When one talks about Odisha, the majestic Jagannath temple or the architecture-rich Sun Temple comes to mind. Certainly, these two monuments have been the state’s symbols for several centuries.

However, the land of Jagannath is not limited to these two monuments but has to offer. And this became evident during a recent visit to the state. Very few people know that Odisha had a flourishing history of Buddhism. In fact, it was the state’s religion. Therefore, every corner of the state is dotted with footprints of Buddhism.

However, Buddha never visited the Odisha but Chaityas, Stupas, Viharas, edicts and inscriptions bear testimony to the Buddhist heritage. The earliest reference to the state was in the writings of Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang, who visited India in the 17th century. He has given vivid account of the flourishing of Buddhism in Odra (the old name of Odisha).

The other reference is by the great Mauryan king Ashoka, who provided a boost to the spread of Buddhism in the region. One can find several references in Ashokan and post-Ashokan pillars, bell capitals, copper plates as well as discovery of Buddhist figures and images. Therefore, the land is a haven for those who have any interest in Buddhism.

The best way to explore the Buddhist circuit in the state is through its diamond triangle ~ Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri in Jajpur district.

Peep into history

Buddhism was part of Odisha for many centuries. But it got momentum after the Kalinga War and conversion of Ashoka to Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. At the time Odisha was a very vibrant state and ruled by the mighty Kalinga Kingdom. The state was very important from both commercial and cultural points of view. This made many neighbouring kingdoms envious.

Mauryan King Ashoka was one of them. In a bid to conquer the state, Ashoka fought a furious battle near the river Daya. The battle was one of the deadliest in history. Ashoka has described it in the 13th rock edicts, which say 100,000 men were killed in action, an equal number were taken captive. This disaster changed Ashoka, who then propagated Buddhism not only in Odisha but all over the world.

In an attempt to spread peace and Buddhism among the people of the world, Ashoka sent missionaries to far off countries like Sri Lanka, Japan and China. After Ashoka, it was during the reign of Bhaumakara dynasty in Odisha from 8th to 10th century AD, that Buddhism has reached its zenith. During this period Buddhism was the state’s religion.

Buddhism in Odisha

It was the year 1869 when a government official named C S Banerjee went to visit two mounds in the jungle. What he found was treasure. He came across a huge number of scattered antiques, relics and artefacts. Then in 1890, another government official M M Chakravarty came across another mound in a hilly jungle, and found it with a full of antiquities.

Later this place was known as Ratnagiri. Then he found another mound in 1905 with a brick structure and artefacts, which was later known as Lalitagiri. The entire area was declared protected, and excavation was ordered.

The excavation, completed in 1984, unearthed many precious Buddhist antiques. This is how Udayagiri (hill of rising sun), Lalitagiri (red hill) and Ratnagiri (hill of gems) has seen daylight.

Dhauli

The best way to start the journey is from the state Capital ~ Bhubaneswar. And it is convenient also. Just 6 km drive from the main city of Bhubaneswar one can find the famous Buddhist shrine ~ Dhauli, famous for its rock edicts. Situated in the serene foothills, by the river Daya, it is one of the 14 rock edicts of Ashoka. It is the first specimen of stone-art in the shape of the forepart of an elephant.

The elephant looks like it is coming out of a cave carved out of the solid rock at the top. Under this structure there is an inscription of Ashoka, written in Brahmi.

The inscription mentions the vast devastation caused by Kalinga War and describes various instructions to the Mauryan viceroy placed in Odisha to rule the people. It also has the famous declaration: “All men are my children. What I desire for my own children, and I desire their welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, that I desire for all men. You do not understand to what extent I desire this, and if some of you do understand, you do not understand the full extent of my desire.” Just 500 metres away is a Shanti Stupa. Built in the early 1970s, the double-story structure represents Budha’s Prinirvana ~ his passage from the world of suffering and illusion to the world of bliss and reality.

The Stupa has four chambers, adorned with four beautiful images of Buddha. Also there are scenes from the Jataka Tales on the walls of the lower part of the Stupa. The five umbrellas placed on its flattened top represent five important aspects of Buddhism.

The Stupa was built to mark peace in the world by Kalinga Nippon Budha Sangha and Japan Budha Sanga under the supervision of Mahamanya Fuji, head of the Japanese Buddhist faith.

Lalitagiri

After Dhauli one can head 90 km away from the state Capital to another famous and most important Buddhist site ~ Lalitagiri, in Jajpur district. Located on the hills of Parabhadi and Landa, the green site is said to be one of the earliest Buddhist complexes in the state.

Excavated in 1985, it h a s four monasteries, sculpture of the Buddha, antiquities like gold and silver ornaments and stone plaque. But the most important finding is a relic casket, which, historians claim, belongs to very important followers or probably the Buddha himself.

The casket was kept in a small museum inside the site’s premises. The site has many antique articles from the 8th-9th century AD. Lalitagiri also houses a small museum displaying artefacts found during the excavation, such as Buddha statues in different postures and Buddhist deities like Tara, Padmapani, Hariti and Manjusri.

Udayagiri

Another famous Buddhist site, Udayagiri is also located in Jajapur district. It is the largest Buddhist site in the state. However, chronologically it comes after Ratnagiri and Lalitagiri. It houses antiques from 7th to 12th century.

The archaeological findings are classified in two parts, namely, Udaygiri I and Udaygiri II. Based on the U-shaped basin, Udayagiri is known for its bell-shaped Stupa signifying Vajrajana. The site comprises Maha Stupa, which has a beautifully carved image of Dhyani Buddha Aksobhaya on the eastern side, Amitabha on the western side, Amoghasiddhi on the north and Ratnasambhava on the south .

There is a square monastery too, an ornate gateway leading to the chamber that houses the image of Lord Buddha in “Bhumisparsa” mudra. Other than these a number of sculptures of Buddha and other Buddhist divinities, like Tara, Manjushri, Bhrikuti, Hariti, Chunda, Avalokiteswara, Maitreya, Aparajita, Vairochona and Vasudhara, were discovered here.

Ratnagiri

Ratnagiri has a rich concentration of Buddhist antiquities. But before visiting this site, head for the Buddhist museum, which is located just a few kilometres from the site, to have real insight into Buddhism.

The museum has four galleries and has an excellent collection of excavated antiquities. Ratnagiri is located on a hillock, carries Buddhist antiques from the 5th to 13th century AD. This place was an important centre of Mahajana from of Buddhism.

From 8th to 9th century it became a hub for Tantric Buddhism and in the 10th century it played a significant role in the emergence of Kalachakra Tantra. Among the remnants, the place is full of votive stupas, a big stupa and various giant Buddha statues.

The compound has two large monasteries. The larger monastery complex has an open courtyard and 24 cells for residence, made up of bricks. One side of the courtyard has the inner sanctum housing a giant statue of Buddha, in Bhumisparsha posture.

On the other side, there are different sized Buddha heads and statues. The entry gate of the monastery is also very beautiful, decorated with the picture of a couple in royal clothes. The other monastery is smaller.