‘Are you cleaning the structure?’ I ask the man who seems to be in charge. Half a dozen workers are working with pungent chemicals. Brush is dipped into cans and a layer applied to brick walls, stone pillars, roofs and some sculptural reliefs at the entrance to this 7th century AD Buddhist vihara. This happens to be the oldest in Sirpur.
‘No. We have already cleaned them. We are now applying a preservative,’ says K.P. Verma, a chemist with the State Archaeology.
‘Do you do this often?’
‘I have been here for 25 years. This is only the third time we are doing it,’ he says.
Chemicals are poured, mixed and stirred with twigs. The workers wear no protective gloves or masks. This can be dangerous.
‘Have you always been at Sirpur?’ I ask to get him talk more about his work.
‘No. I have travelled all over the state. Those days it was part of Madhya Pradesh. I had my initial training in Karnataka.’
‘How is the ASI involved at Sirpur?’
‘There is the ASI at the national level and there is the State Archaeology. Only two monuments at Sirpur at taken care of the latter. All others are taken care by the national body. You can identify them by the big walls built around each monument.’
‘How many are there in Sirpur?’
‘There are about 50 monuments in Sirpur. It will take you a whole day to see them all in detail.’
Indeed, everywhere I turn I see a walled enclosure protecting a brick structure within. This place is full of history. Many of these monuments are removed from the main action of modern day town. So at Sirpur, the past is closer and perhaps more real than the present. You don’t see Sirpur for what it is but what has made it.
But I don’t have a whole day at Sirpur. It has taken me a freaking journey of 4 hours to get here via Mahasamund. It may take me just as long to get back to Raipur and catch the night train to Tatanagar. I have exactly 3.5 hours at Sirpur.
‘All the monuments are Buddhist viharas?’ I ask.
‘There are three types of building here – Buddhist viharas, Shiva temples and residential buildings.’
I thank the chemist for his time. Though basically a chemist, his greater interest in ancient Indian history. He has an LLB and a PhD in that subject. He has written books on the ancient architecture of Sarguja and Bastar, two large districts of the state. He is now working on a third book that will cover the region in between. His books are in Hindi, It is sad that so much knowledge is shared locally but they never make it to international arena.
Sirpur is not yet a popular tourist spot but becoming one. Only two monuments were excavated in 1956. After that was a long period of neglect. Only in 2000 new excavations were begun and the other monuments brought to light.
As I walk through Sirpur I see all three types of monuments. The brick ruins are mostly ordinary but make interesting study. Stone pillars contain curious round patterns and whorls nudging each other. They are suspected to be fossilized forms of ancient algae. Broken lingas and peetas adorn roofless sanctums. Mandapas stand open to the sky with one or two pillars.
The most fascinating temple is the Lakshmana temple. It is truly a work of art. Thus far I have admired art in stone. But art in brick is also nothing less interesting. The temple has a shikara over sanctum, antarala and roofless mandapa. The lintel and door jambs to the sanctum are wonderful though the reliefs are obliterated. On the outer walls, there is an absence of religious theme in the reliefs.
The 3-day mela at Sirpur is an added attraction to my visit. It begins today. Security is tight. The Chief Minister is expected to fly in within an hour. I get a scare. There appears no transport going back to Mahasamund or Raipur. Everyone is waiting for the CM. But I am in luck. I get a bus to Mahasamund.