Kuruma Buddhist Archaeological Site

The ancient Buddhist archaeological site of Kuruma is situated just 6.5 km from the famous Sun Temple at Konark in the district of Puri. Set beside a small and peaceful village, it’s a wonderful setting and a far cry from the crowds that flock to see the more renowned monument a short distance away.

Interest in the site was spearheaded by Sri Braja Bandhu Dash, a local school teacher who developed a passion for history and what might exist in his local area. He re-discovered and collected many artifacts in the surrounding area prior to them being exhibited at Kuruma in 1972, and raised awareness of what appeared to be evidence of brick structures on the outskirts of the village.

The mound of bricks by the side of a tank known locally as Dharma Pokhari (tank of Dharma) was subsequently excavated by State Department of Archaeology in the mid 1970s. At an average depth of 3m, many integrated brick structures were uncovered, the purpose of many of these remains open to question. In one room three ovens were unearthed set into the floor which perhaps suggests that this was a domestic area, although it’s quite possible that the specific use of these rooms changed over time. In total there are around 12 rooms (or cells?) that are visible at the site today, with a larger central space, possibly a courtyard.

Finds recovered from the excavation tentatively suggest a date of 9th – 10th century A.D, although I don’t believe the full extent of this site has been entirely excavated as yet. It’s interesting to note that the place name ‘Kuruma” could well be linked to the ‘Kuruma Stupa’ of Odradesha, illustrated in manuscript №1643 (dated 1015 A.D.), and held in the Cambridge University Library in the UK.

There are other ancient texts in existence that may provide links to Kuruma. The famous Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Hiuen T’sang (also known as Husan Tsang and Xuanzang) traveled extensively throughout northern India between 634 and 645 A.D, and some scholars believe that one of the Buddhist stupa sites he describes in his journal is that of Kuruma.

Although multiple monasteries where established at Buddhist sites near the Jajpur and Cuttack districts of modern day Odisha, Kuruma is the only monastery presently known about near the coast. One also has to consider that the coastline has dramatically changed over the centuries, and this site may well have been very close to the shoreline at one point, just as is the case at the Konark Sun Temple. The only other Buddhist sites close to the east coast of India are Kalingapattanam and Salihundam in Andhra Pradesh.

The brick remains that are visible today are not extensive at all, and clearly some reconstruction has occurred as the walls have an even height and you can see that many of the bricks have a modern stamp. There is no signage at all either, which is a shame as this site is crying out for that just to add a little context. The lack of signs also means that if you haven’t done any prior research, you may miss out on what would be the highlight of a visit to Kuruma Buddhist Archaeological Site.

Set on raised ground between the excavation area and the tank is a small unassuming single storied brick building, one that I believe has been recently built by the ASI to replace a corrugated tin shed. Inside this building is the real gem of Kuruma.

The brick building primarily houses four carved images; the crowned Buddha seated in Bhumisparsa Mudra, Padmapani Avalokitesvara, Yamantaka Heruka and a Tribikram idol. All of these images are jointly worshiped as ‘Yamadharma’ by the local villagers, and were found on the banks of the nearby tank prior to excavations commencing on the site.

The huge Buddha depicted as Bhumisparsa Mudra is particularly unusual due to the elaborate ornaments on his body; the crown on the head, necklace, arm anklets and leg lace. This is currently believed to be unique among any Buddha idols in Odisha.

Amazingly, when Sri Braja Bandhu Dash discovered these idols by the nearby tank, the image of Yamantaka Heruka was being used by villagers for sharpening their iron tools ! For all his passion around collecting, excavating and restoring the site at Kuruma, Braja Bandhu Dash was nick-named Pagala Baba (insane old man) by the locals.

I was hopeful I might be able to meet Braja when I visited the site, but unfortunately he no longer stays in the village and only returns to Kuruma on Sundays. At the fragile age of 84 his ability to continue exploring and researching the area is rapidly diminishing, someone with a similar passion needs to take up the reins I feel.

Although there isn’t an immense amount to see at Kuruma Buddhist Archaeological Site, the setting alone makes it a worthwhile short excursion from Konark. I can still vividly recall us driving long the narrow twisting palm tree-lined country lanes that were often covered by the locals with hay to dry. The rustic scenery was so enchanting, seeing the Kuruma site itself just became an added bonus to proceedings.

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