LALITGIRI - The Pilgrimage from Ancient History!

Flourished under the patronage of legendary king Ashoka, the kingdoms of Magadh and Kalinga became important centers from where Buddhism spread to the outside world. Present day areas of Bihar-Jharkhand used to be the kingdom of Magadh and parts of Odisha-Andhra Pradesh composed Kalinga kingdom. At their peak these places were often referred as most prosperous regions on the earth and were full of amazing temples and universities imparting ancient Indian knowledge. However, with passage of time dust accumulated on these sites and these places gradually faded out from the eye of common people. In fact, many got buried with layers of earth and since then have been waiting to get resurfaced in future.

With the development coming to these areas, many of these extinct places are coming to life. One of the such places I came to know during one of my visits to this part with lots and lots of things to discover was Lalitgiri. Lalitgiri is situated at a distance of 10 km. beyond the River Virupa in Cuttack district, about 90 km. from Bhubaneswar which is the capital of Odisha state. Excavations in this region have indicated towards existence of very ancient Buddhist complex. With the discovery of Lalitgiri, and stitching together the chronology of event with iconographical similarities, the timeline of Lalitgiri goes back to the 2nd century BC. Based on this, Lalitgiri can be safely considered as one of the most ancient Buddhist establishments. So, I was about to walk into one of the lost chapters in our history, with due excitement.  

Remains of the monasteries are the first to come across your way as soon as you enter the premises. The monasteries consist of a number of small rooms which are virtually empty (no cabinet shelfs or statues), probably must have served as residential dormitories for the students. Most of the structures retain their unique original features with no signs of physical damages. Sometimes, I wondered if these structures were actually excavated or built newly. Combination of brick work and stones in the construction is particularly notable as the structure is still intact and shows no signs of deterioration even after over 2000 years. 

The monuments unearthed at Lalitgiri are unique. The most important part of the Lalitgiri complex discovered are the ruins of a temple surrounded by monasteries and stupas. Inside this temple, work of pure abstract is the half-bodied statue of Lord Buddha, head is missing. Check carefully statue is not carved out of single stone, it has been worked out in parts and assembled together. Looks like ravaged by attackers as head has not been located yet.

Interestingly, such type of huge assembled statue of Lord Buddha has also been discovered at nearby site Udaygiri. One room temple is surrounded by number of rooms where students used to stay and learn ancient Indian knowledge of Vedas. Such types of temple were also constructed near Mathura and Taxila as well as on the nearby Udayagiri hill around the 2nd century BC. Ichnographically, Lalitgiri sculptures resemble Java and Southeast Asian prototypes.

There are four monasteries excavated here besides a Chaityagriha (temple or a prayer hall). Walking around the Chaityagriha, I was thinking on probably how the place was used in those times as a Amphitheatre or Conference hall. 

All of a sudden I observed HUGE caskets. The most gripping moment of my exploration, these aged stone caskets are believed to be containing relics of none other than Buddha. Basically its antiquity and its silver and gold contents have led to speculations that these contain relics of Lord Buddha. These caskets were reportedly unearthed during the excavations from the year 1985 to 1992 by ASI. These stone caskets contained four containers made of khondalite, steatite, silver and gold inside them. 

Time was limited, so I moved ahead further to find a set of stairs. Climbing up the stairs, I came across a huge circular stupa from where one can get a splendid pigeon eye view of the lush green landscapes. With such a prominent establishment being unearthed, it seems that many pages from our rich history will finally see the light of the day. Hiuen T'sang, the famed Chinese traveler of the 7th Century A.D. had mentioned about a magnificent stupa on top of a hill at Puspagiri, Mahavihara which emitted a brilliant light because of its sacredness. The discovery of caskets containing sacred relics, probably of the Tathagata himself, from the stone stupa at the top of the hill, further reinforces the sacredness of the stupa as well as of Lalitgiri for Buddhists around the world. 

"On the basis of archaeological materials including inscriptions, brought to light by excavation, Langudi hill in Jajpur district may be identified as Puspagiri". 
A paradise for the archaeologists, this 2nd century BC complex has preserved some wonderful sculptures of that era. In addition, there is a museum which displays a large number of Mahayana sculptures consisting of colossal Buddha figures, huge Boddhisattva statues, statues of Tara, Jambhala and others. The museum houses varieties of sculptures and the casket with Buddha’s remains. I tried to see the gold and precious stone I was told were in this casket.

The artifacts looked polished despite their age of existence and length of unearthed excavation. This was one strange statue carved with stairs like feature just below the center. Was confused, but looks like this must have been an important block in the engineered structure serving some dedicated purpose, probably part of some interlocking mechanism.

The Sleeping Buddha figures, with knee length draperies over the shoulders remind one of the influence of the Gandhara and Mathura school of art. Felt amazed at these sculptured magnificent wonders in ancient India. Another sculpture depicting Sun God towering over the mountains.
Numerous excavations done by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have related this region with the origin point of Buddhism. Among the many noteworthy discoveries at this site are black polished inscribed pieces of pottery of Ashokan Brahmi script and a number of inscriptional evidence such as Kushan inscriptions, ornamental Brahmi etc. All such discoveries have contributed in establishing Lalitgiri as a flourishing Buddhist center of the 2nd century BC.
Amazing isn’t it, a! So next time when plan for Bhubaneshwar (85 km.) or Puri, may be you can keep a day for this side. Along with Lalitgiri, there are similar sites of Udaygiri and Ratnagiri to be explored in the close vicinity. 

Regular buses are not available as these sites are at some distance from the highway and number of visitors are actually negligible. Its better to hire a taxi for these 3 sites. 
Find the directions from Cuttack: 

Keep Exploring Guys. Along the Eastern Coast of India, one more similar budhist complex has also been found at Thotlakonda (near to Vizag), approx. 500 km. from Lalitgiri.

Gaurav Verma

A passionate Traveler who wants to see the whole world before hanging his boots. Always ready to explore offbeat and hidden spots. MBA + Engineer from Ivy league colleges, Gaurav is much sought after for his choice of lifestyle activities and Brand promotional campaigns.

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