Once the principle centre of Buddhism in Odisha, the superb Ratnagiri Buddhist Archaeological Site is located on a hill between the Brahmani and Birupa rivers, 100 km north-east of Bhubaneswar.
Together with Udayagiri and Lalitagiri, Ratnagiri completes a set of Buddhist centres in Odisha commonly known as the Diamond Triangle. All these sites have yet to be completely excavated, and with more than 200 Buddhist sites in Odisha alone I suspect the discovery of new sites is only a matter of time.
Buddhism flourished at Ratnagiri from the 5th century until the 12th century A.D, after which a slow decline culminated in the site being abandoned and becoming a ruin by the 16th century.
Very little was known about Ratnagiri until the 1960s, when major archaeological excavations were conducted by the ASI. Large quantities of extremely fine sculpture were uncovered, often considered the finest in terms of carved stone decoration to have survived anywhere in India. Many of these carvings have been removed to other museums across India, although a museum adjacent to the site houses some fine examples, as well as some examples still remaining broadly where they were unearthed.
The monuments that can be seen today at Ratnagiri consist of separate groups of stupas and monasteries connected by other smaller stupas and temples. My description below is likely to be the route you take through the site, click on any of the images to view them in a larger format.
Having paid the entrance fee, a short climb up the hill will take you to the first set of monuments, a collection of votive stupas that I imagine have been recovered from nearby and organised into orderly lines.
A barbed wire fence around the stupas prevents anyone from examining them in closer detail, which is a bit of a shame but perhaps this has been done in an attempt to protect them a little more.
These stupas are usually to commemorate visits by pilgrims or to gain spiritual benefits by those more closely associated with the monastery. They are almost always found at sites of prominent stupas which were regularly visited.
This is the largest and best preserved structure at the site that had at least two storeys although only the ground floor remains today. The main entrance is heralded by a wonderful elaborately carved chlorite doorway, often described as the loveliest entrance to a structural monastery in the whole of India.
The carvings on the doorway have delicate lotus ornament with intricate scroll-work. Guardian figures are positioned beneath, with Lakshmi in the middle of the lintel.
The contrast of the bright green-blue Chlorite against the orange sandstone outer wall is stark, a memory that I know will stay with me forevermore.
Around the entrance are a number of large relief panels of standing figures, there were once many more here but they have since been removed elsewhere.
Having entered the monastery proper, be on the look out for a series of wonderfully carved Buddha heads lined up against the north-facing inner wall. To be fair, you’re hardly going to miss them, they are simply amazing.
Unusually, almost the entire ground floor of the monastery remains intact, there are even stairs leading up to the now missing upper floors. 24 cells large cells still survive, the size of which perhaps suggests that they were occupied by more than one monk.
Construction of Monastery 1 appears to have taken place over two distinct periods; the first dating to the 8th century A.D. and the second in the early 12th century A.D. (not long before the decline started).
The main shrine directly opposite the entrance has an elaborately carved facade and a double porch. Inside is a colossal seated Buddha, nearly 4m high flanked by Vajrapani and Padmapani.
Note how this Buddha has in fact been carved in a number of sections and is not from one single monolithic piece of stone.
It’s great to see things like this still in-situ, it makes the whole site come alive when not quite everything has been carted off to museums.
Separated by a narrow passageway, Monastery 2 is immediately west of Monastery 1, is much smaller in size, and only has a ground floor.
Housing 18 cells, it is thought that this monastery may have been one of the first structures to be built at Ratnagiri, with construction possibly starting as early as the 5th century A.D. Further alterations and additions were made in the 7th and 11th centuries A.D.
The central shrine houses an image of Shakyamuni in a Varada Mudra pose. Immediate outside Monastery 2 are a plethora of votive stupas, other small carvings, and a couple of other small temples housing sculptures.
Many of these votive stupas appears to be in-situ, almost as if they were excavated a few years ago and the area has since grassed over. The fact that so many of them appear to be set within a rectangular hollow suggests to me that this might well be the case.
As you look around this quite large site, you start to appreciate just how much more there is yet to be unearthed. Scenes like this really get my trowel twitching, how I’d love to one day spend a significant amount of time in India at an archaeological excavation. With 21 years experience of fieldwork, much of which has been spend supervising and teaching the discipline, I’d like to think I would be of some use :-).
Situated on the highest point of the site, it’s a short walk from Monastery 2 up to the 9th century brick built main stupa.
It is thought this stupa was built on the site of a much earlier stupa, and is now in a partially ruined state. It’s almost impossible to know the original height of this stupa, although just looking at what survives today perhaps suggests it was an impressive structure.
In total over 700 carved votive stupas have been found at Ratnagiri, and here there are a large number scattered among both the main stupa and other smaller brick built stupas.
Almost all the votive stupas have been carved from a single piece of stone, and with evidence of some partially completed examples, this suggests that they were made very close to or at the site itself.
The volume and variety of these small stupas is almost unprecedented at any other Buddhist site in India, with over 20 deities having been identified. Most of these stupas are thought to date from the 9th to 13th century A.D.
Interestingly during excavations here over 1,300 clay seals were found, many of which contained the legend “Sri Ratnagiri Mahavihariya Aryabikshu Sanghasya“, which helped identify the true name of this site.
Further on beyond the main stupa a little way down the slope of the hill is the 15th century Mahakala Temple. This temple was originally built over the top of an earlier Buddhist stupa, and was relocated to the side of the site by the ASI between 1997 and 2004.
I didn’t walk down to see this temple more fully, but apparently it contains a Buddhist standing relief figure of Manjushri so may be worth exploring further.
Monastery 3 is located at the far north of the site, immediately next to a large building surrounded by a blue fence. This building is in fact the Ratnagiri Archaeological Museum, although to access it you have to backtrack out of the archaeological site, turn left, and walk along the road for a bit. It seems a little bizarre not to have access to the museum from the archaeological site itself, I imagine quite a few people completely miss out on visiting the museum as a result.
There is almost nothing to see of Monastery 3. It consists of a single winged building with just three cells.
Ratnagiri was one of the most impressive sites I visited during my time in Odisha. With so much sculptural art still existing in-situ, it really adds to the overall experience and in many respects it is an open-air museum. That said, the Ratnagiri Archaeological Museum is also well worth visiting, you can probably guess what my next blog will be about !
Ratnagiri means “hill of jewels”, I couldn’t think of a more suitable name for this wonderful archaeological site. With no excavations having occurred here in over 60 years, I have no doubt this site has yet to yield all it’s secrets.
The Ratnagiri Buddhist Archaeological Site is open everyday 9am – 5pm. Note that the museum nearby is closed on Fridays.
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