Viratnagar Stupa

The historic Buddhist complex at Viratnagar is a testament to the region’s ancient past

By Live History India

Live History India

Path leading to the Stupa, Viratnagar by Team LHILive History India

Around 66 km north of Jaipur, at Viratnagar in Rajasthan, are the remains of an ancient Indian Buddhist monastery complex. What makes these ruins so significant is that they are the earliest known remains of a freestanding Buddhist chaityagriha or prayer hall found in India. Located high above a rocky hill known as Bijak-ki-Pahadi, these ruins are quite striking.

Unique rock formations in the Aravallis, Viratnagar by Team LHILive History India

The town of Viratnagar finds mention in ancient Hindu texts as the capital of the Matsya kingdom. As the name denotes, the town is said to have been founded by King Kirata, in whose kingdom the five Pandavas spent 12 years of their exile in disguise. There are a number of places nearby named after their association with the Pandavas, such as ‘Bhim ki Dungari’ or ‘Bhima’s Hill’, and a site known as ‘Ban Ganga’, which was brought to existence by Arjuna with his arrow. 

Circular remains of the Stupa, Viratnagar by Team LHILive History India

Archeological excavations reveal that Viratnagar was once a thriving town between the 3rd century BCE and 1st century CE. Around 36 coins, a number of them belonging to Indo-Greek kings, have been found here. An equally significant discovery was that of an edict of Mauryan emperor Ashoka, which has since been moved to a local museum of the Archeological Survey of India. In this edict, Ashoka emphasised that he believed in the three gems of Buddhism – Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Beejak ki Pahadi, Viratnagar by Team LHILive History India

On top of the Bijak-ki-Pahadi are the remains of a Buddhist stupa and a monastery spread across two large platforms connected by stairs. On the upper platform was the monastery, where remains of cells for monks can be seen. On the lower platform was a circular Buddhist Chaityagirha or prayer hall with a stupa in its centre, believed to be the oldest of its kind found in India. 

The rocky landscape of the Bijak ki Pahadi

The upper tier of the complex

The lower tier of the monastery

Viratnagar Stupa, Viratnagar by Team LHILive History India

Interestingly, it is not known why the site was abandoned. There are no antiquities found here, that date after 1st century CE, which perhaps gives us some indication of when it was abandoned. It was only in late 15th century that the Viratnagar area was settled again.  It was British archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham who excavated the site and brought it to national attention in 1864-65. Today, this magnificent site receives few visitors and is largely forgotten.

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