Sunday, February 15, 2009

World's Second Largest Stupa Studied

In the remote Bihar village of Ghodakatora near Giriyak in Nalanda district on the banks of the Panchani River, a group of committed archaeologists are little by little bringing an ancient culture back to focus after thousands of years.At the centre of the exercise in the documentation (not discovery per se) of a huge Stupa that apparently carries the signature technique of random rubble dry stone masonry method.

“This stupa’s structure may belong to the Mauryan period (321-185 BC). And it is definitely one of the largest stupa discovered so far, if not the second largest one,” said Sujit Nayan, the chief archaeologist. The stone stupa, which is now being documented, lies atop a 500-ft hill.

Similar architectural technique has been found to have used in constructing the cyclopean wall to fortify an area of 32 km near the mountain of Rajgir-the capital city of the Magadha Empire. The outstanding cyclopean wall is particularly noted for his military significance.

The stone stupa is located near to one brick Stupa earlier discovered by British Archaeologist Alexander Cunningham in 1861.

The one discovered by Cunningham is of a cylindrical shape with a high base, consisting of more than one terrace. Similar stupa was earlier discovered at Kesariya in East Champaran district of Bihar.

A team from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is currently studying this Stupa at Ghorakatora, more than 100 km from Patna. The team is excavating nearly two KM area of the site.

Earlier, the ASI had started the excavation work at Ghorakatora mound near Giriyak in 2008 to unravel the ancient mysteries concealed in the ancient hills of Nalanda.

The excavation at Ghorakatora mound - that has largely followed a grid pattern- had begun initially with a contour map and a firm belief that the exercise would throw fresh light on the existing ancient Nalanda site. It has come true now.

Nayan’s archaeological endeavour also assumes special significance because fewer architectural remains of the Maurya period are currently available. Incidentally, the most widely acknowledged examples of exquisitely decorated Maurya architecture are the Pillars of Ashoka.

The excavators, however, are yet to form a conclusive opinion about the Stupa, which they are currently evaluating with intensive interest. “The stupa is around 35- metre in height and its circumference is 30 sq metres,” said Sujit Nayan.

But while the team was still assessing the stupa, Nayan confirms that it was related to Buddhism. Indeed, stupas a dome-shaped monument, which were used to house Buddhist relics or symbolise Buddhism, are regarded as one with the Buddha.

“I am the stupa,” Buddha is believed to have said, “and the stupa is me.”

According to scholars, following his cremation, Buddha’s ashes were divided into eight portions and buried under special Stupas constructed in his hometown and at seven other locations, including Vaishali in Bihar.

Largely, four types of stupas have been identified. Some were built over relics of the Buddha while others were raised over objects used by him. Besides, some of the stupas said to signify important events related to Buddhism and some others were raised to express devotion or symbolism.

Incidentally, three best-known Buddhist universities, Nalanda, Vikramasila and Odantpuri, were in eastern India, in the region of present-day Bihar. In fact, Bihar derives its name from the many viharas that flourished there.

The greatest of these monastic centres was at Nalanda, which was a hub of learning for pilgrims and scholars from all corners of Asia once upon a time.

This one discovery from the Ghodakatora site is sufficient to excite the entire scholarly community in the country, but here the archaeologists have made it just one in a string of startling finds.

The archaeologists are excavating major finds throughout the ancient hillock that are helping throw new light on what is arguably one of the world’s older civilisations.

For one, the excavations so far have yielded remnants of stone axe, something that can be traced to Neolithic age. In yet another example, the archaeologists working at the ancient site have dug up water-reservoirs and tanks, which give an insight into the way the township was planned in a later time period.

The excavation is also likely to throw more light on the dating of Lord Buddha, the place of Buddha’s relics buried somewhere near Rajgir and antiquities of pre-Buddha period.

There are others significant finds that may turn many heads towards this largely ignored ancient cite. The ceramic noticed in the ancient ruins are red ware, black slipped ware, northern black polished ware and black and red ware potsherds. Antiquities like terracotta beads and a fragment of Sunga plaque have also been collected.

According to archaeologist, the discoveries suggest that the site may date back to chalcolithic culture leading to northern black polished ware culture. But, it also clearly indicates that various folds of history are currently wrapped within the Giriyak strata.

Arguably, more than being a treasure hunt, the current archaeological endeavour has made a forgotten chapter of ancient history emerge and recorded in Bihar.

Unlike history, the archaeological accounts also suggest how people of that period lived, what the subsistence patterns of a people were like, and the possible work and motivations culturally.

The current batch of archaeologies also hopes to uncover some of the many past life ways of ancient cultures that once existed in those days, besides the latest reasons that perhaps led to their extinction or diffusion into the modern day.

In another spectacular excavation at this extended site, the archaeologists have also discovered earthen pot ware, Terracotta relics, sculpture depicting Lord Vishnu in black stone, bronze images of Lord Buddha and remnants of granaries, besides remains of Chalcolithic period.

It has once again confirmed that the hills of Nalanda are treasure trove. History of Nalanda goes back to the days of Mahavira and Buddha in the sixth century BC. It was the place of birth and nirvana of Sariputra, who was a famous Buddha follower.
But, a lot more needs to be done to unravel the state’s Buddhist past.

According to an estimate, more than a dozen stupas are still buried in Bihar, which require excavation and examination.

This assumes special significance, as Archaeological remains are seen as a finite and non-renewable resource, in many cases also vulnerable.

The current exercise would help generate awareness on the Buddhist heritage of the state and also promote interest in the Buddhist circuit.

The excavation can also help accounting for the change through time by examining the cultural and archaeological context of the given site in Nalanda.

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