While several Buddhists know about Nalanda as an ancient seat of higher learning and Bodhgaya as a Buddhist site where Lord Buddha is said to have to have attained enlightenment, very few know about the Buddhist sites of Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Udayagiri in the Jajpur district of Odisha. The East Indian state of Odisha formerly known as Orissa plays host to a high concentration of Buddhist sites. Excavations which began relatively recently have unearthed more than 200 Buddhist sites scattered across the state. Odisha’s “Diamond Triangle” containing the Buddhist sites of Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitagiri show the prominence of Buddhism in Odisha from the 6th century BC to at least the 15th-16th century AD. It is believed that Buddhist teachings from Hanayana, Mahayana and Tantayana sects and its offshoots such as Vajrayana, Kalacakrayana and Sahajayana were conducted in Odisha making it a state rich in Buddhist heritage.
The Diamond Triangle is located in the Assia Hills which is a two hour drive north of Odisha’s capital Bhubaneshwar. Set in remote hinterland, the three sites are within relative proximity to each other. The cooler dry month of October to March are the most comfortable to visit. Due to its remote location hotels are few and far between. The Toshali Resort at Ratnagiri which is clean and comfortable is ideal to stop over when visiting the Diamond Triangle.
Ratnagiri or the “Hill of Jewels” hosts the most extensive Buddhist ruins and is of significant importance as a Buddhist site due to its sculptures and as a center for Buddhist teachings. Ratnagiri dates back to the 6th century AD. In Ratnagiri it appears that Buddhism flourished till the 12 century AD as a center for Mahayana Buddhism. During the 8th and 9th centuries AD Ratnagiri became an important site for Tantic Buddhism after which Kalachakra Tanta emerged.
The site was discovered in 1905 but excavations were only carried out between 1958-61 – excavations which revealed a massive stupa, two monasteries, shrines, 700 votive stupas, terracotta and stone sculptures and large numbers of Buddhist antiquities many of which are displayed in the public museum in Ratnagiri. The monastery constructed in 8th-9th centuries AD, has an elaborately carved green doorway which leads to 24 brick cells. There’s also an imposing seated Buddha sculpture, flanked by Padmapani and Vajrapani, in the central sanctum which are awe inspiring.
Udayagiri, dating back to the 1-st-13th centuries AD, is the other large Buddhist complex consisting of a brick stupa, two brick monasteries, a stepped stone well and various rock-cut sculptures. Discovered in 1870, excavations did not commence until 1985. The stupa at Udayagiri has four seated stone statues of Lord Buddha. The monastery has 18 cells and a shrine chamber with an intricate carvings.
The Udayagiri site dates back to 1st-13th centuries AD. Although it was discovered in 1870, excavations didn’t commence until 1985 and it was done in two parts revealing Udayagiri 1 and Udayagiri 2. The remains indicate that the settlements were called “Madhavapura Mahavihara” and “Simhaprastha Mahavihara” The stupa at Udayagiri 1 has four seated stone statues of Lord Buddha, enshrined and facing each direction. The monastery there is also impressive, with 18 cells and a shrine chamber that has an intricately carved ornamental facade. Udayagiri 2 is a monastic complex which has a towering statue of Buddha in a bhumisparsa mudra.
The ruins at the third location of the Diamond Triangle, Lalitgiri are not as extensive as those found at Ratnagiri and Udayagiri. The excavations carried out in Lalitgiri from 1985 to 1992 unearthed evidence that this site was continuously occupied from the 2nd century BC to the 13th century AD. A stupa, an apsidal chaitya hall, four monasteries and several stone sculptures of Buddha and Buddhist divinities were unearthed. Amongst these the most exciting discovery was the three relic caskets inside the Stupa. Buddhist literature states that after the death of the Buddha his corporal remains were distributed amongst his disciples to be placed within stupas. Hence, the remains are presumed to have belonged to the Buddha himself, or one of his prominent disciples. The Odisha government intends to display the relic caskets in a museum at Lalitgiri in the future. The apsidal chaitya hall unearthed at Lalitgiri is also the first of its kind in the context of Buddhism in Orissa.
Of immense historical and religious value the Diamond Triangle has remained a less travelled path for Buddhist Pilgrims. Buoyed by a new vision the Odisha Tourism Authority is on a mission to include the Diamond Triangle to the itinerary of Buddhist Pilgrims so that they too can experience firsthand the beauty and sanctity of the Diamond Triangle.
Air India offers daily flights to Bhubaneswar from many major Indian cities.
**** ******* ****
ADDENDUM: A NOTE from Professor KNO DHARMADASA of Peradeniya University,2 December 2020:
Dear Michael, ….Many thanks for sending this. This Odisha is ancient Kalinga from where Sri Lankan Buddhists got the sacred Tooth Relic now in Kandy.Rrelating to The story how we got the Relic is beautifully narrated in our Sinhala classics, particularly the Dalada Siritha of the 14th century. The Relic was sent here by a king in Kalinga in the 5th century. The beautiful painting by Solius Mendis (1920’s) depicts Hememala, the Kalinga King’s daughter, coming to the island with her consort Prince Danta, hiding the relic in her hair.