New Discovery in Bihar: A university under a mound

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Post No 864 Date: 24 February 2014

( India had many ancient universities such as Taxila (Thatchasheelam), Kancheepuram, Vikramasila and Nalanda. Now one more university is discovered in Bihar)

From The Indian Express 23 February 2014 & another magazine.

It was a useful mound, no doubt. A good vantage point where villagers occasionally relieved themselves. But who would have thought that deep beneath its golden brown earth would be stories of dynasties and empires that now suggest that this — Telhara, a village 33 km from the ruins of the more famous Nalanda University — could be ‘Tilas-akiya’ or ‘Tiladhak’, the place Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited and wrote about during his travels through India in 7th century AD?

The Telhara project that started on December 26, 2009, has so far come across over 1,000 priceless finds from 30-odd trenches — seals and sealing, red sandstone, black stone or blue basalt statues of Buddha and several Hindu deities, miniature bronze and terracotta stupas and statues and figurines that go back to the Gupta (320-550 AD) and Pala (750-1174 AD) empires. But the 2.6-acre mound has now thrown up the most tantalising find yet — evidence of a three-storeyed structure, prayer hall and a platform to seat over 1,000 monks or students of Mahayana Buddhism.

In his book, The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, historian D R Patil writes about Hiuen Tsang’s description of Telhara. “Hiuen Tsang describes Telhara or Tilas-akiya as containing a number of monasteries or viharas, about seven in number, accommodating about 1,000 monks studying in Mahayan. These buildings, he says, had courtyards, three-storeyed pavilions, towers, gates and were crowned by cupolas with hanging bells. The doors and windows, pillars and beams have bas relieves (sculptures in guilded copper). In the middle vihara is a statue of Tara Bodhisatva and to the right (is) one of Avlokiteshwar”.

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(From top) A red sandstone sculpture and a monastery seal found from Telhara excavation site

It is said the mahavihara or university was built by one of the descendents of Magadha ruler Bimbisara. The monastery was decorated with copper and also had small copper bells that gently chimed in the breeze.

Atul Kumar Verma, director (archaeology) of the Bihar government’s Department of Art and Culture, says, “Since the excavations suggest that Telhara might have been a contemporary of Nalanda, it is quite possible that it was either an independent university for specialised education or that students graduating from Nalanda University would come here for specialised study.

In more recent times, it was A M Broadley, then magistrate of Nalanda, who in 1872 wrote about “Tilas-akiya” as a university and site of learning. British army officer and archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham, who visited the place between 1872 and 1878, wrote about inscriptions describing “Teliyadhak” as a place that had seven monasteries and which matched Hiuen Tsang’s account.

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A statue of the 12-armed Avlokiteshwar Buddha found from a Tiladhak site is at the Indian Museum in Kolkata. Perhaps the best known Pala sculpture from Telhara is now in Rietberg Muzeum, Zurich.

Following matter is added from another newspaper.

“We have found the same monastery seal, which was found during the excavation carried out at the Nalanda University site. While we had discovered only two-three monastery seal then, we have found seven-eight similar seals this time. The monastery seals are made of terracotta and are in round shape. There is a wheel sign, flanked by two deer, on the seal also. The monastery seals, which we have found at Telhara, date back to thousand years and it is totally similar to the seals, which were found at the ruins of Nalanda University,” he added.

Burnt down by Muslim Army

The directorate has also got evidence that the varsity was equally popular in the Gupta period. “We have found sculptures made of red sandstone, which proves that the university was quite popular in the Gupta period. We have found pottery of different shapes and seals from the site of the Gupta period. There is a complete influence of the Gupta period in the strokes of writing, which we have found on the earthen pots. Another important finding is the 1ft layer of ash — something similar found from the Nalanda University site. It is believed that Nalanda University was set on fire by Turkish Muslim army under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193. We have got evidence that Telhara University was also burnt by Khilji on his way,” Verma said.

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MAJOR FINDINGS

SEALS AND SEALING
The recovery of over 100 terracotta seals and sealings from the Gupta and Pala periods provides strong evidence of this being a Buddhist university. Besides seals of the chakra flanked by two deers, other seals have inscription of Buddhist mantras. Seals of Gaj-Lakshmi and flying birds were also found. Some inscriptions that have not yet been deciphered would be sent to Mysore for deciphering.

PLATFORM, TEMPLES
Just above the ashen layer — said to be proof of Turkish general Bakhtiyar Khilji having destroyed the monastery — is the sanctum sanctorum of three Buddhist shrines, each measuring 3.15 square metres. A big platform, found just below this ashen layer, is said to have accommodated over 1,000 monks.

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CELLS FOR TEACHERS
The excavation has so far revealed 11 cells of 4 square metres each. It is believed that these were faculty quarters. There is evidence of bricks from the Gupta and Pala periods.

COPPER BELL CHIMES
The excavation revealed several broken pieces of small bells. Parts of molten copper also suggest that the monastery was well-decorated.

CAUTION INSCRIPTION
A stone inscription in Sanskrit (early Nagari script), probably written just before the destruction of the Tiladhak mahavihara, says, “He who tries to destroy this monastery is either a donkey or a bull”. Below the stone inscription are images of the two animals.

FASTING BUDDHA AND VOTIVE STUPA
A miniature terracotta image of a fasting Buddha from the Pala period is a rare find. A six-foot-tall votive stupa from the Pala period suggests the prevalence of Buddhism.

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MAURYAN PERIOD
Bone tools and pottery shards of Northern Black Polished Ware points to this being a settlement in the Mauryan period.

STONE SCULPTURES

Among the over 15 stone sculptures found at the site are a red sandstone sculpture of Bodhisatva, Avlokiteshwar, Manjusri and the Buddha in his ‘earth witness’ mudra. A black stone statue of Buddha in abhay mudra (fearless mode) from the Pala period has been found. The red sandstone Bodhisatva sculpture is believed to be from the Gupta period. Some sculptures of Hindu deities such as Uma Maheshwar and Ganesh and Vishnu from the later Pala period were also found. The presence of a Yamantaka sculpture is evidence of Tantric Buddhism at the monastery.

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Contact swami_48@yahoo.com

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