Since the Chalcolithic period, forts were being strategically constructed for protection of life and properties of the inhabitants. There is mention about fortification in the ancient texts like Arthshastra and Manasara . Many sites like Harappa & Mahenjodaro also had implemented fortification. As per Rig veda, “Durga” means a fort or a strong hold. There are innumerable references about forts and techniques of fortification in early Indian texts. Few of them also mention the forts as “Garh” which refer to human settlements having fortified townships.
Asurgarh is one such fortified townships believed to be an early urban center of ancient Odisha, during 4th century BC to 5th century AD. Literally meaning “Fort of Demons”, Asurgarh has resemblances to that of Sisupalgarh which is in modern-day Bhubaneswar. Forts being names Asurgarh are found in different parts of Western Odisha like Barpali, Rampur, Manamunda and Adgaon. Excavation was conducted only at Asurgarh near Manamunda in Sonepur district and near Narla in Kalahandi disctrict.
Asurgarh of Kalahandi
The Asurgarh fort is located at about 20 K.Ms from Bhawanipatna, the district headquarters of Kalahandi. The nearest railway station is Rupra road on the Sambalpur-Vizag raliway route. Limited excavation was undertaken by Department of History, Sambalpur University and Department of Culture, Govt of Odisha in 1973. The excavation of the fort throws significant light on the history and culture of South Kosala and Mahakantara region.
Asurgarh fort was constructed as per the Kautilyan principle of Durgavidhana and ancient Indian geometrical formula. The fort is rectangular in shape and surrounded by massive defensive walls of about four meters in width and 15 to 50 meters in height. The walls are made of rubbles and mud with bricks. After the wall, a wide and deep mote girdles the fort on North, South and East sides. On the west side, river Sandol flows to close to the western rampart towards north to meet the river Utei (a tributary of Tel river) and thereby providing a natural boundary. On each side of the fort, there is an entrance. There is a shrine present near each gate: Goddess Ganga in east, Budharaja in North, Vaishnavi in South and Kalapata in West. The shrine of Goddess Dokari is present inside the fort. There is elevated ground in the central part of the fort as this is present in the ancient times at the time of palace foundation. Wide and deep mote girdles the fort on North, South and East side. On the Western side, River Sandul flows to the north to meet the river Utei which is a tributary of the river Tel and there by providing a natural boundary.
Close to the eastern ditch, there is a huge reservoir measuring 200 acres of land which is popularly known as Asursagar. It was so arranged that when the enemies surrounded the fort, a secret sluice might be opened so that the whole inside and outside of the fort would be flooded with water and consequently the hostile army washed away by the water currents. The fort would remain as an island if such a flood were created, because the fort was situated on a high level. It is presumed that the palace was constructed at the center of the fort. During 2nd half of the 19th century, Raja Udit Pratap Dev renovated the lake for agricultural purpose. The lake at present is known as Udit Sagar according to the name of Raja Udit Pratap Dev. There is a small tank on the southwest corner of the fort known as Radhasagar. The Habitation zone of the inhabitants is documented towards the south and north of the fort immediately after the fortified wall which is further superimposed by another mud wall within 100 hectares radius at each settlement zone. The mud wall has a single gate in the middle.
From the 1st to 3rd century AD, Ancient Atavika land (comprised roughly the present districts of Koraput and Kalahandi in Orissa and Bastar of Madhya Pradesh) had commercial and socio-cultural relationship with the Chedi of Kalinga and Kushan Empire of the northwest. In the Amaravati stupa inscription the land is designated as Mahavana. The Asokan edicts also has mention about the Atavika people who were considered to be part of the Kalingan army which fought the battle of Kalinga in 261 BC. It was an important recruiting ground for the veteran army of Kalinga even as early as the time of the Mahabharata war. Asurgarh seems to be an important center of the Atavika territory. It was one of the ancient metropolis between 500 BC and 500 AD, contemporary to Sisupalgarh. Asurgarh – Narla served as the political – cultural and commercial hub of the Titilaka Janapada & Atavikas. The discovery of antiquities like Punch-marked coins, a piece of Chunar sandstone, Red, Black Slipped ware, Beads, etc., date back to Mauryan period. 539 silver coins belonging to the king of Kalahandi, were discovered from the site out of which 69 were from pre-Mauryan period, 272 were from Mauryan period and 198 were from the post-Mauryan rule to the Guptas. Such large group of Punch marked coins indicate that perhaps there was a Mint industry in Asurgarh. These finds indicate that Kalahandi region was civilized and prosperous in the days of Ashoka and the Atavika, who were regarded as forest dwellers, were not uncultured and had developed a high standard of civilization. There is similarity of some of the punched mark coins with those of Bijnor and Palia near Kausambi. Also there is similarity of texture and fabric of some pottery types with those found at Ahichhatra. This indicates that there was trade interaction of Asurgarh with prosperous towns like Kausambi and Ahichhatra in northern India during the days of the Maurya. The findings of red glazed Kushana pottery along with highly polished black wares, also indicate that there was cultural and commercial interaction between Kalahandi region and the Kushana Empire during the 1st- 2nd century A.D. Beads from Asurgarh must have played an important role in the trade network, because this region happens to be a rich gemstone deposit belt and it lies on a major trade route of ancient times connecting the eastern Indian site of Tosali with Kosala. Perhaps there was a bead manufacturing industry at Asurgarh. The most common materials are Carnelian, agate, crystal, glass, jasper, sapphire, quartz, ruby, garnet, stone and terrocota. Findings from the pre-historic Stone Age and Copper-Bronze Age have been found from Asurgarh.
In 4th century A.D., the fort of Asurgarh appeared to have belonged to king Vyaghraraja of Mahakantara, to whom Samudragupta claimed to have defeated in course of his Southern campaign. The next important king known to have held sway over Asurgarh was Maharaja Tustikara, the donor of Terasingha copperplate grant. However the excavation indicates that the fort area was deserted in 5th-6th century A.D. and it is presumed that Tustikara was the last ruler of Asurgarh region. In 7th century A.D., Chinese pilgrim Yuan-chwang travelled through this area but has not mentioned about Mahakantara, so it is presumed that at this area had lost it’s importance by 7th century A.D. The discovery of charcoal, coal, bone and ashes indicate that the residence of the last dweller of this fort were destroyed due to the natural calamities or fire.
Asurgarh region flourished from 3 rd century B.C. to 6 t h century A.D. with such important features like: – fortified settlements, structural features (both religious and secular), a rich ceramic industry, terracotta, bead and mint industries. Thus the fort of Asurgarh bears testimony to the antiquity of an early urban center of ancient orissa.
Water Management System
People of ancient India had realised the importance of water (Jala) and they used the synonym Jivana (life) for it. The rise and fall of many civilisations rested on the proper management of water resources. As per the ancient literatures, those who had effective control over their water resources, did enjoy considerable social, economic and political powers. People used to dig dams, pond and reservoirs to preserve water for multiple purposes. Small and big ponds are invariably noticed in early historic towns and metropolises of Odisha. Two huge tanks have been identified in Western Odisha, one at Maraguda urban complex in Nuapara district and the other at Asurgarh urban center in Kalahandi district. Asursagar also known as Udit Sagar, covers an area of more than 200 acres of land. Its alignment is from east to west exactly corroborating the cardinal directions of tank as outlined by Varahamihira (6th century A.D.). The water of this tank had multiple utilization. In case of external aggession, the water could be channeled to fill up the encircling moat. Also in case of scanty rainfalls, the water preserved water could be utilized for agricultural purpose during scanty rainfall.
In close proximity to the Southern rampart and ditch of Asurgarh, a small pond was excavated, which is now a shallow land, yet the site still retains its original name known as Radhasagar. The excavation in this site revealed nude terracotta figurines (female fertility deities) and square plinth of the brick structure (identified as shrine). Besides domestic utility, small tanks had their religious bearing in ancient India. It was also known as Puskara (lotus pond) in Sanskrit. In the beginning such ponds were dug independently. Later on, however, temple structure was added or vice versa adjacent to the pond. Small pond was also needed for the consumption of the king and priest. Ancient Indian texts also speak about pond associated with the fertility rite. In Orissan context, finding of nude terracotta figures and temple structure in Asurgarh lend us to belief that ponds were imperative for fertility rites.
Asurgarh: Political-Commercial Site
Asurgarh was an important political and commercial center situated on the high road joining South Kosala and Mahakantra with Kalinga. According to late scholar Paramananda Acharya, it was situated on a short route through which salt and other commodities were transported from Mahamagiri to Dakshina Kosala. The discovery of terracotta ornaments, glass bangles, gems stones suggest the habitation of royal and aristocratic people during 4th and 5th century A.D.. The discovery of Terasingha copper plate of Maharaja Tustikara near the site is datable to 5th century A.D. The place of issue of the charter, Parvatadvaraka, which literally means “the gateway of the hill” represented the site under consideration. It served as a royal residence with proper fortification; free from external danger from the western side of Mahakantara region. The iron artifacts portray urban trend culture based on agricultural patterns.
Important Shakta center of ancient Odisha
There is legend about Asurgarh that there were 64 deities. The villagers worshiped a deity named Dokry as the guardian deity, which was inside the fort. Among the 64 deities, Goddess Ganga was in the East, Kalapata in the west, Vaishnavi in the North and Budharaja in the south. The third excavated site, which has been pointed out as a mound in a topographical map, is perhaps there was a temple. The important discovery is a spherical shaped sculpture made of brick. Late Dr. N. K. Sahu has identified a circled brick wall as a ruin of a Yogini temple; which may be compared with Yogini temple of Ranipur Jharial. Among the terracotta objects, includes animal figurines, goddess, a silver ambulate seal, silver ring and a large quantities of bones and skeletons. It may be possible that human sacrifice was prevailed during this period.
The discovery of Terasingha copper plate grant of Maharaja Tustikara (5th century A.D.) near Asurgarh indicates that Tustikara was perhaps the last ruler of Asurgarh region who was a great devotee of goddess Stambhesvari, who was responsible for the spread of Stambhesvari cult.
By Air: Raipur (260km) in Chhatisgarh is the nearest airport. Other airports are Bhubaneswar (420km) and Vishakhapatnam (350km) respectively. Buses and private vehicles are available to reach Asurgarh.
By Train: Kesinga railway station connects Kalahandi with major cities of India. Buses and private vehicles are available to reach Asurgarh.
By Road: Bhawanipatna is the nearest major bus station which is connected by road with the railway station as well as the nearest airports.
OHRJ, Vol. XLVII, No. 3 ASURGARH – AN EARLY URBAN CENTRE OF ORISSA by Prabhas Kumar Singh