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Chasing Buddhas across Bihar

Travelling through Bihar in search of Buddhist antiquities is like stepping into a past that is still present

A statue of the crowned Buddha in the village of Kundwapar in Bihar.
A statue of the crowned Buddha in the village of Kundwapar in Bihar. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

About 34km to the west and north of the ruins of the Nalanda mahavihara lies the bustling small town of Ekangarsarai. It is an important junction on National Highway 33 that connects Jehanabad, the administrative headquarters of the Jehanabad district, and Bihar Sharif, the headquarters of the Nalanda district. Two kilometers to the east of Ekangarsarai, along the NH33, lies the village of Ekangardih, and about 500m before Ekangardih is the village of Kundwapar. 

Kundwapar is a nondescript hamlet clustered around a group of small artificial reservoirs. What’s special about it is a local sacred spot located on its outskirts, called Goraia sthan (place). Goraia is a folk deity associated with Bihar’s Dusadh community, and quite popular across the state as a guardian spirit, lying outside the ambit of mainstream Hinduism. Kundwapar is special because here, the image that is worshipped as Goraia is a 1,000-year-old statue of a crowned Buddha, seated in the bhumi-sparsha mudra (earth-touching gesture).

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Earlier this year, I was in Bihar to visit some of the famous Buddhist sites in the state, and especially experience the peerless religious art of the Pala empire. The Palas, a royal dynasty based in Bengal, ruled much of present-day Bengal, Bangladesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh between the 8th-12th centuries CE. The Pala kings were Buddhists, and under their rule, Mahayana Buddhism reached its apogee in eastern India. 

Bodh Gaya, which was then known as Vajrasana, was a hub of international pilgrimage, and gigantic monastery complexes (the mahaviharas) like the ones at Nalanda, Uddandapura (modern Bihar Sharif), Vikramashila (modern Antichak) and Somapura (Paharpur in Bangladesh) supported the education and religious training of thousands of monks and lay Buddhists.

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The prosperity and vigour of this late Buddhist cultural milieu also resulted in a great outpouring of art, in terms of sculpture, painted murals, illuminated manuscripts, devotional and erotic poetry, as well as renowned texts of the Buddhist tantras (also known as Vajrayana). It was an internationalist milieu that was connected via major overland and oceanic trading routes to much of Asia. As scholars John C. Huntington and Susan L. Huntington’s book Leaves From The Bodhi Tree: The Art Of Pala India And Its International Legacy (1990) demonstrates so eloquently, the influence of the ‘Pala style’ has been profound, and is still visible in the Buddhist art of places as far afield as Nepal, Tibet, South-East Asia, China, Myanmar and Japan.

In the land of its birth, however, the legacy of Pala-era Buddhism has been largely forgotten, even as contemporary cultures, like the art of the Chola dynasty, has been lionized by modern historiography in part to portray a false picture of the apparent “Hindu-ness” of pre-Islamic medieval India.

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In a place like Bihar, especially south Bihar that largely conforms to the ancient divisions of Magadha and Anga, this hidden history rears its head through instances like the Kundwapar Buddha. As I discovered in my travels in the large area bound by the Ganges in the north and its subsidiary rivers Son to the west and Kiul to the east, Bihar exists as a time machine into a past that still endures. 

Take, for instance, a gigantic Pala-era black basalt image of the Buddha in bhumi-sparsha mudra, that is venerated as “Bhairo Baba” in the village of Tiuri, a few kilometres to the east of Bihar Sharif. According to local lore, the statue was discovered buried under a mango tree over a hundred years ago by some villagers who were killing time on a hot summer afternoon. 

Since its discovery, this particular deity has built up such a reputation for fulfilling wishes, that similarly unearthed Pala-era Buddha statues are venerated in small shrines across the region as Bhairo Baba. In this, these images lead a double life, since villagers are aware that objectively, these are statues of Buddha bhagwan. But their faith resides in identifying them as Bhairo. 

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When I visited Nalanda, it was just a few days after Ram Navami, when statues of Bhairo Baba are bedecked with flowers and worshipped in the region. Just outside the perimeter of the archaeological ruins of Nalanda is a small temple housing a large Buddha, popularly known as the “Black Buddha” among tourists. The temple’s priest, of course, identified it as Bhairo, and it was a strange thrill to see Buddha-Bhairo covered in delicate floral ornaments being worshipped by a Brahmin priest employing Vaishnavite rituals. 

Nalanda’s ruins stand cheek-and-jowl with an old village, Bargaon. A local guide, Anil Kumar, who hails from the village, pointed out to me that the entire village sits atop a large mound. As archaeologists and villagers both admit, a large part of the Nalanda mahavihara still lies buried under Bargaon and some other neighbouring villages. 

Nor is this unique to Nalanda. So many villages in south Bihar sit atop Pala-era mounds, some on famed monastic sites like the villages of Ghosrawan and Tetrawan east of Nalanda, or ancient towns, such as at village of Kurkihar, situated between Gaya and Rajgir.

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While it is probably impossible that these sites will ever be excavated, what keeps emerging from the ground are gorgeous pieces of religious art. Bargaon itself is full of such Buddhist antiquities, many of which are worshipped as Hindu deities at the village’s old Sun temple. 

Outside the main shrine at the temple, sits another gorgeous crowned Buddha—one that must have once adorned a temple in Nalanda. Here, he is Bhairo. Inside the main temple, the chief objects of worship are Pala-era statues of Surya, and the Buddhist Tara, transformed in the present context to a dyad of Surya and Aditi. Fragments of stupas are either used as sacred water vessels, or, in some cases, venerated as shivlings.

In Bihar, such transmutations abound. Travelling from village to village—be it a small shrine or a large temple—is like a tour through unlikely museums, made up of commonly held historical artefacts. Here the past isn’t another country, it’s just lying hidden in plain sight.

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