In mid 1990s, as a PhD student when I was exploring the Daya River Valley I had spent quite a few days at Aragarh Hill and its surrounding villages to map early settlements and Buddhist sites. It was part of my intuition that Daya River was one important corridor for Odisha’s sea trade with Java, Sumatra, Borneo and Sri Lanka. Here was the battle fought of Kalinga between the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and the Paikas of Khordha.
Sisupalgarh was a flourishing urban center with full of life and prosperity. At Dhauli, Ashoka engraved India’s earliest edicts depicting messages of peace, brotherhood and humanism. He also carved out the forepart of an elephant from a living rock to project the Buddha along with two stupas, partially which existed till Kittoe’s visit in 1830s. The Buddhist monks preferred tranquility, yet not far from urban centers, such as Kalinga Nagari or Toshali identified with present Sisupalgarh at the confluence of Daya and Bhragavi.
Aragarh was a perfect location for meditation. The hill was not far from the river Daya yet not close enough for distraction. It was thickly forested.
Before its excavation by Odisha Institute Maritime and Southeast Asian Studies in 2015-16, Aragarh’s significant architectural remains was a two storied temple, the lower story being rock-cut. It was built in the 9th century CE, which is dated based on stylistic ground of Naga-Nagi pilasters and lattice screens. One sees similar features at Bhubaneswar’s Rajarani and Mukteswar temples.
The Rock-Cut Temple before Excavation
The Rock-Cut Temple in 2017
But to my belief, the temple could be earlier, at least the rock-cut floor. The upper floor was probably added later and converted into a Shiva shrine at the time when the Kapalika Shaivites and Vajrayana Buddhists were in intense conflicts over supremacy.
Recent excavations by OIMSEAS has revealed the plinth of a large stupa, which could belong to the time of Ashoka. It is said in early Buddhist literature that Ashoka built a large number of stupas in Kalinga after the battle to spread Buddhism.
The stupa of Aragarh is circular in shape. Its architecture is similar to earliest stupas in India found at Bairat and Vaishali.
According some historians, Aragarh is a corruption of Airagarh and was once a stronghold of great Buddhist exponent Dinanaga who resided at Bherasaila monastery here. Excavations have also revealed a large number of capping stones and symbols such as lotus medallions and swastika. There are also a few votive stupas.
From the top of the Aragarh Hill you see a spectacular landscape of paddy fields and villages and at the distance sprawling campuses of IIT Bhubaneswar and NISER Bhubaneswar. But it is question how long the serenity will last as the rapidly developing Bhubaneswar would not leave and space without construction in near future.