Sisupalgarh is an ancient site in Orissa, not far from Bhubaneswar. The most striking thing about the site is the impressive mud fort that surrounded and protected the old town. Outside the fort wall was a moat filled with water which gave extra protection against enemies or intruders.
People lived at Sisupalgarh from the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. up to the middle of the fourth century A.D.. The settlement was not fortified in the beginning. We don't know much about the life of the people who lived at Sisupalgarh in the early phase (archaeologists call this Period I). No remains of buildings of this period have been found. All that we know is that people used simple and plain pottery, mostly grey or red in color.
The settlement at Sisupalgarh gradually became bigger and bigger. The most prosperous period was between c. 200 B.C. to c. 100 A.D. (this is the first part of Period II). The huge mud walls around the town were built in around the beginning of the 2nd century B.C.. The walls were a little over 10 meters wide at the base and over 8 meters high. There were huge, grand gateways that led into the town. The walls had guard-rooms, passages and watch towers. Later, the mud walls were strengthened by adding a layer of stone gravel on the top. Still later, two brick walls were built on the top of this, and the space between them was filled with mud and stone. The ramparts of the wall and the gateways were repaired several times, whenever the need arose.
The town was well-planned. It measured about 1 km on each side and was more or less square in shape. Houses were made of blocks of stones or bricks. Each houses had two or three rooms, and a large verandah in front. Streets were layed out in a systematic way, crossing each other at right angles. Archaeologists found marks left by the wheels of carts on the streets. In the middle of the town were the remains of a large pillared hall. This mast have been a public meeting place where people gathered on special occasions. The potters made sophisticated pottery of various kinds, some with a bright red polished look. A black and red pottery was also made and used. Terracotta ear-rings, iron implements and weapons (including nails, spikes, sickles, daggers, etc.) and beads of semi-precious stone have also found.
In about 100 A.D. (this is the later part of Period II), the town of Sisupalgarh began to decline. The pottery belonging to this period is less impressive, and we mostly find a course and dull-looking red pottery with crude decorations. The other finds from this period include glass bangles, two coins (one of silver, one copper) and many earrings made of terracotta. Certain clay medallions (known as bullae) have a design of animals with human heads. This design is very similar to one found on Roman coins. This shows that there was some trade contact with the Romans.
In the last phase of the history of the town (Period III, c. 200-350 A.D.), the pottery was red or yellowish red, coarse and not too well-made. Coins and a large number of terracotta ear ornaments were found at levels belonging to this period. Two coins moulds were also found, showing that coins were minted here. But the overall picture that we get is of a town much less prosperous than it had been some centuries before.
The evidence from the site of Sisupalgarh shows that this used to be an important town. Maybe it was the capital of a kingdom or headquarters of a province. But whose kingdom? Whose headquarters? There are some other important sites not far from Sisupalgarh. They may have had an important connection with it.
Some historians think that Sisupalgarh is the same as a place called Tosali mentioned in inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. We know that Ashoka fought a war against the kingdom of Kalinga (an ancient name for the Orissa area). He won this war and Kalinga became part of his already huge empire. Just about 3 miles away from Sisupalgarh are the Dhauli hills, where inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka are carved on a large rock. The inscriptions talk, like most of Ashoka's inscriptions, of how people should try to live a good life. They also mention a place called Tosali, which seems to have been one of the headquarters of the Mauryan empire in Kalinga. It is possible that Tosali was located at Sisupalgarh? Perhaps, but we don't know for sure.
Another possibility is that Sisupalgarh was known as Kalinganagara in ancient times and was the capital of a great king named Kharavela. Kharavela probably lived and ruled in the first century B.C. or first century A.D. About 6 miles to the north-west of the Sisupalgarh are the Udayagiri and Khandagiri hills. Here, there are a large number of caves cut out of the rocks in the hills, where Jain monks lived. An inscription of Kharavela has been found in the Udayagiri hills nearby. It is inscribed on a rock hanging over a cave called the Hathigumpha.
What does the Hathigumpha inscription tell us about Kharavela?
It tells us that Kharavela belonged to a dynasty called the Chedi or Mahameghavahana dynasty. He followed the teachings of the Jain saints. The inscription tells us about the childhood and education of Kharavela, and then gives a year-by-year account of his achievements during the first thirteen years of his reign. The inscription says that this king rebuilt the gates and walls of his capital city when it was hit by a terrible cyclone. This is interesting because we can connect this with evidence of the repairs of the fort walls of Sisupalgarh. There are certain scenes carved on the walls of the Ranigumpha and Manchapuri caves in the Udayagiri hills. These seem to be scenes from the life of Kharavela.
We are not sure whether the site of Sisupalgarh was really Tosali, the capital of one of the provinces of the Mauryan empire, whether it was Kalinganagara, the capital of Kharavela, or whether it had some other name. But what is certain is that whatever it may have been called in ancient times, one of the oldest towns of Orissa was located here, at Sisupalgarh.