We have all been enthralled by talented soloists, dancers and ensemble performers who wove around us magical realms from myths and epics and immersed us in engrossing folkloric tales with narrative mastery. Their sublime gifts have left us in teary-eyed rapture, transported us into higher planes of existence itself. After an hour or few we are jolted awake abruptly from the sensory-awe, ruthlessly pushed off the flying carpet into the mundane of the everyday world around us. Literal curtains to the magic. We hit harsh reality with breakneck speed. After all, there is only so much vinyl backdrops can accomplish however much aided by graphic designs, airbrush techniques or lighting technology. Digital images, even hand-painted ones, however masterful, folds in comparison to a real setting – where the surroundings carry forward the enchantment, even if some. The backdrop as the event. Only a handful others integrate the cultural and heritage diversity celebrated on stage as seamlessly with the surroundings as the Sirpur Festival of Chhattisgarh.
This annual cultural gala is held in the well-tended gardens flanking the Lakshman Temple, one of the finest brick temples in the country. An architectural masterpiece dating back to the seventh century the temple was built by the widow of Harsha Gupta, a king belonging to the Somavanshi dynasty, a clan of warriors who are believed to be descendants of soma, the moon. This grandly ornate structure sits on a platform 2.1 metres from the ground and measures 23.5 metres in length and 12 metres wide – making it an imposing backdrop for the three-day extravaganza. The cultural programmes start only after 5 PM everyday giving the visitor enough time to explore and discover many interesting facets of not just the temple but other attractions nearby. Do not miss the doorframe leading to the temple sanctum embellished with sculptures as well as a large image of Lord Vishnu, to whom the temple was originally dedicated, reclining on the mythical serpent. Excavations over the past decade around the site have revealed the remains of Shiva, Tantric and Jain temples as well as the ruins of a vihara, Buddhist temple and monastery. The Buddhist vihara along with the discovery of the huge monolithic Buddha has made Sirpur an international destination as well a prominent feature on the Buddhist circuit.
Though it could be a while before Sirpur is spoken in the same breath as a Sarnath or Bodh Gaya, the festival is a good start. As Sanjay Singh, general manager of Chhattisgarh Tourism Board (CTB) says, “The best way to highlight the importance of a place is through festivals and with the Sirpur Festival we are doing just that.” The festival did manage to garner interest and His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Sirpur twice last year and meditated in front of the statue of the Buddha, itself engrossed in the bhumisparsh mudra, earth-touching, posture. “I’m carrying with me the memories of Lord Buddha from here,” His Holiness had declared. Walking around the site one can also see the ruins of subterranean chambers which were once classrooms and living quarters of resident monks. Between the sixth and the 10th centuries, Sirpur was believed to have been even bigger than the Harappan Township of the Indus Valley Civilisation accommodating more than 10,000 students from all over the world. Particularly delightful are the still-standing doorways depicting scenes from Buddha’s life as well as Panchatantra tales – monkey and crocodile, snake and frog – as well as couples striking erotic postures.
Besides putting Sirpur – and by extension Chhattisgarh itself – on the festival circuit, the Sirpur Festival plays an undeniable economic and social function. “Even though it is on only for a few days, the festival gives a much-needed boost to the local economy,” says Santosh Misra, managing director, CTB. “The fillip tourism gives to the economy helps us to mainstream members of political fringe groups.” Extremism raises an occasional ugly head in the state and promotion of tourism and related activities is seen as an effective antidote by both and central governments. ‘Defeat terrorism with tourism’ is the gist of a detailed plan chalked out by the tourism and culture ministry for Chhattisgarh. Besides being a feast for art and culture aficionados, the festival has also been steadily growing in terms of numbers – thereby rising in relevance too. “Sirpur Festival is one such festival in the state organised on a grand scale – both in terms of resource and ambition,” says Misra. “And I am very happy to see that not just international interest but local participation has also grown by leaps and bounds over the years.” A reason attributed to the growth by the organisers is the unwavering thrust to quality programming. The artiste line-up over the years has included an eclectic mix of renowned names like Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shubha Mudgal, Wadali Brothers with local stalwarts like Teejanbai and others. Some of the bigger names showcased this year include Anuradha Paudwal, Rahul Sharma and Pandit Birju Maharaj. Upping the ante would be taiko drumming legend Leonard Eto with his sensuous, sinewy beats. The grand finale features legends like Ustad Shujaat Khan, Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram, Prasanna and George Brooks in an epic orchestral ensemble.
And in Sirpur it is not just the spectacle that will cast a spell.
Other attractions: The Sirpur Festival is a good enough reason to visit Chhattisgarh, the youngest state in Indian republic, famed for its forests, caves and waterfalls, tribes, handicrafts and haats, markets. If hard-pressed for time, explore at least the township itself, an archaeological goldmine by the banks of the Mahanadi River. Across the road from the Lakshman Temple is the Ram Temple, considered its twin, which is also on a raised platform and constructed along a stellate design. Underground chambers have been unearthed here which probably might have been storage areas. A kilometre away, by an open field is the Rajmahal, believed to be the remains of a colossal residential structure dating back to the seventh century which might have burned down. The Surang Tila, a temple complex built in the sixth century and fortified with metre-wide stone-and-brick walls is located right in the middle of Sirpur village. The Gandheswar Temple by the banks of the Mahanadi is believed to have replaced an older one ravaged by time; images of Buddha, Uma Maheswara, Gangadhara Shiva and a statue of Vishnu on Garuda can be found in the temple precinct. Sirpur used to be a prominent trading centre and the remains of a port can be seen along the Mahanadi. A safari through the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary 15 km away can bring one across a tiger, sloth bear, leopard or jackal. Solar power operated water pumps fill the watering holes in the sanctuary during summer; during winter the panels are kept under lock. The Mohada village within the sanctuary is the closest one can get to Chhattisgarhi rural life passing through.
Festival facts: Sirpur Festival, 2015, will be held over January 16, 17 and 18. Programmes will begin from around 5:30 PM. Venue: Lakshman Temple, Sirpur. For more details please contact toll free number 1800 1026415.
How to reach: The nearest airport and railway station is in Raipur, 83 km from Sirpur. Buses ply regularly along the Raipur-Sirpur route. Hired and shared cabs are also available.