Lalitagiri Buddhist Complex – Odisha

Located 85 km north-east of Bhubaneswar, the Lalitagiri Buddhist Complex completes the triad of ancient Buddhist sites along with Ratnagiri and Udayagiri.

Declared a protected monument by the central government in 1937, the site consists of a main stupa, numerous monasteries, a stupa complex, and a newly built museum – all located either side of a central path that runs through the middle of the complex.

The following documents my exploration of the site. The way I tackled the site was to walk all the way to the very end and the main Maha Stupa, and I then worked my way back. All the individual monuments detailed below are well signposted from the central path. As always, click on any image to view it in a larger format.

Maha Stupa (Mahastupa)

Having walked through the site to the now closed old museum, turn right and climb up a flight of steps for 60m to reach the Maha Stupa (Mahastupa).

The Maha Stupa was excavated by the ASI as part of their campaign that lasted for 7 years between 1985 and 1991. Within this stupa a khandolite stone container was found, housing two nested relic caskets. This was the first discovery of it’s kind in eastern India, the innermost gold casket contained the relic of a small fragment of bone, presumed to be from Buddha himself.

The famous Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Hiuen T’sang (also known as Husan Tsang and Xuanzang) who traveled extensively throughout northern India between 634 and 645 A.D, commented that the stupa at Lalitgiri’s highest point emitted a brilliant light due to its sacredness.

Chaityagriha Stupa Complex

This is probably the most interesting cluster of monuments in the complex. Excavations revealed a brick built east-facing apsidal chaityagriha, the first of it’s kind to be discovered in Odisha. At the center of the chaityagriha were the remains of a circular stupa.

Mirroring the footprint of the chaityagriha at some distance away from it is a arc of stone votive stupas, almost certainly collected from the vicinity and set up this way rather than remaining in-situ.

Surrounding the chaityagriha are further smaller brick built shrines, medium sized stupas, and the smaller votive stupas.

Finds and architectural details recovered from this area suggest that most of the structures were probably constructed in the 6th and 7th centuries A.D.

Monastery 3

Of the four identified monasteries at Lalitagiri, the south-east facing Monastery 3 is believed to be the earliest.

It follows the typical Buddhist monastery plan, with a central courtyard flanked by approx 10 cells, each with a niche set into the wall.

The main shrine is empty, which sadly is the case for almost all shrines at Lalitagiri. What sculptures used to exist on the site itself have now all been collected and relocated elsewhere, some you can see at the museum.

Monastery 4

Monastery 4 is the only monument that still has some sculptural remains in-situ at Lalitagiri. The main shrine of this west-facing monastery houses a massive seated Buddha, sadly now headless.

Measuring 30m x 30m, this monastery has a total of 8 cells, 4 cells flanking two sides of the central courtyard.

Monastery 1

Although this is the largest monastery in the complex, I found this monument the least interesting. It’s a shame there’s absolutely no sculptural remains left here to at least enhance the visiting experience a little.

The monastery is relatively late, the construction is believed to have taken place sometime between the 10th and 11th centuries A.D.

Monastery 2

Located near to the newly built museum, Monastery 2 is thought to be the most recent addition to the complex having been built when importance of Buddhism was declining.

Whilst some of the walls have been exposed and reconstructed using modern bricks, much of this monastery seems to have remained unexcavated. Remains of further walls, partially covered with soil, are slowly eroding away and becoming rubble. It’s a great shame to see this happening, even more so when one considers that for many visitors this will be the first monument they see. It’s not a very good introduction to the site !

Lying abandoned on the ground is the only other sculpture you will see outside, not in-situ, just seemingly left discarded.

Archaeological Museum

The archaeological museum at Lalitagiri is both the best and worst museum I have ever visited in India, all at the same time.

Any sculptural remains that once existed in the complex have all been collected and housed in a newly built museum that opened in 2018. The sculptures on display are beyond words, incredibly well lit in very well organised galleries, not a hint of dirty glass cabinets here ! The museum also houses the remains of the caskets and associated relics that were found in the Maha Stupa.

So that’s the good, what about the bad ? Firstly, photography is not permitted which just seems ridiculous these days. I can understand the relics not being photographed, but to not allow any of the sculptures to be photographed makes no sense at all. Whilst this rule in museums was quite prevalent in the past, in recent years almost all museums have now relaxed this rule. I really don’t understand why the ASI continue to have this rule in place.

But even banning photography did not frustrate me that much, what did was the security. For my entire visit to the museum a security guard insisted on following me around, even into the galleries, he was basically my shadow for the entire time. It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and to be honest I just wanted to get through the museum as soon as possible and leave. The museum is covered with security cameras, so this behaviour is completely unnecessary. There is not a shred of consideration for how the visitors, their customers, will feel as a result.

I wanted to rebel, so went to the toilet and managed to shake him off for 5 minutes. So here are the only two photos from the museum, which doesn’t do justice to what you will see here. It’s well worth visiting, and maybe you can be better than me at getting rid of your newly acquired shadow 🙂

My overall experience of Lalitagiri was one of slight disappointment, and that’s not directly because of the museum saga. It was the last of the “Diamond Triangle” sites I saw, and on reflection perhaps I should have seen this complex first. I found Ratnagiri and Udayagiri far more interesting sites to explore, both of which were greatly enhanced by having a lot of sculptures still in-situ. At Laltagiri all the sculptures have been removed, taken away from their context, which renders the site far more sterile in my opinion. I completely understand the need to both protect and preserve these carvings, but it would have been nice to keep a few on site in a protected setting.

Lalitagiri is open every day of the week, 7am to 7pm (essentially sunrise to sunset).

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