The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has found during routine scrubbing the remains of an ancient temple that dates back to the 5th century CE, the Gupta period, at Bilsarh village in UP’s Etah. The staircase, excavated last month, has Shankhalipi inscriptions that the ASI has now confirmed say ‘Sri Mahendraditya’, the title of the Gupta ruler Kumaragupta I who ruled over what is now north-central India for 40 years in the 5th century CE.
Bilsarh has been protected since 1928 and was known as an important Gupta period site. “There were two decorative pillars (at the spot) close to one another, with human figurines (found earlier). To understand their significance, we conducted further excavation and found the stairs,” said Vasant Swarnkar, superintending archaeologist of ASI’s Agra circle. “We found something written on it in Shankhalipi. It was deciphered as saying ‘Sri Mahendraditya’, which was the title of Kumaragupta I of the Gupta dynasty.” Shankhalipi is an ornate, stylised, ancient script, used between the 4th and 8th centuries CE for names and signatures.
The discovery came about during a “routine” clean-up. Around every monsoon, the ASI starts scrubbing its protected sites. There’s a lot of overgrowth to get rid of. This time, Swarnkar said, he was monitoring the cleaning when he thought the spot should be excavated and the ASI stumbled upon ancient stairs leading to a temple.
The inscription found on the Etah remains had earlier been seen on a horse statue found in Lakhimpur Kheri. It is now at the State Museum, Lucknow. But that was not confirmation enough. So, Swarnkar sent images of the inscriptions to noted epigraphist Dr Devendra Handa. At the same time, ASI officials visited Lucknow to go over the horse statue inscription again. Both confirmed it was indeed Shankhalipi. Because the inscription names Kumaragupta I, the remains were dated back to his reign.
The Etah remains are only the third structural temple of the Gupta period found so far. “The Guptas were the first to build structural temples for Brahminical, Buddhist and Jain followers. Prior to that, only rock-cut temples were built,” said Prof Manvendra Pundhir from the Aligarh Muslim University’s history department. “Before this, only two structural temples were found — Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh and Bhitargaon Temple in Kanpur Dehat. The Etah pillars are well-sculpted, better than the earlier examples in which only the lower sections were carved. The decorative pillars and staircase are a bit more advanced than the earlier ones.” The ASI will now conserve the remains, put up a shed and a descriptive signboard for visitors.