Conversation At The Ruins - The Buddhist Circuit In Odisha

Photo of Conversation At The Ruins - The Buddhist Circuit In Odisha 1/1 by Soumya Jena

Who I am is not important,but what I am matters most. I am a curious wanderer and I am here to tell a strange story. The story took shape while I explored in fascination at the ancient Buddhist ruins in my home state - Odisha .Curiosity takes you to strange places and gets you involved in strange tales.

Long before the remarkable chapters of Vajrayana and Tantric Buddhism took roots in the delta of Mahanadi in Odisha,this ancient land had a role to play in the annals of Buddhism that was literally written in blood.A message of peace and justice propagated from an event of bloodshed and slaughter.Irony has always had a strong hand in history. Today when time recalls the righteous and just Mauryan emperor Ashoka,the Kalinga War of 261 B.C is considered a watershed moment in his reign.

In the rock edicts where Ashoka immortalized himself,it's recounted how the emperor lamented the widespread loss of lives and sufferings of the people of Kalinga during and after the war and how this event brought about a sea-change in the heart of Devanampriya(meaning beloved of the Gods)-a term by which Asoka is referred to in the numerous rock edicts. After the emperor took to the compassionate and non-violent ways of the Buddhist Sangha,the teachings of the Sakyamuni spread out from the confines of the Indo-Gangetic plains to lands beyond-Ceylon,China,Java,Japan,Indonesia and and as far as Greece and the Mediterranean. This royal patronage to the 'Buddha','Dharma' and 'Sangha' may have been a precursor for Buddhist heritage to grow in Odisha. The 13 th Rock Edict at Dhauli in Odisha states that-"Though a great victory has been won over the people of Kalinga but the price at which the victory has come has filled the heart of Piyadassi(Asoka) with grief and remorse.Piyadassi now has come to believe that the true victory over other fellow beings can only be obtained through Dhamma and teachings of Buddha.There is no other victory"(not the exact words but the basic idea of the text)

A few summers back while at Leh in Ladakh,I witnessed the 14 th Dalai Lama initiate the proceedings of the 33 rd Kalachakra gathering and little did I know then that my curiosity of the events would take me back in time to a place nearer home in Odisha.Many months later,in the winter of the same year I found myself exploring the half-excavated ruins of the Lalitgiri-Ratnagiri-Udaygiri complex at the borders of Jajpur-Cuttack district of Odisha.

But what stories can half buried ruins narrate? Can a place tell it's own story? The excavated sites in-situ at the complex hide many mysteries in it's heart,some of which we can be sure of but many cannot be confirmed.Scholars may stand in perplexity and ambiguity but a curious layman like me needs clarity in facts .The thing I remember before the surreal experience took me was that it was a clear moonlit night and after a day's exploring at the ruins of the Ratnagiri hill top I had returned for a lazy stroll near the ruined monastery late in the night

Mainly because I expected the place to talk to me and partly because the stone works look enchanting in the moonlight.While I stared at the dozen odd Buddha heads of varying sizes inside the main compound,I could not help but notice the eyes which seemed content with the knowledge of truth,half closed but not drooping.Those eyes had knowledge and knew peace.It was then that I met someone unexpected.He would have been perfectly in place a thousand years ago,but not tonight.

At any other time and at any other place,I would have been startled but not at that moment. An old man had appeared at the beautiful green chlorite gateway of the main entrance to the monastic compound.I don't remember if the man moved or the moon glided over his face,but as light shone on him,I recognized an old and wizened lama who stood there with a smile on his lips.He made a gesture which must have meant that I must follow him to the outer courtyard,because I did that instantly.

He sat on a pedestal of rock and asked me to sit near him.Many centuries ago this pristine hill top was residence to more than five hundred Buddhist monks who came here to study ,meditate and contemplate on the path of Dhamma as shown by Buddha himself.Equally extraordinary was finding a solitary lama wandering the ruins in the present day.I had questions and by the look in his 'half closed' eyes ,I somehow knew he had the answers.As the old saying goes -When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears. We were on the verge of a good conversation.

Me: Do you live around here or have you come to visit the ruins just like me? Lama: I am a wanderer and these excavated ruins attracted me from afar and I came to see for myself what old promise remains here. Whatever has been discovered and extracted here,has only increased anticipation of great stories buried underneath.

Me: You are a scholar then? I almost wished to meet one. Lama: Knowledge is every man's right and not only of the scholar's. Curiosity and wonder are the beginning of all wisdom.

Me: You speak of this place holding great promise and anticipation?Can you tell me something about Tantric Buddhism,something for which I heard this place was famous for in ancient times? Lama: When I speak of this place holding great interest,I do so with the knowledge that this ancient land of Odisha is one of the few places in India which had uninterrupted flow of Buddhist culture from ancient times to medieval times.And whatever we see in the Ratnagiri-Lalitgiri-Udaygiri complex holds great promise because as per Hiuen Tsang's records this was the supposed place for the great Puspagiri University,a place for great learning and scholarship at par with Nalanda or Takshasila.

I had heard of Hiuen Tsang and his travels in Indian sub-continent.He was a true-blue traveler in the ancient world ....may have been the very pioneer of serious travel and exploring.And we did not have travel guides or the internet back then to fall back on.

Me: So the supposed Diamond Triangle of Buddhism in Odisha lies in these hills of Langudi? Lama: The entire complex of the ruins excavated at the three sites of Lalitgiri,Ratnagiri and Udaygiri separated from each other with short distances is known together as the Diamond Triangle in modern nomenclature of scholars. May be after the historical sites are fully explored ,someday we would name the whole compound as Puspagiri University as supposedly it was known in ancient times. The Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsang even describes divine lights emanating from top of the stupas and other magical experiences. So if Hiuen Tsang is right,we shall wait in anticipation of great wealth buried underneath and what we see now may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Me: Wealth you speak of? Lama: The knowledge and wisdom accumulated over centuries by our ancestors and the works they have left behind are indeed any Age's greatest wealth. It's not gems and gold I am talking about.And I sincerely believe that the ability to appreciate the cultural and intellectual heritage of the generations gone to dust and to drink at it's fountainhead is what makes a civilization cultured.This is what Newton was talking about when he said about sitting on shoulder of giants and thus seeing farther than any men.That is why we must strive to protect these ruins.

The moon was overhead and the place around me was taking a very interesting shape through it's glorious history and it's equally promising future. It speaks of the magic of archeological exploration with time as it's carving tool.A place that was once inhabited by thousands of monks and teachers and where many great seekers came to think about the big questions of life and creation , was buried by the sands of time.A great heritage waits patiently in the wombs of mother earth for some curious explorer to come and unearth it.All historical monuments narrate great old stories but how many can boast of a promising future? A future pregnant with mysterious hopes. The old lama and me got up to take a leisurely stroll around the ruins of Ratnagiri.

According to the inscriptions on clay tablets that were found during initial excavations at Ratnagiri in 1960s,this was a great center of learning for Tantric Buddhism and especially Vajrayana school.The clay tablets also mention it's name as 'Shri Ratnagiri Mahavihariya Arya Bhikshu Samaghya'.It was active between 5 th and 13 th century AD.Amid the scattered ruins at the hilltop are various votive stupas but it's the main monastery complex at the center which is miraculously preserved till date.The entrance gate to the main compound is made up of green chlorite stone with some intricate carvings which makes it distinct from other stones in the compound .As we stepped inside once again,stories ran in my head about monks and their activities that would have kept the place busy many centuries ago.

The various sized Buddha heads were aglow with the direct moonlight falling over them.What could the various head sizes signify? May be they were designed as various steps towards attaining the greatest wisdom,of becoming the perfect Buddha head. Ratnagiri has two large monasteries and right in the middle of it stands a large statue of Buddha which is flanked by the statues of Vajrapani and Padmapani,two Boddhisatvas. As you walk the periphery of the main compound,the highly advanced and intricate drainage system of the facility stuns you. The large monastic complex houses around twenty four cells for residence made up of bricks.At a given time,more than five hundred monks could have lived and studied at this center.The center also housed three copies each of major scriptural works of Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism.

The Lama never talked,as if he had come only to quench my curiosity.But talking was not necessary,and I learned to appreciate the soothing beauty of quietness and silence.As I saw the diverse stone artefacts strewn all over the place I was reminded of what Tagore had told of the Konark Temple,that "here the language of stones had surpassed the language of man".Here too the stone works made the human need of language redundant.

Me: But when one speaks of Buddhist history or heritage,no one speaks in same breath about Odisha as they do about other sites like Bodh Gaya or Nalanda. Lama: As per texts and Buddhist chronicles found in Tibet,China and Ceylon,a place called 'Odiyyana' is mentioned where the roots of Vajrayana Buddhism took shape.This place in all probability could be the present day Odisha and the great learning centers of Tantric Buddhism they refer to could almost certainly be the Puspagiri University that we are currently standing at.The entire sect of Vajrayana Buddhism seems to have originated from these scholastic centers at Lalitgiri-Ratnagiri-Udaygiri complex if we take the available archeological and literary evidence into consideration. The old Buddhist Pali canons and Pas-Sam-Jon-Zang a Tibetan Buddhist text mention the land of Odiyyana where many great Tantric Buddhist preachers lived. The canons mention many secret places called 'Beyuls' where a seeker could go and find enlightenment and knowledge.Such Beyuls were hidden valleys and retreats often found in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet and India.The locations of these secret valleys were kept in scrolls which were placed in important monasteries and stupas.Sambhala is a well known beyul.

Me: Just like James Hilton described the valley of Shangri-la in his book 'The Lost Horizon'? Lama: Hilton's story of Shangri-la was actually inspired from the myth of Sambhala itself.If you look closely the name Shangri-la is a modified form of Sambhala only.

Me: Ah! Yes .....I never thought about it before,strange! And what role does Sambhala play in Tantric Buddhism? Lama: According to legends,the Tantric rituals of Kalachakratantra was taught to the Kings of Sambhala by Buddha himself.The kings of Sambhala wanted to follow the path of enlightenment without renouncing the world so they requested the Sakyamuni to teach them a less austere method of reaching Dharma and Truth,Buddha gave the first initiation of the Kalachakra rituals.Further a Tibetan text called 'The Blue Annals' credits Acharya Cheluka of bringing the teachings of Kalachakratantra to India from the mythical land of Sambhala. The philosophy that guides the school of Vajrayana Buddhism states that though the goal of all living beings is same i.e attaining knowledge and Nirvana,there are other methods of reaching there apart from the old methods of austere meditations. The tantric rituals can provide that path to salvation.

Me: So Vajrayana created a short-cut path to salvation,because the older methods of meditations were hard and time taking? Lama: Let's not be quick to judge the ways and methods people adopt in their lives.As each person is unique so is their path to salvation. As I mentioned before,our current lack of knowledge on Tantric Buddhist practices in these parts of Odisha comes to a road block due to the secretive doctrines of the people who followed the school of Vajrayana.

The stroll in the lonely night had got us very far from Ratnagiri now.Perhaps the Lama was aware of it but I was far from realizing that we had stumbled upon the foothills of the grand ruins of Udaygiri.I was astonished because the journey in the daytime had taken a much longer .So far so good.Like Ratnagiri, the excavations at Udaygiri stand on a hill top which is spread over a much larger area and even during the day the hillside looks beautiful.As if someone has sprinkled those stone artifacts over the lush green rolling hills. I could see the moon's reflection in the deep well that stands at the foot of the hills.Stone staircases lead down to the well which was sparkling in the moon light.

In the same time as the monasteries at Ratnagiri,the facilities at Udaygiri had their peak time from 7 th century to 12 th century AD.The inscriptions found at the site refer to the name of the place being Madhavapura Mahavihara.Udaygiri has a large monastic complex amid it's ruins and among it's many relics the most interesting are the unearthed images of 'Dhyani Buddhas'. Not to miss out on details,the Lama showed me a stone carving on the entrance wall of the compound.Even in the moonlight,I could make out the figure.It was a human figure swinging on a rope with his eyes closed,in a prefect state of happiness.Nobody perhaps knows who or what the figure means,but may be it means exactly what the viewer feels by watching it,a sense of calm and bliss.A single piece of stone can speak to you across the length of ages.

On the hills of Udaygiri there exists a huge Mahastupa where four cardinal Buddhas sit facing each direction.Akshobya facing East,Amitabha facing West,Amoghasiddhi facing North and Ratnasambhava facing South. I returned to the conversation at hand.

Me: We were speaking of the Kalachakra tantra. And Kalachakra Tantra is one of the ritualistic practices of Vajrayana Buddhism? I saw the initiation ceremony last summer at Leh by the Dalai Lama. Lama: The Kalachakra Tantra is the most evolved and complicated form of Vajrayana school.Even today it is considered as one of the highest form of Tantric philosophy.Apart from the sect of Vajrayana itself,the Kalachakra Tantra may have it's roots in Odisha. 'Kala' means time,'chakra' means wheel and 'tantra' means a system.This tantric practice in Buddhism is based on the concept of Time and how we perceive it.Almost all religions and schools of philosophy consider time to be cyclic in nature,so does Tantric Buddhism but it differentiates the time cycles into three parts.The internal cycle,the external cycle and the alternative cycle. Internal and external cycles are passage of time as we perceive it.Just like modern science,Buddhism considers time to be a measurement of rate of change of things around us.

Me: This is very interesting indeed.What are these internal,external and alternative time cycles according to Kalachakratantra? Lama: As I said before the external and internal cycles are time as we human beings perceive it. For example the change of moon's shape and location in sky denote the monthly lunar cycle which can be considered as external time perception.Similarly the menstrual cycle of a woman's body is an example of internal time perception.The alternative time cycle is a way taught by the teachers of Kalachakra to gain harmony over the internal and external time cycles. So this summer in Leh,when you saw the Dalai Lama initiate the Kalachakra rituals,he was paving the way for gaining harmony over the influence of time.

Me: The Buddha himself never came to the land of Kalinga to teach or give sermons? Lama: Though there is no direct evidence of Buddha coming to Kalinga or preaching here,but places and their names have been a shifting entity on the pages of history. The 1st Khandaka of Mahavagga text in Buddhism confirms that two honey traders from Odisha named Tapassu and Bhallika were the first lay disciples of Buddha after he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.They offered honey cakes to Buddha after receiving teachings from him.

Me: Not only the tantric sects but the entire Hindu pantheon seems to have assimilated Buddhism in current times.I have seen Buddhist images like Avalokotisvara,Tara,Yaksas etc in many Hindu temples especially in Odisha. Lama: Later during awakenings of Vaishnavite and Bhakti sects in medieval India,the all encompassing arm of Hinduism took Buddhism into it's fold and many considered Buddha as 9th incarnation of Bishnu.This happened in complete paradox of the fact that Buddhism became famous in ancient India when people revolted to some degree to the Brahmanical-Vedic orthodoxy in society.In current age,images of Dhyani Buddha has been found in the de-plastered walls of Puri's Jagannath Temple.

The Asokan rock edicts and the stone carved elephant at Dhauli are the earliest evidence of Buddhism's presence in Odisha.A very similar rock cut elephant has been found in the excavations of relics near Kaima in Jajpur district.As per records ,even a stupa existed near the rock edicts at Dhauli until 19 th century which was lost to time later on.

A Prakrit inscription in Nagarjunakonda confirms that 'Puspagiri' in Odisha along with Nalanda ,Tosali and Palur were great centers of Buddhist learning and scholastic traditions.There are even speculations that the Buddhist preacher Padmasambhava else known as Guru Rinpoche spent some time studying and contemplating in these hills of Odisha.Guru Rinpoche is credited with taking Buddhism to many Himalayan kingdoms as Tibet,Sikkim and Bhutan.

The figures of Buddhist iconography such as Boddhisatvas,mandalas,images of Tara,fourteen forms of the Avalokotiswara,many Yakshas and Yakshinis that are spread through coastal Odisha and some western parts just goes to confirm that Buddhism had a stronghold in the land and helped in the propagation of the sect to far off lands beyond India.

Me: I had never pondered on the idea that Odisha had such a substantial contribution to the rise and propagation of Buddhism in India and elsewhere.When I used to visit those monasteries and lamaseries in remote Himalayan valleys of Ladakh and Himachal,I never thought my home state would have played such a grand role in the epic narrative of Buddhism. Lama: I will once again go back to Tagore to illustrate my point....he once said that "though I traveled great many countries and visited far off lands from my home,I forgot to see the beautiful dew drop outside my window". I suppose you understand what he meant by that.

Me: Yes dear Teacher,I most surely do.I always have it in mind that though I am out to explore the world I shall know my home land up close and thoroughly.Only when resident Odias have knowledge of their rich cultural heritage and past,rest of the world will slowly know too.I suppose I realize that. Lama: A Teacher is only as good as the pupil he is teaching....the more thirsty a student is,the better a teacher becomes.Now that you have accepted me as a teacher,will you do a small favor to these old bones?

Me: What may I ask? Lama: Nothing,just a ride along the road till we get to the oldest of the three sites in the Diamond Triangle.

So with the chilly winter wind against us.A young man and an old lama were riding on through deserted roads to Lalitgiri which is 8-9 kms down the road from the sites of Ratnagiri and Udaygiri.While on the road, we found an old couple whose vehicle had broken down and we stopped to help them out.The desperate old faces heaved a sigh of relief when the lama and me got down to give a hand to the broken down car.While the lama took the wheel,I was at the engine part.A small battery problem which was sorted out quickly and we bid farewell to the old man and woman who were repeating 'thank you's' till we got embarrassed.

It must have been the last quarter of the long moonlit night,when we arrived at Lalitgiri. It was at this site,that tooth relics and bone relics were found in a stone casket.The bones and tooth were in a charred or half burnt condition and many consider them to belong to Buddha himself,but nobody can be sure.The Buddhist iconography and sculptures found scattered in these parts are highly esoteric in nature.More than fourteen forms of Avalokotisvaras have been found in Odisha and many have been unearthed here.No other place in India displays such variety in artifacts.

Lalitgiri was the place where Tantric Buddhism was prevalent from around 300 BC to 13 th century AD.And hence it is considered as the oldest of the sites at Langudi hills. The terracotta inscriptions found here mention this place as 'Sri Chandraditya Vihara Samagra Arya Bhiksu Sanghasa'.

Images of Buddha in various poses,images of Tara and other beings, sculptures of Avalokotisvara and many forms of Boddhisatvas,all strewn over the places and excavation is still going on. The old lama once again takes my hand to show something particular, an image of a woman breastfeeding a child.

Me: Who is she? Lama: Her name is Hariti and she used to be a child lifter before Buddha persuaded her to become the protector of children.To be a mother to all those who do not have that privilege.

Apart from four large monasteries at Lalitgiri,the major attraction is an apsidal ChaityaGruha or stupa completely made of bricks.

After circulating the large stupa and prayer hall I walked over the slope to watch a glorious sight that people in today's age take for granted.I watched the sun climb slowly over the horizon and change the color of the sky.The sun has been doing this for ages,but still we find the sight ethereal.May be because our lives depend on it.May be because we know our time on this earth is limited and it would be a sin to miss out on such splendid and yet so simple views.

I expected the lama to say something about that divine view,but as I turned around, he was not to be found.Morning always brings a change but this was something I had not expected.I searched all over the place and called him out but to no avail.My teacher had disappeared just as easily as he had appeared back in Ratnagiri hill top.I climbed down the slopes near the ruins to see if the old man would be waiting near the bike.But nothing.The last I saw him was when he sat down on the big rock under the huge tree. Perhaps more than surprised,I was disappointed,may be even a tad angry. There were no proper goodbyes and no parting words.

This was the end of the line.The long night where we both contemplated on the ruins of the Diamond Triangle had come to a passé.As fog clutched the countryside I rode my bike alone back on the road to Ratnagiri in faint hope of finding the old lama somewhere waiting for me.Has he landed in some trouble?I was agitated and raced back.

While on the road,the night flashed before me and all those images of the past swarmed past me.The ruins on these hills nearby had taken a shape in my mind.A heritage of the rich past of this land and a promise for the future times.My mind swam at the disappearance of the old lama.I was in distress because I knew I was too realistic a person to believe in phantom lamas who came and went as they pleased.

Atleast someone I knew appeared on the foot of Ratnagiri hilltop.The old couple sipping tea at the road side tea stall smiled at me when I stopped my bike.They quickly offered me a hot cup of tea and only then I realized how bitterly cold the morning air was.

Trying very hard to hide my anxiety, I just asked-"Have you seen the old man who was with me last night? I am afraid I lost him somewhere".

The old lady looked at me and then at her husband.

"The poor old man.He must be having trouble trying to find me....he was all alone", I added. Between the old woman changing her face from being aghast to a funny smile on her lips,the old man said,"Which old man?You were all alone last night when you stopped to help us".

Taking the cup in my hands, I looked away.I tried very hard to recall the last words of the old lama.

Soumya D Jena 10th March 2017

This post was originally published on The Lost Hermit.

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