BUDDHIST REMAINS AT SURYAPAHAR

Buddhism in Assam is still shrouded in mystery. There is no mention of expansion of Buddhism in the region even in the life history of Lord Buddha. Only a faint reference is available on Buddha’s sojourn to Pundavardhana from Jetavana (Sravasti). During the days of great Mauryan king Ashoka too no reference is available in any text about expansion of Buddhism in the Brahmaputra valley except the solitary example of inclusion of North Bengal i.e. Pundernagra as part of mauryan dominion and existence of a provincial governor there. Had not the Mohasthan Brahmi inscription been discovered, this significant fact of history would have been in obscurity. Thanks to the untiring efforts of the Archaeologist to contribute an unquestionable fact that Maruyan dominion extend up to North Bengal in the 3rd C.B.C.

It is once again a strange phenomenon in history of Buddhism in Brahmaputra valley that though Hiuentsang visited Kamrupa on the invitation of Kumar Bhaskar (The mighty ruler of Kamrupa), the Chinese traveler did not mention anything about prevalence of Buddhism in ancient Kamrupa.

But Archaeological research has amply testified the fact that at least lower Brahmaputra-valley comprising Goal Para district of Assam was influenced by Buddhism in the 1st century B.C. on the left Bank of Brahmaputra near Pancharatna and Suryapahar proved beyond doubt that Hinayana Buddhism flourished from North Bengal to Brahmaputra valley through river route and growth of Buddhist settlements there. May it be that Suryapahar could have been an important trade center resulting in such a growth of settlement of the Buddhists in the pre or early Christian era According to Prof S.K Saraswati the very architectural features of rock cut stupas speaks of its antiquity that they were hewened in 1st C.B.C. and are the workmanship of the Hinyana sects of Buddhism.

In early mediaeval period Buddhism once again flourished in the Brahmaputra-valley at least in the 9th-10th C.A.D. The discovery of an ancient kiln in village Bara-Bhita with large number of Architectural parts of terracotta votive stupas, image of Buddha, a Buddhist symbol speaks that Buddhism was in existence and there were great demand of terracotta stupas by the Buddhist. One similar terracotta fragment discovered in Suryapahar also picked by Dr. Dey of Calcutta and presented to state Museum speaks of the truth.

The discovery of a stupa with terracotta. Figures of Buddha in BhitBari now in Meghalaya by Sri A.K. Sharma of A.S.I. Nagpur in 1993-1994 further elucidate that Mahayan Buddhism flourished in lower Brahmaputra valley during the Palas of Assam, who were contemporary to the Palas of Bengal.

The lower Brahmaputra valley comprising western part of Garo hill (Bhitebari) in Meghalaya, Pancharatna, Barabhita and Suryapahar within Goalpara District of Assam possesses Buddhist remains. It is already mentioned above that Mauryan empire extended up to North Bengal in 3rd century B.C. during the time of Ashoka the great, it is quite logical to believe that Buddhist trade guilds might have entered into Assam in connection with trade and commerce and thus flourished in the region, as all the above noted trade centers or important principalities in ancient days and therefore in the 1st century B.C. or early part of Christian Era followers of Hinayan Buddhism concentrated in and around the vicinity and are responsible in hewing out monolithic stupas on the granite boulders lying in the region.

The Monolithic Rock cut stupa found at Suryapahar are enumerable and of different shapes and sizes and on stylistic ground goes back to 1st C.B.C. and continued thereafter. They are traditional stupas having prominent Architectural characteristic i.e. Vedi, Medhi, Anda and Harmika and over harmika a groove or socket is made to haft or affix Chattravali being carved out from a separate piece which are presently lost due to ware and tear of the ages.

The technique followed in carving of these Mono9lithic stupas are superb and speaks of the talents, competence and skill adopted by the artist and sculptors of those hey-days, taking meticulous care by chiseling the hard granite blocks. It is needless to say that working on granite was experienced by the Mauryan Artist in 3rd century B.C. as reported from Lomash Rishi or Barabar group of caves in Gaya district of Bihar and inscribing Dhamma lipi on the surface of rocks that are reported from different parts of India. Even the lustrious polish was made within the cave. Polish is also noticed on Didar Ganj Yakshi (Chamra Bahini of Patna Museum). The practice of hewing granite and other hard rock like Deccan trap in Maharashtra, Mahabali Puram in Tamilnadu continued in successive ages and become wide spread throughout the subcontinent. The artist of Assam too did not lag behind as granite Boulders are found in plenty in Brahmaputra valley and to meet out the needs of the followers of Buddhism they too look up hammer and chisel and behind their work manship and there by become immortal in the history. Unfortunately not a single reference is found till date about any dynasty or name of king or person believed to have been patronizing Buddhism in Assam.

Suryapahar is situated about 140 km. North East of Guwahati connected by N.H. 37 up to Dudhnoi (A small town) and from there one is to take right turn following Dudhnoi-Goalpara road and exactly at a distance of 21k.m. lies Suryapahar range of hills. From Goalpara it is 14k.m. on Goalpara-Dudhnoi road near Sainik School. Suryapahar exists on the eastern side slop of the hills having a picturesque Lush-green background.

On the extreme northeast corner of the hill on a higher level a huge fallen granite boulder was selected for carving three bigger stupas. All the three stupas (Monolith) are carved in one row in north south orientation faces east. The central stupa is comparatively bigger in size and shape compared to its corresponding two, existing on either side. Height 1.60mt. The left side one is 1.20mt. And right side one is 1.50mt. Space at the front and backsides also. The Architectural features are alike having vedi, (base) Medhi (central cylindrical part) Anda (Hemispherical top part), Harmika (Top Part) with a central groove for hafting Chattra or Parasole, which are completely lost now.

The combination of three stupas in one row could be explained either they are representing Dhamma, samgha and Buddha or they could be of Uddeshika stupa carved in the sacred memory of Lord Buddha (Central one) Sariputta (Northern side one) and Moha-Moggalana (southern side), the great personalities of Buddhism. It would not be out of place to mention here that from Sanchi also three relic caskets were discovered from three separate stupas with label in Ashokan Brahmi i.e. Buddhasa, Sariputasa and Moggolanasa respectively.

Just at the back side of the above stupas on two more fallen boulders, six smaller stupas are carved but presently in mutilated condition, In Nov. 1998 on more stupa came to light lying embedded within soil, about 15mt below the trio complex. On the same hill slop many more may still in and around the vicinity now under thick vegetation.

Just about 100mt. further south, where a spring is coming down wards, on the right bank of the spring on the same hill slope as many as eight more stupas large like that of the first group having a height of 1.50mt.

The slope is formed in a horseshoe shape and just close to the course of the spring towards further west on the higher region another big stupa was also carved which has now got little tilted due to water action of the spring. The other features are same as described above i.e. vedi (designed out of three circular rings), Medhi, Anda, Harmika.

The third stupa complex is existing two furlong further south(i.e. spring No.2) one power full spring is flowing through huge deposit of boulders, which have got piled up, partly due to century’s of water action and partly because of earthquakes. On the upper region on top of other boulders six more medium size stupas are carved, architecture of few of them are slightly differ from the earlier group and on stylistic ground could be date to 1st-2nd Century A.D. or even later as the Anda or dome is bit tapered upwards i.e. just below harmika and is not true hemispherical. On a higher altitude one more medium size elliptical stupa is also found existing within boulders deposits reminds us its origin in 1st B.C. or little later. It is important to note that in eastern India elliptical stupas are rare and those are reported datable to Sunga-Kushana period. Recently on further higher portion one more medium size stupa (1.40mt high) is found, part of which are engulfed by a banyan tree root.

Just about 1/2k.m. further south on way to the jain caves the fourth stupa complex is existing. In this complex a giant stupa is carved which is the largest monolithic rock cut stupa reported from Suryapahar or from N.E. Architecturally it remains all the characteristic features of early stupa with little exception, i.e. on the bottom part of vedi or base a double petalled Lotus is carved making it more gorgeous. The vedika or base consists of three broad projecting circular rings in receding order, over which the medhi or central cylindrical part of stupa is resting. Above medhi one more circular band is carved over which the Anda or hemispherical top part of the stupa is resting and as usual on its central part of harmika a huge socket exists which indicates the huge size of the chattra. The stupa might have been rolled downward from a higher region, which has resulted in chipping of its back portion from the main body of the stupa and thus deserve mending work. Height is 3.50mt.

On way to Jain cave one more spring is rolling downwards (spring No.3) where six nos. of couping stones are found lying, possibly belongs to some railing pillar, besides, during earth cutting works one dressed granite slab was also discovered having a stylistic chaitya window motif, which indicates they are detached pieces of an unknown Buddhist architecture. Further exploration and Excavation may provide more vestiges of the Buddhists remains of by gone days still lying underneath the earth deposits.

In 1998 Dr. B. Dey of Calcutta University found a terracotta object in Suryapahar having images of Buddha in earth touching pose in successive two rows having 4 on each row the terracotta piece might be dated to 10th C.A.D.

The discovery of an ancient potter’s kiln in 1999 in the village BaraBhita 5k.m. further west from Pancha Ratna or 2k.m. from Paglatek (Yielded gold coins) speaks that Mahayana Buddhism was prevalent in the lower Brahmaputra valley in 9-10th C.A.D. as within the kiln series of semi circular rings like terracotta pieces was discovered holding figures of Buddha in rows and at the bottom Buddhist creed deciphered as Ye-Dhamma hetu prabhava etc. The most noteworthy discovery from the said kiln is the image of Buddha in Dharma-Chakra Mudra. Seated on Bhadrasan pose is fine-workman ship on clay by the potter’s community in the 9th-10th C.A.D.

The discovery of the kiln has provided many new information’s such as, potters used to prepare them first on soft clay, got them sun dried and later burnt them inside kiln to make them strong enough for transport, handling before they reached to the appropriate customer or monastery where they were to be fitted, to form a full miniature stupa, an object of veneration vis-à-vis technique of firing, came to light in situ.

One such semicircular panel depicting a very stylistic chaitya window motif in one side speaks of the mastery on decorative design of the Buddhist. The owner of the land retains the said piece.

Various development works around the remains at Suryapahar was taken up laying road, construction of culvert, and stairs, R.C.C. shed constructed to save sculpture of Vishnu-Siva. Besides construction of a site Museum in Suryapahar to house hundreds of art object recently unearthed there is completed. Even 4 piece of terracotta rings was picked up from Bara-Bhita by Dr. Chauley, has been donated to the circle for their display in the Museum at Suryapahar which will add further grandeur to the Museum in general and to the scholars and researchers on Buddhism and Buddhist studies in particular. I am thankful to Dr. G.C. Chauley former S.A. Guwahati circle, who has opened a new vista in the region by under taking excavation in Suryapahar and partly at Village Bara Bhita, which has enriched our knowledge on Buddhism in lower Brahmaputra valley and especially on the lost glories of Suryapahar.

     
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