Vikramshila, The Lost University

The ‘Silent Pages’ of Indian History include several mysterious chapters, of which some, though seemingly latent, often contain such lasting traces that allow revelation even centuries past erosion from common memory. One such chapter is the saga of Vikramshila, the erstwhile University i.e. ‘Mahavihar’ (Large Monastery), which was once internationally famous for its spectacular intellectual activities, but, later forgotten even in the very land of its origin, following brutal destruction at the hands of the invading Turushkas (Turks), sometime around the end of the 12th century A.D. Despite physical decimation by the invaders, who made utmost efforts to obliterate any traces of the great centre, Vikramshila, however, still survived spiritually in the collective memories of the Tibetans, who fondly remembered it for having been the original seat of Dipankara Atisa Srigyana, one of their most revered teachers, having reached their kingdom only after painstaking efforts and persuasion by specially dispatched monks carrying the invitation of the then King (around 1042 A.D.). Thus, due to such past importance, efforts were made by several scholars from the mid 19th century onward, for actual physical identification of the erstwhile site. In the process, old and dilapidated texts, lying forgotten in the distant hills and monasteries of Tibet, were translated and analyzed over years for crucial leads. Gradually, through prolonged historical research, which was followed by actual field excavations, the remains were finally traced.

Entrance to the Main Monastery, Excavated Remains of Vikramshila, Image from May, 2017

Natural Beauty and Antiquity

To appreciate the past magnificence of Vikramshila, imagination should be taken back in time to the days when monks, from the high mountains of Tibet, in pursuit of true knowledge, were making tremendous efforts to surpass arduous routes in order to reach the banks of the Ganga in Bihar. Even as the forested hilly region, which marked the location of the great centre, must have looked much different in those days, it still possibly retains parts of its original natural beauty as gazing at the panoramic surroundings near the banks of the mighty river flowing northwards and thus worshipped for being ‘Uttarvahini Ganga’ near Kahalgaon, in Bhagalpur, Bihar, even today, is an experience in itself. Standing here, one should not be surprised if the mind were found to wander and embark upon a mesmerizing journey into fantasy, rendered awe-struck by the extraordinary beauty of the surroundings. This ‘Wow’ impact is furthered by the realization that such rendezvous has continued since the most ancient times, with the unique region having been frequented as a favourite travel destination, especially by those more spiritually inclined.

View from the Third Hill, Kahalgaon, Image from March, 2016

The hills in the vicinity were famous as abodes of sages and mendicants in the ancient past and certainly continued to be so in the early 7th century A.D., when Hieun Tsang, the Chinese traveller, while exploring the ancient city of Champa, remarked “To the east of the city 140 or 150 li, on the south of the river Ganges, is a solitary detached rock, craggy and steep, and surrounded by water. On the top of the peak is a Deva temple; the divine spirits exhibit many miracles (spiritual indications) here. By piercing the rock, houses have been made; by leading the streams (through each), there is a continual flow of water. There are wonderful trees (forming) flowering woods; the large rocks and dangerous precipices are the resort of men of wisdom and virtue; those who go there to see the place are reluctant to return”. Later, Tibetan monks like Nag Tcho (1039 A.D.) and Dharmasvamin (1234 A.D.), too described the scenic aspects and also left behind interesting accounts of difficulties then faced by travellers in crossing the Ganga, as the dangers arose not only from the then prevailing outlaws, but, also from the presence of numerous violent crocodiles.

Second Hill, Kahalgaon, Image from March, 2016
Ascending the Third Hill at Kahalgaon, Image from March, 2016
Monolithic Rock-Cut Temple, 9th century, Third Hill, Kahalgaon, Image from March, 2016
Site of Gupta age brick temple with remains of earlier temple used in a modern construction at the Third Hill, Kahalgaon, Image from March, 2016

Scanning through the ‘Silent Pages’, the natural beauty is seen to have attracted the attention of visitors in later centuries as well. One marks the reminiscences of William Hodges, who upon visiting the region between 1780 to 1784, remarked “The country about Colgong is, I think, the most beautiful I have seen in India. The waving appearance of the land, its fine turf and detached woods, backed by the extensive forests on the hills, brought to my mind many of the fine parks in England; and its overlooking the Ganges, which has more the appearance of an ocean at this place than of a river, gives the prospect inexpressible grandeur.” Later, on 28th October, 1810, during survey of the then Bhagalpur district, Francis Buchanan too was surely captivated by the “naturally very beautiful country, being fine swelling land, finely wooded, with several hills interspersed, and occasional views of the Ganges”. William Franklin, in January, 1813, also appreciated the ‘country abounding in rich and truly romantic scenery, in a high state of cultivation’. 

View of the Ganga at Bateshwarsthan, Image from March, 2016

Even as the woody patches along the river have largely disappeared with the passage of time, my observations too were largely similar during my first visit on 16th January, 2005. Then posted as an IPS probationer, learning the basics of policing in Bhagalpur, I got so fascinated by the beauty, calm and serenity of the surroundings, especially near the banks of the river at Bateshwarsthan, right from the first visit, that they gradually converted me into a regular visitor during my subsequent stay. Years later, long after those nostalgic days of 2005, I specially made another revisit to refresh former memories on 27th March, 2016, and fortunately, thereafter, the visits have continued regularly since May, 2017, onwards, when I got posted in Bhagalpur again, though this time in a different capacity, as the DIG. The repeated visits have always enriched my knowledge base and have successively left the mind more craving than ever for another revisit.

Antiquarian Remains from Kahalgaon to Patharghata

Remains of considerable antiquity are noticed right from the river banks at Kahalgaon, where commences a boat ride towards the group of three magnificent riverine hill islands located nearby. Towards the latter half of the 18th century, when the British were taking over the vicinity and making regular travels to and from the ports near Kolkata (then Calcutta), these hills were infamous as hideouts of waterborne bandits, who often attacked boats navigating in the vicinity. Nevertheless, they possibly also still retained some of the original spiritual fervor, as some unknown Sufi saint was noted as residing near the remains of the damaged brick temple, dating back to the Gupta period. In the present day when they are not as famous as they probably may have been in historical times, it is interesting to note that they are still in use by at least two groups of Hindu ascetics for residence and meditation, and also attract pilgrims, thereby continuing the ancient tradition, which seems to have survived despite the adversities encountered in the course of time. Standing upon any of these hills, as one looks upstream towards the horizon, the Patharghata hill located about 4-5 miles straight across, and, wherefrom the ‘uttarvahini’ river seems to be changing course eastward towards the sea, is noticed most prominently. Even as Cunningham identified these three hill islands as having been the spiritual site described by Hieun Tsang, perhaps as one moves northward along the river and explores the ancient sculpted panels on the rock-face at Patharghata, it is then that the probable description of the Chinese traveller gets truly felt.

“Malla Yuddha” Sculpture on Rock-face at Patharghata, Image from March, 2016
Krishna Lifting Hill in Sculpture on Rock-face at Patharghata, Image from March, 2016

At Patharghata, several rock cut caves and panels on the rock face which detail scenes from the Mahabharat, stylistically ascribed to the Gupta age, mark it as once having been an abode of mendicants immersed in deep meditation. Considerable brick remains atop the hill probably are also suggestive of the existence of a monastic establishment in a later period. The historical remains include the temple named ‘Bateshwarsthan’, which is still popular among local pilgrims and estimated to have been highly revered particularly during the rule of the Palas and the Senas, as evidenced from the various sculptures lying scattered in and around the temple along with several inscriptions. From the remains, the spiritual significance of the site in ancient India, is well felt and similarities with the description of Hieun Tsang make one to surmise that the group of three hills met earlier in the river may have actually served only as the starting point or probably as an extension of the revered spiritual centre which culminated with its epicentre at Patharghata. Wondering about the reasons for such fame, a positive clue is obtained from the detailed research work of Franklin, who, in 1811-13, while on an exploratory drive to locate the possible ancient site of ‘Palibothra’ (Patliputra in Greek literature i.e. modern Patna), had probably visited Patharghata and found the earlier Sanskrit name of the site as ‘Sila-Sangam’, still concurrent and signifying the junction near the rocks of the rivers Ganga and Kosi, which even then was displaced about 5 miles further east.

Protected Remains at Patharghata, Image from March, 2016
Cave at Patharghata, Image from March, 2016
Buddha preaching Sculpture at Patharghata, Image from March, 2016
Sculptures on Rock-face at Patharghata, Image from March, 2016
Sculptures on Rock-face at Patharghata, Image from March, 2016
Patalpuri Cave, Patharghata, Image from March, 2016

Franklin is noted to have relied upon the descriptions contained in the Uttar-Purana and Chore Punchasica written by Chore Kubi Pandit, which while describing the reign of Rajah Gundh Merdun, who founded his capital city of Raj Dhani Indrasun at one coss from the hill of Bateshwar, ascribed to Bikram Samvat 1445 (1388 A.D),importantly mentions a tradition regarding worship of the Mahadeva by an assembly of the devatas (Gods)at ‘Sila-Sangam’, thereby attesting to the sanctity of the site. Interestingly, Nundolal Dey, who visited later around 1909, however, could find no traces of the earlier Sanskrit name surviving. As local memories of the past continue to fade very fast, even Patharghata now is not a very familiar name locally and people address the whole site simply as Bateshwarsthan. Perhaps, the actual name of the site with such ancient ramblings beckons more importance, since originating from here, and interspersed by several hillocks forming the last stretch of the hills of Rajmahal, are scattered ancient and medieval mounds, both small and large containing remains which once formed parts of the famous Mahavihar, confirmed by continued excavations between 1961 to 1981, respectively by the Patna University and the Archaeological Survey of India, as being the largest excavated single monastic complex in India so far.

Sculptures lying scattered at Bateshwarsthan Temple, Image from March, 2016
Fragmented Sculpture at Bateshwarsthan, Image from March, 2016
Avalokiteswara Sculpture at Bateshwarsthan, Image from March, 2016
 Sculpture at Bateshwarsthan, Image from March, 2016
Vishnu, Bateshwarsthan, Image from March, 2016
Inscription at Bateshwarsthan, Image from March, 2016
Nepalese Inscription on a Bell, Bateshwarsthan, Image from March, 2016

The rediscovery of Vikramshila

The rediscovery of what today is accessible to the modern tourist easily upon the purchase of tickets from the counter, was never easy due to its almost total decimation having been noted even contemporarily by Dharmaswamin, the Tibetan monk, who visited around 1234 A.D., only to find the site totally razed to the ground with its foundation stones having been thrown into the Ganga by the invading Turushkas. Vikramshila was last seen existing in the time of his elder Chag dGra-bcom, (1153-1216 A.D.) and Pandita Sakyasribhadra of Kashmir (1145-1225 A.D.), and thus is believed as probably having been destroyed around the end of the 12th century. The impact of the destruction was so complete that as the remains gradually crumbled and lied unattended under the debris, traces were obliterated even from collective local memory and tradition. The challenges in identification of the site were also enormous since literary accounts too were rather meagre when compared to those for the Nalanda University. However, from Tibetan sources like the writings of Lama Taranath (1575-1634 A.D.), the Tibetan Tangyur[vii], a text entitled ‘Guru Guna Dharmakara’ along with the travel accounts of the Tibetan monks Nag-Tcho and Dharmaswamin, and other sources including but not limited to the two inscriptions discovered from the monastery of Tabo in Spiti, by Mr. Franke, and some Sanskrit texts like Sarangdhara Srotra Tika[viii] and the Vrhat Svayambhu Purana[ix],  the pen picture of then Mahavihara ascribed as having been founded to the north of Magadha, on a hill on the southern banks of the Ganga, by the Pala ruler Dharmapala (783-820 A.D.), was reconstructed.

The Main Monastery, Vikramshila, Image from July, 2005

From the Historical accounts, the Mahavihar was noticed as having been one of the largest Buddhist universities of early medieval India which accommodated more than hundred teachers and about one thousand students, all of whom were carefully and specially selected only after rigorous intellectual examination by the 6 doorkeepers. It offered several subjects like theology, philosophy, grammar, metaphysics, logic along with tantrism as the most important branch of learning. With accounts of it having been the main administrative centre for other monasteries including Nalanda in the time of the Palas, it seemed apparent that such a magnificent institution should have left its large surviving remains like those of the contemporaneous ones at Somapura, Odantapuri and Nalanda. However, unfortunately, the location of the site remained a subject of conjecture among archaeologists and historians almost till 1960, when scholars from the Patna University like Dr. B. P. Sinha and Dr. R. C. Prasad Singh came up with confirmatory opinions.

Excavated Remains of Vikramshila, Image taken in July, 2005

The story of the rediscovery of the remains of Vikramshila begins with Buchanan, who noticed them on 16th January, 1811, during his second visit in the vicinity and should actually be credited for having been the next recorded visitor, centuries after Dharmasvamin. With the region having gradually shaded into oblivion, even locals had no idea about the ruins which they called as ‘Dorohor’ (i.e. Heritage).Buchanan, unable to appreciate their actual purpose, guessed them as having been ‘a Rajah’s house’ and “always a round hill perhaps fifty feet in perpendicular height; but without digging it would be impossible to determine positively whether or not it may not have been a building. If it has been a building, it, in all probability, has been a solid temple, no house in decay being capable of leaving such a ruin. There are traces of a square fortification round it, and the surface of the earth within that is covered with broken bricks. Many squared stones, one very long, are lying in various parts of the vicinity.” C.E.A.W. Oldham, commenting upon Buchanan’s journal in 1929, perhaps rightly suggested the possibility of the site, then unknown to any archaeologist and missing from the survey maps of the time, as possibly representing the ruins of the great centre, with the solid temple probably representing a stupa, and desired for exploration trenches to be dug for further confirmation.

Entrance, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Till Oldham, earlier efforts could not hit the bull’s eye. Cunningham, way back in 1872-73, had wrongly identified the remains at Silao, a small village six miles to the north of Rajgir, as having been the actual site, perhaps, having missed the descriptions about it’s foundation on the banks of the Ganga. Rahul Sankrityayan, who obtained several details during his long wanderings in Tibet was perhaps close when he identified the birthplace of Dipankarajnanasri mentioned in a Tibetan text at Sahore in Bhangal district with modern Sabour in Bhagalpur, but wrongly proposed Sultanganj, in the same district and also containing ancient Buddhist ruins near the Hindu ruins on the 2 hills named as Jahangira, within and near the Ganga, as the site. Such identification was soon discarded following the comments of Nundolal Dey in 1909, since the hill at Sultanganj was located in the middle of the river and insufficient to hold the gathering as mentioned by Taranath and further since it hardly had any Buddhist traces, while prominently displaying sculptures of the Hindu pantheon. Dey closely suggested Patharghata as representing the site since Buddhist sculptures were seen scattered along with ancient Hindu remains and further since sufficient space atop the hill, which presented an elevated plain, matching the descriptions of Taranath, was available for the congregation of men. He also identified Patharghata as having been the same as described by Hieun Tsang and proposed that the earlier Hindu sacred places were probably appropriated by the Buddhists for the establishment of Vikramshila. Regarding the earlier name of the site of Patharghata, perhaps conjecturing from the work of Franklin, he hypothesized that the ealier name of the site as Sila-Sangama could have been derived from Sila-Sangharama, which in turn represented the abbreviated form of Vikramshila-Sangharama.

Gallery along the Entrance, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Dr. R. C. Prasad Singh, later, in 1960, also rejected the identification of Sultanganj as improper and identified Antichak village, not very far from Patharghata and seen to be surrounded by ruins of brick structures from three sides, i.e. east, south and west, with the ancient bed of the Ganga to its north in east-west direction, the seat of the University. The proposal of Antichak initially seemed suspicious since descriptions of its location on the top of a hillock on the right bank of the Ganga in Magadha, were found difficult to correlate. However, Dr. Singh perhaps rightly explained that such past descriptions could be appreciated at the site seen to be enclosed by two hills named as Garbardhan on the south and Patharghata on the west, which were on the right banks of the Ganga and exhibited foundation walls. Furthermore, since the land lying between these hills was covered with mounds of brick structures and tank depressions, he suggested that the whole area from Lallapur in the east and Patharghata in the west, Antichak in the north and Garbardhan hill in the south formed the University township with its colleges being located at some distance to each other. Field excavations commenced soon thereafter at Antichak, resulting in what we presently witness as the ‘excavated remains of Vikramshila’.

Ruins on Hill top showing brickbats and foundations at Patharghata, Image from July, 2018

The Story of Vikramshila

Unfortunately, even as not much information has survived in local memoirs or traditions, life still gets infused into the vast excavated remains when one reads earlier accounts like those of Lama Taranath and Nag Tcho. While Taranath has narrated the developments in a timeline along with the names and important details of the principal teachers and the ruling monarchs, Nag Tcho has highlighted the importance of the institute and detailed the story of efforts made by Tibetans to persuade Atisa to proceed to their kingdom, in order to reformthe Buddhist faith,then practiced. Reconstructed from such accounts, the story of Vikramshila begins in the times of Dharmapala, understood to have been a devout Buddhist, who during his reign not only constructed the Mahavihar, but also another 50 centres for the spread of the doctrine, of which 35 were exclusively meant for the study of the prajna-paramita. Located atop a hill on the right banks of the Ganga in the north of Magadha, the Vihar is said to have contained a total of 108 temples within boundary walls. The main central temple housing a human-size statue of the Mahabodhi was surrounded by 53 smaller Guhya tantra temples and 54 others. In the initial days of the monastery, 114 persons, namely 108 panditas and the Bali-acharya, Pratisthana-acharya, Homa-acharya, Musika-pala, Kapota-pala and the supervisor of the deva-dasas, were provided with sufficient provisions. A monthly festival was also organised for Buddhist devouts, who were also rewarded with excellent gifts. Interestingly, Nalendra i.e. Nalanda, probably lost its earlier position of prominence, as the chief of Vikramshila is learnt to be in charge of the affairs of the former.

Votive Stupa Complex, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016
Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

It is pertinent to recall some important personalities who constituted and developed the University as a centre of excellence as the narrative proceeds in ascending timeline. Among the initial luminaries was Mahacharya Buddhajnanapada, who also served as the Vajracharya, soon after consecration of the Mahavihar and extensively preached the five tantras, namely the Samaja, Mayajala, Buddha-samayoga, Candra-guhya-tilaka and Manjusri-krodha along with special emphasis on the teachings of the Guhya samaja, which thus widely spread. Famous for a miraculous divine source of wealth which was extravagantly spent in pious acts, he induced the ruler Dharmapala towards the performance of a major homa that continued for several years for the dynasty’s longevity. Upon completion, he predicted that 12 of his successors would rule as kings, with up to 5th descendant in particular having many countries under subjugation with the spread of Buddhism. In those days, certain Sravakas from Sri Lanka were being considered for punishment by the king since they had challenged Vikramshila’s teachings as being opposed to the Mahayana, but, were however, saved upon intervention of the acharya, indicating his having started the tradition of eminent scholarship at the Mahavihar. Several of his disciples gained wide fame and included the likes of Prasantamitra, an excellent pandit of the AbhidharmaPrajna-paramita and the three Kri-yogas, is said to have controlled the yaksha Yamari through meditation, and constructed a monastery called Amrtakara with his assistance to the south of the Nalanda; Kshatriya Rahulabhadra, who delivered sermons on the Guhyatantra and built a large temple in the Dravida country; Buddhaguhya and Buddhasanti, who were adept in the three tantras and went to the Potala hill and Mount Kailasa (Ti-se) on the Himalayas for meditation after attaining siddhi. As their fame spread, the Tibetan king Khri-sron-lde-btsan had sent Manjusri of dBuss and others to invite Buddhaguhya, which though refused did indicate importance gained by scholars from the Mahavihar, soon after its establishment.

Monastic Cells, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

During the following 52 year reign of Mahipala, son of Vanapala and grandson of Dharampala, the Mahavihar prospered further under luminaries like Anandagarbha, Madhyamika-prasangika Asvaghosha, Parahita, Candrapadma and others. During his son Mahapala’s 41 year reign, even as the king allowed Vikramshila to retain its earlier position, he also established some centres in Nalendra, Somapuri and Trikatuka monasteries and mainly worshipped the Sravaka sangha numbering about 500 in Odantapuri along with another 500 in its new annexe at Uruvusa. Among other luminaries of the time was Jetari,a pandit at Vikramshila, born to Brahmin Gambhirapada and his wife, earlier a queen. After Mahapala, his son Shresthapala,who ruled for 3 years, died without any significant contribution and is thus not counted amongst the 7 Palas. As the younger son of Mahapala then had still not achieved the age of 17, his maternal uncle Canaka ascended the throne for the intervening period.

Canaka, whose reign lasted for 29 years, though not counted among the ‘Seven Palas’ because of his separate descent, however, had a very significant contribution. Most importantly, the designation of the 6 Doorkeeper Scholars was introduced and entry of new scholars into the colleges was allowed only after rigorous intellectual examination by them. He probably was a good military commander as well, having won victory over the then Turuska king, who had revolted along with his army from Bhamgala. The famous victory has been identified with miraculous connotations by Taranath, since it is stated that when the Turuskas from Bhamgalas came to war in Magadha, the Bali-acharya of Vikramshila prepared maha-bali for Acala, which upon being put in the Ganga had the effect of drowning many enemy boats, thereby resulting in victory and restoration of peace in the kingdom.

Terracotta plaques, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Next, Bheyapala, who reigned for about 32 years, maintained the older tradition, but, did nothing significantly new and conferred patras on only 70 panditas of Vikramshila. The 6 door-keepers passed away during the first half of his reign and thereafter the most illustrious alumnus of the Mahavihar i.e. Dipankara Srijnana, also famed as Jo-bo-rje dPal-ldan Atisa (prabhu sri atisa), was invited to be the upadhyaya of Vikramshila. An account of Atisa appears in place before continuing the story further.

Buddhism in Tibet

The story of Vikramshila’s Atisa

To understand the importance and impact of Atisa’s mission in Tibet, which fully indicates the strong cultural bonds between the two neighbours, the story should begin with the introduction of Buddhism in the Himalayan kingdom. Around 640 A.D., Buddhism got introduced in Tibet as a result of the marriage of the then king Srong-tsan gampo with two Buddhist princesses from Nepal and China (i.e. Kimshing Konjo, daughter of the Chinese Emperor Tai-tsung, and daughter of King Amshu Varma of Nepal).As the duo influenced the king towards Buddhism, Tibetan laws based on 10 commandments of the Buddha were introduced. As the King sought more authentic knowledge, he dispatched scholarly teams to India and later introduced the first written Tibetan script. This first phase of Buddhism continued along with the earlier Bon and tantrik practices till around 823 A.D., when two Indian scholars namely Santa Rakshita, a native of Gaur, the seat of the Palas, then the High Priest of Nalanda, and his associate Padma Sambhava, a native of Udyana, visited Tibet upon the invitation of King Thi-srong-deu-tsan. They formally introduced Buddhism, which thereafter replaced the earlier Bon as the state religion. They were received with due honours by the Tibetans who named Santa Rakshita as Acharya Bodhisattva. On being appointed as the High priest by the king, the system now known as ‘Lamaism’ was introduced by Santa Rakshita, who preached the moral and disciplinary part of the doctrine, while Padma Sambhava, took charge of the Tantrik liturgy.

Terracotta Figure, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

As a result of their combined endeavours, Buddhism started flourishing in Tibet, and kindled a strong desire amongst Tibetans for learning more from Indian scholars about the original essences of the faith. Thus, in the 9th century itself, King Ralpachan invited several Indian pundits to translate Sanskrit works into Tibetan, and the process continued to the 11th century with the invitation to Atisa, who, born in 980 AD, had acquired proficiency in the tri-pitakas of the Mahayana, the high metaphysics of the Madhyamika and Yogacharya schools and the four classes of Tantras at quite an early age and had at 19, received the sacred vows from Sila Rakshita, then the Mahasanghika Acharya of Odantapuri, who also gave him the title of Dipankara Srigyana. A biographical account of Atisa mentioning – “In the eastern part of India in the country of Sahor, there is the famous city of Bhagal or Bhangala. Dipankara was born in the family of the king of this city. His parents were Raja Kalyanasri and Prabhavati. Towards the north of the Raja Prasada is situated the Vikramapuri (Vikramshila) and the king and the queen followed by 500 chariots visited the Mahavihara for offering puja (worship)” and more lies placed in the Tibetan text ‘Guru Gunak Dharmakara’.

Terracotta plaque, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

We learn that Atisa, at 31, on being ordained to the highest bhikshu order and also given vows of a Boddhisatva by Dharma Rakshita, decided to visit Acharya Chandrakirti in Suvarnadvipa, the then greatest Buddhist scholar in the far east. After a strenuous journey via the Lankan coast, he resided there for 12 years in order to completely master the original teachings of the Buddha of which the key was believed to have been possessed by the high priest alone. Upon his return to India, the Magadhan Buddhists acknowledged him as their chief and upon the request of Naya Pala, he accepted the post of High Priest of Vikramshila. His influence at Vikramshila was such that he even actively negotiated peace when Magadha was attacked by the king of Karnya (identified as Kalachuri King Karna or Lakshmikarna by R.C. Mazumdar). Around the same time in Tibet, King Lha Lama Yes’e hod, a devout who founded the monastery of Thoding at Tholin (the lofty place) in Purang, made special efforts to invite Atisa by sending scholars, with a view to reform Buddhism and to clean it from the admixture of Tantrik and Bon mysticism.

Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Rgya-tson-gru Senge of Tag-tshal, initially sent to Vikramshila with a large quantity of Gold as present, though sympathetically heard by Atisa, was politely declined. Thereafter, the sad King resent him to invite some other scholar inferior to Atisa to Tibet. At this time Nag-tcho, famous for having recorded his accounts of the times and then still a young monk of Gung-than, had met Gya-tson on the way and begged to be his pupil, but was asked to wait till his return from Magadha as he had proceeded with 5 attendants and a small quantity of Gold, barely enough to meet his expenses for reaching Vikramshila. Unfortunately, Lha Lama died soon after being captured by some ‘Garlog’ king, inimical to Buddhism, while visiting the mines on the Nepalese frontier to collect more gold in order to invite Atisa. Before death, he refused an offer of freedom from captivity upon submission of the Tibetan gold collected for the purpose of inviting Atisa. Thus, to fulfil his mission even after his death, his nephew Prince Chan Chub (Lha-tsunpa), around 1039 A.D., requested Tshul Khrim-gyalwa, also named as ‘Vinaya-dhara’ of the family of Nag-tcho, to visit Vikramshila as an envoy with a large quantity of gold only to again request Atisa.

Tibetan Guest House, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

As the third mission commenced, Nag-tcho along with his 5 attendants had to face several adversities on the way. At the Indian frontier, they escaped a greedy plot for possessing their gold by way of their assassination during their stay in a bamboo house.  On the next day they joined a party of the Nepalese prince consisting of 10 men on the way to Vikramshila and reached the banks of the Ganga, from where they were transported to the gates of Vikramshila on the other side by a boatman after dusk. With the gates having been closed for the night, they slept in a dharmasala nearby and next morning, were led to Gya-tson Senge, then residing in the house assigned for the Tibetans. There, Nag-tcho was advised not to immediately pronounce the intended purpose but to firstly stay in the Mahavihar as a resident pupil of Sthavira Ratnakara, then influential and also the chief of Atisa, and to gain his confidence by good behavior and sincerity in studies after offering half an ounce of gold seeking admission into the monastery.

Tibetan Guest House, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Today, one can only imagine the next morning when Vikramshila had witnessed a congregation of 8000 monks, also attended by the ruler Naya Pala and other prominent scholars besides Atisa. Nag-tcho met Atisa the following morning, and days later informed him about the request of the Tibetan king.  Saddened on learning about the sacrifice of Lha Lama, Atisa agreed to seek divine guidance which was received from a Yogini at a Buddhist temple atop a hillock in the great Tirthika (Hindu) city of Mukhena, in the neighbourhood of Vikramshila, though with the caveat that even though his proposed visit would be of great service to humanity, it would, however, lessen his life span from 92 to only 72. Thereafter, he took about 3 years to complete his pending works and for handing over charge of the monasteries under his supervision. In those days, life around Vikramshila seems to have been very interesting as well as mysterious, as Nag-tcho witnessed several miraculous happenings including such like a tirthika (Hindu) man believed to have been aged between 300 to 500 years, in a state of suspended animation by breath regulation, an old Brahmin who revived a dead ten year old corpse of the Raja’s son by washing it in the river and a pupil of Atisa who practicing occult powers transformed himself into a wolf and devoured a corpse carried from the cemetery.

Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Atisa initially tried to take leave from Ratnakara on the pretext of showing the 8 sacred Buddhist sites to the Tibetan Ayusmats, but could not succeed as he got accompanied by Sthavira Ratnakara and others to Vajrasana (Bodh Gaya), when Gya-tson Senge fell ill at Nalanda and had to be carried in a dooly (carriage) back to Vikramshila. On return, he then expressed his intention to visit Swayambhu Chaitya in Nepal after visiting Mitra Vihara on the way and that he did not want to take many men along since it was too far from Vikramshila. Ratnakara then truly understood the purpose of Nag-tcho’s visit and also appreciated the pure-hearted willingness of Atisa, but in his parting remarks expressed concern over the departure in a time when the Turuskas were invading India, as he had the keys to several monasteries, which he felt would be left in darkness after his departure.

Buddha  Head, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

Thus, Atisa accompanied by Pandita Bhumi Garbha, Nag-tcho, Gya-tson Senge, Bhumi Sangha, Virya Chandra and a large retinue set out for Mitra Vihara, where the monks received him with joy. Gya-tson with his two attendants, Nag-tcho with 6 and Atisa with 20 attendants set out from there for Tibet. Near the Indian frontier, at a small vihara, the monks looked upon his departure as the sign of downfall of Buddhism in India. As the party reached the sacred place of Arya Swayambhu, Atisa was warmly received by the Raja and was accommodated in a part of the palace itself. Even as Atisa was delighted by the very sight of Swayambhu, he was shattered following the sudden death of Gya-tson, on a relapse of fever. On being convinced by Nag-tcho, who explained the presence of lochavas (interpreters) who could assist him in his mission to Tibet, he proceeded further. It was here that he wrote an epistle to the then King Naya Pala, which has survived in its Tibetan translation.

Terracotta Sculpture, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

Thereafter, Atisa after spending some time in the plains of Palpa, then under the rule of King Ananta Kirti, who also provided a cordial reception and was presented by Atisa with a special elephant named Drishta-oushadhi, for carriage of sacred objects, entered Tibet. As the party entered Tibet, they found 100 horsemen, all decorated with white royal ornamental equipments, under the command of 4 generals each of whom had 16 lancers bearing white flags with the remaining escort carrying small Patakas (flags) and 20 white satin umbrellas. The band consisted of musical reed bag-pipes, guitar and other musical instruments which with a sonorous but grave music, and uttering the sacred mantra “Om Mani Padme hum”, welcomed him. Here Atisa had the first introduction with the special drink ‘cha’ (tea), which was presented in Tibetan manner poured in a cup decorated with the figures of the Chinese dragon, in the presence of Nari-tcho Sumpa, the King’s representative.

Terracotta plaques, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Spending a month at the residence of Nag-tcho, he reached Dok Mamolin on the banks of the lake Ma-pham (Holy Manasarovara), where the news of his arrival spread like wildfire. At this time, the generals sang the song of welcome like those ministers of King Thi-sron Deu-tsan, who 3 centuries ago had escorted Acharya Santa-rakshita from the confines of India into Tibet. Singing songs, they proceeded to Thaolin, the royal monastery with Atisa, always displaying a smile with Sanskrit mantras on his lips, seated on a horse which ambled gently, and surrounded by his companions. At Tholin, where another escort of 300 horsemen under 4 generals waited to take him to the palace, were sounded several musical instruments, the most curious being the long brass trumpet called the ‘Ragdun’, invented by Lha tsun-pa himself to welcome Atisa, and therefore known as Lopan Chen Denpai dun, i.e. the trumpet for inviting the Lopan i.e., Lochava or Pandit.

Head of Avalokitesvara, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

Thus the King of Tibet gave the most cordial reception and commanded the people to receive Atisa’s teachings with profound veneration. Out of reverence for his deep learning, he gave him the title of Jovo Je (the Supreme Lord, in Sanskrit Prabhu Swami). At Tholin, Atisa preached the Mahayana and wrote several works on the principles and cults of the general and esoteric branches of Buddhism, among which Boddhisatva Pradipa is most eminent. He revived the Mahayana in Tibet and cleared it of its foreign and heretic elements. After a residence of 13 years which was distributed over the different provinces of Tibet, enjoying uninterruptedly the good will and veneration of the people, he died at Nethan near Lhasa at the age of 73 in the year 1053 or 1054 A.D. He is still remembered with deep veneration all over higher Asia, wherever Tibetan Buddhism prevails and was the spiritual guide and teacher of Bromton (HBrom ston Rgyal-vahi hbyun gnas), founder of the first grand hierarchy of Tibet.

Vikramshila after Atisa’s departure in 1042 A.D.

Neyapala, son of Bheyapala, remembered for the letter sent to him from Nepal by Atisa, reigned for 35 years. Even as we learn of a Turuska raid earlier in the times of Canaka, the struggle seems to have continued as is also understood from the remarks of the monks, who considered the departure of Atisa to Tibet, as denoting the end of Buddhism in India. The account of Prajnaraksita, the great pandit monk who lived during this period further confirms the struggle, as having become extremely powerful after meditation for 5 years in a small holy place near Odantapuri, he once saved Vikramshila from the attack by the Turuska army. He is said to have made big offerings to Cakrasamvara, which resulted in the army being struck 4 times by terrible thunder resulting in the death of many soldiers along with their, and thus intheir repulsion. The period was also one of debates with the tirthikas in which the monk is said to have emerged victorious, with the story of him once having cast his magic stare from the seat of the debate upon 8 tirthikas, who had challenged him in debate, making 6 of them dumb and 2 blind, only to be released later, being famous. He passed away later in a forest near Nalanda, where as instructed by him, his untouched relics vanished after 7 days. Other prominent scholars in this period included the kalachakra specialist Anupamsagara, and Samkarananda, a brahmana from Kashmir who was earlier a scholar of the sastras, but later composed commentaries on the seven treatises, on being so instructed by Manjusri in a dream.

Amarpala, son of Neyapala, reigned for 13 years. During this period acarya Ratnakaragupta was the upadhyaya of Vajrasana. At the time of his death, his son Hastipala was too young and thus his 4 ministers along with the child ruled for 8 years, whence-forth Hastipala ascended the throne to rule for 15 years. After him, his co-uterine brother Ksantipala ruled for 14 years. During the period of these kings Buddhism was nourished as before, but they did nothing spectacularly significant.

Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Ramapala (1076-1132 A.D.),son of Hastipala, though having ascended the throne at an early age, extended his power widely by virtue of his exceptional intelligence. Shortly after he became king, the great acharya Abhayakaragupta was invited to act as the upadhyaya of Vajrasana (Gaya) and after many years, also appointed as the upadhyaya of Vikramshila and Nalendra. We learn that by this time, the older tradition of these places had changed and in this period 160 panditas and about 1000 monks permanently resided in Vikramshila, with even 5000 assembling for occasional offerings. In Vajrasana, where occasionally even 10,000 Sravaka monks congregated, about 40 Mahayanis and 200 Sravaka bhikshus were maintained permanently by the king. In Odantapuri 1000 monks belonging to both the Hinayana and the Mahayana resided permanently, with occasionally congregations of even 12,000.Among the Mahayanis of the time, Abhayakaragupta, whosesastras were in vogue even during the time of Taranath, was also highly regarded by the Sravakas as an expert in Vinaya. He has been remarked as having been practically the last among the most famous great acaryas who fully nourished the law with their scholarship, compassion, power and wealth.

Terracotta with Inscription, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

Ramapala ruled for 46 years, inclusive of some years after the death of Abhayakaragupta. Before he died, his son Yakshapala was placed on the throne. Ramapala died after 3 years. After this Yakshapala could rule for only one year, when his minister Lavasena usurped the throne. Taranath informs that the Pala dynasty was also called the Surya dynasty while the line of the Senas was that of the Candras. After Yakshapala and Lavasena, many were still born in the line of the Palas, but, none of them ever became king.

Rule of the Senas

Four Sena kings i.e Lavasena, Kasasena, Manitasena, Rathikasena, each being son of the former in ascending order, ruled for more than about 80 years even as their exact individual reignal years remains unknown. During their period, several scholars like Subhakargupta, Ravisrijnana, Nayakapasri,  Dasabalasri  and other followers of Abhayakara flourished. To the period of the last prominent king Rathikasena, belonged scholars like maha-pandita Sakyasribhadra of Kashmir, Buddhasri of Nepal, Maha-acarya Ratnarakshita, Jnanakaragupt, Buddhasrimitra, Samghamajnana, Ravisribhadra, Candrakaragupta, and others, who were famous as the 24 great mahantas. Ratnarakshita, the Tantra-acarya of Vikramshila, ordained in the Mahasamghika sect, was the most famous having had visions of many tutelary deities like Cakrasamvara, Kalacakra and Yamari. It is said that his offerings were directly received by the dakinis, and his magic stare was powerful enough to immobilize mad elephants. However, surprisingly, he predicted the fall of Magadha two years in advance and at the time of the imminent attack, went to the north, with some of his disciples. His famous magic stare which still could subdue a wild buffalo that attacked him near Tirahuti, however, seems not to have been strong enough to repulse the Turuskas, this time. Anyway, after working extensively in Nepal, he also visited Tibet for a short period.

The Decline of Vikramshila

Taranath mentions that decline of Buddhism had begun soon after the death of Dharmapala, as the numbers of tirthikas and mlecchas gradually increased in the kingdom of Bhamgala, in Ayodhya etc, on the north of the Ganga and in all the regions on the east and west of the Yamuna – from Varanasi to Malava, Prayaga, Mathura, Kuru, Panchala, Agra, Sagari, Dilli, etc. Also, though tirthikas became numerous in Kamarupa, Tirahuti, Odivisa, etc.,in Magadha  however, the Buddhists were greater in number than before, because of the increase of the samghas and yogis. The period was however, one of confusion with impending attacks of the Turuskas and growing influence of the followers of the yogi Gauraksha, who have been described as fools by Taranath for having become the followers of Isvara, being driven by the greed for money and honour offered by the tirthika kings, and not opposed even to the Turuskas. Taranath has mentioned about major social and cultural changes which gradually took place as the rule of the four Senas progressed, and the numbers of tirthikas and the Persian followers of the Mleccha view, also went on increasing even in Magadha.

As mentioned earlier, the threat of the Turuskas in Magadha had already arrived during the period of Canaka, when the efforts of the Bali acharya had salvaged the situation. Later, we come across more interesting accounts of Turuska raids being repelled with one being of the efforts ofKamalaraksita, who empowered by Yamari, had once thought of holding a gana-cakra in the crematorium of Vikrama.Along with many Tantrika disciples, they brought materials for sadhana carried by the yoginis, whenon the way they encountered the minister of the Turuska king of Karna of the West, who was then proceeding to invade Magadha with 500 Turuskas. The Turuskas plundered the materials for sadhana, but, however, when they came near the acharya and his attendants, he in anger threw at them an earthen pitcher full of charmed water, which immediately generated a terrible storm with black men seen emerging from it and striking the Turuskas with daggers in hand. The minister himself vomited blood and died and the others were afflicted with various diseases, and excepting one, none of them returned to their country. This made the tirthikas and Turuskas terror-stricken. Also mentioned is the account of Lilavajra, who upon hearing the rumour of an impending Turuska invasion, defeated their soldiers by drawing the Yamari-cakra, by virtue of which on reaching Magadha, they were rendered dumb and inactive and remained so for a long time and thus turned away. Later, in the period of Neyapala, who ruled when Atisa departed for Tibet, the Turuskas were repelled by the efforts of Prajnarakshita, who is stated to have magically struck them with thunder. The successive accounts over the years only indicate that a constant strife with different Turuska hordes on the rampage was underway.

Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from May, 2017

As the impending threat from the Turuskas increased in the ever changing circumstances, the king tried his level best to save the situation and even converted Odantapuri and Vikramshila partially into fortresses and stationed some soldiers there. While the other centres for the doctrine in the regions gradually became practically extinct, the number of monks both in Vikramshila and Odantapuri remained same as during the time of Abhayakara. After Rathikasena’s death, the few years of Labamsena’s reign were peaceful. However, soon thereafter the Turuska king called the Moon (i.e. Chandra)arrived in the region of Antaravedi in-between the Ganga and the Yamuna, and was assisted by some monks, who acted as his messengers. As a result, the petty Turuska rulers of Bhamgala and other places united, ran over the whole of Magadha and massacred many ordained monks in Odantapuri. They destroyed both Odantapuri and Vikramshila. The Persians at last built a fort on the ruins of Odantavihara. Local measures were found insufficient in the wake of widespread confusion and national disunity with the concurrent situation best described by Dharmasvamin, who visited soon after.

After Vikramshila

With the end of Vikramshila, also ended the sovereignty of the Senas, who were subjugated by the Turks. Lavamasena’s and his other successors in the direct family line including BuddhasenaHaritasenaPratitasena and others had to obey them and did not have much of actual royal power. After the death of Pratitasena, their line came to an end. However, we come across instances when even with their limited power, efforts were being made to maintain the earlier traditions. From the account left by Dharmasvamin, we learn about the period of Buddhasena, when Pandita Rahulasribhadra, though aged more than 90, was still residing at Nalanda, along with about 70 other monks. Dharmasvamin stayed with him for one year and studied the sastras at Nalanda, which though ransacked, is stated as still having some live-able apartments, in which hiding from the Turks, these few monks then tried to continue the studies.  However, on one fateful day, the Turk army, then stationed at Odantapuri and numbering about 300, reached and looked for them. While all others escaped, Dharmaswamin hid in the nearby temple of Gyannatha along with the elder monk and noticed their activities from hiding.

Taranath has mentioned that after about 100 years of Pratitasena’s death, Cingalaraja became very powerful in Bhamgala and brought under control all the Hindus and Turuskas up to Dilli. He is stated to have converted to Buddhism under the influence of his Queen, and thus made lavish offerings in Vajrasana, renovated all the temples there and properly rebuilt the upper 4 storeys of the nine-storied maha-gandola, earlier destroyed by the Turuskas. He established there a centre for the doctrine under Pandit Sariputra. Long lived, he also made lavish offerings in the temple of Nalendra, but did not build any big centre. After his death, 160 years had passed when Taranath was documenting the Buddhist history of India. After him, no other king of Magadha was known to have promoted Buddhism and later even when King Mukundadeva of Odivisa occupied most of the territory of the Madhya-desa, no centre for the doctrine was established. In Odivisa, he established the temple for the insiders and also a number of smaller centres for the doctrine. 38 years had then passed since his death. However, Buddhism, thereafter, vanished totally from its original homeland. India had changed, only to be revived centuries later !

An Epilogue to the Story of Vikramshila A Succession Board of Vikramshila’s Teachers

Had Vikramshila survived decimation from the invading Turks, there is a probability that it may have survived to this day and would have been famous as one of the most historical centres of learning in the world. In such case, the modern visitor upon entering the University would have been bewildered with its long list of teachers and prominent alumni and with the magnificent biographies and legends attached to their great personae. As Taranath’s description allows us to identify the “Seven Pala”, rulers, remembered prominently for their contribution to the Buddhist faith and including Gopala, Devapala, Dharmapala, Mahipala, Mahapala, Neyapala (Nayapala) and Ramapala, it also helps us to create such a succession board of the Chief Teacher’s of Vikramshila, which would have read as follows.

  1. Buddhajnanapada
  2. Dipamkarabhadra, the first two being from the period of Dharmapala.
  3. Lanka-jayabhadra, who was born and initially educated in Lanka i.e. Singhala, where he thoroughly studied the Mahayana and later on reaching Magadha, became a scholar of the Guhya-tantra. He meditated on Cakrasamvara at Vikramshila and received the vision of the deity. He then went to the Mahabimba chaitya in the Konkana region, which was unapproachable even as its reflection could be seen in the sky, and preached the Guhya-tantra-yana for sometime. Then he became the Tantra-acharya at Vikramshila.
  4. Sridhara,the Brahmin acharya, who was invited to Vikramshila after heacquired fame as a preacher of the Mahamaya in the south.
  5. Bhavabhadra, who particularly studied the Vijnana-vada and acquired proficiency in about 50 tantras. He received the blessings of Cakrasamvara in dream and also had the vision of Tara. He practiced the Gutika-siddhi and attained success. Later on, he attained success in the practice of alchemy, which proved highly beneficial for himself and others.
  6. Bhavyakirti, a profound scholar of the Tantrika scriptures and said to have attained unfettered abhijnana.
  7. Lilavajra, who obtained Yamari-siddhi and probably composed the Bhairava-asta-vetala-sadhana. Upon hearing the rumour of an impending Turuska invasion, he defeated their soldiers by drawing the Yamari-cakra as on reaching Magadha, they became dumb and inactive and remained so for a long time and were thus turned away.
  8. Durjayacandra,
  9.  Krsna-samaya-vajra
  10. Tathagata-rakshita
  11.  Bodhibhadra, who was a great scholar of the Guhya-mantras of both the insiders as well as the outsiders.
  12. Kamalaraksita, a bhikshu in rank and a scholar in all sutras and tantras and specially in the Prajnaparamita, Guhya-samaja and Yamari. When he attained siddhi of Yamari in the Amda-giri to the south of Magadha, he was confronted by various miraculous obstructions. All these subsided when he meditated on sunyata and the Yamari melted into his heart making him stronger. Even as he is mentioned to have defeated the Turuskas, by an earthen pitcher full of charmed water, he performed many other abhicaras, but for which he could have attained the rainbow body. It is said that the abhicaras caused some obstacles even for a great yogi like him. This acharya was a kind teacher also of Jo-bo-rje (Atisa) and Khyun-po-rnal-‘byor-pa. It is said that in the latter part of his life, he lived in a forest near Nalendra, fully absorbed in meditation mainly on sampanna-krama.

It is said that except for the first two of the 12 acharyas, each of them acted as the chief of the Mahavihara for 12 years. After Kamalaraksita, came the 6 Door-keeper scholars, who existed during the reign of King Canaka and the earlier half of Bheyapala.

  1. Eastern doorkeeper – Acarya Ratnakarasanti-pa.
  1. Southern doorkeeper – Prajnakaramati, a scholar having the direct vision of Manjusri, who during debates with the tirthikas, used to get the appropriate answers upon worshipping Manjusri.
  1. Western doorkeeper – Vagisvarakirti, earlier born as a Kshatriya in Varanasi and ordained in the sect of the Mahasamghika, is said to once have defeated 300 tirthika rivals who came from the west and also performed miraculous feats. In the latter part of his life, he went to Nepal where he lived mostly in meditation, though preaching the tantrayana at times. Since he had many consorts, most people thought that his conduct was unbecoming of a monk.
  1. Northern doorkeeper – Naro-pa, who was later succeeded by Bodhivadra. Bodhivadra, born in a Vaisya family of Odivisa, a scholar of the Vidya-sambhara, Carya-sambhara and especially of the Bodhi-sattva-bhumi, having a vision of arya Avalokitesvara.
  1. First great central pillar – Ratnavajra, born to Haribhadra, the 25th descendant of a famous Kashmiri Brahman, once defeated in a debate by the Buddhists, he thereafter gained a profound knowledge of the doctrine and came to Magadha for further studies, where he meditated in Vajrasana and had the vision of Cakrasamvara, Vajravarahi and many other deities. The king conferred on him the patra of Vikramshila, where he mainly expounded the tantra-yana, the seven treatises on pramana, the five works of Maitreya, etc. After Vikramshila, he went back to Kashmir where he defeated several tirthikas in debate and converted them to Buddhism. During the latter part of his life, he went to Urgyana in the west, where he defeated a Brahmin of Kashmir at Urgyana and converted him to Buddhism and gave him the name Guhyaprajna. Guhyaprajna learnt the tantra-yana and eventually attained siddhi and went to Tibet, where he came to be known as the Red acharya.
  1. Second great central pillar – Jnanasrimitra, wasa teacher of Atisaand the author of the sastra “Free from the Two Extremities”. Born in Gauda, he was earlier a pandita of the Sravaka Sendhavas and a scholar of their Tripitaka. Later, he revered the Mahayana and thoroughly studied all the sastras of Nagarjuna and Asanga. Once, while residing in Vikramshila, he directed a novice monk to start immediately for Gayaso as to reach by next noon, in order to save damage from predicted fire to the temple at Vajrasan, where a brahmana had invited all the monks with the priests in charge of the temple of Vajrasana to a seasonal feast. The monk went to Gaya and met the residents of Vajrasana, half of whom didn’t believe him and stayed back. When he reached the Vajrasana with the other half, it had already caught fire and both the interior and the exterior were aflame. They extinguished the fire with prayer to the deity and thus the temple was saved from further damage. The acharya arranged for the restoration of the damaged paintings and the renovation of the wooden structure.
Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

After the 6 gate-keeper scholars, there was no continuity in the succession of the upadhyayas for some years. Then came Atisa. After him, there was no upadhyaya for 7 years. Then Mahavajrasana became the upadhyaya for a short period. After him one called Kamalakulisa became the upadhyaya. Next was Narendra-sri-jnana, who was succeeded by Danaraksita. After him Abhayakara acted as upadhyaya for a long time, and was succeeded successively by Subhakargupta, Nayakapasri, Dharmakarasanti and Sakyasri, the great pandita of Kashmir. After him, the legend of Vikramshila ended.

Field Excavations at Antichak

Patna University published its long-awaited Antichak Excavation Report (1960-69), in the year 2005, long after the first phase of excavations were concluded in 1969. The Archaeological Survey of India which carried out the more detailed further  phase of the excavations from 1971-1981, too was not early when it published the Antichak Excavations-2 only in 2011, on the occasion of celebration of 150 years of the survey. But, nevertheless, the story of the longest excavation project in Bihar after Indian Independence has been well documented. Way back in the winters of 1960-61, the Department of Ancient Indian History and Archaeology, University of Patna, under Dr. B. P. Sinha and Dr. R.C.P. Singh, the then Field Director, commenced the historical excavations at Antichak, with three trial trenches in one of the mounds. The team was indeed lucky as just in the very first year of digging, the trenches not only revealed three structural phases of occupation, but most importantly, yielded a terracotta votive stupa from the middle phase bearing an inscription, Sri-Dharmadhara…devasya, in the late Pala script, suggesting the presence of a monastic establishment at the site, and thereby acknowledging to its excavators that they were on the right track.

Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016
Northern Side of the Main Stupa, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Thus, probably brimming with confidence, as the University continued in 1961-62, excavations uncovered the massive stupa structure, with chambers and ante-chambers on either side. On the northern wing, finely-carved stone pillars were found fallen over the floor of the antechamber while the floor level of the chamber was found as higher than the rest and reached by steps, thereby representing three phases of repairs and reconstructions. An octagonal brick pedestal which earlier held an image was found in the centre of the northern chamber, with a fallen image of crowned Buddha of Pala style in bhumi-sparsa-mudra. A lotus-shaped brick pedestal with floral design in red and black pigment over a white background, was found  in the southern chamber. The floors on either side of the stupa were found covered with ash and charcoal indicative of a fire. A pradakshina-path running around the main structure was also identified along with a headless inscribed figure of Buddha and other objects. In 1962-63, a chamber with a brick-pedestal carrying an image of Avalokiteshwara and a number of terracotta plaques representing various scenes were obtained from the debris overlying the floor. A thick deposit of ash and charcoal was found over different floors, again testifying to the destruction of the site by a fire.

Terracotta plaques, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016
Main Stupa, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

As excavations continued in 1963-64, they again confirmed that the whole complex had been destroyed by fire. Overlying the debris was noticed a new building activity in which the original door was blocked by a brick wall and a new entrance, approached by brick staircase, was provided. This may have been the work of some devout who wanted to continue worship by some sort of building activity over the destroyed remains, but who had no resources for major repairs nor possibly had the circumstances in the favour, as the site was subsequently abandoned. Four terracotta sealings were recovered from a pit resting over the wall of Terrace, of which three read ‘Sri-Vataparata’ (probably hill of Bateshwarsthan), the fourth remaining undeciphered. Terracotta plaques representing various scenes such as Buddha in meditation, lady in toilet, riders, etc. were found fixed on the walls of terrace which also interestingly included the figure of a half-male and half-female, possibly representing Ardhanarisvara. In 1965-66, several other antiquities were found during the clearance-work of the north-western quadrant of the site, including a drain. The inner as well as outer walls of Terrace showed terracotta plaques representing various scenes such as Buddha in bhumi-sparsa-mudradharmachakra-pravartana-mudra, Dhyani-Buddhas, deities like Padmapani and warriors and ladies in various postures.

Terracotta plaques, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016
Terracotta plaques, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

In 1966-67, the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Bihar, exposed the wall running along upper pradakshina-patha along with brick pillars and various terracotta plaques of the Buddha, Buddhist deities, animal figurines and an inscribed terracotta seal. In the same year, excavation at Oriup, about 2 km south-west of the Antichak stupa-site, excavation revealed four cultural periods of which the oldest marked by black-and-red ware, and next by the occurrence of the NBP ware and its associated fabrics, pointed towards the further antiquity of the site as earlier than 500 B.C. and contemporaneous with Champa. The third period was distinguished by typical Pala pottery, and the latest by the occurrence of the medieval glazed pottery and red ware. In 1968-69, the most significant discovery was a stone votive stupa, with an inscription on each of sides in 29 lines, bearing an account of Sahura, a local ruler who installed a Kirti (possible image or structure) after emerging victorious over the warrior Sondamna, sent with a large fleet by the King of Bengal.  This was recovered from the debris overlying the floor of the lower pradakshina-patha in the south-eastern quadrant.

Main Stupa, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Excited by the preliminary results from the excavation by the Patna University, and to undertake the work on a large scale, the Vikramshila Excavation Project was launched by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under the leadership of Shri B. S. Verma in 1971-72, and in the first year itself thirty trenches were laid out. In some of the trenches, laid out on the south and the south-western sectors, a 3m wide boundary-wall was traced out, which at certain places was found to be robbed of its bricks right up to its foundation. An ashy layer, found inside the cells, again confirmed that the building was destroyed by some conflagration. In the course of clearance of the main stupa it was observed that it had been built over the ruins of an earlier brick structure, remains of which were traceable in the north-western corner. From the clearance work were obtained many detached terracotta plaques, miniature votive stupas and a large number of fragments of stone images of the Buddha, and the site could be ascribed to the 8th to 11th century A.D. from the inscriptions.

Two Lions in One Sculpture, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

As excavations continued, in 1972-73, along with the most outstanding discovery being the magnificent Northern gate and inner pillared hall (mandapa) having a wide passage with double flights of stone staircase, the excavation showed a well-defined layout of the monastic cells, of which 52 were discovered. By 1973-74, fairly large area had been exposed completely, and in 1974-75, trenches were laid out on the northern mound, outside the monastery complex, along with others in the vicinity. Excavation in the northern mound exposed structures of three phases with the third phase represented by shoddy walls constructed of stone rubble and bricks, probably robbed from the main monastery. Curiously enough a few Buddhist deities like Mahakala and Goddess Tara were found to have been used as building material for the construction of the walls. A number of sculptures both of the Brahmanical and Buddhist deities were recovered from the excavation, which included Hindu deities like Mahishasuramardini, Chamunda, Uma-Maheshwara, Vishnu, Sheshashayi Vishnu, Manasa, Yama Ganesa and Surya, and Buddhist ones like mutilated Avalokitesvara, Maitreya, Shadakshari-Lokesvara, Simhanada-Lokesvara, Avalokitesvara, Boddhisatva-Padmapani and goddess Tara, Avalokitesvara, intricately-carved in black basalt, comparable to the one found at Somapura mahavihara and bronze image of Buddha. Another interesting find was a corner-stone carved with two lions having one common head. Excavation in the north-eastern corner of the monastery exposed the main drain of the monastery, built of stone slabs, and running below the flooring of the monastic cells, which after 6-10m took an angular turn to prevent the erosion of the corner and emerged outside the boundary wall.

Krishna Sudama, , Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

In 1975-76, clearance of the blocked northern chamber of the central shrine revealed a huge mutilated terracotta Buddha, seated in Bhumisparsamudra in padmasana, the pedestal of which contained figures of lion, elephant, attendants and a kneeling devotee in the centre, in the niches. Attached to the back wall of the chamber was a terracotta prabha-mandala with traces of painting in red ochre over a white background. It appeared that upon mutilation of the earlier figure of the Buddha, the extant lower portion was buried under debris and blocked for access. Over the filling, a new brick pedestal was constructed and a fresh image of Buddha of black basalt in bhumi-sparsa-mudra was installed, which was discovered by the Patna University in 1961-62. Interestingly, it thereby suggested an earlier damage to the site prior to its final decimation through burning by the Turuskas. Interestingly, as suggested by some historians like D.C. Sircar, the archaeological implication probably stands confirmed by the inscription of Sahura, discovered earlier in 1968-69, as it might be providing a clue to an episode in the conflict for supremacy between the Palas and the Senas in Bengal. With the Senas being inspired by Brahminical zeal, it has been proposed that the earlier Buddha image may have suffered damage by some members of their army during an aggression, successfully repelled by Sahura, who repaired the damage by concealment under a new platform and the installation of a new image referred to in the inscription. But this hypothesis remains to be confirmed from other sources, as none of the Tibetan writers seem to have taken note of it.

 Remains of earlier Terracotta Buddha Image and pedestal on which was placed the later stone sculpture at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

In 1976-77, excavation outside the monastery complex yielded structures of different phases of construction, with one of the trenches having four human skeletons, 1.5m apart, with lengths varied from 1.0 to 1.73m and oriented north to south with head turned towards west and hand resting on chest, at a depth of 1.0m below the surface, which then could not be dated in the absence of any associated find. From the excavations at Oriup, recovered fragments of baked tiles and clay, indicated that rice grains and chaff were mixed with clay before modelling tiles and clay pieces. In 1977-78, the entire basement wall of the central shrine, damaged by brick robbing, was exposed. In 1978-79, excavation in the area south-west of the monastery revealed a rectangular structure which appeared as the manuscript section of the Mahavihara since vents in the wall seemed to have been provided for the entry of cool breeze, essential for preserving the talapatra manuscripts, by forced draft ventilation. Interestingly, when the tank was fully exposed, water started oozing out through the broken floor and within a short time the whole tank was filled up with water, which dried up automatically after a week.

Bone Atrefacts, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019
Votive Stupas, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

In 1979-80, excavation in front of the main gate revealed altogether 103 votive stupas, most of them being constructed in reused bricks from the votive stupa complex along with other antiquities. Interestingly, in the excavation on the mound near Jangalisthan, also called dharohar, 0.5 km north-west of the main monastery, a rampart-wall with salients, built of bricks, probably robbed from the Mahavihara was encountered.  Some of the outer veneer stones of the rampart had architectural members like door-sill, lintel, jambs, pedestal, etc., which seemed to have been built in the early 14th century AD, just after the destruction of the monastery. Excavation on the mound at Malkapur, where a villager had encountered a large number of unbaked clay tablets representing miniature figures of Buddha in bhumisparsa mudra, revealed disturbed votive stupas just below the humus. In 1981-82,during the course of clearance work, a small temple belonging to latest phase in pancha-ratha plan and facing east was discovered.

Mahishasura Mardini Durga, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

Art and Architecture of the Mahavihara

The architectural style of the stupa and the themes of terracotta plaques of Vikramshila Mahavihara are comparable to the contemporary Somapura Mahavihara, Paharpur (Bangladesh). However, Vikramshila monastery is larger and has fort like projections on its outer wall. The exposed monastic settlement is a quadrangle measuring 330m square on plain with double terraced chaitya in the centre. The whole chaitya rising to a height of 16.25m had only one entrance through a pathway measuring 75x11m, and the complex fanned out in the east and west from this direction. The main stupa in the centre of the square monastery, a brick structure laid in mud mortar has on each of the four cardinal directions, a protruding chamber which earlier displayed colossal images of the seated Buddha, of which three were found in situ with the one on northern side possibly replaced by a stone image after mutilation or damage to the earlier clay image. All chambers had a pillared antechamber and a separate pillared mandapa in front. The walls of both the terraces are decorated with mouldings and terracotta plaques which testify the high excellence of terracotta art flourishing in the region during Pala period (8th to 12th Century A.D.) having evolved since the Gupta times as exemplified by the likes at Bhitargaon (Kanpur), Nalanda, Gaya,and many others.

Terracotta plaques, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

The form of the Mahavihar is reminiscent of some earlier and some contemporary Monasteries. The plans of the Vikramshila and Somapura Mahaviharas are quite similar, though Vikramshila typically has a Triratna projection at the front for entrance. A closed-in type of Monastery as at Takshashila, it has only one gateway perhaps in tune with the monastic discipline enjoined for the monks. Something peculiarly noticeable at Vikramshila is the projections in the outer wall which give the impression of fortification, conspicuous by its absence at Somapura. The scheme follows the general plan of the four directions of a square around a central area, each of the five symbolising one of the realms of human knowledge and cosmic experience. The structures with a square plinth became a speciality of Indian Buddhist architecture from the days of Kaniska, probably in response to the new ideals. The precursors of the raised cruciform central chaitya can easily be traced in north-western India (now in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and Central Asia. The shrine at Antichak has two terraces instead of three at Somapura, with the central Stupa as a shrine representing the Mountain Meru, sacred both to the Hindus and the Buddhists.

Terracotta Sculpture, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

The mahavihar had 208 cells measuring 4.15×1.5m with a verandah having a width of 3.10m. The outer wall of the monastery has 20 projected circular and 20 rectangular cells at an intermediary distance of 21 to 23m, which had provisions for 3 beds in each room and only for 1 in rectangular. A unique feature of Vikramshila is its dozen underground cells at a depth of 1.35m with a circular passage measuring 0.95×0.95m, which may have been used by monks for meditation. About 32 metres south of the monastery on its south west corner and attached with the main monastery through a narrow corridor is a rectangular structure identified as library building. It was air-conditioned by cooled water of the adjoining reservoir through a range of vents in the back wall. The system was perhaps meant for preserving delicate manuscripts. A large number of antiquities unearthed during the excavations are displayed in the site museum maintained by the ASI, which also include inscriptions on terracotta emblems.

Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

Epigraphy / Inscriptions

Among many inscriptions at Vikramshila apart from those mentioned above, mention may be made of the terracotta sealing discovered in 1973-74, which showed, in the countersunk surface, a line of writing in early Nagari characters of about the 10th century and in Sanskrit language, which read ‘Shri Purushottamapalah’ and another recovered in 1975-76, engraved on the pedestal of a Tara image, in corrupt Sanskrit written in proto-Bengali characters of the 11th century, recording the gift of Pratihara Udayavara. Upon analysis of the inscriptions, it is surprising that no direct epigraphic evidence recording the patronage by the Pala rulers has been found as yet at Vikramshila, which is fundamentally different from those encountered at contemporaneous Somapura and Nalanda. Another strange phenomenon is the near absence of inscriptions from the early centuries of the monastery, believed to have been founded by Dharmapala around the mid-eighth century, with most inscriptions, barring one seal from the 9th-10th century, all other inscriptions datable to the 11th and 12th centuries with again barring the inscription of Sahura datable to the 12th century on palaeographic grounds, none other attributable to any royal authority. The earliest seal datable to the 9th-10th centuries contains the legend Sri Rajyagraha Mahavihar, probably inferring to a great monastery of the royal house.

Inscribed Fragment, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

Only 10 coins, 6 of copper and 4 of silver, were recovered during the excavations. While the copper ones are badly rusted, the silver ones in a slightly better state of preservation look like Sassanian coins of eastern Magadhan variety having the impression of the Sassanian head or the fire-altar and bear the legend ‘Sri Vigraha’ or ‘Sri Vi’, and have been assigned to Vigrahapala II, i.e. in the second half of the tenth century AD. Prior to this no Pala ruler seems to have issued such coins, which in view of discovery of a large number of ‘Chitti’ cowries (a variety of sea-shell) in hoards, suggests that cowries may have been used extensively as a medium of exchange during Pala rule.

Terracotta, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

When compared to the seals and sealings recovered during excavations at Nalanda, certain fundamental differences are noticeable. No seals of kings, villages or janapadas, or of any persons from mercantile backgrounds or of officials have been found so far at Antichak and none of the seals discovered so far record the extra-local origin of any person. Unlike Nalanda, no seal of any village granted officially to the Mahavihar or even any copper plate inscription to such effect have been found. Nor do we get the seal of any official or monk or nun of the Mahavihar. One cannot be sure if the limited results from the excavation could be reflective of certain historical realities, in the absence of further excavations. As a whole, the epigraphic data from Antichak represents a great diversity in terms of social patronage of the Mahavihar.

Preservation of Monuments

Preservation of the remains at Vikramshila has remained as a challenge right from the initial days when excavation had started exposing the structures buried by centuries of neglect. The exposed terracotta plaques fixed on the main temple were provided with a temporary shed of corrugated iron sheets to protect them from deterioration way back in 1965-66.The terracotta panels were desalinized during1969-70, but only to notice that salts were however, still rising up from the ground and between 1974-76, the friable plaques were in an advanced stage of decay due to heavy salt efflorescences from the body of the stupa. The hygroscopic salts which kept the surface damp throughout the year, were extracted as far as possible with the application of paper pulp, followed by consolidation with 5% polyvinyl acetate in toluene.

Terracotta Plaque, Image from July, 2005

Between 1973 to 1979, the tops of exposed structures were water-tightened by and laying fresh concrete over the decayed terrace, while dislodged brick masonry and stone slabs were reset and finished with recessed pointing. Between 1979 to 1985, the area was fenced with barbed-wire along with arrangements for discharge of rain water from the monastic complex. Special bricks were also manufactured departmentally for use during repairs. Between 1985 to 1988, the collapsed, decayed and dislodged portions of the northern monastery were reconstructed with special size of bricks in lime, surkhi cement mortar, including underpinning, water-tightening the joints, etc., as per the original. Having visited the site regularly since 2005, I have found the remains being better preserved than earlier even as the challenge of saving the terracotta plaques growing even more friable over the years due to salt hygroscopy continues.

Terracotta Plaque, Image from July, 2005


A General Perspective !

Even as we notice the growth of Vikramshila in the early medieval period and witness its importance from Tibetan literature, the site is seen to have been much more ancient and important at least from the Gupta times. Survey of the neighbouring area within a radius of about 10 km of the main stupa mound in 1965-66, by the University of Patna, revealed ancient remains at (i) Chandipur, about 3km to the southern side, tools of the Middle Stone Age (ii) at Lalapur, about 1.5 km to the north-eastern side, beads and microliths of chalcolithic assemblage; at (iii) Malakpur, about 1.5 km to the south-east, yielding Late stone-age tools; at (iv) Namsukh-Kothi, about 2.5 km to the north-east, Late stone-age tools; and at (v) Oriup, about 2.5 km to the west, the NBP Ware and other associated ceramics, all pointing to the activities of humans at the site since the most ancient times.

The remains at Patharghata confirm the popularity of the site in Gupta times, as also attested by the accounts of Hieun-Tsang. Upon analysis and a perusal of several Buddhist sites of the age, one finds that these were usually found near ancient cities which had already been established as religious centres. Thus after Gaya and Varanasi which served as important starting points of Buddhism, cities like Mathura, Ayodhya and several others which were already important sites of Hindu pilgrimage were chosen by the sangha for building of monasteries and stupas etc. for the propagation of the new ‘dhamma’. Monasteries close to such established centres were sure to influence visitors along with the resident population as well with their activities. Such background may have inspired the foundation of the university of Vikramshila by the Pala ruler Dharampal.

Reasons for the Decline of Vikramshila – A Perspective !

To understand the circumstances which ultimately led to the decline of Vikramshila, all features of the period need to be appreciated in totality. Politically, India was witnessing a transition since the 7th   century, and the establishment and growth of the Mahavihar was linked to agrarian expansion, successive ruralisation and gradual formation of the Pala state, which probably had no fixed capital initially, as it probably altered between places like Gaur, Patliputra, Mugdagiri, Vataparvataka, etc with administrative cum military centres at places like Naulagarh, Jaimanglagarh etc. Several Pala settlements are noticeable in the vicinity of Vikramshila including those at Shahkund and others in Bhagalpur district, while fortified settlements are noticed at Mudgagiri (Munger), probably the most prominent along with other places like Jaynagar (Lakhisarai), Champanagar and others, showing a gradual development. The period shows considerable lack of numismatic archaeological evidences, which has led archaeologists to presume a general decline in India’s participation in South-East Asian trade between 700-1200 A.D., as the ancient port of Tamralipti had declined by that time. In such changing economic circumstances and political transition, the challenge of foreign invasion had also arrived close.

Loknath, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

The iconoclastic Turuskas (Turks) who wanted to spread their religious rule in newer territories are generally understood to have been formally responsible for the decimation of Vikramshila and other contemporary monasteries, as mentioned without any iota of doubt in contemporary Tibetan sources like the accounts of Dharmasvamin and Taranath. However, upon interpreting contemporary references, several historians have suggested that the sacking of Bihar was probably a part of the Sena strategy, since the attacker Bakhtiyar Khilji is stated as probably unaware of the nature of the fortified structure which was presumed to have been an enemy camp, only to be discovered after attack as being a monastic establishment. It has thus been conjectured that rivalry between the Hindus and the Buddhists may have been utilised by the local rulers for ensuring the destruction of Buddhists at the hands of the Turks. Such views have also gained credence from some records left by scholars of Mithila like Jyotirisvara Thakura, who in Varnaratnakara, signified that the scholars of Mithila treated the Buddhists, and not the Muslims, as their worst enemies till as late as the 14th century and the famous Vidyapati, who, in the second tale of his Purusapariksha accounted for the alliance between Alauddin Khilji and Saktisimha and praised the Sultan Ghyath-al-din Azam of Bengal and the Sharqi ruler of Jaunpur Ibrahim Shah (1402-40 A.D.).

Mahakala, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

Going back to the story of the destruction of Vikramshila, it is worthwhile to recall Persian sources in which Bakhtiyar Khilji is stated to have attacked and destroyed the monasteries at Nalanda and Odantapuri and thereafter having proceeded towards Bengal. However, exact details of the stated invasion of Vikramshila are not clearly mentioned in such sources. It is often conjectured that Vikramshila too was destroyed by his troops, on the way to Bengal, owing to the same timing of the destruction, as mentioned by Taranath. However, whether or not Vikramshila fell on the route followed by him to Bengal remains yet to be ascertained. What, however, is clearly established is that Taranath has attributed the destruction of Vikramshila to the combined attack by several Turuskas, then based in Bengal, who took advantage of the situation that emerged after the raid of Bakhtiyar Khilji. Since no traces of the former magnificence of the Mahavihar survived in any local traditions or memories after the invasion, there seems to have been a strong local disconnect with the surrounding inhabitants, whose roles, probably having no prominence during the disturbances, are left unrecorded.

Fragmented Sculpture of  Tara, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

Significantly, some sort of non opposition to the Turuskas by the resurging yogi followers of Gorakshnath, is mentioned, albeit in a suspicious manner by Taranath. From such evidences, a growing phase of struggle between Hindu and Buddhist ascetics, regular debates between whom have been mentioned, is indeed indicated and most probably as a lament, Taranath has mentioned that even as many siddhas and sadhakas did live in that period of decline, however, since the karma of the people in general was unalterable, the end could not be prevented. However, even as the conflict is established from several historical references and also from the account of Taranath, there should be no ambiguity in appreciating the fact that Turk groups, then based in Bengal, were clearly formally responsible for the final destruction of the Mahavihar, as both Taranath and contemporary Dharmasvamin have stated the same without any iota of doubt. As per Dharmasvamin, the Turks had even thrown the foundation stones of Vikramshila into the Ganga.

Terracotta plaques, Excavated Remains at Vikramshila, Image from March, 2016

In such case, a question can be asked as to who these Turks, then based in Bengal, could have been, since generally Bakhtiyar Khilji’s raid is believed to have been the first such in Eastern India. The answer is not difficult to find if one reads carefully between the lines, as several evidences have emerged which clearly establish Turkish activities in eastern India from at least the beginning of the 11th century. Though not many historians seem to have paid due attention to such references, they are nevertheless important for an understanding of the times, as Turkish influence in Bihar is documented in times much before the well known raids of Bakhtiyar Khiliji around 1193 A.D. Reading Taranath, we learn about several strifes with the Turks even prior to the departure of Atisa (1040 to 1042 A.D.), starting from the times of Canaka, when the efforts of the Bali acharya had salvaged the situation. Archaeological references for such activities have been also found at Maner, near Patna, where Arab rule is stated to have commenced in 1175 A.D itself, and a copper plate inscription (1126 A.D.) of Gahadvala King Govind Chandra mentions levy of “Turuska danda” or Turk’s duty even before such rule, thereby suggesting that long before Bakhtiyar Khilji’s advent in Bihar, some parts of the province including Maner had fallen under a sort of suzerainty of the Turks (the Ghaznavite emperors) who used to receive regular tribute from these places. All such existing Turkish groups may have combined their efforts towards the destruction of Vikramshila and subsequent invasion of different parts of contemporary Magadha taking advantage of the prevailing situation.

Viewing in perspective, the early medieval period was one of turnaround and of contradictory developments for Buddhism. While there was a general retraction of Buddhism across India, large Mahaviharas like Vikramshila, Somapura and Odantapuri emerged, while previous Nalanda also continued. The general decline is seen by many historians as a sign of assimilation of Buddhism within the Brahmanic fold as both in the times made efforts to readjust themselves to the extent of reformulating their basic tenets according to the local needs. Tantric ideals associated with the cult of Sakti added a new dimension into Buddhism which at the deepest level, aimed to acquire wisdom (pragya or sunyata), inherent in everything, but hidden to the non-initiated, which was similar to the ends of advaita philosophy. Growth of Tantric Buddhism and its patronage by the acharyas of Vikramshila can be viewed as a part of the ongoing process of accommodating new people and ideas.

Sodhala Matha Fragmented Inscription, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

The presence of brahmanical structures and images in association with the Buddhist ones at Vikramshila, best reflected from several terracotta panels on the main stupa and from a temple structure with considerable images, stylistically dating from the 9th century onwards, with a 12th century fragmented inscription referring to a Sri-Sodhila Matha, indicating the presence of a Brahminical religious centre in the close proximity of the monastery, has also been variously interpreted. The original purpose as to why the authorities of the mahavihar may have allowed such an institution to come up in the near vicinity is not fully understood and some scholars have linked it as signifying the final destruction of the Mahavihar by the Brahminists. However, upon detailed analysis, several such views seem to have been guided and shaded by compulsive ideologies as they stand unaffirmed by most archaeological evidences, since both Brahminist and Buddhist images are found to be equally bearing marks of the iconoclastic fury of the invaders. B. S. Verma has mentioned that Sodhala was probably a Pala minister hailing from South India, who had written a book titled as “Udaya Sundari Katha” in which Dharampala was mentioned as Uttarapatha Svami. Even though the Palas were mostly Buddhists, their ministers were generally Hindus and thus when Dharmapala constructed Vikramshila monastery, Sodhala might have constructed a matha.

Chamunda, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

In my opinion, the co-existence noticed prominently at Vikramshila may have been a result of growing reconciliation between the practitioners of the two faiths in wake of the need of the times and due to the continuous threat posed upon by the common adversary, as signs of iconoclastic destruction have been found equally. It is also probably suggestive of the efforts for synthesis by the administrators of the Mahavihar who desired to strike a chord with the traditions and practices of the local populace, who possibly felt disconnected with the high level of spiritual and esoteric practices of the ordained monks and scholars. The representation of Hindu motifs and deities on the terracotta panels in the terraces of the main stupa or chaitya may have served to inspire more affection from the local populace. In such context, considering the generic reasons for the disconnect of Vikramshila with the adjoining population, several scholars have indicated the general abhorrence for degraded and heinous Tantric rituals being practised by certain members attached to the institution as being the ultimate one.

Dancing Ganesha, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

In perspective, the growth of Tantricism in ancient Indian society is seen to have been usually associated with the sacrifice of animals and other charming rituals. Initially Buddhism and Jainism which had been founded against such practices, had impacted tantrism, but, with the emergence of the Guptas, there was a revival of Tantric worship in a metamorphosized form in the Sakti cult, which soon became an integral part of Hinduism. The early medieval period marked a sharp decline in Buddhism, which was already divided into Hinayana and Mahayana. In the course of time, Mahayana gradually evolved into Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle), which had an esoteric character and arose as a response to the social and economic needs of the early medieval times and exercised a wide social appeal. The monastery had emerged during the hey-day of Tantric Buddhism and therefore, became the chief centre of the study of magic and occult sciences. Sexual intercourse, considered to be one of the worst rituals of Tantricism, was in those times still performed among tribal peoples as an important part of their agricultural magic for promoting the fertility of the earth and the people. Unfortunately, it seems to have been probably seized by some members of the leisured upper classes, and distorted to provide them with sensual and sexual gratifications.

View of Ganga in the Monsoons from Patharghata, July, 2018

Significantly, the Siddhas were also generally moving among the poorer classes and highly philosophical truths were often being revealed only by esoteric symbolism, which may have led to moral degeneration. Moreover, as the Guhya samara tantra stressed on the importance of Prajnaparamita or the perfect truth for salvation, ‘prajna’ was interpreted as residing in every woman on earth, to be enjoyed without reservation. An instance of dispute between members of the monastery has been mentioned in the context of Atisa, when Maitrigupta, a Tantric, was probably expelled from the monastery for having presented wine to a Buddhist yogini he was consulting on certain matters, and it caused a stir in the campus. In the initial stage, Tantric teaching was imparted in a sacred and guarded way but with the passage of time, the standard gradually declined and eroticism and excesses proved fatal for the maintenance of monastic discipline and ultimately led to the decline. Also, the introduction of tantra and worship of a large number of gods and goddesses narrowed down the gulf between Hinduism and Buddhism. Gradually Hinduism, which included Buddha among the ten avatars of Vishnu, subsumed Buddhism. Perhaps, this was the probable idea of the sculptors of the period who introduced the crown or ‘kiritamukuta’ in the image of Buddha to have him resemble Vishnu.

Crowned Buddha, Preserved in the Archaeological Museum, Vikramshila, Image from January, 2019

The Impact of Vikramshila

Looking in hindsight, the activities of the Mahavihar aimed at reconciliation among different sections of society and provided a platform to the emerging Buddhist ideology which was passing through a ‘systematic crisis’ and was on the decline, the monk-acharyas of the Mahavihar contributed immensely to the ongoing metaphysical discourse and helped Buddhism to reformulate its basic tenets in the new garb of tantrism. Their works are indeed “The Last Beacon of Buddhist Philosophy” as with the establishment of Vikramshila, Vajrayana, which originated way back in the 3rd century A.D., got a new impetus. Within two centuries, Vikramshila outstripped Nalanda and became the centre for the new wave of Tantrik Buddhism, and acted as the major link between India and Tibet. It developed as the most favourite place for students from Tibet and soon became a centre for translating Buddhist texts into Tibetan. Interestingly, one manuscript copied at the time of Gopala II is known to be still preserved at the British Museum.

The impact of Vikramshila continued even after its physical decimation as its prominent teachers migrated to different parts of the world taking with them the wisdom from the original abode. Immediately after the end of Vikramshila, Pandita Sakyasri went to Ja-gar-da-la (Jaggaddala) in Odivisa in the east, and after spending 3 years, thereafter went to Tibet, while Ratnarakshita shifted to Nepal. Some other panditas like Jnanakaragupta, and others went to the south west of India. Buddhasrimitra and Dasabala’s disciple Vajrasri, along with many minor panditas, fled far to the south. The 16 remaining mahantas including the scholar Samghasrijnana, Ravisribhadra, Candrakaragupta, along with 200 minor panditas, went far to the east to Pu-khan, Mu-nan, Kamboja and other places. Even as Buddhism became extinct in Magadha, as most of the scholars went to these countries, it exclusively spread there and was known to be exclusively flourishing even in the times of Taranath, as it does to the present day in most.

Taranath has described the spread of Buddhism in the far east i.e. countries of south-east Asia like Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia etc. His geographical description regarding these countries is significant since he mentions them as a part of Eastern India, which consisted of three parts, the first being the Aparantaka consisting of Bhamgala and Odivisa, the second being the Girivarta consisting of Kamarupa, Tripura and Hasama in the north-east, and the third reached upon proceeding as one reached Namga-ta, on the slopes of the northern mountains where bordering on the sea were Pukhan, Balaku, Rakhan, Hansavati (Pegu), Marko, the country of the Munans and further Cakma (Campa), Kamboja, etc., all collectively then called as the Ko-ki (name probably derived from the Chinese word tszyaochzhi). He mentions that samghas were established in these regions since the time of Asoka and later gradually grew in number. Before the time of Vasubandhu, these were only of the sravakas, even as some of his disciples, however, did propagate the Mahayana. For sometime, the continuity of this tradition just survived. However, from the time of king Dharmapala and onwards, it indeed flourished as there were in Magadha many students from these places, whose numbers went on increasing to the extent that during the times of the four Senas, about half of the monks of Magadha were from Ko-ki. This must have been the time when Vikramshila was making tremendous impact on the religious life of these countries. Its impact on the culture of Tibet remains a living reality.

Vikramshila as a Tourist Destination

Vikramshila, an ancient travel destination, which once attracted visitors from distant regions, including such like the isolated high mountains of Tibet, still retains promise as a modern sought-after tourist destination, with signs of optimism emanating from the steady and ever-increasing flow of tourists to the excavated remains. At the excavated site of the Mahavihar, as one moves along the central stupa and looks at the directional chambers which still display the size, location and position of the earlier images of the Buddha, their earlier magnificence, when the actual images existed with their original characteristic paintings, decorations and offerings, surrounded by hypnotized devotees chanting mantras of peace and other prayers, can only be imagined. Once upon a time, the outer walls were decorated with the portraits of eminent scholars while both the right and left sides of the main entrance were adorned respectively with the portraits of Nagarjuna and Atisa Dipankara. With 6 colleges with 108 teachers as staff, the Mahavihar had the central hall, called the Hall of Science whose 6 gates opened to the 6 colleges, guarded by eminent Dvara Panditas. With the Mahabodhi temple in the middle, were erected another 107 temples around, which were surrounded by an outer wall. There were also satras (free Kitchen) for the resident pupils and a dharmasala outside the gate for those arriving late in the night after the gate was closed. Thus the spirit of the ancient tourist, fully enamoured by the promise of spiritual enhancement, remained undeterred, even in those times when the routes were deemed insecure in the absence of proper law and order.

Historical Remains on Hill top at Patharghata lie unexcavated, Image from July, 2018

On reaching Vikramshila, one can surely appreciate the difficulties then faced by the ancient traveller, who, in the absence of modern connectivity or amenities, apart from prevailing insecurity, must have worked against all adversities with a rare commitment to reach the site. In comparison, even as reaching the site does not present such challenges of insecurity in the present day, problems in accessibility nevertheless remain. The absence of good connectivity or other amenities routinely sought by the modern tourist, is strongly felt due to long distances from the nearest Airports at Patna or Ranchi and further due to bad road conditions prevailing since a long time. As good accommodation facilities are also lacking in the vicinity of the site, the traveller is forced to look for accommodation either in the guest houses maintained by the NTPC Power plant or in different hotels of sub-standard quality at Kahalgaon, and some only slightly better at the district headquarters in Bhagalpur.

Wildlife at Patharghata, Image from July, 2018

If proper tourist amenities are developed around the site and efforts are made to improve rail, road and air connectivity, the site holds a lot of promise for both the domestic and international tourist. A lot of potential domestic tourist population is available in the nearby region which includes the industrialised Kahalgaon region along with the educational and medical hub at Bhagalpur. A Central University has also been proposed at Vikramshila which would also lead to significant increase in the population of the neighbourhood and in bringing affluent members from different sections of society to the vicinity. Apart from the existing educational centres, there exists a strong possibility of the development of monasteries for the education and residence of monks from several countries where Buddhism still prevails as the prominent religion like Japan, Sri Lanka, Korea, Thailand and others. This would lead to an automatic boost in tourism.

However, all such upcoming development would be worthwhile only when accompanied with tremendous improvement in general connectivity. At present, the road connectivity needs to be improved not only due to the promise of tourism, but, also due to problems faced by common public due to tremendous commercial traffic from nearby minefields of Jharkhand and West Bengal. The need of a new river bridge on the Ganga near Vikramshila, which would improve direct access from Nepal and Tibet and thereby augment travel on the ancient route connected with other sites on the Buddhist Heritage Circuit, is strongly felt. Good Air connectivity is perhaps the most required for promotion of tourism and good promise is held by the existence of a non-commercial airfield at Bhagalpur, which can be commercialized in the future, and another upcoming one at Deogarh in Jharkhand.


To sum up, meticulous excavation so far has revealed the largest monastic complex excavated so far in India, with a a cruciform stupa in its centre, a library building and cluster of votive stupas along with a number of scattered structures including a Tibetan and a Hindu temple, with the entire spread being over more than hundred acres. However, the parts excavated so far represent only a fraction of the erstwhile Mahavihar as only one out of about 9 major mounds have been excavated and much more remains to be excavated and documented. Excavations unfortunately have not been continued since. Most importantly, the original home and kingdom of Atisa, which is stated to have existed south of the Mahavihar, still remains undiscovered. Recent surveys in the district of Bhagalpur have pointed out to the existence of significant mounds in the vicinity at places like Sanokhar, Sanhaula, and Goradih apart from those at Sabaur (identified by Sankrityayan) and many others. These would need further exploration and possible excavation for confirmation to  clear the impending clouds in the confused minds of many scholars, some of whom, followed by the work of Alaka Chhattopadhyaya and others, have even suggested the possibility of existence of such site at a village near Somapura Mahavihar (Paharpur) in modern Bangladesh, probably due to the then non-discovery of the site of Vikramshila, which was also being confused with Somapura, by some. With the exact discovery of the site, the discovery of the site of Atisa’s birthplace should not be very difficult if proper efforts are made. The site can also be developed along with Vikramshila in the tourist circuit.

Over the years, I have found the site as being much better maintained than earlier, and with an ever transforming beautiful garden. The Photographs in this document, which have tried to capture the inherent spirit of Vikramshila, have been digitized in the course of my successive visits to the site since January, 2005 till the most recent on 31st January, 2019. After a significant change in the policy of the Museums being maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, in July, 2018, following a directive from the Honourable Prime Minister of India, the visitors can now also take photographs of the excavated exhibits on display. The excavated premises are secured by a strong boundary wall, which affords entrance only via a gateway. To understand the immense importance of Vikramshila in the past, one will have to transport one’s imagination to the past when in a world still without electricity or modern connectivity, the spiritual yearnings were nevertheless probably more than at present. Humanity of the time was willing to take great pains for spiritual learning and was prepared to undertake the most difficult of journeys in the most stifling and challenging of conditions. As one roams around and visualizes the present in the light of interesting reminiscences of the past travellers, one surely feels mesmerized. To conclude, if properly developed, there is a lot for the modern tourist to explore amidst the excavated remains and other sites in the villages around, which apart from their historical remains also offer points for viewing the scenic panorama and for experiencing the sheer pleasure of boating around in the wide span of the Gangetic Dolphin river sanctuary.

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