It has taken me a day and a half to visit the sites of the Buddhism in this part of Orissa. If I had hired a vehicle, I might have saved half a day. The government is just about putting some effort to bring tourism into this region, which they call the Buddhist Corridor. There is active work in all the three prominent sites of Ratnagiri, Lalitagiri and Udayagiri. The three places are connected by the NH5A.
I arrived from Cuttack, changed bus at Chandikhol to get to Ratnagiri. At Chandikhol, I met a man who had the habit of swallowing vowels. Name mangling was also common in him.
‘I want to go to Ratnagiri,’ I said hoping to get some directions.
‘Ratangri?’ he asked.
‘Is Ratangri same as Ratnagiri?’
He didn’t seem to listen to my question. He proceeded to tell me that the bus to Ratangri will be here shortly. This problem was repeated with Lalitagiri as well which he pronounced as Laltgri. I guess this is to be expected in every place where colloquial pronunciation varies from the formal one.
I had the idea of staying at Ratnagiri. It was just a simple village with no accommodation for visitors. There is a substantial tourist lodge coming up right opposite the museum at the edge of the village. It is in a picturesque setting overlooking vast stretches of green fields and distant hills. However, this building has been under construction since 2004. It is unlikely to open before 2010. There are times when you admire the relaxed pace of life in villages but this is not it. This is plain inefficient and painfully slow.
The hill has significant ruins of Buddhist monasteries and votive stupas. Stupas are in varying sizes. Monasteries have a central hall surrounded by partitioned cells. At the far end of the hall is an enclosed shrine housing ruined statues. Best preserved decoration is in the door jambs. The better preserved statues are in the museum. The colossal heads of the Buddha from about 9th century AD are noteworthy. Images of Tara, Manjushri, Boddhisatvas, Maitreya and Jambhala are wonderful. The museum is arranged in four spacious galleries in a terraced layout. Items are well labelled. I quite like these ASI museums. A little more detailed information would have been helpful.
I was fortunate to have met a villager on the bus. He was going that way. He did not know Hindi but somehow we understood enough of each other. Hindi and Oriya do have some similar words. The bus does not go to Lalitagiri. Leaving the NH5A, I had to walk a long way to the ruins of Lalitagiri. The villager stopped at his village of Sookapada while I continued to Lalitagiri. Incidentally, Sookapada has many houses that use stone pillars that may very well be from the Buddhist ruins on the hill.
At 9 am in the morning, the complex housing the ruins was open. Paying the nominal charge of just five rupees, I walked the shaded path of red soil. Clumps of young frangipanis trees grow in the open, their white flowers making a pretty sight. Need trees provide shade by the paths. Common langurs create a racket in these hours and force the warden to chase them away.
The warden comes to me with a neem twig in hand. It is commonplace in villages to chew need twigs along with tooth powder. They don’t use toothbrush or paste. He told some history of the place. He told me about a king and how he gifted three hills to his three daughters – Ratna, Lalita and Udaya. I asked him about the name of the king and the exact century when this actually happened. He had no reply. It was not clear at this point what was history and what was legend.
I looked around a little in the museum. The monastic cells are as in Ratnagiri. I was most impressed about the remains of an apsidal Chaitya hall. It stands rather well preserved and surrounded by many votive stupas.
Some distance away is another hill which I initially took to be further ruins of Buddhist antiquity. It turned out to be a Hindu temple, perhaps a conversion of ancient Buddhist tradition. They worship at this temple a deity named Orakitadas Mahapurusha. Faces of this deity are to found at the foot of trees in villages all around this region. Villagers worship this deity which may also amount to worship of the tree. I have seen is of peepal trees.
On the NH5A, I saw two farmers threshing the recent harvest of paddy and slowing down traffic. I just wonder why they couldn’t do it elsewhere. No one bothers to question them. They had cleverly picked a kink in the highway where two lanes widen into three.
Leaving the highway, and on the way to Ratnagiri, is Udayagiri. I had passed this yesterday but had to return to it today since I had run out of time last evening to cover both. I waited a long time for a bus to Udayagiri. Finally I got a ride on a lorry going that way. Almost anyone will give you a ride. It’s an easy way to make an extra few rupees.
The ruins of Udayagiri are similar to the other two. There are monastic ruins with central halls and partitioned cells. The ruins are surrounded by low green hills, set thick in their midst. It is quite unlike the ones at Ratnagiri which are on top of the flat plateau of the hill. There is a small stupa here which has a circular dome on the top but finally resting on a square pedestal. The transition between the two makes an interesting study. Four projections on the stupas house shrines of Buddhist images in different mudras.
The unique aspect of the ruins here is a rock-cut stepwell from the 10th century. About 30 steps lead 20 feet into the well. Anything ancient is deemed holy and religious. Visitors are told to remove footwear before entering the well. I couldn’t be bothered to remove my shoes. At the same time, I did not dare transgress religious injunctions, no matter how false or baseless.
There is also an excavated stonepath but its date is rather uncertain. Archaeologists have dated it between the 1st and 12th century AD, rather too wide a window to be useful.