On the Trail of the Buddha

Journeys into Forgotten Buddhist Lands


Orissa: The Forgotten Land of Buddhism

The Mountain Sanctuaries of Dhauligiri, Lalitgiri, Udayagiri, and Ratnagiri

Amitav Acharya

For those looking for something different in the Asian cultural landscape, Orissa offers an enthralling introduction to a Buddhist civilization that had flourished 2000 years ago, especially between 3rd Century BC and 13th Century AD.

Here, you can scan the horizon atop the very hill from which the great Indian Emperor, Ashoka, witnessed the wanton destruction of the rival Kalinga soldiers and people in the hands of his own invading army. Overcame with remorse, he converted to Buddhism and dispatched missionaries to spread the doctrine of peace and compassion to Southeast Asia and China. In Orissa too, you can visit the ruins of the ancient Buddhist monasteries which the famous Chinese Pilgrim, Xuan Zang, described following his sojourn through eastern India in the 7th century.

Orissa, whose ancient name is Kalinga, is located between the Indian states of West Bengal to the north and Andhra Pradesh to the south. Visitors from Southeast Asia would be interested to know that Kalinga is the original home of the “Kling”, the ubiquitous migrant community known for their role in commerce and court politics of precolonial Southeast Asia.

Although predominantly Hindu like the rest of India today, Orissa was once a vibrant centre for Buddhist culture and learning, especially during the first 700 years of the 1st Millennium A.D. Many ruins and monuments stand in silent witness to the glorious bygone era of Buddhism.

Foremost among them is the Dhauligiri (“giri” meaning hill or mountain), located on the banks of the river Daya, about 7 kilometers from the Orissan capital city of Bhubaneswar. In 261 BC, Ashoka, the ruthless young emperor of the neighboring Magadha state (contemporary Bihar), invaded the Kalinga, a powerful and prosperous neighbour whose immense wealth (derived in part from extensive commerce with China and Southeast Asia) could not be resisted. Over 100,000 people of Kalinga perished in the ensuing battle, with another 150,000 taken away as prisoners. A rock edict which erected by Ashoka after the war offers testimony to the momentous transformation of the greatest of Indian monarchs. On the top of the rock edict stands the elegant half body of an elephant, emerging from the rock from which it is carved. Legend has it that the elephant represents Buddha himself emerging from his mother’s womb.

It did not take long for Kalinga to regain its independence, but Buddhism continued to flourish, receiving patronage even from various Hindu dynasties that ruled the area. In A.D. 795, according to Chinese records, one such ruler, belonging to the Bhauma-Kara dynasty, sent an autographed Buddhist manuscript to the Chinese emperor Te-Tsong for translation.

On the top of the Dhauli hill itself stands a massive peace pagoda (Santi Stupa), built by the Nichiren Buddhist Foundation from Japan with a land grant from the state government. On the foot hills of the pagoda is a Japanese Buddhist temple, where the resident monk (from Japan) performs prayers every day at dusk. A visit to the temple at prayer time offers unbelievable peace and solitude.
The impact of Buddhism on Orissa has been described by Xuan Zang, the famous Chinese pilgrim who visited India in 639 AD. He counted more than 100 Buddhist monasteries in the area then known as Udra (U`cha in Chinese). One of the most important among them was Pu-sie-p’o-k’i-li (Pushagiri), whose stone top “exhibited supernatural lights and other miracles”. The mountain-top monastery is believed to be the site of one of the more famous Buddhist universities of ancient India. The ruins of some of these ancient monasteries are now under excavation by the Archeological Survey of India. These include three contiguous hill-top sites: Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. The excavated monasteries, with Buddhsist images scattered all around, and the site museum at Ratnagiri, evoke vivid memories of a bygone era and should be of great interest to anyone interested in Buddhist art and religion.


The oldest and largest among these three sites is Lalitgiri. Set in the valley of two rivers, Birupa and Chitrotpala, the monastery was “discovered” by a local British official in 1905. A seven year excavation of the site by the Archeological Survey of India beginning in 1985 yielded number is stone inscriptions, seals, sealings, and potshreds, which established the site as having flourished between 2nd-3rd to 14-15th century AD. Lalitgiri is especially interesting because here, one could observe the evolution of Buddhism from the Theravada sect with its austere and plain worship of a stupa to the growth of Mahayana and Vajrayana (tantric) sects with their elaborate pantheon of Boddhisattyas and other deities. Many fine examples of these deities can be found in a small sculpture shed built near the main stupa at Lalitgiri. These include images of Tara, Aparajita, Prajnaparamita, and Maitreya, as well as are images of Buddha Muchalinda, Buddha in Bhumisparsa (touching the earth) and Dhyani (meditation) poses, and a bas relief depicting Buddha’s descent from heaven. Scattered near the ruins of the monastery are several stray images, including a magnificent reclining Buddha in his final resting place lying underneath a huge Banyan tree. The main stupa at Lalitgiri is 15 meter in diameter, and is constructed in Sanchi style. It is visible from afar. The ruins of four monasteries have been discovered in the nearby area.


If Lalitgiri is the oldest Buddhist site in the area, Udayagiri is the most picturesque. Located at the base of verdant rolling hills forming a semi circle, this site exemplifies the blissful and tranquil natural surroundings selected for the construction of Buddhist monasteries in ancient India. An excavation of this site was in progress when I visited it in 2004, giving me a rare opportunity to observe the delicate and painstaking art of archeological digging. I saw a huge opening on the ground offering a glimpse of the corner portion of the intricately carved wall of a monastery. The main stupa at Udayagiri, excavated in 1985, is five meters in height. Its four walls house four images of Dhyani Buddhas: Amoghasidhi, Amitabha, Ratnasambhaba, and Akshobhya. This site, a Mahayana-Vajrayana site whose name has been ascertained from terracotta sealings as Madhavapur Mahavihar Arya Viksu Snagha, was a vibrant center of Buddhist learning and worship between 8th to 13th centuries AD.

At the monastery excavated adjacent to the main stupa, one can see many virtually intact meditation cells linked by secrete passages. The inner sanctum of the monastery houses a Buddha image in Bhumisparsa pose. The site is believed to contain another 3 or 4 monasteries yet to be excavated. A massive rock-cut well adjacent to the monastery served as a source of water for the monasteries.

Ratnagiri (Jewel Mountain) is an excavated area comprising two quadrangular monasteries, along with the remains of eight temples and about 300 minor stupas. The development of Buddhist art and architecture at Ratnagiri, whose ancient name was Ratnagiri Mahaviharaya Arya Viksu Sangha, took place between 5th century AD and 13th century AD.

Images of Buddhist deities found here show the gradual transformation of the site from the Mahayana to the Vajrayan sect, especially the Kalachakra tantra variety. Numerous references to the site in Tibetan literature suggest that Ratnagiri was once a major center for Buddhist studies in the ancient India, comparable to the universities at Vikramasila and Nalanda. From Taranatha’s History of Buddhism, we learn than Ratnagiri housed 3 copies each of the scriptural work of Mahayana and Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism. Five hundred monks were resident here. Teachers and scholars from all over India and many foreign scholars came here to study Buddhist philosophy and religion. Later, as Buddhism declined in other parts of India, Ratnagiri became one of the last shelters of Buddhism in the country.

The finest relic of Buddhist art at Ratnagiri is a magnificent doorjamb adorning Monastery 1, one of the two monasteries here. It is richly decorated and intricately carved. Lining the inside walls of monastery are dozens of Buddhist images excavated from the site. To the west is a second monastery, a single storied structure lying adjacent to the main stupa at Ratnagiri. Hundreds of minor and votive stupas lie scattered around the to hilltop monasteries. Those interested Buddhist sculpture found at the sight could visit a small but elegant site museum (closed on Fridays) containing a treasure trove of Buddhist images, including two large Buddha heads and image of a Dhyani Buddha.

Langudi Hill

Another nearby site which holds huge potential is Langudi Hill, which I visited on 20 July 2007. Treeless but green in the rainy season, the hill is surrounded by mountains and the river Brahmani and its tributary Sapua. You could imagine the time when this was part of an enormous Buddhist complex, alongside Ratnagiri, Udaygiri and Lalitgiri, which are visible in the horizon.

I strolled around a few sites on the hill where preliminary excavation by the Orissa Culture Department has yielded Buddha images. The outer wall of a monastery comprising dozens of votive stupas and Buddha images carved onto the rocks offers a fascinating glimpse of the treasures that undoubtedly lay beneath.
The entire site is littered with red bricks and pottery fragments that belonged to the monastery. You could clearly see the outline of the boundary of the main stupa, and ascend to the highest point of the hill where the stupa peaked. What an imposing site it must have been when it was a functioning monastery.

The excavation team from the state Culture Department has unearthed two images of King Ashoka and his queen.
It is also claimed that Langudi was site of the legendary Pushpagiri sanctuary that Xuan Zang wrote about. If these claims are finally established, it will be one of the most remarkable findings of a Buddhist culture. The Archeological Survey of India, an agency of the central government, with far superior expertise and resources, has announced that they will take over the excavation.

Other Historic Sites of Orissa
Another Buddhist site of ancient Orissa described by Xuan Zang was Che-li-ta-lo, which had at least five monasteries “of lofty structure and very artistic images”. Some historians claim this site to be the modern seaside town of Puri (although there is no definitive proof). Nonetheless, Puri is worth a visit as one of the most sacred places of Hinduism in India, as the temple of Lord Jaganath, whose annual Festival of Chariots attracts millions of tourists every July, is located here. While no Buddhist relics can be found here today, Puri has some of the finest sandy beaches in India, and is equally popular with Hindu pilgrims as well as tourists seeking sun and fun.

The Sun Temple of Konark

For those interested in more than Buddhist sites, the Sun Temple at Konark (also known as the Black Pagoda), built in the 13th century AD, offers an awesome spectacle of artistic imagination and political grandeur. The temple, about 60 kilometers from the capital, is one of the two famous monuments of erotic sculpture in India (the other is Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh).


And not to be missed are the dozens of Hindu (mostly Siva) temples dotting the landscape of Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa state. Built mostly between 7th and 13th century A.D, these temples, like the Rajarani (King and Queen) and the Mukteswar temples, display some of the finest intricate sandstone carvings in Orissan temple architecture.

The capital of Orissa is about approx. 430 kms from Calcutta. It is linked by direct flights from Calcutta (1 hour), Madras (1.30 minutes), Bombay (2 hours) and Delhi (2 hours) as well as Hyderabad and Bangalore. A number of direct train services link Bhubaneswar with Calcutta (about seven and half hours journey) including the Dhauli Express, Puri Express, Jagnnath Express, East Coast Express and the Madras Mail. Delhi is also linked to Bhubeneswar by Rajadhani Express. All the Buddhist sites mentioned above are easily accessible by car from Bhubaneswar.

The Kalinga War and Emperor Ashoka

“In 262 B.C., eight years after his coronation, Asoka's armies attacked and conquered Kalinga, a country that roughly corresponds to the modern state of Orissa. The loss of life caused by battle, reprisals, deportations and the turmoil that always exists in the aftermath of war so horrified Asoka that it brought about a complete change in his personality. It seems that Asoka had been calling himself a Buddhist for at least two years prior to the Kalinga war, but his commitment to Buddhism was only lukewarm and perhaps had a political motive behind it. But after the war Asoka dedicated the rest of his life trying to apply Buddhist principles to the administration of his vast empire. He had a crucial part to play in helping Buddhism to spread both throughout India and abroad, and probably built the first major Buddhist monuments. Asoka died in 232 B.C. in the thirty-eighth year of his reign.”

Source: THE EDICTS OF KING ASHOKA, An English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika, The Wheel Publication No. 386/387, 1993,BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY, KANDY, SRI LANKA.

An Extract from Ashokan Rock Edict

"All men are my children. As I desire for my children that the should enjoy peace and happiness in this world and in the other world, so also I desire for all my men."

"The people of the unconquered territories beyond the borders might think: "What is the king's intentions towards us?" My only intention is that they live without fear of me, that they may trust me and that I may give them happiness, not sorrow. Furthermore, they should understand that the king will forgive those who can be forgiven, and that he wishes to encourage them to practice Dhamma so that they may attain happiness in this world and the next. I am telling you this so that I may discharge the debts I owe, and that in instructing you, that you may know that my vow and my promise will not be broken. Therefore acting in this way, you should perform your duties and assure them (the people beyond the borders) that: "The king is like a father. He feels towards us as he feels towards himself. We are to him like his own children."

Source: THE EDICTS OF KING ASHOKA, An English rendering by Ven. S. Dhammika, The Wheel Publication No. 386/387, 1993,BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY, KANDY, SRI LANKA