Exploring the Ancient Wonders of Udayagiri

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    Perched on a low hill overlooking the river Virupa, the Udayagiri Monastery Complex in the Jajpur district of Odisha is a treasure trove of history and spirituality that beckons visitors from all over the world. Steeped in the rich heritage of Vajrayana Buddhism, this complex is a testament to the power of faith, culture, and architecture. It is here that we find the roots of a movement that swept across Asia, transforming the very essence of Buddhism and paving the way for new paths of enlightenment. The intricate carvings, towering stupas, and ancient monasteries will leave you in awe and wonder.

    The Udayagiri Monastery Complex, is located around 83 kms to the north east of Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha. Udayagiri is part of what is known as the ‘Diamond Triangle’, a group of three sites in Odisha that were at the forefront of the emergence of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, with Vajra or Vajramani being a reference to a 'diamond'.

    Vajrayana and Udayagiri

    Along with Lalitgiri in Cuttack district and Ratnagiri in Jajpur district, Udayagiri was the epicenter of a transformative movement that changed the course of Buddhist history. It is here that Vajrayana or Tantric form of Buddhism first emerged and then spread across Asia. The emergence of Tantric Buddhism in Odisha can be traced back to the 8th century. This period saw a shift in Buddhist practices, with an increased focus on meditation, visualization, and the use of mantras. The adoption of Tantric practices led to the development of new forms of Buddhism, with different schools emerging across the region.

    The emergence of Tantric Buddhism in Odisha was a pivotal moment in the history of Buddhism, as it marked a departure from the traditional practices and beliefs that had defined the religion for centuries. This new form of Buddhism was more experiential and esoteric, and emphasized the importance of ritual, visualization, and meditation. It placed a greater emphasis on the role of the guru and the use of sacred texts and mantras.

    It was against this backdrop of transformation that the Udayagiri Monastery Complex emerged as a center of learning and worship.

    Emergence of Udayagiri Monastery

    From the 7th century onwards, the Bhaumakara kingdom of Jajpur was a center of trade and commerce, and known for its thriving trade with South East Asia. The merchants and traders were great patrons of Buddhism and a number of monasteries or Mahaviharas emerged in the hills around Jajpur.

    Udayagiri is located at the easternmost part of the Assia hills of Jajpur and it has a horse-shoe formation. The name ‘Udayagiri’ has been derived from the local belief that the first sunrise in Orissa is seen from here. The area is covered on three sides by spurs of the hills with an opening on the east, where the vast stretch of land merges with the horizon.

    The Buddhist settlers chose this location to establish their Sangharamas, or monastic communities, in order to pursue spiritual studies in isolation away from the noise and commotion of Jajpur city. Nearby, on a small hill, was the long-established center of Ratnagiri. Moreover, the elevated terrain was deemed suitable for habitation in the midst of a flood-prone region.

    Bhaumakara Kings and Buddhism

    The Bhaumakara dynasty was a prominent ruling dynasty in Odisha from the 8th to the 10th century CE. Their capital was ‘Guhadeva Pataka’ as Jajpur was known then. The dynasty saw a period of great patronage of Buddhism, which helped establish the Diamond Triangle of Odisha as a significant center of Buddhist learning and culture.

    The first three kings of the Bhaumakara dynasty, Keshmankara, Shivakara I (alias Unmattasimha), and Shubhakara I, were known to be Buddhists. They extended their patronage to the Ratnagiri Monastery, which played a vital role in the growth of the Vajrayana School of Buddhism. The Bhaumakara territory also included other important Buddhist sites of Lalitagiri, Pushpagiri, and Udayagiri, which drew visitors and scholars from all over India.

    Under the patronage of the Bhaumakara dynasty, the region saw a gradual shift from Mahayana to Vajrayana Buddhism. According to Chinese records, Shubhakara-simha, a former king of Odra (present-day Odisha), arrived at the Tang capital in 716, at the invitation of Emperor Xuanzong. He bought several Buddhist texts with him and helped popularize Vajrayana in China, which further solidified the dynasty's reputation as a prominent patron of Buddhism.

    The Bhaumakara rule ended in Jajpur when the Somavanshi dynasty captured their Kingdom in the beginning of the 10th century. While the Somavanshis were Hindus, they continued to patronize Buddhist establishments. From the 12th century, the region passed into the hands of the Eastern Ganga dynasty and under the Gangas, the patronage to Buddhist centers dried up. The monasteries were abandoned and forgotten and were reduced to ruins.

    The mystery surrounding the Buddhist ruins at Udayagiri was solved in 1985 when the Archaeological Survey of India started excavating the area. After four seasons of work, they uncovered a stupa, a monastery with a beautifully decorated gate, and a complex that served as both a residence and a shrine. Seals found during the excavation led to the identification of the site as the 'Madhavapura Mahavihara’, as Udayagiri was known in its heyday.

    What you can see at Udayagiri today

    The Udayagiri Monastery Complex is spread across two sites, referred to as Udayagiri Site 1 and Udayagiri Site 2. Udayagiri Site 1 was the first to be excavated, and it consists of a series of rock-cut caves, believed to have been used as living quarters by the monks who resided at the monastery. The caves are decorated with intricate carvings and inscriptions, depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha, as well as other important figures in Buddhist history.

    Udayagiri Site 2, on the other hand, consists of a Buddhist monastic complex enclosed within a compound wall. The complex includes a large stupa, standing at 7 meters tall, with four images of Dhyani Buddhas fixed at its cardinal points. The complex also includes several other stupas, as well as numerous monasteries. The chaitya-griha or the prayer hall at Udayagiri Site 2 is another important feature of the complex. Apsidal in shape, the chaitya-griha is believed to have been a place of worship for the monks who lived at the monastery. Remnants of several stupas can be seen in the western, southern, and northern parts of the chaitya-griha, built in stone, with only their plain plinths seen in a preserved state.

    Today, Udayagiri monastery is a protected monument under the Archeological Survey of India. It is a fascinating historical site that offers a glimpse into the ancient Buddhist heritage of Odisha. The Udayagiri monastery is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in ancient Indian history and Buddhist culture.

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