Sunday, 1 January 2012

Seeking Buddha in Gujarat, Saurashtra

Known more for Hindu and Jain religious places, Gujarat is now hoping to play host to Buddhist pilgrims too.

While in January this year, Chief Minister Narendra Modi shared the dais with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the International Seminar on Buddhist Heritage at Vadodara, the state's tourism department is now trying hard to promote the "Buddhist Footprints in Gujarat" through its website.

The earliest archeological evidence of Buddhism in Gujarat dates back to Emperor Ashoka's reign (269-232 BC). Saurashtra (known as Surashtra/ Saraostes/Syrastene in the past) finds a mention in early Buddhist literature such as the Indriya Jataka, Milinda Panha, Petavatthu, etc. In the sixth century, Bhattarkka, a general of the Gupta Emperors, established an independent principality around Valabhi (Vallabhipur). He was a devout Shaivite but the Maitraka rulers that followed him, though Hindus themselves were great patrons of Buddhism. On his visit to Gujarat in 640 AD, Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang noted the presence of 200 monasteries housing 10,000 monks at Bharuch, Atali, Kheta, Valabhi, Anandapura and Surashtra. Both Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism were prevalent in Gujarat.

The following are some of the main Buddhist archeological sites in Gujarat:

Vadnagar, Mahesana
Nearly 128 km from Ahmedabad, the archeological site between River Banas and River Rupen, has a 12-cell structure that belonged to a Buddhist vihara or monastery and housed monks from the 2nd to 4th century AD. Hiuen Tsang, who visited Vadnagar (then known as Anandapur) in the 7th century, reported that the city had some 10 sangharams (resting places for Buddhist monks) with a 1,000 Buddhist monks. Archaeologists found around 2,000 artefacts including a Buddha idol, an amphora, figurines, a crucible, a grinding stone, seals, a terracotta head wearing a turban, shell bangles, necklace beads, copper and silver coins that are housed at the Museum of Archaeology at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara.

Perched atop the Taranga Hills nearby, is a shrine dedicated to Devi Taranmata. The idols of Taranmata and Dharanmata are of Buddhist Goddess Tara, the "Mother of all Buddhas," which usually refers to the enlightened wisdom of the Buddhas. In the Dharanmata Temple, over the halo behind the head of the marble sculpture of the Goddess Tara, is a lotus on which rests the Amitabh Buddha. The lower register of the sculpture also displays the symbolic representation of the Buddha in form of an elephant, a horse and a chakra.

Devnimori, Sabarkantha
Better known for its hotsprings, Devnimori located 132 km from Ahmedabad has a large Buddhist establishment that dates back to the period between 2nd and 7th centuries AD. King Ashoka is said to have erected as many as 80,000 stupas across India. He unearthed the ashes of Buddha from their original place and distributed them across the country, building stupas accordingly. One such stupa, from the 4th century was excavated in early 1960s at Devnimori. Close to the major trade routes of Mewar and Dungarpur, Devnimori was the site of an important Buddhist monastic centre 1,600 years ago. The mahastupa's still there but the relics including a casket containing Buddha's ashes and 17 terracotta statues of Buddha are now housed in the Department of Archaeology at The Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara.

Junagadh District
A prominent Buddhist centre since Ashoka's reign, Junagadh district is sprinkled with rock-cut-caves, monasteries and stupas at 15-odd sites such as the Ashokan rock edict at Girnar, Baba Pyara Caves, Khapra Kodia caves, Upparkot caves, Panheswer Caves, Mai Gadechi, Matri, structural monastery at Intawa, brick stupa at Bordevi and Vajrapanat, Sana caves, caves around Prabhas Patan, Mandor Caves and Savni-Gir.

Buddhist caves, about 2000 years old, are among the oldest monuments at Uparkot. Carved out of monolithic rock, these three-tiered caves are famous for their exquisite art.

Getting there:
Gujarat has one of the better developed road networks in India. State transport and private buses are the best and the cheapest modes of transport. Ahmedabad is well-connected to all major cities and towns by road, rail and air.

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