Sisupalgarh, of Mauryan vintage, stands neglected today on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, with encroachments mushrooming all over the site. Can it be saved before it gets ‘developed'?

The name Sisupala brings to mind the Kalinga king mentioned in the Mahabharata. On the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, off the main road to Puri, are relics of an ancient fort called Sisupalgarh. These were first discovered around 1947 and the excavation was put in the charge of the young archaeologist B.B. Lal by the legendary Mortimer. Lal and his team completed partial excavation in 1950. There was a hibernation then for decades. A few years ago, R.K. Mohanty from Deccan College, Pune and Monica Smith from Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, excavated around 18 pillars and various artefacts like pottery, terracotta ornaments and the evidence of an urban settlement. They estimated the population of the community at over 20,000 living in a city having well laid-out streets and houses with two or three rooms each.

Just four kilometres from Sisupalgarh is the Dhauli hill. At its base is an Ashokan Pillar with edicts from the Emperor. Ashoka fought the Kalinga War that converted him from a ferocious marauder to a pacifist Buddhist. Ashoka was the Emperor of Magadha. His forebear was Jarasandha — mentor of Sisupala, as mentioned in the Mahabharata. What research has been done on this front? Can any be undertaken if Sisupalgarh is lost forever and goes under the foundations of modern buildings?

Story of neglect

Orissa was once known as Kalinga. The Mahabharata contains the story of Chhedi king Sisupala, a cousin of Lord Krishna who was decapitated by Krishna in an open court. Sisupala was an ancestor of King Kharavela, who is credited with the Khandagiri and Udayagiri cave structures on the western outskirts of Bhubaneswar. Does Sisupalgarh's antiquity date back to the Mahabharata period? No research seems to have been undertaken on this aspect as well.

The fortress, complete with giant pillars, ramparts, eight gates and a moat, was unearthed by B.B. Lal and his team. In 2005, ground-penetrating radar and laser scanners were used for further exploration. This revealed the position of the southern moat, as also column structures towards the centre of the fort. The fort is believed to be of the Mauryan period by some. Others believe it is much older.

Much of the sporadic research on Sisupalgarh may remain only of academic interest. Sisupalgarh today is being engulfed by a fast-expanding Bhubaneswar. The “Improvement Trust” and “Development Authority” (BDA) have turned a blind eye to buildings coming up within the ancient city that is still to be excavated in full. Corinna Borchett and Prof. Paul Yule of Heidelberg University, who did pioneering work on this subject, wrote to the ASI in 2005 with pictures of 17 buildings close to the excavations. They pleaded for stopping illegal construction in this region which, according to Prof. Yule is “the largest surviving structure of its time in India”. It was a cry in the wilderness. Today, the picture is much worse with buildings coming up right next to the pillars. Such encroachments have made meaningful exploration of this remnant of over two millennia impossible. Vagaries of Nature and avarice of man seem to have no limits here.

INTACH has filed a PIL and obtained a stay order against further encroachment from the High Court. Says A.B. Tripathy, Convenor, Orissa Chapter, “Sisupalgarh may be lost to posterity if urgent steps are not taken to conserve whatever is left. It is a shame that some gold coins and other artefacts excavated by B.B. Lal have been lost. Unless people are sensitised to the importance of such heritage sites, and government gives solid support for conservation, there will be irreparable loss”.

No real power

Dr. B.K. Rath, who retired last year as Superintendent, State Archaeology says, “ASI is not an enforcing agency. This organisation needs help and co-operation of local police and administration for implementing their Acts. If these are not available, ASI becomes helpless. That is exactly what is happening in Sisupalgarh.....”

In the recent past, ASI Superintendent Dr. A.K. Patel has been active in voicing concern about the need for conserving Sisupalgarh. The Chief Minister has since visited it and seen for himself the state in which it stands (or crumbles).

On the way to Sisupalgarh a few weeks ago, I could see unusually large laterite blocks used as house-building material by locals. These could be part of the excavation, and thousands of years old. At the original site of excavation stood a fragile bamboo fence demarcating ASI's charge. There was a lone guard smoking a cigarette, and hardly any tourists. When we went to take pictures, the guard warned us that a huge block of earth fell on that part a few days earlier. These were the “latest excavations” on the southern side of the Western Gate.

We drove through the village and walked across paddy fields to Saula Khamba (sixteen pillars) within the fort area. A few years ago, these pillars were visible from the State Highway. That is no longer the case. Between you and them stand structures of steel embedded in concrete. Wild growth has overtaken these unprotected monuments. Hardly 10 meters away from the pillars, one more enclosure for one more building had come up. Close to Saula Khamba lives six-year-old Entu in a hamlet on the banks of the Rani Pokhari (Queen's Pond). He led us to a magnificent laterite lingam entwined by a serpent. It was retrieved from the pond 27 years ago, and conserved by people living on the bank of the pond. Entu told us about other “rocks” in the middle of the pond. They could be felt with the feet whenever he swims in the middle of the pond. If something of this antiquity was hidden in the Queen's Pond, one can only guess how many artifacts are still inside water elsewhere. Who will retrieve, conserve and preserve such rare gifts of history and heritage? If the government of Orissa continues to turn a Nelson's eye to Sisupalgarh, posterity will be so much the loser of a glorious past.

Contact the author at fabalas02@yahoo.com