Sitabinji Sita’s Forgotten Cave
Sita is a picturesque spot, 32 kms from Keonjhar. The river Sita flows nearby and the set of small hills around the area are named after Valmiki, Luv, Kush, Surupanakha and Ravana. It is widely believed by the local people that Sitabinji was named after Sita, Lord Rama’s wife, who lived here while in exile and gave birth to the twins Luv and Kush. An idol of Sita and her two sons has been worshipped in a cave on top of a nearby hill since ages.
The chief attraction of this place, tucked away in the remote hilly area of Odisha, is the ancient art of Ravanachhaya on a gigantic protruding rock. This massive hanging boulder, situated by the river, is umbrella-shaped and bears old tempera paintings which were done sometime in 500 A.D. At a height of 22 feet above the ground, the main rock is delicately perched on top of another huge boulder. The stunning artistic murals cover the entire ceiling, with a huge surface area of 1,250 sq. cm.
The tempera of Ravanachhaya is a marvel art form of ancient times. The frescoes have been created using natural dyes of soft colours by employing the light and shade technique. The rough layer of granite was smoothened with lime before the painting was made. The ancient artists had profound knowledge about natural pigments. Colours were made of plants and minerals which did not bleach when mixed with lime and withstood the test of time. They mastered the art of producing several colors. In Sitabinji, they used black, green, yellow, orange, blue and white pigments.The paintings were done with the use of a twig of a palm tree, turned, into a brush by hammering its fibrous end.
What were the sources that inspired the creators of this rock art? No single source of inspiration or a specific function could be behind the murals. It may be a representation of real life events, they painted what they saw. The symbols might have something to do with the representation of a god or an identity or a force that they saw or believed in. The Sitabinji paintings are equivalent of modern photography.
The mural depicts a royal procession with the king sitting on an elephant with a sword in hand, followed by women attendants and a few horsemen. A band of footmen lead this procession. Below the painting there are verses inscribed in Sanskrit that describe the scene and its history. There in an engraving in stone with names the King as Maharaja Sri Disabhanja, who is considered to be the earliest king of the Bhanja dynasty.
To protect the painting from elements and other hazards, the Archaeological Survey of India has taken conservation steps and made a channel to clear the water from the rocks. A small porch has been set up outside the cave. However these efforts are not enough, the lower part of the painting has been permanently destroyed. Vandals too have been at work, as is evident from the scrawls on the near by rocks.
The cave was in use even before the paintings were made. It was in use by Shaivite monks around the 4th Century AD. The discovery of a four faced Mukhalinga (with four faces of Shiva) that was found here. This unique Mukhalinga is also mentioned in nearby rock inscriptions.
There are many scattered rock inscriptions which lie in utter neglect. Epigraphists have deciphered the Pali inscriptions which date back to more than 1,000 years, the period of convergence of Buddhism and Hinduism. Excavations in the area have also yielded many Kushan coins.
There is a hill nearby called Bhandaraghara, or ‘store room’, where the dacoit Ratnakar, before he turned into Valmiki, is believed to have hidden his loot. It is a huge rock which is geologically known as a bornhardt; a chunk of weather resistant rock, left standing when all else around it is worn away.
The rock paintings at Sitabinji are valuable and have immense historic and archaeological value. However, the ASI had not taken proper conservation steps to preserve them, nor are there any facilities for visiting tourists. The beautiful paintings are now gradually fading away.
I have been visiting the site every year since the last decade and have seen that the paintings are deteriorating at a fast pace. The mural which has survived fifteen centuries, are now on the verge of total disappearance. The royal procession which was clearly visible a decade ago, when I first visited it, is now practically undecipherable.
The Odisha State Convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, A.B.Tripathy, had recently visited the spot along with me and was dismayed at the state of the site. He said that INTACH Odisha is taking up the matter with the ASI and the State government and is willing to co-operate in any effort for saving this precious heritage of the State.
By Anil Dhir from Keonjhar