Bhubaneswar, Feb 27: The historic Asura Vihara Gumphas near Choudwar have been handed over to a private company by the state Government in Odisha in utter disregard for heritage. An ancient archaeological site, the Gumphas are three Laterite rock-cut caves made by Jain monks.
The three caves are located about 27 kilometres from Bhubaneshwar at the Indrani hillock near the Indranipatana village close to Choudwar. The site dates back to the 1st century C.E. and the caves are similar to the ones at Khandagiri and Udayagiri, belonging to the same period.
A team from the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) stumbled on the fact while conducting a survey as part of the Mahanadi Heritage Documentation Project. The group could not approach the site as it has been walled over by a private cement company.
The three west-facing caves are rectangular in plan and were hewn out of an outcrop of laterite rock. Before being walled in, they were visible from National Highway 42 which connects Cuttack with Talcher, and are situated just about 300 metres away from the road.
According to Anil Dhir, the Project Coordinator of INTACH’s Mahanadi Heritage Project, these unique caves were made by Jain monks and later used by Buddhist monks.
They have been a landmark in the area for centuries with locals also conducting worship at the place. The site has a rich oral history and according to local folklore, the Choudwar region was the Virata kingdom during the Mahabharata era and the abode of the Pandavas while they were in exile.
Locals believe that a demon called “Manda Khia Rakhyasa” lived in the caves and had spread terror due to his demands of a cartload of Manda Pithas (rice cakes) along with a “Nara bali” (human sacrifice) everyday.
According to lore, Bhima, the second of the Pandavas, had challenged the demon and slain him in a fierce duel at this spot. Locals held an annual festival at the spot for centuries, a ceremony which has been discontinued for the past two years. The villagers had protested when the wall was being constructed but were arrested and thrown in jail.
Dhir, who had visited the place a few years ago, said the caves were very well maintained by locals. However, the State Government handed over the entire hillock along with the adjoining land to a private company during the Make-in-Odisha conclave.
In May 2018, the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, had inaugurated the 3.86 lakh tonnes-per-annum capacity cement plant of Toshali Cements Pvt. Ltd. by video conference. To ensure that the intended investments during the Make-in-Odisha Conclave were converted quickly, the government ensured that all required support like as land, utilities and clearances were made available expeditiously.
The fast-tracking of procedures resulted in the archaeological site being overlooked; the caves too were included in the land allotted and were quickly walled-in by the cement company.
Dhir added that it was a pity that an important site like the Asura Vihara Gumphas has neither been notified by the State Archaeology Department nor the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
INTACH had documented the site in 2001 and accorded it Monument Serial No. OR/CTC-51. Choudwar was an important ancient Buddhist centre and many fine specimens of Buddhist sculptures have been found in and around the caves.
Many eminent Odia historians and archaeologists have written about the site. Mentions of the Buddhist sites in Choudwar are found in the works of Ramprasad Chanda’s ‘Exploration in Odisha’, Dr. Harekrushna Mahatab’s ‘Odisha Itihasa’, Dr. Krishna Chandra Panigrahi’s ‘History of Odisha’, R.C. Mohapatra’s ‘Archaeology in Odisha’ and in two works titled ‘Odishara Pratnatatwa’ and ‘Anannya Prabandha’ by Paramananda Acharya.
Many Buddhist idols are also worshipped as village goddesses in the vicinity. A Tara image is worshipped as Mahalaxmi and a Marichi image as Parvati at the nearby Chateswara Shiva temple.
In the Choudwar Sabar Sahi, an Avalokitesvara image finds it place as the Gramadevi. Proper archaeological excavations in the area are expected to reveal rich finds. Dhir said that the caves are covered by thick vegetation at the moment, which may damage them. The laterite stone is honeycombed, and if proper clearing is not done, the vegetation will split the rock-face and cracks will develop. Proper conservation and preservation is said to be the need of the hour.
A.B. Tripathy, State Convener of INTACH is of the opinion that the caves should be retrieved from the company and the allotment of the site cancelled. He said the company should provide free access and open up the caves for the villagers and the general public.
Tripathy stressed the need for proper documentation and listing of lesser-known monuments spread all over the State. Many important sites lying in neglect need to be notified as protected monuments by the State Archaeological Department and proper safety and security measures need to be taken.
INTACH has done a comprehensive survey of the entire Mahanadi Valley in Odisha and is documenting both tangible and intangible assets from the region. More than a 1000 monuments have already been identified on both banks of the river and will be listed along with the intangible heritage. The project was flagged off in January 2018 and will be completed this year.