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Nabajit Deori
Date of Publish: 2015-10-25

(The section   ‘Art –Heritage’ features the significant art historical sites of the north eastern region which deserve focused  scholastic attention due to their immense potential for further research in multiple disciplines. 

--Moushumi Kandali, Editor, Visual Art & Culture Section )

 

Stupas of Surya Pahar

Nabajit Deori

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As if, time had stood still here amongst the stone sculptures of Suryapahar , an art historical site in the north eastern region. In every direction stones have sprung into life, have made stairways to guide people. Everywhere is evident a festive atmosphere and a confluence of faiths- Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism took place. In stone, Vishnu, Mahavira and Buddha were born. From one Hill to another, one embarks on a stony journey and under the Bodhi tree three incarnated persona is spreading their spiritual message. This is the incomparable broadness, secularism and endurance of Surya Pahar. Its rocky terrain was the first to come into contact with people from the West and also the Aryan people from the North around two thousand years back. It stood witness to  many historic and pre-historic stories and events. Suryapahar has preserved the ancient archaeological heritage of the   region in every curve of the site for centuries.

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The history and tradition of Surya Pahar spreads over Hills covering an area of about 54 acres of land. The Hills is covered with hard igneous rocks intercepted with greenery and few streams. The site   lies at a distance of 140 kms from Guwahati. After travelling about 15 kms in the motorable Goalpara-Dudhnoi road, one reaches Surya Pahar- the Abode of Lord Surya. Preserved and maintained by the Guwahati Circle, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), it is an Archaeological Site- a National treasure. Since the Site was entitled the status of a Protected Archaeological Site by the Central Govt. in 1966the responsibility of  its preservation and protectioncame under the jurisdiction of the ASI. Archaeological excavations were carried out in this site between 1992-2001 and unearthed many golden pages of the ancient history of Assam.

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At Surya Pahar we come across a confluence of three major religions- Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. In the entire north-east India, only here do we come across a treasure hold of innumerable sculptures and other architectural relics representing these three religions. Various Buddhist stupas, Jain rock shelters, sculptures of Jain Tirthankaras, sculptures of various Hindu deities, Sivalingas and others relics sprawl over a total area of almost 135 acres of land. Amongst these, mention may be made of the following relics:

  1. The twelve figures of Surya carved in a circular manner on a stone slab. It is believed that the name ‘Surya Pahar' derives from the fact that the site was perhaps associated with the cult of sun (Surya) worship.
  2. The ruins of Panchayatan Temple unearthed by archaeological excavations. The significance of the Panchayatan Temple is that besides the main or central temple there are four connected temples built in the four directions. Altogether there are five temples and hence the name Panchayatan Temple.The Siva Temple of Negheritang is an excellent example of such temples.
  3. Ruins of a temple built of burnt bricks unearthed by archaeological excavations.
  4. Ganesh Kunda- the foundation of a stone temple at a raised altar of a mountain stream and other archaeological ruins.
  5. Figure of Rishabnath, Adinath and Neminath in the No.1 rock shelter
  6. Sitted figure of Rishabnath in the No.2 rock shelter
  7. Twelve-armed Vishnu
  8. Siva, Surya, Ganesha and innumerable Sivalingas
  9. Monolithic stone stupas.

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The artistic doorjamb of Da-Parvatiya (Tezpur) is no doubt an early example of a masterpiece in plastic art tradition of Assam yet about 600-700 years prior to it; the foundation of architectural heritage of Assam was laid in Surya Pahar.

Human society has evolved from the prehistoric period to the modern times passing through several cultural stages. The Indian Sub-continent too passed through various distinct evolutionary phases. After about five thousand years after the close of the Neolithic period, primitive man entered into the Chalcolithic period when they used copper tools along with the stone tools. This was the start of use of metal. The use of iron in India started in between 2nd -6th  Cent. B.C. which can be termed as the Iron Age. Since then the wheel of civilization started moving speedily. And it was during the 6th Cent. B.C. that two great religious figures- Gautam Buddha and Mahavira were born. Gradually Historic Period evolved. As the human civilization progressed from the Stone age, the pattern of the course of cultural development in the form of archaeological remains can be found all over the sub-continent. 

Surprisingly, no archaeological remains belonging to the Copper Age, Iron Age and Early Historical Age has been found in Assam or the entire North-east India. Thus a long chronological gap is seen in this regard. It is a mystery for anthropologists, archaeologists and researchers about this leap from Neolithic to Historical period. From the archaeological remains and   Neolithic tools unearthed from sites like Daojali-Hading, Saru-Taru and others of Assam it surged straight away to the archaeological remains of Surya Pahar. The history of the period between these two covering several thousands of years is shrouded in mystery.

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One cannot pinpoint the advent of Buddhism into Assam. There are no evidences about the advent of Buddhism here during the life time of Buddha nor during the reign of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (269-232 Cent. B.C.). It may be mentioned that the travelogue of the Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang (642-43 Cent. A.D.) is also silent about the influence of Buddhism in the region during that period. But the stone Stupas of Surya Pahar belonging to the 1-2 Cent B.C. are living examples of the Buddhist architectural heritage of the region. We find similar architectural ruins belonging to the same period in the Lower Brahmaputra Valley and in the vicinity of the Goalpara town. A special mention may be made of the oval shaped stone Stupa at the Pancharatna Archaeological Site prepared by a similar hollowed technique. On the basis of its building technique this Stupa is dated around 2nd Cent. B.C. Apart from this, there are around five incomplete Stupas scattered at Pancharatna and they are all oval-shaped.

The stone Stupas found at Surya Pahar and Pancharatna Archaeological sites proved that there was a strong influence of Buddhism in the Lower Brahmaputra Valley since the pre-Christian Era. The River Brahmaputra facilitated an efficient river transport system and served as a trade route. It is assumed that a group of travelers or a disciple of Buddha travelled through this route and before entering into the Kamarupa, they created the first Stupa with a creative awakening at Surya Pahar and Pancharatna areas. They must have been patronized by the royalty but there are no written records of that period of history. Substantiated by the findings of terracotta Stupas, terracotta figures of Buddha and others in Dakaidojal and Wara Bhaita sites in Goalpara District, it is ascertained that the advent of Buddhism in Assam took place in the Early Medieval period during the 9-10th Cent. A.D.

On the basis of the archaeological excavation at Bhaitbari in Meghalaya by renowned archaeologist, A.K. Sharma, it was proved that there was profound influence of Buddhism in the Lower Brahmaputra Valley during the 10-11th Cent. A.D. corroborated by findings including big Stupa of terracotta bricks, terracotta artifacts, Buddha image and other artifacts.

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In the context of the constructing techniques, the Stupas of Surya Pahar shows affinity to the Deccan style. The miniature Stupas of the Deccan built of basaltic rock is ascertained to have belonged to the 1st-2nd Cent. B.C. These monolithic stone Stupas are regarded as a significant yardstick of Buddhist art. After the Mahaparinirvana of Buddha, his relics were placed into eight metal caskets and distributed among the eight kingdoms in which Buddha resided and erected a Stupa to house the relics. During those times these Stupas were built of clay as written in the early Buddhist texts. It was during the Mauryan dynasty that the architectural art of building Stupas developed and flourished. The main objective of building Stupas was to house the relics of Buddha and his main disciples which were kept inside metal caskets and over which a clay structure was constructed. During the rule of Ashoka, the Great Stupas was massive and extensively made of terracotta bricks. The famous Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh is the most striking example of Buddhist architectural heritage. This was further reconstructed and expanded during the Sunga, Kushana and Satavahana rule.

Structurally Stupas usually have the following features- the hemispherical dome on top called Anda. This dome stands on a square or round base which is called Medhi. On the top of the dome a railing is constructed alongwith a harmika with a groove in the centre to hold the shaft of the chhatra or  chhatravali (parosol). At the base, a circular path is constructed around the stupa meant for circumambulation. This path is often adorned with intrinsically ornamented altars. The access to the Stupas is led through four exquisitely carved gateways or Toranas facing the cardinal directions.

Other Buddhist architectural heritage includes caves built for the purpose of worship and meditation by the Buddhist monks and disciples. These caves were excavated from rocks often situated in a quiet and secluded area. Apart from these, certain small Stupas were built imitating the Great Stupas structurally. These are known as Votive Stupas. Though small in size, it has all the features and ornamentation of a Great Stupa.

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On the extreme north east corner on a higher altitude, a huge granite boulder was selected for carving three giant stupas, carved in one row. The middle one is slightly bigger than the other two and measures about 1.60 metres in height.The ones at the two sides measures about 1.50 metres and 1.25 metres in height. There is a gap of about 50cms between the Stupas, most probably, meant for pradakshina.

If one descends from this place down towards the south, one comes across a special Stupa here. This Stupa is built in the depression of a granite stone of about 4 feet in depth. This Stupa measures about 1.50 metres in height. One has to climb down for pradakshina of the Stupa. Such Stupa built in depression of rock is rarely found in India. There are about eight, different-shaped Stupas from about 100 metres distance from this Stupa towards the western slope. Built of granite, the tallest amongst them measure about 1.55 metres in height.

The third group of Stupas at Surya Pahar is found at about a distance of two furlong from the above mentioned group towards the southern direction. Here a group of six Stupas were built in the huge boulders measuring between 1.20 metres and 50cms in height. On the basis of technique, these Stupas differ from the Stupas mentioned so far and also of an earlier date. The Anda of these Stupas is not semi- hemispherical but tapers towards the top. It is worth mentioning that such oval-shaped Stupas are very rare in Eastern India. The Anda of these Stupas bears similarity with the ones found at Pancharatna mentioned earlier. These Stupas were built during the Sunga and Kushan Period. Thus the oval- shaped Stupas can be dated to about 200-100 Cent. B.C.

The biggest Stupa of Surya Pahar is situated in the south-western part on the right side of the path leading to the Jain rock shelters. This monolithic Stupa of North-eastern India measures about 3.50 metres in height. It has all the features of a Stupa. The base is adorned with two lotus petals and three rings of stone. The Medi part rise from above these three rings. The semi- hemispherical Anda rises beautifully from above the Medi. Towards the right there is indication of the presence of a hole made in order to fix the Harmika.

From the architectural and stylistic point of view, the Stupas of Surya Pahar is a refined attempt to replicate the complete manifestation of the Buddhist architectural heritage including features like the Bedi, Medi, Anda, railing with Harmika, hole to fix the Chhatravali. The Chhatravali is prepared separately and fixed with the Harmika.

The Stupas are a unique classical architectural art in the whole of the Indian sub-continent. As if they are looking up to the sky since time immemorial- indestructible and uncomplicated. In the stone canvas of Surya Pahar, it was as if every spiritual quest saw the enlightened path and every creative awakening expressed. The stones of Surya Pahar beckoned one and all. And thus this seed of architectural heritage - the stone Stupas germinated here.

( Nabajit Deori is the technical officer in  the Directorate of Archaeology, Assam,  who supervises   the exploration and excavations conducted by the State Directorate.  Besides a masters degree  in Anthropology he also holds a two years post graduate diploma in Archaeology from the Indian Institute of Archeology , New Delhi.)

Translated from Assamese by Julie Barooah

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