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Buddhist Heritage Sites Languish in Odisha, India
The eastern Indian state of Odisha (until recently named Orissa) is home to a large number of temples and Buddhist heritage sites that draw scholars and tourists alike. While many Hindu temples in the state, such as Puri Jagannath Temple and Konark Surya Temple, are well maintained, a number of Buddhist heritage sites are gradually falling into disrepair and even ruin due to neglect by the authorities. Ancient Buddhist sites at Deuli Hills, Kaima Hills, and Langudi Hills, for example, receive inadequate care and protection, as highlighted by the all-India chairman of the Indian National Trust for Art, Cultures and Heritage (Intach), Major General (retd) L. K. Gupta.
After visiting these sites on 13 September, Gupta stated: “Buddhist scholars all over the world are unaware of the rich Buddhist heritage of Langudi, Deuli, and Kaima. It is high time the government and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) developed these sites to attract more tourists and scholars. The famous Buddhist site at Langudi does not have lighting, proper pathways, and even safe drinking water. Many rare images of the Buddha and others are gathering dust in a sculpture shed at Langudi.” (The Times of India)
The Buddhist site at Langudi Hills is close to Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri, and Udaygiri, home to the largest concentrations of Buddhist relics in Odisha, and is about 90 kilometers from the state capital of Bhubaneswar. The site became a prominent Buddhist learning establishment in the early Bhaumakara period in the 7th–9th century and flourished until the 11th century. The site was a major center of learning for both the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism, the adherents of which created a series of stupas and images of the Buddha, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the female deity Tara, and four-armed images of Prajnaparamita. The site also contains the dilapidated remains of an imposing brick stupa and large quadrangular monasteries. The southern spur of the hill is home to an impressive number of rock-cut Buddhist sculptures that consist of an extensive panel in two sections, the first of which features carved images of the Buddha Amitabha and Tara.
A number of terracotta Buddha images and Brahmi inscriptions have also been excavated from the Langudi site. In 2001, two images of Emperor Ashoka (r. c. 269–232 BCE)—one of Ashoka alone and one with his two queens—were found at the site. The ongoing excavation is being carried out by the Orissan Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies (OIMSEAS), which has recognized Langudi as one of India’s most important Buddhist sites.
Deuli, another historical Buddhist site not far from Langudi, contains five rock-cut Buddhist chambers at its southern site. During their excavation, a stupa and the ruins of a monolithic pillar, both dating to the Ashokan period, were unearthed—the stupa is believed to be one of the commemorative stupas constructed by the emperor. To the north of Langudi is the small hill known as Kaima. The most significant relic here is a rock-cut elephant surrounded by four monolithic pillars fashioned out of khondalite and dating to around the 3rd century BCE, during the Mauryan era.
In a bid to encourage tourism and propagate Buddhism, in July 2013 the state government decided to hand over Buddhist sites in Langudi and the vicinity to be managed for 30 years by the community of Tibetan exiles living in Chandragiri, Gajapati District. Chandragiri has since become renowned as a Buddhist pilgrimage destination as well as for its picturesque landscape, and the Tibetan community has also built a monastery here named Padmasambhava Buddha Vihar (known as Phuntsokling in Tibetan), or “the land of happiness and plenty.”
While the condition of these sites remains lamentable, there may yet be some hope. The state government’s Culture and Tourism Department has drawn up plans to develop some lesser-known Buddhist sites that are not overseen by either the Archaeological Survey of India or the archaeology wing of the Culture Department of India, mainly focusing on sites in and around Langudi Hills. Apart from ensuring their structural preservation, the department also plans to develop the sites as tourist attractions. On 24 November 2013, The New Indian Express reported that the department had received funding of Rs650 million to repair and renovate 33 Buddhist sites in the state. Despite their cultural and historical significance, however, infrastructure around the sites remains relatively undeveloped. Indeed, Intach chairman Gupta’s statement indicates that the progress to date of preservation work in Langudi and at lesser-known Buddhist sites remains inadequate.
Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri, and Udaygiri are sometimes referred to as the “diamond triangle” due the large quantity of Buddhist relics found there related to the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, known as the Diamond Vehicle. Ratnagiri Hill has the most extensive ruins—in particular Pushpagiri Vihara. Excavated in the 1960s, the site consists of two monasteries and a large stupa surrounded by smaller ones dating to the 6th–12th century. Most of the sculptures found here date to the 8th and 9th centuries. At Lalitgiri are the remains of four small monasteries, the inner sanctums of which are empty. The monasteries are approached via steps shaped like a half-lotus. There is also a U-shaped chaityagriha or assembly hall surrounded by small stupas. Udaygiri is the largest of the three archaeological sites, but also the least excavated. Findings from excavation work, which is still under way, consist of a brick stupa, two brick monasteries (one not yet fully excavated), a stepped stone well, and rock-cut sculptures at the top of the hill, all of which are believed to date from the 7th–12th century.
Odisha’s relationship with Buddhism is an ancient one that represents a significant contribution to Buddhism and Buddhist culture, and while there are few Buddhists in Odisha today, the diamond triangle and other Buddhist sites contribute greatly to tourism and scholarly study. However, many of these sites lie neglected. In 2011, I attended a study tour conducted by the University of Pune, during which we observed that many historic Buddhist sites remained unexcavated and that those that had been excavated were poorly protected. As a result, nearby residents often misuse these heritage sites—we noticed that many Buddhist statues and bricks had been used to decorate Hindu temples and houses. I therefore strongly believe that the state government should expedite the excavation and preservation of these areas as a matter of priority.
Buddhist Sites Falling to Ruin, Says Intach Chief (The Times of India)
Langudi Buddhist Monuments in Orissa (IndiaSite.com)
Lesser known Buddhist sites to get new lease of life (The New Indian Express)
Odisha Govt to Hand Over Tourist Complex in Langudi to Tibetans of Chandragiri to Promote Buddhism (Odishadiary.com)
Quaint Buddhist Monastery in Little Tibet (The Telegraph)