Udayagiri – The Sunrise Hill


Udayagiri, with Lalitagiri and Ratnagiri, constitutes the famous Diamond Triangle of the Buddhist Heritage Sites in Odisha. The hill emerging almost from Jajpur has three fallings known as Alti or Nalti, Assia and Mahavinayaka. Udayagiri is located on the easternmost part of the Assia hills and therefore appropriately named Udayagiri, the hills of sunrise. River Bada Genguti flows nearby, later merging into Birupa. Banurji1 mentions that according to a local tradition, at one time, the sea laved the foot of the hill. He further states that the tradition appears very probable as the soil beyond Udayagiri is pure alluvial, hardly a stone between it and the sea.

The first historical reference of Udayagiri appeared in 1870 when Babu Chandrasekhara Banurji1, then the Deputy Magistrate of Jajpur, paid his visit and published his brief in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He mentioned seeing a large image of Buddha at the foot of hills. From there till the well (vapi) above, ruins were all scattered around. He mentions two inscriptions, one at the rock between the lowest step and the well and another on the eastern wall on right side of the steps. Fifty feet above this well is the ruins of another structure where a considerable number of images were strewn around. A group of those were still in worship by the locals, putting vermilion and turmeric over the statues. The chief object of this structure was its gate and a figure of Buddha inside the compound. The image was built of three different stone blocks. Buddha was shown sitting in meditative posture. He mentions that hardly there is an image left undamaged. The tradition regarding mutilation of nose is that it got dropped at the sound of Kalapahar’s kettle-drum. About the main antiquity of the site, Banurji writes, “The chief interest of the place, however, lies in the ruins of a gate and the figure of a Buddha. The place was so enveloped in jungle, and the ruins so buries in earth, that it was difficult for me to form an idea of the edifice which once stood there, but from the gate in front and the rock in the rear to which the figure of Buddha is engaged, I have little doubt that the sanctuary was partly constructed partly excavated.”

After Being inspired by Banurji’s accounts, John Beams2, then the magistrate of Cuttack, paid his visit in 1875 and published his accounts in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He describes Alti is unfortunately very inaccessible due to being surrounded and intersected by rivers and unavailability of boats over those rivers. Beams mentions removal of the famous gateway, after getting permission from Babu Ramgobind Jagdeb, the zamindar of the estate, to Cuttack to be erected at a public garden in the city.

Another early reference of Udayagiri hills comes from a rather unusual source. In a fiction novel Sitaram, written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in 1887, a brief mention of the hill is found. When Sri, the leading female character of this novel, visits these hills with a sanyasin, the writer also expresses the natural beauty of the scene. He tells, a fresh stream of water flows, towards the ocean, between the hills of Udayagiri and Lalitagiri. Udayagiri, also known as Altigiri, was full of trees and vegetation while Lalitagiri, also known as Nalgiri, was devoid of vegetation. The lower levels of these hills were once adorned with the Buddhist stupas and temples. On the banks of river Birupa, in the interiors of Lalitagiri, was a cave known as Hasti-Gupha. Sculptures around that cave were all damaged and it was occupied by a Hindu sadhu, named Gangadhar Swami.

In 1928, H C Chakaldar3, then a professor at the Calcutta University, published his accounts in the Modern Review. He mentions an image of Bodhisattva Padmapani at the foot of the hill, the image having two inscriptions, the Buddhist creed and other a donative inscription stating that it was a gift of Kesava Gupta. He mentions that the area between the Padmapani image and vapi (well), which during the visit of Banurji was strewn with ruins of ancient edifices, then was a very different looking as materials were taken out for building of sanctuaries by the people of the Mahimaniranjani sect. Above the well, he mentions seeing the colossal seated Buddha image where he employed a number of people to dig it out for photographs. The ditch, left after removal of the gateway by Beams, was visible during his visit. Going up little further is found a large Bodhisattva image carrying a fairly long inscription of twenty-five lines at its back. Ruins of four stupas were located not very far from this image. He also mentions group of five rock-cut figures by side of a cave and a votive stupa in front. On the extreme left was a Bodhisattva image carrying inscription that it was a gift of one Simpaka or Simyaka.

In 1930, Ram Prasad Chanda4, then the Superintending Archaeologist of the Indian Museum, published his survey reports after he paid a visit to this site in 1927-28. Chanda visited the site to collect antiquities for the Indian Museum, Calcutta. He was told by the locals that Beams not only removed the gateway but also few other sculptures, four of these were put in a modern temple next to a ground in Cuttack where the doorway was also placed. Two sculptures, a twelve-armed Prajnaparamita and Ganga, along with the gateway, are now in Patna Museum. Two other sculptures, both of Avalokitesvara, found place in Solapuoma Temple in Cuttack. Chanda read few inscriptions, found at the rock-cut well (bapi) that “This well (is dedicated by) Ranaka Vajranaga” in the characters of 10th-11th century CE. An inscription on the Avalokitesvara image at the foot of the hill, “This is the pious gift of the monk Subhagupta”. He mentions an image of Vaisravana, which was dug up from a mound near a modern Mahakali temple, and this image was presented to the museum on behalf of Babu Hariballav Das of Jajpur. He also mentions that Ramgovinda Jagdev, the zamindar of the estate, had removed considerable number of images to his house in Kedrapada.

In 1933, Deva Prasad Ghosh5 discusses the Buddhist sculptures and remains at Udayagiri comparing those with the sculptures at Java and Borobudur. S C Chandra6 discusses the scattered Buddhist remains at Udayagiri in his article, “The Early Medieval Sculptures of Utkala”. In 1957, P Mukherjee7, then the secretary of the Mahabodhi Society, published a guide book on Ratnagiri, Lalitagiri and Udayagiri. This was an exhaustive guide book providing all the past references as well as the antiquity and sculptures removed from the sites. The accompanying plates were comprehensive and supply information on the latest whereabouts of the objects. Mukherjee tells that the four sculptures removed by Beams were of Jatamukha Lokeshvara, Amitabha, Ganga and Prajnaparamita. The first two were placed in a temple near the Ravenshaw College at Cuttack. The latter two were removed to the Patna Museum. In 1958-59, N K Sahu8 visited the site and highlighted the bygone but prosperous past of Udayagiri in his authoritative work, Buddhism in Orissa. He provides ten plates covering sculptures housed in the Patna Museum as well as the rock-cut sculptures on the Solapuama hills. Prabhat Mukherjee9, in 1964, throws lights on Udayagiri and other hills in his survey of the Buddhist remains across Odisha.

Though Buddhist remains of Udayagiri were known since 1870, and taken under the protection of ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) in 1937, however it was only in 1985 that a large-scale excavation was undertaken. Four consecutive excavation seasons were carried out between 1985 and 1989 and their brief reports were published in the ASI journal, Indian Archaeology – A Review, of the specific years.

  • 1985-8610 – Excavation was carried out under the direction of J S Nigam, assisted by A Jha, P Biswas, P N Biswas and M P Singh, in view of exposing a stupa and its adjacent monastery. This excavation was confined to the northern half of the valley, though its southern half also has remains of several stupas and a monastery.
  • 1986-8711 – Excavation of the previous year continued under the guidance of G C Chauley, assisted by A Nath, K M Suresh, P N Biswas, P Biswas, M P Singh and K Srimani. The excavation revealed remains of a huge monastic complex. One of the most important finding was that of a seal with legend, Sri-Madhavapura-mahavihara-arya-bhikshu-sanghasa.
  • 1987-8812 – Excavation continued under the direction of B K Sinha, assisted by K M Suresh, N K Sinha, P N Biswas, P Biswas, M P Singh, R N Sahoo and SK Bhoi. The major aim of this excavation was to find the enclosure of the previously exposed monastery and its gateway, if there was any.
  • 1988-8913 – Previous year’s excavation was carried forward under the direction B K Sinha, assisted by K M Suresh, P N Biswas, P Biswas, M P Singh, B Patnaik, N K Behera, S K Bhoi, and R N Sahoo. The objective was to expose the complete enclosure wall of phase-I and phase-II and expose the partially exposed gateway complex. The excavated structures, stupa and monastery, are date-able to the time span of 8th to 12th century CE.

H C Prusty discusses Udayagiri among other Buddhist sites in Cuttak in his PhD dissertation (unpublished), submitted in 1977 in the Utkal University. He discusses the findings of excavations in detail including the sculptures and images which were displaced from Udayagiri earlier. ASI further conducted three seasons of excavations during 1997-2000 and its report was published in 200714. This exposed a monastery with a central shrine enshrining massive seated Buddha, a shrine complex towards NW of the former monastery and a sprawling reservoir. These remains are also date-able to 8th-12th century CE. Two more excavation seasons were taken up during 2001-03 under the guidance of P K Trivedi and corresponding report was published in 201215. During these seasons, the most important finding was an apsidal chaityagrha, probably the earliest edifice at the site date-able to the beginning of the current era. From this level were also found Puri-Kushana imitation copper coins and a stone relic casket inscribed in the Brahmi characters of 1st century CE bearing the name of the donor.

The last excavation season concluded three phases of constructions. Phase-I is coeval with the apsidal structure assignable to 1st century CE. Phase-II is when a brick-built chaityagrha was raised over this apsidal structure during 6th century CE. A 70 meters long pathway, decorated with flagstones, was connecting this chaityagrha with the other edifices of the hill and leading towards Birupa river. A large stone stupa was also constructed during this phase. Donative inscriptions in the characters of 5th-6th century CE support the dating of this period. Phase-III, attested by many stone inscription, can be dated to 8th-13th century CE. The establishment was soon deserted after the phase-III.

Antiquities unearthed during these excavations suggest a strong Vajrayana influence over the Buddhist establishment at Udayagiri. Findings of the images of various female divinities, such as Tara, Vasudhara, Aparajita, Hariti, Chunda, Prajnaparamita, Kurukulla and Janguli, also point towards Vajrayana practices. All these female divinities represent aspects of Vajrayana Buddhism. Based upon the findings of various mandala sculptures, Donaldson16 writes, “..it is quite apparent that this must have been an important centre for the concept of Yoga-mandala which espouses the total integration of the two mandalas manifesting the nature of the karuna and prajna respectively.”

About the sculptural art at Udayagiri, R D Banerji17 writes, “While the Buddhist centres of Baudh and Udayagiri of the Cuttack district flourished, plastic art was yet in its nascent stage in the great Hindu centre of Bhubaneswar.” Bandyopadhyay18 while tracing the development of its sculptural art writes, “The sculptural art of Udayagiri is remarkable on various grounds. Though, a logical outcome of the trend set at Lalitagiri in its earlier sculptures of c. sixth-seventh century AD wherein influence f the Gupta classical ideal is noticed, the sculptures of Udayagiri of c. eighth to eleventh century are marked by their elegance and visual charm. The sculptors have delineated human form mellowed with delicacy and sensuousness.”

Before the discovery of the Buddhist remains at Langudi hills in Cuttack during 1990s, various scholars19 have suggested identification of Udayagiri and Lalitagiri with the Pu-se-p’o-k’i-li  (Pushpagiri vihara) mentioned by the Chinese traveler Xuanzang. A 3rd century CE Prakrit inscription from Nagarjunakonda20 in Andhra Pradesh mentions fraternity of monks at Tosali, Palur and Pushpagiri. During the excavations at Langudi, seals mentioning Pushpasabhagiri-vihara were found suggesting that the monastery at Langudi was known with that name. Bandyopadhyay21 while agreeing that the monastery at Langudi was known as Pushpasabhagiri-vihara or Pushpagiri-vihara, however the site has not given any impressive vihara (monastery) even after few seasons of excavations, therefore it to be identified with the Pushpagiri of Xuanzang, the site has to undergo a deeper study of remains and antiquities by a competent authority.


Avalokitesvara welcomes you to Udayagiri – This image is setup near the entrance of the present complex. The very same image had greeted all the past explorers setting the context on what lies beyond this point. It was found broken into two pieces, which are joined together now. The image shows two-armed Avalokitsvara standing in tri-bhanga posture. Both his hands are damaged, however from what remains it is distinct that his one hand is in varada-mudra while in another is held stalk of lotus. In his coiffure is shown an effigy of Amitabha, his sire. On the top corners of the panel, are shown two flying figures holding garlands. At bottom, on sinister, is shown four-armed Hayagriva. On dexter are shown four figures, in pair of two, one above the other. In the upper pair, Donaldson22 identifies the kneeling figure as Sudhanakumara.

Maha-stupa or Stupa No 1

Maha-Stupa – This stupa was excavated during the first season of excavations in 1985-86. The brick built stupa was visible from distance however was much dilapidated. As per the locals, the site was a dhana-kandi (granary of paddy) of the legendary king Vasukalpa. Another tradition tells that the spot was cursed and it might be the reason that the stupa escaped its destruction23. The stupa is square on plan, and contains four courses of dressed sandstone and three courses of brick in foundation. It is around 10 meters on each side. In its pristine glory, the stupa would have reached a height of 30 feet. The floor was extended out of the base, providing space for an ambulatory passage around the stupa. The dome of the stupa was damaged and no harmika or chhatravali was found.

Dhyani-Buddha Amitabha

A niche is provided in its four cardinal directions, middle of the side. Each niche has an image of seated Dhyani Buddha. In the east is Akshobhya in bhumi-sparsha-mudra accompanied by Bodhisattva Sarvanivaranaviskambhin and Maitreya. In the south is Ratnasambhava in varada-mudra accompanied by Samantabhadra and Akasagarbha. In the west is Amitabha in dhyana-mudra accompanied by Bodhisattva Lokesvara and Vajrapani . And in the north is Abhisambohi-Vairochana in dhyana-mudra accompanied by Manjusri and Ksitigarbha. All the images carry inscription, reading the Buddhist Creed, in the characters of 8th-10th century CE. It reads, “ye dharma hetu prabhav hetu teshama tathagato hya avadata teshama, c yo nirodho avam vadi-mahashramanah” translating, “Of all objects which proceed from a cause, the Tathagata has explained the cause, and He has explained their cessation also; this is the doctrine of the great Sramana.”

Shrine at the rear-wall

Door-frame of the shrine

Monastery No 1 (Madhavapura-mahavihara) – This monastery was exposed during the excavation in 1986-87. It is built on chatuh-sala pattern, having a central open courtyard surrounded by a veranda connecting with twenty-one cells at the back. Main entrance to the monastery is provided in the east, however the entrance gateway has not survived. The shrine at the rear wall has an exquisitely carved door-frame. Excavation report mentions finding of nine beautiful sculptures of Buddha and Buddhist divinities kept in a row on both sides of the door jamb. These sculptures are no more there at the site. The door-frame has four bands, depicting scrolls, foliage, and human acrobatic figures. At the jambs are dvarpalas with standing naga figures. Buddha is present on lalata-bimba. On either side of him are shown flying vidhyadhara holding swords.

Images inside the shrine
Vairochana-mandala – Vairochana in dharma-chakra-pravartana-mudra

The excavation report mentions finding of eight sculptures of Buddha, Bodhisattva Vasudhara etc. inside the shrine. At present, there are five sculptures inside the shrine, Buddha in bhumi-sparsha-mudra, Jambhala, Vajrasattva, Vairochana-mandala and Vairochana in dharma-chakra-pravartana-mudra. The main image inside the shrine is of seated Buddha, built with three different stone blocks. Buddha is shown seated in bhumi-sparsha-mudra. He is seated on a vajrasana in vajraparyanka posture. On a side wall is an exquisite image of Vairochana-mandala where he is shown in dharma-chakra-pravartana-mudra. Vairochana is shown seated on a vishwa-padma in vajraparyankasanana posture. On the pedestal is shown a chakra (wheel) in the center with a deer on either side, representing the Deer Forest of Sarnath where Buddha demonstrated this specific mudra. Eight bodhisattvas, three on each side and two below the lotus throne, are placed around Vairochana forming a mandala. Below the pedestal is one line of inscription reading the Buddhist Creed in the characters of 7th-8th century CE.


A rare image of Mahavairochana-mandala was originally installed inside a separate shrine adjacent to the central shrine. Now it is housed inside the central shrine. Vairochana is shown seated on a vishwa-padma (double lotus) in vajraparyankasana posture. He wears a conical ratna-mukuta (crown of chignon). His hands are in Bodhyangi mudra, left index finger clasped near his chest and being covered by five fingers of his right hand. Buddhist Creed is inscribed over his halo. He is flanked by female emanations of the paramita of the four Tathagatas of the four cardinal points.


Another rare image is of Vajrasattva, adi-Buddha or the sixth dhyani-Buddha who further created the other five dhyani Buddhas. He is shown, in his right hand, holding a vajra against his chest. His left hand carries a long stem of utpala flower topped by a bell. Over his halo is inscribed the Buddhist Creed. Donaldson24 identifies this image with Vajrapani.


The name of the monastery was Sri Madhavapura-mahavihara as evident from the seals excavated from the site. The excavation report mentions that after the monastic complex was abandoned, it became a target for vandals. The local people removed the bricks and stones as a result of which no uniform level is found anywhere. At places, the entire walls are found missing. Four phases of constructions were identified, each one reusing the northern wall however providing a separate eastern wall. Phase II of the monastery almost doubled the size of the enclosure. A gateway, just before the monastery, was once built however it was totally destroyed by the vandals.

Monastery No 2

Monastery No 2 (Simhaprastha-mahavihara) – This monastery was excavated during the excavation season of 1997-2000. This double-storey monastery was built in chatuh-sala pattern, having a central courtyard surrounded by a pillared veranda connected to cells in the back. Total of thirteen cells were placed around all the four sides, four in the south, three each in the east, the west and the north. Each cell was provided with two niches, one to keep lamp and one to keep a statue of a deity for personal worship. Finding of statues matching the size of niche supports this view. Major construction is done in brick except the flooring, doors and staircase. Its main entrance is from north through a massive doorway which has not survived. Side walls of this entrance was provided with niches enshrining guardian deities. In the eastern niche was installed an image of Hariti which was found in situ. Installation of Hariti as guardian deity in the Buddhist monasteries has been discussed in Ratnagiri.  The western niche was much damaged and devoid of sculpture. Bandyopadhyay25 suggests that the Vaisravana image collected by Chanda for the Indian Museum Calcutta was probably adorning this niche. He also suggests that the identification of the image with Vaisravana is probably incorrect, and it should be identified with Jambhala.

Door-frame in the Patna Museum | Wikipedia

The main shrine is located in the center of the rear-wall in the south. An ambulatory path is provided around this shrine, and it is a unique feature of this monastery, not found at other monasteries across Odisha. The door-frame of the shrine was taken away by Beams and is now installed in the Patna Museum. Inside the shrine is a 2.6 meters high seated statue of Buddha in bhumi-sparsha-mudra. The image is built with multiple stone blocks. On the rear southern wall, behind the central shrine, is another chamber on the upper level. This chamber has a stone pedestal however its enshrined image is missing. The golden period of the monastery was between 8th-10th century CE, mostly during the rule of the Bhauma-karas. Its decadence started after the Bhauma-karas, during the last quarter of the 10th century CE. By the early 12th century CE, the monastery was abandoned. A spacious water reservoir was excavated adjacent to the southern wall of the monastery. Few recovered seals bear legend “Sri Simhaprastha mahaviharaya bhikshu samghasya”, suggesting the name of the monastery was Simhaprastha-mahavihara.

Shrine Complex

Shrine Complex – This shrine complex is located in the north-east of the Monastery No 2 and it was also excavated during the excavation season of 1997-2000. A colossal image of Avalokitesvara, embedded in the earth, dominates the surroundings. This shrine complex has entrance in the east. It has a running veranda on three sides except in the east. Inside the complex are found multiple projecting chambers, evidently to enshrine deities. One chamber each is found in its north and south corners, while two other were located in its northern wall.


The present statue of Avalokitesvara, also identified as Jata-mukuta Lokesvara and Mahakaruna26 has been installed in an inclining position by taking a support in the back. Therefore it may be displaced from its original location. This image might be housed in a chamber on the north-west as the size of the cell fits with that of image. However, moving such massive image from its location would have been quite a task. The four-armed Avalokitesvara stands in tri-bhanga posture holding a rosary, water-pot and stalk of a full-blown lotus. In his coiffure is placed a small figure of Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, his sire. Back slab is carved with mountains and caves with few animals shown playing over. In separate caves, one on either side of Avalokitesvara’s head, are shown Sudhanakumara and Bhrkuti. On the slab top are seven niches housing seven Manushi Buddhas; Vipassi, Sikhi, Vessabhu, Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa and Gautama . On the bottom of the slab, on dexter is a figure of Tara and on sinister is Hayagriva. Back of the image carry an inscription referring to construction of a stupa. After invoking Tara, Padmasambhava and other deities, it states that a Tathagatadhisthitha Dhatugarbha stupa containing a relic, was setup on the spot. This stupa might be the same, excavated on the western side of this complex, supposedly containing relics of Padmasambhava.

Chaityagrha and stupa area

Apsidal Chaityagrha – This edifice was excavated during season 2001-2003. Various stone and brick stupas are found in the vicinity of this chaityagrha. This east facing chaityagrha was built on an earlier stone platform. This stone platform is date-able to 1st century CE attested by an inscribed relic casket. The chaityagrha was built in around 3rd century CE.

Triple Shrine

Triple Shrine – This shrine has three cells enshrining stupas. A damaged status of four-armed Bhrkuti-Tara is placed over the platform of this shrine. Two cells are on right of Tara and one cell is on her left. On the forehead of Tara is a vertical third eye.

Lokesvara with ashta-mahabodhisattvas

There are few sculptures worth mentioning. An image of Lokesvara with ashta-mahabodhisattvas is placed near the guard house. Two-armed Lokesvara is shown seated in lalitasana over a vishwa-padma throne. In his jatamukuta is shown an image of Buddha seated on a lotus. There are total of eight Bodhisattavs placed around the central figure, six Bodhisattvas are shown around Lokesvara, three on each side, and two Bodhisattvas are shown under the vishwa-padma throne. From top, on dexter, are shown Samantabhadra, Maitreya and Avalokitesvara. From top, on sinister, are Vajrapani, Manjusri and Kshitigarbha. Under the throne, on dexter is Akasagarbha and on sinister is Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin.

Buddha with ashta-mahabodhisattvas
Buddha with Indra and Brahma, representing his descent from trayastrimsa heaven

Rock-cut reliefs at Solapuama hill – Near the top of the western spur, overlooking river Birupa, there is a gallery of figures and a cavern. The series of the figures start from the right with an image of Avalokitesvara. The image bears two inscriptions, one Buddhist Creed and another a donative inscription reading “Deva dharma yam Simyakasya or Simpakasya”, donation from Simyaka or Simpaka. Next is a figure of a standing Buddha. Next is a stupa. Next is an interesting image of Kurukulla, inscription below the image reads “om Kurukulle hum hrih swaha”. Next figure is of a Bodhisattva who may be identified with Vajrapani or Manjusri. The last image is of seated Manjusri, and is of special interest. He is shown with two arms. On his either side are shown thirteen figures, five Tathagata Buddhas on top and eight Bodhisattvas arranged in a mandala. This image is worshiped as Solapua-ma, mother of sixteen sons, by the locals.

Rock-cut Well

Rock-cut Well – This well is located not far from the present entrance. A flight of thirty-one steps leads down to the rock-bed. The well has two monolithic pillars at the entrance and a stone terrace around the periphery. There are two inscriptions, on the right wall on the entrance and over an arch on the lowest step. The inscription reads that “this well (is dedicated by ) Ranaka Vajranaga”.

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