctum door frame contains an exquisitely carved reclining Vishnu on Sesha. The vertical part of the door frame contains the ten avatars of Vishnu and also some Khajuraho style erotic sculptures.
Apart from the temple, the complex houses a museum showcasing various excavated idols which were a part of the Hindu and Buddhist monuments of that period. Sirpur served as the capital of South Kosala Kingdom. Its a treasure trove for heritage junkies. Several more sites have been excavated revealing underground granary market and a sixth century bathhouse. Due to the paucity of time, we managed to visit only the major attractions. As they say, one should always leave something for the next visit.
The nearest city, Mahasamund is 35 km away for those seeking any kind of refreshments. So it's better to carry water and snacks.