Buddhist Heritage Of Lalitgiri
Buddhism played a significant role in socio-cultural, political history of Odisha since the time of the great master Gautam, the Buddha; though he never visited Odisha but Odisha has the proud distance of having first two lay disciples of Buddha, namely, Tapasu and Bhallika. From third century BC onwards till medieval period, Buddhism flourished in Odisha in full swing. Being repertoire of Buddhist centres of learning, it harbored and patronised art and architecture along with numerous Buddhist sculptures of outstanding merit and myriad monumental edifices created by artistic impulse.
Important Buddhist sites in Odisha where major excavations carried out by Archaeological Survey of India are Lalitgiri (1985-92), Udayagiri (1985-1989) & (1997-2003) and Ratnagiri (1958-1964) constituted the diamond triangle. Apart from these, many other rich Buddhist sites were excavated by different agencies. However, these sites yielded large stupas, vihars, chaityas, votive stupas, sculptures and other objects of archaeological significance.
Lalitgiri locally known as Naltigiri (at 200. 35’N and long. 860.15E) situated in the Birupa Chitroptala valley in the Mahanga tehsil of Cuttack District. It is 90 km from Bhubaneswar via Chandikhol. The rich archaeological treasures were first brought to notice by Sir Sojn Beams, the then collector, Cuttack in 1875 and thereafter RP Chanda in 1927-1928. Considering its archaeological importance, the ancient vestiges were declared centrally protected in 1973. The excavations at Lalitgiri (1985-1992) undertaken by ASI, BBSR, circle, under the guidance of Dr GC Chauley the then Superintendent archaeologist, revealed the remains of a massive of a stupa on hilltop with two relic caskets of gold, rarest of its kind containers. The sacred relics of Lord Buddha and his disciples were kept in the khondalite containers in the first season of excavation i.e. 1985. This discovery was first of its kind in the eastern India. Within this Khondalite container, was found a steatite casket with a silver casket enclosing a gold casket. The innermost gold casket contained the sacred relic or dhatu in the form of a small fragment old bone. These uninscribed caskets were arranged in the manner of Chinese Puzzle Box. At present, the relic casket duo are in the safe custody of the SA, ASI, Bhubaneswar Circle.
Another important discovery at the site in 1986-88 is the structural remains of an east facing large brick built apsidal chaityagriha (33x11m) with 3.3m thick wall along with a circular stupa at the western end. The discovery of such a unique structure was also first of its kind in the Buddhist context in Odisha. Other important finds from this area the Kushan Brahmi Inscriptions, a series of shell script inscription, reeling pillars, numerous sculptures of Buddha with votive stupas etc. The structure remained in use from early Christian era, 7th 8th century AD.
The excavations at the further yielded the remains of four monasteries. An east facing monastery-1, being the largest (36sqm) datable between 8th-11th century AD. There is a large brick built cistern abutting the natural bed rock at the back side of monastery. Partially exposed east facing Monastry-2 towards the extreme north side of the hill constructed during the decadent phase of Busshism at Lalitgiri. The south facing Monestery-3 measuring 28x27m with a square court yard at the centre. The west facing Monastery-4 (30sqm) enshrining a massive headless image of Buddha in the sanctum. It also yielded a few terracotta monastic sealings which read “Sri Chandraditya vihara samagra Arya Visha Sanghasa”, paleaographically datable 9th, 10th century AD.
Majority of sculptures unearthed during the excavation are those of Buddha in different postures belonging to Mahayana phase of Buddhism. The other antiquities includes a gold ring, silver ingots, hoard of Puri-kusana copper coins, stone plagues of Ganesa, Mahisamardini, a seal-matrix-com-pandant and a tiny figure of Avolokitesvara. Inscribed pot-shereds unearthed ranging from 3rd century BC, 11th century suggesting the site of Lalitgiri was continuously occupied by both Hinayana and Mahayana sects.
It was during 9th-10th century AD, it came under the influence of Vajrayana Buddhism patronised by the ruling Bhaumakaras. The huge collection of large-sized sculptures in the vicinity of Lalitgiri now in display in the sculpture shed on hill top (1962) prove that Lalitgiri was not only one of the earliest Buddhist sites of Odisha but also shows cultural continuity represented by various sects, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana sects.
From the facts mentioned above, it is clear that the Buddhist vestiges can be rechristened as ‘Mini Nalanda’. Lalitgiri along with other excavated Buddhist sites near by viz., Ratnagiri, Udaygiri, Langudi may be proposed to be enlisted as World Heritage list of monuments. The discovery of unique relic caskets and host old finest sculptures, antiquities and other priceless antiquities, construction of a full-fledged museum already proposed needs to be expedited in view of the public resentment and sentiments at Lalitgiri and its locality. The entire Landa hill covering 93.43 acres should be provided with qualitative and easily accessible pathway, electricity (separate sub-station), tourist amenities like potable water, ultra-modern toilets, visitors benches, interpretation centre, cafeteria, souvenir kiosks etc.
The dire necessity and demand of the time is the construction of a site museum to display the relic caskets which should be done on top priority basis with other tourist friendly amenities.
Keeping in view of the above, the following clarifications are needed.
1) State any purpose for construction of museum is mooted at Lalitgiri?
2) If yes, state the current status of the above said proposal.
3) Please state when shall exactly construction of the museum building be taken place and how long shall it take to complete?
4) Is there any proposal for temporary/permanent transfer of the relic caskets (discovered from the excavation of Lalitgiri in 1985-86) now kept in the custody of Archaeological Survey of India, Bhubaneswar Circle?
5) Is there any proposal on behalf of the Government of India for the presentation of the relic caskets at its original Buddhist site, Lalitgiri? If yes, then when and in which manner this oversensitive affair of the gold casket containing the relic of Buddha and his disciples will be prescribed?
6) Is there any proposal for declaring the Buddhist Diamond triangle including the newly-protected site Langudi as World Heritage listed site?
7) If yes, when the proposal on behalf of the Government of India will be materalised respecting the public sentiments and demand.
By Bebartta Ajaya Das from Lalitgiri