Pushpagiri Mahavihara: Lost Buddhist ruins found on barren Odisha hill

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    The scorching sun beat down on the archaeologists as they sifted through the ancient site of Langudi Hill in 1995. Among the rubble and fragments of sculptures, a discovery was made that would ignite the curiosity of Debraj Pradhan, the lead archaeologist of the Odisha State Archeology and the project director. Two Brahmi seals emerged from the excavation, which set Dr Pradhan's heart racing.

    With bated breath, he snapped a photo of the seals using his trusty Polaroid Camera. The developed prints were rushed to the office of the renowned Epigraphist BN Mukherjee in Calcutta, who was left astounded by the discovery. The seals, dating back to the first and second centuries, held a vital clue to the location of the 'Pushpagiri’ of the ancient Buddhist texts, whose exact location had stumped both historians and archeologists for centuries. Finally, the mystery had been solved, and a new chapter in history was about to be written.

    What’s more, the next excavation that was held here revealed the face of one of the most famous people in Indian History! Read on.

    A Historic Hill at Langudi

    Tucked away in the heart of the Odisha countryside lies Langudi Hill, a hidden gem of Indian archaeology. With Bhubaneshwar 90 kms to the south and Jajpur 35 kms to the north, the journey to this enchanting site takes you through narrow village roads and meandering lanes, making it an adventure in itself. Despite the help of online maps, reaching Langudi Hill can be a daunting task - but the journey is well worth it.

    As you arrive at the site, you're greeted by an information board put up by Odisha Tourism. Other than that, there's little to indicate the rich history and significance of this ancient site. In fact, the only signs of life are the local villagers herding their cows through the surrounding fields. But don't be fooled by the outward appearances, as Langudi Hill is hiding a treasure trove of secrets waiting to be discovered.

    As you begin the climb up the rugged terrain of Langudi Hill, you're transported back in time. The remnants of a once-grand Stupa loom in the distance. But as you press on, your eyes are drawn to an even more breathtaking sight.

    Etched onto the hillside are 34 rock-cut stupas, each one a masterpiece of exquisite detail and craftsmanship. The intricate carvings are a sight to behold as if frozen in time for centuries. As you continue your ascent, you catch a glimpse of the trenches that marked the site of the 1995 excavations, a reminder of the archaeological efforts that revealed this location.

    The contrast between the present and the past is stark - a far cry from what the famed 7th-century Chinese traveller Hieung Tsang witnessed when he visited over a thousand years ago. But as you take in the awe-inspiring vistas from the summit, you can't help but feel a deep sense of reverence for the place.

    Pushpagiri: Where the Flowers Bloom

    ‘Pu-Sie-P’o-K’i-Li’ is how Hieung Tsang referred to Pushpagiri in his travelogue. While travelling across India between 602 and 644 CE, Hieung Tsang visited the country of ‘U-Cha’ (Odisha). Tsang writes -

    “In the south-west of the country was the Pu-sie-p'o-k'i-li monastery in a mountain; the stone top of this monastery exhibited supernatural lights and other miracles, sunshades placed by worshippers on it between the dome and the amalaka remained there like needles held by a magnet.”

    This is the most prominent record of the Pushpagiri monastery in historical records. But there are other references as well. For example, during excavations at the great city of Nagarjunakonda in Telangana, a 3rd-century inscription was found referring to the erection of a stone mandapa in Pushpagiri. The renowned 9th-century Chinese Buddhist master ‘Prajna’ is said to have spent years studying at Pushpagiri. These historical and epigraphic references give us an idea of just how important Pushpagiri must have been during those times.

    Emperor Ashoka and the Langudi Hill

    Interestingly, Dr Pradhan in his excavations at Langudi Hill in his second excavation at Langudi in 1999-2001 discovered a Brahmi inscription which read - Ami Upasaka Asokasa Samchiamana agra eka thupe” roughly translated as ‘In the Stupa of Asoka, the lay worshipper and the one with religious longings.’

    This led Dr. Pradhan and B.N. Mukherjee to believe that the stupa at Langudi was one of the ten original stupas that Mauryan Emperor Ashoka had established in Odisha after the Kalinga War. Further excavations revealed even more amazing discoveries. Two busts believed to be those of Emperor Ashoka were found here, revealing what the Mauryan ruler looked like. The 2nd-century BCE Prakrit inscription on the back of the bust has been deciphered as "chhikarena ranja asokhena," which means "by the doer of prosperity, King Ashoka." Another find was a stone sculpture showing a seated male with a crown with the inscription - "ranjo asoka." Apart from Langudi, an image of Ashoka has been found only at Kanganahalli in Karnataka, highlighting the importance of Langudi.

    Buddhism continued to thrive here under the Shungas in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE when the rock-cut reliefs seen here were created. What is unique about these reliefs is that they are some of the earliest representations of Buddha in the Dhyana Mudra. The Pushpagiri complex at Langudi reached its zenith in the 7th century under the Bhaumakara kings who were great patrons of Buddhism. It was during this period when prominent Buddhist educational complexes such as Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri, and Udayagiri became great centres for learning, and their fame spread far and wide.

    From the 13th century, with the re-emergence of Hinduism, Buddhism began to decline in Odisha, and with it, the patronage of these monastery complexes came to an end. The Pushpagiri Mahavihara, too, was abandoned and slowly disappeared with time.

    The Rediscovery of Pushpagiri

    In the early 20th century, the efforts of archaeologists and historians led to the rediscovery of a number of lost Buddhist complexes, but the place referred to as 'Pushpagiri' still eluded discovery. For the longest time, there was a difference of opinion among noted Odiya historians on where it was located. Some, like NK Sahu, believed it was located at Phulbani in the Kandhamal district of Odisha, while others like KC Panigrahi, hypothesized that Udayagiri, Lalitgiri, and Ratnagiri formed a common complex called Pushpagiri.

    It was only in 1995, when further studies and surveys were conducted by the Odisha Institute of Maritime and South East Asian Studies, and a series of excavations were carried out by the ASI that the real location of Pushpagiri came to light - on the Langudi Hill. Another series of excavations in 1999-2001 led to the discovery of a number of artifacts dating to the Mauryan period and with these, two busts of Emperor Ashoka were also found. Today, Langudi hill is a protected site under the Archeological Survey of India.

    But all this could well be just the tip of the iceberg. Spread over an area of 143 acres, there is so much more still waiting to be discovered. It is hoped that further excavations will reveal new facets of Odisha’s Buddhist past.

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