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Orissa's treasures

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005 T+T-
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An impressive panel with excellent architectural work in the sprawling courtyard of the Ratnagiri monastery.-

Archaeological excavations in Orissa unearth a treasure trove of architecturally rich Buddhist remains.

HUNDREDS of thousands of people were massacred when Asoka, the Mauryan emperor of Magadha, invaded and conquered Kalinga (present-day Orissa) in 261 B.C. The vanquished state enslaved the emperor's heart, and he embraced Buddhism after the war. Asoka became a champion of ahimsa, or non-violence, and Kalinga showed the way from war to peace to the world.

Asoka did a lot for the spread of Buddhism and thus started a new era of art, education, peace and learning. Modern-day Orissa has inherited the Buddhist heritage that was nurtured by ancient Kalinga, a land as sacred as Lumbini and Sarnath for Buddhists.

One gets transfixed by the remains of the Buddhist monuments in Orissa. The Buddhist tourist trail in the State makes it clear how some of the remarkable places, with so much sculptural value, have withstood the ravages of time.

Hieuen-Tsang, the famous Chinese pilgrim of the seventh century A.D. who visited Orissa, was surprised to see the University of Puspagiri under the Buddhist complex at Ratnagiri-Udayagiri-Lalitgiri. According to him, there were numerous Buddhist monasteries in the region with devoted students.

The most prominent of the Buddhist sites in Orissa at present is the Buddhist Triangle comprising Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri in Jajpur district. Although these sites are within a 100-km radius from Bhubaneswar, the capital, there were no proper roads to them until recently. However, with the State government making a determined effort to develop the Buddhist sites to attract tourist from different parts of the world, spanking new roads are coming up to provide easy and comfortable access to these areas.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has taken a series of measures to preserve the Buddhist sites spread over Orissa. But a lot remains to be done to preserve the Buddhist shrines, which speak volumes about the rich art and cultural legacy of the erstwhile Kalinga.

The ASI undertook extensive excavation at Ratnagiri between 1958 and 1961 bringing to light the remains of a Buddhist establishment consisting of stupas, monastic complexes and temples. It has also set up a site museum at Ratnagiri to keep and display a variety of antiquities that were unearthed during the excavation. The findings mostly date back to the period between the 9th and the 11th century A.D.

As Ratnagiri was a flourishing centre of Vajrayana, a Tantric form of Buddhism, the pantheon of Buddhist deities here got wide expression through the medium of stone. Besides the images of the Buddha in various poses, those of Avalokitesvara, Khasarpana Lokesvara, Manjushri and Tara are noteworthy. The colossal head of the Buddha, found in an area adjacent to the site, inspires awe. It is said that Ratnagiri was established as a Buddhist centre from the first half of the sixth century A.D. and Buddhism developed here unhindered up to the 12th century A.D.

Udayagiri is a few kilometres away from Ratnagiri. It has assumed importance after the excavation work, which brought to light a sprawling complex of Buddhist remains consisting of brick monasteries, a brick stupa, rock-cut sculptures and a stepped well with inscriptions.

Lalitgiri sings the glory of a past spanning from the third century B.C. to the 15th century B.C. Huge brick monasteries, the remains of a Chaitya hall, a number of votive stupas and a renovated stone stupa at the top of the hill dominate the rural setting. The site museum of the ASI here displays a number of Mahayana sculptures, consisting of life-size figures, most of which have short inscriptions on them.

Excavation work at the Langudi hills, also in Jajpur district, has unearthed a treasure trove of architecturally rich Buddhist remains. The most remarkable and prized discoveries here, made in 2001, were two inscribed images of Asoka - one alone and the other with his two queens.

Excavation is going on at present at five other places in the Buddhist Triangle. Excavation will be carried out at four more places in the area subsequently, according to Madhusudhan Padhi, Director, Tourism.

These sites had not been given much importance by the authorities in the past. The Orissa government now appears to be eager to develop them into major tourist attractions.

"We have initiated several measures to develop the Buddhist circuit comprising the Buddhist Triangle and other major Buddhist sites in the State, including the Dhauli Shanti Stupa (Dhauli Peace Pagoda) near Bhubaneswar,'' said Surya Narayan Patra, the State Tourism Minister. "We have the development plan ready. It would not take long to develop infrastructure at these Buddhist sites,'' Patra said. The State government is also holding negotiations with major travel agencies in South-East Asia to popularise these places. "We are expecting Buddhist scholars and tourists from the countries in South-East Asia soon after the completion of the expansion work of the Biju Patnaik airport at Bhubaneswar," said Patra. The top officials of the State departments of Tourism and Culture are equally hopeful of increasing the number of tourists after the development of the Buddhist circuit.

Responding to the State government's request, the Centre has recently agreed to provide Rs.7.99 crores for the development of the Buddhist circuit. The State government will provide the remaining funds and the project will be completed by 2006 at a total cost of Rs.13.8 crores, according to Padhi. Once the road links to the Buddhist sites in Jajpur improve, the State Tourism Development Corporation will start package tours, said Padhi. Facilities such as accommodation, tourist reception centres and restaurants are already available at Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri.

For Dhauli, about 8 km from Bhubaneswar, the State government has equally big plans. A `Peace Park' will be constructed here at a cost of Rs.8 crores within a year. The Centre has already given Rs.4.88 crores for the project, according to Tourism Department officials.

While developing the Buddhist sites, the Tourism Department is also busy preparing a plan to develop the Chilika lake as a major tourist destination by ensuring proper communication and other infrastructure at different locations in and around it. An amount of Rs.10 crores would be spent to develop Chilika as a complete tourism unit, said Padhi, who also holds the additional charge of Director, Culture.

Although Orissa continues to be one of the most backward States in the country, meaningful utilisation of its mineral resources and tourism potential can make it one of the most prosperous States. With its unique cultural heritage, luxuriant forests and wildlife, sprawling Chilika lake, bountiful coastline and wide range of tribal art and culture, this is surely possible.

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