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Bihar’s lost city: A newly unearthed Buddhist monastery holds vital clues

The excavation at Lal Pahari is yet another clue found in recent years as part of a larger effort by researchers and government officials to resurrect a long-forgotten, prosperous city called Krimila, which has been identified in and around the present-day town of Lakhisarai in Bihar.

Written by Sahil M Beg | New Delhi |
Updated: January 21, 2021 4:59:44 pm
Buddhism in Bihar, Krimila Bihar, Lost city of Krimila, Krimila Buddhism, Bihar Buddhist monastery, Buddhis monastery Bihar, Alexander Cunningham, Bihar and Buddhism, Buddhism and bihar, Krimila Bihar Buddhism, Krimila temples, Buddhism news, Buddhism Bodh Gaya Bihar, Krimila BIhar news, Bihar latest news, Lal Pahari Bihar, ViJayashree bhadra,ViJayashree bhadra monk, Vijayashree bhadra woman monkThe ancient city of Krimila is said to be a religious-cum-administrative centre in eastern India during the early medieval period. (Designed by Gargi Singh)

Ward No 33, Jaynagar village, Lakhisarai is some 125 kilometres east of Patna. Here, on a hilltop known as Lal Pahari, a recent discovery of two burnt clay sealings has left researchers ecstatic.

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The burnt sealings recovered from the site records: śrīmaddharmahāvihārik āryabhikṣusaṅghasya which translates into “this is the sealing of the council of monks of the Srimaddhama vihara.” The inscription on the sealings are written in Sanskrit and the script is Siddhamātṛkā dating around the 8th-9th century.

Researchers say the discovery is evidence to the fact that the excavated area atop the red-soiled hill was a Buddhist monastery of the early medieval period. The geographical location of the site also makes it the first such hilltop monastery in the entire Gangetic valley. Artefacts extracted from the site also substantiate a nearly 140-year-old clue that the monastery was run by a woman monk named Vijayshree Bhadra.

A drone photograph of the monastery atop Lal Pahari in Jaynagar.

The excavation at Lal Pahari is yet another clue found in recent years as part of a larger effort by researchers and government officials to resurrect a long-forgotten, prosperous city called Krimila, which has been identified in and around the present-day town of Lakhisarai.

The ancient city

The ancient city of Krimila is said to be a religious-cum-administrative centre in eastern India during the early medieval period. A flourishing urban settlement, Krimila is said to have been famous for the manufacture of stone sculpture, particularly Tibetan-Buddhist sculptures. The region drew the attention of ancient scholars, travellers and was explored from time to time by British and later by Indian scholars.

The region was first surveyed by Major General Sir Alexander Cunningham, a British Army engineer who took interest in archaeology and went to form what we know as the present day Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Cunnigham first surveyed the area in 1871 and again visited it in between 1879-80. During his visit, the archaeologist identified several stupas and the recorded presence of ancient temples in the region in his reports.

Sir Alexander Cunningham. (Wikimedia Commons)

In his records, Cunningham spoke of “a large town or city” that existed at the confluence of River Kiul, old Ganges and Harohar. The British archaeologist also cited accounts of Hiuen Tsang, the famous Chinese Buddhist monk-traveller who referred to this place as lo-in-ni-lo in his accounts. “Hwen Thsang says only a few words about lo-in-ni lo. It possessed a monastery and a stupa of Asoka… the only place which suits this special description is Rajaona, which is situated two miles to the north-west of the Lakhi-Sarai Railways station, near the junction of the River Kiul with the old Ganges and River Harohar,” Cunningham wrote.

Here, Cunningham also discovered images of Lord Buddha seated under the Bodhi tree, made of black basalt stone with inscription and an image of Bodhisattva Padmapani, a Buddhist deity also known by the name Avalokitesvara.

Apart from Cunningham, several other British explorers including J D Beglar and Buchanan explored the nearby villages of Valgudar, Rajaona, Chowki and Jaynagar, all of which falls under Lakhisarai.

Map of modern towns likely comprising ancient Krimila. (Source: Frederick M. Asher)

However, Anil Kumar, Professor and Head of the Department of Indian History Culture and Archaeology at the Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan, argues that the exploration done by the British archaeologists primarily focused only on identifying ruins mentioned in Tsang’s account. Work done by Indian archaeologists such as D.C Sircar and R.K Choudhary, who visited the site in the 1950s and 1960s respectively, holds vital importance in figuring out important clues about the location of the city, Kumar says.

Sircar had found an inscription in Valgudar, a village near Lakhisarai, which mentioned the name Krimila Visaya (an administrative unit) of Gupta period. “Several other inscriptions of early India also mentioned Krimila as a Visaya. In this regard the Nalanda plate of Samudragupta, Bihar inscription of Gupta period, Naulagarh inscription of Pala period and two inscriptions from Valgudar and its adjacent areas are significant,” Kumar wrote in his paper titled Krimila: A forgotten Nagar of Early Medieval Eastern India.

A votive stupa recovered from Ramsir Village. (Image courtesy: Anil Kumar)

In his paper, Kumar also argued that Krimila played a role of an important political centre of early medieval eastern India during the rule of Palas, as proved by a citation in King Devapala’s Munger copper plate which mentions Krimila as a Visaya of the Sri Nagara bhukti (believed to be the Pataliputra region).

Further clues about the city’s growth and socio-religious structure appeared in another inscription deciphered by Sircar that said: That in Dharmapala’s state at Krimila Visaya Madhu Srenika (a guild of probably honey collectors) in honour of Dharmapala has founded a Devadhmmayam (a religious centre). The inscription also mentioned Krimila as an Adhisthana meaning centre of administration, a city or town.

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Hints of a flourishing economy were also discovered in another inscription dating the 12th century that recorded a donation made by a daughter-in law-of an oil maker for religious purposes.

Excavation work

Exploration work to unearth the lost city began in 2009. So far, an area of 72 sq km has been identified as a tentative territorial boundary of the ancient city where remains of habitation are scattered all over.

A total of 60 sites have been identified by the researchers out of which six sites–Lal Pahari, Sarsanda Hill, Ghosikundi Hill, Bicchwe Hill, Lai, Nongarh have been declared as state-protected.

Buddhism in Bihar, Krimila Bihar, Lost city of Krimila, Krimila Buddhism, Bihar Buddhist monastery, Buddhis monastery Bihar, Alexander Cunningham, Bihar and Buddhism, Buddhism and bihar, Krimila Bihar Buddhism, Krimila temples, Buddhism news, Buddhism Bodh Gaya Bihar, Krimila BIhar news, Bihar latest news, Lal Pahari Bihar, ViJayashree bhadra,ViJayashree bhadra monk, Vijayashree bhadra woman monk Remains of a stupa at Ghosi Kundhi where Cunningham found a relic casket. (Image courtesy: Anil Kumar)

Amongst the items discovered by the excavation team include a large number of finished and unfinished early medieval sculptures of Buddhist and Brahmanical Gods Such as Lord Buddha, Brahma, Parvati, Ganesh and Durga. Besides, hundreds of architectural remains, fragments of daily items used by residents and objects of ritualistic use have also been unearthed.

Buddhism in Bihar, Krimila Bihar, Lost city of Krimila, Krimila Buddhism, Bihar Buddhist monastery, Buddhis monastery Bihar, Alexander Cunningham, Bihar and Buddhism, Buddhism and bihar, Krimila Bihar Buddhism, Krimila temples, Buddhism news, Buddhism Bodh Gaya Bihar, Krimila BIhar news, Bihar latest news, Lal Pahari Bihar, ViJayashree bhadra,ViJayashree bhadra monk, Vijayashree bhadra woman monk During the excavation at Lal Pahari. (Source: Facebook/LalPahariExcavation)

“In due course of the exploration, we have documented over 500 brahminical and Buddhist sculptures from all over the regions. Out of these 200 have been shifted to a temporary museum while others are currently in temples or are in private possession,” Kumar told indianexpress.com.

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A specific lintel representing Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara recovered from one of the sites in the region has also caught the eye of researchers. “The lintel is unfortunately incomplete, the right third of it having been lost, but from what has survived it can be seen to have been carved in three panels, so what is seen today are its central and left (for the viewer) panels. This sculpture was carved with the utmost care, with elements such as decorative ornamentation, jewellery, garments, or facial features carved in an exquisite and detailed manner – qualities which characterize the production of the site in the 12th century as we know it from the images previously discovered,” Claudine Bautze-Picron, an Indian art historian wrote in her analysis of the discovery.

Buddhism in Bihar, Krimila Bihar, Lost city of Krimila, Krimila Buddhism, Bihar Buddhist monastery, Buddhis monastery Bihar, Alexander Cunningham, Bihar and Buddhism, Buddhism and bihar, Krimila Bihar Buddhism, Krimila temples, Buddhism news, Buddhism Bodh Gaya Bihar, Krimila BIhar news, Bihar latest news, Lal Pahari Bihar, ViJayashree bhadra,ViJayashree bhadra monk, Vijayashree bhadra woman monk The Lintel representing Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara. (Image courtesy: Anil Kumar)

“Those involved in the creation of this panel, monks and sculptors, were evidently animated by a profound impulse of the imagination and the creative mind,” Picron added.

The Lal Pahari monastery

Talks about the presence of a vihara atop the Lal Pahari were also first mentioned by Cunningham during his visit to the region. In 2015, during an accidental dig, nearby villagers discovered a bastion that led authorities to call for an urgent archaeological excavation.

In 2017, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the Bihar Heritage Development Society and Visva Bharati University. On November 25, 2017, excavation began at Lal Pahari following inauguration by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

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As the systematic excavation proceeded, structural remains of a Buddhist monastery on a stone masonry foundation with several unique architectural features emerged. Discovery of the two burnt clay sealings and evidence of excessive protection measures further confirmed that the site was a vihara with a significant woman or mixed population.

“We discovered a total of 12 bastions (3 in each corner) in the structure, perhaps used for security purposes. Several cells meant for monks were interconnected and had doors. The cells also had one elevated painted platform with an inner chamber,” Kumar told indianexpress.com

Dozens of wooden votive tablets with figures of a person, most probably Buddha sitting in Padmasana have also been recovered. “These tablets have never been found in monasteries in India before. They were only discovered in Burma and other south-east Asian countries,” he said.

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Hundreds of bangles made of copper and silver, neck ornaments, finger rings and nose pins were also recovered from the site during excavation.

Asked about the claim of a woman monk named Vijayshree Bhadra running the monastery, Kumar said that the discovery of women’s ornaments and excessive security measures corroborates the inscriptional evidence found from this hill by Cunningham.  “The inscription depicted over an image of Singhnadavalokeshavara (a Buddist goddess) read that an elderly nun, Vijayashri Bhadra, used to receive donations from Mallika Devi, perhaps the wife of Pala ruler Sura Pala,” he added.

Buddhism in Bihar, Krimila Bihar, Lost city of Krimila, Krimila Buddhism, Bihar Buddhist monastery, Buddhis monastery Bihar, Alexander Cunningham, Bihar and Buddhism, Buddhism and bihar, Krimila Bihar Buddhism, Krimila temples, Buddhism news, Buddhism Bodh Gaya Bihar, Krimila BIhar news, Bihar latest news, Lal Pahari Bihar, ViJayashree bhadra,ViJayashree bhadra monk, Vijayashree bhadra woman monk A sculpture of Singhnadavalokeshavara on which name of Vijayashri Bhadra is mentioned. (Image courtesy: Anil Kumar)

The above-said sculpture was kept in the Berlin Museum but was taken away to Russia as “war booty” by the Russian army during the Second World War. At present, it is housed in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In 2018, excavation at the Lal Pahari was briefly halted after rumours of gold coins and other valuables being found made rounds on social media triggering locals to rush to the site.

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