Udaygiri, Ratnagiri & Lalitgiri are reminders of the role of Odisha in Buddhism. It may not have been a birthplace of Buddhism but it had an important role in the spread of Buddhism.
History of Buddhism in Odisha
It is believed that when Buddha gave his first sermon in Sarnath, two of his first disciples named Tapassu and Bhallika were from Utkal or Odisha.
In his famous war on Kalinga in 261 BCE, which is another name of Odisha, emperor Ashoka is believed to have had his change of heart. It is this war that made him adopt non-violence and Buddhism. From here on, it became his mission to take Buddhism to the world. He is probably the biggest force behind the spread of Buddhism from India to the world. There are Ashoka’s edicts at Dhauli and his pillar too closer to Bhubaneshwar.
Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra probably traveled to Sri Lanka from here to Mihintale near Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. The place still celebrates her arrival.
These three sites of Udaygiri, Ratnagiri, and Mangalgiri are the three viharas or Buddhist monasteries that would have been used during the heydays of Buddhism in the region. Our favorite traveler Xuan Zang of course mentions that these monasteries were still working when he visited in 7th CE.
Video of Udaygiri, Ratnagiri, and Lalitgiri – Diamond Triangle of Odisha
A glimpse of these famous heritage sites captured during our visit. Have a look at the video for a better perspective of the heritage value of these sites.
So, come with me to these Viharas and Mahaviharas where Bhikus would have lived, prayed, and meditated once upon a time.
Located on the banks of the Birupa river, which you can hardly see now, this is the biggest of three sites. The site was excavated in 1958 and then again in 1997 and this led to the discovery of Stupas and monastic complex or vihara. The original name of the vihara is Madhavapura Mahavihara. The name Udaygiri comes from the name of the hill here literally meaning the hill of the rising sun.
We walked through a walkway surrounded by trees to get the first glimpse of some structures. As we stepped closer, life-size images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas greeted us. Finally carved but broken images filled me with excitement. If these were kept outside this monastery, inside should have a lot more to see.
Udaygiri monasteries have been dated from early CE days to 13th CE. That is a long period of activity.
Mahastupa at Udaygiri
We walked a bit more to reach the brick stupa seemingly standing alone. A flight of semi-circular steps led to the base of the stupa. It made a picture-perfect frame surrounded by trees. On all sides of the stupa, there are Buddha images in his four lifecycle mudras – Bhumi Sparsh Mudra, Dhyan Mudra, Varda Mudra, and Dharam Chakra Parivartan Mudra.
There is a small east-facing monastery here.
Monastery at Udaygiri
From here we walked to the second site within Udaygiri, the monastery part. A small Devi temple in a cheerful color welcomed us. Beyond it, there were all ruins. An ornate door jamb with intricate carvings indicated this was an important part of the monastery or is it the part that managed to survive. Inside it, there were few Buddha images in different states of ruin. There is a Pradakshina or a circumambulation path going around it, with vaulted windows.
Around it, you can see the contours of rooms that would have been used by the monks. The monastery must have existed on multiple levels, as you see the outline of rooms on the first floor.
Water channels run around the monastery telling us the well-managed system of storing, using, and directing the water out. A circular structure made me wonder if it was a well once or if it was the base of a lost stupa.
From the top of the monastery, you can see a series of big and small stupas. I wonder if they always had a flat tabletop or it is the vestiges of time that has flattened them. If you can stretch your vision and look across on the slope of the hill behind, you will see another set of structures – probably another monastery and a few more stupas.
Devi temple has three ancient stone Murtis. This and another small temple closer to the stepwell are the only living bits
For me, the most memorable part of this monastery is the stone cut stepwell in an unusual shape. A narrow long nape like steps leads to the square well at the end. A board tells you not to step inside with shoes on, but it forgets to tell you anything more about the stone cut stepwell.
There was hardly any water in the well when I visited in mid-January. I could see some niches on the interior walls of the well & they may have housed some images.
There are no guides available at the site, nor is any provision for food or water. A washroom may be available. You need to walk a bit from the place you park your vehicle. There is a guard who also doubles up as a guide.
You need an hour or so to see the heritage here properly.
Ratnagiri is located close to Udaygiri, so this was the second site we visited. A long flight of steps takes you on top of the hill from the ticket window at its base. The Ratnagiri hill is supposed to be surrounded by three rivers – Brahamani, Kimiria, and Birupa, but I could not see anyone close to the archaeological site. Having said that close vicinity of the rivers must have been the reason for the monastery to be set up here.
It was first discovered in 1906 CE but the excavations took place only in 1958 CE. The site was most active between 5-12th CE, though it remained in existence till 16th CE. Historians think it was a place of Tantric practices based on the metal artifacts retrieved from here. From the clay tablets we know it was called – Sri Ratnagiri Mahavihariye Arya Bhikshu Samghashya.
As soon as you reach the top, the first thing that you notice to your left is a series of neatly arranged votive stupas. The arrangement is new but the stupas are old, an indicator of wishes fulfilled. From here a mud path that goes right and leads to a small late period (11-12th CE) monastery. There is nothing much that you can see here but it does tell you about the overall structure of the monastery.
To the left of the votive stupas, a path leads to the main monastery here, which is again surrounded by many votive stupas.
Big Monastery or Monastery No 1
The biggest attraction here is a monastery that has a lovely carved door in green Chrolite to let you in. Sculpture of different deities adorns the wall including one of Yamuna. You enter and step into a large open courtyard. Walls all around are lined with Buddha and Boddhisatva images. There are a lot of Buddha’s heads, most have their noses broken. There are some broken parts like giant feet that must have belonged to a large image. You just need to step on it to realize the relative size.
There is an attempt to recreate some images by putting the pieces together but you can clearly see that they all belong to different images.
The main sanctum again has a well-carved door jamb. Inside there is a huge Murti of Buddha in Bhumi Sparsh Mudra. It is more or less intact except that its nose is broken, which indicates that it must have face vandalism at some point in time. Two Dwarpala’s can be seen standing on either side of Buddha.
On one side, there is a row of 6 shrines with a lovely door in the middle. As of now they are empty and make a perfect backdrop to take selfies. I wonder if they were placed here originally, of they had idols or they were equivalent to mediation caves in Kailasanathar Temple in Kanchipuram.
Standing in the middle of the large open courtyard, I visualized an array of monks sitting here and meditating, or listening to a lesson by their teacher.
Monastery 2 & 3
Right next to the main monastery there are ruins of another monastery. You can see a few stupas here, one of them even had its 3 tier Harmika intact.
The third monastery is at the corner, with many stupas big and small.
Dharam Mahakala Temple
A little ahead and a level below the monastery is a simple but ancient Shiva temple with the typical curvilinear stricture in stone. It seems to be in practice. The Internet tells me that this has been moved from the main site and re-erected here by ASI.
Ratnagiri Site Museum
Right next to the archaeological site, there is an ASI museum that displays many excavated artifacts from the site. Between its four galleries, it has votive stupas and sculptures in stone, bronze, ivory, copper, etc. There are inscriptions in stone & copper and terracotta seals. There are images of Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Aparajita, Avalokiteshwara, Manjushri, Tara, Krishna-Yamari
The museum is open Saturday to Thursday from 9 AM to 5 PM. For more details, check their website.
Also called Naltigiri, it is located a bit far from the other two sites. It is the nest maintained and the smallest of the three. It was first excavated in 1977 and since then many things have come to light. As per a terracotta seal discovered here, it’s official name is – Sri Chandraditya Vihara Samagra Arya Bhiksu Sangha.
The highpoint of the Lalitgiri site is the discovery of three relic caskets inside the stupas here. They were kept in a series of boxes one inside the other, but finally in a small golden casket.
Lalitgiri is supposed to be one of the earliest Buddhist sites in Odisha with evidence suggesting a continuous activity from 3rd BCE to 10th CE.
A fairly large stupa is situated on a hilltop at Lalitgiri. You have to climb a long flight of steps to reach the stupa. The view of the surrounding areas with hills in the background is simply beautiful from here.
On the stupa, you just see the brick structure on a platform. There are some sculptures scattered around, but it is difficult to identify them.
Chaityagriha that you see here is large and beautiful, though you see mostly an outline and rest you have to imagine. This Chaitya Griha is surrounded by four small monasteries. It looks like a cozy arrangement of a small school with votive stupas scattered everywhere.
As you walk on the well laid out pathways, you can see the whole Lalitgiri Monastery from a height and from a distance. Usually, you go inside and lose an overall perspective.
Lalitgiri has a state of the art site museum, but they do not allow you to take any pictures, nor do they have brochures or guides.
Put together, the three sites were a part of the Pushpagiri University, which is now believed to be at another site known as Langudi. Pushpagiri is mentioned in the chronicles of Xuan Zang.
From a tourist’s perspective, Udaygiri, Ratnagiri, and Lalitgiri are popular as the Diamond Triangle of Odisha.
Most people prefer to do it as a day trip from Bhubaneshwar. We did it on our way from Bhubaneshwar to Bhitarkanika National Park.
Only Ratnagiri has an Odisha tourism hotel to stay that includes a restaurant to eat. Other places have limited facilities.
Ticket prices are nominal.
Photography is allowed in all these places.