Buddhist Weavers of Maniabandha – A Confluence of Ideas

One of India’s greatest gifts to the world of ideas is Buddhism, a religion that was propounded by Gautama Buddha in the middle of 1st millennium BCE, on the principles of compassion and detachment. Odisha, lying on the east coast of India had been a major centre of Buddhism right from the time of Buddha. Though the Blessed One had never visited the region but according to an ancient chronicle, Tapassu and Bhallika, two merchant brothers from Ukkala while touring the Madhya Desa, had become the first lay devotees of the Buddha by offering him his first meal after Enlightenment.

In the 3rd Century BCE, Odisha bore the brunt of a terrible war between the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and the army of Kalinga wherein the entire town had turned into a battlefield. Upon witnessing the loss of thousands of human lives, Ashoka, the cruel king from the neighbouring state of Magadh transformed into a man of compassion and turned a new leaf. Thus began a new chapter of Buddhism. Odisha became an established centre of Hinayana Buddhism. Langudi, Dhauli and Lalitgiri are among the few excavated Buddhist sites that establish the Mauryan link.

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The Rock-Cut Elephant at Dhauli – One of the earliest specimens of Indian art of the Mauryan Era representing Lord Buddha in a symbolic form

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Rock-cut Stupas at Langudi Hill of the Hinayana Phase

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The Apsidal Chaitya surrounded by Votive Stupas – Such structures are present in almost all of the early Buddhist sites of India

During 6th century CE, Odisha witnessed the emergence and proliferation of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism with Ratnagiri and Udayagiri as the main seats. Scores of Siddhas, such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandha, Dingnag, Buddhaghosa and Dharmakirti introduced various elements of Tantric system, promising quicker ways of attaining Enlightenment. In this process, a new element ‘Shakti’ the feminine, considered as one of the primary sources of divine energy was introduced.

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Ratnagiri Mahavihra Gate – The Cradle of Mahayana Buddhist Sites in Odisha

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A Closer View of the Ratnagiri Mahavihra Gate

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The Vajrayana Stupa at Udayagiri

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One of the Dhyani Buddhas at the Vajrayana Stupa at Udayagiri

Around the same time, the cult of Pashupata Shaivism was gaining a stronghold, as a major religious movement in Odisha.

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Depiction of Lakulisa, the founder of Pashupata Shaivism in Parasurameshwara Temple, Bhubaneswar – It resembles the iconography of Buddha

Both the cults competed to establish ideological supremacy over each other thereby resulting in continuous conflicts. At times these conflicts would turn violent and finally the Buddhists were defeated. The region witnessed a mass exodus of Buddhists to Southeast Asia, especially Burma and Cambodia. Those who did not join their seafaring brethren took refuge in the forested tracts of Maniabandha on the banks of Mahanadi at a distance of about 100 km from Bhubaneshwar. Here they practiced their faith in isolation for hundreds of years till the memory of the conflicts had receded from public memory.

These Buddhists were weavers of the highest order. According to a legend, in the 7th Century CE, the Chinese scholar monk Huen T’Sang was offered a saree at Maniabandha, the village that linked the ports of Odisha to its hinterland. The saree was packed in a hollow bamboo pipe. Huen T’Sang was visibly impressed with the wizadry of weaving and spread the word around.

But the Buddhist weavers of Maniabandha flourished after they received patronage from the Lord Jagannath Temple at Puri. According to Madala Panji, the temple chronicle, during the 12th century CE, Jaydev had offered to Lord Jagannath an Ikat called Pata Khandua made by Maniabandha weavers, with the verses of Gita Govinda etched on it. Since then, the weavers are deeply associated with the Jagannath cult.

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Jagannath Templeat Puri

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A Buddhist Couple of Maniabandh

The Maniabandha weavers are possibly the only traditional Buddhists left in India. They are vegetarians and believers of non-violence that can be seen even in their weaving. The silk yarns they use are of ‘Eri’ category which are sourced from the cocoons that were abandoned by the silkworms. Therefore, Pata Khandua, is the best example of Samyak Ajiba – Right Profession – as preached by the Buddha. The word ‘Khandua’ in Odiya translates to the cloth worn on the lower part of the body. It is traditionally red or orange in colour. Design motifs include elephants surrounded by trailing vines with peacocks in it, petalled flowers and Nabagunjara, a mythical cult associated with Lord Jagannath.

Today Maniabandha is not only an important destination for textile lovers, but also for those having deep interest in understanding and appreciating the syncretic culture practiced in the region. The weavers are no doubt Buddhists but they are also followers of Lord Jagannath and this is visible not only in the motifs on Khandua but also in the way they live and worship.

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The Buddha Temple in the middle of the village

The main temple of the village appears from outside as a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu or Jagannath but if you get into its garbhagriha you will be surprised to see the idols of Lord Buddha. Maniabandha is a wonderful example of religious harmony between Hindus and Buddhists who take part in each other’s festivals and religious gatherings. The yarns that bind them are pure and divine just like the Pata Khandua.

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Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be reached at jitumisra@gmail.com

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