Unearthing Wisdom: The Discovery of a 2,300-Year-Old Buddhist Elephant Statue

Nestled in the lush and fertile valley of Daya River in Odisha, east India, an ancient sentinel, a stone guardian, stands once again under the open skies after being buried in the womb of the Earth for 2,300 years. This sentinel is an impressive elephant, carved from a single piece of rock, that once served as a steadfast witness to the thriving Buddhist community that populated the region during the reign of Emperor Ashoka.

Last month, a team of intrepid archaeologists from The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) unearthed this majestic stone elephant that stands approximately 1 meter (3 feet) tall. It’s a remarkable relic from the past, providing tantalizing hints to the grandeur of the bygone eras. Not just a testament to the artistic brilliance of the ancient sculptors, this elephant statue reveals the deep-rooted significance of the elephant in Buddhist teachings.

“In the quiet solitude of the forests, the spiritual giant finds solace, as does the mighty elephant,” the Buddha once said, as quoted in the Udana or “heartfelt sayings”. This statement encapsulates the profound connection between the elephant and the Buddha’s teachings, both rejoicing in solitude and seeking refuge from the bustle of crowds. In this context, the rediscovered statue from the verdant river valley takes on a deeper, almost mystical significance.

The statue mirrors other Buddhist elephant statues found across the region, its closest sibling residing in Dhauli, a mere 19 kilometers (12 miles) upstream from the recent discovery. Both these monolithic elephants, their features finely etched from the same rocky womb, echo the age-old story of the blind men and the elephant, another Buddha’s teaching underscoring the limited human perception and the ensuing quest for a holistic understanding.

“Odisha, particularly the regions surrounding Gada Balabhadrapur, is an archaeological goldmine,” remarked Anil Dhir, one of the lead researchers on the excavation project. These locations have been yielding priceless Buddhist antiquities over the past few years, and Dhir believes this recent discovery of the elephant statue will lead to more treasures from the ancient Buddhist era.

INTACH’s team, headed by Dhir and his colleague Deepak Nayak, plans to conduct a systematic excavation of the area, hoping to reveal further glimpses into the ancient culture and religion that once pervaded this river valley. It’s an ambitious endeavor, a step back into the corridors of time when the teachings of the Buddha flourished under the aegis of Emperor Ashoka, radiating from the heart of India across modern-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

As INTACH continues its mission, more hidden treasures might emerge, casting a fresh light on the rich tapestry of Indian history and the pivotal role Buddhism played in shaping the philosophical and cultural landscape of the Indian subcontinent. Each find is a jigsaw piece, contributing to the grand puzzle of our collective past.

Today, despite Buddhists being a small minority in India, the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, his pursuit of peace, and the wisdom of his parables resonate profoundly. As we uncover these ancient treasures, we also rediscover timeless lessons that can guide us through our modern trials and tribulations. As the Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”

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