Mahima Cult – Celebration of One God Part – 1

2500 years back, a prince from a royal palace of Ancient India left all his luxuries and pleasure of aristocratic life and renounced to seek nirvana. From Prince Siddhartha Goutma he transformed into the Buddha. A new religion was founded by him which had inquiries on the rejection and the exploitation of the lower caste Hindus by the Brahmins and the upper castes. Soon after its establishment, Buddhism became a profound crowd puller. Thousands and thousands of country people adopted Buddhism and contributed to its growth.

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In the mid 19th century, yet another renouncer Mahima Gosain appeared in the Grand Road of Puri, the holy dham of Lord Jagannath with similar ideas. Before arriving in Puri he had lived in the Himalayas for years. There is no evidence of what he did in the Himalayas, but in Puri, he propagated the theory of Advaita – Bada which means God is One, there is no more than one God. He founded a new religion, called the Mahima Dharma or Alekha Dharma based on the principles of universal brotherhood, rejection of Hindu rituals and ceremonies and casteless of society.

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Joranda on the foothills of Kapilash Mountains became the centre of all mahima activities. From here the religion was preached in the regions of Cuttack, Puri, Ganjam, Dhenkanal, Athagarh, Hindol, Sonepur, Boudh, Angul and Sambalpur. He established several centres of Mahima cult known as Mahima Ashram or Alekha Tungi.

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The devotees of Mahima Dharma follow a strict code of conduct. During Brahma Sarana, the devotees dedicate their body and soul to Alekha Param Brahma in body, mind and word. They derive all action from him and remain ever devoted to him. Daily saran and darshan are practised in a pure state of mind during the Brahma Muhurta (the time roughly an hour before sunrise and soon after sunset) after taking bath and making oneself pure in all possible ways. They should shun sex, greed, alcohol and other passions. They should not thieves, should not indulge in sexual intercourse with others’ wives, should not use violence towards animals and they should live in a non-violent way.

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UDAYAGIRI – ON THE FOOTSTEP OF VAJRAYANA BUDDHISM

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Mahima philosophy is based on the worship of the supreme Brahma who is regarded as Sachitanand, Nirguna, Nirahankara and Niranjana. Brahma is described as invisible, indestructible, eternal and the supreme guardian of their universe. He is known as the Alekha (which cannot be written), Anadi (no beginning), Ananta (no end) and Anakara (no shape). The supreme Brahma of Mahima Cult is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. He cannot be realized by the acts of ordinary souls.

Travel Tips

Joranda is located at a distance of 30 km from Dhenkanal City and 90 km from Bhubaneswar, the nearest airport. Though you can meet the monks of Mahima cult throughout the day in their monasteries, however the time best time would be before the Sunset at Dhuni Temple where they perform the evening ahuti. The other nearby attraction from Joranda is Kapilash Hill and the Kapilash Forest, well-known for the elephants. The Chandrasekhar Temple at Kapilash is a well-known Shiva Temple in Odisha. There are no stay options at Joranda, however, one can stay at Hotel Surya (https://www.facebook.com/suryahoteldkl) in Dhenkanal for the Joranda and Kapilash experiences.

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Mahima Cult has its own theory on the creation of the universe. According to Mahima Cult, Alekha Param Brahma emanates in everything of the universe without form. Alekha is himself Vishnu and from him moved Nirakara. When the later begins to appear the former disappears in emptiness.  This philosophy further states: ‘Once the universe was residing in the womb of Alekha, who was incomprehensible. Nirakara, after springing from Alekha, created seven oceans and remained in the state of deep sleep. Jyoti (light) originated from the state of sleep of Nirakara. The seven oceans got agitated with the wind raised by Nirakara in his state of sleep. It produced tides and from the tides emerged Kala (time) which was often identified with Kamala (lotus). Greed, attachment, anger, lust and illusion were attributed to this Kala.

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Brahma, springing from the lotus set on its thread. He was getting frustrated while attempting to trace his origin at the bottom of the stalk of the lotus. Then he heard a voice from emptiness. The voice ordered him to create the world. Thereafter Brahma created this universe in collaboration with Kala.

To be continued

Author – Jitu Mishra

   He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

 

Udayagiri – On the Footstep of Vajrayana Buddhism

Once upon a time, King Indrabhuti of Odiyana had sat with his consorts and ministers on the terrace of his palace. He gazed up into the early morning sky and saw what appeared to be a great flock of scarlet cranes flying through the air.

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Indrabhuti asked his ministers: “What are those birds? Where do they come from?”

“Your majesty, those are not birds at all, but Arhats in their red robes. They are the disciples of the Great Sage, the Buddha. By following the Buddha’s teachings, his followers find release from the bonds of clinging that tie others to this world. Thus they may fly north and south to spread his teachings.”

When Indrabhuti heard the name of the Buddha, his heart melted with longing. He sat unmoving wordlessly and silently.

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Days later, the Arhats crossed the noon-day sky in a great migration that seemed like clouds at sunset. King Indrabhuti called out to them. He asked how they could be so unconstrained by the laws of nature; by near and far, by high and low. They circled above him but did not descend.

Later King Indrabhuti sat in his palace shrine hall. His mind was filled with longing. Calling out for the 500 Arhat attendants of the Buddha, he set out a vast array of offerings: pure water, flowers, incense, hundreds of lamps, perfume and food. He commanded his musicians to play and sing the most beautiful melodies known to them.

Soon, swirling downward through the sky, the Arhats descended there like an immense flock of red birds, and as they sat before him, the Great King asked them to show him the direct path to enlightenment.

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The Arhats then replied:

“Turn your mind from this mirage which is nothing but a prison and a torture house gaily painted like a palace to the entrance and deceives. Renounce the world and find the path to the enlightenment which does not change.”

Indrabhuti considered this in silence for a long time. He shook his head and as if seeing his palace and all around him for the first time, sang this song.

“Monks, you are indeed heroes and noble sons.

But I am a king, not a renounce.

A great world surrounds me.

When the sun rises, I wake to see it.

When the moon rises and the stars shine,

I feel the tenderness of their cool breath.

When my people sing, a child cries, or my consort calls out in the night,

I hear them and my heart moves to them.

When I smell the lotus blooming on the lake

Or the smell of the smoke from the charnel ground, my mind is still.

When I am caressed, I am joyful,

And when I drink wine, I am filled with delight.

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The Arhats were speechless. Again King Indrabhuti sat on his throne without moving for a long time. He surveyed the world of form as it arose from the mandala of the five lights. His senses expanded effortlessly. Opening through infinite space, free from the limits of emotional bias or conceptual structures, King Indrabhuti saw the limitless ocean of galaxies of realms.

King Indrabhuti sat before the Arhats on his throne, eating and drinking and smiling at his consorts, ministers, and generals, as at the same time he gazed on the infinity of realms and beings. Again the Great King asked the Arhats for the path to enlightenment which does not deny the realms of form. And again the Arhats answered:

“Oh Greatest of Kings, you must abandon all desire and craving. Cultivate morality, meditation and wisdom. Develop the Paramitas of generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation and prajna.”

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The King replied: “I wish to see the direct path of complete wakefulness which does not abandon the delights of the five senses and the bliss I share with my consorts.”

Then, King Indrabhuti reached out and took the hand of his consort. As the rays of the sun fill all the sky and illuminate all the earth, it seemed that King Indrabhuti embraced the entire world completely.

At that moment, some of King Indrabhuti’s attendants and ministers saw him as he sat before them as nothing other than a great cloud filled with light; others saw him in the form of Vajradhara.

Then, as he sat before all his court, King Indrabhuti clasped his consort tightly to him. His consorts, ministers, generals and all his courtiers saw him enter into the vast and pulsing flow of time. He appeared to them riding on the back of a golden garuda flying through the sky after sky, appearing in age after age, place after place, and form after form. He flashed through the swirling flow of cyclical illusions, sometimes entirely visible, sometimes in part, sometimes hidden and sometimes only glimpsed as a flicker, like a fish dancing in a golden stream.

In the time when he was first spoken of, Indrabhuti gathered all the tantras together in book form and instructed all the people of Uddiyana.

So it is said that at that time, King Indrabhuti together with all his consorts, all his attendants, every single one of his subjects including ghosts, animals, insects, fish and birds, attained the siddhi of a rainbow body.

Extracted from http://levekunst.com/the-life-of-king-indrabhuti/

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Thus was born Vajrayana Buddhism at Uddiyana. Scholars have tried to find out the modern location of Uddiyana at Swat Valley to the west of Kashmir. However, the recent excavations at Udayagiri in Odisha have led to confirm that the region was a major centre of Vajrayana Buddhism and perhaps had flourished at the heart of Indrabhuti’s Uddiyana Kshetra.

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Langudi – Odisha’s Miraculous Buddhist Hill

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Guru Padmasambhava, the son of Indrabhuti had established Vajrayana Buddhism from Udayagiri at Tibet in the 8th century CE.

Situated on the foothills of a horse-shoe shaped hill of the Assia Range overlooking the vast Birupa Valley in coastal Odisha, Udayagiri is the largest Buddhist complex in Odisha.

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As you enter straight through the entrance of the monastic complex, after walking for nearly 300 m you reach to an excavated Vajrayana Stupa standing on a high platform. The 7 m high stupa is square in plan with four projected niches in four cardinal points, each enshrining a Dhayni Buddha of Vajrayana order.

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On its back, the foothill forming the backdrop is the remains of Udayagirir’s largest monastery. The major attraction of the monastery is its splendid gateway made out of sandstone. The gateway is richly carved with a number of images of the Buddha and other Vajrayana deities.

Travel Tips

Udayagiri Buddhist site is part of Odisha’s Diamond Triangle along with Ratnagiri and Lalitgiri. The site is located in Jajpur District at a distance of 90 km from the centre of Bhubaneswar. Surrounded by hills and rivers Udayagiri and the other two Buddhist sites can be covered in a day trip from Bhubaneswar. However, if someone has wished to stay can be also arranged at Ecotourism complex at Olasuni near Lalitgiri or at Tosali Resort at Ratnagiri.

You can also visit Langudi Hill and Mahavinayak Temple at Chandikhol.

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At any given point of time, you are simply drawn into its pristine artistic treasures amidst the tranquillity of peace. You may not find yet another soul for hours. You will be simply charged to sit for meditation without being distracted by any form of disturbances.

After an engrossing experience you walk down the southern cluster which has maximum concentration of excavated ruins, including brick and stone made circular stupas, yet another large monastery with a life-size image of the Buddha sitting inside the shrine and numerous images of Buddhist pantheons, such as the Buddha, Tara, Manjushri, Avalokiteswara and Jatamukuta Lokeswara. Excavations have also brought into light the remains of large apsidal chaitagriha.

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Another major attraction of Udayagiri is its rainwater harvesting system. A large drain was built from the monastery two located in a higher elevation and oriented on the slope connecting to a large rock-cut well on the plain. This drain tapped the rainwater flowing from the hills and stored for its use during summer.

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The Udayagiri Buddhist monastic site is an archaeological wonder of 8th-10th century CE. Today there may not be any traces of King Indrabhuti’s legacy, but what remains in its air and surrounding land are sufficient to transport an onlooker’s mind to the heydays of Vajrayana Buddhism in Medieval Odisha.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Langudi – Odisha’s Miraculous Buddhist Hill

Year 1995! I had just registered my PhD programme on Buddhist Archaeology at Pune’s Deccan College. I had come to Odisha for my initial fieldwork. On a fine late afternoon, I had stumbled upon Langudi Hill with my other companions Dr Pradip Mohanty and Dr Harish Prusty, both experts in Buddhist Archaeology.

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Remains of Rock-Cut Stupa Ruins

The hill was not far from busy Kolkata – Chennai Highway, but at the same time it was far from the maddening crowd of the hustle bustle of city life and surrounded by vast rice fields and small and large villages. It was awe inspiring. The site had not gone through excavations. But the exposure in a horseshoe-shaped rock-cut panel had confirmed its potential.

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A couple of years later Langudi was excavated by Odisha State Institute of Maritime and Southeast Asian Studies based in Bhubaneswar. A fresh journey began with a new perspective after its excavations.

Travel Tips

Langudi Hill is located in Dharmasala Block near Jaraka Town in Odisha’s Jajpur District at a distance of 90 km from Bhubaneswar. The site is well connected by road and rail networks. When you are visiting Langudi also visit the nearby Kaima and Tarapur Hills for other Buddhist remains. You can also plan for a larger Buddhist trail around Langudi including Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri and the Shakti Peeth Viraja at Jajpur.
There are no accommodations at Langudi, however, Ratnagiri has a decent resort for the night stay. Alternatively, you can stay at Bhubaneswar and visit the Buddhist clusters during a day trip.

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Finding Shravasti (Sāvatthī)

Today standing atop Langudi Hill among its splendid archaeological ruins I became a time flyer and reminded of Huen Tsang, the Chinese monk who had visited Langudi in the middle of 1st millennium CE.

Looking at the plains of Brahmani Delta, I recall Huen Tsang’s statement: ‘In the southwest of the country was the Pu-Sie-P’o-K’i-Li (Puspagiri) monastery in a mountain; the stone tope of the monastery exhibited supernatural lights and other miracles, sunshades placed by worshippers on it between the dome and amalaka remained their like needles held by a magnet. To the northeast of this tope in a hill monastery was another tope like the preceding in marvels. The miraculous power of these topes was due to the topes having been erected by supernatural beings’.

Several attempts had been made prior to Langudi’s excavation to identify Puspagiri University. But most of them had failed.

An inscription found at Langudi reveals its identification as Puspa Sabhara Mahagiriya (Puspagiri). Archaeological excavations have also brought to light a large number of Buddhist caves, dilapidated rock-cut stupas and ruined monasteries in and around Langudi Hill. The area was a prominent Buddhist seat of learning from the time of Ashoka until 11th Century CE. All the three branches of Buddhism, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana flourished here at different periods of its history.

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As you enter the hill what draws your immediate attention is the remains of a large square stupa of burnt bricks and laterite stone built during the rule of Emperor Ashoka in remote 3rd Century BCE. Supposed to be the earliest in Odisha, the stupa testifies the presence of Buddhism in Odisha in the Mauryan Era. An inscription found here also carries Ashoka’s name.

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Mauryan Period Buddhist Stupa – Earliest in Odisha

A passage in the rock edict XIII of Ashoka at Dhauli suggests that there were sramanas along with adherents of other sects in Kalinga at this time. It was during the rule of Ashoka thorough and systematic propaganda was carried out by protagonists of different schools, and Buddhism made considerable headway in Odisha. Ashoka’s brother Tissa had selected Kalinga for the place of retirement. Ashoka had constructed for him a monastery known as Bhojakagiri Vihara, which became the centre of activities of the Thera School. Dharmarahita, Tissa’s preceptor had come to Kalinga to spend his last days with Tissa and other monks in the monastery. Ashoka had also built 10 stupas in Odisha, the Langudi Stupa being one of them. During the time of his grandson, a wealthy Brahmin named Raghav from Odra had become a follower of Buddhism. Raghav had made arrangement of an assembly of eight thousand arahats in his house where they were entertained for three years.

To the further north of the Mauryan Period stupa, there are remains of 34 rock-cut stupas dated to 2nd-3rd centuries CE.

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The central stupa or the maha stupa in the series is shown with lotus medallion and flying vidyadharas.

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On its base are depictions of musicians and dancers, one of the earliest in Odisha showcasing ancient Odisha’s cultural life.

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In the southern part of the hill, excavations have revealed rock-cut images of various female deities such as Tara with her two arms and Prajnaparamita, both Mahayana deities and sculptures of Dhani Buddhas testifying the presence of Vajrayana Cult in the hill towards the end (9th – 11th centuries CE).

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The early Buddhism in Odisha or elsewhere in India was urban-based. The monasteries which were exclusively used as varsa vasa or rainy retreats were located in isolated hills for meditative pursuits, yet not far from their respective urban centres, which were the support base. Trade, both domestic and international thrived in this era.

Langudi Hill was not an exception. Close to the hill in its north is located Radhanagar, the ruins of an ancient city, which was part of my PhD topic in the 1990s. Excavations at Radhanagar have brought to light a large number of objects associated with aristocratic life and markers of domestic and international trade.

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The site of Radhangar and Archaeological Finds

Close to Radhanagar is yet another hill, Kaima on the bank of Kelua River. On its foothills is found a rock-cut elephant, the second after Dhauli, symbolically representing Lord Buddha. There are also caves in all nearby areas including Tarapur, where excavations have brought out yet another circular stupa of Mauryan era.

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Langudi and its surrounding hills are major Buddhist cluster yet to be explored by tourists. The views from these hills are breathtaking. You are simply taken back to the time of Ashoka and ponder to visualize how the bhiksus of Langudi had been responsible for the conversation of Chanda Ashoka to Dharma Ashoka or from Digvijaya to Dharmavijaya.

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Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Finding Shravasti (Sāvatthī)

While growing up I often heard recitations of the poem Bonolota Sen, written by Jibonananda Das in 1942. In this poem, the poet beautifully describes his muse, painting her with various attributes from ancient India. One of the most enigmatic poems that I have read, the words cut deep into the reader’s soul as he or she travels back in time to the glorious past. Few lines from the poem run as such:

A thousand years I have walked these paths,
From the harbour at Malacca in the dark of night
To the straits of Ceylon at glimmer of dawn.
Much have I travelled – 
The grey world of Ashoka-Bimbisara,
Further yet,
The dark city of Vidharbha;
Around me life foams its stormy breath.
Weary of soul,
I found a moment’s respite in her presence – 
She: Banalata Sen of Natore.

Her hair the ancient darkness of Vidisha,
Face an intricate sculpture from Shravasti.
A sailor in distant oceans, rudderless, lost,
When hoves into view
Island of grass through fronds of cinnamon,
A green relief
So she felt to me….”

(translation by Amitabha Mukerjee: https://www.cse.iitk.ac.in/users/amit/other/poems/banalata.html)

From treading the magical realms of this lyrical verse, when I finally walked into Shravasti on a bitterly cold and foggy morning, I found no intricate sculptures resembling the beauty of Bonolota Sen waiting for me. What was waiting was the magic of 2600 years, compressed and hidden amidst the ruins and paths of the once thriving site known as the Jetavana monastery.

Looking back at Shravasti:

The name Shravasti is a familiar one in Indian history from ancient times, and finds mention in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts. Shravasti  was also often referred to as Champakpuri and Chandrikapuri, though Kalidasa called it as ‘Sravasti.’ According to the Mahabharata, the name Shravasti was derived from king Shravasta, while Buddhist folklore says the town was named as Savatthi after Savattha, a hermit who lived here. In Ramayana it is said that Lord Rama of the Surya dynasty divided his kingdom of Kosala (with capital at Ayodhya) into two parts. The elder son Kusa inherited Kushavati or Kushasthali, and Lava got Shravasti that was situated on the banks of the river Rapti (currently the Sehath-Mehath village site near Gonda and Baharinch). It is believed that Lava’s descendants ruled the area for a long time; however, during the time of Mahabharata both Kushasthali and Shravasti seem to have gone into oblivion, though we find mention of Ayodhya under control of king Bruhadbala I, who fought for the Kauravas. In Buddhist literature the name Shravasti carries great significance, as Lord Buddha spent many years of his monastic life in this city. During his life time Shravasti was considered one among the six largest cities in India. For the Jains, Sharvasti holds great religious significance, as the now ruined Sobhanath temple is considered to be the birthplace of the third Tirthankara, Sambhavanath.

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Third Jain tirthankara Sambhanath was born in Shravasti to King Jitārī and Queen Susena (photo courtesy – Wikipedia)

When we look at archaeological evidences from the Gangetic basin, we find the presence of fine Black Red Ware or B-R-W  that denotes the Chalcolithic era, thus establishing the fact that it was likely Chalcolithic people settled down in this area around the second millennium BCE. As the settlements of the BRW people expanded through first half of the 1st millennium, there was also a  shift from copper to  iron, possibly due to discovery of iron ore resources. This iron technology helped the Gangetic basin to expand and develop its unique cultural mosaic, and it is likely that Shravasti settlements started at this time (early half of 1st millennium BCE). Using these new iron tools, soon forests in the Gangetic basin were cleared, farmers started producing surplus crops, and people settled down permanently, forming cities like Shravasti.

In the later Vedic period we find that increasingly territorial identities started gaining importance over tribal ones, and by 600 BCE we find a shift from oligarchic republics to the formation of large states or kingdoms. From loyalty towards the jana (the tribe), the loyalty of the people now shifted to the janapadas (states). By subjugating other janapadas, more powerful mahajanapadas soon came into existence. According to Anguttara Nikaya (Buddhist text), during Buddha’s time 16 such mahajanapadas existed. Kosala was one of them with its capital at Shravasti (by Buddha’s time Ayodhya had been reduced to an unimportant city), and considered among the four great monarchies of that time that survived well after the 6th c. BCE.

Mahajanapadas during Buddha’s time (photo courtesy – wikipedia)

With the formation of these mahajanapadas, India saw an increase in material prosperity owing to trade with Central and West Asia and the Mediterranean region, leading to urbanization. From the strategic location on east-west route of Uttarapatha, which connected the Gangetic basin with the Himalayas, it is likely that Shravasti held great economic and political importance as a trading centre. Shravasti at that time was well connected with other important commercial hubs, such as, Taxila, Rajgir, Pataliputra, Pratisthana, Kaushambi and Varanasi

Dynasty that held Shravasti

According to the Ramayana and the Puranas, the Kosala mahajanpada was ruled by the Aikshvaka dynasty that originated from a king named Ikshvaku, and members of this dynasty held sway over Shravasti, Vaishali, Maithili, and Kushinara. The Puranas give a list of the rulers of the Aikshvaka dynasty from Ikshvaku to Prasenajita, the latter being a contemporary of Bimbisara of the Haryanka dynasty, and Lord Buddha. Prasenajita who was then the king of Shravasti or Savatthi, became one of the leading upasakas of the Buddha. As per the Buddhist scriptures, Bimbisara (who was also the brother in law of Prasenajita) met the Buddha prior to his enlightenment, and later he too became one of his leading upasakas.

Procession of Prasenajit of Kosala leaving Shravasti to meet the Buddha. Sanchi Stupa. (picture courtesy – wikipedia)

Burmese art showing King Bimbisara of Rajgir, who was the brother-in-law of Prasenajit of Kosala, offering his kingdom to the Buddha (Picture courtesy – wikipedia) 

Seeing Shravasti as it is now:

Currently what remains of this ancient city are  parts of the wall that once guarded

The remains of city walls built of mud and bricks of Shravasti in the Maheth site. The walking-path seen in the front is the site of one of the four main city gates of ancient Shravasti, and is the closest to Jetavana monastery. It must have been the same road used by the monks living in Jetavana monastery during Buddha’s times, as they went around for alms (bhiksha) in ancient Shravasti (photo courtesy – wikipedia)

Shravasti, in the Maheth village site; and the Jetavana monastery ruins at Saheth. Besides the remains of religious complexes that contained Buddhist monastic cells with a central court, excavations at Shravasti have found many idols, inscription plaques, terracotta seals in Brahmi script, copper coins of the Ayodhya series, glass and etched agate beads, blue and green glass bangles, and copper ornaments, which are now placed in the Lucknow and Mathura museums. Ramayana plaques were unearthed from the site of Kachhi kuti in the Saheth site of Jetavana, which likely came from a Hindu temple. It is believed that King Ashoka visited Shravasti, and had built two pillars on the eastern gate of Jetavana. Both Fa-hien and Hiuen Tsang in their travel accounts mention Ashokan pillars with ox-capital that they saw at the Jetavana monastery in Shravasti. When Hiuen Tsang visited Shravasti in the 6th c. CE, he found the ancient city in ruins, but he recorded  the monuments that he saw here.

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Remains of the stupa of the merchant prince name Sudatta of Shravasti, who acquired the site of jeta-vana for Buddha, from prince Jeta (son of King Prasenajita of Kosala) at a huge price that equalled the total amount of gold pieces which would cover the entire surface of the plot (the total price amounted to 18 crores). Sudatta was titled as Anathapindika, which meant “giver of alms to the destitute.” This stupa is now better known as kacchi kuti, because a sadhu had made a temporary shrine made of kaccha bricks on top of the mound. This stupa represents structural remains dating from 2nd century CE to 12th c. CE, ranging from Kushana period to Gupta era structures and later period renovations. 

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Donation by Anathapindika, as shown on Bharhut stupa.  Here we can see a cartload of coins being taken down, while the square pieces on the ground denote the gold pieces covering the site. The Brahmi text reads  “jetavana ananthapindiko deti kotisanthatena keta.” (picture courtesy – wikipedia). Buddha first came to Shravasti on an invite from Anathapindika. 

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Remains of monastic complexes at the site of Jetavana monastery. It was also in Shravasti that Buddha attracted many women disciples, which led to his forming an Order of the Nuns, much against his wishes, and he had predicted that with this reform the Buddhist order will not last for long. The first disciple to join the Order of the Nuns by forcing Buddha’s consent was his own step-mother Mahaprajapati. One of his most well known women disciple was Visakha, the daughter of a business tycoon of those times from Saketa. She built Buddha another monastery at Shravasti and named it Purvarama, by selling her expensive head dress. Of the total 25 monsoon seasons that Buddha spent teaching in Shravasti, 19 were in Jetavana and 6 in Purvarama. 

Stupa of Visakha, where her ashes were interred in Shravasti (picture courtesy – wikipedia)

Stupa 1 in Sanchi depicts the three preferred homes of the Buddha within the Jetavana monastery in Shravasti (picture courtesy – Wikipedia)

 

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Remains of the brick made plinths, foundations, and walls of the different monastic cells  in Jetavana. The ancient site of Shravasti was completely forgotten, until excavations were started under Alexander Cunningham in 1863, who followed the details given by Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang and found that Saheth was the site of Jetavana monastery and Maheth was Savatthi during the ancient times. Most of the excavated remains in Jetavana show the typical elevation and plan of early Buddhist architecture, and belong to the Kushana period, with a number of reconstructions and renovations done during the Gupta period, and some more from the later periods dating upto 11th- 12th century CE. 

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The Anandabodhi tree in Jetavana planted  by Anathapindika, considered as the second most sacred tree among the Buddhists.  A cell right behind the tree is supposed to have belonged to a goldsmith’s workshop, as derived from remains of a lump of pure gold in a clay crucible in the room and ash heaps around the building. 

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Gandhakuti, the hut where Buddha spent 19 monsoon seasons. Lord Buddha spent most his monastic life in Shravasti, preaching 871 suttas from the four nikayas, of which 844 were preached from this very spot in Jetavana. According to a description given by Fa-hien, the Gandhakuti originally had seven sections, that held different kinds of offerings, decorated insignia, marquees, and the place was lit with lamps that burned all the time. A rat supposedly set the entire vihara on fire destroying it completely, and when it was rebuilt it only had two sections. 

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Thin gold foil offerings to Buddha is seen on Gandhakuti  and other monastic cell wall remains in Jetavana. This practice of offering gold foil is common among south east Asian devotees, especially from Myanmar. 

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The stupa of the notorious robber known as Ahimsaka or Angulimala, who killed those travelling through the forests in Kosala. He killed people by dragging them out of their homes in nearby villages. To keep count of his victims he strung their fingers around his neck like a garland, which gave him the name Angulimala. While looking for his thousandth victim Buddha intercepted him and made him his disciple. Despite becoming a monk, Angulimala while out begging for alms often faced the wrath of the people whose loved ones he had once killed; but Buddha told him to endure it as a penance for his former misdeeds or Karma.

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Angulimala chasing Buddha in  their first meeting. Painting in the Sri Lanka Buddhist temple at Shravasti. 

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Shravasti is also an important religious place for the Jains. The Jain temple seen here is situated a little away from the Jetavana monastery, and is supposedly the birth place of the third Tirthankara Sambhavnath, whose symbol is a horse. Born to King Jitārī and Queen Susena, he ascended the throne at an early age of 20, and ruled ably for thirty four years, ushering in many changes during his reign. However, one day after seeing a vanishing dark cloud, he realised the transient nature of life, renounced his throne, and chose a monastic life. The remains of the structure show a basic rectangular plan with different strata, and many later additions, extensions, and superimposition. The domed roof structure built of lakhori bricks is a much later medieval Islamic imposition. The interior face of the structure had several niches that housed Jain deities and many such deities have been recovered from the site. 

 

Remains of small room like structures within the Jain temple. Just outside the temple are two more mounds of ruins, likely to hold remains of ancient monastic structures.

The Shravasti Miracle

The Twin Miracle  performed  by Buddha at Shravasti, seven years after gaining enlightenment, is considered as his best miracle. The miracle was in response to a challenge thrown to Buddha by the heretics, wherein he had predicted that he would perform a miracle while seated under a mango tree (as stated in most of the Pali texts, such as Dhammapadathakatha and Jataka tales). Hearing this the heretics destroyed all mango trees in the area; however their plans were thwarted when Buddha planted a mango seed that immediately grew into  a full grown tree with fruits, thus allowing Buddha to perform his miracle, known as the Yamaka-pātihāriya  or the Twin Miracle. This miraculous phenomena paired two opposite natural elements:  flames that came out from the upper body, while water streamed down from his lower body, and the two were alternated. At the same time,  water and fire also emitted alternatively from the left and right sides of his body. 

The twin miracle by Buddha at Shravasti (photo courtesy – wiki pediaby Ddalbiez) 

Another important text Divyavadana written in Sanskrit talks of another Great Miracle performed in Shravasti, which was a miracle of multiplication, where Buddha created multiple images of his self in front, back, and the two sides, thus forming a group of Buddhas that reached up to the Heaven.

The miracle of ‘Many Buddhas’ in Shravasti (photo courtesy – Wikipedia)

Downfall of the high and mighty

Shravasti, the once powerful city and capital of the mighty Kosala mahajanapada, a centre of economic, socio-cultural, and political activities, saw a sudden decline from 3rd-4th c. CE. The decline started  a little earlier than the other important north Indian cities of the time, from the later part of the Kushana period, when for some reason (could be economic, political, or cultural) people suddenly started moving out of this urban centre. The decline can be attributed to economic stagnation, owing to the Hun invasion and the diminishing Indo-Roman trade in the later half of the Gupta period. Thus, an economic decline led to the complete disintegration of political unity, and breakdown of the socio-cultural fabric that had been held together for many centuries.

Author – Monidipa Dey

She can be reached at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at MoniGatha

Sri Surya Pahar: Riddles of an Unwritten Past

The very mention of Sri Surya Pahar generally evokes a sense of doubt and confusion. Most people are unaware of it and even those who know the name find it hard to locate it on a map. The fact that it is one of the oldest and largest archaeological sites providing a vital clue to Assam’s undocumented ancient past matters little when it is not even taught about in local schools. The location also doesn’t help. Goalpara is not a district that generally features on the tourist map of Assam, inspite of it being quiet close to Guwahati and not that hard to reach.

I don’t exactly remember the moment but I first heard about it during my school days although it took several years to make the first visit. Over the subsequent years, more trips to the place followed and with every trip, my fascination for the site deepened, along with my frustration at its obscurity.  I have never seen another tourist out here. The only visitors are local pilgrims, most of whom mistake the Buddhist stupas to be Shivlings.

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An Uncertain History

Like most other archaeological sites in Assam, Sri Surya Pahar has a very unclear history. It is located atop a group of small hillocks not very far from the Brahmaputra. Considering the convenient location, it is not hard to imagine a prosperous port-city in the ancient times around these hills. What we know for sure is that this site contains remains of Hindu, Buddhist, as well as Jain shrines, thus pointing towards an era that has not yet been properly studied or investigated. Buddhist sites are rare in Assam and Jain sites are practically unheard of. So, this makes Sri Surya Pahar a very unique proposition.

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ASI has been conducting excavations intermittently over the last few decades and while a lot has been dug out so far, a lot more is believed to be still under the ground. Looking at the diversity and expanse of the site, it can be guessed that constructions must have taken place over multiple centuries, and represent different eras. In the absence of any solid historical document from those times, one has to take the help of ancient scriptures and some apparent references to the site can be found in a few 9th and 10th century religious texts. Also, these austere votive stupas point to a period of Hinayana prominence. In comparison, Mahayana sects were known to build more elaborate structures but they rose to prominence much later. This inference has led historians to believe that the Buddhist remains here could be as old as 2000 years, thus making them older than the oldest known historical reference to Assam (Gupta Era, 4th-5th Century). While none of these can be verified with complete certainty, it can be concluded that this site had been developed over a significant period of time in the first millennium.

Scattered Ruins

Sri Surya is not just one monument but a cluster of scattered ruins. According to some local myths, the site had 99999 shivlings in its original form. It sounds somewhat similar to that of Unakoti in Tripura which is believed to have one less than 10 million statues. In reality though, some of these are actually stupas while rest of them are indeed shivlings. The largest stupas are located on the western side of the site. Stairs have been built by the authorities and it takes a bit of climbing to reach the more important portions. One must have the willingness to climb all these stairs under blazing sun and spend at least a three hours to fully explore the site. Apart from the stupas, there are also a few unexplained ruins like the remains of a square shaped basement of some structure, which is believed to be a Vihara. There is another square shaped remain on the south-eastern side of the hills which is even harder to explain or predict.

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As far as the Hindu ruins are concerned, they are easily identifiable. There is a devi sculpture with twelve hands on a large rock, which is the primary attraction for the devotees. Various statues and sculptures related to Shiva and Ganesha are all over the site. However, many visiting hermits tend to build temporary structures out there, blocking the view.  This primarily happens during the month of “Magh” (January-February), when a local fair is organized. I tried hard to trace the origin of this fair and as far as I could understand, it started some time during the early 20th century when an ascetic settled here and started the fair as a way of attracting pilgrims.

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So, this year we visited it in February when the colourful local fair was in full swing and in complete contrast with the rest of the ruins. Nowadays it attracts a large number of local visitors and it is a rare form of entertainment for many. This also offers an opportunity for many new age, commercialized holy men to set up their “shops” here for a few days. Some of them could be seen taking residence in some of the caves and consulting the locals on various matters.

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The most puzzling though are the Jain remains. Assam has never really had a serious Jain connection in the past and the only known Jain communities here are the mercantile communities that arrived from Rajasthan in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Jain parts of Sri Surya are located on the South Eastern side of the site and it takes a bit of strenuous climbing through a flight of reasonably steep stairs to reach that part. The artefacts are not very elaborate in these parts. There are a few caves that were Jain meditation spots according to ASI signage. However, locals have a habit of planting flags and applying vermilion without much regard for its history.

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Also, as the name of the place suggests, sun worship should have been a primary aspect of Sri Surya Pahar. None of the major structures and artefacts point to that. It is in fact, hard to say how this place came to be called so. However, one of the excavations resulted in an artefact that to some extent looks like the sun. A small temple has been built to keep it protected but we were told that the original artefact has now been moved inside the museum situated nearby to protect it from damages and a replica is placed inside a newly built temple. But that has not deterred the visitors from gleefully offering prayers in front of the replica.

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Sri Surya remains a mystery, a tantalizing one for the lovers of history and archaeology. Technically it is sort of a missing link that remains hidden in plain sight. It deserves better restoration as well as research because that can clear a lot of doubts and provide a clearer picture about life and times in ancient Assam.

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How to Reach Sri Surya Pahar

It is 124 kms westwards from Guwahati. The nearest big towns are Goalpara and Dudhnoi. As the spot has not been developed as a tourist destination, you are unlikely to find any accommodation or public transport going directly to the point although buses do ply on that route. It is better to have a private vehicle and just follow the map.

Best time to visit Sri Surya

It can be visited anytime but better to go in the winter as the rocky hillocks heat up very easily on a clear day.

Where to stay near Sri Surya

Goalpara district does not have a very developed tourism infrastructure. There are a few small hotels in the nearby Goalpara town but a better idea will be to make a day trip from Guwahati and return by evening.

 

Author – Jitaditya Narzary

He can be reached here

 

Turtuk – Living On The Edge

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page-” thus spake the Augustine of Hippo; and since I am a voracious reader, I decided to read a few more pages this year. This reading took me up the long, winding roads of the greater Himalayas, and I found myself wandering in the ‘land of high passes’: Ladakh . While taking one of the lesser explored trails into far north western part of Ladakh, we ended up in the village of Turtuk. Nestled amidst the towering peaks of the Karakoram, this village was once a part of Gilgit-Baltistan region.

When I reached, I found it sitting smug under the warm August sun, wrapped in the thoughts of its glorious past.

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Sun dappled lanes of Turtuk. Time stands still here.

Taken over by Pakistan post -independence, Turtuk, which is hardly 10 km from the Line Of Control (LOC), became a part of India during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 under the able leadership of Major Chewang Rinchen. Settled in the shadow of the famous K2 peak that falls across the LOC, this village has the river Shyok flowing beside it. Its greenery came as a relief to our eyes that were sore after hours of gazing at the black tarmac road, boulders, and white sand on all sides, without any vegetation.

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The Shyok river which gives company till Turtuk, flows across the LOC and meets the Indus. Shyok, which means “Death” in Uyghur, was named thus as it frequently floods its sides, cutting banks causing soil erosion.  Many times the river has wiped out entire villages often forcing villagers to move away and seek home elsewhere. The Shyok has not quietened with time and with an increased volume during the summer, it is impossible to cross the river. People living in villages such as Hunder and Utmaru are forced to use boats known as bips, for crossing it at remote places where there are no bridges.

Turtuk, once part of the inland  trade route (the silk route) for merchants travelling through the Karakoram ranges, was likely to have been an important trading post linked with Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. However, little recorded history is available of those days and what we now see has been shaped more by  the 1971 war and events thereof. With the closing down of borders in 1971 and the ancient trade routes sealed, the economic lifeline was cut off, choking Turtuk and the other border villages.

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The United Province of Baltistan, divided by recent borders. Interestingly, the area of Ladakh (of which Turtuk and adjoining areas are a part) has seen many partitions before. It started in 9th century CE when it was separated from the Tibetan empire by Beg Manthal of the Yabgo dynasty who conquered Khaplu. Later, in 1834 CE, the Dogra rulers from Jammu annexed it and made it a part of Jammu and Kashmir. Then in 1947, the Indian subcontinent underwent partition, and Baltistan was taken over by Pakistan. Finally in 1971, the Indian army took back the control of Turtuk and three other villages.

Baltistan once was a separate kingdom, and a Central Asian tribe named the Yabgo dynasty, controlled the united province from Chinese Turkistan.  Among the rulers of the western Turkistan, the Yabgo surname belonged to the leader of the  Gaz tribes whose kingdom extended from Afghanistan to Turkistan. The Yabgo reign in Baltistan started from around  800  CE, when Beg Manthal, the 10th descendant of Prince Tung (he started the Gaz dynasty), came from Yarkhand (a part of modern China) and conquered Khaplu. The dynasty’s reign lasted until 1834 CE when Ladakh was annexed by the Dogra rulers of Jammu. The Yabgo dynasty were patrons of art, poetry and literature which flourished under their long rule over the region.

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The family tree of the Yabgo dynasty prepared by the current ‘king’ Yabgo Mohammed Kacho with help from Indian Army.

The descendants of the Yabgo dynasty still live in Turtuk and the family is considered as rulers by the villagers. The ‘king’ Yabgo Mohammed Kacho, a rather down to earth and soft spoken  gentleman, receives all those that visit his former summer home that now serves as a museum with warmth.  Some of his family members remain on the other side of LOC as do many family members of other villagers. Along with this pain, the villagers harbor a regret that the Indian army did not take over the entire Baltistan that fateful night during the war.

Turtuk reeled under two long decades of mistrust arising from a sense of mixed emotions of losing close family members to Pakistan, and add to it the apathy and neglect shown by the Indian government towards these border villages. Finally in 1999, Lt Gen Arjun Ray, who was then the Commander of 14 Corps, started ‘Operation Sadbhavna,’ which aimed at reviving a positive civil-military relationship. Under this operation, the army undertook many projects that ranged  from building schools, developing infrastructure,  to establishing computer and other vocational training centres, poultry farms, programs aimed at women empowerment, providing telephone connections, free medical services and a daily bus service. Today, for the people of Turtuk it is “upar Allah, niche Indian Army.” Turtuk stands as a shining example of how things can work out amicably, when both sides are willing and able to appreciate each others efforts.

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The current ‘king’ Mohammed Kacho of the Yabgo dynasty tells us of the former glory of his ancestors. Of the fateful night when they became Indians and how the Indian army is the best thing to have happened to the villagers. He categorically said that while politicians are the same corrupt players on all sides of the borders, it is the Indian army that stood by them at all times. His former palace was almost entirely looted and destroyed by the Pakistan army because his father had filed a case in the Lahore court against them for illegal occupation. Almost nothing remains of their former wealth and the only evidences seen are in the form of dusty artefacts that are a part of the museum.

Located at an altitude of 9846 feet, the village of Turtuk is inhabited by the Balti people of Tibetan origin. Once one crosses the Hunder area and nears the Balti zone, everything changes drastically: the landscape, physical features of the locals, clothing, language, and culture which is markedly different from the rest of the people in Ladakh. The Balti women are seen wearing colourful floral prints that stand out in contrast amidst the stark mountains all around.

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The villagers in Turtuk. The women are still not so open to being photographed, so didn’t take their pictures. Extremely hospitable, the villagers are always ready to talk and help. 

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Golden heads of barley

Turtuk being warmer, the villagers are able to cultivate two crops in a year. Barley, wheat, buckwheat, peas, spinach, pulses, beans,  and mustard are widely grown. Among livestock that provides milk, meat and wool are the dzos (hybrid of yak and cow), goats, dzomos and sheep. Fruit cultivation is another widespread practice seen in all these border villages and the little gardens abound in apricots, walnuts and few apples that help to augment the villagers’ incomes. Interestingly, there is a Tsarma apricot juice factory in Turtuk that  sells pitted and pressed  apricot juice. Since Turtuk is a strategic military outpost, it was closed to outsiders, even other Indians, until 2010 when the locals weary of  isolation and looking to increase their meagre incomes petitioned for the beautiful valley to open up. As tourists slowly started trickling in, albeit armed with permits, tourism as an industry has started evolving bringing in the much needed cash.

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We were offered these apricots by a lady who was standing in her garden as we walked towards the museum. She plucked them from a tree, washed them in a flowing stream, and offered them to us. As we bit into them we realised we were having the best apricots we have ever had. Juicy and sweet, they were absolutely delicious, and I can guarantee that I have never found such wonderful apricots in the markets of NCR!

Fruit laden trees and vines: apricots and grapes. The villagers sell their fruit and crop produce in the local markets and to the army and sometimes travel to Nubra, Hunder and Diskit to sell their fruits.

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Fields of Turtuk

Baltistan was predominantly a Buddhist region which changed when Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, a poet from Iran and an Islamic scholar, arrived there in the 13th century CE.  An old mosque near the memorial of Captain Haneef Uddin (Kargil war hero) still stands in the old part of Turtuk. While its exact period of construction remains unknown, it was first renovated in 1690 CE. The mosque has a blend of Buddhist designs, swastikas, and Iranian motifs. Turtuk villagers are mostly Muslims, unlike other parts of the Nubra valley, and 70% of them follow the Nurbakhshi school of Sufi Islam.

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The bridge that one has to cross to reach the old monastery and the mosque

As we walked through the narrow cobbled lanes of the village, we marvelled at the wooden, gaily painted houses that were huddled together, almost as if they wished to escape the winter cold. Some houses showed old carvings on them. As we explored the village further, following the hand-painted map, we found a wooden house that was larger than the other houses and it turned out to be the museum and the king’s former summer palace.  At the entrance gate there was a large wooden eagle hanging, which symbolised the ‘saviour’. As we looked at the house (it certainly didn’t look like a palace), we suddenly noticed the old wooden doors and the wooden carved cornices that still held flaky remnants of colours on them, and it seemed as if these old walls were telling us a story of a kingdom long lost.

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The wooden eagle on the gate of the former summer palace’

Inside the palace courtyard

The worn out wooden pillars, thick wooden beams, delicate arches in wood, bright carpets, all speak of a bygone era

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On the terrace, there is a vineyard !

Left: Photographs of the current ‘king’ Kacho Mohammad Khan, his grandfather and father. Right: A painting of Beg Manthal, who started the Yabgo dynasty rule in  Ladakh in the 9th century CE

Various artefacts in the family museum.

The remnants of ‘king’ Kacho Mohammad Khan’s family wealth are seen in his DSC_0669 own private museum in the summer palace. The collection includes coins, old metal and earthen pots, silver ink containers, shields, arrows used in war, lapis lazuli encrusted sword, paintings, clothes, headgear, footwear, family record books, leopard traps,stuffed heads of hunted animals, along with a donation box for the visitors. The current ‘king,’ who is a writer and lover of books, earns his daily bread by selling fruits and vegetables to the Indian army. He is also likely to be the last king of his dynasty that once ruled Baltistan for more than 1000 years. His only son is more interested in doing business than performing the role of a non-functional king of a non-existent kingdom.

Turtuk, a charming high altitude border village, with its hospitable and friendly people, has steadfastly refused to take part in any attempts at radicalisation, and are solely focused towards creating a cordial atmosphere. Their patience and efforts have borne fruit, and today tourists are coming in from all parts of the world to Turtuk and returning with wonderful memories of love and affection received from the villagers. With hopes of a better tomorrow,  Turtuk can now sit smug and revel in the stories of its past glory.

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com

or at

Monidipa

Mandapeshwar Caves – Isolated Remains Of A Tumultuous Past

4 kms in an hour. My bike can go faster but not the rush hour traffic and crowd of Swami Vivekanand Road in Borivali. Does not matter if its a sunday today for in Mumbai every waking hour is a rush hour. Exhausted but finally in front of Mandapeshwar caves. How I wish I could go back in time when the Buddhist monks used the Dahisar river to travel between Kanheri- a 5th century Buddhist university and Mandapeshwar- a Hindu rock cut cave complex that the monks had made their home.

Centuries have gone by and a lot has changed, including the course of Dahisar river that now flows at least 300 meters away to the east of the caves and is reduced to a dirty nullah. A far cry from a navigable river that was a nodal point of a wider trade route.

facade of Mandapeshwar cave

Nevertheless, I was very happy to see the caves being preserved and protected well with a compound wall and a large open breathing space in front of the caves contrary to Jogeshwari, Magathane and other such rock cut caves that are choked by illegal urban settlements mushrooming all around them.

Mandapeshwar is rather small for a cave complex and has just two caves, one much smaller than the other. The bigger cave, as is apparent was meant to be the main shrine for Lord Shiva while the other one- which is largely unfinished, plain and devoid of any sculptural traces was meant to be the living quarters.

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The caves start capturing your imagination from the entrance itself where four completely worn out frontal pillars of the Mandapa flanked by two pilaster in a fairly good state at the extreme ends, greet you.

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There are evidences of claws of an animal- most probably lion on both the sides of the entrance steps. As one enters the mandapa, we see more refined and fairly intact pillars. This cave has a total of five cells of which two are at the extreme ends and facing each other while the middle three cells are along the rear wall. It has a large Mandapa spread across five cells, most likely the reason why this cave shrine came to be known as Mandapeshwar- hall (Mandapa) of the lord (eeshwar).

L to R (nataraja cell, Pashupata cell, Sanctum, another cell, and the cell from where i have clicked this picture- a total of 5 cells)

cave interior

Entrance to the sanctum cell in cave 1

 

The central of the five cells is the sanctum sanctorum of the cave- the abode of lord Shiva. The entrance to the sanctum is flanked on both the sides with pilasters. These pillasters are designed in almost the same way as the rest of the pillars in this cave are, with an Amalaka as a capital. A quintessential feature of many rock cut caves of this period that are dedicated to lord Shiva, be it Mandapeshwar, Elephanta or as far as Badami in Karnataka.

Newly installed lingas in sanctum

 

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The interior of the central shrine is largely plain except for a couple of niches carved in the walls housing remains of withered sculptures. The sanctum is occupied by two Shiva lingas that are clearly a later addition to the cave.

Nandis in front of sanctum

Just outside the entrance of the sanctum, sits the original sculpture of Nandi bull- the vahana (vehicle) of lord Shiva, split into half with just the rear half still in place. Alongside the old and injured Nandi sits a younger Nandi with his ears in place to listen to the devotees. It is a general custom to whisper one’s wishes in the ear of the Nandi so that it reaches Lord Shiva and the same is granted. Look out for the inscription on the door jamb –  done during the Maratha rule as is evident from the devanagari script

Inscriptions on door jamb of sanctum

Moving to the extreme left cell, we see what can be termed as a treasure – a Nataraja panel carved with great details. A massive six armed figure of Nataraja takes the centre stage here surrounded by various other figures. On the right are the figures of Goddess Parvati along with two of her attendants. While on the other side is an artist beating a drum. The upper left corner is occupied by the three headed Brahma while the upper right corner has Vishnu. Just below Brahma’s sculpture is the sculpture of Lord Ganesh. Celestial beings are present on both the sides of the head of Nataraja.  The panel seems like some sort of a celebration, Henry Salt in his ‘Account of the caves in Salsette’ published in Transaction of literary society in Bombay Vol.1 1819 A.D, describes this panel as that of Shiva’s marriage with Parvati. However few historians are of the opinion that the figure thought to be Parvati is just another attendant and the panel depicts the dance of Nataraja to the beats of a drum!

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The story of the creation of Mandapeshwar caves between 5th and 6th centuries and the ensuing events that took place is a tale of how structures bear a testimony of the struggles of the time and encapsulate it. 90 percent of the rock cut caves in Maharashtra are of Buddhist origin including the nearby caves of Mahakali & Kanheri, but what makes Mandapeshwar fascinating is that the construction of this Shaiva cave is also attributed to the Buddhist monks. What made the Buddhist ‘missionaries’ hewn a Hindu cave? Could it be that Buddhism- a comparatively new religion then considered itself to be a faction of Hinduism? Is it possible that the Buddha was still considered more of a saint than God while the Hindu Gods continued to be worshipped?

Lets compare the time periods of the construction of Kanheri and Mandapeshwar caves. Kanheri caves, cut as early as 3rd century BCE, attained the status of a Buddhist university between 4th and 5th centuries. At its zenith, Kanheri had a total of more than 125 different types of caves and structures including Stupas, cemeteries, Chaityas (prayer halls) and Viharas (residential chambers for monks) carved out of a single rock hill. There is a possibility that during those years Kanheri’s infrastructure could not handle the increasing population and they were forced to look for accommodation options for its visiting monks. Various historical texts confirm that Mandapeshwar was indeed used as a residential quarter by the Buddhist monks. Kanheri was situated very close to the mouth of Dahisar river and Mandapeshwar was along its banks making it very easy for the monks to access it by the riverine route. Dahisar river was a part of a bigger trade route that existed between Konkan and Sopara (today’s Nala Sopara which was an established Buddhist center back then).

Pashupata panel cave 1

 

Another sculptural link that connects the dots, is the cell between the sanctum and the Nataraja panel cell. This cell is apparently thought to have had a large sculpture of Lakulisha (a Shaiva sect reformist and often considered the last avatar of lord Shiva himself) in the centre sitting on a lotus flower, stem of which is held by two nagas, while the central nonexistent sculpture is surrounded by other divinities and celestial beings. The style in which the lotus is carved, anyone with even a little knowledge about Buddhist sculptural art would not miss the connection between this sculpture and sculptures of Buddha represented in rock-cut art of the same period. Although, much is lost in this panel and the central Lakulisha figure is destroyed beyond recognition, we can only guess (logically) that the Pashupata cult that Lakulisha is often associated with, was dominant during this period.

Plain interior of cell next to Sanctum (if Pashupata cell is on left then this is on sanctum's right side)

Looking out from Pashupata cell

The cell on the other side of the sanctum however is plain with no sculptures except for few on the pillars and so is the lateral cell next to it

Cell 5 (its not called cell 5 .. im calling it cell 5 so you know which one is in the picture)

Sculpture on a pillar in cave 1

As you step outside the main cave and walk towards the second cave, you notice a misplaced symbol on the southern facade- a rock-cut Christian cross. This seemingly small cross however is the only remnant of Mandapeshwar’s tumultuous past. The Portuguese chipped off what was thought to be an idol of lord Shiva and flattened it to carve a cross out of it.

Southern external facade of the cave (right side is the Portuguese cross, and left side is the entrance to Cave 2)

Every event that soon followed has two drastically opposite theories, one from the Hindus trying to portray the Portuguese and the Christians in bad light and the other claimed by the Portuguese blaming Marathas for destruction of sculptural art here due to the usage of heavy explosives to uncover the Hindu sculptures from the plaster used by Portuguese to hide them.

Clicked from cave 2

It all goes back to the time when the Portuguese were ruling Mumbai with their main base in today’s Thane on extreme northern end of Sashti- the Marathi name for Salsette island on which the caves are located. Hearing about these wonderful rock cut caves, the Portuguese arrived here in mid- 16th century and chased away the Hindu yogis to set up their base in Mandapeshwar thinking of a larger role for it to be played in future. The Christian account of the same story however claims that the Portuguese arrived at Mandapeshwar wanting to meet the Hindu yogis but hearing of the news of arrival of the Portuguese, the Yogis got scared and ran away. However, both these accounts agree that a yogi known as Ratemnar was converted by the Portuguese priests and was given the village of Mandapeshwar.

Cave 2 & cave 1 and monastery on top of it

 

The Caves were soon converted into a shrine for Mary named as Nossa Sra De Piedade (roughly translating to Our Lady of Pity) with all its Hindu sculptures buried under a thick layer of smooth plaster and the Shiva shrine was hidden by a brick wall in front of it. Mandapeshwar was ripped off its identity and it came to be known as ‘Monapazer’ or ‘Mont Pesier’ by the Portuguese. As a part of expansion of the complex, a church and a monastery was constructed on top of the cave and was used to impart religious education to the recent converts and other Indian Christians. Another shrine was erected on the opposite hill and a graveyard in between the two.

 

Mount Poinsur church Graveyard

After about 180 years of functioning as a Christian shrine, Mandapeshwar returned to its original ‘faith’ and again became a Shaiva shrine when Maratha prime minister Bajirao Peshwa 1 defeated the Portuguese in 1737 in the battle of Bassein (Vasai). But Mandapeshwar soon exchanged hands when the Sashti island went to the British in 1774 under the treaty of Salbai with the Marathas. The caves again became a Christian place of worship. The Portuguese church, however couldn’t survive and what remains today are beautiful ruins evocative of a distant past. 

Ruins of the Portuguese monastery Pic 2

Ruins of the portuguese monastery

The second cave at Mandapeshwar is very different than the main cave in many ways. There are no sculptures, no carved pillars, no idols, no niches but just a large plain hall. The only traces of carvings are found on the entrance pillars which form the southern facade of the main cave.

Narrow rock cut path to cave 2

Cave 2

Cave 2 interior shot

Mandapeshwar caves remained a Christian place of worship till 1920’s and was possibly abandoned later. Around 1960’s the caves were declared a protected monument by the Archeological Survey of India and continues to be a popular Shaiva shrine. Life seems to have truly come a full circle for Mandapeshwar!

a small devotee

A walk today in this area better known as ‘Mount Poinsur’ (a disambiguation of Mandapeshwar) of Borivali is a living reminder of its past. The residential area along the Laxman Mhatre Road and Swami Vivekananda Road are largely Hindu whereas to the rear side of the caves is IC colony; named after the Portuguese Immaculate Conception Church, a residential colony that has highest concentration of Christians in entire Mumbai. As a popular quote by journalist Edurado Galeano goes “History never really says good bye. History says, see you later”!

Author – Onkar Tendulkar 

He can be contacted at onkaar7@gmail.com      

Kalpavriksha and Its Depiction in Art and Architecture – An Overview

Moolatho Brahma roopaya, madhyatho Vishnu roopine,
Agratha shiva roopaya Vruksha rajaya they Nama.

My salutations to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Brahma,
Middle is the form of Lord Vishnu,
And top is the form of Lord Shiva.

Aswatha sarva papani satha janma arjithanicha,
Nudhaswa mama vrakshendra, sarva aiswarya pradho bhava.

The holy fig tree pushes away, all sins earned,
In several hundred births, and Oh king of trees,
Please grant me all different types of wealth.

Rig yaju Sama manthrathma, sarva roopi, parathpara,
Aswatho Veda moolo asou rishibhi prochyathe sada.

Great sages go in search of Aswatha,
As it is the soul of Rig, Yajur and Sama Vedas
And takes all forms, greater than the greatest,
And is the root of all the three Vedas

Vyaktha avyaktha swaroopaya, srushti sthithyantha karine,
Adhi madhyanth soonyaya vishtarasravase Nama.

Salutations to the very stable one,
Who has clear and unclear forms,
Who creates, looks after and destroys,
And who does not have beginning, middle and end

– Ashvatta Vruksha Stotram

Ashwattha is synonymous with our country and its symbolism. The figs are the most commonly found trees in the country and also the ones that are worshipped the most. Ficus religiosa / Pipal / Ashwattha tree was considered sacred and worshipped from the times of Indus Valley Civilisation but it is the Ficus bengalensis / Banyan / Vata that gained more prominence later and ended up as our national tree. While the Buddhists reclaimed the Ashwattha as the Bodhi tree, the Hindus clung onto the Vata. Associated with Yama, the Banyan is considered the botanical equivalent of a hermit for it can provide shade but cannot support new life or provide food. It is timeless like the soul and so the great sages, even Shiva, chose its vast canopy to contemplate under. They are tree shrines as idols were consecrated below these trees and even today women go around these trees longing for eternity of their marriages in the memory of Savitri who lost Satyavan under a Banyan and later regained his soul from Yama. Incidentally, the British named the Banyan tree so, as they noticed members of the trading community (Banias) gather under its shade for many a meetings.  The figs were the first among trees to be considered the Kalpavriksha – the wish fulfilling tree of the ancient scriptures that provided fruit and nourished the first people on the planet and the giver of immortality.

The concept of Kalpavriksha emerged from nature worship that has been an integral part of all ancient cultures of the world including India. The strong belief that trees, like us, possess a soul of their own has led to such reverence that if we look around we can still find groves that are held sacred. They are believed to be the abodes of departed souls and divinities that bring us good luck in the form of rain, sunshine, good harvest, increasing herds, and fertility blessings for women. While most tree spirits are considered amiable, there are some that are also seen as malevolent, the “evil spirits,” or the “ap-devta.” Such spirits cause harm, hence people avoid going near the trees that harbour them. One good impact that these beliefs had was protecting many trees from being mindlessly cut down for their wood.

My discussion here will revolve around the concept of kalpavriksha spanning a timeline of a few hundreds of years. How it started from the notions of nature worship, influenced religions, and still continues to be an integral part of our social, religious, and cultural heritage.

sacred sycamore

Let’s begin with some of the oldest civilisations of the world. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Sycamore trees, which they thought were homes of the sacred spirits. The dense, lush trees are one among the oldest species of trees and are known for their longevity and hardiness.  Seen in the picture here is an Egyptian making a regular offering of food, such as, cucumbers, grapes, and figs, to the tree. Pic source

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Image result for indus valley seals with trees  

Ficus religiosa on different Indus valley seals. The last seal shows a goddess standing inside a pipal tree and the priest is clearly wearing a headdress made from the branch of a peepal tree. These seals with their emphasis on the peepal tree and various animals show a distinct reverence for nature.   Source  Source  Source

In ancient Indian literature, Kalpavriksha is referred to as Ashwattha, or the seed of life that produces nectar (the water of life), which is our very own Pipal tree. The Vedas (Upanishad part) describes it as :

The roots upwards, the branches downwards, thus stands the eternal fig tree; The leaves of which are veda songs; Upwards and downward its branches are bending; Nobody on the earth is able to conceive of its form, either its end, or beginning, or duration.”

In India, the sacred kalpavriksha refers to both the ficus varieties  (religiosa and bengalensis) that is both the Pipal and the Banyan. So next time you see a Vata or an Ashwattha in your neighbourhood, take some moments off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of our civilisation. A long journey that is still continuing in the form of little shrines that are still extant under the roadside ficus trees along the streets of our country.

The wish fulfilling tree or Kalpavriksha in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Kalpavriksha also known as kalpadruma or kalpataru is said to have appeared during samudramanthan along with Kamdhenu. The tree can bear all kinds of fruits, hence it is associated with different trees, varying according to  the local vegetation. Thus, mahua, champak, pipal, banyan, tulsi, shami, parijata, and even coconut trees are often said to be the earthly manifestation of the heavenly kalpadruma. Kalpavriksha (of five types)are said to be located in the gardens of Indraloka with the devas and asuras at perpetual war over the wish fulfilling trees. Kalidasa’s “Meghadutam” tells us that kalpatarus yielded garlands, clothes, and provided for all fineries for the women in Alaka, capital of Kubera’s Yaksha kingdom. Thus, while bestowing immortality, we find that kalpavriksha also provides for all our material desires.

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Samudramanthan as depicted in a mural in Orchhha.  Notice the Kalpavriksha above the posse of animals. Picture courtesy: Jitu Mishra 

 

A 3rd century BCE pillar in the form of a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) found in Besnagar, can be said to be the earliest representation of a kalpavriksha with the various symbolisms that we associate with it. The tree has a kalash or a pot full of coins, a sack tied with a string, a conch, and a lotus hanging from it, signifying the goddess of wealth or Lakshmi devi. Thus, we can say kalpavriksha is a giver that stands for growth, generosity, and prosperity.  It is therefore not surprising to find it as a common motif on the Gupta and Satavahana era coins. (Picture source).

 

The Bodhi tree is a sign of knowledge, as it is a well known fact that Buddha attained enlightenment under this tree. The above depiction of the Bodhi tree is seen in Sanchi. While we can say the Bodhi tree depicts knowledge, the kalpataru on the other hand denotes wealth and benevolence, along with spiritual guidance for those that seek it. Picture Courtesy: Jitu Mishra

In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism we find that the kalpavriksha is not a deity by itself, but rather a way to reach God. A giver, it grants wishes pertaining to both material and spiritual types. While providing us with shade, fruits, nuts, wood, and the life giving oxygen that purifies air, kalpavriksha also helps human minds to focus on attaining spiritual enlightenment. Thus, by glorifying kalpavriksha, we are in reality deifying an aspect of nature, and celebrating its immense contribution to our daily lives and existence.

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Kalpavriksha in  Adalaj stepwell, Ahmedabad. Here we find  a kalasha bearing the kalpavriskha that forms a beautiful creeper like pattern (very reminiscent of the alpona that we draw during our pujas back home in Calcutta). Photos credit: Jitu Mishra

Ancient texts, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, frequently mention a term, chaitya-vriksha. Interestingly both chaitya-vriksha and kalpavriksha are similar in concept. Chaitya-vrikshas are tree shrines with dense leaves and fruits that provide shelter and food for all living beings. These are open air shrines with railing or fence like structures that cover the tree trunks, or sometimes the tree is placed on a pedestal. Various tree spirits known as yakshas and yakshis, and sometimes even the nagas, are believed to live in these trees. They are worshipped as protectors of both human beings and gods alike. It is interesting how our ancestors acknowledged the importance of trees in our lives and venerated them in various ways.

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Worshipping the chaitya vriksha, a jack-fruit tree,  as we see at Sanchi. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra

According to mythology, kalpavriksha or kalpadruma, was gifted to Aranyani, a daughter Related imageof Shiva and Parvati. The chief aim was to protect the tree, so we often see it being guarded by kinnaras, apsaras, and animals, such as lions, peacocks, etc. Interestingly, from simple depiction of the Bodhi tree and Ashvatta, in the later part of Indian sculptures we see a more complex depiction of kalpavriksha that with their beautiful floral patterns make us wonder at their aesthetic beauty. On the other hand it has become increasingly difficult to rightly distinguish the tree it might be representing. In the picture – The deities Nara and Narayana sitting under a Badri tree, 5th c. CE Gupta period, Deogarh. Source

Thus we see Buddha meditating under a Bodhi tree, Shiva imparting knowledge under a Banyan tree, and Krishna standing under a Kadamba tree. Guru Adi Shankaracharya was also known to have meditated under a kalpavriksha, which is a mulberry tree located in Joshimath (Uttarakhand). Other trees that we find culturally significant are jackfruit, amalaka, haritaki, lemon, vilva or bel, neem, sandalwood, mango, and banana. All these trees are known to have medicinal properties, besides other uses in our daily lives. What better way to celebrate the benefits of nature, than to worship it.

In Jainism, we find the kalpavrikshas help in fulfilling wishes in the early stages of the cosmic cycle, and the 10 kalpavrikshas grant 10 different desires that include nourishing food, good music, ornaments, utensils, among others.

Artisitc representation of the Kalpavriksha in Jainism. A wall painting of a tree on red backdrop.

The wall painting of Kalpavriksha in Saavira Kambada Basadi, Moodbidri, Karnataka. A Jain kalpavriksha.(Photo from Wiki by Vaikoovery)

 

Interestingly  forms of Kalpavrisha are also depicted beautifully in the mosques of Gujarat. Left: Jama Masjid, Ahmedabad and Right: Ceiling of the Jami Masjid, Champaner. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

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Kumbharia Jain Temple, Gujarat. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra. 

The Jain goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fertility is Ambika yakshi, who is always shown seated under a mango tree. Source  Source

The tree of life in Christianity and Islam

The concept of the Tree of life is a part of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic versions of the creation of life, commonly termed as the Genesis.

Interestingly, the Islamic concept of tree of life that we see woven on silk carpets or sculpted on monuments, is likely to have been largely influenced and derived from the Sassanian and Assyrian art forms depicting the World Tree/ tree of life.

  

A mid 19th c. CE Islamic prayer rug from Iran/Persia showing the tree of life within a pointed niche, a mihrab (first on left). It appears distinctly inspired from the Assyrian Aserah (Mother Tree/God’s wife, a symbol of fertility) on the right  Source Source 

 

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Various depictions of the tree of life on Islamic monuments of Gujarat. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

 

In Islamic literature, the tree of life is termed as the Sidra or Tuba which grows in Paradise (seventh heaven, placed at the right side of God’s throne). Being sacred, we find it depicted in mihrabs on rugs and otherwise. The tree marks the limits of heaven, and angels cannot cross this boundary. The Sidra has its earthly manifestation in a deciduous shrub that grows in Arabia and India, known as Zizyphus jujuba (bears edible fruits known as the red date or Indian date).  While the Quran refers to it as only ‘the tree’, and forbades Adam and Eve to taste the fruits of this tree, it was Satan who referred to it as the tree of immortality/life.

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Beautiful curled foliage with floral patterns arising from a thick central stem representing the Tree of life in the Sidi Sayyid Mosque in Ahmedabad. Here we can see that a palm tree is depicted at the top. Pictures credit: Jitu Mishra. 

 

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Mughal version of the gardens of heaven as seen in Fatehpur Sikri. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

 

In Christianity, the Old Testament is likely to have drawn inspiration and derived frombanylonia the old Babylonian concept of the tree of life, known as the tree of Ea or Ukkanu that grew in Eridu, the Babylonian name for paradise.  A Babylonian seal which is now in the British museum (seen here on right: source) It shows two figures on two sides of the tree of life, stretching their hands ready to pluck the fruit, with the serpent (representing the cycle of life and death in Babylonian times) standing behind the woman. Another Babylonian cylinder, now kept in the Museum at the Hague, depicts a garden with a palm tree at the centre, surrounded by other trees and birds. There are two figures plucking the fruit, while a third figure is holding the fruit, looking as if speaking to the other two. It is quite likely that these symbols were later adopted in the Bible by the Christians and Jews, and later also in the Quran.

       

Left: Holy Mary with the Child on the tree of life by Nicholas Froment, 1476, (“the burning thorn bush”) in Aiz Cathedral, France. Here the bush is shown on a hilltop signifying the world mountain. Source Right: The tree of life in a Sweden church, 11th c. CE. Source    

Left: Tree of life on floor mosaic, 8th c. CE, Jericho. Right:Tree of life on an arched doorway. Both are likely Christian depictions.  Source Source

Sacred trees or the tree of life from different parts of the world

 

Left: A tree of life From a Mexican manuscript, (Goblet d’Alviella).  Right above: Sacred pine of Silvanus (Roman folklore). Right below: The Egyptian goddess Nu̔ît in her sacred sycamore bestowing the bread and water of the next world.  source

 

German Folk Art… details and color - stencil or screen print

Left: Yggdrasil—the Norse world-tree, 1847. Source Right: tree of life in a German folk art. Source

While we see that the tree of life is a universal symbol of worship and its depiction since time immemorial has changed form and figure, it is the most recognizable symbol in Indian art and architecture. Whether it is a temple, or a mosque, or a church or a chaitya or a jain derasar, the Kalpavrisha is somewhere there proclaiming how everything in the world is ultimately connected.

(The cover picture is the depiction of tree of life at Akbar’s Mausoleum in Sikandra. Picture courtesy: Self) 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at Monidipa

Ajanta – India’s First Renaissance

One of the most famous disciples of Gautama Buddha during his lifetime was King Bimbisara. He invited Gautama Buddha and his Sangha members for a meal at his royal court – the Rajagriha. While having dinner, sitting next to Gautama Buddha, the King wondered: ‘Where could I find a place for the Blessed One to stay; neither too far from the village, nor too near; with easy commute, and accessibility to people seeking him; away from the crowds and sounds, where the Buddha and his disciples could be sequestered in peace; a place well suited for a renounced life.’ At that moment, it occurred to Bimbisara: ‘There is Veluvana, my pleasure garden, which is neither too far from the town, nor too near; and is easy to commute to and from. What if I make an offering of the Veluvana to the fraternity of monks, with the Buddha at its head?’ Thus, Veluvana became one of the first monasteries in the Buddhist world. Here, the Buddha delivered a sermon in which he outlined the code of conduct for monks.

Over the centuries, the Sangha tradition grew and spread widely across the subcontinent.  What was begun by Bimbisara was continued by merchants and traders, along with Kings and Ministers, who actively donated dwellings to Buddhist Sanghas. Some were brick and bamboo structures, while several others were rock-cut caves. Among the caves, those that have survived till date, the best ones in terms of artistic merit and technology used, are the rock-cut caves of Ajanta located across the Sahyadri Mountains.

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Ajanta 2 251 copy

Gautama Buddha (original name Siddhartha) was born in a royal family at Lumbini (modern day Nepal). It is said that his mother Mahamaya had a dream, while she was pregnant, wherein she saw a white elephant entering her womb. The royal astrologer interpreted this as symbolic of her having conceived a son who would either be a great emperor or a religious teacher. This episode is beautifully narrated in a panel inside Cave 2.

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Cave 2 Panel showing Mara’s dream

One day, when the young Prince Siddhartha was touring his kingdom, he came across three instances of human suffering – an old man with infirmities; a very sick man; and a dead body. He got very disturbed. However, another day, he saw a beggar who was at peace with himself. Siddhartha was convinced that he must strive to relieve people from suffering. Therefore, he renounced his kingdom and became a wandering ascetic.

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Cave 1 panel showing episodes from Buddha’s early life

The Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree at Gaya (modern day Bihar). Afterwards, he went around teaching people and had several followers, including members of the Royalty. The Buddha died (achieved Nirvana) at the age of 80 years at Kapilavastu (modern day Piprahwa in Uttar Pradesh).

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Cave 26 – Mahaparinirvana of Buddha

Early Buddhism in the Deccan:

Deccan is a land of great natural diversity. On its west lies the Arabian Sea, where ports like Sopara and Kalyan flourished, serving as marine hubs for Ancient India’s West-borne trade. The ports were emporia for the Indo-Greek and Indo-Roman trade that not only brought wealth but ideas as well, from far and wide. These ports led to the development of several trade routes across the mountain passes and valleys, connecting hinterland (example: Paithan) with the cities of central and North India (examples: Ujjain and Kosambi). After the fall of King Ashoka’s Empire, the western branch of the Satavahana dynasty ruled from Paithan. Though they were Hindus, they significantly contributed to the monastic establishments of Buddhism. The rocky outcrops of thick basalt and the serenity of forest provided excellent backdrops for large monastic establishments. Ajanta and Pitalkhora were two among the best known early establishments that can be traced back to the 2nd century BCE.

Sahyadri2Sahyadri1SahyadriAjanta2Ajanta 2 251 copy

Ajanta is nestled in a horseshoe shaped ravine of the Indhyadri Hills, overlooking the Waghora River. The site is a place of tranquillity and contemplation. Ajanta has a total of 28 caves of which caves number 9, 10, 12 and 13 are of the early phase, i.e. of the Satavahana Period. Among these, caves 9 and 10 are Chaityagrihas (Buddhist Prayer Halls), and caves 12 and 13 are Viharas (Monasteries).

Chaityagrihas:

A Chaitya is a Buddhist shrine or prayer hall with a stupa at one end. Chaityas were built for ritual circumambulation by monks around the stupa, which symbolizes the Buddha in the Hinayana sect.

The stupa consists of a cylindrical base, with a dome on the top and is crowned by a square box like feature called Harmika, which in turn is surmounted by a triple umbrella made of wood. When the Buddha was breathing his last, he called his disciples and advised them to erect stupas over his corporeal remains after his death (Nirvana). Rock-cut stupas, which are copies of structural ones, also sometimes enshrine the relics of some venerable Buddhist monk. These relics were placed in a reliquary, in a small hole cut out in the dome of the stupa.

The Prayer hall is supported by columns and the circumambulatory path is around the stupa. The columns slope inwards, akin to wooden columns that would have been structurally necessary to keep the roof. The ceiling was barrel vaulted with wooden ribs set into them. A large horseshoe shaped window – the Chaitya window, was set above the arched doorway, and the whole portico area was carved to imitate a multi-storeyed building with balconies and windows.

Cave 9 and 10 are Ajanta’s earliest Chaityagrihas. The interpretation of inscriptions engraved into the walls and pillars of cave 10 clearly establish that they were excavated by the local community.

Caves 9 and 10 – Ajanta’s early chaityas

Both these caves were painted in the early period. However, what we see now are the remains of the later period (5th century CE). The only remains that can be traced to the early period are floral and geometric imprints on the upper levels of right pillars and ceilings. In cave 9, a group of men, and remains of a lengthy sequence from the Jataka tales on a sidewall, are the paintings left from the earlier phase. They are noteworthy for their subject’s unique headgears, similar to the ones at Pitalkhora.

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Traces of earliest paintings in Ajanta

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Vihara:

A Vihara is generally a square structure or cave with cells in the side walls and on the rear side, which serve as the residence for monks. The Buddha had advised monks not to stay in any place for long, and to keep wandering. It was only during the monsoon that they had to stay at one place, and were provided accommodation in caves known as Vassa-vasa, meaning ‘abode during the rainy season’.

Cave 12 is the best preserved earliest Vihara at Ajanta. A large hall surrounded by cells on three sides, the cave is simple in both its plan and design. Each cell has a Chaitya arch depicted above its doors and windows. The railing pillar below the arches is a typical architectural feature of Ancient India.

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Cave 12 – Ajanta’s earliest vihara

After 1st century CE, Buddhism started declining in Ajanta and its surrounding region. It was only in 460 CE, that the religion was revived under the patronage of the Vakatakas, especially Emperor Harisena (460-477 CE).

Harisena was a Shaivite, but his Prime Minister and all of his known Feudatories were Buddhists. It was they who prevailed upon Harisena to support the most ambitious project envisioned in the entire Buddhist world.

The entire project was completed in a span of 18 years. According to Prof. Walter Spink, an expert on Ajanta, ‘Ajanta’s essential development ended within a year after Harisena’s death. The work in 478 CE was done in a rush.’

Cave 7 is the first Mahayana cave in Ajanta. It represents the transitional phase from Hinayana to Mahayana. The unique feature of this cave is its double portico. Planned as a grand and lavish cave, it was reduced to a long porch connected with a modest shrine due to problems with the rock. The excavators of cave 7 had clearly not carved a cave before. It is presumed that they depended almost exclusively on the plan of earlier Hinayana caves at the site. There is a remarkable similarity in the Chaitya arch design, pillars, etc between caves 7 and 12.

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Cave 7 – Ajanta’s earliest Mahayana Vihara

The Mahayana Viharas of Ajanta (caves 19 and 26) are actually cave temples.  A revolutionary idea of the time it had a considerable impact on Ajanta’s large caves, making them more impressive and ritually significant.

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Buddha Images:

The excavation that started in 460 CE had gradually advanced in the succeeding years. In 468 CE, most of the caves were made liveable. A significant development of that year was the transition from plain stupas to the images of the Buddha engraved on them. This decision was made, perhaps by the powerful Buddhist Sangha at the site. The initial spaces where this transformation was visible were the Chatityagrihas. In the front part of the plain stupa, an image of the Buddha was planned (seen both in caves 19 and 26 at the Mahayana Chaityagrihas at Ajanta). Subsequently, the idea was expanded to all the Viharas. Soon, the sculpture arrangements were elaborated, bringing in various aspects of Buddha’s life, other Buddhist divinities, semi-divine creatures, religious symbols and animals & plants.

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Cave 26

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Cave 19

0111.10406.1

Mahayana Paintings:

Ajanta is famous for its wall paintings. The paintings of Ajanta are perhaps the oldest surviving example of Indian classical art. These document the society of that period, depicting its various members, their attire, buildings, customs, and in general, all aspects of their daily life.

The variety in the dresses, ornaments, skin colours, hairstyles, homes and furniture is stunning. The characters are cast in a plethora of situations ranging from coronations to renunciations, intimate moments to moments of separations, and childbirth to the suffering of old age. They depict a world that is both real and spiritual at the same time.

There are also animal depictions, the most common being elephants, swans, deer and horses. The blooming of flowers, the wilting of creepers and the sprouting of leaves are sensitively painted.

The paintings vividly demonstrate the ideals of Indian art – distinct characterisation, depiction of various emotions, beauty, grace, and compassion, all in a variety of colours and shades. In consonance with the beliefs and codes of the three Worlds – Heavenly, Divine and Earthly, the artists used various shapes and sizes to depict characters like the Gandharvas, Yakshas (divine spirits), and Rakshasas (demons). The artists have used a technique where the viewer does not remain outside the paintings but becomes a part of it. Such is the realism and charm of the paintings.

Jataka tales:

Jatakas are a collection of stories concerning the previous births of the Buddha. Before achieving enlightenment, the Buddha studied values of sacrifices, virtue and friendship in his previous lives. A Buddha in the process of learning is referred to as the Bodhisattva. The experiences of these previous lives resulted in the Bodhisattva’s ultimate transformation into the Buddha.

Each Jataka is a story of a Bodhisattva, who is either depicted as a protagonist or a supporting character. Most of the paintings of Ajanta tell stories from the Mahajanaka Jataka that is best illustrated in Cave 1. In Cave 2, a panel depicts the bed chamber of Maya, who dreamt of a white elephant entering her body. Cave 17 depicts scenes from Shada-Danta Jataka, Vassantara Jataka, Mahakalpi Jataka and Suttasama Jataka.

After 5th century CE, Ajanta did not see any major artistic activity. The first renaissance of Indian art was lost in time. However, the artists who created the 5th century wonders did not lose their tradition. They, and their descendants, carried the tradition to India’s neighbouring countries. For example, the paintings of Sigriya caves in Sri Lanka, also created around the same period, show remarkable similarity with Ajanta paintings.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Buddhist Weavers of Maniabandha – A Confluence of Ideas

One of India’s greatest gifts to the world of ideas is Buddhism, a religion that was propounded by Gautama Buddha in the middle of 1st millennium BCE, on the principles of compassion and detachment. Odisha, lying on the east coast of India had been a major centre of Buddhism right from the time of Buddha. Though the Blessed One had never visited the region but according to an ancient chronicle, Tapassu and Bhallika, two merchant brothers from Ukkala while touring the Madhya Desa, had become the first lay devotees of the Buddha by offering him his first meal after Enlightenment.

In the 3rd Century BCE, Odisha bore the brunt of a terrible war between the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and the army of Kalinga wherein the entire town had turned into a battlefield. Upon witnessing the loss of thousands of human lives, Ashoka, the cruel king from the neighbouring state of Magadh transformed into a man of compassion and turned a new leaf. Thus began a new chapter of Buddhism. Odisha became an established centre of Hinayana Buddhism. Langudi, Dhauli and Lalitgiri are among the few excavated Buddhist sites that establish the Mauryan link.

Travel Tips

Maniabandha and Nuapatna are neighbouring villages in Tigiria and Badamba blocks of Cuttack District at a distance of 100 kms from Bhubaneswar. Both Maniabandha and Nuapatna and their surrounding villages are inhabited by a large number of weavers but most of them are into cotton ikat weaving. Only a handful at Nuapatna weavers are into silk weaving. It takes about 2 hours to reach there. There are plenty of private buses plying between Bhubaneswar/Cuttack and Nuapatna, but hiring a taxi from any of these cities would be preferable. There is no stay option, but wayside amenity by Odisha Government at Nuapatna offers a decent hygienic washroom/restroom facilities.  Those interested in religious worship can also visit Bhattarika, 25 km away from Nuapatna on serene Mahanadi. 

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The Rock-Cut Elephant at Dhauli – One of the earliest specimens of Indian art of the Mauryan Era representing Lord Buddha in a symbolic form

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Rock-cut Stupas at Langudi Hill of the Hinayana Phase

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The Apsidal Chaitya surrounded by Votive Stupas – Such structures are present in almost all of the early Buddhist sites of India

During 6th century CE, Odisha witnessed the emergence and proliferation of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism with Ratnagiri and Udayagiri as the main seats. Scores of Siddhas, such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandha, Dingnag, Buddhaghosa and Dharmakirti introduced various elements of Tantric system, promising quicker ways of attaining Enlightenment. In this process, a new element ‘Shakti’ the feminine, considered as one of the primary sources of divine energy was introduced.

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Ratnagiri Mahavihra Gate – The Cradle of Mahayana Buddhist Sites in Odisha

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A Closer View of the Ratnagiri Mahavihra Gate

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The Vajrayana Stupa at Udayagiri

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One of the Dhyani Buddhas at the Vajrayana Stupa at Udayagiri

Around the same time, the cult of Pashupata Shaivism was gaining a stronghold, as a major religious movement in Odisha.

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Depiction of Lakulisa, the founder of Pashupata Shaivism in Parasurameshwara Temple, Bhubaneswar – It resembles the iconography of Buddha

Also, Read Here:

Pashupata Cult and the Ancient Temples of Bhubaneshwar

 

Both the cults competed to establish ideological supremacy over each other thereby resulting in continuous conflicts. At times these conflicts would turn violent and finally the Buddhists were defeated. The region witnessed a mass exodus of Buddhists to Southeast Asia, especially Burma and Cambodia. Those who did not join their seafaring brethren took refuge in the forested tracts of Maniabandha on the banks of Mahanadi at a distance of about 100 km from Bhubaneswar. Here they practiced their faith in isolation for hundreds of years till the memory of the conflicts had receded from public memory.

These Buddhists were weavers of the highest order. According to a legend, in the 7th Century CE, the Chinese scholar monk Huen T’Sang was offered a saree at Maniabandha, the village that linked the ports of Odisha to its hinterland. The saree was packed in a hollow bamboo pipe. Huen T’Sang was visibly impressed with the wizardry of weaving and spread the word around.

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But the Buddhist weavers of Maniabandha flourished after they received patronage from the Lord Jagannath Temple at Puri. According to Madala Panji, the temple chronicle, during the 12th century CE, Jaydev had offered to Lord Jagannath an Ikat called Pata Khandua made by Maniabandha weavers, with the verses of Gita Govinda etched on it. Since then, the weavers are deeply associated with the Jagannath cult.

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Jaydev’s Gita Govinda Woven in a Khandua Patta

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Khanda Patua Weaves of Maniabandha

 

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The Maniabandha weavers are possibly the only traditional Buddhists left in India. They are vegetarians and believers of non-violence that can be seen even in their weaving. The silk yarns they use are of ‘Eri’ category which are sourced from the cocoons that were abandoned by the silkworms. Therefore, Pata Khandua, is the best example of Samyak Ajiba – Right Profession – as preached by the Buddha. The word ‘Khandua’ in Odia translates to the cloth worn on the lower part of the body. It is traditionally red or orange in colour. Design motifs include elephants surrounded by trailing vines with peacocks in it, petaled flowers and Nabagunjara, a mythical cult associated with Lord Jagannath.

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Today Maniabandha is not only an important destination for textile lovers, but also for those having deep interest in understanding and appreciating the syncretic culture practiced in the region. The weavers are no doubt Buddhists but they are also followers of Lord Jagannath and this is visible not only in the motifs on Khandua but also in the way they live and worship.

 

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The Buddha Temple in the middle of the village

The main temple of the village appears from outside as a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu or Jagannath but if you get into its garbhagriha you will be surprised to see the idols of Lord Buddha. Maniabandha is a wonderful example of religious harmony between Hindus and Buddhists who take part in each other’s festivals and religious gatherings. The yarns that bind them are pure and divine just like the Pata Khandua.

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Kirtan in the local Jagannath Temple

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be reached at jitumisra@gmail.com