Lalitgiri: Odisha’s Oldest Buddhist Complex



This is the oldest Buddhist site in Odisha and it holds the key to a lot more than just the story of how the faith spread across the region. Then why is it not well known?

Around 80 km from the state capital, Bhubaneswar, in the Birupa-Chitrotpala valley in Cuttack district, lies the site of Lalitgiri, which along with neighbouring Ratnagiri and Udayagiri formed the triad of a once-flourishing Buddhist monastic establishment. Popularised today as the ‘Diamond Triangle’, the hills here are strewn with the ruins of monasteries, stupas, prayer halls, stone tablets, seals and fine sculptures.

The region is largely off the grid and does not draw many tourists, but make no mistake, the historic significance and religious importance of the three monastic complexes here cannot be overstated. What makes Lalitgiri really stand out is that it is one of the few sites in the country where Buddhism was practiced continuously, from the post-Mauryan period i.e. 2nd century BCE to the 10th century CE.


During this period, of over 1,000 years, the faith transformed into a complex maze of schools and interpretations.

Interestingly, archaeologists also believe that Lalitgiri holds a clue to the location of the lost university of Pushpagiri, mentioned in Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang’s accounts of when he visited India in the 7th century. This university is believed to have been at par with Nalanda, Vikramshila and Takshashila as a major centre of learning. However, multiple excavations at Lalitgiri, as well as in surrounding regions, between 1985 and 2006, haven’t been able to confirm the location of the university.

Even though Gautama Buddha never visited Odisha during his lifetime, Buddhism thrived here, with over 200 Buddhist sites scattered across its length and breadth. The religion, along with its art and architecture, made inroads into this land with Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga in the 3rd century BCE.

The structures found during excavation
The structures found during excavation|Wikimedia Commons

It was from here that the unique Vajrayana or Tantric form of Buddhism, observed by over 20 million people today, spread across the subcontinent, to Tibet, Mongolia and Bhutan, among other regions. According to Tibetan texts, it was King Indrabhuti of Sambalpur who founded Vajrayana, from where it spread to the Lalitgiri-Udayagiri-Ratnagiri Budhhist complex and then to the rest of Asia.

Coming back to Lalitgiri, the site and its vicinity were first brought to light by M M Chakravarty, Sub-Divisional Officer of Jajpur in Odisha, in 1905. However, extensive excavations were carried out by the Bhubaneswar Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) only in 1985.

Mahastupa
Mahastupa|Wikimedia Commons

The seven-year-long exploration at Lalitgiri led to some priceless discoveries. While Ratnagiri is the finest and Udayagiri the biggest of the three Buddhist complexes in the region, Lalitgiri is considered the holiest. This is because a massive (15 m in diameter) stupa was unearthed here, and within it archaeologists discovered a tiny gold casket inside a larger silver casket, which in turn was inside a stone casket.


The gold casket contained a relic in the form of a small fragment of bone.

Since the boxes were uninscribed, it is difficult to tell whether the relic belonged to the Buddha or one of his followers.

Ruins of a monastery
Ruins of a monastery|Wikimedia Commons

The excavation further yielded the remains of four monasteries, which provided evidence that Lalitgiri was a very large and pivotal centre of Buddhism in Eastern India during the medieval period.

Also discovered were Kushana Brahmi inscriptions. One of the terracotta inscriptions mentions this place as ‘Sri Chandraditya Vihara Samagra Arya Bhiksu Sanghasa’. Roughly translated, it means a monastic settlement.

Chaityagriha
Chaityagriha|Wikimedia Commons

But the star attraction at Lalitgiri is a U-shaped chaityagriha or prayer hall, which is not very common in this region. Other antiquities include numerous esoteric sculptures of Buddha in different postures belonging to Mahanaya Buddhism.

The iconography of these sculptures indicates that Lalitgiri had already been established during the period of the Shunga dynasty, in the 2nd century BCE. This dynasty was established by Pushyamitra Shunga, after the fall of the Maurya Empire, with its capital at Pataliputra.

Other sculptures found include those of a pantheon of Bodhisattvas, including that of a small figure of Avalokitesvara. Also unearthed were plaques of Ganesha and Mahisasurmardini, terracotta monastic seals, a gold pendant and some silver ornaments. These have a strong Gupta-influence and are from a later period, and indicate the continuous occupation of the site.

Skeleton Buddha (represented as fasting) and another sculpture without a head
Skeleton Buddha (represented as fasting) and another sculpture without a head|Wikimedia Commons

Further, the potsherds scattered in the region provide significant insight into how Lalitgiri was occupied by both the Hinayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism. After the death of Buddha, the religion was divided into these two sects. Mahayana became the liberal group and Hinayana the more traditional one.

Interestingly, in the subsequent period, the site came under the Bhauma-Kara dynasty, which ruled Eastern India between the 8th and 10th centuries. They were great patrons of Vajrayana Buddhism and under them, Odisha and its ‘Diamond Triangle’ became the seat of Tantric Buddhism.

Lotus steps
Lotus steps|Wikimedia Commons

But after prospering for a millennium, Lalitgiri lost its influence with the coming of Bakhtiyar Khilji, a military general of Qutb-al-Din Aibak, who was known for sacking and burning down the Buddhist establishments of Nalanda and Vikramshila, along with other sites in Odisha in the 13th century. Soon the site was abandoned and swallowed by the jungles that surrounded it, until its discovery in the 20th century.

In recent years, the state government has made an effort to conserve and promote the site, but somehow Lalitgiri fails to feature on tourist maps. In 2018, a site museum was opened, displaying sculptures and artefacts unearthed at the site, including the relic casket. In a region that was a cradle of the Buddhist faith, one can only wonder – what other secrets does Lalitgiri hold?

The multiple mini stupas
The multiple mini stupas|Wikimedia Commons

LHI Travel Guide

Biju Patnaik International Airport, which is located at a distance of 87 km, is the nearest airport from Lalitgiri. Whereas, Cuttack Railway Station serves as the closest railhead from the place that is located just at a distance of 58 km. There are regular buses from various cities of Odisha too.

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