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TELHARA: A Forgotten Monastery
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Tuesday, 29 September 2009 10:27


A Forgotten Monastery

The area surrounding Bihar Shariff for at least another ten kilometers has edifices of mostly Mahayana sites, though there were some belonging to the Theravada tradition. One of these was the Telhara Monastery.  It was a Monastery which had a reputation of being a place of learning, and probably came into existence either as a rival to Nalanda or was an extension of this Institution and supplemented with specialized courses to Monks who were excelling in some particular field of study. As no records have been found, one is not sure of its curriculum. However, whatever little information we have been able to gather shows that this Vihara had a place of great standing.
The village where this site existed, in ancient times, was named after the Monastery and was then known as Teledhaka or Telhara. Situated on a narrow strip of land between the Sona and Kattar river 13 miles south-east of Masaurhi railway station and about 21 miles west of Nalanda. The site was first discovered in 1872 by A.M. Broadley, the District Magistrate of Nalanda, who brought to notice the significance of the site and after having made a comprehensive survey of the area published a book outlining the history of all the Buddhist sites in the district of Nalanda especially Telhara. Later in 1875-78 Alexander Cunningham did a further exploration of the site. 
My personal observation of the site, when I visited it a month ago, gave me the impression that all traces of its Buddhist past were deliberately obliterated in a fanatic frenzy to establish the Islamic faith. Though there are not many muslin families living in the area presently, yet trying to talk to them is literally impossible when it comes to explaining that this was an important Buddhist site. They refused to even listen and kept on repeating that there were Muslim shrines here even before Buddhist and Hindu gods were even thought of. Well I knew better, for there in front of me was the site where Telhara Monastery existed and on top of it was a dilapidated structure known as a Dargha (Muslim shrine)  where the remains of a wise man had been buried and the material used to build the shrine were taken from the rubbles of the Vihara. I saw pillars supporting this structure that had Buddhist symbols, defaced sitting Buddha's etc. Around the area there is nothing left that would indicate that the remains of a magnificent monastery existed here. It is a crying shame that in the last 60 years of India's independence that such a site of importance has not been properly investigated explored and excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India - the only Department in India that can undertake this project. 
Telhara, in the early 19th Century, was a large town with a population of about 10,000, mostly Muslim families. During the reign of the Moughals, this place was recorded as the Capital of one of the largest parganas of the region. As mentioned earlier that Broadley was the first person to point out that the site 'without doubt' could be identified with the Tilas-akiya ( Ti-lo-tse-kia) vividly mentioned by Huien Tsang who visited it and stayed there while travelling from Patliputra or Patna on his way to Nalanda. He recorded that there were seven Monasteries at Tilhara accommodating about a thousand monks studying the Mahayana texts. He described these buildings as; 'consisting of court-yards, three storeyed pavilions, towers, gates that were crowned by cupolas with hanging bells.' He mentions about the interior of the Monastery, " The doors and windows, the pillars and the beams are faced with bas-reliefs in gilded copper, mingled with rare ornaments. In the middle Vihara there is a standing image of Bodhisattva Tara, and to the right, one of Avalokitesvara. The images are beautiful and made of brass." From his description of the Monastery, one gets the impression that it was an important seat of Buddhist learning, as he observes that, 'eminent philosophers flocked here in large numbers.' The history of this Monastery could safely be dated to the beginning of the 7th Century or even earlier.
During the partial excavation of the site, Cunningham discovered an inscription which clearly mentions the name of the place as Telyiadhaka or Teladhaka as will be seen below. It may also be added that the well-known Nalanda inscription of Baladitya of the 11th regnal year of Mahipaladeva also refers to Baladitya, a Jyavisa of Teladhaka. (cf. R.D.Banerji, Memoirs ASB, V, p.75). Along with his report, Cunningham gave a site plan of the ancient ruins. In the plan one can distinctly see the marked area covering about half a mile square with high mounds towards the south-east of the village, which itself is situated on a mound. Unfortunately, on visiting the village, I was not able to see only one mound which the people claim to be the palace of Baladitya. The rest of the mounds have been cut away by the villagers, flattened and are now fields used for cultivation of food grain etc.
In his site-plan Cunningham shows a group of six mounds with the highest or largest of then at the centre, locally known as 'Bulandi' or 'high mound.' In his report in 1872, Broadley described this mound as an "enormous mound of irregular shape… about fifty feet high." On the other hand Cunningham differs with his measurement of the mound, and during his visit between 1875-8, refers to the height as only 24' high and 350' at the base. Another strange situation brought to light by Broadley was that Bulandi mound was literally covered with Muslim graves and thus it was impossible to undertake any kind of excavation whatsoever. But he continues to say that whenever Muslim died, the family members would have to dig a number of times as in the process of digging they would unearth numerous images of brass or basalt. It is only when they found a spot in which no images were found, would they bury the dead. This goes to show that Telhara had a great number of images both in brass and basalt. In spite of trying to procure some of the images from the villagers, he failed in the process as the local villagers had the brass images melted down to make ornaments.  "The mound," Broadley wrote, "Is so rich in finds of this nature that there are few places in India that would yield more archaeological treasures than this great Tilhara mound." Cunningham in his report does mention observing some images inscribed with the Buddhist Creed. With reference to the mosque and the Dargha to the north- east of the village, Broadley mentions that these two buildings were built over the remains of a Buddhist temple.
The village most definitely deserves a through survey and if possible an extensive excavation. The site has immense value and could easily be converted to a potential pilgrimage site provided the Government of India made radical changes in its laws pertaining to conservation of sites. At present the Archaeological Survey is governed by rules made by the British in 1861 and hardly any amendments have been made in these laws. There should also be an awareness campaign to educate its citizens to respect religions other than their own and if Cultural heritage properties are in their possession, they should easily give it up so that the site may be conserved and created into a venue for pilgrimage/tourism. Even if such a law was to be enacted, it would take decades before it would become a reality. I know that in my lifetime I will not see Telhara as a pilgrimage site having the same popularity as Nalanda has.
Apart from Telhara, in the neighbouring villages there are sites where Buddha images dating from the 4th to 12th Century still exist. The sites I saw were; Ongari, Islampur, Dapthu and a few other sites of minor importance. These sites only go to show that Buddhism had a large establishment in the area and royal patrons who generously supported the cause.
Ref: Broadley, JASB, 1872, pp. 250-53; Cunningham, ASI XI, p.65 and plate XLII; Personal views of the Author. Content specially created for this Website.

Images of TELHARA

Monastery mound turned into agricultural fields

View of the Dargha built on top of ancient Buddhist monastery

Ven. Pannyalinkara inspecting Buddhist images in Telhara village

Remains of mound at Telhara

Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 September 2009 08:15