As the story goes, two Ukkala (part of present- day Odisha) merchants, Tapassu and Bhallika, were on their way to Central India with 500 carts of honey. On their way they met Buddha, who had gained enlightenment only a few weeks ago in Bodh Gaya. The merchants offered honey and rice cakes to Buddha and were gifted with eight strands of his hair in return. Through this chance encounter, Tapassu and Bhallika not only became the first Odishan Buddhists, they also introduced Buddhism to their homeland. It is also believed that the merchant duo later went to Ceylon and then Burma to promote Buddhism. In fact, the eight strands of Buddha’s hair currently enshrined in the magnificent Shwedagon Stupa at Yangon is believed to have been brought over from Kalinga to Burma by none other than Bhallika himself.
Buddha perhaps never set foot in Odisha. However, he would have had little to worry about the spread of Buddhism in the State. Odisha (with its various parts referred to historically as Odra, Ukkala, Utkala and Kalinga) had subsequently become a seat of Buddhist teaching and learning. After Buddha’s death. Buddhism dispersed across Odisha’s landscape through learning centres and monasteries. Located in caves and hills next to steady flowing rivers, they provided much needed isolation for meditation and dis- course. According to the Buddhist text, Mahaparinibbana Sutta, one of Buddha’s body-relic (ie, saririras) was his left canine tooth that was given to the Kalinga kings. It is this very tooth relic that later made its way across the sea to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), hidden in the hair oma- ment of Hemamala, daughter of Kalinga king Guhashiva. When I had visited the ornamentally opulent Dalada Tooth Temple in Kandy, this Odisha connection was unknown to me. Though the spread of Buddhism from India to South and South-east Asia is well known, Odisha’s significant role in that transmission remains unfamiliar to the majority of the people in the State. It is understandable. The epie Kalinga war and the pyrrhic victory that converted Chandashoka to Dhammashoka had pressed the reset button in Odisha’s history turning over a new leaf, Ashoka made Buddhism a State religion and made significant investments in Buddhist sites in India. Thus ensured mushrooming of Buddhist monasteries in Odisha.
When the Chinese Buddhist explorer Hiuen Tang (Xuanzang) travelled across India 1,200 years after Ashoka’s death, he mentioned Odra (believed to be a part of modern-day Odisha) where he discovered 100 Buddhist monasteries where Mahayana Buddhism flourished.
While scholars agree that what Hien Tsung referred to was Pushpagirivikara, they disagree on its possible location. But one Buddhist site in Odisha is believed to come closest to what Hiuen Tsang described. It is the Ratnagiri, Lalitagiri and Udayagiri monastic complex
The access to Ratnagiri is mediated through a well-main- tained set of lateritic steps. A few minutes into the walk upward, one stops to gasp at a small complex of miniature votive stupas located on the corner on the right. What impresses is not the size of the stupas, but their scale. Votive and monolithic stupas are poorer cousins of stupas. Stupas are sacred as they contain relics of significant spiritual value, while votive stupas hold offerings by devotees. But the neat arrangement of approximately 20 monolithic stupas in seven rows, made these humble stupas look majestic. Each of them, barely knee-high, had ornate sculptures from the Vajrayana pantheon carved into them. Admiration for these miniature marvels comes on bended knees.
The main complex opens up to a banyan tree with small and dilapidated stupas scattered under it. In some cases, the roots have framed them, giving the stupas an earthly shelter. On the right of the aged banyan is a complex that is known by its unimaginative title. Monastery 1. When it was excavated, the sculptures, artefacts and design of this monastery made experts accept that Ratnagiri was perhaps as vibrant and relevant a Buddhist site as the famed Nalanda and Bodh Gaya. Since most of the ornate carvings on the front facade have been eaten by time, the eye has litle distraction. It zones in quite quickly to an oddity that is perhaps the most unique feature of Ratnagiri. An incredibly ornate greenish black chlorite doorframe adorns the centre of a pinkish red khondalite back wall. The contrast is stark. At the bottom on both sides of this doorframe are niches containing four carved figures that recede in height as they move from right to left. Popularly known as the dvarpala (gatekeeper) niche, the tallest figure is the dvarpala himself. The scrollwork is exquisite, which shows a meandering vine with a group of animated children climbing on its branches. Crossing over to the courtyard, one encounters a large number of excavated sculptures gently resting on the walls, Among them are giant Buddha heads, reassuring in their benevolent gaze. The sculptors had a loving eye for detail. Buddha’s eyes, lips and eyebrows have gentle curves and arches, which draw the viewer’s gaze into an intimate circle of reverence.
Across the courtyard, pieces of the old façade of the temple have been meticulously assembled and put together. The main door had three cell-like niches with. images of Tara from the Vajrayana pantheon curved into them. The grandear that’s missing from the outside is now accessible inside In the sanctum of the monastery is a giant statue of Buddha in his Bhumisparsha mudra (fingers touching the earth). The doorframe to the sanctum has the exact scroll- work motif as that on the back wall, But this is on khondalite and most of the panels are missing. Using the stairs that lead to the roof of the sanctum, one can walk around Monastery 1 enjoying a bird’s-eye view. It helps. The plan for the monastery becomes more visible, while picnicking tourists are a little less audible. From the rooftop, my eyes scan the Ratnagiri complex. It floats across ruins of the neighbouring Monastery 2 to an impressive assemblage of more than 1,000 excavated stupes, and finally rests on a celebrated mahastupa on the horizon.
The mahastupa no longer has the superstructure around it. What is left behind is a huge platform of burnt bricks and three concentric circular walls on top of it. But sur- rounding the mahastupa – and the close by Mahakala (now known as Mahakali) temple is an impressive array of large structural brick stupas. They are all in various forms of dilapidation, as the care reserved for Monastery 1 has evidently not reached this complex yet. However, what has touched these magnificent structures is the disrespectful artwork of vandals. There is perhaps not a single stupa left in this complex that has not been defaced. The guards are engrossed in their conversation while tourists are busy etching their crimes on sacred stones. When we asked the guards why they did not bother, they said they were temporary staff hired to manage crowds only during the holiday season. The responsibility of pulling up people belongs to the permanent guards. Caught in this administrative jugglery, the aesthetic splendour of this complex slowly fades away. The rays of the setting sun bend over the “jagmohan” of the Mahakali temple, and for one final moment, illuminate the defaced stupa walls. But at the same time, a little girl stands on top of a brick platform and strikes a traditional Odissi dance pose. The padox of this simultaneous coexistence of disrespect and respect to beritage is an unsolved riddle with which I leave Ratnagiri, accompanied by the sound of the squeaky revolving gate.
The word lalit may indicate red, to denote the rocky landscape around the area where it is located. Or, from the colour of sunrise, as it is best positioned to soak it in. Both would be spot on. However, unknown to many who visit Lalitagiri, three different hills makeup this site, namely the Olasuni, the Parabhadi and the
Landa. Though the Clasuni and the Parabhadi have religions and cultural significance, they have little to offer to most tourists who seek to see history rather than imagine and construct it. Hence the popular destination is the Landa hills. The asphalt drive cuts across a landscape where an intricate network of canals has made irrigation possible. The background of red hills against a foreground of carpeted green is an unexpected bonus.
An unassuming entrance, a humble fee that entitles access without responsibility and complete absence of any information about the site are the three things that a tourist is greeted with. As you walk up the hill, you can hear your shoes crunching dry leaves into powder. The walkway takes you first to Monastery 1, which is the largest and has a beautiful courtyard with an elegant entrance. To the immediate west is Monastery 3, and across the narrow walkway lies Monastery 4. This monastery has a statue of Buddha in Bhumisparsha mudra in the sanctum, but with its head and shoulders missing. Buddha is seated on a simhasana (throne) with two exquisite lions carved on its base. Stepping out of Monastery 4, one is bound to turn the gaze to the left where the most exquisite of structures stands excavated. This is an apsidal chaitya, or a Buddlust prayer hall. Around the chaitya, a number of minor structural stupas are assembled, giving the impression of a beaded necklace. This expansive site is perhaps the most serene, with a lage banyan tree almost coveting the entire western corner with its benign shade. Walking across these ruins, one can imagine the grade of this chaitya in its heydays. The bricks and stones that make up the chaitya were witness to chanting of hymns, debates and prayers.
Udaygiri (not to be confused with the hill of the same name near Bhubaneswar) and Ratnagiri belong to a much later period. Udaygiri consisted of two monasteries – Madhavapura Mahavihara and Simhaprasta Mahavihara – and is located in the middle of horse-shoe shaped hill. Steps lead to the top of the hill. Do not miss a panoramic view of the countryside from here. A statue of Lokesvara holding a lotus stands at the base of the hill. Ruins of monasteries, brick stupas, and a step well are some of the key attractions here. Richly carved statues of Dhyani Buddha, Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, Jambhala and Heruka, lie among the ruins.
@All photos are copyrights of Vivish George. If you want to use any pictures for your project please get in touch with me.