Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ancient Nālandā University: Now a World Heritage Site

Excavated remains of the ancient Nālandā Mahāvihāra (University) has joined the elite group of World Heritage Sites (WHS) that currently includes over 1000 natural and cultural treasures in over 150 countries in the world. Nālandā University was discovered in the year 1862 on the basis of travel accounts of 7th CE Chinese monk scholar, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang). More than 150 years after its discovery, WHS is not only well deserved but was also long overdue. 

The excavated remains of the ancient Nālandā University  are a protected site under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).  International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Non-Government agency that offers advice to UNESCO on WHS has pointed out several weaknesses in the submitted nomination dossier (by ASI) and it even suggested deferring the nomination.   The report claims 

Nalanda Mahavihara might have the potential to meet requirement for Outstanding Universal Value; however this has not yet been demonstrated (WHC/16/40.COM/INF.8B1, page 91).

The inscribed property by the ASI is limited to the Excavated Remains of the ancient Nālandā University, which is a small fraction of the archaeological remains of the ancient Nālandā University. ICOMOS in its report has suggested India (ASI) to take necessary actions pertaining to the integrity of the property, including the identification of the area and extent of Nālandā Mahāvihāra before its destruction and final abandonment, which should inform the boundaries of the whole property (WHC/16/40.COM/INF.8B1,page 91).

ICOMOS had recommended that the state party ‘deepen its study of the site’ and explicitly establish its importance and authenticity. It had also recommended the nomination to be changed to ‘Archaeological Site of Nālandā Mahāvihāra’ instead of the ‘Excavated Remains of Nālandā Mahāvihāra.’

However, in spite of observations made by ICOMOS, last minute negotiations and lobbying with the UNESCO Member countries, India could secure WHS for the Nālandā University. All the 21 Member countries of UNESCO voted in favour of Nālandā University in the 40th session of UNESCO WHS Committee held on 15th July, 2016. 

Now that WHS status has been achieved, the status may be used as a catalyst for developing sustainable livelihood and other heritage sites and as a gateway for channeling visitors to other heritage sites and activities in the region.

Remains of ancient Nālandā University are spread over a large area. Only a small fraction (roughly 10%) of ancient Nālandā University has been excavated and many villages are settled over the rest of the ancient Nālandā UniversityThe community has been living with this heritage for centuries. It is imperative to sensitize the community towards the heritage and facilitate sustainable livelihood initiatives. The challenge lies in creating an interpretation integrating the community living in the villages that are settled over the unexcavated remains. 

Nālandā is also a confluence of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism and there are many ancient sites related with them in the vicinity of Nālandā University. Interpretation, signage, access etc should not be just limited to the inscribed property but should also include smaller places that are part of the story of Nālandā.

Schematic map showing Excavated remains and Unexcavated remains of ancient Nālandā University 

Aerial view of ancient Nālandā University 
Villages settled over the ancient Nālandā University 
There are two prominent ancient remains in the proximity of the inscribed property that bear resemblance with Xuanzang’s description and were integral part of the University. Parnāmi Tilāha on the south side of the excavated remains should be the remains of the Buddha’s hair and nail relic stūpa as mentioned by Xuanzang. With efforts of Dr. R. Panth, former Director, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University, NNM), the State Archaeology Department has brought this very sacred place now under protection. Similarly, another prominent mound Devi Maa ka Tilāha that may be the remains of a temple of Tārā mentioned by Xuanzang should also be brought under protection.

Devi Maa ka Tilāha in village Bargaon
Aerial view of Parnāmi Tilāha

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2nd Dhamma Walk (Jeṭhian-Rājgir Buddha trail) & Saṅghadāna

2nd Dhamma Walk along the Jeṭhian-Rājgir Buddha trail organized by Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM) on 13th December saw a huge turnout of the people from the villages of the Jeṭhian Valley. More than 1500 monks and nuns from 10 different countries under the International Tipitaka Chanting Council (ITCC) led the Walk. The 15km walk along the footsteps of the Buddha concluded at Veḷuvana, Rajgir. 

Highlight of the Dhamma Walk was the Saṅghadāna by the community of Jeṭhian. More than 60 monks from Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Lao etc walked in the streets of the village Jeṭhian to collect food as Buddha and Saṅgha did in the streets of the villages of the Valley some 2500 years ago. 

Buddhist literature has many references of patronage of King Bimbisāra to the Triple Gem. Bimbisāra offered Veḷuvana, the first monastery to the Buddha on his maiden visit to Rājāgṛiha after his enlightenment. Light of the Buddha Dhamma Foundation International (LBDFI) offered a statue of King Bimbisāra at Veḷuvana. 

Community of Jeṭhian offering Saṅghadāna

The assembly of Dhamma Walk participants 


Village elders ready to welcome delegates

Children from Jawahar Navodaya School, Jethian

The 15km Dhamma Walk
Dr Panth (Director, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara) with Ms. Wangmo Dixey, Executive Director, LBDFI



Statue of Bimbisara being offered at Bamboo Grove

Times of India, Patna
Telegraph, Patna 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

‘Live-Museum’ of Magadha

What would you call a geographic area where every second village, roughly 600 villages have ancient Buddhist remains?

I call it a Live-museum!

I am talking about the Magadha. Magadha is mentioned in ancient literature (Purāṇa) to have been the first powerful kingdom of ancient India. Legendary Jarāsaṇḍha of epic Mahābhārata fame was the first king who ruled from Rājagṛiha (now Rājgir), the capital of Magadha.   
In the 6th BCE, Siddhārtha, the prince of Kapilavasthu, set out in search for the truth about the phenomenon of life. On this journey, he travelled through Vaiśālī and reached Magadha. After wandering and meditating for six years in Magadha, at the age of 35, Siddhārtha attained Saṃbodhi (Complete Enlightenment) at Uruvelā (Bodhgayā) and became the Buddha.  

Magadha becomes a network of Buddhist monasteries. 
Since the time of Buddha, Magadha had developed a special bonding with Buddha, the Dhamma and the SaṅghaA culture of patronage that was established by King Bimbisāra (6th CE) was further cemented by the King Ashoka (3rd BCE). The land of the Buddha, after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha became Land of Vihāra. The word ‘Vihāra’ refers to a Buddhist monastery, a place to gain knowledge by purifying the mind. In general, it also signifies a place for quietude of mind and a resting space for Buddhist monks. Magadha in the first millennia CE was a conglomerate of monasteries from different traditions that offered true teachings of the Buddha. This Vihāra became a refuge for the seekers of the true teachings of the Buddha and for monks and scholars all over the Buddhist world. Xuanzang, who visited Magadha in 636 CE, referenced Magadha in his travelogue as being a conglomerate of more than 50 vihāra-s spread throughout the geographic unit (Watters 2004). I-tsing, who stayed at Nālandā University for ten years (675CE - 685CE) mentioned in his travelogue that Magadha was the only place where the doctrines of all Buddhist traditions were practiced (Takakusu 1998: XXVI).

Buddhist pilgrimage and monasteries comes to an ebb.
In the 11th century, the Turks began invading the Gangetic plain repeatedly plunging the entire region into fear and chaos. The changed political climate of north India underwent drastic changes that eventually brought about the demise of Buddhism in the region of Magadha.  
With the fleeing of monks, the glorious Buddhist legacy of Magadha was reduced to clusters of abandoned monasteries (vihāra-s) scattered throughout the territory. The people from the surrounding villages came to populate the monasteries – consuming woods, reprocessing metallic items and using up all other resources they found within the monasteries. Monasteries soon fell into ruin and in time, all that was left of them was bricks and stones. As centuries passed, the brick structures got buried under piles of earth. The flatter mounds were named dīh, a word with Persian roots, meaning ‘village deity’ or ‘remains of village’ (Verma 1999). The high, large and prominent mounds were named as ‘gaḍh’, meaning ‘strong foundation’. Gradually, stories and legends of unnamed kings, supposed to have once ruled the areas of these large mounds, started circulating. The gaḍh was thought to the remains of the palace of the king. The populations that subsequently settled around the mounds lacked the means to take care of the vast amount of religious artefacts. A few temples with images of Buddhist and Hindu deities continued to be used for worship, but over the next few centuries, due to a lack of resources and patronage, these also fell into ruin and many sculptures were simply left in the open. People kept discovering artefacts from dīh, gaḍh, agriculture fields and ponds, and deposited them at certain sites within the villages. People worshipped the sculptures in the open without much thought of protecting them. The practice of worshipping sculptures in open still continues with collectives called goraiyānsthān, probably a corruption of the word guru-sthān, meaning teacher’s place. 

Magadha now
Magadha of the Buddha’s time now comprises the seven districts, Patna, Nalanda, Aurangabad, Jehanabad, Gaya, and Seikhpura. There are more than 600 villages in these seven districts that have tangible ancient remains in form of sculptures and mounds, and each village has many intangible stories connected with the tangibles. 
Some images from villages ('Live-Museum') of Magadha.

During his short stint as sub-divisional magistrate of Bihār in 1870’s, Broadley surveyed the villages in the neighborhood of Bihār Sharif that was part of ancient Magadha. The report he drew up, stated:

There is scarce a mile in the whole tract of country which doesn’t present to the traveler some object of deep interest and curiosity thus awakened and intensified at almost every step, is speedy concentration as it were, on the ruins of the hill grit capital of Magadha, or the mounds and figures which mark the site of greatest of great Buddhist viharas (Broadley 1979: 98).

These villages of ancient Magadha with Buddhist remains were either individual Buddhist monastic units or villages that supported the Buddhist monasteries. These villages laden with ancient Buddhist sculptures make Magadha virtually a ‘Live-museum’.

 I consider myself extremely fortunate to have witness the Live Museum for myself while in the process of documenting the villages.
It’s unfortunate that this Live Museum is now under threat. The sculptures are getting stolen from these villages at an alarming rate and reaching foreign lands. Our effort is to document this heritage for posterity before it is too late.

 Broadley, A. M.; 1979, The Buddhistic Remains of Bihar, Bharti Prakashan, Varanasi, (1st Ed.1872)

 Pandey, Mithila  Sharan; 1963, The Historical Geography and Topography of Bihar, Motilal Banarsi Das, Delhi.

Takakusu, J.; 1998, A Record of the Buddhist Religion by I-Tsing, Munshiram Manoharla Publishers, New Delhi, ISBN: 81-215-0168-7, (Originally published in 1896 by the Clarendon Press, London).
Verma, R.C.; 1999, Sankshipta Hindi Sabdsagar, Nagaripracharini Sabha, Varanashi

Thursday, September 10, 2015

2nd Jeṭhian-Rājgir Dhamma Walk- Revitalisation of Jīvaka Mango Grove

Revitalisation of Jīvaka Āmravana (Ambāvana, Mango grove) 
The place in the heart of Rājgir which is today covered with dense bushes was originally the site of Jīvaka mango grove during the time of Buddha (6th BCE). Jīvaka, the famous royal physician got attracted towards the teachings of the Buddha and became a lay disciple. Soon, he realized that he needed to spend more time with the Buddha to listen his sermons and practice more closely under his guidance. He built a monastery in his Ambāvana (mango grove) and offered it to Buddha and Saṅgha (DA.i.133; MA.ii.590). 

In 12th CE, new political circumstances in Magadha (Bihar) were not conducive for the growth and survival of Buddhism. As a result, all the sacred Buddhist pilgrimage places and monasteries including the Jīvaka Mango grove got abandoned and subsequently reduced to ruins. 

After a gap of more than 1000 years, efforts are now being made to revitalize the sanctity of many of the sacred places associated with the Buddha in Bihar. After the revitalization of Jethian-Rajgir Buddha path this year, we are working towards the revitalization of the Jīvaka mango grove. 
Site of Jīvaka mango grove (presently forest)
The revitalization: 
At the time of the Buddha this place was a Mango grove, therefore, the basic element of the revitalization is to recreate the Mango grove by planting mango trees. Added to that some basic facilities for the devotees who wish to practice meditation and offer prayers at this sacred place are also being worked upon.

It is proposed to hold the the 2nd Jeṭhian-Rājgir Dhamma Walk on 13th December, 2015 and it shall conclude here. Venerable monks and nuns from 13 countries shall plant 100 saplings of Mango trees and offer prayers at the place.

Representative of HH Dalai Lama, Shri N Dorjee ji, Dr R. Panth, and others for site inspection at Jivaka's place
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has expressed his desire to offer a stupa in Rājgir. Representatives of His Holiness and member secretary, Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee, Shri Nangzey Dorjee visited us to finalise the location. We have convinced him to offer the stūpa at Jīvaka Mango Grove.
Places associated with the Buddha are places of worship and cannot be treated as an archaeological site. We hope to facilitate revitalization of this and many more sites associated with the sublime wandering of the Buddha. 
See pictures from the 1st Jeṭhian-Rājgir Dhamma Walk

How do we know about location of Jīvaka mango groove? 
7th CE Chinese monk-scholar Xuanzang in his pilgrimage to sacred spots associated with the Buddha in India also visited the remains of the Jīvaka monastery in Rajagriha. According to Xuanzang, the Jīvaka’s monastery was on way to Griddhākuta (Vulture's peak) and on the NE corner of the Palace City (Watters 2004: II 150).  Excavations in 1953-55 by D R Patil and later in 1958 by A. C Banerjee revealed elliptical structures at the SE side of the Palace City wall. The archaeological finds suggest these structures were of some communal nature probably some monastery (Patil 2006: 448). The location of the discovery of the ancient ‘Monastic’ remains is in same location where Xuanzang saw remains of the Jivaka monastery (Watters 2004: II 150).

Sanctity of Jīvaka Mango Grove:

   Jīvaka was the royal physician in the court of King Bimbisāra. Bimbisāra introduced Jīvaka to the Buddha. Buddha gave some very important sermons at Jīvaka mango grove which includes;

   1. Jīvaka Sutta- The Buddha gave the conditions under which monks and nuns can eat meat and in the second he defined a lay disciple as one who has taken the Three Refuges and who observes the five percepts (M.i,368f).

    2. Sāmaññaphala Sutta- When King Ajatasattu asked Jīvaka where he could go for religious discussions; Jīvaka brought him to see the Buddha at his mango grove. Although the king had killed his father under the evil advice of Devadatta, King Ajatasattu became a distinguished lay follower of the Buddha. 

   3.When Devadatta threw down a rock splinter at Vulture’s peak (Griddhakūṭa) and injured the Buddha's foot, he was first brought at Jīvaka mango grove for first aid (DhA.ii.164).

      D. R.; 2006, The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna, (1st Edition: 1963). 
     Watters, Thomas; 2004, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, (Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and S.W.    Bushell), Reprinted in LPP 2004, Low Price Publications, Delhi. (First published by Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1904-05), ISBN: 81-7536-344-4.

Abbreviations of Bibliography: 
Source of Pāli references:
 P.T.S.    Means published by the Pāli Text Society.
SHB.     Means published in the Simon Hewavitarne Bequest Series (Colombo).

D.          Digha Nikāya, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).
DA.       Sumangala Vilāsinī, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).
DhA.    Dhammapadatthakathā, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).
J.           Jātaka, ed. Fausboll, 5 vols
M.          Majjhima Nikāya, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).
MA.     Papañca Sūdanī, Majjhima Commentary, 2 vols. (Aluvihāa Series, Colombo).