Shishupalgarh An Ancient Treasure Trove
“You’re sure you won’t miss your train?” my roommate asked peeping out of the blanket. I had less than three hours to visit the place, get print out of an e-ticket and return to the station. But such was the urge to see the excavated fort in Shishupalgarh that I had decided to take a chance with Rajdhani Express which originates from Bhubaneswar.
Apparently the pull of 18 laterite pillars which stand erect at the site even 2,500 years later and which I had seen on internet, was much greater on me than what my roommate had imagined. In fact, as I discovered later, I am not the only one who is in the urban centre which existed for close to 1,000 years from 5th BC onwards. Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has already excavated the place twice in last 60 years and plans to resume again soon.
After driving a few kilometres towards South of Bhubaneswar, my auto driver curves left to get onto a narrow and now-concrete-now-dusty road. And after winding about a kilometre more, we bump into an ASI board pitched next to a high wall covered with outgrowth. The board announces protection of the monument under heritage laws of the country. We walk a few metres on a muddy path on our left and are right in front of the treasure trove. Two large platforms enjoined by large square steps on two sides encircle a kutcha path that opens towards a moat. It was supposed to be a jetty where the authorities of Shishupalgarh received supplies for the city dwellers. The jetty platforms were connected to a fortification on left and right.
A few metres away from the jetty are 18 pillars that were excavated between 2005 and 2008 by a 12-member team of archaeologists spearheaded by RK Mohanty, Archaeology professor, Deccan College Pune and Monica L Smith, head a archaeologist from University of California. The pillars stand erect even after having been covered under debris for two and a half millenniums. The pillars, according to Mohanty, were covered by a wooden roof and probably made space for housing public gatherings. The pillars have holes where wooden rafters or rims were fitted. Mohanty conjectures that the space may have served either as cultural or religious centre in old times.
The fortified city, which housed its main authority in the centre, had four gateways and equal number of subsidiary gates that allowed people to walk into the city even when main gateways were closed. Mohanty estimates the city was inhabited by over 20,000 people, more than double of Athens. It had well laid out houses, interested structures, lanes and by-lanes. The discovery of ornaments, beads, bangles, terracotta, copper, iron implements like knives, blades and nails points to the possibility that the inhabitants of the city must have been quite advanced.
According to Mohanty, the city had five water tanks—one each in four directions and one in the centre. Since Daya River flows on its left, it would have had an abundance of water sources. Even now you get water after one and a half metres under the ground. Though not largest in the country, Shishupalgarh, spread in 1.2 x 1.2 kilometre, must have been a bustling city.
Interestingly, though the city existed for a millennium it finds no mention in Ashoka’s edicts, found at Dhauli, a stone’s throw from Shishupalgarh, and Jaunagarh. The edicts only talk about Northern and Southern Toshali. Probably, the city was known by some other name during 3rd and 4th BC when Ashoka ruled over Kalinga.
There are two other things that the archaeologists are not certain about. Firstly, it is not clear what religion the Shishupalgarh residents followed. Though the archaeologists have found Buddhist relics and a stupa in the commercial towns which surrounded the fortified city from three sides no such thing was found during the excavations within the fortification. “There were Brahmanical structures inside the city. Probably people worshipped symbols that perished with time,” Mohanty infers. Secondly it is not clear as to who ruled over the city. It is said that Shishupalgarh, once capital of Toshali, derived its name from Shishupal, a king of Kesari clan of Somabams.
Ironically, despite being a treasure trove of ancient history, the Odisha government has so far been indifferent to Shishupalgarh. Despite having been requested by ASI not to allow further growth within the fortification and hand over the area to it for further exploration, the state government has turned a blind eye to the incessant construction activity. Houses have been constructed even next to the jetty that has been excavated.
Renowned archaeologist BB Lal excavated the place first in 1948. Mohanty and Smith did this in 2005 to 2008 and now, Ashish Sahu, an assistant archaeologist in Bhubaneswar circle of ASI, says the local branch will soon take up excavations at the site. Obviously, the archaeologists and anthropologists haven’t had enough of it.
By Narendra Kaushik from Bhubaneswar