Friday, May 15, 2020

The Sakya Trail: 'Sakyon ki Rajdhani' (Seat of the Sakyas)

On the 30th day of my foot journey after having walked over 500 kms, I arrived in Sankisa (Saṅkāsya) on 20th March only to find a poster saying the archaeological site is closed due to the COVID 19 pandemic!

I have been coming to Sankisa since 2016. During my first survey trip to Sankisa, I met a few people in the village who complained about how certain Buddhist groups were using the Buddhist site of Sankisa as a platform for anti-Brahmanical speeches and how this has become the cause of animosity between the local ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Hindu’ groups.


Archaeological Site of Sankisa closed due to Lockdown. 
The question of the Sakyans came to prominence for the first time in the 1950's when an agrarian community living in the Gangetic plain started claiming themselves to be descendants of the clan to which the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka belonged. These people went by various surnames like Sakya, Maurya, Kushwaha, Kachi, Saini and 20 more. Most of them were marginal farmers and socially backward.

In the late 1950’s, some individuals from the so-called Sakya clan started a grassroots movement to raise awareness among their fellow community members about their Buddhist roots. Their population was concentrated mostly in the districts in the neighbourhood of Sankisa, which was one of the Eight Great Places of Buddhist pilgrimage.  For these neo-Buddhists, Sankisa became the focus of their spirituality and identity and came to be referred among them as 'Sakyo ki Rajdhani' (capital of the Sakyas).

Bisāri Devi mound, Sankisa.




Sankisa is an important place of the Buddhist pilgrimage which is said to be where the Buddha descended from Heaven after preaching to his mother. At some point around the beginning of the 2nd millennium, Buddhism declined and all the Buddhist pilgrimage places were abandoned. New populations arrived to these sites occupying them and giving them new meaning. Over centuries the Buddhist structures got buried under piles of earth and what was visible to the eye were only large mounds. Sir Alexander Cunningham identified in 1844 the village of Sankisa with Sankassa and Kapitha mentioned by ancient Chinese pilgrims Faxian (5th CE) and Xuanzang (7th CE). Cunningham noted that the Hindus in the village worshipped the mound situated on the southeast corner of the village as a local deity named Bisāri Devi. Cunningham writes that Bisāri Devi was believed to be ‘a very powerful deity.’ The practice of worshipping the mound showed that the association of the mound with something sacred had remained in the memory of local people even after centuries.
Temple dedicated to Bisāri Devi over the mound by the same name decorated for the Annual Tripitaka chanting organised by LBDFI, 2019. Pic: Vikash Kumar

Almost ‘nothing happened’ in Sankisa since its identification in 1844 until in 1957, Venerable Panditha Madabawita Wijesoma Thero, a monk from Sri Lanka, came to Saṅkāsya with the intent of facilitating development of the place. Venerable   Wijesoma Thero in cooperation with Mukta Prasad Dixit of Sankisa village initiated the trend of celebrating Buddha Jayanti (Vesāk Purnimā, Full-moon of May) and Swargāvatarna Samaroh (on Sharad Purnimā, Full-moon of October) every year. These events received a great response from the local people from all the communities and marked a new beginning for Sankisa towards heritage revival.

During my foot journey, in Sankisa, I met Shri Suresh Bauddha, the President of Youth Buddhist Society. Suresh ji was 16 years old when he visited Sankisa for the first time to participate in the Swargāvatarna Samāroh (‘Descent from Heaven’ fair) along with his younger brother and father. He recollected, “All of us were so excited that mother packed for puri sabji (Indian fried bread and cooked vegetables) and we started from home very early in the morning. The three of us rode on a single bicycle. We covered 55 kms in 10 hrs as the roads were very bumpy and arrived in Sankisa - 'Sakyo ki Rajdhani' (capital of the Sakyas) by late afternoon to attend the fair.”

Suresh ji recalled further that “What I saw and heard at the melā (fair) changed my life forever. I had found the purpose of my life. I noticed that there was a small gathering of hundreds of Sakya people. All the speakers including Ven. Dhammaloko and Shri Munshi Lal Sakya, who were the key organizers of the event, were giving hate speeches against Brahmins. At that time, I liked it and even clapped in appreciation of these anti-Brahmanical speeches. On returning to my village, I shared my experience with fellow villagers and friends. The next year, in 1986, many people joined me on their bicycles to Sankisa. In 1989, this number grew so large that I had to hire a bus, and in 1990, I hired two buses. In Sankisa, we slept in tents. We brought some food with us from home but there were community kitchens as well sponsored by the local Sakya people.”

I asked Suresh ji about the origin of the hate speeches - how it all began. Suresh ji said, “Shri Munshi Lal Sakya, an affluent, educated from Aliganj was among the first people who I think conceived and initiated the program of creating awareness among the Sakya people about their Buddhist roots.” In my interactions with Sakya people during my foot journey, I had been hearing about Munshi Lal ji at Aitranji Kherā, Aliganj and Ganj Dundwara from the other Sakya people. According to Suresh ji, Munshi Lal was influenced by Venerable Pragya Prabhakar. Ven. Prabhakar, an Agra-based Buddhist monk, was a product of Baba Shaeb Ambedkar’s mass movement to convert to Buddhism in 1956. Baba Saheb’s Buddhist movement was born in opposition to the Brahmanical society which they believed was discriminatory. Munshi Lal ji got his inspiration from Ven. Prabhakar who was a staunch follower of Baba Saheb.

Munshi Lal was soon joined by like-minded people. Prominent among them were Venerable Dhammaloko and three school teachers, Paati Ram Shakya, Fateh Singh Yadav, and Jaman Lal Sakya. They became the first grass-root community motivators working to generate awareness among the Sakya community. In this way, they were also the opinion makers on behalf of the Sakya people. Their awareness generation program was basically a soft campaign against the Brahmanical domination of the society. But in no time the campaign grew vitriolic so many people started distancing themselves from the whole thing. Sri Lankan monk, Ven. Wijesoma Thero, along with people like Ganesh Datta Sakya separated themselves from Munshi Lal camp.

Swargāvtaran Samāroh which was being celebrated at Ven. Wijesoma Thero’s school grounds was now celebrated under a new banner Bauddha Vikas Parisad (Buddha Development Society) at a new venue Dhammaloko Buddha Vihara. Swargāwtaran Samāroh gradually became an exclusive ‘Sakya event’. In the words of Suresh ji: “Swargāvtaran Sāmaroh, from being a plural event transformed into Sakya ka Melā (Sakya Fair).” A few Sakyans objected to the word ‘Swarg (heaven), which they thought was giving a ‘Hindu flavor’ to the name.  The fair was therefore renamed Bauddh Mahotsava (Buddha Festival). This fair was drawing big crowds of Sakya people from neighbouring districts of Sankisa. Until all of this, the situation was under control. Things started looking bad when after finishing the event, the Sakya people would do a foot march to the Achal Stūpa (Bisāri Devi mound) raising instigating slogans on the way like Baudh Dharma ki kya Pehchan, pandit bhangi ek samaan (The essence of Buddhism is that the Brahmin (the elite) and the Sweeper (the lower castes) are equal).

Shri Suresh Bauddh in his office.
I asked Suresh ji as to why local Buddhists call the Bisāri Devi mound Achal Stūpa. According to Suresh ji, this name was proposed by Ven. Wijesoma Thero upon the reasoning that Gautama Buddha descended from heaven at that spot (Bisāri Devi mound), all the past Buddhas too did same, this place was marked for all the past and future Buddhas to descend from heaven after preaching to their mothers, hence the spot was Achal meaning “a fixed spot.”

Suresh ji says the Sakya awareness generation movement has strong and far-reaching effects. One of the visible effects is the emergence and prevalence of the surname Sakya in rural areas. “We had surnames like Kachi, Matia, Kachawa, Kuchwaha. After the movement commenced, people started taking on surnames as Sakya and Maurya.” This was a new piece of information for me and it surprised me quite a bit. Shri Ganga Sahay Sakya, whom I met at Aliganj and a colleague of Shri Munshi Lal had told me that he had always carried the Sakya surname. But according to Suresh ji this was not the case. And there is evidence to think Suresh ji is correct because the documents of British government Gazetteers do not contain the surname Sakya. So, in all probability, these surnames are recent creations.

From the new Buddhist identity emanates new rituals. I was told that on Sharad Purnimā (Full moon night of October), the day Buddha descended from Heaven, the womenfolk of the Sakya community prepare kheer (rice pudding) and place it on the terrace of their houses. They believe that the kheer would turn into amrit (nectar) as Buddha while descending from heaven will bless it. They also carry kheer to Achal Stūpa (Bisāri Devi mound, Sankisa) to offer it at the mound. Such is the extent of their devotion towards the Buddha.

The year after attending the ‘Sakya Fair’ at Sankisa, Suresh ji decided to become a full-time Dhamma volunteer. The next year, in 1988, he took deekshā (ordination for laypersons) which meant that he had to follow the Panchsheel (five precepts of Buddhism for lay followers). He told me: “Till now, more than a million people of Sakya and its sister communities have taken deekshā and I might have motivated and facilitated a few thousand out of them.” Suresh ji did not stop at this. He wanted to study Buddhism so in 1992 enrolled himself in Nava Nalanda Mahavihara at Nalanda, Bihar. At Nalanda, he came in contact with monks from Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other Buddhist countries. He also had opportunities to visit Korea and Sri Lanka. This opened his eyes to true practices in Buddhism. He realised that the anti-Brahmanical speeches that he was participating in were contrary to the teachings of the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka. Suresh ji then decided to establish a fresh national organisation at Sankisa to promote the true teachings of the Buddha among the Sakya communities and other people in and around Sankisa. This organisation was called the Young Buddhist Society of India.

Over time, the anti-Brahmanical propaganda being carried on by certain Sakya groups intensified. As a reaction, the Hindu groups also started mobilising themselves around their Hindu identity and formed an organisation called Bisāri Devi Sangharsh Samiti (BDSS) (Bisāri Devi Struggle Association). In the early 1990’s, the BDSS started conducting the ritual of Havan (fire offering) at the temple on the Bisāri Devi mound. A series of reactions and counter reactions followed. Buddhist groups removed the Hindu flags from the mound and planted the Buddhist flag annoying the BDSS. Another issue for the Buddhists was that the money offered by the international Buddhist pilgrims who visited Sankisa went to the Brahmin priest of the temple on the Bisāri Devi mound. These big and small factors led to tensions between the Buddhist and Hindu communities in Sankisa even escalating into fist fights a couple of times. Nowadays, during the 3-day Bauddh Mahotsava (Buddha Festival), the situation gets so tense that police from three neighboring districts Mainpuri, Farookhabad and Etah have to get involved to prevent any untoward incident. As the festival attracts a large crowd of over 3 lac Buddhists from Sankisa and neighboring places, emotions run high in both Buddhist and Hindu communities throughout the course of the event. In 2019, the BDSS brought more than 1000 supporters and sympathizers during the 3-day festival mainly to shout slogans against the Sakya people.

Suresh Ji is now quite worried because even politicians have started coming to the 3-day Bauddh Mahotsava. People with political interests from both communities are using the event as an occasion to further their agendas. Dhammaloko Buddha Vihara Prabandhan Samiti, the organization which organizes the fair, falls into the lure of money given by such people and allows them to attend the event and even make speeches. This will certainly lead to further escalation of tensions between the two communities with some serious consequences. It is disappointing to know that what was initiated as a people’s event has now become limited to a ‘handful of Sakyas’. The Hindu priest and caretaker of the Bisāri Devi temple, Kuldeep Giri, says this tension is created by people who aspire for personal publicity: “newspaper mein naam aa jaye” (My name will appear in the newspapers). The Buddhist-Hindu tensions are indeed a matter of worry because they have now extended to Achalpur Atranji Kherā, another important Buddhist site situated 60 kms from Sankisa, mentioned by Xuanzang. The relations between Buddhists and Hindus in Achalpur Atranji Kherā is already as bad as Sankisa.  

Kuldeep Giri, caretaker of the Bisāri Devi Temple.

In the village of Sankisa, I met Shri Awadhesh Dixit and Raj Kumar Dixit, sons of Late Mukta Prasad Dixit. Mukta Prasad Dixit, a Brahmin from Sankisa was the one who hosted the Sri Lankan monk, Venerable Wijesoma Thero in the 1950’s and worked with him in revitalizing the glory of Sankisa. Awadhesh ji and Raj Kumar ji were not happy with the deteriorating relations between Buddhists and Hindus. They have chosen to keep themselves out of the issue and are hoping that, like any trouble, it will also pass away eventually.
In conversation with Shri Awadhesh Dixt and Raj Kumar Dixit.



The majority of Sakya people whom I met during my foot journey were optimistic about the improvement in the Buddhist-Hindu deadlock. Many of them are trying to bring positive change in their own ways. Bhupendra Sakya, an engineer and Assistant Professor at Government Polytechnic, Mainpuri feels there is less of talks and discussions on the teachings and works of the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka which could help in reforming those neo-Buddhists who have adopted an anti-Brahmanical stance. He is facilitating change by developing a Buddha Vihāra in Aliganj which would have a small library to provide people with authentic literature on Buddhism. He has been bringing scholars from neighbouring universities to Aliganj for delivering talks. He told me that currently, the level of participation is low but his efforts are being appreciated, which is no less of an accomplishment. Bhupendra organised a group discussion even for me in the evening. Around 15 people joined me. I noticed how curious they were to find out what original literature had to say on many of the topics they thought they had been misinformed about. I thoroughly enjoyed answering the questions which they posed and thanked Bhupendra a lot for giving me the chance of engaging with so many people. 
Kaushalendra Sakya showing the library of Buddha Vihara, Aliganj.


Discussion with Sakya youth, facilitated by Bhupendra Sakya at Aliganj.
Another motivated person that I met was Jayvir Singh Sakya (Aliganj). An advocate by profession, he also feels worry at the way things stand between the Buddhists and the Hindus. Jayvir ji who is well-versed in Buddhist teachings told me that the whole movement has been hijacked by a few corrupted individuals who collect money from people and put it to personal use. And to get funds, hate speech happens to be the most effective way as it stimulates their sentiments and identity. Jayvir ji visits villages to give Dhamma talks. He told me, “My talks are now gaining an audience. I am now being invited more often.”

Yet another socially active person that I met was Ajab Singh Sakya (Ganj Dundwara). He sponsored vassa (rainy season retreat for monks) for 15 monks in 2009. He established an NGO in 2017 called Tathagat Bauddha Vikash Samiti (Tathagata Buddha Development Organisation). He owns a printing press through which he aims to print authentic study materials on the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka to facilitate awareness among Sakya people. His work is not limited to Sakya people, he works with other backward communities in Ganj Dundwara such as Lodhi Rajput, Jatav, Yadav. The Dhammadesna (Dhamma talks) organised by him are being appreciated by participants. He has organised more than 50 such Dhamma events.

Smt. Hashmukhi Devi and Prem Kumar Sakya who are spearheading Vipassana movement in Aliganj and neighbouring villages.
Spearheading the Vipassana meditation among the Sakya people in Aliganj and around, Prem Singh Sakya too is optimistic that the situation between Buddhists and Hindus will improve in the times to come. He thinks that the simple-minded Sakya people are being misled by those with vested interests.  

Suresh ji thinks that since the majority of the Sakyas have a rural background and very little education, they are gullible to manipulation. They need to be made aware of the vastness and diversity of Buddhism. With this as his aim, Suresh ji has been inviting eminent Buddhist monks from all around the world to give teachings and Dhamma talks to the locals. In 2008, he invited the world-renowned Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to his center in Sankisa for a 5-day teaching. An overwhelming ten thousand Sakya people participated in that Dhamma talk. They brought rice, wheat flour, milk, vegetables and dung cakes as a contribution to the event. H. H. Dalai Lama visited the center in Sankisa twice in 2015 and 2016 for a 3-day teaching. Around 1 lakh people from neighboring places participated in the teachings. The talks were given in English and translated to Hindi for the local people to understand. His Excellency Mingyur Rimpoche visited the Young Buddhist Society thrice in 2011, 2013 and 2020 to give a 3-day teaching. During his visit in 2011, he went to various villages in and around Sankisa and gave teachings and interacted with the locals. Women and girls participated in large numbers in these events. Meeting these Buddhist personalities has left a profound impression in everyone’s lives. Suresh ji told me, “Our volunteers who belonged to local villages have lifelong memories of working with international participants.” He added, “My idea with these events is not just spiritual awakening but also educating people, giving them exposure to the diversity in Buddhism. When they participate in these events, they get to know that Buddhism is not just confined to the ‘Sakyas’, its worldwide.”

Youth Buddhist Society has collaborated with many renowned Buddhist organisation in India and abroad including Institute of Buddhist Dialectics (Dharamshala), Mahabodhi Society (Bangalore), Fo Guang Shan (Taiwan), Karmapa Temple (Bodhgaya), International Network of Engaged Buddhist (Bangkok). “We are sending Sakya boys and girls to train as monks and nuns in Buddhist monasteries. Sakya community needs educated and well-trained monastics. We are also arranging authentic study material on Buddhism from national and international Buddhist organizations to be distributed among the locals,” Suresh ji informed me.

What I find very interesting about the revival movement among the Sakyas and its over 25 sister communities in the Gangetic plains is that it is paving the way for transforming these neglected Buddhist heritage sites into Living Heritage. Their movement though slightly disorderly at this stage is giving a voice to the sacred traces of the Buddha in this region.      

Story chronicled by Aparajita Goswami

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