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Ancient Hilltop Monastery Led by Female Monk Found in India

Ancient Hilltop Monastery Led by Female Monk Found in India

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Archaeologists have discovered a unique hilltop monastery in eastern India. The 11th or 12th century religious center is special because of its location and because it was headed by a Buddhist nun, who may have led an all-female group of renunciates in sacred rituals far from the densely populated areas below.

Hindustan Times  reports that the ruins that are being excavated  at Lal Pahari in the eastern India state of Bihar  are unique because they are the remnants of the first  hilltop Buddhist monastery  of the Gangetic Valley. Excavation team director Anil Kumar of Visva Bharati University told  reporters“Monasteries have been discovered at many locations in this area. But this is the first set up located at the top of a hill. [It] seems the Mahayani Buddhists set up the monastery far from the hustle and bustle of the human population to practice Mahayana rituals in isolation.”

Aerial view of the Buddhist monastery excavations at Lal Pahari, Bihar, India. ( Hindustan Times )

A Great Religious Center Led by a Buddhist Nun

The site is believed to have been a  great center of Mahayana Buddhism and according to  Times of India  the monastery was led by a Buddhist nun or female monk (a hikṣuṇī or bhikkhunī) named Vijayashree Bhadra. The Buddhist nun was apparently favored by a  Pala Empire  queen called Mallika Devi, who made donations to the monastery.

Excavations at the site suggest that the monastery may have been comprised of solely female, or perhaps a mixed-gender group of renunciates. The evidence comes in the form of a large number of metal bangles and the fact that the cells had doors, something which is not found at other excavated Buddhist monasteries that were only inhabited by male renunciates.

Buddhist nuns walking and touching prayer wheels around the sanctuary at Larung gar (Buddhist Academy) in Sichuan, China. ( Southtownboy Studio  /Adobe Stock)

The Buddhist nun led the renunciates through Mahayana  Buddhist rituals . Mahayana Buddhism developed around the first century BC in India and it is the larger of the two major branches of Buddhism today - the other is Theravada Buddhism. Although the Buddha himself is said to have ordained  Buddhist nuns  at the request of his aunt and stepmother, Mahapajapati, until recently, only Mahayana Buddhism has continued this tradition.

Two young Buddhist nuns. ( Aleksandra /Adobe Stock)

Other Interesting Finds in the Monastery Ruins

“This area was known as Krimila. This name is mentioned in Buddhist literature also,” Professor Kumar  said, and “during the Pala period this area turned into a great trade point and was the administrative centre of the Pala rulers.” The university professor also noted that a Chinese traveler named Hieun Tsang had mentioned a monastery at this location in his travel journal, saying that there were several monasteries and caves in the region and that “even Lord  Buddha used to stay here.”

The excavators have been working at the Lal Pahari site for three years. During that time they have found several interesting features and artifacts. For example they have discovered the remnants of red, green, yellow, black, and white paint on lime-plastered floors and unearthed the interconnected cells, wooden door frames, and three large bastions of the monastery. Times of India reports that these features make the monastery’s architecture “the first of its kind among the eastern  Indian Buddhist  establishments.”

Excavations at the at the Lal Pahari site. ( Excavation at Lal Pahari )

The lintel of the entrance to the main chamber of the monastery depicts two  bodhisattvas - enlightened Buddhist figures who put off entering paradise to return to earth and help others on their path towards enlightenment. These two figures are Manjushri, a representation of supreme wisdom, and Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion.

In regard to artifacts, the Lal Pahari dig has unearthed dozens of wooden inscribed seals and two burnt clay seals which have been dated to the 8th or 9th century. The  Sanskrit writing  on the clay seals have provided the researchers with the monastery’s name - Srimaddharmaviharik aryabhiksusanghasya. When translated to English, this means that this monastery was known as “the council of monks of Śrīmaddhama vihāra.”

Professor Kumar  said that the archaeological team has also discovered 500 sculptures “lying all around the site.” Lastly, they have found small votive tablets depicting images of the Buddha seated in lotus pose with his hands in mudras (hand positions) which symbolize his call for others to witness  his enlightenment , according to  Smithsonian Magazine .

The archaeological  team has also discovered 500 sculptures “lying all around the site.” ( Excavation at Lal Pahari )

According to the  Hindustan Times , t he local government plans to erect a structure over the monastic ruins to protect it from the elements, a barricade around it to prevent destruction or theft, and a pathway to make the  hilltop site easier for visitors to reach.

Top Image: A Buddhist nun led the unique hilltop monastery in India. Source:   quickshooting / Adobe Stock

By Alicia McDermott

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