Located 95 km north-east of Bhubaneswar, Udayagiri is the largest Buddhist complex in Odisha and together with Ratnagiri and Lalitgiri forms the “Diamond Triangle” of Buddhist complexes can can all be visited in a single day.
The site is broadly divided into two distinct areas; known as Udayagiri 1 and Udayagiri 2, which corresponds to different excavation periods that occurred here between 1985 and 2004. What follows is a virtual tour of the site, which is likely to be more heavy with photographs and a little light on text, mostly because I took a ton of pictures and there is little information I could find about the site and the discoveries that have been made here. As always, click on the images to see them in a larger format.
Sculptures and Stepped Well
After a short walk from the car park you will come to an area displaying a collection on sculptures that have been recovered from the site. It’s nice that these have not all been carted away to museums, and I guess they have been placed here (close to a building) so there’s less chance of them disappearing.
To your left a very short distance away is a stepped-well, an inscription here suggests that it was built around the 10th century A.D. I was slightly surprised to find a stepped well, a structure type that I’m a little fond of and tend to go out of my way to explore if I know one is nearby.
Granted it’s no Chand Baori, but it felt good to add another stepped well to my collection :-). The locals here claim that the water in the well has never dried up.
From the collection of sculptures you’re presented with two paths. The path continuing ahead will take you Udayagiri 1, the left path which goes past the stepped well and adjoining temple heads towards Udayagiri 2.
Taking the path straight ahead towards Udayagiri 1, the first structure you will come to is the Maha Stupa (Mahastupa), which was excavated in 1987.
A slightly unusual structure, that doesn’t appear to have been significantly reconstructed (it is has been they did a fantastic job!). The stupa is nearly 5m high, with each of the central cells at the cardinal points housing an image of image of Dhyani Buddha.
Whilst these cells are gated and locked, the bars are just about wide enough apart so you can poke your lens through and get a semi decent shot of the carvings.
During excavations here several terracotta seals were unearthed bearing the inscription “Sri Madhavapura Mahavihariya Aryabhikshu Sanghasya”, so it almost certain the original name of the settlement was Madhavapura Mahavihariya.
Continuing ahead you will shortly enter the remains of an east-facing brick-built monastic structure, also known as Monastery 1. The whole area before the structure is strewn with building rubble poking out of the ground, with the odd sculpture standing upright, probably not far from where they are originally excavated.
The monastery itself consists of a central courtyard flanked either side by cells, with the main shrine directly opposite the entrance. Most of the building is constructed of red brick, it wasn’t entirely clear to me if this structure once had an upper level as only the ground floor footprint remains today.
This monastery is believed to have been constructed in the 8th century A.D, and is thought to be later than Udayagiri 2, altgough there are hints that this may have been built over an earlier pre-existing complex.
Probably the highlight of my visit to Udayagiri has to be the main shrine at Monastery 1, the intricately carved doorway is simply incredible.
The photographs really don’t do this justice, and nor can you get a sense of just how minuscule some of these carvings are.
The images of tiny figures on swings and some of their facial expressions are amazing, I can imagine the artists must have had some fun creating these.
Within the shrine is, unsurprisingly, a seated Buddha. This shrine is usually locked, but I was lucky enough to have the main caretaker of the site show me around, so it would pay to try and find him if you visit.
I so wanted to try and get a shot of the doorway with Buddha looming behind, but the contrasting light levels makes it almost impossible, even with my post-processing attempts in Lightroom. Anyway, what you see here are my best attempts 🙂
Retrace your steps back past Maha Stupa (Mahastupa), and where the track forks take the right path. Sometimes referred to as Monastery 2, Udayagiri 2 is a far more complex site than Udayagiri 1, with at least two monastic buildings with subsidiary structures, and a substantial number of stupas, shrines, and votive sculptures.
It is thought that a few structures here could date to as early as the 1st century B.C, with the height of building activity occurring between the 4th and 7th century A.D. Further additions, alterations and expansions continued until the 12th century A.D. after which the site started to decline.
The main excavations at Udayagiri occurred between 1997 and 2000, revealing an impressive brick-built double-storied brick built monastic complex with a central courtyard surrounded by 13 cells.
The north-facing shrine houses a large seated Buddha. The doorway to the shrine is a modern “reconstruction”, the original decorative doorway which is very similar to the one at Udayagiri 1 was removed to Patna Museum.
Terracotta seals found at Udayagiri 2 would appear to indicate that the site was originally known as Simhaprastha Mahavihara. On level ground below the monastery are a large number of brick-built ruined stupas, surrounded by an impressive amount medium and small sized votive stone stupas within a walled compound.
Clearly Udayagiri 2 has received quite a lot of attention recently, with a number of the structures having been significantly reconstructed. At the time of writing this recent work does detract a little from the visiting experience, the brick is fresh and much brighter than the original structures and whilst this will weather over time and become more harmonious, I do question whether doing this was really necessary ? If I was to come back here in a couple of hundred years time I may have a different opinion about this 🙂
There are three other locations within the Udayagiri complex that I didn’t see, but wanted to include for completeness:
- From Udayagiri 2 there is a path that continues south up a hill for approx 600m to a site where there are some rock-cut Buddhist sculptures.
- 100m to the east of the walled stupa enclosure at Udayagiri 2 are the remains of a small residential complex.
- On your way back to the car park a rough path to your right will lead you into an area where ancient quarrying took place. The quarry consists of nothing more than clear evidence of blocks having been cut out of the laterite bedrock that exists on the land surface.
The Buddhist complex at Udayagiri is thoroughly worth visiting as part of the “Diamond Triangle” of such sites you can visit during a day excursion from Bhubaneswar. It is certainly on par with Ratnagiri, my experience at Lalitgiri was not so good for reasons I will shortly articulate. The site has the perfect blend of monuments still visible on the ground, sculptures both in-situ and collected together in the open air, all set within a beautiful landscape.
I would also like to make a special mention of my guide, who is the caretaker employed by the ASI. Not only did he give me some great information and unlocked various gates, but he was also meticulous in picking up even the smallest piece of rubbish he saw that had been discarded on the ground. I really liked that he cared enough to do that, I’m not sure I have encountered that before anywhere in India.
The Udayagiri Buddhist Complex is open every day from 8am to 5pm, admission is completely free (but please give the guide a tip!).
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