With the light fading rapidly, time was not on my side.
Having already explored the well known Buddhist sites of Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitagiri, which collectively are known as the “Diamond Triangle” of Buddhist complexes in Odisha, I was determined to squeeze in one more site – Langudi.
The existence of Buddhist remains on Langudi hill were first documented by T.S.Motte in 1766. Working for the East India Company, he was traveling through the region en-route to Sambalpur and documented military activities and other anecdotes in this journal.
When T.S.Motte saw Langudi hill it was covered with trees. A period of deliberate deforestation commenced in the early 1950s by local villagers in an attempt to reduce the number of wild animals on the hill, which they claimed were being a menace.
The removal of trees from the hill rendered many of the Buddhist remains completely exposed, although the main Maha Stupa (Mahastupa) remained concealed under a mound. Villagers were well aware of the existence of the site, it was revered as “Pancha Pandav” and part of the complex became known as “Suniavedi”.
The Buddhist complex remained in complete obscurity until the early 1990s, when Harish Chandra Prusty and Pradeep Mohanty described the site in an article published in the Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute. Finally, in 1996 the Orissa Institute of Maritime and South East Asia Studies together with the state’s archaeology department started exploring the site. A ten year campaign of archaeological excavations took place between 1996 and 2006, before the ASI took over the site in 2007.
Maha Stupa (Mahastupa)
Locating the sites of interest on Langudi Hill is not straightforward, so try and locate the ASI caretaker at the entrance so he can be your guide. A well defined path leads up the hill but soon diminishes, you should head left (north-east) towards a mound on a flat terrace not far from the summit to the south.
Excavations here confirmed what was widely suspected, the conspicuous mound was indeed a massive stupa, 20m in diameter and made from uniform bricks. Finds from the stupa included a parasol of the Mauryan era, uncarved suchi (cross-bar), pillars, northern black polished ware and fragmentary inscriptions.
The most significant discovery here is an inscription stating that the stupa was erected by “a lay Buddhist worshipper called Ashoka”. This strongly suggests that this stupa is one of the 10 stupas that were erected in Odisha (Odra) by Ashoka, in locations where Buddha visited and preached.
If this is indeed an Ashoka stupa, it is the first and earliest to have been discovered in Odisha and would date to the 3rd century B.C. Note that often stupas start out as quite modest constructions and become larger over time as they are subsequently remodeled, this occurred at more famous Buddhist sites such as Sanchi. So the remains that can be seen today might not necessarily date back to the time of Ashoka, but the site of the stupa almost certainly does.
Without my guide I probably would have failed to locate this area on the hill. From the Maha Stupa, continue in an easterly direction with the highest point of the hill on your right. Cut into the face of the exposed rock at the base of the summit are 34 stupas, dating from the 1st to 4th centuries A.D.
It’s a wonderfully evocative sight, and as an archaeologist I can’t help but imagine what else might exist both here on Langudi Hill and in the wider landscape.
The largest stupa in this set is flanked by Vidyadharas, but further weathered motifs start to pop out as you inspect the panels in closer detail.
For most of the 20th century scholars and archaeologists have attempted to identify the true location of Pushpagiri (Puspagiri). 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, describes a monastery and university he visited in 639 A.D. named Pu-se-p’o-k’i-li in the south-west region of a country known as Ota or Udra, which is identified as Odra in present-day Odisha :
In the south-west of the country was the Pu-sie-p’o-k’i-li monastery in a mountain; the stone tope of this monastery exhibited supernatural lights and other miracles, sunshades placed by worshippers on it between the dome and the amalaka remained there like needles held by a magnet.
Attempts to find Pushpagiri focused on the more well-known Buddhist complexes at Udayagiri, Ratnagiri and in particular Lalitagiri. Some scholars became convinced that Lalitagiri was the site of Pushpagiri, others suggested that perhaps the three sites combined were collectively regarded as Pushpagiri as they are geographically so close together.
All attempts to identify any of the “Diamond Triangle” sites as Pushpagiri completely failed, but excavations here at Langudi changed everything.
During the decade of excavations at Langudi between 1996 and 2006, a fragmented Brahmi inscription was discovered naming the site as puṣpa sabhar giriya (“flower-filled hill”). This almost certainly is the same site mentioned by Hiuen T’sang (Xuanzang), and so finally after many centuries of being lost, Pushpagri has now been rediscovered.
To my utter surprise, and delight, some recent excavations have been happening on the hill and the results of their effort were still visible !
There was no evidence that the excavations where still in progress, and although they look very recent I have no idea when they started or concluded. The sides of the trenches (sections) are extremely clean and plumb straight (kudos to the diggers!), so I don’t think the trenches have been exposed to a monsoon season. There was no trace at all of the spoil heaps (the soil removed), I have no idea where they were.
Within the trenches you can clearly see walls and circular bases of what must be the remains of further brick built stupas. As an archaeologist it was extremely exciting to see these trenches, my trowel at home would have been quivering in anticipation. How I would dearly love to be involved in excavating a site like this.
A short distance from the rock-cut stupas and archaeological excavations is a further set of carvings cut into the exposed rock face.
Believed to have been carved between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D, here there is a single stupa, together with carvings of Buddha in dhyani mudras, the goddess Tara, Avalokitesvaras, and Prajnaparamita.
Clearly this entire area has eroded significantly over the centuries, with many of the carvings now damaged. One can only imagine both what has now been lost forever, but also what is yet to be discovered.
The excavations on Langudi Hill have proven the complex was a prominent Buddhist seat of learning that flourished for up to 1,400 years, from the 3rd century B.C to the 11th century A.D. All three sects of Buddhism are represented here; Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, and there is clearly a vast opportunity to undertake more research and develop the site further for visitors. In particular, a small museum showcasing artifacts that have been recovered from 10+ years of excavation would be a great addition, as well as exposing and conserving more of the structures that those trenches give a tantalising hint of.
It’s exciting to contemplate what secrets the Langudi Buddhist Complex has yet to yield.
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