The Mystery of Sikligarh

An Ancient Site with a Pillar in the ‘Lost Tiger Land’ of Purnea

Purnea today is not well known either for its history or its erstwhile jungles. Lying on the eastern frontier of Bihar, Purnea is one of the oldest Indian districts formed by the British East India Company in 1770, in the then Bengal. It seems to have been an important trading centre in earlier times as it figures prominently in one of the native rhymes of Mithila, and thus had received some of the earliest British settlers and Indigo farmers. Though difficult to comprehend in the present day, till 1880’s, it had the reputation of being one of the best shooting districts in Bengal, famous for its jungles and tigers. Hunting expeditions used to be regularly organized by the Purnea Club for its members and visitors. The famous Indigo planter J. Inglis (“Maori”) in his wonderful memoirs titled “Tent Life in Tigerland”, published in 1892, has mentioned – “Purnea and North Bhagalpur bordering on the Terai is admittedly even in India a very sportsman’s paradise, and is probably, or was at all events, the best tiger shooting ground in the world”.  A still earlier idea of the wildlife is provided by Buchanan, who in 1809-10, mentioned about the diminishing civilian population of some parts of Purnea due to the encroachments of wild beasts. The District Gazetteer (1908) also points towards the past abundance of wildlife in Purnea as in 1788, when the then Collector reported about the ravages committed by tigers, and granted rewards for the killing of 600 tigers in a year. The Gazetteer (1908) attributed the damage to the wildlife over the years to opening up of the country, the shifting of the river Kosi, and the occupation of jungle lands for cultivation. By the early 20th century, wild animals were getting scarcer every year and were only confined to small tracts of the country in different parts. However, even as they were getting scarcer, the Gazetteer still noted the killing of a tiger just 7 miles from Purnea station as late as 1906.

The past stories of Purnea’s wildlife now form another of the silent pages of history, only to be visualized from old records. While Purnea lost its wildlife almost completely in a not very remote past, the images from the past retained in books still serve to transport the reader’s imagination back to those days. But, Purnea’s ancient history is even more difficult to imagine, especially when the ever shifting courses of the Kosi changed the human habitations over the centuries, and swallowed many sites which had their importance in the past. The name ‘Purnea’ is believed to have been either derived from ‘Puraniya’ denoting an ancient place, or as some others suggest from ‘Purna’ meaning complete and ‘Aranya’ meaning jungle, pointing to the dense jungles of the past. Whatever be the origin of the name, it definitely suggests that the place had been well known since ancient times, and thus should possess considerable historical relics. And as one finds during exploration, the district is truly home to some of the most interesting Silent Pages of Indian History.

Exploring the History of Purnea – A visit to Sikligarh

When I got posted to Purnea for a short duration in August-September, 2015, I started my exploration with the help of Buchanan’s account of Purnea (1809-10) and the District Gazetteer of LSS’O Mailley (1908). On 6th September, 2015, a study of the list of ancient sites in the vicinity drew my attention to the mention of a monolith pillar near Dharhara at Sikligarh. It was interesting to learn that this ancient Pillar had also attracted the attention of some British explorers including Buchanan and Waddell. The pillar which was reported as standing erect near a temple mound by Buchanan was dug up to the foundations by an inquisitive Collector of Purnea in or around 1887, giving it its present tilt as noted by Waddell around 1890. Dharhara was mentioned in the Gazetteer as a village in the extreme west of the district, situated about 12 miles south of Raniganj, which I discovered as presently lying in Araria district and 15 miles north east of Dhamdaha, presently in the southern portion of Purnea. It further mentioned that the neglected site of Sikligarh lay about 2 kms from Banmankhi Police Station in Purnea district. In 1908, an Indigo factory had existed there along with the ruins of the old fort.

Upon reading the description, I really wanted to visit and inspect Sikligarh at the earliest. I tried locating Sikligarh or Dharhara on the map in my office, but being a neglected site, it didn’t figure on the map. Accordingly, I made an enquiry from the Officer-in-charge of Banmankhi Police Station, who also didn’t have much idea. However, as he learnt about my sudden interest in the site which was reportedly not more than 2 kms from his police station, he not only made enquiries from some local people, but also physically visited the site before reverting back with a phone call and some images via WhatsApp on my cell-phone. I was pleased to learn that my identification the site from the Gazetteer was very proper, and since it happened to be a Sunday, and further since I was yet to visit the Police Station of Banmankhi, I started on my way to inspect the police station along with the historical remains. I also had in mind the old indigo factory, and wanted to check whether any remnants had survived.

After about an hours’ drive from the district headquarters of Purnea, I reached the subdivisional headquarters of Banmankhi which houses an old police station. About 2 kms from Banmankhi, now exists a modern temple dedicated to the Narasimha (meaning the Human-Lion) avatar of Vishnu, erected in 2007. The temple has the idol of Narasimha Vishnu in the Sanctum Sanctorum surrounded by different enclosures containing other prominent deities of the Hindu pantheon. As I discussed the history of the area with the local priest, I learnt that the area had of late developed as a place of local pilgrimage, receiving large crowds especially during the Hindu festival of Holi, and is popularly believed to have been the site of the palace of the Puranic King Hiranya Kashyapa who was slayed there by none other than the Lord Vishnu himself in the famous avatar of ‘Narasimha’. As I visited the ruins, the accounts of Buchanan and Waddell continued to guide me in examining as to what had remained or changed over the years. The team of officers with me seemed surprised at my sudden visit to Sikligarh, the importance of it being unknown to them, in absence of a reading of the Gazetteer. But as we moved around, the spark from the past was seen lit up in their eyes as they rediscovered a site they often passed by.

                                         

The Sikligarh Pillar

The ASI Annual Archaeological Review of 1957-58 mentions about the Sikligarh pillar as having been discovered by Shri A. C. Banerji who “found a pillar resembling an Asokan monolith at Sikligarh.” But the Sikligarh pillar was surely not discovered by Mr. Banerji, having earlier been reported upon by Buchanan in his reports of Purnea (1809-10), as well as by Waddell for the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1890. I had the Pillar closely in mind during my visit to the site and upon inquiring about its location was guided by the priest of the Narsimha temple to a spot just behind the temple where now exists a quadrangular platform enclosed by a grilled boundary. Within this quadrangle was found protected the ancient pillar of Sikligarh, probably the most ancient historical relic known so far from Purnea. During my visit, the pillar was found as partly covered with a silken cloth supposedly to denote the sanctity of the pillar as well as to protect it. A part of the pillar is above ground while a major portion is underground. The pillar retains its ancient polish and bears testimony to the skill of the ancient craftsman. One needs to take off footwear before approaching the highly venerated pillar which is an object of worship also now flanked by an image of Prahlada and another of Lord Hanumana in its near vicinity. An old narrow well exists within the marked quadrangle, the origin of which is not known. An ancient water bearing pot was also placed in the near vicinity and was reported as having been recently discovered from one of the nearby mounds.

Pillar as on 6th September, 2015
Sketch made by Waddell, 1890 after the excavation

The pillar has a cylindrical hole at its top, as also noted by the earlier visitors and is suggestive of its earlier having supported a capital or some other ornament. Regarding the socket in the upper extremity of the pillar, Waddell found a local tradition of it having been formerly surmounted by the figure of a lion, which was removed many hundreds of years ago, no one knew where.  After being dug up and tilted at about 65 degrees by an inquisitive Collector of Purnea in order to ascertain the base around 1887, Waddell in 1890 fully examined the then tilted pillar and had it fully excavated. It was found that it contained no inscriptions and that it had originally been implanted for over half its length in a foundation of irregular layers of brick and mortar. The dimensions of the pillar were noted as having a total length of 19 feet, 11 inches (of which 7.5 feet was above ground); and with circumference at 3 feet from summit being 112.5 inches. Waddell described the stone as light reddish granite of such fine texture as to appear almost like sandstone. Buchanan during his visit had found the pillar as standing erect 9’ above ground, and described it as “a rude cylinder”. However, Waddell dissented and remarked it as being “perfectly cylindrical”, almost polished and with smooth surface, and having the same general proportions and appearance as the Ghazipur edict pillar, then in the grounds of the Benares College. The pillar retained its smooth and almost polished surface throughout its extent, except in a few portions where this surface had scaled off, and where, about its middle third, the west face of the pillar had been very roughly chipped away to form an irregular oblong depression about 6 feet in length and about 2.5 feet in breadth. The basal extremity of the pillar was sharply truncated across and rested in the sand, and here immediately under the pillar was found a gold coin of Indo-Scythic character of the 2nd century A.D, with the legend of Vasudeo or Bazdeo depicted. An image of the ruler wearing a peak cap with a trident was found on the obverse and the image of Shiva on a bull on the reverse of the coin.

Old Well
Pot discovered from nearby ruins

The Ashokan Pillar or Prahlad Pillar of Legend? 

Having visited several Ashokan pillars at different places in India, the first reaction was to compare it with other known sites. The material, the circumference and the surface polish of this pillar are so identical with those of the Ashokan pillars that I would seem to accept the view of many scholars that this pillar is Ashokan too. In my opinion, the surviving portion could be the top of the pillar, the hole at the top suggesting a ‘capital’ as in most other Mauryan pillars. Interestingly, Upendra Thakur in his book History of Mithila refers to ‘the Little known Mauryan pillar at Sikligarh’. If one were to survey the location of most other Ashokan pillars, one is sure to notice the commonality that most of them lay either at important junctions of important ancient highways or were erected at important points near ancient cities for the widespread dissemination of the message contained in the edicts. The location being on a major eastern route from Pataliputra also suggests its having been erected by Ashoka himself. That the pillar has no edicts seems to weaken the case for its Mauryan identity, but there are examples of other Mauryan pillars without edicts, like the Lion Capital pillar of Rampurva (West Champaran, Bihar). At Rampurva of the two pillars discovered so far, only one which had the Bull Capital was found to have edicts inscribed upon it. Further,since pillars at several sites are seen only to have survived in fragments, it may be conjectured that the Sikligarh pillar is the remain of a larger pillar of which only the upper part has now been discovered, and the other lower part may perhaps be lying in the adjacent area still waiting to be excavated. The other part may also perhaps have been destroyed by some iconoclast.

View of the Sikligarh Pillar

The original intent of the Pillar was probably lost to the common people with time. Interestingly, even if the pillar had an inscription originally, the loss from common memory is not new in India. In the middle of the 14th century, when Feroz Shah Tughlaq had the pillars shifted to Delhi, he tried to look for Pandits who could decipher the Brahmi script inscriptions, but could find none. The real message could be read only after Princep’s decipherment of the Brahmi script. In course of time the legend of Hiranya Kashyapa seems to have gained acceptance here at Sikligarh. Waddell doubted the legend asserted to him by locals for the pillar which was then and called as “Manik-tham” or “the precious pillar” of Hindu fable. During my visit it was more popularly known as the Prahlad Stambh i.e. the Pillar of Prahlad. Waddell mentions it to have been a local construct after the visit of Buchanan who though having noted that the local people “paid a sort of worship to the stone”, did not elaborate and failed to get any local history or tradition concerning the stone.  Waddell conjectured that the pillar was associated both with a human sacrifice and the presence of a surmounting lion: the former suggestive of its being a sati pillar, while the latter indicating it as an edict pillar, probably erected by Asoka. He mentioned that it perhaps may have been the upper part of an edict pillar which had been utilized for Sati purposes. On the other hand he also analysed the points which seemed to strengthen the tradition of Hiranya Kashyapa’s slaying by Narasimha. The coin, of the 2nd Century A.D., discovered during the excavation mentioned Vasudeva or Bazodeo”, which with its Sivaic emblem on the reverse, may be indicative of the creed of the person who had erected the stone in this locality, thus coinciding with the popular tradition. Further, curiously, the river which flows past the fort was found to have been named as Hiranya nadi, thus lending local colour to the applicability of the Mahabharata legend.

Reference to the Legend

But, in my opinion, the Prahlada story doesn’t hold much authencity, since there is still in existence the site of a Prahlada temple in Multan, currently in Pakistan, which traditionally has been referred to as the seat of the happenings of the legend. In my opinion, the reason for the popular legend of Prahlad and Hiranya Kashyapa is not too far to imagine. Considering the example of other Ashokan pillars being worshipped as Laths of Bhimsen in other parts of India, it should not be surprising if the origin may have been the result of imagination of some innovative religious minded person who, owing to the tradition of the non-existent Lion Capital, and in absence of knowledge about other similar pillars in other parts of India, and also in ignorance of the Buddhist creed and its symbolization of the Lion, may have crafted the story.  The proposition in time may have gradually established by word of mouth.

Patil resented the identification of the Sikligarh Pillar as Ashokan, since this pillar was much smaller in length as compared with the other well-known pillars in the western districts of Bihar, this. Further, as the coin found at the bottom pointed out to a date of 2nd century A.D., Patil felt that the pillar was of a later date than the Mauryan age. However, it may be understood that the coin was found during the excavation of Waddell around 1890, who was not the first to excavate it. Earlier in 1887, the first excavation had already been done by the then Collector of Purnea, who may have missed out on the presence of the coin, which may perhaps have slipped lower to where it was discovered by Waddell. Besides, the regular discovery of terracotta figurines and other Mauryan relics in the vicinity also do point out to a very ancient date for the site. My conclusion is that some excavations will be necessary to arrive at a more precise and accurate understanding of this site. Till then, the mysteries would remain unresolved, and one may not with full confirmation identify the pillar as Ashokan.

The Ancient Temple Site

Image of Mauni Baba in the Mound

A large brick mound was seen just in front of the modern temple, which interestingly was also noted by Buchanan and Waddell, as being located about 400 yards away from the north-western corner of the fort, and representing the remains of a temple. In 2015, the temple mound was still found in existence along with an enclosure in which is placed an image of Saint Mauni baba, who seems to have stayed at the place for a considerable time sometime in the 20th century. The location of the present Narsimha temple is ascribed to the same Mauni baba. A look at the site suggested as its having been the foundation of a brick structure which may have been even a Buddhist Stupa. Proper excavation around the site may lead to more detail about its origin. I also wonder whether any historical relics from the site may have been lost during the construction of the modern temple in 2007. There is an urgent need for the protection of the site and prohibition of any excavation around till proper scientific excavations are made. I really suspect the loss of some historical relics which may have been discarded due to ignorance as useless fragments of pottery during the excavation for the foundations of the present temple. Even if any fragment of any pillar was not found in that area selected for the temple by the Mauni baba, it does not exclude their existence in the near vicinity.

The Fortifications and other Remains at Sikligarh

Fortifications

After visiting the temple and the pillar, I enquired about the other ruins. The Priest pointed towards the nearby mounds of Sikligarh. By this time the SDO and SDPO of Banmankhi had also joined me in the exploration drive. As we walked through cultivated fields the remains of Sikligarh were out in the open. There is general evidence of occupation in the area: brickbats, traces of an old tank, etc. A lot of potsherds were seen lying scattered all along the ploughed fields as well as along the wayside leading to the river front now reduced to a channel of almost stagnant water. Seeing the site I could visualize the description contained in Bengal List (1896) which had mentioned that the fort remained as a square surrounded by an earthwork embankment and was located close to the east of the Nilkantha i.e. Indigo factory. It was stated as covering 500 bighas of land, which was then being cultivated by Gopal Chaudhuri of Gangaili and Dula Panre of Buri Dhangatta, the names of whom no locals I interacted with during my visit could immediately relate to. I learnt that a religious sect had laid claim to the site, and members of which also lived in an ashram nearby, but could not gather complete details during the short visit. What one can still observe at the site is the following: A fortification wall of mud, with traces of brickbats as cover – about 3 m or less, in height and general width of 4-5 m enclosing a roughly rectangular area of about 200 acres which is now covered by mango orchards, cultivated fields, isolated structural mounds, etc. The fortification wall is missing in places, but its outline is generally clear. Moving along the fortification, a major breach was discovered at one of its corners, which the local choukidar mentioned to have been mined away by greedy villages for want of bricks and soil. The locals who joined along informed that farmers occasionally came across fragments of terracotta sculptures and idols while ploughing their fields, and that the entire area yielded a lot of potsherds and brickbats.

Brickbats in Sikligarh indicating earlier Structures
Fortifications

The site of Sikligarh clearly seems to have been well inhabited till the medieval times, as the brickbats and pottery scattered all around the place do give a feeling that at least till about 500 years ago the place was inhabited. However, clearly the place had become desolate in 1809-10 when Francis Buchanan had visited. It was then seen to be defended by two lines of ramparts, the outer one of earth and the inner one of bricks. Buchanan saw traces of two ditches on the north and west protecting both the ramparts. On each side of the fort there was probably one of mounds of bricks here and there and he stipulated that they may be concealing the remains of buildings of a respectable size. Buchanan found the area as occupied by fields and mango groves “in one of which a Fakir has placed the monument of saint”. Buchanan had referred to the remains of two forts, one to the north of the village being built of mud and enclosing an area of nearly three acres, with walls strengthened by bastions at corners and sides. The other fort was very small and was to the east of the village. South of the latter fort, Buchanan also noticed a tank with a brick mound on its west, containing according to him, some four stone fragments of a doorframe and a linga. Further south, he observed two “very considerable heaps of bricks” (i.e. ancient mounds) and several tanks nearby. Local tradition attributed all these ruins to one Karnadeva. Buchanan, however, considered the forts to be of much later date, while the ruins of the temple (i.e. the stone fragments of doorframe etc.) and the brick mounds, he believed to be of much greater antiquity.

During the visit in 2015, the conclusions of Buchanan still seemed to be in place since there has hardly been much change in the intervening 200 years. The size and height of the mounds has however suffered as more and more area has been put under cultivation, and further since the area has been exploited by neigbouring villages for want of bricks and filling material which is abundantly available in the mounds of Sikligarh. I was shocked to witness continuous mining of precious historical materials from the mounds and fortifications, by uncaring villagers using modern machinery. I requested the Sub Divisional Officer to sensitize the local villagers about the need to preserve the site till further excavation would help us to learn more about it. If the mining and exploitation by greedy villagers would continue in the way that I witnessed in September, 2015, then much of what can possibly be retrieved by proper excavation may perhaps be lost forever. I noticed the dargah mentioned by Buchanan, which probably contains the remnants of some important medieval Sufi saint who had perhaps chosen the desolate ruins as his abode.

Dargah noticed by Buchanan now protected under this Structure

The Old Indigo Factory

The erstwhile Indigo factory had been prominently mentioned as a landmark of Dharhara both by Buchanan and by the Gazetteer published in 1908. I thus inquired about its location thinking in my mind to find some old dilapidated building of the imperial era. However, no locals I could meet were sure about the location of the factory. A Choukidar mentioned about the remains of an old British era Kothi marked by a gravestone in the near vicinity of the ruins. I visited the site and could immediately relate to the ruins of the Indigo factory where nothing now remains except for the foundations. The area once occupied by the factory is now under cultivation. On a corner of the field I could point out the grave of one of the British settlers named as Augustus Watkin William, who having been born in February, 1872, probably died here in April, 1927.

Site of Old Indigo Factory
Grave

Perspective

Man pointing to the earlier remains at Sikligarh

The historical connect of Purnea with other sites in North Bihar became clearer in my mind after the visit to Sikligarh in September, 2015. I am now able to better place the location and ancient nature of the sites in North Bihar after having visited Sikligarh, which along with the other contemporary early historical sites of Naulagarh, Jai Mangala Garh and Mangalagarh, brings out the significance of Pataliputra’s line of communication with northern Bengal. Having crossed over to the other side of the Ganga (probably at Chechar-Kutubpur) from Pataliputra, an ancient route followed the modern Samastipur-Saharsa-Purnea alignment. Sikligarh, on the road from Saharsa to Purnea, falls on the same ancient eastern route which travelled east from Pataliputra by following the northern edge of the Ganga. The probable Mauryan era column here denotes that Sikligarh was definitely a major site on the way to the north Bengal sites of Bangarh and Mahasthangarh via the area now constituting modern Purnea.  Naulagarh, another almost unexcavated Northern Black Polished ware (NBPW) bearing site of about one sq km with a surrounding mud fortification wall (approach from Begusarai) lies, like Sikligarh, on the same route. Also lying on this route is Jai Mangala Garh mentioned above, a roughly 80-100 acre NBPW-bearing site which seems clearly surrounded by a moat, but is probably without any fortification.

The Mounds of Sikligarh

As a school child then in Standard VII, I had the privilege to visit the site of Jai Mangala Garh in Begusarai district of Bihar, on an organized tour for picnic with other school-mates. As we moved around, I became curious about the date of the seemingly ancient temple there, as it houses an image of the Goddess which has its own share of attached legends. The temple is still visited by a large number of pilgrims from the neighbouring areas. Gradually, after the introductory visit, I learnt about the existence of a mound nearby from which were excavated some Pala age relics. Later as I grew up, my curiosity also grew up as I also learnt about the possibility of the site as having been inhabited since the times of the Buddha with a certain scholar linking it up with the Alkappa of Bulis  in Buddhist History wherein was buried one the eight parts of the mortal remains of the Buddha. The scholar had highlighted the need for a proper archaeological excavation of the site to fully verify the historicity. I remember having read reports in the media about a conference of scholars as having been held in the near vicinity of the historical site. But not much is still understood, in the absence of a proper excavation, and my curiosity remains.

The Mystery of Sikligarh

The site of Sikligarh in Purnea, retains a high level of mystery and holds good promise for the historian. The origin of the name of Sikligarh is not fully understood though Buchanan mentions it as signifying the “chain fortress” being derived from the Hindi word. Even as not much is still known about the history and the life of its earlier occupants, the historical relics here remain buried under the consecutive layers of silt built over the centuries of neglect, waiting for the spade of the archaeologist to unravel their mysteries.  While punch marked coins of the Mauryan period have been discovered from places in neighbouring Saharsa district, the Mauryan rule in this area probably stands firmly indicated by the pillar. Although I could pick up potsherds in the enclosed area, I could not isolate any diagnostic type. The remains look like an early historic fortified city which perhaps may have been the seat of a Buddhist establishment. The large amount of brickbats and mounds could be due to Stupas erected in the past, with the pillar marking the sanctity of the place. An Ekamukha Siva linga of the Pala period has also been reported from Sikligarh. This along with the coin with Saivite legend may also indicate the seat of a Saivite establishment. Without doubt this is one of the most interesting sites in North Bihar, the story of which yet remains to be fully known.

Some silent pages of History are often discovered through the spade of the archaeologist, and this has been the case in most parts of India. A plan to excavate Sikligarh by the Government of Bihar along with three other historical sites of Telhara in Nalanda, Chausa in Buxar and Chirand in Saran was reported by the Telegraph, Patna on 30th August, 2010. At Telhara and Chirand, excavation work has been carried out in the past. At Chausa and Sikligarh, fresh excavation was proposed through the newly set up Bihar Virasat Vikas Samiti, set up by the state with a view to undertake work related to excavation, exploration and preservation of heritage sites as well as the publication of documents. But the excavation is probably yet to commence. The Mysteries of Sikligarh thus fully remain, and will probably remain to some degree even after…

View of Unexcavated Scattered Mounds

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