Lalitagiri – The Fountainhead of Buddhism in Odisha

Lalitagiri hills, also known as Naltigiri, is located in the Cuttack district of Odisha. Lalitagiri, with Udayagiri and Ratnagiri, constitutes the famous Diamond Triangle of Buddhist heritage of Odisha. Among these three major Buddhist sites, Lalitagiri is the earliest, tracing its history back to the Mauryan period, second-first century BCE1. Lalitagiri is composed of three separate peaks, the Parabhadi in the north-east, the Landa or Nanda Pahar in the south-west, and the Olasuni in the east.

Olasuni is of little interest as it is devoid of antiquarian remains. However, the hill is famous for a natural cavern, known as Olasuni Gumpha, now a famous pilgrimage spot marking the seat of Sant Araksita Das who resided there during the second-half of the 18th century CE. Inside this cavern is worshiped an image of four-armed Prajnaparamita as Olasuni Thakurani. Her lower two hands are in the dharma-chakra-pravartana-mudra while in her upper two hands she holds a sword and books.

Parabhadi hill has remains of few sculptures placed in a rock-cut gallery, known as Hathi-khal (elephant pit). These remains were in good condition when visited by Chanda in 1928. He mentions six images facing north and fragments of two lying nearby. By the time of the visit of Mukherjee in 1957, only three images were left in situ. These three images are now shifted to the site museum on the Landa hill, and the rest of the place is just a heap of ruins. The three images shifted to the site museum are, a headless statue of Maitreya, a head-less statue of Akasagarbha and only the lower portion of Lokesvara. At the top of this hill is a circular stone platform, which locals refer as the court of the legendary king Vasukalpa-Kesari. Excavation taken up by K S Behera in 1977 has revealed that the platform is the part of a stupa.

Landa hill is the main site where large scale excavations have revealed various Buddhist monuments, including a stupa, an apsidal shrine and four monasteries. Numerous sculptures, votive stupas, seals, and pot-shreds have been unearthed helping us to determine cultural occupation at the site. Many of these excavated remains and treasures are put on display in a recently built museum at the site.

The earliest reference of Lalitagiri is found in 1870 in the memoirs of Babu Chandrasekhara Banurji2, then the Deputy Magistrate of Jajpur. He mentions that the name Nalti is merely a corruption of the Arabic word la’nat or curse given to it by the Prophet. Banurji narrates a tradition, “Once upon a time the Prophet Muhammad was winging his way in mid-air on his celestial throne, with a large retinue. When the hour for prayer arrived, he alighted on Nalti-giri. The throne was too heavy for the hill, and hill too small for the retinue. Hence the hill commenced to shake and sink. The Prophet got annoyed, pronounced a la’nat, or curse on it, and repaired to the more elevated and spacious mount of Char-pitha, on a precipitous rock, where the mosque now stands. There he addressed his prayer, and the print of his knees and fingers are pointed out on a stone which is preserved in the shrine. His followers rested on the four peaks. No water being accessible on the hill, Muhammad struck the rock with his wand, and a bubbling spring of pure water at once rose up; traces of which are still shown to pilgrims (sic).” To commemorate this event and the spot, a mosque was by built Shuja-ud-Din when he was on his way back to Bengal after his conquest of Cuttack. The mosque bears the foundation inscription. Banurji also tells that on the hills were few sandal trees, the only place in Orissa where these trees were found. On the lower peak, he mentions finding of two very ancient structures, which were raised on substantial foundations that some other force than the wasting influence of time only, has been at work to pull it down. He suggests that this was probably done during the Muslim invasion, and witness of the same stood as a mosque probably built utilizing materials from these two structures. Another structure, built on the same plan as of former two, was situated at the pass between two peaks. It was told to be in better preservation. Inside it was a figure of Buddha, referred as Ananta-Purushottama by the locals. This 5 feet high statue had an inscription on the stone behind shoulders and another near its feet. On the highest peak was found ruins of a round building. On the western slope of the hill was a place called Hathi-khal or elephant hole or cave. He saw here six figures of Buddha of the same size and height, standing in a line. One of the image carried an inscription, reading Buddhist creed. A few yards from this was found a pedestal over which an image of goddess was placed. Locals told Banurji that the images and temples on the Nalti hill had been constructed by Raja Bashokalpa.

Inspired by the accounts of Banurji, John Beams3, then the Magistrate of Cuttack, visited these hills in 1875. He mentions that Alti is unfortunately very inaccessible, it being surrounded and intersected by rivers and unavailability of boats over those rivers. He rectifies the Muslim legend narrated by Banurji as it appears inaccurate. The legend might be about the king Solomon instead of the Prophet as the former had the capabilities of flying by air. Also, the mosque is called Takht-i-Sulaiman, suggesting its link with king Solomon or Sulayman. The temple where five Buddha statues were found, was known as the temple of Basuli Thakurani.

In 1887, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee describes the hills of Lalitagiri and Udayagiri and its environs in his novel Sitaram. He told that Lalitgiri was also known as Nalgiri while Udayagiri as Altigiri. He tells that Lalitagiri was devoid of vegetation and once was adorned with Buddhist structures and sculptures. In the interiors of Lalitagiri, a cave was taken up by a Hindu sadhu named Gangadhar Swami. By this cave, Chatterjee might be referring to the cavern, seen by Beams and Banurji, which had six Buddhist sculptures.

Next reference of the site came after 40 years, in 1928, when H C Chakaldar4, then a professor at the Calcutta University, published his accounts in the Modern Review. Chakaldar tells that the most commanding figure is the magnificent colossal image of seated Buddha in bhumisparsha-mudra. The Bodhisattva images at Lalitagiri have a soft beauty distinguishing these from Udayagiri where all images are characterized by an austere grandeur and sublimity as compared to with the former. Several images were reported scattered around the temple dedicated to goddess Basuli. One noticeable feature about Lalitagiri is that the images appear to have been mostly carved out of the local stone, the Atgarh sandstone as it is called by the Indian geologists, and there are quarries on the hill worked even during his visit. Chakaldar mentions that many images from the site have been taken away. He mentions one incident, “Only a year ago the magnificent Buddha status on Lalitagiri, worth many times its weight in gold, was sold by the local zamindar for a paltry sum of one hundred rupees; but fortunately the purchaser found it beyond his means to carry the colossal figure away and he thanked his stars when with great difficulty he succeeded in getting back the purchase money from the reluctant owner of the hill (sic).” 

In 1927-28, Ram Prasad Chanda5 visited these hills to collect some antiquities for the Indian Museum, Calcutta. He tells that these are three hills, Alashuni, Londa or Nanda Pahar and Parahari or Parabhari, which are collectively known as Nalatigiri. Among these Alashuni has no antiquities, but other two have. He mentions that Ramgovinda Jagdev, the zamindar of the estate, removed four images from here to his house in Kedrapada. Later on, two more images were also removed to Padmadaspur by some another zamindar. Chanda also reports the six Buddha images near Hatikhal, as reported by Banurji in 1870.

In 1933, Deva Prasad Ghosh6 discusses the Buddhist sculptures and remains at Lalitagirii comparing those with the Buddhist sculptures at Java and Borobudur. He writes, “Bodhisattva figures are undoubtedly the most remarkable. The Orissan artist created a Buddha image of peculiar interest and the characteristic local type. The earliest specimens perhaps belonging to Naltigiri group of Bodhisattvas, are marked by great simplicity, slimness, and inner absorption. Their regular and well defined features greatly add to the impression of dignity and transcendental vision (sic).” 

S C Chandra7 discusses the scattered Buddhist remains at Lalitagiri in his article, “The Early Medieval Sculptures of Utkala”. Chandra compares the art of Lalitagiri with that of the South-East Asian prototypes in the Javanese Buddhas and Borobudur Bodhisattvas. He tells that there are striking similarities such as the typical curls of hair and divine sublimity combined with the feeling of latent energy. He tells that the known maritime activities between these two regions would have resulted in the strong affinities between the art of the Sailendras of Java with the early medieval art of Orissa.

In 1957, P Mukherjee8, then the secretary of the Mahabodhi Society, published a guide book on Ratnagiri, Lalitagiri and Udayagiri. This was an exhaustive work providing all the past references as well as the antiquity and sculptures removed from the sites.In 1958, N K Sahu9 visits the site and highlights the bygone but prosperous past of Lalitagiri in his authoritative work, Buddhism in Orissa. The plates accompanying this work illustrated the carved door-frame, tri-bhanga Maitreya, two-armed Aparajita, a colossal two-armed Manjusri, sculptures from Hathikhal area and a two-armed standing Tara. All these sculptures have now been removed to the museum at the site.

Though known since 1870, the systematic study and excavation of the site only started in 1977. A small scale excavation was taken by Dr. K S Behera of the Utkal University in 197710. Behera explains that the Lalitagiri sculptures with their lingering influence of the Gupta art tradition provide the missing link in the long evolution of Odishan sculpture. Behera suggests that the topographical setting of Lalitagiri is in many ways akin to that of Pushpagiri as described by Xuanzang. A noteworthy finding of this small excavation was an Archer type gold coin of the Gupta king Chandragupta II.

A large scale excavation was taken up by ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) in 1985 and it continued for six consecutive seasons, between 1985-1992. The excavation revealed four monasteries, an apsidal shrine, two stupas, various sculptures and numerous votive stupas.

  1. 1985-8611 – Excavation was carried under the guidance of G C Chauley, assisted by B V Rao, K V Rao, A Palanival, K Srimani and S K Ganguly. The team selected the area of a hemispherical mound which appeared like remains of a stupa for excavation. The most important finding of the season was a set of relic caskets, found from the core of the stupa. This was the first such finding in Odisha as relic caskets were not reported from any other site in Odisha.
  2. 1986-8712 – Excavations were continued by G C Chauley, assisted by B V Rao and G N Srivastava. The excavations were centered around the Banyan tree known as “Stupa area”. Remains of various stupas of different dimensions and forms, sculptures, terracotta plaques and remains of an apsidal brick structure were few of the notable findings of the excavations.
  3. 1987-8813 – G C Chauley, assisted by B V Rao, G N Srivastava, J K Patnaik, K Srimani, S Dey and S B Ganguly, continued the excavation from the previous year. Remains of a huge brick built apsidal chaitya with projected entrance gate and stone pradakshinapath was exposed.
  4. 1988-8914 – G C Chauley, assisted by G N Srivastava, K Srimani, S K Dey, S K Ganguly and R P Mahapatra, continued the excavation of the previous year. The aim for this season was to expose the pathway leading to earlier stupa underlying the apsidal chaityagrha. The excavation revealed a monastery with seventeen cells.
  5. 1989-9015 – G C Chauley, assisted by G N Srivastava, S K Dey, D K Lokhande and Amal Roy, continued the excavation of the previous year. Work on the monastery excavated in the previous season was continued in this season. Among various sculptures are found two Hindu deity images, one four-armed Vishnu and another of Mahishasura-mardini.
  6. 1990-9116 – G C Chauley, assisted by J K Patnaik, S K Ganguly, D K Lokhande and S K Dey, continued excavations of the previous year. The area selected was the slope of the Landa Pahar. This revealed of a brick monastery no 3 and another monastery west of the former.
  7. 1991-9217 – G C Chauley, assisted by J K Patnaik, S K Chatterjee and S K Dey, continued excavations of the previous year. The main finding in this season was a structure belonging to the Kushanas or even earlier phase exposed near the Banyan tree area. Monastery No 4 was also partially exposed during this season.

Based upon the above excavations, antiquities and remains at Lalitagiri are categorized into five different periods. These categories are defined as below:

  1. Period I – 3rd BCE-1st BCE, Maurya and post-Maurya period
  2. Period II – 1st BCE-3rd CE, Kushan and post-Kushan period
  3. Period III – 4th CE – 6th CE, Gupta period
  4. Period IV – 7th CE – 9th CE, post-Gupta & Bhaumakara period
  5. Period V – 10th CE onward, Somavamshi & medieval period

Harish Chandra Prusty submitted his PhD dissertation (unpublished), titled “The Buddhist Remains in Cuttack District, Orissa”, in Utkal University in 1997. One chapter in his work was dedicated to Lalitagiri.  Suggesting that Lalitagiri could be the Pushpagiri-vihara of Xuanzang, Prusty writes, “Broadly speaking, these two grand and sky kissing stone (rubble) stupas of Landa and Parabhadi hills, located in the South West and North East frontier of present Orissa, tentatively correspond with the two gigantic and miraculous Hinayanic Saririka stone topes of famous pu-sie-Po-ki-li (Pushpagiri) hill monastery (sanghrama) among ten monumental Hinayanic corporeal (saririka) stupas of the then Odradesa (Orissa) ever built by the Maurya emperor Asoka in his newly conquered Kalinga as described by Hiuen-Tsang (circa 7th centuryA AD) and the same “Nakha stupa” and “Kesa Stupa” at Kesasthali of Asitajan (i.e. present Assiah, a corruption of Asitanjan or Asitanjah) in the ambit of Okkala or Ukkala or Utkala earlier built by Tappashu and Bhalika, the two merchant brothers turned foremost lay Buddhists of Utkala during the life time of Buddha (6th century BC) (sic).”18

Another comprehensive study of Lalitagiri was done by Milan Kumar Chauley. He submitted his PhD dissertation (unpublished), titled “Buddhist Establishments in Orissa: A Case Study of the Excavated Remains at Lalitagiri” in 2004 in the Utkal University. His case study included detailed description of most of the excavated remains, sculptures, pottery, seals and inscriptions.

Though the excavations at Langudi have revealed inscriptions reading Pushpa-sambhara-giriya i.e.  “hill laden with flowers”, suggesting that the hill was once known with that name, however the site has not revealed significant remains to be compared with the Pushpagiri monastery of Xuanzang. Among all the Buddhist establishment of Odisha, Lalitagiri appears to be the strongest contender for the Pushpagiri-vihara of Xuanzang. The material remains at Lalitagiri, its maha-stupa, dating from the Maurya period, consisting of probable Buddha remains, an apsidal shrine belonging to the Kushan period and four majestic monasteries with construction activities since the Gupta and later period, suggests that it would have been one of the most famous Buddhist establishment in its heydays. An excavated lone seal from Lalitagiri suggests that one of its monastery was named as Chandraditya-vihara. This seal presents a big barrier to identify Lalitagiri as Pushpagiri. However, based upon the singular character of the seal while referring to the establishment, it is suggested that the seal probably represents only a part of the establishment or monastery at Lalitagiri. The mystery of Pushpagiri still lingers on, hoping for some concluding evidences expected from future excavations and discoveries.

Maha-stupa

Maha-stupa – This circular stupa is located on the top of the Landa (or Nanda pahar) hill. The area was taken under excavation in 1985-86 revealing this majestic stupa. The excavations revealed an earlier rubble built stupa devoid of an elaborate foundation and ground-plan. It was veneered with dressed stones. It was topped with a harmika and chattra (umbrella), remains of the former were found during the excavation. The antiquity of the stupa has been taken back to the Maurya period based upon the finding of the remains of Buddha in one of the casket and few inscriptions in Ashokan Brahmi script.

Relic caskets found in Lalitagiri Stupa | www.ratnagirimuseum.com

Three relic caskets were unearthed during the excavations. This discovery is very important as relic caskets are not reported from any other site in Odisha till date. These caskets were placed at the three cardinal directions, south, east and north, inside the core of the Maha-stupa. All these caskets are designed in same manner, set of four containers placed one inside the other. The outermost container is made of Kondalite stone and is in form of a votive stupa. It is not monolithic but made of two hemispherical parts. A socket is provided in its base. In this socket is placed a soapstone container. In one of the casket, inside the soapstone container is placed the third container, made of silver. The silver container contains a small gold container. Within this gold container were placed remains of a bone foiled inside a golden leaf. Covering the relics inside a gold foil and within a gold container suggests that the relics were of most importance, and probably it belongs to Buddha himself20. The second set contains a relic without a gold foil. This relic may belong to Sariputra or Maudgalyayana, the two main disciples of Buddha. Inner containers of the third set are missing. Set of three relic caskets were also reported from Sanchi, and based upon the inscriptions those are identified with that of Buddha, and his two disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana. Finding of the same number of relic caskets at Lalitagiri suggests that here also were enshrined remains of Buddha and his two disciples. These caskets are now at  display, inside a bullet proof vault, in the recently built Lalitagiri Museum21.

Apsidal Shrine

Apsidal Shrine – This chaitya-grha was exposed during the excavation season of 1986-87 & 1987-88. The structure is built of brick and faces east. It has a projected entrance gate and stone pradakshinapath. In its apse was found a circular stupa built in stone. It was encircled by pillars as evident from the remains of sockets and fallen monolithic carved pillars. This brick structure was built on an earlier brick structure.

Remains of around twenty-five Buddha sculptures and as many number of votive stupas, suggests that these were placed over the periphery of the chaitya-grha in alternating manner. A head of Buddha carved in khondalite was found lying near the center of this stupa. This structure might be the earliest structure at the site as evident from as inscription found engraved on a stone pedestal near the southern end. An inscription on this pedestal has an inscription in Brahmi script of 2nd-3rd century CE. The inscription records the completion of the seat (asana) of Adatadamana by Vinaya, a resident of Vadhamana and his disciple Budhintini, a resident of Aggotisila22.

Monastery No 1

Monastery No 1 – This double-storey monastery is located not very far from the Mahastupa and modern Basuli Thakurani temple. It is built in chatush-sala pattern over a square plan and faces east. It has a central courtyard surrounded by a pillared veranda connected to cells in the rear. Total of eighteen cells are spread across four sides, and a shrine chamber is provided in the rear wall. An additional entrance is provided in its southern end and a water-reservoir on the back. It is built in brick except for its entrance doorway, pillars, steps and drain. There was a colossal Buddha image in bhumi-sparsha-mudra inside the shrine, the image is now shifted to the site museum.

Monastery No 2

Monastery No 2 – This is the smallest monastery at the site. It faces east and has five cells. A shrine is placed in the rear. The excavation report mentions that the entire establishment has been badly robbed and some of the walls are even reduced to foundation courses. Only its northern and western walls were found in the excavation. At some later point in time, the monastery was converted into a Hindu temple.

Monastery No 3

Monastery No 3 – This monastery is built on a rectangular plan with its entrance in the south. Like other monasteries at the site, this also has a central courtyard surrounded by a pillared veranda with cells in the rear. A shrine is provided in the rear wall. In a niche, in the south wall of the shrine, was found an inscribed image of Buddha in bhumi-sparsha-mudra. Total of fifteen cells are placed across the four sides of the monastery. Based upon the findings from this monastery, this appears to be the earliest monastery at the site, datable to 5th-6th century CE.

Monastery No 4

Monastery No 4 – This west facing monastery is located opposite to Monastery No 1. It is built in chatuh-sala pattern consisting of ten cells, placed in the northern and southern side, and a shrine chamber in the rear. Inside the shrine is placed a colossal image of Buddha in bhumi-sparsha-mudra. A chamber each, on either side, is present with the shrine in the east and with the entrance in the west. From this monastery is found the seal bearing legend reading “Sri Chandraditya vihara samagra arya bhikshu sangha”, telling that the monastery was known as Chadraditya-vihara. Chandraditya is the biruda of the Gupta king Vishnugupta (540-550 CE), the last known Gupta ruler. It may be possible that Vishnugupta caused this monastery to be constructed for the Buddhist monks.

Mishra23 mentions that Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha and Mahavairochanasutra formed the ideological basis of mandala stupa in Odisha and Borobudur. These twin texts shaped the architecture and sculpture in the Buddhist sites of Odisha. The earliest epigraphic reference of the Maha-vairochana-sutra is found at Lalitagiri. It appears on the back slab of a statue representing abhisambodhi Vairochana. The inscription reads, “namah samantabuddham a vira hum kham”, the same mantra appears in the chapter six of the Vairochanabhisambodhi, an important text in Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Javanese buddhism24. The inscription is paleographically dated to 7th century CE.

Donaldson25 mentions that there were two major phases of artistic activities at Lalitagiri. Phase one was characterized by the late Gupta features and the imagery was restricted to Buddha himself. Phase two was dominated by large images of standing Bodhisattva originally aligned in sets of forming mandalas. Three such Bodhisattva mandalas are identified by Donaldson at Lalitagiri. Based upon the conservative approach towards the Buddhist images, such as of Aparajita, Marichi, Tara etc., Donaldson is of opinion that there is very little or no evidence of esoteric of Vajrayana Buddhism at Lalitagiri. However, there are other scholars, i.e. Prusty, M K Chauley; who are of the opinion that vajrayana was practiced at Lalitagiri and the establishment had a big role in development of vajrayana Buddhism. Discovery of images of various female deities, belonging to vajrayana pantheon, at Lalitagiri supports the view that the site was instrumental in the development of the sect.

Lalitagiri can be attributed as the fountainhead of Buddhism in Odisha in true sense. The establishment traces its antiquity back to the Mauryan period, probably the earliest Buddhist establishment in Odisha. The place was of great importance and therefore was chosen to enshrine the remains of Buddha, probably his tooth-relic, along with the remains of his most loved disciples. The site received continued patronage throughout its lifetime until it was left abandoned sometime around the fourteenth century CE. Being an establishment of prime importance, Lalitagiri finds no mention in Taranath’s History of Buddhism in India, complied in 1608, suggesting that the site had gone into oblivion by that time.


References:
1 Himanshu Prabha Ray (2008). Providing for the Buddha: Monastic Centres in Eastern India published in Arts Asiatiques Vol. 63. pp. 119-138
2 Banurji, Babu Chandrasekhara (1870). Notes on Antiquities of the Nalti, the Assia, and the Mahabinayaka Hills of Cuttack published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol XXXIX, part I. pp 158-171
3 Beams, John (1875). The Alti Hills in Cuttack published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol XLIV, part I. pp 19-23
4 Chakladar, H C (1928). A Great Site of Mahayana Buddhism in Orissa published in The Modern Review, August 1928, vol XLIV no 2. The Modern Review Office. Kolkata. pp 217-223
5 Chanda, R P (1930). Explorations in Orissa. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. pp 8-9
6 Ghosh, Devaprasad (1933). Relation between the Buddha images or Orissa and Java published in The Modern Review, November 1933, vol LIV no 5. The Modern Review Office. Kolkata.
7 Chandra, S C (1954). The Early Medieval Sculptures of Utkala published in the Orissa Historical Research Journal vol III no 2. pp 77-79
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23 Mishra, Umakant (2015). Abhayagiri in Anuradhapura, Buddhist Diamond Triangle of Odisha and Java: Art and Epigraphic Evidence of Triadic Linkage of Esoteric Buddhism in Maritime Asia published in the Proceedings of the Indian History Congress vol. 76. pp 741-747
24 Wayman & Tajima (1992). The Enlightenment of Vairochana. Motilal Banarasidass. New Delhi. ISBN 8120806409. p 13
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