Ratnagiri Buddhist Complex – The Birthplace of Vajrayana
Nestled amongst the rolling hills in the Jajpur district of Odisha, lies a hidden gem – the Ratnagiri Archeological complex - that was the birthplace of a unique form of Buddhism that spread across Asia. Known as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, this school of Buddhism has captured the hearts and minds of over 18 million people, from the lofty heights of Tibet to the rugged terrain of Mongolia and the Himalayan belt.
Yet, despite its vast following, few have heard of the place where it all began - the Diamond Triangle of Odisha, a trio of ancient Buddhist sites - Ratnagiri, Udaygiri and Lalitagiri , perched atop the Assai hill range near the historic town of Jajpur. Here, the spiritual roots of Vajrayana Buddhism run deep, and visitors can immerse themselves in the rich history and culture of the region.
‘Ratnagiri’ – The Mountain of Gems and its layout
Located 25 kms away from the town of Jajpur, is the Ratnagiri archaeological site which looks a bit deceptive at first. At first glance, it may seem unremarkable, but as you wind your way through the idyllic countryside, you can't help but be enchanted by the serene beauty of the surroundings.
Entering the main archeological complex, a long flight of steps beckons you upwards, leading to a mesmerizing sight - a multitude of votive stupas, standing tall and proud. Each one a testament to the great teachers and scholars who once graced this sacred land. But what truly captures your attention, are the intricate reliefs adorning each stupa - delicate carvings of tantric goddesses, their divine beauty a sight to behold. It's as if the very air around you is infused with the power and energy of the ancient faith that once thrived here.
Beyond these votive stupas, lies the remains of the great monastery complex of Ratnagiri, which once comprised of the great Mahastupa, three large monasteries or Viharas and numerous other religious shrines.
The fabled Green Chlorite Doorway
Prepare to be awed as you approach the magnificent Green Chlorite doorway, the pièce de résistance of Ratnagiri. This masterful sculpture serves as the entrance to the primary building in the complex - Monastery No.1. Standing proudly on the left is a rare and precious statue of the revered Goddess Yamuna. It is said that a statue of the Goddess Ganga once graced the doorway's right side, but alas, it is now lost to time.
Step through the Green doorway and enter the courtyard, the very heart of Monastery No.1. Here, you can almost hear the echoes of teachings from the past, as you stand where monks and students once gathered to learn and meditate. The 24 surrounding cells that once housed the resident monks are a testament to the vibrant community that once thrived here.
At the center of Monastery No.1 lies a shrine that holds a majestic stone-carved statue of Buddha, a sight that is sure to leave you in awe. As you explore further within the courtyard, you'll come across numerous remains of colossal Buddha heads, a testament to the grandeur and opulence that once defined Ratnagiri. It's an experience that will leave you with a newfound appreciation for the majesty of this ancient site.
Monastery No.2, a smaller but equally impressive structure that sits adjacent to the main monastery. With a layout similar to its larger counterpart, Monastery No.2 boasts a courtyard surrounded by residential cells and a central shrine, all perfectly crafted to evoke a sense of peaceful contemplation.
Standing proudly before the monasteries is the Mahastupa, the crowning jewel of Ratnagiri's worship center. This awe-inspiring structure served as the focal point of worship, drawing devotees from far and wide. As you take in the breathtaking sight, you'll also come across a number of small votive stupas, each one a work of art in its own right. The intricate carvings and motifs adorning these structures speak volumes about the skill and creativity of the artisans who created them.
Ratnagiri and The Development of Vajrayana
The Ratnagiri Mahavihara site holds a significant place in the history of Buddhism, as it is believed to be the birthplace of Vajrayana Buddhism, which eventually spread across the Himalayan belt. The emergence of Tantric Buddhism has been extensively studied by experts like Ronald M. Davidson, Professor of Religious Studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, who examined how Buddhism integrated local and tribal practices and evolved into its Tantric form, divergent from the original teachings of Buddha. The Diamond Triangle in Odisha, where Ratnagiri is located, was the site of this transformation. Between the 8th and 11th centuries CE, Vajrayana Buddhism thrived in India alongside Mahayana Buddhism, and today it is the most prevalent form of Buddhism in the Himalayan region.
Taranatha, the lama of Tibet, records in his book "History of Buddhism in India" (1608 CE) that a vihara, called Ratnagiri, was built on the crest of a mountain in the kingdom of Odivisa (Orissa). He notes that 500 monks were residing at Ratnagiri and that they followed Tantric Buddhism. Pag Sam Jon Zang, a Tibetan book written in 1747 CE, also adds that Ratnagiri was an important center in India from where Kalachakra tantra spread throughout the world. This belief is still prevalent in Tibetan monasteries in India today, reaffirming Ratnagiri's significance in the history of Buddhism.
Rise and Fall of Ratnagiri Mahavihara
Ratnagiri complex began to first develop during the first half of the 6th century CE, under the reign of Gupta Emperor Narasinghagupta Baladitya. Its grandeur was further elevated by the Bhaumakara dynasty, which ruled the region from the 7th to the 10th centuries. The Jajpur region, with its thriving trade links to Southeast Asia, attracted wealthy merchants and traders who generously patronized the Buddhist monasteries in the area. Even during the Somavanshi period in the 11th-12th centuries, the patronage to these complexes continued unabated.
Regrettably, the complex fell out of use from the 12th century CE onwards when Buddhism in India suffered a decline due to the twin pressures of Turkic invasion in eastern India by Bhaktiyar Khilji, a military general of Qutb al-Din Aibak, and the Hindu renaissance, which led to the construction of elaborate temples and a shift in royal patronage. One can witness this transformation in the splendid temples of Bhubaneswar, such as Mukteswar (10th century) and Konark (13th century), built during this period. Despite the loss of patronage, Buddhist monks continued to reside at Ratnagiri for a while after the 12th century.
The Rediscovery of the Site
However, eventually, the site was abandoned and left in ruins until its rediscovery and excavation in 1958, which unveiled its rich past to the world.This site was first excavated by Debala Mitra, between 1958 and 1961. She would go on to be the first female director-general of ASI between 1981-1983.
The excavations unearthed a big complex containing two monasteries, a large stupa, numerous smaller structures, a temple and numerous votive stupas (small stupas which hold relics)- about 700 in number, made of brick or stone in different sizes. Along with a large number of sculptures, important finds at the site included a metal sealing with the inscription ‘Sri-Ratnagiri-mahavihariyarya-bhiksu-sanghasya.’ It was on the basis of this that the site was identified as Ratnagiri.
The exquisitely carved walls of the monasteries with rich antiquities including stone and bronze sculptures of Buddha and Buddhist deities (boddhisattvas) like Tara, Vajrapani, Padmapani shows highly skilled workmanship. There are also two dozens colossal sculptures of the heads of Buddha of various sizes excavated at Ratnagiri like the ones found at Borobudur in Java and Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.
Today, Ratnagiri Archeological Complex is a protected site under the Archeological Survey of India and one of the biggest tourist attractions of Jajpur district. Thousands of tourists travel to the site each year, to admire the marvels of one of the most important Buddhist archeological sites in India.
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