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Buddhist Heritage Of Gujarat Several Caves Of Kshatrapa Regime Excavated

Updated: January 30, 2010 10:34 am

Gautama Buddha founded a new religion in the last quarter of the 6th century BC which spread within and outside India in the following centuries. This religion known as Buddhism influenced many great rulers of ancient India. Therefore it got patronization from various kings of the Indian sub-continent from 6th century BC to 11th century AD.

            Although numerous literary traditions claim that Buddhism reached Saurashtra during the time of the Buddha itself, the earliest archaeological evidence dates from the time of the Emperor Asoka (269-232 B.C.). The Girnar rock edicts were engraved to propagate the Dhamma.

            The remains of Buddhist establishments have been found almost in every region of Gujarat in the form of rock-cut caves and archaeological sites. The coastal region of Gujarat stretching from Kachchh to Saurashtra and up to Bharuch is dotted with several such caves. These caves were excavated between 2nd century BC and 6th century AD. It is believed that most of them were excavated during the Kshatrapa rule.

            Buddhism became a popular religion in Gujarat during the Kshatrapa period (1st century AD-4th century AD) and it continued to flourish during the Maitraka rule (470-788 AD). Hiuen Tsiang, the Chinese traveller and scholar visited Gujarat in 640 AD during the Maitrakas reigon. He records that there were about 200 monasteries with 10000 monks living in them. These monasteries were located at Bharuch, Atali, Kheta, Valabhi, Anandapura and Surashtra. Sthavira and Sammatiya were the principal

schools prevalent in those times. Another Chinese traveler I-tsing, who visited Gujarat around 670 AD too observed that Sammitiya school had greatest number of followers in western India.

            Gujarat which was known for famous religious places like Somnath and Dwarka will now become hot favourite for Buddhist tourists also. Gujarat Government is organising International Seminar on Buddhist Heritage at Vadodara.

            According to Shri YS Rawat, Director, Gujarat State Archeology Department, most of the Maitraka kings patronized Buddhism and made land grants to various monasteries for their maintenance. The inscriptions of Maitraka rulers mention name and particulars of sixteen monasteries of that period. There were separate monasteries for the Bhikshus (monks) and the Bhikshunis (nuns). The Maitraka inscriptions also indicate the existence some old monasteries that were built prior to their rule. One of such monasteries, Bappapadiya Vihara, was built by Acharya Bhadanta Sthirmati at Valabhi. References are available that Bodhisattvas Gunamati, pupil of Vasubandhu and Sthiramati, pupil of Asanga, who hailed from Nalanda, lived there and composed treaties which gained high reputation and fame.

            Valabhi was also a renowned centre of Buddhist studies. I-Tsing records that the greatest centres of learning in India were Nalanda and Valabhi. The Valabhi University was especially devoted to the studies of the Sammatiya School and was interested in the Hinayana. It vied with the Nalanda University which was much devoted to the Mahayana.

            Gujarat seems to have contributed some eminent Buddhist scholars during the Maitraka period. Dharmagupta, who went to China in the 6th century belonged to Lata i.e. region between Narmada and Tapti rivers. According to Taranatha, Santideva, who distinguished himself as a preceptor at the Nalanda University as well as an eminent author of some work on Buddhist doctrines, was born in a royal family in Saurashtra.

            Archaeological evidences from Taranga hill suggest that this site was a prominent Tantrik Buddhist centre till the 9th century. There is an image of Buddha depicted at Ran ki Vav in Patan (north Gujarat) along with the other incarnations of Vishnu which indicates that by the 11th century Buddha was already incorporated in the Dashavatar concept of Hinduism.

            According to Taranatha, the famous Tibetan historian, the old western Indian school of art was one of the ancient schools of arts which influenced the art of eastern India, Kashmir and Nepal. Some of the Buddhist art experts are of the opinion that reflection of old western Indian style painting is wide spread in the Buddhist Monasteries of the Indian Himalayas.

            The extant Buddhist monuments

in Gujarat mostly belong to the Kshatrapa period. The Viharas built during the Maitraka period are all buried in ruins. Very little is known about their actual location, although some Buddhist sculptures of this period have been reported.

            Majority of the Buddhist monuments of Gujarat are situated in Saurashtra along its coast and in the central part around Junagadh. Junagadh seems to be a prominent centre from Asoka’s time onwards. The Buddhist monuments in this region comprises of rock-cut-caves which include Chaitya Grihas, monasteries and stupas. In Junagadh district alone there are about 15 known Buddhist sites such as the Ashokan rock edict, Baba Pyara Caves, Khapra Kodia Caves, Upparkot Caves, Panheswer Caves, Mai Gadechi, Matri, structural monastery at Intawa, brick stupa at Bordevi and Vajrapanat, Sana Caves, Caves around Prabhas Patan and Mandor Caves, Savni-Gir. Buddhist sites in Jamnagar district are located near Upleta and Barada Hill. In the central and eastern Saurashtra sites like Khambalida and Talaja were important Buddhist establishments.

            In North Gujarat, as Hiuen Tsiang records, there were 10 monasteries with 1000 monks at Vadnagar. Recent excavation by the State Archaeology has brought to light one of the monasteries along with two votive stupas. Many other Buddhist antiquities have also been recovered from the site. Vadnagar has also yielded a Bodhisattva image which must have been brought by the Sammitiya Bhikshus from Mathura for their Chaitya in the 2nd-3rd century AD. The Taranga Hill, about 30km from Vadnagar, also seems to be an important centre of the Tantric Buddhism. Images of Tara were reported from this site in the thirties of the last century.

            The Buddhist site of Devnimori in the east central part of the State has yielded the most valuable remains of Lord Buddha in 1963. A large Buddhist establishment datable to 2nd-7th century AD has been excavated at this site. The Mahastupa at the site contained the bodily relics of Gautam Buddha and had about 17 images of Buddha in Terracotta. These relics are now in the Archaeology Department of The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.

            Presence of rock-cut-caves and a habitation site at Kadia Dungar near Bharuch proves that the ancient Bharuch-Kachchh region was another important Buddhist centre in South Gujarat from early centuries of Common Era. Hiuen Tsiang reached Bharuch from Ajanta/Ellora and recorded the presence of Buddhists there.

            Kachchh was another region on the ancient route connecting Gujarat and Sindh where Buddhists were in significant numbers. Rock-cut-caves at Desalpar near Nakhtrana and Siyot near Lakhpat are testimony to their presence. This region also has yielded many Buddhist antiquities including a beautiful bronze image of the Buddha datable to 4th-7th century AD.

            The above description clearly shows that in western India Gujarat was dotted with several Buddhist centres in ancient times. However further detailed studies are necessary to understand the role of Buddhism in the socio-cultural development of this region.

By Nilesh Shukla

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