Remnants of Tenth-Century Buddhist Monastery Found in India

The excavation uncovered statues of the Buddha and Tara, a prominent bodhisattva

Six of the statues appear to depict Siddhartha Gautama, while five likely portray the Hindu deity and Buddhist bodhisattva Tara. Archaeological Survey of India

Researchers with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have discovered what appear to be the remains of a Buddhist monastery dated to the tenth century A.D.

As Abhijit Sen reports for the Times of India, the archaeologists recently found 11 stone statues at the site, which is located in the Hazaribag district of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

The sculptures each stand two to three feet tall. Six represent the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, while the other five likely depict Tara, who is known as a deity in Hinduism and a female bodhisattva—central figures who delay personal enlightenment in order to offer earthbound worshippers salvation—or Buddha in different Buddhist traditions.

Also recorded at the site were inscriptions in Devanagari script, which is used in languages including Sanskrit and Hindi. The team hopes that the writing, once translated, will provide more information about the monastery.

Per the Hindustan Times’ Sanjoy Dey, the ASI first discovered three mounds at the site—located in the foothills of Juljul Hill—last year. A team excavated one of the mounds and, after digging about six feet down, found a central shrine and two subsidiary shrines.

Since January, archaeologists have been working on a second mound about 130 feet away from the first. So far, they’ve found three cells in a nearly 27,000-square-foot space. The researchers say the site appears to be a small Buddha Vihar, or combination shrine and monastery.

“As per the evidence found here, it appeared that the structures had been built during the Pala period,” ASI archaeologist Neeraj Mishra tells the Hindustan Times.

Mishra notes that the site was located on the route of Grand Trunk Road, which connected Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh to Bodh Gaya, where Gautama reportedly attained enlightenment.

Artistic representations of Tara
Two other depictions of Tara Public domain / Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons

D.N. Ojha, a historian at Ranchi University, tells the Hindustan Times that the discovery may help clarify the history of the arrival of Buddhist monks in the area and the overall spread of Buddhism. As Abhishek Angad reports for the Indian Express, the presence of Tara’s likeness suggests that the monastery served as an important center for the Vajrayana sect, a form of Tantric Buddhism.

The Pala Dynasty ruled the regions of Bengal and Bihar between the 8th and 11th centuries. It supported the establishment of Buddhist institutions, including monasteries, while also permitting the flourishing of Hinduism, the majority religion of the area. During the early Pala period, eastern Indian sculptors developed a regional style that paid detailed attention to textiles, jewelry and the human torso, per the Brooklyn Museum.

Earlier this year, archaeologists announced the discovery of the ruins of a Bihar monastery headed by a woman. Dated to the 11th or 12th century, the hilltop structure housed either all women or both women and men, as Jai Narain Pandey noted for the Times of India.

“Monasteries have been discovered at many locations in this area, but this is the first setup located at the top of a hill,” lead researcher Anil Kumar, an archaeologist at Visva Bharati University, told the Hindustan Times’ Reena Sopam in January. “Seems the Mahayani Buddhists set up the monastery far from the hustle and bustle of the human population to practice Mahayana rituals in isolation.”

According to the Times of India, the researchers at the Jharkhand site have removed the statues from the brick walls to which they were attached. They plan to ship the artifacts to ASI’s museum in Patna, Bihar.

Locals who have heard about the discovery, however, have proven eager to see the statues, and some are asking that the ASI set up a museum near the site to draw tourists to the area.

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