The Submerged Temples of Bilaspur: Lost Treasures of India

"The Submerged Temples of Bilaspur: Lost Treasures of India" - delves deeper into the history and architecture of the 28 submerged temples of Bilaspur, providing a visual tour of the temples and their importance to Indian cultural heritage.


The town of Bilaspur, located in the foothills of the Western Himalayas, was once a renowned crossroads of trade routes and an attractive pilgrimage destination. However, the construction of the Bhakra Dam across the Sutlej River in the mid-1950s led to the submersion of the town and its temples in the subsequent Gobind Sagar reservoir. 

This article delves deeper into the history of Bilaspur and its tragic loss of heritage.

The History of Bilaspur 

For centuries, Bilaspur had been a prosperous principality with its possessions extending over almost 500 sq. km. Its rulers came from the noble Rajput clans once controlling a large part of the area that is now Himachal Pradesh. The town was considered to be the first planned town in the hills of India, built in the 17th century. It was also known for its rich history and built heritage, including 28 ancient Hindu temples that dated back to the 6th century A.D.

The Construction of the Bhakra Dam 

In the mid-1950s, the construction of the Bhakra Dam began across the Sutlej River, dividing the town of Bilaspur into two parts. The resulting Gobind Sagar reservoir, named after the tenth Sikh guru Gobind Singh, extends over 90 km along the gorges going along the river channel. The town was in the upper floodplain, and during the decade required for the construction, the residents moved to higher places. But everything that they could not carry with them was swallowed up by the water. 

The Submersion of Bilaspur 

As a result of building the 225.5 metre high-gravity dam, about 30,000 acre land in and around the town of Bilaspur was submerged. The old town, along with fourteen villages, was submerged under the water. The town of Bilaspur today lies higher and was built when the old town prepared to go under the waters of the vast reservoir — the Gobind Sagar. 

The Loss of Heritage 

The most significant loss in the submersion was of the 28 large and small temples of Bilaspur. Most of these were built in the classical ‘nagara’ style. Of these, three were large shrines while the others were small. The images and idols were placed elsewhere. Some carvings were shifted to the museum in Shimla. The now-submerged town was rich with history and built heritage. These structures are what is left of the 28 temples of old Bilaspur, built between the sixth and 17th centuries, that got submerged in the Gobind Sagar Lake and literally made way for the “temple of modern India”, as then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called the Bhakra-Nangal dam.

The Submerged Temples of Bilaspur 

The Shri Ranganath Temple cluster was a group of five large and small temples placed in the center of the old town of Bilaspur. The temples were constructed in stone masonry and were dedicated to Shiva, Parvati, Sati, Kali, Ganesh, Hanuman, Shitala Devi, and Chhadol Rani. A plinth in the temple was similar to shrines in Ashok and Pattadakal, where the ruling house of Bilaspur was said to have originated from. 

The quality of the structures has been compared to the Basheshwara Mahadev temple at Bajaura, near Kullu, and the monolithic shrine of Masrur in Kangra. 

The Khanmukeshwara temples were two temples that stood side by side and were dedicated to Shiva and Kartikeya.Both were built on raised platforms. Other submerged temples of Bilaspur included the Gopalji temple, the Karkari ka Mandir, the temple at Ghar, and the Punj-Rukhi temple.

The rulers of Bilaspur built replicas of the 'Haridwar and Rishikesh' at Bilaspur for people who could not go on pilgrimage to these two sacred spots. Additionally, Raja Bijai Chand constructed a 40-room haveli for his personal use. Unfortunately, all these structures have been submerged. Some other submerged temples in Bilaspur include the Gopalji temple, the Karkari ka Mandir, the temple at Ghar, and the Punj-Rukhi temple. When the reservoir's water recedes, it is a rare and awe-inspiring sight to witness these "lost treasures."

In recent years, the Himachal Pradesh government has envisioned a project to conserve and relocate these lost temples. 

The Heritage Relocation Project 

The Himachal Pradesh government has envisaged a ₹1,400-crore project to conserve and relocate these temples. The heritage relocation project of Bilaspur's lost temples will be conducted in three phases.

Phase One: 

In the first phase, three temples of Ranganath, Khaneshwar, and Nardeshwar will be restored at Nale-Ka-Naun by creating a two-acre island by reclamation. A ₹105-crore detailed project report (DPR) for the first phase is ready.

Phase Two: 

In the second phase, a five-acre island will be created at Sandu-Ka-Maidan, and four temples will be restored at this location. Tourist spots will be built on these islands with architectural features, boat jetties, riverfront development, Vedic centers, handicraft shops, and statues of deities.

In Phase 3, a submersible weir connecting the banks of the Sutlej river will be built at Mandi Bharari, ferry facilities will be developed downstream of the weir, and pathways connecting these ferry facilities will be established. 

The project will not only restore Bilaspur's legacy but also establish it as a tourist destination.

In conclusion, the submersion of Bilaspur and its temples is a tragic reminder of the importance of preserving historical sites and cultural heritage. Despite the efforts to preserve and relocate some of the structures and artifacts, much of the town's history and significance have been lost forever. However, the heritage relocation project of Bilaspur's lost temples is a significant initiative by the Himachal Pradesh government to preserve and showcase the state's rich cultural heritage. This project is not only a step in the right direction towards preserving India's rich cultural heritage for future generations but will also provide a boost to tourism in the region. It is crucial to continue such efforts to ensure that the legacy of the past is not lost but celebrated and cherished for years to come.

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