Udayagiri 7

Udayagiri Buddhist Monastery: Madhavapura and Simhaprastha Mahavihara of Odisha’s Diamond Triangle

As I have mentioned in the previous post, I was exploring tourism in Jajpur and on the third day, I visited some of the major archaeological sites in the district along with other delegates. We reached Udayagiri first after an hour of drive from our hotel. It is one of the three major Buddhist sites that are called Diamond Triangle together, including Ratnagiri and Lalitgiri. 

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Expected delights of a Buddhist heritage site

Before going further, let’s make it clear once again. We are talking about the Udayagiri Hills in Jajpur district of Odisha, which is a Buddhist archaeological site. It’s different from Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves at Bhubaneswar and also the Udayagiri Caves in Madhya Pradesh.

Buddhism in Odisha

Before getting to Udayagiri, let’s take a primer on Buddhism in Odisha. It was dominant here during the first millenium, after Ashoka’s conquest, before gradually declining and ceding space back to Hinduism.

The history of Buddhism in Odisha, a state in eastern India, dates back to the 3rd century BCE. The famous Kalinga War, fought by Emperor Ashoka, led to his conversion to Buddhism and the spread of the religion throughout the region. Several rock edicts of Ashoka have been found in Odisha, including in the cities of Dhauli and Jaugada. In the following centuries, Buddhism continued to flourish in Odisha under the rule of the Satavahanas and the Guptas. The famous Chinese traveller, Xuanzang, visited Odisha in the 7th century CE and recorded the presence of many Buddhist monasteries and stupas in the region. However, with the decline of Buddhism in India during the medieval period, many of these structures fell into disuse and ruin. Today, the state of Odisha is home to several important Buddhist sites, including the famous Udayagiri and Ratnagiri caves, which attract tourists and scholars from around the world.

During the rule of the Bhaumakara dynasty in the 8th to 10th century CE, Buddhism saw a revival in Odisha. The rulers of this dynasty were known for their patronage of Buddhism and the construction of several Buddhist monasteries, temples, and stupas in the region. The famous Buddhist monk Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, is believed to have visited Odisha during this time and played a role in the spread of Vajrayana Buddhism in the region.

In the 11th century CE, the Somavamshi dynasty came to power in Odisha and promoted the Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects of Hinduism, leading to a decline of Buddhism in the region. However, some Buddhist communities continued to exist in remote areas of Odisha and their influence can be seen in the local culture and traditions.

Udayagiri Buddhist Complex

There are many interesting accounts about Udayagiri Caves. It was gradually abandoned and forgotten by 12th-13th century but parts of the structures and larger statues remained visible. The locals probably knew about them all along while the modern world started learning about it by the late 19th century as these sites started getting reported in various colonial era journals. Some of the sculptures were moved and installed in other places including parks and modern temples in Cuttack and some of these now can be seen at various museums. However, serious excavation took place much later, only in the 1980s, followed by another series of excavations in the 2000s. 

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Author at Udayagiri with scattered sculptures…

For a long time, many people mistook this site as Pushpagiri Vihara, yet another major Buddhist monastery mentioned by Xuanzang. However, later on, a different site was found to be Pushpagiri. However, Udayagiri is a much larger complex than that one. So, the main Udayagiri Buddhist Complex can be divided into three parts. 

Udayagiri Entrance + Stepwell

There are various scattered sculptures that welcome you at the entrance of Udayagiri, the most notable one being that of one large standing Avalokitesvara that welcomes you just as you enter the compound.

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Avalokitesvara welcoming visitors

After a few minutes of walk we reached a point where the there’s a house which works as the office and accommodation for the guide/caretaker of the site. However, there are a few excellent sculptures in the open. It’s obvious that they were found elsewhere and installed here later on. But do take some time to study them.

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They deserve some shade
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Warm palette makes it easier to guess the weather

There’s a small stepwell nearby. It’s not necessarily the most elaborate one I’ve seen but it’s reasonably deep and still functional. I saw the local priest go down to the well to take a bath. As per the inscriptions found here, it was dedicated by a local chieftain calle Ranaka Vajranaga. 

The stepwell of Ranaka Vajranaga

From this point, two routes emerge. One goes straight and one goes left. These two paths lead to two different clusters that were excavated on different occassions.

Simhaprastha Mahavihara

First I opted to turn left although later on I learnt that this was the portion that was excavated later, sometime around 2000s. Various excavated inscriptions have given us a name too. During its glory days, it was known as Simhaprastha Mahavihara.

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Approaching Simhaprastha Mahavihara

There are multiple elements this cluster. It was definitely a full-fledged vihara and even now, one can see the formations. I could see a freshly painted temple too atop the hill but this is what usually happens all over India as many places are co-opted as Hindu temples with the decline of Buddhism. Nevertheless, bulk of the complex remains untouched and I was glad to see that the statues are also in good shape in southern fo centuries of neglect as well as harsh weather.

A local woman passes through the ruins

The most notable sculpture here is a gigantic seated Buddha lost in deep meditation. Both this statue and its surroundings remain remarkably in tact. Another major Avalokitesvara statue however seems to have been displaced and not it stands tall without any help. A very elaborately carved Door Jamb from this location was removed during the Colonial times and now it can be seet at the Patna Museum!

Giant meditating Buddha
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Avalokitesvara… almost intact unlike the first one
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A vast courtyard in front of the major shrine

Rest of the area is a bunch of scattered ruins of stupas around a big apsidal chaityagriha (prayer hall). As you walk around you spot many notable structures and sculptures including a notably large sculpture of Bhrikuti Tara (Frowning Tara). 

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Scattered Stupas
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Bhrikuti Tara
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Probably parts of some destroyed pillars
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Elaborate pillar that must have been a part of something grander

Madhavapura Mahavihara

I was already exhausted by the time I was done with the earlier portion. Winter is short and summer is merciless in Odisha. the February was already heating up and I reluctantly walked towards the othe cluster. As per inscriptions, it was known as Madhavapura Mahavihara and it was excavated in the 1980s. 

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Approaching the Maha Stupa

The first visible thing here is a giant brick Stupa (Maha Stupa) built on an elevated plane. It can be visible from a distance and tehre are many exquisite sculptures on the walls. However, in order to protect them, they have been covered with iron grills. While I understand the requirement, this also meant that I could not get a clear picture for the same.  

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A closer look
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Great sculptures but difficult to capture due to protective grills

The main Mahavihara is located beyond it. It’s an open courtyard with scattered sculptures includ9ng a big seated Buddha just like the previous one. However, many of the sculptures may have been taken away by various people over teh years. By that time, I was too exhausted due to the oppressive heat and there are no shades for relife here. So, I probably could not do full justice to this part. There is also a nearby area of Solapuama Hill with more ruins, but that I think one should devote a whole day if one has to explore all of them and also find a day with cooler weather.  

Raw footage

Udayagiri Travel Guide

How to reach Udayagiri?

Udayagiri Hills are located in the Jajpur district of Odisha. Udayagiri is around 85 KMs from Bhubaneswar, 60 KMs from Cuttack and 35 KMs from Jajpur.

However, getting here is a bit difficult without a vehicle as it is sort of a desolated area without any habitation.

Is there an entry fee?

Surprisingly it doesn’t have any entry fee. In fact, it doesn’t even have an information board. Hope the authorities pay a bit more attention to it. It’s a bit sad to see it in such a state. It should have been a major heritage site. Hope the nation gets over cliched golden triangle and  understands the value of diamond triangle. 

Is there a guide available?

You can ask the official people present at the site. Give them a tip of they help you.

Jitaditya Narzary

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