Ahichchhatra: One City, Many Lives

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    The little-known ancient city of Ahichchhatra in Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh is an important part of Indian history for more than one reason. The city, which finds mention in the Mahabharata, is a rich archaeological site which shows a long history of occupation. It has revealed a fort, temples and pottery. An important city from the period of the 16 Mahajanapadas, Ahichchhatra was also an important Buddhist site as well as a Jain pilgrimage centre. It is also a site where you can see a pyramidical structure.

    Ahicchatra was the capital of the Panchala kingdom, which was one of the 16 Mahajanapadas or ‘Great Republics’ during 6th to 4th BCE. It is believed that the kingdom was divided into two prominent regions – Uttara (Northern) Panchala and Dakshin (Southern) Panchala. Ahichchhatra became the capital of Uttara Panchala and Kampilya (modern-day Kampil in Farrukhabad district in Uttar Pradesh) was the capital of Dakshin Panchala. Ahichchhatra is located near present-day Ramnagar village of Bareilly district in Uttar Pradesh.

    In the Vedas, Ahichchhatra is referred to as ‘Parichakra’. However, in the later Vedic texts, the name changes to Ahichchhatra. Interestingly, the name ‘Ahichhatra or Ahichchhatra’ is said to have been derived from a local legend, which says that a Naga, who belonged to a group of ancient peoples who worshipped serpents, once formed a canopy of hoods, or ‘chhatra’ over the sleeping King Adi-Raja of the Ahir clan to protect him. Hence the name ‘Ahi-chhatra’. While Greek geographer Ptolemy referred to the place as ‘Adisadra’ in his descriptions of India, it is also referred to as ‘Ahikshetra’.

    Alexander Cunningham, the founder of Indian archaeology, excavated the site of Ahichchhatra in the early 1860s and it revealed some remarkable finds.

    In his report on Ahichchhatra, Cunningham says that the Buddhists may have adopted and altered the same legend to honour the Buddha, who is said to have visited the city and preached the Law of Dhamma there for seven days, near a Naga-hrada or a serpent tank. This serpent tank was discovered by Hiuen Tsang, when he visited the city in the 7th CE. The same spot was later marked by a stupa built by Mauryan King Ashoka (269 – 232 BCE). Cunnigham further says that the stupa could have been called ‘Ahi-chhatra’ or the ‘serpent canopy’.

    A Jaina account however links the origin of the name to Parsvanatha, the 23rd Jain Tirthankara. It says that during a flood in the city, serpent-king Dharanindra rushed to save Parsvanatha, who was staying in the city then. The serpent king coiled himself around Parsvanatha’s body, spreading a canopy of a thousand hoods over his head. The city then came to be called ‘Ahicchatra’.

    A tangible account of the name of this city is a cave inscription near Allahabad. It is said to be the oldest epigraphic record mentioning the place Ahichchhatra and can be found in the Pabhosa Cave near Kosam in Allahabad district. The cave has two inscriptions, believed to be dating back to the 2nd or 1st century BCE, belonging to Ashadhasena, King of Ahichchhatra, of which one mentions ‘Adichhatra’.

    According to Indian archaeologists A Ghosh and K C Panigrahi, who worked on the site of Ahicchatra between 1940 and 1946, a few seals discovered here show that it was a division under the Gupta empire (3rd to 6th CE). Talking about the continuous occupation of the site for centuries, they say that Ahicchatra was occupied till the 11th century CE, after which it remained largely deserted.

    The city of Ahichchhatra was a thriving centre of faith. From Hiuen Tsang’s description of the city, one can see that Buddhism and Hinduism coexisted and flourished. He mentions 12 monasteries, with a thousand monks and nine Brahmanical temples, with around 300 Iswara Deva (Shiva) worshippers “who smeared their bodies with ashes”. However, in Cunningham’s analysis, he states that he discovered the remains of only 24 temples, which may have been the result of the decline in Buddhism.

    It is important to note that Ahichchhatra was also an important centre of Jainism, and is still regarded as one of the major Jaina teerthas today. It is believed that Parsvanatha gained ‘Keval Jnana’ or ‘omniscience’ at Ahichchhatra, making it an important place of pilgrimage for the Jain community.

    The story of this capital city is incomplete without a reference to its fort. Captain Hodgson, a surveyor, was the first person to visit the site in modern times. And he describes the site as ruins of a large fortress, called Pandu’s Fort, many miles in circumference and with 34 bastions. The fort has also been called ‘Adikot’ in some sources.

    Cunningham notes that not all the fort’s towers or bastions are ancient as the Rohilla chief Ali Muhammad Khan (r. 1720 – 1749) restored the fort to make it his stronghold in case of attacks from the Mughals. His report on Ahichchhatra goes on to detail the mounds he discovered in and around the fort. The ruins at Ahichchhatra today consist of a brick fortification in the shape of a rough isosceles triangle that has a perimeter of almost 6 km. There’s also a large mound here that appears like a pyramid.

    The other significant find at Ahichchhatra is the pottery that was discovered here. The earliest cultural remains at this site are those belonging to the Ochre Coloured Pottery (OCP) culture (2000-1500 BCE). It was the first-ever site to reveal Painted Grey Ware unearthed during excavations in 1940-44. Painted Grey Ware is the hallmark of the early Iron Age in Northern India and is considered to be the pottery of people who settled in the Sutlej, Ghaggar and Upper Ganga-Yamuna valleys, after the decline in the Indus Valley Civilisation.

    The various episodes of excavations at the site have revealed a sequence of eight cultural phases, starting from the OCP culture to the early medieval period. The maximum point of expansion of the site was achieved during the Mitra-Panchala period (approx. the 3rd century BCE to the 4th century CE). The Mitra-Panchalas is said to be the longest surviving local dynasty of Ahichchhatra. The city flourished as a terracotta hub during the Gupta age (3rd to 6th CE), with some sculptures still standing tall as a testament. The Ganga sculpture discovered at Ahichchhatra, now in the National Museum in Delhi, is a fine example of terracotta art that flourished at the site. The other exemplary pieces from the site include Shiva-Parvati and Maitreya Buddha figurines.

    Ahichchhatra now features on a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site list under the Silk Road Sites in India. The city is situated on the Uttarapatha of the Silk Route in Northern India, which connected great cities in ancient India like Taxila, Mathura and Pataliputra. Next time you visit Bareilly, don’t forget to mark this treasure of history called Ahichchhatra on your itinerary!

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