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Travels into India's enigmatic past

Journey to four lesser-known historical sites around India for glimpses of our rich and pluralistic past

A miniature painting depicting Central Asian horsemen at Alchi, Ladakh.
A miniature painting depicting Central Asian horsemen at Alchi, Ladakh. (Wikimedia Commons)

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“I have seen the world, dream king. I have ridden through the deserts, and seen the rocks and old walls and statues breathed up by the desert wind in the empty wastes of sand. And then the wind and sand come up once more and the remnants of cities and palaces and gods vanish for another age of man, forgotten and unremembered.” So says Haroun Al Raschid, the king of Baghdad, to Morpheus, the lord of dreams and stories, in the remarkable graphic story Ramadan by Neil Gaiman. Al Raschid rules over a perfect kingdom, with the perfect capital city, literally a land of miracles, high art, magic and civilisation. But since he’s seen the ruins of civilisations past, the king of Baghdad begs the king of dreams to take the city into his realm, so that the perfect city lives on, safe from the vagaries of time and decay.

I often think of this story when I travel to heritage sites around the country, from places of archaeological significance to historical import. India is, after all, a country of ruins, a fact that is shaped both by the climate, as well as neglect. Our ideas of conservation are both technically outdated, and, these days, politically motivated. You add to that an education system that does our rich history no favours, and you’re faced with apathy, ignorance and wilful misrepresentation about historical sites.

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And still, the grandeur endures, a testament to the genius and sophistication of the various peoples and cultures that have called the subcontinent home over nearly 4,000 years of recorded history. However, barring the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation, most of the material remains of past civilisations do not go back beyond some 2,300 years, at best. Nearly all of it is religious in nature, and for the large part, overwhelmingly Buddhist. Ancient Indians built large structures with wood, and artworks with terracotta, both of which are perishable. Building in stone was rare, and was reserved for imperial gestures of religious patronage: first, Buddhist stupas, like at Sanchi (in Madhya Pradesh), and, later, Saiva and Vaisnava temples, like the ones at Aihole (Karnataka) and Deoghar (Jharkhand).

For me, the most important, and interesting period ranges from roughly the 5th century CE to the 12th century CE, what’s called the early medieval era. Going by political history alone, it was a time of great flux, upheaval and conflict. But it also gave birth to some of the most enduring art and architecture (again, almost entirely religious in nature), and cultural forms that still form an important part of India’s lived reality. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that if you want to really enjoy the sites from this era, you need to put in a certain amount of cultural detective work, and resist any easy explanations. Here are four enigmatic, and lesser known, heritage sites that I’ve been fortunate enough to see over the past decade.

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Metal Buddhist sculptures excavated in Sirpur.
Metal Buddhist sculptures excavated in Sirpur. (Puneet K. Paliwal)

Sirpur, Chhattisgarh: One of the most fascinating developments of the early medieval era, much remarked upon by scholars, is the mushrooming of local, powerful kingdoms across the Indian subcontinent. These were mostly in erstwhile forested areas, and the cultures of these kingdoms were mostly hyper-local and tribal. One of these was the Somavamsi kingdom of Dakshina Kosala, with its capital at Sirpur from around the 6th-8th centuries CE. About an hour’s drive from the state capital of Raipur, these days, Sirpur is both a sleepy small town, and also one gigantic archaeological site.

The most famous historical structure here is the Lakshmana Temple, from the 8th century CE—the site of the Sirpur Dance and Music Festival. But of equal importance are the majestic Buddhist viharas and stupas, and Saiva temples that dot the town. The two most famous kings of the Somavamsi dynasty were Tivradeva and his grandson Mahasivagupta Balarjuna. Most of the remains come from their reigns in the 7th-8th centuries, as revealed by inscriptions unearthed here. The Tivradeva Vihara, close to the Lakshmana Temple, is certainly regal in nature, befitting of an imperial commission. Adorned with gorgeous sculptures, both religious and erotic, the interior of the main shrine also features a beautiful, large statue of the Buddha in the classic bhumisparsha mudra.

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The ruins of Surang Tila in Sirpur.
The ruins of Surang Tila in Sirpur. (Puneet K. Paliwal)

Or take the ruins of Surang Tila, a Saiva temple from the same era. Its gigantic steps, disfigured by an earthquake that is said to have destroyed imperial Sirpur sometime around the turn of the first millennium CE, lead up to a roofless platform adorned with shrine vestibules and beautifully carved pillars. The nearby Gandheshwara temple complex has a new temple, used by locals, in an ancient yard littered with gorgeous sculptures of the Buddha and Shiva-Parvati.

Other major monastery ruins like the Anandaprabhu Vihara, Padmapani Vihara and the Swastik Vihara speak of the development of popular Mahayana, and it’s esoteric form, the tantric Vajrayana, as well as of Sirpur’s cultural connections to Tang-era China. Sirpur is simply stunning, a jewel hiding in plain sight.

A terracotta plaque from Pilak in Tripura.
A terracotta plaque from Pilak in Tripura. (Puneet K. Paliwal)

Udaipur, Tripura: It’s tempting to include the entirety of the state in any list of fascinating historical sites that are much neglected in the popular imagination. There is no better example of this than the open-air sculptural gallery of Unakoti in north Tripura, a stunning ode to the artistic sophistication of nameless, medieval tribal artists, who sculpted gigantic bas relief sculptures on a forested hill between roughly the 8th and 13th centuries CE.

Apart from Unakoti, the main historical draws are grouped around the city of Udaipur, in south-central Tripura, 55kmm from state capital Agartala. In late medieval times, Udaipur was the capital of the Manikya kingdom; the temples constructed by successive generations of the Manikyas—who ruled the region from roughly the 15th century CE till 1949—are classics of concurrent Bengali styles of temple architecture, but also influenced by Tripura’s rich Buddhist past and Sufi tradition. These are exemplified by the stupa-like flourishes and Islamic motifs that adorn some of the temples. Of special note is the Tripurasundari Temple, a clearly tantric Shakta shrine, built in 1501 by the king Dhanya Manikya.

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Sakragma bas relief mural at Devtamura.
Sakragma bas relief mural at Devtamura. (Puneet K. Paliwal)

The tribal antecedents of devi worship come through in the haunting carved murals of Devtamura, 30km east from Udaipur in a Reang tribal settlement. Carved into sheer rock walls directly above a winding gorge of the Gomti river, the central figure of the murals is a goddess the locals call Sakragma (the ghost lady). A trident that she brandishes has led many to label her as Durga, but this could just be an example of local goddesses being assimilated under a Brahmanical mother goddess.

Tripura’s wonders don’t cease here. About 60km south of Udaipur, near the town of Joliabari, lies the Buddhist archaeological site of Pilak. Dating to about the 6th-10th centuries CE, the ruins of three Mahayana monasteries, along with the base of a long-vanished cruciform Buddhist temple, can be found at the three excavation sites of Thakurani Tila, Pujakhol Tila and Shyamsundar Tila. Although most of the excavated statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can be found at the state museum in Agartala, when I visited a few years ago, an on-site Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) building housed gorgeous, tiny metal statues. Many ancient stone statues of Buddhist deities can be found in nearby villages, being venerated as Hindu deities in temples.

A miniature painting depicting Central Asian horsemen at Alchi, Ladakh.
A miniature painting depicting Central Asian horsemen at Alchi, Ladakh. (Wikimedia Commons)

Alchi, Ladakh: Of the many medieval Buddhist monasteries found in the Indus Valley in Ladakh, none are as fascinating as the oldest of the lot, Alchi, about 66km downstream from Leh. Although fairly well known, at least in relation to the other sites on this list, Alchi is a hidden gem because of what it conserves.

While the rest of the sprawling, castle-like monasteries of Ladakh preserve a distinctly Tibetan style of Buddhism in their statues, painted murals and other cultural details, Alchi, which dates back to 11th century CE, preserves a more “Indian” style, specifically that of the Kashmir Valley.

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When the Alchi temple complex was built, commissioned by two wealthy nobles of the western Tibetan kingdom of Guge (it comprised Ladakh, as well as Zanskar, Spiti, Kinnaur, Lahaul in Hiamchal Pradesh), the Mahayana and Vajrayana were thriving in Kashmir, part of a South Asia-wide Buddhist cultural landscape that included Nepal, Bangladesh, northern Pakistan, and modern Indian states of Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. The Ladkahi nobles brought Kashmiri woodworkers and painters with them, and the oldest temples of Alchi are a glowing tribute to a now-lost form of Kashmiri art.

The Tsumtsek Temple at Alchi.
The Tsumtsek Temple at Alchi. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Some of the wood carving, like the heraldic gates to the temples, are reminiscent of many surviving wooden temples from that era in Himachal, as well as wooden Islamic shrines of medieval Kashmir. The most stunning examples of Kashmiri art are found in two of the oldest temples in the complex, the three-storied Tsumtsek and the Vairochana Temple. Redolent with murals depicting Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, fierce Vajrayana deities, and gigantic mandalas, the artwork is simply priceless. The pièce de résistance are the three gigantic mud plastered statues of three Bodhisattvas—the blue Manjushri, the white Avalokiteshwara and the red Maitreya—in three niches of the Tsumtsek.

A fascinating aspect of these statues are the painted dhotis they wear. Avalokiteshwara’s dhoti is filled with finely painted miniatures of life in a city, probably in Kashmir. Here temples to Tara and the Buddha jostle with Shiva temples, while a king and a queen are visible in their palace. Indian and Central Asian monks, priests, ordinary people and soldiers prance around in a vividly imagined scene of a vanished time. Maitreya’s dhoti features miniatures featuring the life of the Buddha, while Manjushri’s dhoti depicts the 84 Mahasiddhas, or supreme tantric adepts, venerated in both Buddhist and Saiva trantric lineages. A cultural marvel, this brief description doesn’t even come close to depicting the wonder that is Alchi.

Sculpted Buddha and Bodhisattvas on Bojjanakonda hill in Sankaram.
Sculpted Buddha and Bodhisattvas on Bojjanakonda hill in Sankaram. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Sankaram, Andhra Pradesh: A few years ago, while on a trip to Vizag, I happened to chance upon a fantastic place called Sankaram, about 45km inland from the coastal port city. I had long been intrigued by the Buddhist history of ancient dakshinapatha (the southern route). A major trade route since Mauryan times, it provided a route for ideas and trade to travel from the overland Central Asian and northern Indian trade routes to the ports of the east coast and ancient Sri Lanka. From here, culture and trading goods were exported to south-east Asia and China on the one hand and the Mediterranean on the other.

Nagarjunakonda is the best known Buddhist site of the dakshinapatha, but I knew that countless other sites survive, and, in Sakaram, I was fortunate to see one of them. Well, actually two: Sankaram (a modern transmongrification of “Sangharam” meaning the site for a Buddhist sangha) has two high hillocks rising from emerald green paddy fields. These hillocks, called Bojjanakonda (Bojja, meaning Buddha, after the Buddha statues carved atop the hillock) and Lingalakonda (the other hill, which is almost entirely transformed into a sea of stupas big and small, misidentified by locals as Shiva lingas) are stunning in their setting.

Bojjanakonda hill in Sankaram.
Bojjanakonda hill in Sankaram. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Bojjanakonda hill is topped by the remains of a large monastery and the foundations of a vast stupa, while further down the hill are deep cave shrines featuring huge rock-cut bas relief statues of the Buddha and groups of Bodhisattvas. The entrance to the caves is framed by a rock cut gate featuring a seated Buddha in dhyana mudra and a giant guarding Bodhisattva, probably Vajrapani. In neighbouring Lingalakonda, the living rock has been carved into thousands of votive stupas, either scattered about or set in rows. Actual gigantic boulders are hollowed out to resemble stupas and were probably used by Buddhist monks and yogis for solitary meditation.

Not much is known about the Sankaram site, though an ASI board indicates that the site was in continuous use through the latter half of the 1st millennium CE and first half of the 2nd millennium CE. What is clear from the carvings is that they spanned all three major eras of Buddhism, with stylistic references to Theravada (with its stupa cult), Mahayana (the carved Buddha and Bodhisattva groupings reminiscent of Ellora), and Vajrayana (a bas relief sculpture of a yogi meditating sitting on a fish, could it be a depiction of the siddha Matsyendranatha?). In its enigmatic silence, Sankaram is an exemplar of Indian historical sites, mutely challenging any claims of the subcontinent having a homogenous past dominated by any one religious culture.

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