A land blessed by Lord Jagannath welcomed practitioners of all faiths with open arms as established by the historical remains which have come to light. Odisha’s Buddhist heritage speaks volumes about its cultural and religious link with Buddhism. The architectural ruins of Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udaygiri speak of a time when Buddhism flourished in Odisha. Said to be more than 2000 years old, these sites are perhaps the most unique Buddhist monastic complexes found anywhere in India.
Maintained by the Archaeological survey of India, these three sites are located in the Assi hill range, surrounded by paddy fields, rivers and open fields. Away from urban centres and still in comparatively rural setting, the sylvan surroundings lend a spiritually uplifting mood to the visitors. Popularly known as the diamond triangle the three sites are located a few kms apart and can be covered as a day’s trip.
Lalitgiri is believed to be the oldest of the three and its importance is derived from the fact that the gold caskets containing relics of the Buddha were unearthed from a stupa here. This stupa is well preserved and a row of stone steps leads one to the top from where once gets a panoramic view of the countryside. Another noteworthy find here is the structural remains of a Chaityagriha (a kind of temple), somewhat similar to those found in Taxila. Historians claim that this site bears strong resemblance to Hieun Tsang’s description of the famed Pushpagiri.
Ratnagiri is symbolic of high standard of sculptural excellence that existed in ancient Kalinga. While massive Buddha heads, votive stupas (small round pagoda-like structures carved out of stone) and other figurines are strewn about, the most impressive excavation is the remains of a massive monastry. A rectangular structure with imposing pillars, decorative arches and a large paved courtyard will put to shame any moder steel and glass edifice. Befitting the monastery is a grand entrance – an exquisitely carved chlorite doorframe that stands out prominently against the majestic backdrop. Intricately carved with floral motifs and creepers, it has a Gajalaksmi at the centre and smaller figurines embellish the door frame.
Move to Udaygiri and you find yourself in the midst of green hills and half excavated sites. This is the last excavated site but streatches for acres. A Mahastupa with four gigantic statues of Buddha in different postures is the most eye-catching structure here, as also the ruins of a double storied monastery. At the foot of a hill, you find the imposing image of Lokeswar holding a lotus in hand as if to welcome you.
For those interested in history and architecture, these ruins hold immense attraction. Two small museums, one at Udaygiri and the other at Lalitgiri house some fine sculptures, seals and other artefacts excavated from the ruins. Sadly, most of the regular tourists skip this destination, and in a way make it a pleasant and peaceful visit for those keenly interested in Buddhist heritage. There are no official guides here, but for tourist groups, the tourism department arranges guides on request.
Peace Pagoda and Dhauli hills
On the suburbs of Bhubaneswar, as you drive towards Puri, a white dome stands out prominently on a hill top in the distance surrounded by green fields and clusters of trees. Symbolic of peace and non-violence, this monument – Dhauli Shanti Stupa – seems to radiate the message of peace and goodness all around.
History tells us that the famous Kalinga war was fought here in 231 BC. Emperor Ashoka who has set out to conquer and expand his empire met with defiance from the Kalinga rulers. Although Ashoka emerged victorious, overcome by the misery and bloodshed, he renounced violence and adopted the path of peace. Besides, the other historical importance of this site is the discovery or Ashokan rock edits here. These edits are believed to have been erected to proclaim the ideals of Ashoka and spread the message of love and religious tolerance. One edict (translated to English from Pali) reads, “All men are my children”. Close to the edicts is the rock-cut monolith of an elephant head signifying the emergence from darkness to light.
Significantly, the name of the river that meanders through these low-lying hills is “Daya”, meaning kindness. Folklore abounds with tales of Daya’s waters turning red with blood following with the Kalinga war. Dhauli’s importance for Buddhists is gauged from the fact that the Japanese Buddhist Sangha chose this site to construct the giant stupa and a monastery in collaboration with the Kalinga Nippon Buddha Sangha. This architectural marvel has four large statues of Buddha in various postures, while he walls are engraved with beautiful carvings depicting the life of Buddha.
Several ancient Shiva shrines dot the adjoining hills which have an abundance of greenery. From atop the stupa, one gets a lovely view of the city, the paddy fields, gently swaying palms and of course the meandering river. The Dhauli stupa stands out like an oasis of peace and tranquility amidst the concrete jungle that is rapidly engulfing this monument.
Sanctified by the Dalai Lama and lording over the Tibetan settlement of Chandragiri in south Odisha, the Rigon Thupten Mindrolling monastery stands out like a magnificent palace. Though it is only a recent creation, it draws thousands of Tibetan Buddhists and other visitors to this monument. Like all monasteries it is richly decorated with wall murals and the five-storied edifice houses a huge prayer hall overshadowed by a golden Buddha, smaller shrines and living quarters for VIPs. A grand, ornate gate welcomes visitors to the rectangular yard, flanked on both sides by double storied living quarters of young monks.
Chandrgiri is a Tibetan settlement and located on a plateau ringed by mountains which provide a spectacular backdrop to the grand monastery. Colourful Tibetan prayer flags that flutter with the breeze lend a festive and vibrant look to the small settlement which has a village-like ambiance. Fruit orchards, fields laden with maize, and pastoral surroundings transport a visitor to an entirely different world.