The atmospheric village of Sirpur in Mahasamund district is a short drive away from the Chhattisgarh capital, Raipur. It can be conveniently covered as a day trip even though we recommend that you stay overnight to better appreciate its ancient treasures. Winter (Nov–Feb) is the friendliest season for a visit to Sirpur and its delightful attractions, especially the temples.
Surrounded by neat, verdurous grounds, this small but exceptional brick temple is in relatively good shape and considered an archaeological watershed. The premises of the 7th-century temple play host to the annual Sirpur Festival, a melange of art, music, culture and the ancient.
Though unremarkable in size, the temple’s significance stems from its architectural features and construction material – it is built entirely in burnt red-brick save for the elaborately carved stone doorway. This doorway’s lintel sports an engraving of a reclining Sheshnag, while the jambs carry figures of Vishnu incarnates. A curvilinear shikhara (central tower) sporting chaitya (horse-shoe) motifs towers over the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) atop a massive platform. Not much is left of the mandapa (pillared hall for rites and rituals) except for symmetrically placed bases of now-missing columns and the staggered remains of enclosing side walls.
If history etched in architecture is what has drawn you to Chhattisgarh, do not miss a trip to the ornately sculpted Bhoramdeo Temple in Kawardha district. Set in a verdant patch across from a large lotus-laden water body edged by the gentle swell of the Maikal hills, it dates to the 11th century, a period when temple architecture had attained its acme (typified by wall-sculpting). It borrows its name, Bhoramdeo, from that of a tribal deity said to be a form of Shiva.
Photography buffs are advised to carry cameras with superior zoom options in order to capture the curvaceous beauties in hard-to-reach recesses of the temple. The ideal time to visit would perhaps be the last week of March when the temple grounds come abuzz with the Bhoramdeo Mahotsav. For long a local affair, it has of late taken on the guise of a cultural extravaganza.
Attractions in the vicinity of Bhoramdeo include Madwa Mahal, a less ornate Shiva temple in Chhapri village (to the left, a couple of kilometres before Bhoramdeo). A little more than a kilometre beyond Madwa Mahal is yet another Shiva temple, standing somewhat forlorn amidst fields backed by low hummocks. Cherki Mahal is ostensibly a memorial to shepherds (cherki in local parlance). It houses a lingam, as well as an idol of Ganesha in the sanctum, while river goddesses Yamuna and Ganga stand guard at the portal. Visit only if you are in the neighbourhood.
Baleshwar Mahadev Temple Complex
An excavated find dating back to what has emerged as Sirpur’s most thriving era, the 7th century AD, Baleshwar Mahadev Temple Complex was built under the Panduvanshi king Mahasivagupta Balarjun. All three temples, commissioned under royal patronage, are dedicated to Shiva and favour the Panchayatana style of architecture.
Sirpur has an obscure past beyond the 5th century AD. Everything we know about it is post excavations of its antiquarian wealth, most of which thoughtfully showed up with dedications on either stone or metal. The Baleshwar Mahadev Temple Complex was discovered with inscriptions on copper plates, now removed to various repositories, which led palaeontologists to Mahasivagupta Balarjun, during whose reign Sirpur as we know it today is said to have been built, commissioned, or patronised. A ruler with immense respect for all faiths, he was a Shaivite himself who along with his two wives supplicated to Shiva at this temple complex that bears his name.
The one living temple, in honour of Shiva, amidst myriad excavated neighbours, this 18th-century structure is perched at the edge of the Mahanadi River. It was recreated somewhat Phoenix-like from ancient remains under the Bhonsle rulers. Embellished eclectically with Vaishnava, Shaiva Jain and Buddhist imagery, the place buzzes during the festivals of Shivratri and Mahashivratri.
Sitting at the edge of the Mahanadi River, this shrine to Shiva was cobbled together at a new site during the Maratha reign with whatever remains they could lay their hands on. Compared to the intricate carvings and stone structures of other temples in Sirpur, this one is quite unexceptional in appearance. Historian and archaeologist Alexander Cunningham, whose reports have largely threaded together Sirpur’s past, observed that the temple is “chiefly interesting for the inscriptions which have been collected here”.