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KURKIHAR PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 10 December 2009 20:10
-The remnants of an artistic age

Kurkihar was a Buddhist site which was known all over the Buddhist world for its excellence in metal art. Its exquisite creations adorned the monasteries in far of countries. I do believe that one of the reasons for the flourishing of this art was that it was popular with the traders of the 'Silk route' among others who came to India as pilgrims and took back images of the Buddha or the Bodhisattvas either as reminders of having visited the famous sites pertaining to the life of the Buddha .
The village of Kurkihar is situated about 5 Km. north-east of Wazirgunj and its antiquity was brought to notice by Major Kittoe in 1847. According to his records, he visited the place twice and on the second visit to the village, spent four days collecting "ten cart-loads of images; all Buddhist and the Tamrika period." A great portion of this collection is preserved in the Indian Museum Kolkata.
Among the other British Explorers who visited Kurkihar were: Peppe in 1860, when he took photographs of some of the images and published a brief note about the site. Cunningham visited the site in 1861-62 and again in 1879-80. Stein, who had undertaken an exploration of the route taken by Huien Tsang, visited the site purely for an academic study. It was only in 1930 that Kurkihar came into the limelight due to the discovery of a hoard of 226 bronze images and 5 other objects. These images are now on display in the Patna Museum.

I visited the village as part of my tour of Buddhist sites in the remote areas of Bihar and Kurkihar was definitely worth visiting for its importance as a place which had created some of the most creative images related to the life of the Buddha as well as images of the Vajrayana art in the later period of 9th to 12th Century AD. One is not sure if this was only a place for the manufacture of images or how many monasteries it had in the area. It is unfortunate that no proper records exist of the site except for the exploration records of the British Archaeologists. Unlike Kittoe's account of Kurkihar which unfortunately was not only brief but also too sketchy. He refers to the site "as a vast mound of bricks and rubbish…….undoubtedly the site of a great monastery and a large town." He also refers to an outer enclosure "180 paces square, the walls being 3 feet in thickness, with an inner enclosure which appears to have been filled for ages with Chaityas or Buddha temples of every dimension from ten inches to perhaps 40 to 50 feet." Cunningham on his part did a comprehensive survey of the site and his report was more exact and also carried a fairly accurate sketch plan of the site. Below mentioned is a brief account from Cunningham's survey report.

THE MAIN MOUND OF BUDDHIST RUINS TO THE SOUTH OF THE VILLAGE:
In his report he mentions that the site measures about 600 feet square and about 25 feet high as noted in his sketch plan where he also includes ruins of a small fort with solid brick walls. He also refers to having seen here not only numerous Buddhist images, large and small, but a large amount of votive stupas rather characteristic of the place. He says there were in his time "row after row of Chaityas extending north to south for several hundred feet." He also says that the mound represents ruins of a Buddhist stupa, the super-structure of which had already been dug away for bricks by the people of the locality. Cunningham also claimed that the relic chamber of the stupa had been opened quite early by the villagers and the relics buried therein were lost forever. According to Archaeologists who visited the site at later periods mention that quarrying at the mound for bricks continued till as late as 1930.
It was during the course of an excavation in 1930 that Saraswati and Sarkar came across a large hoard of bronze images all at one spot, the smaller pieces were packed in two large earthen jars , the larger ones having been piled on the ground with the heaviest ones lying right at the bottom. The find spot as quoted in the report by Saraswati and Sarkar is said to be some 25ft. below the top of the mound and was probably enclosed by a circular wall of which traces were visible. The bricks found in this mound are of an unusually large size 16 ¾ x 10 ½ x 2 ½ inches. Jayaswal (an eminent Historian) however described the find spot as " a corner of a room - a little below the ground level of the street and some 15 feet below the top of the mound." No sketch or drawing of the find spot has ever been published so far - thus indicating the correct location of the place the bronze images were discovered as well as the details of the ruins of the building.

According to Jayaswal, in all 230 pieces were received by the Patna Museum. These included "pedestals, conches, miniature crystal stupas, bells, potteries etc. The actual amount of images, were about 150 in number. Three of the images were gold plated as well as a few images of solid silver; but these images were lost in the transportation of the hoard to the Museum. In the collection at the Museum are a few images that date back to the 'pre-Pala' period, the remaining images are from the Pala period and it is confirmed that 105 images have inscriptions on them. In this collection, only 6 of the images represent Hindu deities. All the others represent Buddhist deities, of which as many as 51 images represent the Buddha, which include a peculiar (or esoteric) representation of the Blessed One wearing a crown, which from a Buddhist 'point of view' is 'unorthodox' or ' uncanonical.'  The Buddhist images represent mostly of Tara, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or Lokanatha Vagisvara and many more.
To the south of the great mound is a large tank on the banks of which Jayaswal noticed (in 1930), numerous monolithic votive stupas. Earlier, in Cunningham's sketch plan another larger tank towards the west, however a comprehensive study of the Archeological Records show that they have not been explored till date.
THE DEVISTHANA OR VAGISVARI TEMPLE
The Hindu temple situated in the north-eastern portion of the village was seen by Cunningham in 1861 with a number of images, both Buddhist and Hindu images which belong to the village and have been preserved here. All the images kept here can be dated to the 10th - 11th Century AD.  In spite of the Temple being well protected by iron barricades and a strong gate, yet images of the Buddha have been stolen from inside the premises - one cannot be sure if the robbery was done with the connivance of the temple's authorities, who were probably paid for the image.
It is unfortunate that most of the British Archaeologists were only armatures and  to a great extent relied on their Brahmin 'Munshis' or clerical staff, who, to please their 'Masters' gave fanciful interpretations, which the gullible 'Sahib' happily noted in his records. Kurkihar too, in spite of its importance as a place of pilgrimage was not given its due importance. Evidence in the form of inscriptions found from the ruins, refer to pilgrims not only from remote place in India like Sakala in Punjab, and Kerala, Conjeevaram or Kanchi in the south, but also from far off lands like Bali Islands, Malaya as well as  other countries. The inscriptions also refer to a number of eminent personage and kings, the latter being mostly of the Pala dynasty.
According to Huien Tsang, who visited the site refers to Kukkuta-pada-giri which he says existed near Patliputra or Patna. Cunningham believed that the name of the site was Kurak-vihar. Doubts about the original name of the sites exist even today - the 21st Century. But there is one fact that is certain, that during the period of existence, it was a popular site for pilgrimage. What caused the downfall of the site is not quite uncertain - nor have Historians made an effort to explore the history of the site.
Ever since India attained Independence in 1948, The Archaeological Survey of India, has done very little to excavate 'forgotten' Buddhist sites, instead they have concentrated all their energies to maintain the sites that were exposed by the Britishers. The laws created by the British in 1862 are still in existence with very few amendments and serve as the guidelines of this Department. While the ASI refuses to change its way of working Buddhist sites that are of immense importance will continue to be in ruins with the pilgrims not knowing of their existence. Thieves and smugglers of ancient images will continue to thrive, the State Government which could have promoted the site and attracted more pilgrims  find themselves at a loss as only the Archaeological Survey of India are the sole Authority to excavate a site - a job they are reluctant to undertake.


The ancient mound of a Buddhist Vihara



Buddhist images in the Hindu temple



Close up view of a Buddha Image in the Hindu temple




Image of a Boddhisattva in the Hindu temple



Two images of the Buddha in Bhumisparsha mudra



Buddhist and Hindu images displayed in the Hindu temple


An image of Jambhala (left) along with a Hindu deity


A 6 foot image of the Buddha in Bhumisparsha mudra


A votive stupa in the grounds of the Hindu Temple


A standing metal image of the Buddha - Kurkihar Art
(Courtesy Patna State Museum)




A sitting image of Buddha - Kurkihar Art
(Coutesy Patna State Museum)




Image of a Bodhisattva - Kurkihar Art
(Courtesy Patna State Museum)



A perfect metal Stupa - Kurkihar Art
(Courtesy Patna State Museum)



A standing metal image of the Buddha - Kurkihar Art
(Courtesy Patna State Museum)



A standing metal image of the Buddha - Kurkihar Art
(Courtesy Patna State Museum)



A standing image of the Buddha beside another artifact - Kurkihar Art
(Courtesy Patna State Museum)



A Pedestal - Kurkihar Art
(Courtesy Patna State Museum)



Avalokitesvara and Tara - Kurkihar Art
(Courtesy Patna State Museum)



 References:  Kittoe, JASB, 1847 pp.275-6; 1848, pp.234; Peppe, JASB, 1866, p.59; Cunningham, ASI, I, pp. 14-16; XV, pp.4-6; Beal, IA, XII, 327-8; Stein IA, XXX, pp. 85ff; BDG, Gaya, 314 ff; Bloch, An. Rep., ASI B.C., 1902, p.14; Jayaswal, JISOA,II, pp.270-82; A. Banerji-Shastri JBORS XXVI pp.236 ff; 295 ff; Saraswati and Sarkar, Kurkihar, Gaya and Bodh Gaya pp. 1-30; A.C. Banerji, JASB, Vol. III, 1937, pp.53-54; Patna Museum, Annual Report for 1940-41, pp.15 ff. Personal comments and exploration survey report of Suresh Bhatia, Director, The Buddhist Heritage Research Foundation.
Last Updated on Sunday, 13 December 2009 13:32