Odisha is a treasure trove of heritage sites. Hardly any other states of India boast all Hindu, Buddhist, and Jaina heritage sites like Odisha does. However, travelers have mostly confined themselves to the renowned Bhubaneswar – Puri – Konark circuit, while the rest of the heritage sites of Odisha have largely remained beyond the purview of travelers. This year, we decided to look beyond the usual stops of Odisha and explore the archaeological sites of Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri, and Udaygiri.
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What is the Diamond Triangle:
It was Ashoka, the great Mauryan emperor who was the harbinger of Buddhism in the erstwhile Kalinga. After the savage Kalinga War, ‘Chandashoka’ had a change of heart and subsequently became ‘Dharmashoka’. Afterward, Ashoka took numerous initiatives for the spread of Buddhism in Kalinga and also the rest of India.
However, to understand the impact and legacy of Buddhism in Odisha, one needs to pay a visit to Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri, and Udaygiri. Along with that, the Mahaviharas, stupas, and sculptures found in these sites also testify to the rich architectural heritage of Odisha.
The three Buddhist sites of Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri, and Udaygiri comprise the Diamond Triangle of Odisha. These places were important centers for preaching and practicing Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana involves tantric and esoteric practices for achieving enlightenment. It originated in erstwhile Bengal, gradually spreading to other parts of India and East Asia. Vajrayana is also known as Diamond Vehicle or Thunderbolt Vehicle. The name Diamond Triangle has thus been derived from the term Diamond Vehicle.
Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri, and Udaygiri are the most significant Buddhist sites of Odisha. But alas! The local authorities neither promote the Diamond Triangle of Odisha for tourism properly nor are the basic infrastructures taken care of.
How to reach the Diamond Triangle:
The Diamond Triangle of Odisha is situated in the Jajpur district. They are around 50 km away from Cuttack, and around 75-80 km away from Bhubaneswar.
- By air: You can easily reach Cuttack or Bhubaneswar by flight from any part of India.
- By train: Alternately, you can also reach Cuttack and Bhubaneswar by train. Ample daily and weekly trains ply to these cities from different parts of India.
- By bus: Overnight Volvo and regular buses are available daily from Kolkata.
From Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, you can hire a private vehicle to reach the three destinations of the Diamond Triangle of Odisha.
Ratnagiri lies atop a hillock, nestled between the Brahmani and Birupa rivers. The term Ratnagiri literally translates as “hill of jewels or gems”. Fittingly, Ratnagiri is regarded as the jewel in the triad of the Diamond Triangle of Odisha. It is also the most extensively excavated of the three Buddhist sites.
The name Ratnagiri remained buried inside the multifarious chapters of India’s history until the 1960s. It was during this time that the Archaeological Survey of India under the aegis of Dr. Debala Mitra undertook vigorous excavation works at Ratnagiri. This resulted in the discovery of the remains of a Mahavihara which once rivaled the likes of Nalanda and Taxila.
Excavations revealed the name “Ratnagiri – mahavihariy – aryabikshu – sanghasya” on several seals. The earliest remains of Ratnagiri date back to the 5th century CE. Eventually, it went through phenomenal growth in religion, literature, art, and architecture up till the 12th century CE. Evidence also suggests that Ratnagiri was even graced by the visit of famous Chinese traveler and scholar, Hiuen Tsang.
The entire site is comprised of remains of three monasteries and one main stupa. Additionally, Ratnagiri houses innumerable Votive stupas (erected on fulfillment of wishes) and commemorative stupas (erected in remembrance of monks with their relics). The presence of so many Votive stupas suggests that Ratnagiri was also an important Buddhist pilgrimage site during that era.
Monastery 1 is the largest and most intricately carved out of the three. The most striking feature of this monastery is its elaborately carved chlorite doorway. The doorway leads to an open courtyard. The courtyard is bedecked with countless relics and artifacts. The most eye-catching of these relics is the large head of Lord Buddha. It is accompanied by several Buddha heads of varying sizes. The courtyard also preserves bits and pieces of dilapidated wall panels, door frames, and so on. Each of them indicates the exceptional craftsmanship of the artisans and sculptors.
At one end of the courtyard lies the sanctum. There resides a huge statue of Lord Buddha in ‘bhumisparsha mudra’, one where the Lord’s fingers touch the ground. It is flanked by two exquisite figures of Padmapani and Vajrapani.
Monastery 2 and 3 are smaller and much less grand as compared to Monastery 1. Also, the inner sanctums are empty.
The main stupa signifies the highest point of Ratnagiri. The 17-foot-high stupa was erected around the 9th century CE. This huge stupa is encircled by several smaller stupas, most of which have deities carved in niches on one side.
This stupa also provides a gorgeous view of the surrounding rustic landscape, the beauty of which is enhanced by the imposing Mahakal Temple.
Ratnagiri has produced graceful figures of Avalokiteswar, Vajrapani, Tara, Manjusri, Marici, Hariti, Aparajita, and many other Bodhisattvas. It is indeed interesting to note that, Ratnagiri features more female icons and deities than any other Buddhist site. It may indicate an increase in the tantric or esoteric practices within Buddhism. Also, some of the Hindu deities such as Yamuna and Kubera are featured on the wall panels.
There is also an ASI museum at Ratnagiri, which houses many incredible sculptures and relics excavated from Ratnagiri. It also charts the various phases of excavations at Ratnagiri.
Lalitgiri is the oldest among the trinity of the Diamond Triangle of Odisha. It is also revered as the holiest of the three, as stone caskets containing relics of Buddha were unearthed from here. Also known as Naltigiri locally, archaeological findings date Lalitgiri back to the 1st century CE. It is one of the few Buddhist sites in India where Buddhism was practiced from the post-Mauryan period up to the 10th century CE. Lalitgiri thus witnessed the complex evolution of Buddhism from the Mahayana school to the Vajrayana school.
Lalitgiri is located in the midst of the Virupa and Chitrotpala rivers. One of the seals found from Lalitgiri bears the name “Sri Chandraditya Vihara Samagra Arya Bhikshu Sanghasa”. The site of Lalitgiri is comprised of 4 small monasteries. The entrances of all the monasteries have beautiful lotus–shaped steps. However, unlike Ratnagiri or Udaygiri, they are devoid of any artistic grace and their sanctums are also empty.
The USP of Lalitgiri is perhaps the U-shaped, apsidal ‘chaityagriha’ or prayer hall. The chaityagriha has a stupa at its center and is surrounded by numerous Votive stupas.
Another major attraction of Lalitgiri is the Mahastupa. Its summit can be reached by climbing 45 steps. The top of the Mahastupa gives a brilliant view of the adjoining rural scenery. It is from this Mahastupa that the two relic caskets were found. The caskets were made of Khondalite stone. Three more boxes made of steatite, silver, and gold were found inside these two stone caskets. The gold caskets contained the holy relic of Buddha.
In addition, a large number of historic artifacts were excavated from Lalitgiri such as countless Buddha figures in different meditative forms, statues of Tara, Avalokiteswar, Hariti, and Amitabha, stone tablets bearing imprints of Ganesha and Durga, monastic seals, potsherds and so on.
Lalitgiri has an ASI museum, which houses an outstanding collection of artifacts discovered here. The relic casket is on display inside the museum.
Udaygiri (not to be confused with the Jaina site of Udaygiri-Khandagiri in Bhubaneswar) is the largest among the three Buddhist sites of the Diamond Triangle of Odisha. Though ASI began excavating Udaygiri in 1958, it still remains the least excavated out of the three sites.
Udaygiri literally means “hill of the rising sun”. During its heyday, it went by the name of Madhavapura Mahavihara. It is also interesting to note that, unlike the nearby Ratnagiri site, excavations in Udaygiri did not produce many Vajrayana-themed artifacts.
The entire site is divided into two parts – Udaygiri I and Udaygiri II. A walk along a tree-laden dirt road leads to Udaygiri I. Here lies the Maha Stupa of Udaygiri, with four figures of meditating Buddha facing the four cardinal directions. Behind this 23 ft high Maha Stupa lays the Mahavihara of Udaygiri II. Inside the sanctum of this monastery, there sits a colossal Buddha statue in ‘Bhumisparsha Mudra’. There is also one defaced Buddha idol in “Dharma Chakra Mudra’. The entrance is also decorated with various human figures and natural motifs. The entire area is strewn with innumerable remains of statues, wall panels, decorated carvings, and so on.
The Udaygiri II site has been excavated recently. The apsidal ‘chaityagriha’ takes away the initial attention in this site, along with two ornate statues of Tara and Avalokiteswar. A large number of Votive stupas are scattered throughout Udaygiri II. The main attraction here is obviously the remains of a huge Mahavihara, which also houses an enormous Buddha idol.
From Udaygiri, excavations have unearthed images of Tara, Manjusri, Amitabha, Avalokiteswar, Tathagata, Hariti, Chunda, etc. Also, various seals, epigraphs, and terracotta plates have been found here.
Things to know:
1. The winter months (November to February) are perfect for visiting these three Buddhist sites. We visited the Diamond Triangle of Odisha in mid-March and it was already scalding.
2 Though revered as important Buddhist sites, Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Udaygiri are devoid of any tourist or visitor-friendly ambiance.
3 There are no hotels or homestays for accommodation in any of these three sites. Hence, it is best to stay at Bhubaneswar or Cuttack and visit the Diamond Triangle of Odisha as a day trip.
4. Also, carry food and sufficient water while visiting these places as there are no decent eateries here.
5. Though washrooms are available, they are not at all clean. If necessary, try visiting washrooms at the museums of Ratnagiri and Lalitgiri.
6. Wear comfortable shoes as lots of walking is involved while exploring the sites of the Diamond Triangle of Odisha.