Around an hour and a half’s drive away from Bhubaneswar in Odisha is a site that is considered to be the seat of the unique Vajrayana or Tantric form of Buddhism which spread across the sub-continent from here. Followed by 18.2 million people across Tibet, Mongolia and the Himalayan belt, this is the most dominant form of the faith, that we in India come across today. It’s hard to imagine that while we all know of the Dalai Lama – the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists, we know so little of the place from where Vajrayana Buddhism spread to the rest of the Indian sub-continent the sites of Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Udaygiri (referred to as the Diamond Triangle), on the Assai hill range near the Odisha capital!
Over the last 2500 years, Buddhism has seen different waves. For several hundred years after Buddha’s death, his teachings were transmitted orally. This led to different interpretations of his teachings and the establishment of various schools of Buddhism. There were four major Buddhist Councils held to try and codify Buddha’s teaching. However, it was in the fourth Buddhist council, convened by Emperor Kanishka at Kundalvana in Kashmir in the first century CE, that a major split happened between the Buddhist schools. Initially, Theravada school of Buddhism or the ‘Way of the Elders’ dominated the early history of Buddhist thought. However, young monks split from this old school and established their own path of Mahayana or Great Path of Buddhism. They termed Theravada School of Buddhism as Hinayana or the ‘lesser path’. The part of Mahayana school later evolved into Vajrayana Buddhism or Tantric form of Buddhism.
The most comprehensive study of the emergence of Tantric Buddhism has been done by Ronald M. Davidson, Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, in his book Indian Esoteric Buddhism. He looks at how Buddhism incorporated local and tribal practices and evolved into its Tantric form, far removed from the original teachings of Buddha. Diamond Triangle in Odisha, was where it all began. Vajrayana flourished in India alongside Mahayana Buddhism from the 8th century CE to around 11th century CE. Today it is the dominant form of Buddhism across the Himalayan region.
The Ratnagiri hills site has been mentioned in Tibetan Buddhist texts as the centre from where Vajrayana Buddhism spread out. Taranatha, the lama of Tibet, writes in his book History of Buddhism in India (1608 CE) that a vihara, called Ratnagiri, was built on the crest of a mountain in the kingdom of Odivisa (Orissa). He also says that there were 500 monks residing at Ratnagiri and they followed Tantric Buddhism. However, Pag Sam Jon Zang, a Tibetan book written in 1747 CE adds that Ratnagiri was an important centre in India from where Kalachakra tantra spread in the world. This is popular across Tibetan Monasteries in India today.
The site of Ratnagiri was built in the first half of 6th century CE during the reign of Gupta Emperor Narasinghagupta Baladitya. This site was first excavated by Debala Mitra, between 1958 and 1961. She would go on to be the first female director-general of ASI between 1981-1983.
The excavations unearthed a big complex containing two monasteries, a large stupa, numerous smaller structures, a temple and numerous votive stupas (small stupas which hold relics)- about 700 in number, made of brick or stone in different sizes.
The two monasteries lay side by side with a narrow passage in between facing the huge stupa. The huge monastery referred to as Monastery 1 has a beautifully carved chlorite stone doorway, specious opened courtyard, 24 cells and verandas facing the courtyard. It had an upper storey and indicates two phases of repair and construction. The second monastery is much smaller in size not as beautiful as the larger monastery.
Along with a large number of sculptures, important finds at the site included a metal sealing with the inscription ‘Sri-Ratnagiri-mahavihariyarya-bhiksu-sanghasya.’ It was on the basis of this that the site was identified as Ratnagiri.
The exquisitely carved walls of the monasteries with rich antiquities including stone and bronze sculptures of Buddha and Buddhist deities (boddhisattvas) like Tara, Vajrapani, Padmapani shows highly skilled workmanship. There are also two dozens colossal sculptures of the heads of Buddha of various sizes excavated at Ratnagiri like the ones found at Borobudur in Java and Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. This indicated international connections.
The site of Ratnagiri was an important centre of Buddhism on the east coast and played a key role until the 12th century CE as an important the centre of Tantric Buddhism. The complex fell out of use from the 12th century CE onward when Buddhism in India saw a decline under the twin pressures of Turkic invasion in eastern India by Bhaktiyar Khilji; military general of Qutb al-Din Aibak and the Hindu renaissance, which led to the construction of elaborate temples and a shift in royal patronage. This can be seen in the famous temples of Bhubaneswar like Mukteswar (10th century) and Konark (13th century), which were built during this period.
Despite the loss of patronage, Buddhist monks continued to live at Ratnagiri a little after the 12th century. The site was eventually abandoned and it lay in ruins until it was rediscovered and excavated in 1958.
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