If you like exploring Hire Benekal in Karnataka as the most spectacular prehistoric funerary site in Indian Subcontinent, then a visit to Ratnagiri in Odisha will not disappoint you. Both rival each other in their sheer number of funerary monuments though architecturally different against the backdrop of spectacular landscapes. The only difference is the timeline – Ratnagiri flourished from 5th century CE onwards, almost a millennium later than Hire Benekal and revolved around an organized religion, Buddhism.
Nothing was known about Ratnagiri before the ASI took up the most challenging job excavating it in 1960s under the supervision of Dr. Debala Mitra. Excavations revealed two large monastic complexes, one of them being double storied, six temples, a maha-stupa and a staggering number of votive stupas.
My first encounter with Ratnagiri dates back to 1993. On a fine summer late morning I arrived in a bus from Bhubaneswar to Chandikhol and then in another bus to Balikuda where road stopped as there was no bridge over river Kelua at that time. I met a solo tourist from France also on his way to Ratnagiri. We crossed the river in a boat and then hired a cycle rickshaw to take us to Ratnagiri monastery. A spectacular ruins overlooking a spectacular landscape awaited us with no sign of urbanization far and wide. It was a different era. Neither I had a camera and nor there was social media. I visited Ratnagiri then after 2 or 3 times in mid 1990s.
The USP of Ratnagiri may be its splendid gate to monastery I, but under its shadow are 700 votive stupas, second largest cluster after Bodhgaya, the holiest Buddhist site in the world.
In Buddhism, it is the stupa that has been commanded by the Tathagata himself. It is therefore not only religious but it symbolizes the presence of the lord, though without any icon.
But as time moved, under the influence of Hinduism and other orthodox sects, the stupas went through a series of transformation incorporating iconography of well-known Mahayana and Vajrayana deities, such as Chunda, Avaloketeshwara, Dhyani Buddhas, Arya Sarasvati, Marichi and so on. One notices both plain stupas and stupas with niches depicting Mahayana and Vajrayana pantheons.
Most of Ratnagiri’s votive stupas are classified as ‘Saririka Stupa’ raised over the relics of Buddhist monks who lived in the monastery in the early medieval time. They were built of locally available khondalite stone.
It is still not known where these stupas were built and how these were brought? What was the nature of organizational mechanism that facilitated rituals associated with death of monks and the erection of stupas then after?
Today if you stroll in villages all around scenic Ratnagiri you come across everywhere some remains of votive stupas as if they are left over from a fortnight back ritual. But the villagers have absolutely no idea about their meaning, purpose and context.
In the absence of knowledge some of these votive stupas are converted into Tulsi Chauras or Tulsi Vrindavans.