A Medieval Nun Led This Newly Unearthed Buddhist Monastery in Eastern India

The religious center, located on a hillside away from densely populated areas, may have had all-female or mixed-gender renunciates

Lal Pahari
Archaeologists have been excavating the site since 2017. Excavation at Lal Pahari

Archaeologists in the eastern India state of Bihar have discovered the remains of an 11th- or 12th-century Mahayana Buddhist monastery that was headed by a woman.

As Reena Sopam reports for the Hindustan Times, the structure is the first of its kind found at a high elevation in the region.

“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, tells the Hindustan Times. “Seems the Mahayani Buddhists set up the monastery far from the hustle and bustle of the human population to practice Mahayana rituals in isolation.”

Per the Times of India’s Jai Narain Pandey, the monastery’s leader was a woman monk named Vijayashree Bhadra. Unlike in most historical Buddhist monasteries, all the cells had doors, suggesting that its monks were either all women or both women and men. Two burnt clay seals with Sanskrit writing and eighth- or ninth-century script indicate that the monastery’s name was “the council of monks of Śrīmaddhama vihāra.”

Other artifacts found at the site, known as Lal Pahari, include small votive tablets. They appear to show the Buddha sitting in lotus pose with his fingers in the bhumisparsha mudra position, or extended to touch the ground. The mudra symbolizes the Buddha calling on the world to witness his enlightenment.

The team also discovered an architectural element at the entrance of the main chamber that refers to two bodhisattvas (central figures in Buddhism who delay personal enlightenment in order to offer earthbound worshipers salvation): Manjushri, who represents supreme wisdom, and Avalokiteshvara, who embodies compassion.

A Medieval Nun Led This Newly Unearthed Buddhist Monastery in Eastern India
Female renunciates are part of many Buddhist traditions. Lihi Bar-Haim via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0

Kumar tells the Times of India that the monastery’s chief monk received support from Mallika Devi, queen of the Pala Empire.

“This area was known as Krimila,” Kumar says to the Hindustan Times. “This name is mentioned in Buddhist literature also.”

According to Kumar, the area was a major trading hub that also served as the administrative center of the Pala dynasty, which ruled Bihar and Bengal between the 8th and 12th centuries. The empire’s leaders supported Buddhist institutions and are believed to have sent the missionaries who established the religion in Tibet.

Mahayana Buddhism arose gradually in India some 2,000 years ago, about 500 years after the time of the Buddha. It became the dominant form of the religion in Central and East Asia by the ninth century.

The position of women in Buddhism has varied across times and places, as the Buddhist magazine Tricycle explains. The Buddha is said to have begun ordaining women thanks to the influence of his stepmother, Mahapajapati, and his disciple Ananada. But some Buddhist traditions have denied women the chance to take vows, while others have given female monks, or nuns, a subordinate position to their male counterparts. Today, the international organization Sakyadhita is working to achieve gender equity within Buddhism.

Per the Hindustan Times, the state of Bihar plans to build a structure to protect the site from weather and create a pathway to make it easier to reach.