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Tuesday, 29 September 2009 10:16


A truly forgotten Buddhist site  

Patna, the ancient city of Patliputra unfortunately has lost its Antiquarian sites. Kumrahar, where Asoka's palace and a monastery once stood, now has been converted into a park and the old traces have been covered with sand. The rest of the sites that existed here, have been lost and probably modern 'Sky scrapers' as the city rapidly develops, has destroyed everything. The only place worth visiting is the State Government Museum, which does have a fairly good collection of both stone and metal Buddhist images as well as other antiquity from over the ages.

Having spent a day at Patna visiting the Museum, I decided to focus all my attention to Bihar Shariff and explore the ancient and medieval Buddhist sites for which the city was popular in the past. For one, the city well known for having been the site of Odantapuri - a famous University reputed for its excellence in imparting Vajrayana and Tantric Buddhist studies. The monastery, traditions ascribe was built on top of a hill known as 'Badi Pahari' (or big hill). Leaving aside the myths that have become a big part of Buddhism, one learns that the magnificent Monastery cum Center of Mahayana Buddhist study was built in 815 A.D. by king Gopala, the founder of the Pala dynasty. It was destroyed, looted and five hundred monks butchered somewhere in the 12th Century AD., when Bhakyiyar Khilji and his barbaric forces, attacked the Monastery. It is said that they looted all the images of the Tantrayana made of gold and silver and when they came across an enormous library of hand written manuscripts, they were curious what was written in them but there was no one left to explain anything as all the monks had been killed.

The first historical evidence on the ancient name of the town has, however, been found in an inscription on a Buddhist image, made of brass, found in Bihar itself and can now be seen with the Bangiya Parishad (cf. inscription No. iii mentioned below)  and mentions a person by the name of Ranaka Thakura of Uddandapura (modern Bihar). This identification of Uddandapura with modern Bihar was firmly confirmed by the local tradition quoyed by Beglar that before the Muhammedan invasion the town was known as Bihar Dandi or Danda Bihar. Cunningham on his part, while strongly supporting the identification, quotes an extract from the Ceylonese chronicle mentioning the town of Danta which would be the same as Udantapura. He adds that in about 815 AD. King Gopala is said to have built a temple at Nalandara (site yet to be identified) near Odantapura (cf. ASI, VI, p.191). The Tibetan Historian, Taranatha in in-depth work on Buddhist sites, refers to the town as Otantapura in connection with the reign of Gopala, the first Pala King, and again mentions Udandapuradesa while referring to the Muhammedan conquest of the region. As no records exist of the site, one is not sure if a magnificent Monastery existed on the top of the hill (which is said to slope towards Tibet) while the centers of learning were spread out below. During his tour of the site in 1811-12, Buchanan observed when he visited the fort, "numerous brick and stone remains were found to exist inside the fort representing mostly Buddhist buildings, a few Hindu temples and some Muhammedan tombs." In later days the first part of the name was invariably omitted by the Muhammedan historians. The town is, at present, also known by the name of Bihar Sharif after the name of Shah Sharifuddin, the famous patron saint of Bihar, or according to another tradition, from the numerous tombs of Musalman saints existing in the various parts of the town. Of the many Buddhist images and carvings removed from the place, some are in the Indian Museum and others in the Patna Museum.

The isolated hill to the north-west of the town is locally referred to as Pir Pahadi or Badi Pahadi which Broadley had identified with Indra-sila-guha (now located in the District of Nawada) of the Buddhist tradition as mentioned by Hiuen Tsang. Cunningham, however, did not agree with the identification. According to Broadley, local tradition makes it the site of a famous "Maghaia Sangat" i.e. a "Buddhist Monastery." He found here chaityas, portions of gateways; images with inscriptions of Mandanapaladeva on its pedestal. The tomb of Malik Ibrahim Bayyu stands on this hill and was built almost entirely out of the materials of a Buddhist temple, which must have existed previously at the site. About 1000 feet north-east of the tomb Cunningham noticed a square platform of brick perhaps indicating the basement of a stupa.(cf. Cunningham, ASI, I, p.37: III, p. 149, XI, p.186, Broadley, JASB, 1872,  pp. 284 ff. Bengal List pp. 258-60). 

It is unfortunate that till date neither the British Archaeologists nor their successors, the Archaeological Survey of India., have bothered to identify the remains of Buddhist sites in this city or to excavate the remains of some of the ruins that still exist. I did conduct an independent survey of all the sites including a number of Muslim Darghas (shrines), Mosques and old buildings and found that all of them have pillars, foundation stones and architraves belonging to the remains of Buddhist Viharas. In the next installment I will be writing a report on the survey I have made and what I discovered during my tour of the area. I would like to offer my gratitude to the India Museum, and the State Museum, Patna for having allowed me to photograph all the Buddhist images - so as to allow me to build a data bank. References in this report on Odantapuri have been mentioned in brackets while referring to the Authors.

Images of Bihar Sarif

Buddha image found at Bihar Sharif

Buddhist image found at Bihar Sharif

Image of Avalokitesvar found at Bihar Sharif

Images of Odantpuri

Remains of Odantapuri Monastery

Doorway and railing of Odantapuri Monastery

Inner view of Monastery

Muslim tombs within the monastery

Full view of the Monastery complex

View of the monastery entrance
Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 September 2009 08:16