The clacketing of shuttles interspersed with muted chants of Buddham saranam gacchami, Dhammam saranam gacchami, Sangham saranam gacchami made for a novel welcome. We were in the cordial village of Maniabandha, where the Tathagatha’s teachings infuse native life in a harmonious marriage of art and spirituality. Situated 100 kms from the capital city of Odisha, Bhubhaneswar, the hamlet is famous for its rich weaving and Buddhist culture. It might be the only place in India with near total traditional adherents of Buddhism.
Puri Jagannath and Maniabandha
The ‘ikat’ style of weaving practised here since ancient times is renowned world over. Almost the entire population of 5,000 souls is both Buddhist and weavers too, with nearly 3,000 looms plying the craft. The 7th-century Chinese scholar-traveller Hsüan-tsang has written on the precious saree gift-wrapped in bamboo and presented him by the weaving community of that age. It is believed that the cloth had by then reached the ports of Odisha. The fame of the village spread war and wide after the immortal poet Jayadeva presented the ‘Geethasuuthram’ woven here in the 12th–century to the Jagannath Puri temple. It is after this that the village and its craft won universal recognition.
The Buddha and Odisha
History is ignorant of the Buddha having set foot in the land of Odisha. But his compassionate imprint is indelibly intertwined with the legacy of this soil. Historians and scholars have traced the existence of many aesthetic Buddhist monuments across the state.
The Buddha’s teaching never flourished here because of its conflict with the prevalent Shaivite form of ‘Pashupatism.’ In time, in the struggle for religious dominance, Buddhism lost out and was consigned to the margins. There is supposed to be a lingering presence of 1,20,000 followers of the faith in Odisha, confined to seventeen settlements, predominantly with weaving as a way of life.
The inhabitants here trace their descent to the Buddhist following, who migrated from West Bengal 5,000 years ago. Advocate Ajith Chowdhury, secretary of the Buddhist sangha, believes in this historical narrative. Their forefathers are supposed to have come from Nandipur or Nandigram in the Purba Bardhman disrict of the adjacent state. Known as Śrāvaka or Śhrābaka, they follow the Hinayana school of philosophy. In the light of their songs, which refer to Nandigram and migration to their present destination, this contention holds water. Moreover, most have typical Bengali surnames like Chowdhury, Das, Dutta and Majumdar.
A few followers of both these ancient religions are found in the Bardhaman district of West Bengal, including a place called Ashasthoopa. Till the previous generation there was a custom, whereby new-borns would be taken for naming ceremony to Nabadwip, a city in Nadia district, also in Bengal.
The first wave of migration is supposed to have occurred in the 7th century AD. Under the reign of the 12th century Hindu king Ballal Sen, persecution of Buddhists hit a peak spurring migrant outflow. The last exodus from Bengal resulted from Muslim atrocities on Buddhists. It happened when Prataparudra Devacharakan ruled Odisha in the 15th century.
The pure vegetarian dwellers of Maniabandha extend their non-violent philosophy to their craft also. Instead of boiling silkworms as is the norm elsewhere, they extract ‘Eri’ thread from the cocoon shed by the worms. When the state-award winner, Manoranjan Thor, showed me the sublime Buddha 'sooktha' he had woven, his eyes lit up with incandescent pride.
The exterior of Buddhist places of worship, numbering eleven, resemble the Puri Jagannath temple. But inside, sculptures of the Buddha have a pride of place. Hindu temples are abound here. Almost all households have colourful paintings of the Buddha even on their exteriors. Certain others have figures like Jagannath and Lakshmi from the Hindu pantheon along with those of the Shakyamuni. A class known as ‘Acharyas,’ engages in agriculture.
It is testimony to their unswerving commitment to non-violence that in the battle for survival, Maniabandhis chose to incorporate the beliefs of their very persecutors. Even while following the path of Dhamma they continue to offer worship at the altar of Jagannath. This accommodation of the majoritarian creed in their belief system to ensure existence bears witness to the intolerance that resides in the heart of Hinduism, as in most other world religions.
The ‘Buddha Poornima’ that falls in the April-May season witnesses the greatest celebration in the life of the tribe. The faithful from Sri Lanka, South Korea and various other countries congregate in the village. The statue of the Buddha carried on an elephant caparisoned in white, along with the forms of the ‘Santhi stupa’ and ‘Ashoka stupa’ adds to the sublime grandeur of the occasion. The meaning of birth, enlightenment and ‘mahaparinirvana’ are elucidated during the ‘Poornima.’
The exquisite sarees, salwars and other material produced here are elegant creations clad in beauty. It is through nearly thirty-seven co-operative societies, mostly profitable, that these artifacts are sold. One such society is named after the Dalai Lama, after he visited that institution. Its members still recall with gratitude the financial help from the venerable one to construct a building. The Odisha-government run ‘Boyanika’ chain markets the produce.
When taking reluctant leave of the villagers with a promise to return, I uttered a silent prayer of gratitude to the wisdom of the then Odisha department of the then Tourism principal secretary, Arti Ahuja, and Director of Tourism, Nitin Jawale, for guiding me to this corner of land to study the community tourism potential of the blessed place, which turned out to be a spiritually rewarding experience.
(The writer is the chief functionary of Kozhikode-based ‘Kabani,’ and proponent of responsible tourism. He can be reached at sumesh@