Friday, December 5, 2014

Odisha's Buddhist Heritage

Even though Lord Buddha had never visited Odisha during his lifetime, the state has a rich heritage of Buddhism. In fact, Odisha is home to more than 200 Buddhist sites, scattered across its length and breadth. Here, Buddhism flourished from the 6th century BC to at least 15th to 16th century AD. After the death of the Buddha, his followers were divided into two sects―'Hinayana' and 'Mahayana'. The latest Buddhist phase is 'Vajrayana' which is believed to have been originated from Odisha. According to the Buddhist scholars of Odisha Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies, Biraja (modern Jajpur) was a sacred land of Buddha Padmaprabha and the cradle of 'Mahayana'. The presence of 'Mahayana' antiquities, stupas and relics in Jajpur district are a testimony to this. Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited these Buddhist sites in Odisha in the 7th century and between 8th and 10th century. Buddhism was the religion under the Bhaumakaras clan. The tantric form of 'Mahayana' Buddhism started during this period. One of the most popular Buddhist destinations in Odisha is the Diamond Triangle comprising Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri in Jajpur district. There are several places in the state where Buddhism is still practiced today. Trips To Roads Less Travelled gives you a look into the sites that would interest travellers on exploring Buddhist heritage of Odisha.


Explore the remains of a Buddhist centre of learning that flourished till 11th century at Langudi Hill, located 90 km away from Bhubaneswar. The site is situated in Salipur village of Jajpur district. There are a series of 34 rock-cut Buddhist stupas and several early medieval Buddhist monuments and shrines atop the hill. The most popular of these rock-cut stupas is the 7th century 'Smaudra Mudra' image of Lord Buddha. Historians say the hill also has the remains of Pushpagiri University or Puspagiri Mahavihara, a major Buddhist centre of learning that flourished from 2nd century BC to 10th century AD. Excavations by Odisha Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies revealed that the structures found on Langudi Hill are even older and larger than other Buddhist centres of learning like Nalanda and Vikramashila. The remains indicate that it was a centre of the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana sects of Buddhism. The northern part of the hill houses the country's oldest Ashoka stupa. Besides images of Buddha in various postures, there are sculptures of Hindu goddesses on the hill. Flowing below the hill is river Kelua, a tributary of river Brahmani. This is a centrally protected site by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Buddhist Sites in Balasore and Bhadrak

The districts of Balasore and Bhadrak have a significant number of smaller Buddhist sites. Numerous Buddhist relics, both small and big, lie scattered in Balasore district. There is a museum in Santikanan area which contains images of Khasarpana, Lokeswar, Avalokiteswar, Buddha and Tara. At the 11th century Marichi temple in Ajodhya area of Balasore district, the idols of Goddess Durga (Mahayana Goddess Marichi) and Lord Buddha are worshipped together. Besides these main idols, there are other smaller idols related to Tantric cult and Jainism. There is a small Buddhist stupa on the temple premises. Images of Buddha can also be found at Khadipada and Soro. The ideal base to visit these places is through the town of Balasore with the help of a taxi. Surrounded by hills on three sides, lies a quaint village called Kupari in Bhadrak district (67 km away from Balasore), where remains of an old Buddhist temple and a monastery have been discovered. Towards the west of the village, visitors can see a well preserved portion of the monastery―a long narrow hall surrounded by pillars. There is an image of Mayadevi near the site and an inscription on the back of it refers to 10th century AD.

Padmasambhava Mahavihara Monastery

Amidst the verdant surroundings in Jirang near Chandragiri of Gajapati district, stands the beautiful Padmasambhava Mahavihara monastery, reportedly the largest in eastern India. The colony which houses the monastery is Buddha Vihar (the land of happiness and plenty) and area is popularly known as a mini Tibet in Odisha. It is a part of the Rigon Thubten Mindolling monastery that was part of the Tibetan settlement near Chandragiri. The monastery is named after Acharya Padmasambhava, who was born in Odisha and is believed to have spread Buddhism to Tibet in 7th century. Driving through the roads of Jirang, visitors are welcomed to the Buddha Vihar with Buddhist flags on both sides of the road. Inaugurated by Dalai Lama in 2010, it has been built as per the 'Atanpuri style of Nalanda' and in the assembly hall, a 23-foot-high idol of Lord Buddha along with his two disciples have been installed. On the right side of the Buddha's idol is the 1000-armed, 1000-eyed Avalokiteswar. While on the left, is the large idol of Guru Nangsi Zilnon. The five-storey monastery has its interiors richly decorated with traditional religious paintings of Tibetan culture. The 70-feet-high monastery can house over 200 Lamas. Apparently, Jirang is considered one of the earliest Tibetan resettlement villages in the country; the Tibetans had arrived here on May 1, 1963. Visitors can also experience maize cultivation in the village, which is the main avocation of the Tibetans. Jirang can be approached by road through Berhampur.

Jaugada Hill

After Dhauli Hills, Jaugada Hill in Ganjam District is the second place where one of the famous rock edicts of emperor Ashoka is located. Located at a distance of 30 km from Berhampur, Jaugada was also an ancient fortified settlement that had boundary walls with four main gates each. It was a settlement similar to Sisupalgarh in Bhubaneswar. The fort is believed to have been built by Duryodhan. Inside the fort, there are five stone images worshipped in the temple of Gupteswar. Locals believe the five images represent the five Pandavas. Jaugada Hill, a part of the Malati Range of hills, has a large clean surface of granite where there is an Ashokan edict that provides valuable information about the pattern of administration followed by the Kalingan emperor. The site is preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India. Few kilometres from Jaudaga, visitors can visit the ruins of an ancient fort and a temple at Kesarpali near Buguda. Here, there is a Biranchinarayan Temple with an exquisitely carved wooden 'Jagamohan' (prayer hall of a temple) and mural paintings on stories from Ramayana. Another site Buddhakhol is located just two km away from Jaugada where there are various images of Buddhist pantheon along with small Shaivite shrines. On the way to the site from Berhampur or Chhatrapur, one can also see the Tara Tarini Temple, which is one of the famous shrines of Shakti in south Odisha.


Located 10 km south-east of the popular Sun temple in Konark, is the ancient lesser known Buddhist site of Kuruma. It is said that a Buddhist monastery flourished in the area, remnants of which were found during excavations by the State Archaeology wing. In fact, in the pages of history, this monastery has been mentioned by Hiuen Tsang. The origin of the site is dated to be between 8th and 9th century AD.

At the site currently, there is a small temple which houses three Buddhist images―crowned Buddha seated in Bhumisparsa mudra, Padmapani Avalokitesvara and Revanta. These three images are jointly worshipped as 'Yamadharma' by Kuruma villagers. These images were found near a water tank called Dharma Pokhari (tank of Dharma), located at one end of the village, by a school teacher Brajabandhu Dash in the 70s. Later on, the archaeological wing started excavating the site. Historians say the length and width of the monastery is 34 m each and it also houses a shrine chamber, cells for Buddhist monks and a large courtyard, which is in the shape of 'Swastik', denoting tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana or Tantrayana). Visitors can hire taxis from either Puri or Konark to reach Kuruma.

Shanti Stupa

One of the popular landmarks of Odisha's Buddhist heritage is the Dhauli International Peace Pagoda (Shanti Stupa), located eight km south on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. 
The Peace Pagoda stands atop the Dhauli Hills, close to the river bank of Daya river. It was built as a collaborative project between Kalinga Nippon Sangha and the Odisha Government in 1972 to commemorate the famous Kalinga War that was fought along the banks of the Daya river around 261 BC. The war was won by emperor Ashoka, but the bloodshed that had happened, change his heart and he converted to Dharma Ashoka (peace lover) from Chanda Ashoka (fierce warrior). Emperor Ashoka subsequently turned a Buddhist and started propagating Buddhism to kingdoms in foreign lands. The Dhauli Shanti Stupa has four massive idols of Lord Buddha in various postures along with episodes from Gautam Buddha's life carved on stone slabs. Just behind the Stupa stands a Shiva temple, which sees a large crowd during ShivaratriOther major attractions of Dhauli Hills are the various rock edicts, which are a living testimony of emperor Ashoka’s change of heart. Historians say Ashoka wrote ‘Welfare of the Whole World’ in Kalinga Edict VI, depicting his concern about mankind. A rock-cut elephant located above the edicts is considered to be one of the oldest Buddhist sculptures in the State. The Dhauli Hills also provide a bird's eye view of the entire area, lush green agricultural lands and the river Daya. The heritage site is approachable from Bhubaneswar by buses and taxis. 


Considered one of the earliest Buddhist sites in Odisha, Lalitgiri stands between the hills of Parabhadi and Landa belonging to the Assian Hill range in Jajpur district. A huge banyan dominates the area that is home to a massive brick stupa. The site was excavated from 1985 to 1992, and from the stupa, a precious relic casket containing bones, believed by some historians to be of Gautam Buddha himself or one of his important followers, was found. The relic casket comprised four containers one inside the other, each layer made of khondalite, steatite, silver and gold respectively. These containers were arranged in the manner of a Chinese puzzle box. Being one of the most important findings of Buddhist heritage in Odisha so far, the casket has been shifted to a small museum nearby. The stupa can be accessed by a flight of steep steps. Hiuen Tsang had described that the stupa at Lalitgiri's highest point emitted a brilliant light due to its sacredness. Excavations also revealed the remains of four monasteries and sculptures of Lord Buddha in different postures belonging to Mahayanistic phase of Buddhism. Antiquities like gold and silver ornaments, stone plaques of Ganesha and Mahisasurmardini Durga, and a tiny figure of Avloketisvara is also found here. Excavated inscribed potsherds belonging to different time spans i.e. post Mauryan period to 8th-9th century AD suggest that Lalitagiri was occupied by both Hinayana and Mahayana sects. In subsequent period the site came under the control of Vajrayana faith of Buddhism patronised by the ruling Bhaumakaras (9th-10th century AD). Hence, historians say that Lalitgiri is one of the earliest Buddhist sites of Odisha having a cultural continuity from the post Mauryan period to 13th century AD without any break. At the site, there is a small sculpture shed where all the sculptures found from the spot have been kept. The site is open for tourists from dawn to dusk. Entry is free for Indians while foreigners have to pay `100 to enter the site. Lalitgiri is 90 km away from Bhubaneswar and can be approached by road.


Udayagiri or the 'Sunrise Hill' is another important Buddhist site located on the banks of River Birupa. It is just 10 km away from Ratnagiri. Votive stupas can be found scattered here. This site, dating back from 2nd century AD to 13th century AD, was divided into Udayagiri 1 and Udayagiri 2 for excavation purpose from 1958 to 2000. Excavations at Udayagiri 1 have revealed remains of a large complex―Madhavapura Mahavihara―comprising a Maha Stupa and a square monastery. Maha Stupa has four niches, enshrining a beautifully carved image of Dhyani Buddha Aksobhaya on the eastern side, Amitabha on the western side, Amoghasiddhi on the north and Ratnasambhava on the south; all inscribed with Buddhist creeds. Similarly, the square monastery has an ornate gateway leading to the shrine chamber that houses the image of Lord Buddha in 'Bhumisparsa' mudra. Excavations at Udayagiri 2 have also led to discovery of the remains of a brick-built monastic complex called Simhaprastha Mahavihara with 'Pradakshinapatha' (parikrama) around the sanctum. A large number of sculptures of Buddha and other Buddhist divinities like Tara, Manjushri, Bhrikuti, Hariti, Chunda, Avalokiteswara, Maitreya, Aparajita, Vairochona and Vasudhara have been discovered here.


Ratnagiri in Jajpur district of Odisha is often referred to as the 'Hill of Jewels'. This site is located on an isolated hillock of Assia Range between Birupa and Brahmani rivers. Many Buddhist remains, including a massive stupa (Maha Stupa), monasteries, temples and Buddhist antiquities―dating from 5th century to 13th century AD―have been excavated from this site. The ruins of the Maha Stupa can be seen atop the hill. The stupa, made of burnt bricks, is surrounded by votive stupas. Apparently, around 700 votive stupas have been found from this site during the course of excavations. A mound, locally called Ranipokhari or queen's tank, is located to the north of Maha Stupa. The remains of two monasteries, lying side by side with a narrow passage in between can be seen here. Both the monasteries face the Maha Stupa. Also, antiquities including the stone and bronze images of the Buddha and a host of other divinities like Tara, Lokesvara, Vajrapani, Padmapani Aparajita, Heruka, Sambhara and Hariti have been found from the spot. A visit to Ratnagiri will not be complete without visiting a Buddhist museum on the north-west corner of the site, which exhibits an impressive collection of antiquities that were excavated from the site. There are four galleries in the museum that remain open from 10 am to 5 pm and are closed on Friday.Ratnagiri is 100 km away from Bhubaneswar and can be approached by road.

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