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Overview of Buddhist Sites in Odisha
You could be forgiven for not knowing about the sacred Buddhist sites in Orissa (Odisha). After all, they've only been excavated relatively recently and are largely unexplored. Yet, more than 200 Buddhist sites, scattered across the length and breadth of the state, were revealed by these archeological excavations. They show the prominence of Buddhism in Odisha from the 6th century BC to at least the 15th-16th centuries AD, with the 8th-10th centuries being the period when it really prospered. Buddhist teachings from all sects (including Hinayana, Mahayana, Tantayana, and offshoots such as Vajrayana, Kalacakrayana, and Sahajayana) are believed to have been conducted in Odisha, giving the state a rich Buddhist heritage.
The largest concentration of Buddhist remains can be found at three sites -- Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, and Lalitagiri -- referred to as the “Diamond Triangle”. The sites consist of a series of monasteries, temples, shrines, stupas, and beautiful sculptures of Buddhist images. Their rural setting, among fertile hills and paddy fields, is both picturesque and peaceful.
Odisha Tourism has spent the last few years developing tourist facilities around these important Buddhist sites, which are now one of the top tourist places to visit in Odisha.
How To Best Visit Odisha's Important Buddhist Sites?
Odisha's "Diamond Triangle" of Buddhist sites (Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, and Lalitagiri) is located in the Assia hills, around two hours drive north of Bhubaneshwar. The nearest airport is in Bhubaneshwar while the nearest major train station is in Cuttack.
Indian Railway's special Mahaparinirvan Express Buddhist Tourist Train did start including Odisha's Buddhist sites in its itinerary, although this was unfortunately discontinued due to lack of promotion. Swosti Travels is the largest provider of travel services in Odisha and can take care of all arrangements, including car hire.
Those who wish to visit the sites independently can stay at the Toshali hotel at Ratnagiri (opened in April 2013). It's conveniently located opposite the Archeological Museum and very close to Ratnagiri's Buddhist attractions. Udayagiri is under 10 kilometers drive from Ratnagiri, while Lalitagiri is approximately 20 kilometers away.
When Is Best to Visit?
The cooler dry months from October to March are the most comfortable. Otherwise, the weather gets quite unbearably hot during April and May before the start of the monsoon.
Read on to discover more about Odisha's three most important Buddhist sites.
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Ratnagiri, "Hill of Jewels", has the most extensive Buddhist ruins in Odisha and is of great importance as a Buddhist site -- both for its magnificent sculptures and as a center for Buddhist teachings. One of the first Buddhist universities in the world, rivaling the renowned one at Nalanda (in Bihar state), is believed to have been located at Ratnagiri.
The Buddhist site at Ratnagiri dates back to the 6th century AD. It appears that Buddhism flourished unhindered there until the 12th century AD. In the beginning, it was a center for Mahayana Buddhist. During the 8th and 9th centuries AD, it became a significant center for Tantric Buddhism. Subsequently, it played a notable role in the emergence of Kalachakra Tantra.
The Ratnagiri site was discovered in 1905. Excavations carried out between 1958 to 1961 revealed a massive stupa, two monasteries, shrines, numerous votive stupas (the excavations turned up as many as seven hundred of them!), a large number of terracotta and stone sculptures, architectural fragments, and plentiful Buddhist antiquities including bronze, copper and brass objects (some with images of Buddha).
The monastery known as Monastery 1, constructed in 8th-9th centuries AD, is the largest excavated monastery in Odisha. Its elaborately carved green doorway leads to 24 brick cells. There's also an imposing seated Buddha sculpture, flanked by Padmapani and Vajrapani, in the central sanctum.
The massive stone sculptures of Lord Buddha's head at Ratnagiri are particularly awe-inspiring. More than two dozen heads of various sizes, magnificently depicting the serene meditative expression of Buddha, were found during the excavations. They're considered to be fine works of art.
Numerous stone sculptures have also been removed from the site and are now displayed in the four galleries at the Archeological Museum in Ratnagiri. It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Friday.
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Udayagiri, "Sunrise Hill", is home to another large Buddhist complex in Odisha. It consists of a brick stupa, two brick monasteries, a stepped stone well with inscriptions on it, and numerous rock-cut Buddhist sculptures.
The Udayagiri site has been dated back to 1st-13th centuries AD. Although it was discovered in 1870, excavations didn't commence until 1985. They've been undertaken in two phases across two settlements around 200 meters apart -- Udayagiri 1 from 1985 to 1989, and Udayagiri 2 from 1997 to 2003. The remains indicate that the settlements were called "Madhavapura Mahavihara" and "Simhaprastha Mahavihara", respectively.
The stupa at Udayagiri 1 has four seated stone statues of Lord Buddha, enshrined and facing each direction. The monastery there is also impressive, with 18 cells and a shrine chamber that has an intricately carved ornamental facade. The excavation turned up many Buddhist images and stone sculptures of Buddhist divinities as well.
At Udayagiri 2, there's an extensive monastic complex with 13 cells and a towering statue of Buddha, seated in bhumisparsa mudra. Its vaulted arches are an architectural marvel from 8th-9th century AD. What's unique about this monastery is the path around its shrine, which isn't found in any other monastic settlements in Odisha.
Another attraction at Udayagiri is a gallery of Buddhist rock-cut images, overlooking the Birupa river (locally known as Solapuamaa) below. There are five images consisting of a standing life-size Boddhisattva, a standing Buddha, a goddess seated over a stupa, one more standing Boddhisattva, and a seated Bodhisattva.
The Udayagiri site promises additional treasures, as there's still more to excavate.
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The ruins at Lalitagiri, while not being as extensive as those at Ratnagiri and Udayagiri, are notably from the oldest Buddhist settlement in Odisha. Major excavations carried out from 1985 to 1992 unearthed evidence of it being continuously occupied from the 2nd century BC to the 13th century AD.
The excavations found a stupa, an apsidal chaitya hall or chaityagriha, four monasteries, and numerous stone sculptures of Buddha and Buddhist divinities.
Undoubtedly, the most exciting discovery was three relic caskets (two containing small pieces of charred bone) inside the stupa at Lalitgiri. Buddhist literature says that after the death of the Buddha, his corporal remains were distributed amongst his disciples to be placed within stupas. Hence, the remains are presumed to have belonged to the Buddha himself, or one of his prominent disciples. The Odisha government intends to display the relic caskets in a museum at Lalitagiri in the future.
The apsidal chaitya hall unearthed at Lalitagiri is also the first of its kind in the context of Buddhism in Odisha (a Jain one was discovered in another location earlier). This rectangular prayer hall has a semi-circular end and contains a stupa at the center, although it's quite damaged. An inscription attributes the structure to the 2nd-3rd centuries AD.
Many of the Buddhist sculptures found during excavations are housed in a sculpture shed next to the monasteries. However, apparently, they make up less than 50% of the original treasures of the site. Some have sadly been lost, while others have been shifted to museums elsewhere.