Vadnagar was one of the earliest fortified towns with continuous human settlement beginning from 4th – 3rd century BCE. In its journey of evolution, various historical references mention Vadnagar in different names, such as Anartapura, Anandapur, Chamatkarpur, Skandpur and Nagaraka. Some of the earliest mentions of the region can be traced back to 2nd century CE inscription of Mahakshtrapa Rudradaman and in Skanda Purana as Chamatkarpur. The epic tale of Mahabharata refers to the Anarta Kingdom (Anartapura) in the northern part of present-day Gujarat state.
It is believed that for centuries, Vadnagar remained an important cultural and trading centre connected to Malwa, Saurashtra, Rajputana and Deccan regions of India. Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese scholar traveller mentions Vadnagar as Anandpur in the 7th century A.D., as a major urban centre of Buddhist religious activities. Traditionally, Vadnagar was the major trade point, land port of Gujarat and an important Buddhist learning centre in western India.
The present settlement is perched on the high mound that has been formed due to the gradual deposition of cultural debris during the last 2,300 to 2,400 years of uninterrupted occupation. One can still witness the ruins of the ancient fort wall at places with surviving ancient gates. The main town of Vadnagar is situated within the limits of the ancient fortified area even today.
Archaeological excavations for over a decade, supported and reconfirmed by various oral accounts and inscriptional records acknowledge the significance of Vadnagar as one the most ancient towns of western India.
Excavations has revealed successive stages of structural remains that led to a cultural deposit of about 25 meters of thickness. This, in turn, unravels a plethora of information about fortification, town planning, buildings and construction, and items of trade, commerce and daily use including shell bangles, bead rings, ladles and inlays, nut-shaped beads, glass beads, bone points, ivory comb, terracotta animal figurines of bull, tortoise, wheel, pendant, ear-studs, etc. The myriads artefacts with relevance in ancient times like ceramics, shell, coins, seals, sealings, large number of objects of different materials such as terracotta, metal, bone, glass, semiprecious stones aided in assigning the periodization to the region.
The region has also yielded an amphora (oval shape) like handled jar, broken sherds of a large vessel known as ‘torpedo jar’ relating to a Mesopotamian vessel of the 3rd-7th century CE. In addition, impression of Roman coins belonging to Valentinian-I (364-367 CE) has been found on terracotta sealing which interestingly depict a Brahmi legend on its another face. These objects of foreign origin indicate Vadnagar was connected with other parts of the world through trade and commerce.
A Buddhist Bastion
The most significant discovery at the Vadnagar site is a burnt brick structure which has been identified as a Buddhist monastery. Interestingly, this monastery is located within the fortified area near the present Ghaskol Gate of Vadnagar. It measures about 14.04 x 14.04 m. On plan, the monastery is quadrangle with an open square courtyard in the middle surrounded by cells on all sides. It is evident that originally there were only nine cells. The construction arrangement of cells around the central courtyard follows a ‘swastika’- like pattern which was possibly meant to provide easy access to the cells located at corners. This arrangement is comparable to a few Buddhist monasteries like Sanchi and Sirpur in central India and Taxila in Pakistan. At Vadnagar, the red polished ware, a diagnostic ceramic of early centuries of Common Era makes its appearance with the construction of the monastery, hence tracing and acknowledging the existence of monastery back to 1st century CE to 7th century CE.
Two small stupas, one square and another circular on plan, have been uncovered near the north-eastern corner of the monastery. Their sizes indicate that they are the votive stupas, offered or consecrated to fulfil a vow. The presence of the votive stupas and the monastery has reconfirmed that during the early centuries of Christian era there had been a strong presence of Buddhists in Vadnagar.
The Vadnagar fortification is believed to be among the oldest in India dating back to pre-Islamic period and built according to Shastric Hindu tradition with images of Goddess Kali, Lord Ganesh, Bhairav on its gate walls. There are six gates to the town-Arjun Bari, Nadiol, Amthol, Ghaskol. Pithori and Amarthol.
The Kirti Toran of Vadnagar, a wonderful symbol of sculpture and architecture, is a testament to its glorious cultural heritage. This Toran was built in the Solanki era (942-1242 AD) to mark their victory. The tradition of constructing Torans in India, decorative gateways, reached its zenith in Gujarat during the Solanki period. The Toran at Vadnagar is the finest surviving example of its type. This architecture is built without any kind of cement. The bases of these pillars from the bottom to the top were kept as deep as possible to make this sculpture of red and yellow stones long lasting. The 13-meter-high structure with two massive and highly carved columns supports the wide stone beam and vaulted pediment with sculptures. Nearly 2000-year-old temple of Hatkeshwar Mahadev situated near Kirti Toran is the devotional centre for millions of people today.
Sharmishtha Lake, located in the middle of the historical town of Vadnagar, is very scenic. Around 4500 years old, this lake is an excellent example of rainwater harvesting, hydraulic engineering and groundwater management. In the past, the lake was filled with water from the river Kapila flowing from the Aravalli range. There were 160 steps to descend to the inside of this square-shaped lake. According to the Nagarkhanda, there was a Vishwamitra Aashram located near the lake. The 79-acre Sharmishtha lake receives water from Taranga hills and the inlet is through Nagdharo, an elaborately designed sedimentation tank. Some beautiful sculptures and carved friezes are embedded on the sidewalls of Nagdharo. On the east of Nagdharo, another small Ghat like structure has images of Saptarishi and Lord Ganesh.
The great Mughal historian Abul Fazl in Ain-e-Akbari (1590 A.D.) described Vadnagar as a city of Brahmins, having 3000 temples, each with an adjoining water tank. It's a proof that the city abounded in temples even in the 16th century. It is believed that Muslim rulers had destroyed many temples Vadnagar and had disfigured Hindu temples remains in and around Vadnagar. The most important temple at Vadnagar is that of Hatkeshwar Mahadev. It has a huge ‘shikhar’ and is believed to have been built during the Solanki period. A reference about the Hatkeshwar Mahadev is found in the Nagarkhand of the Skanda Purana. Hatkeshwar Mahadev is the family deity of the Nagar Brahmins. The shivling in the temple is believed to be ‘Swayambhu; (self-emerged). The temple walls are profusely ornamented with carvings, depicting Hindu myths like Samudramanthan, Dashavatara and various forms of Gods and Goddesses. Thousands of devotees come here for darshan, especially on the auspicious occasion of Maha Shivratri.
Gujarat has a great tradition of constructing beautiful and functional water structures using stone masonry reflecting typical Gujarati style of architecture. The Kunds and Stepwells are found all over Gujarat and Vadnagar can also boast of some monumental examples like Gauri Kund, Nagdharo, Paschim Mehta Ni Vav, Ranzaniyo Kuvo and Saptarishi Ovaro. Gauri Kund is square in plan, built in stone masonry with series of steps leading down to the water and adorned with beautiful sculptures. Gauri Kund also finds its mention in Nagarkhand. The sculptures found here are that of Lord Vishnu sleeping on Sheshnaag, the dance of the beautiful woman and the glorious morning of the dynasty. Various fairs are held here and people come to take bath in the Kund in the month of Shravan, Adhik and Purushttam.
Tana and Riri were two sisters from Vadnagar who calmed down the burning body of Sangit Samrat Tansen by singing Malhar Raag. A special Tana-Riri Mahotsav is organized by Gujarat Tourism Corporation Limited in their memory today. Every year renowned musicians and artists perform in this Mahotsav that has now become a global attraction. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi started the Tana-Riri Mahotsav since the year 2003 to showcase the development and culture of Gujarat to the world. Artists associated with the music industry are also given the 'Tana-Riri Award' every year.