Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Resolving the Puzzle of the ‘Palace City’ of Kapilavastu and Developing the ‘Kapilavastu Pilgrimage Trail’

The ancient kingdom of Kapilavastu, mentioned in the Buddhist literature as located in the foothills of Himalayas, is situated across the present-day boundary between Nepal and India. The Buddhist sites of Kapilavastu, mentioned in the accounts of Chinese monk-scholars Faxian (Fahien, 5th century CE) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th century CE) and revealed in the excavations in the past century, lie on either side of the India-Nepal border. Consequently, both India and Nepal are responsible for protecting and promoting these sites. Ideally, both countries should join hands in developing a Kapilavastu Pilgrimage circuit that would integrate the sacred Buddhist pilgrimage places on either side of the border. However, due to the clashing claims between India and Nepal over the identification of ‘Palace City’ of Kapilavastu — both countries claim the ‘Palace City’ to be lying within their territory — an atmosphere of mistrust has developed between the two countries leading to distrust stalling the idea of ‘Kapilavastu Pilgrimage’ indefinitely. Let us understand this issue in detail.
         Map 1- Kapilavastu Pilgrimage Circuit based on the description of Xuanzang

The name Kapilavastu refers to the kingdom as well as the capital (administrative center) of the Śākya dynasty, ruled in the 6th century BCE by King Suddhodhana, the father of Prince Siddhārtha. Kapilavastu was the place where Siddhārtha (the Buddha) spent his boyhood before renouncing worldly pleasures in search of the truth. Faxian and Xuanzang both had visited the kingdom of Kapilavastu on their journey to the Buddhist scared places in India. Xuanzang writes that Kapilavastu was a kingdom with a circumference of 4000 Li (1300 kms approx.) in circumference. Faxian too mentions Kapilavastu as a country, but does not give its size. According to Xuanzang, the kingdom of Kapilavastu contained a ‘Royal City’ or ‘Capital’ within which was a ‘Palace City’ or ‘Inner City’ about 15 Li (5 kms approx.) in circumference. Faxian neither refers to ‘Royal City’ nor ‘Palace City,’ but instead mentions a ‘City of Kapilavastu’. Faxian’s descriptions of the ‘City of Kapilavastu’ and Xuanzang’s descriptions of ‘Palace City’ indicate that both are referring to a place where King Suddhodhana lived and the Bodhisattva Siddhārtha (the Buddha) spent his childhood. Xuanzang and Faxian both saw numerous shrines within the ‘Palace City’/‘City of Kapilavastu’ and in its neighbourhood to mark places associated with the Buddha, his mother, Mahāmayā, and his father, King Suddhodhana. Therefore, it may be concluded that Xuanzang’s ‘Palace City’ and Faxian's ‘City of Kapilavastu’ are the same place.

At the time of Faxian’s pilgrimage to India, Kapilavastu was already in ruins. Faxian saw only some monks and a score or two of families of common people at the ‘City of Kapilavastu’. Two centuries later, Xuanzang had a similar experience to share. He mentions of more than a thousand villages and monasteries lying in ruins in the kingdom of Kapilavastu. In spite of the kingdom being in ruins, both pilgrims found a small community of monks, who guided them to the sacred Buddhist pilgrimage places. The sacred places mentioned by them can be grouped into four set of places.
1. ‘Palace City’ (mentioned by Xuanzang)/‘City of Kapilavastu’ (mentioned by Faxian), henceforth referred to as ‘City’.
2. Place of Kanakmuni Buddha
3. Place of Krakachunda Buddha
4. Birth place of Gautama Buddha (Lumbīnī)

Both Faxian and Xuanzang, had visited all these places, but in different sequences. Faxian visited first the place of Krakachunda Buddha, from where he went to Kanakmuni Buddha and then to ‘City’. Xuanzang visited first the ‘City,’ from where he went to the places of Krakachunda and then Kanakmuni Buddha. Xuanzang mentions seeing three Aśokan pillars in Kapilavastu kingdom at the birthplace of the Buddha (Lumbīnī), the place of Kanakmuni Buddha and at the place of Krakachunda Buddha. Faxian is silent about these Aśokan pillars. In the 1890’s, three Aśokan pillars were actually discovered in Nepal at Rumandie, Niglivā and Gothiāwā. The pillars at Rumandie and Niglivā have Aśokan inscriptions dating from the 3rd century BCE establishing them to be the birth place of the Buddha (Lumbīnī) and the place of Kanakmuni Buddha respectively. Obviously, the third Pillar at Gothiāwā marks the place of Krakachunda Buddha. Some scholars conjectured that the Aśokan pillars at Rumadie, Niglivā and Gothiāwā were brought to these places from elsewhere. Research, however, shows their speculation to be incorrect.

                 Map 2- Map depicting pilgrimage of Faxian and Xuanzang in Kapilavastu kingdom

After the discovery of places of Kanakmuni Buddha, Krakachunda Buddha and Lumbīnī, the focus of archaeological exploration shifted to finding the fourth place — the ‘City’. Locating the site of the ‘City’ was not difficult because both Faxian and Xuanzang described the location of the ‘City’ with respect to the other three sites that were already established. When the early explorers who examined Faxian’s and Xuanzang’s description of the ‘City’ with respect to the sites of Lumbīnī, Niglivā and Gothiāwā — established on the basis of the Aśokan pillars as explained earlier — they found a contradiction. Faxian travelled 1 Yojan (10 kms approx.) in the East direction from Kanakmuni Place (Niglivā) to reach the ‘City;’ accordingly, the ‘City’ should be on and around B (refer to map 2). Xuanzang travelled 50 Li (16 km approx.) in the North direction of Karakchunda Place (Gothiāwā) to reach the ‘City;’ accordingly, the ‘City’ should be around A (refer to map 2). Summarising our findings till this point, we can say that if we follow Faxian’s descriptions, the ‘City’ lies at B, and if we follow Xuanzang’s descriptions, it lies around A.  Further in the puzzle over the identification of the ‘City,’ we find that the locations of B and A are substantially apart on the map. But since the ‘City’ can be located only in one of the two spots — B or A — we are led to conclude that either Faxian's or Xuanzang’s description is inaccurate. To establish whose description is accurate, let us examine their respective travel accounts further.
    Broken Aśokan Pillar at Lumbīnī at the time of discovery    Pic: ASI

                                 Broken Aśokan Pillar of Gothiāwā            Pic: Cambridge University Press
                               Broken Aśokan Pillar of Niglivā with inscriptions 

Faxian and Xuanzang both travelled from the ‘City’ to Lumbīnī. Faxian travelled 50 Li (15 kms approx.) in the East direction from the ‘City’ to reach Lumbīnī. Xuanzang, on the other hand, travelled 32 Li (10 km approx.) South-East of ‘City’ to reach the Arrow Spring, from where he travelled 90 Li (27 kms approx.) South-West to reach Lumbīnī. At present, Rumandie is identified with the site of Lumbīnī. If both Faxian and Xuanzang arrived at Lumbīnī from the ‘City’, then by charting their travel routes on the map, we should reach Rumandie. However, that is not so. Faxian’s description leads to point C (refer to map 2). This means that the distance and direction of the ‘City’ provided by Faxian are incorrect. The distance and directions of ‘City’ provided by Xuanzang, on the other hand, are consistent with respect to Lumbīnī (Rumandie) and two other Aśokan pillar sites. If we assume Xuanzang’s descriptions to be correct, then based on these descriptions, the most probable place for the ‘City’ of Kapilavastu appears to be in Tilaurakot and its surroundings (point A in map 2).

In 1962, at the request of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, Government of India appointed Ms. Debala Mitra, Superintendent of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), to survey Lumbīnī and its surrounding. Mitra excavated at Tilaurakot, but could not find anything substantial to support Tilaurakot as the remains of the ‘City’. Mitra’s findings were a disappointment for Nepal. In her book Buddhist Monuments, published in 1971, Mitra rejected Tilaurakot as the site of the ‘City,’ arguing that the ‘City’ instead was Piprāhwā and its surrounding that lay on the Indian side of the border.

Piprāhwā is a village in Siddharthnagar District of Uttar Pradesh in India. Piprāhwā is 16 kms away from Rumandie, which is in Nepal, and 1.5 kms away from the India-Nepal border. Piprāhwā is the place where in 1898, William Peppé discovered relics of the Buddha from an ancient stūpa mound. The inscription on one of the caskets containing the relics read that the relics of the Buddha were the belongings of Śākyans. We know that the Buddha belonged to the Śākya tribe, who were the rulers of the kingdom of Kapilavastu. The discovery of the Śākyans share of the Buddha relics at Piprāhwā suggested that Piprāhwā and its surroundings were not only an integral part of the kingdom of Kapilavastu but was also an important place for the Śākyans. Peppé had excavated only the most prominent mound at Piprāhwā which turned out to be the relic stūpa. The relic stūpa was surrounded by many other mounds. Mitra expected that these mounds would be the remains of Nyagrodha Monastery (Nyagrodhārāma).

According to Buddhist tradition, in the first year after his enlightenment the Buddha returned to Kapilavastu to meet his father, King Shuddhodhana. During this visit, the Buddha stayed at Nyagrodha Park. At the Nyagrodha Park, the Buddha preached the Dhamma to his father and his Śākyan brethren. Many Śākyans embraced the Buddha’s teachings and joined the Saṅgha. A monastery was built later at this place for the Śākyans who became monks. This monastery was the Nyagrodhārāma. According to Xuanzang, the Nyagrodha Monastery was 3-4 Li (approx. 1 km.) South of the ‘City’.  

Mitra expected the excavations at Piprāhwā to yield some inscription that would confirm the site as the remains of the Nyagrodha Monastery. If Piprāhwā could be identified as the site of the Nyagrodha Monastery, then ’City’ would be 1 km south of Piprāhwā — on the Indian side. To substantiate her claim that the ‘City’ was in the vicinity of Piprāhwā, Mitra referred to the accounts of Faxian. Faxian travelled from Kanakmuni Place in the East direction to reach the ‘City,’ and from the ‘City’ he travelled further East to reach Lumbīnī (refer to map 2). If Faxian reached Lumbīnī by travelling in the East direction from the ‘City’, then it means that the ‘City’ was in the West of Lumbīnī. Based on this logic, Mitra argued that the ‘City’ should be in the West of Rumandie - point D in map 2 - which coincides with Piprāhwā and its surrounding. We may say that Mitra’s argument is not justified because she bases her theory on Faxian’s accounts. On the Map 2, we see that Piprāhwā is on the West of Rumandie, which is the site already identified as Lumbīnī. However, Faxian’s Lumbīnī should be at spot B in Map 2. Piprāhwā is not on the West of spot B.  Hence, Piprāhwā cannot be the site of the ‘City’ according to Faxian's reference.

Mitra’s reports encouraged Mr. K M Srivastava, Superintendent Archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India to take up excavations in Piprāhwā and other potential mounds in the its neighbourhood. Hoping to find some evidence that would help in linking Piprāhwā to the ‘City,’ Srivastava began excavating at Piprāhwā in 1971. Excavation revealed that the Relic stūpa of Piprāhwā was surrounded by three monasteries. Many monastic seals were also discovered. These were classified into three sets. (1) The first set of seals read Om Devaputra Vihare Kapilavastu Bhikkhusaṁghasa (Om of the community of monks of Kapilavastu in the monastery of kanishka/ huvishka). Twenty-one such seals were discovered. The word Devaputra (son of the gods) was an honorific title used by Kuṣāṇ king, Kanishka (126-150 century CE) and his successor, Huvishka (150-193 century CE). (2) The second set of seals read Maha Kapilavastu Bhikshusaṁghasa (Of the community of Buddhist monks of great Kapilavastu). Thirteen such seals were found belonging to the Kuṣāṇ period (2nd century BCE – 3rd century CE). (3) The third set of seals carried names of monks. The inscriptions on the three sets of seals together proved that the monasteries of Piprāhwā were established by Kuṣāṇ kings for the community of monks of the kingdom of Kapilavastu.

Unfortunately for Srivastava Piprāhwā turned out to be Maha Kapilavastu Monastery and not Nyagrodha monastery as predicted by Mitra. So, ideally this was a closed case but Srivastava still conducted more excavation in the south side of Piprāhwā, at a village called Ganwariyā, hoping to find the remains of the palace of King Suddhodana, and thereby establish the place as the site of the ‘City’. Srivastava’s excavations, however, revealed Ganwariyā to be another monastic site like Piprāhwā. In 1976, three years after the excavations at Piprāhwā and Ganwariyā, the findings from these places were made public through a news item in The Times of India tilted ‘Buddha’s Lost City of Kapilavastu Found.’ People in Nepal saw this as India’s plot to deny Nepal claim over the Buddha’s homeland. The claim of Indian archaeologists of having discovered the ‘City’ or even of the ‘City’ being on the Indian side of the India-Nepal border is controversial because, as we have seen, it lacks supporting evidence.

                                                       Excavated monastic remains of Piprāhwā

                                                 Excavated monastic remains of Ganwariyā
Explorers and archaeologists like Alexander Cunningham, who successfully identified many ancient places mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang, found that Faxian’s descriptions were often inconsistent in terms of distance and direction of places. Consequently, they preferred to rely on the descriptions of Xuanzang. Mitra and Srivastava, on the other hand, based their excavation and analysis on Faxian’s description of the ‘City’ rather Xuanzang’s, without explaining why they did so.

Mitra and Srivastava both failed to notice the error in Faxian’s description. A careful study of the descriptions by Faxian and Xuanzang and a little observation should have helped them to realize that if we change Faxian’s direction of travel from the Place of Kanakmuni Buddha (identified as Niglivā) to the ‘City’ from East to West then the description of the ‘City’ and its neighbouring places including the Arrow Spring and Lumbīnī provided by Faxian coincide with the descriptions provided by Xuanzang. Map 3 shows Xuanzang’s route according to his description, and Faxian’s route with the direction of travel changed from East to West (refer to map 3). In the map, we see that the travel routes of Xuanzang and Faxian actually coincide (or are similar), once we take Faxian’s direction of travel as West instead of East.
                   Map 3- Map depicting travel of Xuanzang and Faxian (after ‘correction’) 

A team from Bradford University conducted a study in 1997 using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and found substantial evidence supporting Tilaurakot as the most likely place of the site of the ‘City’. It may be argued that since no inscriptions have been found at Tilaurakot, the place cannot be conclusively identified as the ‘City’. However, we know many of the important Buddhist pilgrimage places which were identified in the last century, namely Griddhakūṭa (Vulture’s peak), Veḷuvana (Bamboo’s grove), Saṅkāsya, Prāgbodhi, Brahmayoni, were identified on the basis of circumstantial evidences, that is to say, on the basis of descriptions provided by Faxian and Xuanzang. In the case of locating the site of the ‘City’, circumstantial evidences are strongly pointing to Tilaurakot and its surroundings.  

At present, India and Nepal both are promoting their claims of Kapilavastu causing a deadlock in archaeological exploration, analysis and identification. The attitudes of both the countries are criticisable because we know that boundaries of ancient kingdoms were not constant. Since Kapilavastu is an ancient kingdom, in the modern times, its parts may be spread across Nepal and India. Findings at Piprāhwā and Ganwariyā confirm that the remains of the Buddhist Kapilavastu are scattered on either side of the India-Nepal border. Xuanzang mentions about more than a thousand monasteries laying in ruins in Kapilavastu. The governments of India and Nepal should work together to explore, document, identify and develop the sites mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang around the ‘City’, such as the place where after his enlightenment, the Buddha was received by his father, King Suddhodhana, for the first time, the place where the Bodhisattva Siddhārtha became absorbed in Sāmādhi (deep meditation) while watching ploughmen at work, and other places around the ‘City’ related with the Buddha. The governments of India and Nepal should also together develop the sacred places of Kapilavastu on either side of the India-Nepal border, such as Lumbīnī, Gothiāwā, Niglivā, Piphrāhwā, Ganwariyā and Tilaurakot, and promote pilgrimage and tourism to these places under the banner of the ‘Kapilavastu Buddha Trail’.

Tilaaurakot Area

Special Thanks to Aparajita Goswami


Allen, Charles (2008). The Buddha and Dr Führer: An Archaeological Scandal (1st ed.). London:                                           Haus Publishing.

Beal, S.; 2005, Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India, Low  Price                         Publications, Delhi: riginally published London: Trubner and Co.: 1869).

Srivastava, K. M; 1980, Archaeological Excavations at Piprahwa and Ganwaria and the                                  Identification of Kapilavastu.  The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume 3,  Number 1, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.

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).

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