Friday, May 15, 2020

The Sakya Trail: Awakening of Sakya Identity and Seeding of the Dhamma

At daybreak on the way to Aliganj.

I left Anchalpur Atranji Kherā with two questions to which I have to find answers: first is who were the first people to discover that the present-day Sakya clan in the Gangetic plains is associated with the Buddha and Ashoka and facilitate awareness generation about this claim among the clan; and  second is who are the people who are behind the  ‘propaganda’ among the Sakya clan which is producing in them hatred towards the Brahmins. 

Walking 23 kms from Achalpur Atranji Kherā, I arrived at Ganj Dundwara by around 3 pm. The first thing that I noticed upon reaching the town was a huge government signboard reading ‘Mahatma Buddha Smriti Dwara’ meaning Lord Buddha Memorial Gate. This signboard hints that the town has a sizable population of the Sakya community. And soon after I was taken by complete surprise when a group of Sakya people with garlands in hand came forward to welcome me.

Welcome gate of Ganj Dundwara.

 Welcoming by  Ven. Bhikhu Mangalvardhan and local Sakya people. 

One of the things that I have noticed about the young people of the Sakya community is that they are quite overwhelmed by the fact that they belong to the same tribe as the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka. All of them want to learn more about this connection. At the same time, all these young people are told that the Sakyas are victims of Brahmin persecution carried out under King Pushyamitra (2nd BCE). Like in Atranji Kherā, even here the name of King Pushyamitra popped up. Young as well as middle-aged people harbor a sense of animosity towards Brahmins. They think the Mauryan dynasty of Emperor Ashoka (3rd BCE) was brought to an end by King Pushyamitra when the latter killed the Mauryan king, Bridharatha. They also believe that Brahmins are the people responsible for the Manuvadi concept of  discrimination, that is, discrimination on the basis of caste and creed.  Sakya people here at Ganj and Achalpur mentioned that Late Shri Munshi Lal Sakya was the person who initiated the campaign about the Buddhist origin of present day Sakya and its sister communities of Ganagetic plains.

In the little time that I had, I took the opportunity to share some information with the people of the Sakya community to dispel their misconceptions about the Brahmins. I told them that many of the prominent followers and supporters of the Buddha like Sāriputta, Mahāmoggallāna, Mahākassapa and were originally Brahmins. Many of the good literature in Buddhism has been written by Brahmins like Rahul Shankratayan and the list is endless. I encouraged them to broaden their horizon and emulate the principles which the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka stood for rather than hating and slandering Brahmins.

In my foot journey, I have been meeting a variety of Sakya people who in their own way are contributing to awareness generation among the Sakya people about their Buddhist lineage and heritage. Here at Ganj, my host Shri Ajab Singh Sakya had a printing press in which he has been printing Buddhist study materials and circulating it among the Sakya people. He agreed with me that there is a dearth of authentic material on Buddha and Ashoka among the Sakya people to read which is the reason that hate propaganda is taking root in their minds easily.

Ajab Singh Sakya at his printing press showing Buddhist literatures published by him.
My next stopover was at a small village called Nagla Munshi, 13 kms from Ganj Dundwara. My host here was Shri Dhirendra Kumar Sakya. He is in his late thirties and was formerly a Sarpanch (elected head) of the village. In the evening, few people gathered to meet me. I related to them what I was hearing from other Sakya people whom I had met in the last few days. Dhirendra ji gave me a different perspective from what I had been hearing. He told me that most of the Sakya people are marginal farmers who own just enough land to make ends meet. They are indifferent to the Buddha and Buddhism perhaps because they are too busy with their day-to-day work. In fact I noticed that people were working on farms from sunrise till sunset. The streets were empty throughout the day and most of the homes were locked.

People of the Sakya community who are engaged in awareness generation  do it generally by organising events which they call ‘Kathā’ (story telling). These events are held in the evenings so that people are available to join. Professional singers and storytellers are brought for the events. Dhirendra ji says that many times, the singers and storytellers who are brought are not aware of the rich history and essence of Buddhism therefore hate speeches are an easy way to attract crowds. I saw a few Kathā videos on Youtube and found that what Dhirendra ji said was correct.
With Dhirendra Sakya ji

Dhirendra ji told me he was originally using the surname Kachi, not Sakya but a few years ago he, like many other Kachi, was convinced to change the surname from Kachi to Sakya. Now all his children too bear the Sakya surname.

The next day, Dhirendra ji took me to a neighbouring village, Rustampur, to meet Kamta Prasad Sakya. We found Shri Kamta Prasad in his tobacco farm along with his two teenage daughters. He owns two acre of land and  makes just about enough money to educate his children. He told me: “I did not study much because my parents could not afford it but I want to give the best education to my two daughters and two sons.” Everybody in his family is a Vipassana meditator. Both the daughters, Priyanka and Archana, have attended Vipassana courses in Kanpur. For this family, Buddhism means Vipassana. All of them take pride in being a Sakyan preserving the teachings of the Buddha in their own way. Every evening, 7.30 pm to 9 pm, is the family’s time for  group meditation sitting. Priyanka studies nursing in a college in the neighbouring town of Kashganj. She is encouraging her friends to take Vipassana courses. In spite of their busy lives, they find time to visit Saṅkāsya (Sankisa) to offer prayers at the place where the Buddha descended from Heaven.  

Archana, Priyanka and Kamta Prasad Sakya working in their tobacco farm.  
On 18th March, I left Nagla Munshi for Aliganj. I was eager to arrive in Aliganj because firstly, this was the place which Late Shri Munshi Lal Sakya belonged to and secondly, I was eager to meet Shri Prem Singh Sakya, the person who was spearheading the campaign to promote Vipassana in this region, especially among the Sakya community.

At Aliganj, I met Shri Ganga Sahay Sakya, 95 year old former freedom fighter with a powerful memory. He was a colleague of Late Shri Munshi Lal Sakya and had worked alongside him in facilitating awareness among the Sakyan community about their lineage and connection to Buddha. I asked him how Munshi Lal came to know about the connection of the Sakya clan of Gangetic plains to Buddha. Shri Ganga Prasad told, Munshi Lal ji had discovered this connection through the famous book The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold. Thereafter, this group of likeminded people led by Munshi Lal started going to Sankisa on bicycles to offer prayers. In 1956, they even started celebrating Veshāk Purnimā (full-moon day of May) and Sharad Purnimā (full-moon day of October), two of the important Buddhist festivals. I asked him as to whether he was aware of the anti-Brahmanical stories being circulated by the Sakyan people, which I had been hearing during my foot journey. Shri Ganga Prasad ji told me that these stories have origin in Munshi Ji himself to meet his political ambitions. Munshi ji gave birth to these stories seeing it as a means of uniting the Sakyan people as his vote bank. With their message of hate, Munshi ji thought these stories would appeal to the emotions of the people. Indeed these stories gained popularity among the Sakyan people. Those who were part of the Sakyan awareness generation drive would go to different villages in the region and hold plays and public meetings where the slogan was used: Buddha dharam ki yeh Pehchan, Brahmin, Bhangi ek samman which translates roughly to “The essence of Buddhism is that the Brahmin (the elite) and the Sweeper (the lower castes) are equal.” The irony is that in spite of spreading these hate stories, Munshi ji never managed to win an election.
Shri Ganga Sahay Sakya, Aliganj.

Shri Ganga ji told me proudly that he has paid pilgrimage to all the Eight Great places in 1991. Due to his advanced age, he cannot go into villages anymore to educate people about the great lineage of the Sakyans so now he prints Buddhist calendars and distributes them in villages.

At Aliganj, I also met  Shri.  Prem Singh Sakya and his wife, Smt. Hashmukhi Sakya, both of whom are Vipassana meditators. They have taken many Vipassana courses. Not only them, everybody in their family has taken many long and short courses. When I told them I too had done two 10-day courses, he asked me if I would like to have a 1 hour group sitting the next morning. I liked the idea so the next day I reached his house at 8 am. There were about 25 meditators from Aliganj 8 of whom were women. Prem ji did his first course in the year 2000 after which he never stopped deepening his meditation practice. He took many courses subsequently and went on to create awareness among his family and acquaintances. He told me with humility, “we are now a big family of meditators here, more than 1000 serious meditators from Sakya community in Etah, Mainpuri, Kasganj and Farooqabad districts'', implying that it was his efforts that this was accomplished. The meditators from Aliganj and around meet weekly for group sittings. They are now making efforts for a Vipassana centre either near Sankisa or Atranji Kherā since each place is associated with wanderings of the Buddha.

Fortunate to participate in a 1 hour group sitting with Vipassana  meditators at Aliganj.
 Prem Ji is Vipassana acharya, he conducts meditation courses for children between the ages 8 and 16. I will share a few of the interesting stories which the meditators shared with me. Once Prem ji persuaded one of his friends, Shri Ram Naresh Sakya, to take a Vipassana course. Naresh’s family opposed it as they were worried that his absence from home for 10 whole days would impact the family business. Despite the objections, Naresh still went. When Naresh wanted to take a second meditation course, he again faced objection from his family. To deal with the repeated opposition from the family, Naresh and Prem Singh together persuaded Naresh's brother and mother to also join the Vipassana course. So all of them attended the course. They benefited from it so much that now the whole family is into meditation. The family gathers for a group sitting from 4 to 5 every morning.

Hashmukhi Sakya, wife of Prem Singh ji told me, “We have now more than 200 Sakyan women who are meditators. Many of them are in their late 50’s and are illiterate.” I met one of the ladies, Smt. Savitri Devi, who is in her 60’s, is illiterate but has done many Vipassana courses. She says that Vipassana benefited her so much that she decided to donate 1.5 acres of land and some amount of money to create a centre dedicated to practicing and teaching meditation to the locals in and around Aliganj.

I asked Savitri ji as to whether she had heard about Upāsikā Visākhā - one of the foremost Buddhist Upāsikās known for her generosity.  She offered the Pubbārāma monastery (eastern monastery) to the Buddha and the Saṅgha in Shrāvasti. I told Savitri ji that her act of donating land and other resources for the sake of promoting Buddha’s teachings was similar to that of Upāsikā Visākhā. I told her, “you are our (present-day) Visākhā”. Savitri ji told me she had heard about Visākhā and even visited Shrāvasti - the place from where Visākhā hailed. Savitri ji is very proud of belonging to the Sakyan clan of the Buddha. She considers Mahāprajāpati Gotami as her ideal in life. Savitri ji has offered prayers in Devadha in Nepal to which Mahāprajāpati Gotami belonged, calling it her own Maikā (maternal home). She has offered prayers also in Kapilavastu which she considers her Sasurāl (in-law’s home) as Mahāprajāpati Gotami was married to King Sudhodhana of Kapilavastu.  I asked Savitri ji and the other female meditators present if they did any celebrations in honour of the great Bhikkunīs like Mahāprajāpati Gotami, Khemā,  Uppalavannā. They didn’t, but they would consider now that I gave them the idea. They added, however: “When we visit the sacred sites we do remember the great women associated with those sites like Amrapāli with Vaishālī, Gotami and Yashodharā with Kapilavastu, and Visākhā with Shrāvasti.”

Discussion with Vipassana meditators at Aliganj.

Smt Savitri Devi, present-day Visākhā.

Many meditators then shared how in the year 2003, they had the opportunity to practice with Acharya S. N. Goenka ji (the principal teacher of Vipassana Meditation) at Talkatora Sadan in New Delhi.  62 people from in and around their village including 25 couples went to Delhi to participate in the course. “We hired a bus and left Aliganj at 11 pm. After 9 hrs of journey we reached Delhi early in the morning and attended the programme,” they recalled.  Nowadays there are many people among the Sakyan who organise pilgrimage to the sacred Buddhist places in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal, not for profit but only to facilitate awareness generation among the Sakyans about their Buddhist heritage.

Later in the day, I visited the meditation centre developed on the land given by Savitri ji situated at Nagla Umeed, 8 kms from Aliganj. The hall is big enough to accommodate over 100 people in a single sitting. Prem Singh ji told me that although big, the hall is not big enough for the village of Nagla Umed alone has more than 90 meditators all of whom are marginal farmers.  

Shri Prem Singh Sakya at the newly constructed meditation centre at Nagla Umeed.

Shri Narendra Sakya, caretaker of the Meditation Centre at Nagla Umeed.

Everywhere that I walked in Aliganj, I could spot things bearing the name of the Buddha such as shops, schools, voluntary organisations. The vehicles had Buddhist flags and Buddha stickers. It was all quite interesting to note and at the same time, left me with a good feeling

                               Story chronicled by Aparajita Goswami

The Sakya Trail: Ashokan Stūpa to Mark the Presence of Buddha

During my stint with International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) in 2017-18, I had many opportunities to meet and know about the Dhamma revival work being done by the people belonging to the Sakya, Maurya, Kushwaha communities. These communities identify themselves as descendants of the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka. Ven. Lama Lobzang who heads the Asoka Mission, a Delhi-based organization in coordination with Ashoka Club, was conducting many awareness generation activities like distribution of reading material about Buddhism, public meetings, distribution of statues of the Buddha among the people of this community. I had always been keen to experience firsthand this silent revolution brewing in the Gangetic plain since the last couple of decades.

Ancient mound of Atranji Kherā. According to Xuanzang, this was the capital of Piloshana country.

On the 24th day of my walk, which was 14th March, walking 30 kms northeast from Grand Trunk road (ancient Uttarāpatha) I arrived at Achalpur Atranji Kherā. As I was approaching the village from the west, I noticed a very huge mound surrounded by green fields at a distance of about 1 km. It was easy to guess what this mound was. Both Alexander Cunningham and Prof. R.C. Gaur has identified this mound as the capital city of Piloshana Country mentioned by the pilgrim-monk Xuanzang (7th CE). 

The country of Piloshana, according to Xuanzang, was situated on the western side of River Ganges, 200 Li (approx. 60 kms) northwest of Saṅkāsya (Sankisa, Sankassa). The capital of the country was 10 Li in circuit (approx. 3 kms). Atranji Kherā is situated 18 kms north of district headquarter Etah of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Piloshana, according to Xuanzang, is associated with the wanderings of the Buddha. Xuanzang saw an old monastery in the capital of Piloshana inside which was an Ashokan Stūpa marking the place where the Buddha for seven days gave Yun-chie-chu-ching Sūtra (Pali translation still not found). Close to the Ashokan Stūpa were the sitting and exercising places of four past Buddhas. The Ashokan Stūpa at the time of Xuanzang’s visit to India in the 7th century was already in ruins.

View of Theriyā mound from the east. This is probably the site of the 'Ashokan Stūpa' mentioned by Xuanzang.

View of Theriyā mound from the south. Boundary wall around it being constructed along with a Shiva Temple and Tourist Centre. 

There At Atranji Kherā, I was very warmly received by Sanjay Bauddh, an enthusiastic man in his early thirties who is active in protection and preservation of the antiquities of Atranji Kherā. He took me to an ancient mound, 30 to 40 ft high, spread on one acre of land approximately. Over the mound is a Shiva temple and a three room, double storied Buddhist monastery. Sanjay made arrangements for my stay at this monastery. 

There was a small group of people including children who had come to meet me. They were all aware about my foot journey and my visit. They were curious with all kinds of questions. The first thing I noticed was that all of them including small boys and girls greeted me ‘Namo Buddhay’ (salutations to the Buddha). I asked the children what Namo Buddhay meant. They just smiled, probably they didn’t know the answer. I was told that Namo Buddhay is the formal and informal greeting used among the people of the Sakya community. Atranji Kherā has 500 households of which 75 families are from the Sakya community. Sakya Community is one of over 25 communities which identify themselves as descendants of the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka.

Sakya children greeting me with Namo Buddhay! 

In the monastery, I shared the room with a 65 years old monk Venerable Bhikkhu Anomdarshi ordained as monk in 1994 at Sankisa - one of the Eight Great Places of the Buddhist pilgrimage, where the Buddha descended from Heaven. He is also of the Sakya community, a native of Mainpuri, 70 kms from Atranji Kherā.
Among the local Buddhist community, Atranji is believed to be the ancient place, Verañjā, mentioned in Pali sources. Buddhist Pali literature mentions Verañjā, a town in which the Buddha spent his 12th rainy season retreat (vassā) at the invitation of a Brahmin by same name (AA.ii.758; cf. BuA.3).  Verañjā was situated between Shrāvasti (Sāvatthi) and Sankassa. After completing his vassā here, Buddha went to Benares, passing through Soreyya, Sankassa and Kannakujja (Kannauj). During Buddha’s times, a road led from Verañjā to Madhura (Mathura) and also to Sāvatthi and Uttarākuru. Based on these circumstantial evidences, Prof R.C. Gaur proposed that Atranji Kherā is most likely to be Verañjā. Excavations at Atranji have revealed it to be a very ancient place dating from the beginning of the 2nd Millennium BCE. 
Achalpur Atranji Kherā is now being promoted by local Sakya people as Verañjā, where the Buddha did his vassā. Many monks from neighboring districts like Farrukhabad, Mainpuri, Etah come here to observe the three-month vassā. Venerable Anomdarshi observed his Vassā here in 2000 and thereafter decided to stay back at Verañjā and work towards its development. He even got an organization named Bauddh Tirth Stahal Barenja, registered in 2010. His efforts have now started paying dividends. Ven. Anom informed me how because of his efforts they now have a 3-day pujā - Jestha Purnima (full moon of May-June) - just before the beginning 3-month vassā. More than 2000-3000 Sakya people from the villages of neighboring districts Etah and Kashganj and Bareilly participate in this 3-day festival.
I asked Sanjay as to why his surname was Bauddh, not Sakya. He told me he has taken deekshā (been ordained) as Buddhist lay-follower. I asked what that meant. He told me it meant that, ‘I am now following panchsheel (five precepts). I have been issued a certificate by Buddhist monk that now I am Buddhist. I have submitted the certificate to the district office and registered myself as a Buddhist. I am no longer Hindu.’

Village elders told me kherā means ruins. According to villagers, Atranji is kherā (ruins) of the living place of King Vena. Nobody could tell which period King Vena belonged to. The kherā (Atranji) was surrounded by seven check posts (watch towers), the ruins of which are now referred to as theriyā meaning smaller mounds. They brought a few ancient bricks which were excavated recently when some construction work was being carried out on the theriyā mound. It was evident from the huge size (15in and 16in) that these bricks were very ancient. From my little experience, I could say that these bricks belonged to 2nd CE to 5th CE. 

The Buddhist temple cum monastery and Shiva temple were also situated on theriyā, north of the village of Achalpur Atranji Kherā. Ven. Anom and Sanjay then showed me four ancient sandstone ‘Stūpa’ situated on the Theriyā which was worshiped both by the Sakya community and the Hindus. The Buddhists worshipped it as Ashokan Stūpa while the Hindus worshipped it as Shiva Linga. This has led to serious tensions between the two communities. The tension, according to Ven. Anom flares up during the 3-day Buddha festival when people from the Sakya community gather in big numbers and their speakers say things against the Brahmans. The matter is now sub judice. Sanjay told me that he was not happy about the anti-Brahmanical speeches given by some of the monks who visited the place. He said, ‘I am doing my best to ensure that such hate mongers don’t come here.’ He says these monks do not know the subject (teachings of the Buddha), hence they resort to such hate speeches to remain popular and thereby collect donations.

Ram Naresh, Sanjay and Ven. Anomdarshi standing by the 'Ashokan Stupa' (Shiva Linga).

Sakyan youth who are engaged in preserving heritage showing me an ancient brick.

Remains of an ancient temple.
People from the village sharing their curiosity about my Walk.

Later in the day, a few more visitors came to meet me, all of them in their 20s and belonging to the Sakya community. They were very curious to know from me more about the Buddha and the Sakya community. I asked them what they knew about the Buddha. They told me, ‘The Brahman king, Pushyamitra, killed the last king of the Mauryan dynasty, Brihadratha, and this is how Brahmans ended our empire.’ I was shocked by what I heard. Young minds are getting or being corrupted by wrong information. I asked them whether this was all they knew and who had told this to them. They replied innocently, “Our monks and opinion makers keep telling us such stuff.” I did my best to share with them about the great accomplishments of Buddha and Emperor Ashoka and how they could learn more primary literature.

Sanjay then took me to meet Shri Narottam Singh, Sarpanch (elected head) of the village.  Shri Singh’s house was in a very beautiful campus. He asked me if I was comfortable staying in the village and if not, I could move into his place. Narottam ji is not a member of the Sakya community. He is in his early 60’s and studied till Class XII. He is very fascinated by the Buddha and Buddha’s association with Atranji Kherā. I have met many people in my 15 years of heritage volunteering who have great interest in heritage conservation, but I never met anyone with such passion about the heritage of the place and objective vision of how to develop the place. He then showed me a copy of the excavation report of Atranji Kherā mound carried by Prof. G. C. Gaur. The book was very thick and heavy. He told me he had purchased many copies of it and had been giving this to officials in the state and district capital.
With village Sarpanch Shri Narottam Ji (to my right) and Sanjay Sakya (to my left).

Shri Narottam ji and Sanjay make a good team together. With their efforts they have been able to get 4 Crore INR for constructing a boundary wall for the Atranji Kherā mound and another 88 Lacs for the boundary wall of the theriyā mound and a community hall for the pilgrims. Narottam ji told me that he had lots of plans but things moved painfully slowly. It took him 10 long years to get this small thing done. Achalpur Atranji Kherā was visited by the Buddha and it deserves a lot more attention and prominence. I agreed with him that the place should get a big exposure which it actually deserves. Our discussion moved to future plans. Narottam ji sought my advice on what immediate steps could be taken for heritage revitalisation. I suggested that first, they should try to get the Tehriyā mound excavated. I told them that I strongly felt that this mound could be the ‘Ashokan Stūpa’ and the monastery complex mentioned by Xuanzang. I also told them that the constructions going on over the theriyā mound was not good. The mound has a Shiva temple and a Buddhist temple and now a pilgrims centre is being constructed. Both Narottam ji and Sanjay were surprised at what I said. They had never given a thought that the theriyā mound itself could be the stūpa. I showed them a few pictures of stūpas that were unearthed from such mounds elsewhere in the country.

Second, I suggested they organise a 3-day walking pilgrimage from Atranji Kherā to Sankisa. These two places are 60 kms apart and both are associated with the wanderings of the Buddha. The path of the walk could touch the villages that host the Sakya communities. A heritage walk like that would facilitate awareness generation worldwide. My inputs were welcomed by both Narottam ji and Sanjay and I feel they will work on these ideas.

Later in the evening I went on a tour of the village. The first thing I noticed was that all the Sakya households had images of Buddha painted on the entrance gates of their houses. I spoke with a few women and found that they had only basic knowledge about the Buddha. For most of them, Buddha and Sankisa, were synonymous. All of them had either visited or aspired to visit Sankisa which was about 60 kms from there.  Sankisa is one of the ‘Eight Great Places’ of the Buddhist pilgrimage. It was here that the Buddha descended from heaven after preaching to his mother. I asked a woman named Priyanka Sakya if she had heard about Mahāprajāpati Gotami, the foster mother of the Buddha. She hadn’t. Priyanka’s neighbour, Pravesh Sakya joined in our conversation and it turned out that she knew about Mahāprajāpati Gotami. She also knew about Yashodharā - wife of Siddhārtha (who later became the Buddha). Pravesh told me she had studied till Class X but could not study further because there were no schools and colleges in her village and being a girl, her parents did not send her to another town to study. I asked her how she knew about Yashodhara and Mahāprajāpati Gotami. She told me that her brother-in-law was a preacher who distributed awareness generation material among the Sakya community. It was from him that she had learnt all this. 

Buddhist images can be seen on the walls of every Sakyan house.

I was offered homemade snacks at whichever house I visited.

Sakya sisters - Priyanka and Parvesh.
Sakya girls - Madhu, Mahima and Bandana - proud of their Buddhist heritage.

I met a couple of young girls- Kumari Madhu Shakya, Mahima Shakya, Kumari Bandana Shakya, Sonam and Preeti - all of them students. They were aware about Mahāprajāpati Gotami. I asked them why they did not have images of Mahāprajāpati Gotami adorning the walls of their homes the way they had posters of the Buddha. Madhu told me she in fact wanted to have that but couldn’t find pictures of Mahāprajāpati Gotami in the market nor had they been made available by the people who distributed images of the Buddha. I told them that images of Mahāprajāpati Gotami are available online and she could download and get it printed. Mahima Sakya, Sonam and Preeti brought to show me the awareness books on Buddhism that they have read. They were aware of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Preeti told me that she had visited Sankisa a few times and now wanted to visit other places associated with the Buddha like Shrāvasti and Lumbīnī. Her elder brother had visited these places last year but did not take her along in spite of her requests. She told me, “Once I will start earning, I will visit all these places on my own. I want to see for myself all the places that I have read in these books.”

Mahima, Sonam and Preeti.

Sakya people are marginal farmers. Most of them also keep cows and goats.

I have been so blessed to receive such wonderful hospitality. All the people in the village were aware about my foot journey and appreciate my effort of doing a foot journey in the name of the Buddha. Everyone I meet is offering to take me to their homes and they want to offer food. The next day, I left the village very early in the morning for my next destination, Sankisa. On the way, I had to stay a couple of nights with Sakyan people to get more insights into the Dhamma revival activities going on among Sakya people.

L-R: Sanjay, Ven Anom, Kirpal Singh, Ram Naresh,  Pal, Rohit, Krishna  and myself.

Story chronicled by Aparajita Goswami


Gaur. R.C.;1983, Excavation at Atranji Kherā. New Delhi: Motilal Banarshi Dass.

Watters, Thomas. 2004. On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India. Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and S.W. Bushell. New Delhi: Low Price Publications.

Cunningham, A.1871. The Ancient Geography of India - I: The Buddhist Period. London: Trubner and Co.

SHB. means published in the Simon Hewavitarne Bequest Series (Colombo).

AA.- Manorathapūranī, Anguttara Commentary, 2 vols. (S.H.B.).
BuA- Buddhavamsa Commentary (S.H.B.).

Royal Warriors of Ancient Sanauli

On 29 February, nine days after starting my Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Walk, I crossed River Yamuna at Bega ghat and walked about 9 kms along its eastern bank to arrive at Sanauli. For my readers who are not familiar with the name Sanauli, it is a village in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh, about 70 kms to the north-east of New Delhi. Sanauli was featured in the news recently because of the discovery of a cemetery and chariots dating back to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE. These are one of the biggest archaeological finds of recent times and could require, perforce, a rewriting of the history of this region depending on the revelations from these finds. With these discoveries, Sanauli has catapulted on the world map as archaeologists and historians from world over, particularly the West, are taking immense interest in decoding the meanings hidden in these extraordinary artefacts.

 3800 years old Chariot discovered at Sanauli.

The story of the discovery of the archeological site of Sanauli is equally interesting. It is about two locals, Samsun and Tahir, both of whom I had the chance to meet during my visit to Sanauli. Samsun recalled for me that in 2005, more than two decades ago, he had once taken up the job of levelling an agricultural land, owned by a man named Shri. Om Prakash Sharma. Using rudimentary implements he started removing about 2-3 feet of earth. While digging, he discovered dozens of pots. Many of the pieces got destroyed during the digging but Samsun managed to recover 16 vessels undamaged. He also found a copper dagger, 16 inches in length. He took all of these to place them as decorative items. He told me: Matke bahut sundar lag rahe the (The pottery looked very attractive). At that moment, Samsun did not have a clue about the historical significance of the objects he had discovered. Samsun’s uncle, Tahir, returned home late that evening to find these items placed on the shelf.

With Samsun, Sanauli.

Tahir showing the archaeological implements manufactured by him in his workshop.

I met Tahir, a man in his mid 40's, at his electrical repair shop in Barot which is about 7 kms from Sanuali. In addition to repairing electrical goods, he also produces implements used for archaeological excavation such as miniature spades and shovels. We started conversing in the shop but as customers kept coming and interrupting him, Tahir offered to continue the conversation at his home. So, we went to his home which was like an extension of his metal and electrical worksop with equipment and tools kept all around. Tahir is a graduate in English. At school, he loved learning about ancient civilisations. He knew about the Harappan Civilisation. He had also visited the Archaeological Survey of India in Delhi when he was in Class VIII. Tahir told me that it took him only a glance to recognise that the pottery discovered by his nephew were none other than ancient artefacts. Tahir said that by the appearance of the copper dagger it was especially apparent to him that these were remains of an ancient civilisation. Tahir recalled that his excitement at the discovery of these items was so great that he did not get any sleep that night: mein raat bhar so nahin so saka. The day after the finds, Tahir approached a local Hindi newspaper with his story. They published the news two days later, making the discovery public. Without wasting any time, Tahir then left for Delhi to share his findings with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Soon after the Archaeological Survey of India sent a specialist team to the archeological site and subsequently collected all the artefacts from the site as well as those with Samsun. Tahir told me that Samsun was slightly apprehensive throughout these happenings as he was afraid that he had done an illegal act for which he might be punished. Hence, initially Samsun was not cooperative with Tahir. Afterwards, however, Samsun did extend support to Tahir. 

Dagger replica made by Tahir, picture of the original can be seen in album in background

Tahir brought out an album to show me in which he had chronologically arranged cuttings from different newspapers about the discovery of the archeological site at Sanauli. The album also had pictures of the site. While talking about the discovery, Tahir was using terms and terminologies specific to history and archeology. I was amazed at his understanding and passion for this subject. He was like a professional in the field. Tahir showed me a replica of the copper dagger which he had made as a memorabilia. I picked it in my hand to feel the weight. It weighed about 700 gms. Tahir told me that he made it as close as possible to the original in both shape and weight. Tahir also showed me the implements he has made for archaeological excavations, some of which were used by the ASI during the excavation at Sanauli.

Tahir is sort of a local celebrity now because of the stupendous discovery he has made. He was visited by Dr. Upinder Singh, Daughter of the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh at his shop. He was also visited by Dr. Navanjot Lahiri of Delhi University who took a selfie with Tahir. Tahir has gifted some artefacts from his collection to Delhi University. Tahir’s life and thinking has changed in many ways following his discovery of the Sanauli archeological site. He shared with me that about 2 millenniums ago, Brahmins, who were the ruling class of the Hindu society, persecuted the Buddhists occupying their heritage sites such as monasteries, temples, and stupas. Excavations in the Indian subcontinent reveal Buddhist remains everywhere. Brahmins persecuted fellow Hindus of the lower castes, many of whom ended up embracing Islam. Thus, Muslims of India were originally either Hindus or Buddhists. This view of Tahir does not go down well with his community who would not like to trace their roots to Hindus and Buddhists.

In 2005, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) conducted a proper excavation at Sanauli discovering 116 burials dating from 2nd millennium BCE. After a long hiatus, ASI resumed the excavations in 2018. In the second round of excavation was revealed a wooden coffin burial, copper swords, and helmets. But the most extraordinary find was three wooden chariots with solid disk wheels protected by copper sheets.

I met a local man who has been taking great interest in the excavations at the Sanauli archeological site since its discovery more than two decades ago. Shri Rajkumar Maan is a middle-aged man educated in Mathematics and currently running a tuition centre in Sanauli for aspirants seeking to clear competitive government exams. He does not charge a fee for his classes. So far 68 of his students have qualified for different state and national level competitive exams. Rajkumar ji believes that the findings at Sanauli are clinching evidence that disprove the theory of the Aryan invasion. Put forth by Western scholars in the 19th century, according to the Aryan invasion theory, hordes from Central Asia arrived in the Indian subcontinent around the 2nd millenium BCE, pushed the natives to the south and settled themselves in the north. The invasion apparently led to the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation - the civilisation of the ‘original people’ of India.

Rajkumar ji at Temple where he discovered ancient artefacts while repair works in temple

Rajkumar ji and I walked to the fields in Sanauli where the excavations took place. Sanauli is a big village with over 8000 adults. Most of the streets are wide and clean with a proper drainage system. Houses are big with double-heighted ceilings and having enough space to park tractor or buffalo-drawn carts within the premises. I asked Rajkumar ji why the houses had such high ceilings, he answered with a laugh: Shaan ki baat hai ji, Ghar padosiyon se uchi honi chahiye (It's a matter of pride to have one’s house higher than the neighbours). I noticed cow dung cakes everywhere suggesting that every family has buffaloes and cows. I also saw many buffalo-carts and tractors carrying sugarcane crops. I was told by Rajkumar ji that sugarcane is grown by local farmers round the year because it is very profit-making. The archaeological site of Sanauli is situated on the southwest side of the village. When we visited it, it was covered with sugarcane and wheat crops. ASI carried out the excavations of the chariots from these fields quite masterfully and refilled the trenches to allow farmers to continue growing crops on the field. The chariots were sent to Delhi to the ASI for investigation. Tahir had shown me some video footage of this engrossing excavation process.

Buffalo cart laden with sugarcane a common scene in Sanauli
Fields where excavations took place in 2004 and recently in 2018

According to Rajkumar ji, the village of Sanauli is settled over a mound which was probably the place of habitation in ancient times. Rajkumar ji walked me to a spot which he believed was the highest point on the mound. This ‘peak point,’ according to him, could be the exact place where the ‘royals’ lived. There are houses now over the peak point. Rajkumar ji showed me that water bodies surround the village. These water bodies which appear to be separate constituted one big lake until just a few decades ago. People encroached upon them because of which they now appear as separate ponds. Rajkumar ji pointed out to me a river channel flowing through the southeast of the excavation site. Rajkumar ji thinks this is an old channel of River Yamuna. According to Rajkumar ji, these specific geographic features suggest that the ancient settlement in Sanauli was a fairly big metropolitan. While doing some renovation work in a temple near the ‘peak point’, Rajkumar ji even found some ancient bricks which archaeologists told him dated from the Kushan Period (2nd century CE).

Map of Sanauli prepared by Rajkumar ji

An important thread in the Aryan invasion theory is the use of horses and horse-driven chariots by Aryans. Proponents of the theory argue that the ‘Aryans’ arrived from Central Asia on horseback and in horse-drawn chariots. This gave the Aryans an advantage over the Indus Valley civilisation people whose remains do not show any evidence of riding horses or engineering chariots. Thus, when the ‘Aryans’ arrived with their superior force and technology, the Indus   people were compelled to retreat to southern India. Proponents of the theory claim that horses were introduced in northern India by Aryans around 1500 BCE. The finds at Sanauli have confirmed that around 1900 BCE, there lived a warrior people who had antenna swords and daggers made of copper. They used chest shields and they had horse driven chariots. So, horses were present in the Gangetic plain when the Indus Valley Civilization was flourishing (mature phase 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE) and when it started declining (1900-1300 BCE), and this was much before the proposed Aryan invasion in 1500-1000 BCE.

A view from Sanauli village

The Aryan invasion debate has many facets - besides archaeological, it has linguistic and anthropological dimensions and now even genetics (DNA study) is shedding light on the migration pattern. A little search on the internet led me to a variety of articles with compelling arguments both for and against the proposition. The debate is long and complex one. I have tried to summarize a few good articles that I discovered on the web.

An article by Yaajnaseni which negates the Aryan invasion theory (published online: Swarajya, 24 February 2020) discusses Vijay Kumar’s views from his article A note on Chariot Burials found at Sinauli district Baghpat U.P. published in the Indian Journal of Archaeology. According to Vijay Kumar, the only pottery discovered from the ancient burials in Sanauli are Ochre Colored Pottery (OCP). The OCP belongs to Bronze Age culture in the Indo-Gangetic plain dating from a period ranging from 4000 BCE to 2000 BCE. The Bronze Age in the Indo-Gangetic plain had a local beginning that may be traced to 9000-10000 BCE. The OCP culture was a distinct culture and a contemporary and neighbour of the Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation. Archaeological finds in western Uttar Pradesh indicate that people in the Upper Gangetic valley who belonged to the OCP culture and those of the Indus Valley Civilisation used a common script. According to Vijay Kumar, the finds at Sanauli have established it to be an OCP culture site which was the indigenous culture of Gangetic plains and a contemporary to the Indus Valley Civilisation, and which had horses and chariots as early as 1900 BCE that is long before the ‘Aryans’ entered India in 1500-1000 BCE. The horses in Sanauli (i.e. Upper Gangetic valley), argues Vijay Kumar, may not have come from Central Asia in the west but from Tibet in the east. Vijay Kumar further argues that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation as well as other parts of the Indian subcontinent may not have been ignorant about horses as proposed in early studies aligned with Aryan invasion theory. Recent excavations in the Indian subcontinent have led to the discovery of remains of bones of wild and domesticated horses and terracotta figurines of horses. These finds date from the beginning of 3rd millennium BCE. You can read the full article here at Swarajya.  So, in the light of the finds at Sanauli, the Aryan invasion theory may have come to be challenged.
OCB culture and IVC in Map

Scholars who support the Aryan invasion theory believe that Aryans were the people who introduced the key elements of Indian culture. Two of these include Sanskrit language, which gave rise to the family of Indo-Aryan languages spoken all across northern, western and eastern India today, and Vedic literature which is the foundation of the traditional Hindu socio-cultural system. According to these scholars the ‘Aryans’ came from the Eurasian steppe which corresponds to present-day Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. Quoting from studies published in the Cell and Science, Shoaib Daniyal (published in Scroll on 12 September 2019), believes that genetic studies have confirmed steppe ancestry in every racial group of India. Once the people of Steppe entered northern India between 2000-1500 BCE, a great melting of races occurred. The steppe people mixed with the Indus Valley people to create what is now called the Ancestral North Indian grouping. A significant portion of the Indus Valley people were pushed southwards. They then mixed with the Ancient Ancestral South Indians to form a group known as the Ancestral South Indian population. This intermixing between Steppe pastorals, Indus Valley people and Ancient Ancestral South Indians stopped about 1900 years ago when Indian society calcified into numerous endogamous groups who do not marry across caste lines and that is still maintained in the Indian society. Genetic study has also confirmed that a single language family - the Indo-European family - which stretches all the way from Britain to Bangladesh was brought by Steppe pastoralists. The coming of the ‘Aryans’ or steppe ancestry gave rise to Vedic Sanskrit - the first Indo-Aryan language which forked into Indo-European language in the Indian subcontinent - and in turn gave rise to the Vedic culture between 1750-550 BCE. The DNA of a woman recovered from a 4500-year-old site of the Indus valley Civilisation in present-day Rakhigarhi, Haryana has no traces of Steppe ancestry. This negates the idea floated by some historians that Indus Valley people were Vedic people who used Sanskrit language. These studies can be found in detail at Scroll In.

The finds at Sanauli establish that horses were present in the Gangetic plains much before the so-called Aryan people (Steppe pastorals) came to the Ganagetic plain in 1500-1000 BCE. while genetic study (ancestry) confirms that the present-day people in the Gangetic valley (and Indian subcontinent) have strong genetic and cultural imprint of Steppe pastoral people. Dr. Sanjay Manjul, the Director of the Sanauli archaeological excavation postulates that the people of the Sanauli site were following vedic rituals: ‘the anthropomorphic figures on coffin indicate religious belief, and the gold, copper anthropomorphic figure associated with Vedic gods are also found. Also, the bodies had the impressions of cloth that suggests purification of bodies similar to what we practice in Hindu religion.’
So what can be deduced from the varying studies with claims and counterclaims on the Aryan invasion theory. ASI has discovered many human skeletons at Sanauli. If they are successful in extracting DNA from these skeletons then it will help in clearing the smoke screen and establishing a link between OCP i.e. the people of upper Gangetic plains (like Sanauli), the Indus Valley Civilisation and Steppe ancestry.
In the situation that the two sides met, a conflict was inevitable. What might have happened when the Steppe pastoral tribes with their chariots encountered the Gangetic people who too were warriors having horse-driven chariots? Genetic studies demonstrate that much of the steppe ancestry in the Indian subcontinent is male. This implies the people from Steppes might have overpowered the male population existing in the Indian subcontinent when they arrived. So, could that mean Sanauli warriors lost to Steppe warriors? It will take some more evidence for this debate to be resolved. At any rate, the finding of Sanauli archeological site is a huge breakthrough which has revived and given a new direction to the long-standing Aryan invasion debate. I posed the question to Rajkumar ji whether the present-day people of Sanauli are descendants of the ancient ‘Royal Warriors’ whose graves have been discovered or are they descendants of ‘Aryans’ who overpowered the ‘ancient warriors’ of Sanauli. He told me that according to oral tradition in his community, the Jat Maan, the people came to the eastern side of River Yamuna around 1200 years ago. I asked him what ASI had to say about the cultural timeline of Sanauli - has there been continuous habitation since 1900 BCE in Sanauli or was there a gap of some centuries. He said that I had raised a very interesting question and he would ask the ASI people about it when he met them next.

For an average person in Sanauli, it is a site associated with Mahābhārata (of the Epic Mahābhārata). Local newspapers and some of the news channels are to great extent responsible for this. A big skeleton was discovered in one of the excavation trenches at Sanauli. A villager went so far as to say that the huge skeleton is most probably of Ghatotkacha, the giant son of legendary Bhima (one of the Pandava brothers of epic Mahābhārata).  Ghatotkacha played a significant role in the epic battle Mahābhārata and he died fighting in the battlefield. The Mahābhārata epic is very deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang, during his journey to India in 7th century CE, was told a version of Mahābhārata Epic at Sthaneshwar (present day Kurukshetra) which is now believed to be the place where the epic battle of Mahābhārata was fought between Kauravas and Pandavas. 

Discussing with the Sarpanch of Sanauli
During my stay in Sanauli, I met the Sarpanch (elected village head) Shri Yogendra Singh Mann. When I introduced myself and explained my purpose of visit, he welcomed me and introduced his younger brother Satyendra Maan for talking to me about Sanauli. Satyendra ji was more aware about excavations and developments. He told me that he is in regular touch with ASI people including Sri Sanjay Manjul, the Excavation Director. He very enthusiastically shared with me how the excavation has brought the village on the world map and that now ASI is planning to acquire 350 acres of land for further excavations and development of the site. I asked him what the reaction of the villagers to this was - whether they were in opposition to the land acquisition move of ASI. He replied enthusiastically: ‘Not at all. My family might have to lose about 100 acres but we are happy about it because Sanauli is a national pride now and we are happy to contribute to it. Sanauli was home to royal warrior people in ancient times and we are making an effort to convince authorities to make a museum here and bring the Sanauli chariots back to Sanauli.’ I asked Satyendra ji whether he had seen the chariots. Pointing to a chair kept by his side, he answered in a disappointed way: ish kursi ke barabar hoga ji (it was of the size of this chair). What he meant was the chariot was not like those big chariots shown in Mahābhārata serial on national television. When Satyendra ji had asked Dr. Manjul why the chariots were small, Dr. Manjul told him these chariots were meant for use by single or two people. Satyendra ji also noticed that the wooden part of the chariot was eaten by deemak (termite) and yet the shape of the wheel and chariot were intact. The chariots discovered at Sanauli have two wheels fixed on an axle that was linked by a long pole to the yoke of a pair of animals. A superstructure was attached to the axle consisting of a platform protected by side-screens and a high dashboard. The wheels were found to be solid in nature, without any spokes, and studded with triangular pieces of copper. Satyendra ji also noticed closely the size of the skeletons in the burials. His observation was that people were not tall, their average height being around 5 or 5.5 ft tall. Just a few days before my visit, a team from Oxford University came to study the site. Satyendra ji had been with the team. He told me that they had come with a certain machine which I guessed was ground penetrating radar. Satyendra received an update about the survey done by the team from Oxford. The Oxford team discovered that the archaeological site was spread in a very large area.

During my three days at Sanauli, I stayed at Shiv Hanuman Temple situated on the outskirts of the village in the northwest. Like temples in rural India, this temple was managed by a village committee. The temple premises was also used as gymnasium by young boys of the village. It had many locally designed equipment and throughout the day, it was occupied by boys aspiring to join the police or military services. Here, at the temple, I met a man named Gaurav Maan, who joined Uttar Pradesh Police recently. Gaurav told me quite proudly that over a hundred youth from his village had joined the police and military services in the recent past. As I did not notice too many girls on the streets, I asked him whether girls too were aspiring to join the police and military services. He said yes, they were a few girls from the village who had joined the state police but not many of them. 

While strolling in the village, I met a group of teenage students who at once became curious to know about me and my project. I told them about Xuanzang whose footsteps I was following through a 2000km long padyatra (foot journey). I was delighted to find out that they not only knew about Xuanzang but also about Faxian (5th CE) and I-tsing (7th CE) - two other Buddhist monks who came from China on a pilgrimage to India. One of the students, Arjun Maan, started talking about the Buddha and the eight stupas made over his body relics. His knowledge surprised me greatly so I asked how he knew in such detail about the Buddha and Xuanzang. All of them answered together that anybody preparing for state or national level competitive exams had to study these topics. I think the governments of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are slowly realizing the deep association of these states with Buddha and therefore incorporating topics related to Buddhism in school curriculum and competitive exams as a way of spreading awareness among students who are best agents for sensitizing a community. One can see school buses lined up outside Buddhist pilgrimage sites in UP and Bihar. Organising sightseeing to heritage sites for students is a part of government awareness generation effort in the field of heritage preservation.

One of the persons who showed me around and gave me company frequently during my three-day stay in Sanauli was Ankush Maan. In 2005 when the first excavation took place in Sanauli, Akush was only 8 years old. Ankush told me that at the time, the event of the excavation was mostly an ‘entertainment’ for children like him, but in 2018, at the time of the second excavation, they were all old enough so then they could understand the enormous importance of the discoveries in Sanauli and their implications. Together with a few friends, Ankush has collected many artefacts which they keep discovering from the fields in the village from time to time. They brought out a heavy and bulging bag full of ancient broken bricks and potshards. Ankush took out a broken piece of terracotta sculpture which he thought must be very ancient. They have shared their collection with the archaeological experts who visit the village often now. The children also keep following every single news about Sanauli that appears in local or national newspapers. I think that the team from ASI have done their work very well of educating young minds in Sanuali regarding the value of the antiquities discovered in their village. Sanauli has many young people who participated in the excavations and understand the larger significance of the place - this is very important for the preservation of the site in the long-term.
 Avi, Ankush and his friends showing me the artefacts that they collected from fields

My host Harinder Maan with his son

I had initially planned a two-day stay in Sanauli but within a couple of hours of my arrival, I made so many friends - Harinder Phalwan, Gaurav, Avi, Ankush, Rajkumar ji among others - they made every effort to make my stay fruitful. All those I became friends with belonged to the Maan Jat community. Maan is one of the many Jat communities that live in western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. The people of Sanauli are mostly a farming community. Almost all the households had buffaloes and cows. So obviously I was offered a lot of milk products in the meals. Because of the hospitality and insistence of my friends, I added one more day to my stay. At 6 am on 3 March when I was about to leave Sanauli, there was a knock on my door. When I opened the door, I was surprised to find Harinder Phalwan, Avi, Ankush and Rohan standing there with a tiffin box. They had brought my breakfast - six parathas and a can full of milk. It was very touching especially because they must have woken up very early to prepare this. After finishing my breakfast and before starting my walk out of the village, we clicked a group selfie. As I exited Sanauli, I saw a welcome hoarding hanging over the Barot highway which had a picture of Shri Yogendra Singh Maan and Smt. Usha Devi. The hoarding mentioned Smt. Usha Devi as the Sarpanch and Shri Yogendra Singh Maan as the husband of the Sarpanch so on the day I thought I was interacting with the Sarpanch, it was actually the husband of the Sarpanch. I turned with a quizzical look to Ankush and Avi who had introduced me to Yogendra Ji as the Sarpanch. Both smiled. I was hardly surprised. Husbands handling the public affairs on behalf of their elected wives is common in India. Ankush and Avi walked with me for more than a mile. Finally, I had to insist them to return with the promise that I would return soon.

Hoarding with pictures of village head and her husband

Ankush, Avi, Nishant, Rohan and Harinder ji....morning see-off