Mystical Odisha’s Buddha Trail

Odisha has always become mystical and mysterious about its offering to global travellers. The state has been the custodian of more than 2000 years of cultural & historical legacy which people are yet to explore. The marvellous discovery of the Buddhist establishments of Ratnagiri, Udayagiri & Lalitgiri by Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI), abandoned around 1000 years before during the fall of Buddhism, is reframing the colourful glory of the grandeur of Kalingan architecture.

By visiting Odisha, one can pay homage to the ancient land of Kalinga which put all its resources and the entire maritime trade route to propagate Buddhism across the world. Though Lord Buddha spent his life in Nepal, Bihar and U.P., but without contribution of Odisha, the influence of Buddhism would have limited to Northern India. Buddhism became a world religion only after Kalinga-Asoka war and because of the vast maritime trade route of Kalinga. And all these happened only after 200 years of the Maparinirvana of Lord Buddha at Kushinagar. The great Kalinga war fought for the control over the trade route and its horrific consequences when millions sacrificed lives in defence of their motherland, changed  Chandasoka to Dhammasoka and he renounced violence. Hence, under patronage of Emperor Asoka, the maritime trade route of ancient Odisha was instrumental in propagation of Buddhism worldwide.

But association of Buddhism with Kalinga started during the life of Lord Buddha as his  first disciples, Tapusa and Bhallika, were honey traders from Ukkala (Odisha had several names in the past- Kalinga, Odra & Ukkala). Buddhism continued to be the religion of Odisha till 12th century A.D. Two hundred years of Bhaumakara rule, from 8th to the 10th century AD, are considered as the golden epoch of Buddhism in Odisha when Tantric Buddhism with its offshoots of Vajrayana, Kalachakrayana and Sahajayana involving all sorts of esoteric practices dominated the religious life of people of Odisha. In the 8th century AD, Subhakara Simha, a prince of the Bhaumakara family of Odisha, accepted Buddhism  and went to China where he met Emperor Xuan Zung of the Tang dynasty and introduced esoteric Buddhism. In the Buddhist Jataka stories of the fourth and third centuries B.C., a kingdom of Kalinga is mentioned with Dantapura as its capital. From Dantapura, the most venerated relic of Buddhism, Buddha’s tooth, was brought to Sri Lanka. This tradition forms the basis of a lasting relationship between Kalinga and Sri Lanka. Recent archaeological explorations have reported more than 340 Buddhist sites of which nineteen sites have been excavated so far.

Famous Chinese pilgrim Huien Tsang, who visited Odisha in 639 CE, found more than hundred Buddhist monasteries which he elaborately mentioned in his travelogue Sie-yu-kie. Prominent  among them were the remnant of monasteries of Theravada Buddhism in Langudi hills and of Mahayana & Vajrayana  Buddhism at Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri  which was recently excavated, restored and conserved by ASI for public view . Here, one could observe the evolution of Buddhism from the Theravada sect with its austere and plain worship of a stupa to the growth of Mahayana and Vajrayana (tantric) sects with their elaborate pantheon of Bodhisattvas and other deities.  Also the site of Dhauligiri in Bhubaneswar, is a major tourist attraction because of the modern Shanti Stupa (or Peace Pagoda) constructed by Kalinga Nippon Buddha Sangha in 1972 in commemoration of the Kalinga war. Dhauligiri is also famous for the Rock Edict of Asoka (or Kalinga Edicts). Other important Buddhist sites located near the Langudi hillock at Dharamsala block of Jajpur dictrict  are Vajragiri, Radhanagar, Kayama, Tarapur and Deuli.

The Buddhist monastic establishment at Ratnagiri dated  from 5th century to 13th century AD became one of the last shelters of Buddhism in the country when the religion declined in other parts of India. The finest relic of Buddhist art at Ratnagiri is a magnificent doorjamb adorning Monastery 1 which represents the highest watermark of decorative art of India. Numerous references to the site in Tibetan literature suggest that Ratnagiri was an important center in the development of the Kalachakratantra in the 10th century CE, an assertion supported by the discovery of a number of votive  stupas, plaques, and other artifacts featuring Kalachakra imagery. As per Taranatha’s History of Buddhism, Ratnagiri housed 3 copies each of the scriptural work of Mahayana and Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism. Five hundred monks (from all over India & abroad) were resident here.

Udayagiri or the “Sun rise Hill”, the most picturesque among the three is situated on the slope of a crescent shaped low hill. This site, a Mahayana-Vajrayana site was a vibrant center of  Buddhist learning and worship between 8th to 13th centuries AD. Here, the Mahastupa of a total height of 7m from the ground and 4.8m from pradakshinapatha  has niches in each cardinal direction which enshrines seated images of Dhyan Buddhas-Akshobhya (E), Amitabha (W), Amoghasiddhi (N) and Ratnasambhava (S); all  inscribed with Buddhist creeds.

Lalitgiri is one of the oldest Buddhist establishment in the world as the iconographic analysis indicates that this site had already been established during the Sunga period of the 2nd century BC. The hilltop Mahastupa at Lalitgiri is 15 meter in diameter, and is constructed in Sanchi style which is visible from afar. The excavation of this site led to the finding of sacred buddhist relic casket which contained relic or dhatu in the form of a small fragment of bone which is claimed to be of Lord Buddha. The relic casket is now at ASI office in Bhubaneswar. Odisha tourism is planning to erect a permanent structure at Lalitgiri for veneration of Buddhist relic by pilgrims. Another attraction at the site is the structural remains of a large brick built apsidal chaityagriha. All the major sites of Buddhist circuit in Odisha fall within 100 kms from Bhubaneswar airport which takes around one & half hours to reach through well maintained roads.  The accommodation and hospitality infrastructure at the heritage sites are now provided by Gurgaon based Toshali Resorts International which is now managing three properties at the Diamond triangle all equipped with world class amenities and convention facilities. Toshali Ratnagiri Resort, situated in front of the museum of Archaelogical Survey of India (ASI) and the Ratnagiri Buddhist heritage site is equipped with 19 rooms and a state-of- art library cum interpretation centre along with a multi-cuisine a/c restaurant, conference hall for 70 pax and a coffee shop. Toshali Pushpagiri Resort situated at Pathrajpur on the national highway to Paradeep port, near the heritage site of Lalitgiri, has 24 rooms ,2 conference halls and a multi-cuisine restaurant. Toshali Udayagiri Convention Centre which has a capacity of 6 rooms and a conference hall for 350 pax had hosted the first International Conference on Buddhist Heritage of Odisha last year which was organized by Department of Tourism and Culture, Government of Odisha  and was attended by a total of 1,547 domestic and 66 foreign scholars. This year also State Government is organizing a 3-day International Conference at the same venue on 1st of February with an objective to promote Buddhist heritage of Odisha.

The advantage with Odisha is its proximity to Bodhgaya & Varanasi as compared to other states with Buddhist remnants. Together these three states can develop the Buddhist tourism corridor of India through emphasis on connectivity & infrastructure with an offering of sops to all those players who promote the circuit. Flight connectivity between Bhubaneswar and Varanasi or Gaya is highly imperative to offer a complete pilgrimage for Buddhist travellers from abroad. The challenge with Odisha’s Buddhist product is that tour operators (inbound, domestic & FTOs) are still ignorant about this circuit. Need of the hour is the aggressive promotion of the Buddhist circuit  through the help of professionals and simultaneously the development of infrastructure ( hotels, air connectivity, human resources etc) to cater the inbound tourist traffic. Frequent B2B roadshows, training workshops & fam tours for travel trade, aggressive branding exercise through out door advertising, social media & TV campaigns and effective management of trade relations are highly essential. Buddhist tourism can act as a window to attract global travellers to Odisha and subsequently other key attractions like beaches, temple, wildlife etc can be shown. Hence in all campaigns Buddhist product should be prominently visible as the current market for Odisha lies in Far East and South East Asian countries not in Europe because of Buddhism and Root Tourism. So, there is a need to revamp the entire marketing strategy to opt for a ‘Look East’ policy.

Based on the travelogue of Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang  which informs us that emperor Asoka built ten stupas in Odra desa at places where Buddha visited and he had seen  such stupa near the capital of Kalinga, we can infer that Lord Buddha might have visited Odisha on invitation of his first disciples Tapussa & Bhallika for preaching keeping in view the long life span of Tathagata.  At present,  although archaeologists and historians might be unable to justify visit of Lord Buddha to Odisha, but as I mentioned at the beginning that Odisha holds numerous mystery in the womb of mother earth. So, there exists plethora of opportunities for the upcoming scholars to explore the treasure of an ancient civilization whose prosperity had influenced several countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, China etc where millions of people still claim that their ancestral root is in the land of Kalinga in India, which is none other than Odisha. Hence, a visit to the land of ancient Kalinga known for its rich cultural legacy is a must for all those who want to connect to their roots and pay homage to  the place for which Buddhism is known across the world and is today the fastest growing religion.


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