Monday, July 6, 2020

Paltā Devi Temple and the Ashokan Pillar

I found mention of Paltā Devi (godess)for the first time in the book titled “The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer” by Charles Allen. According to Allen, Francis Hamilton Buchanan (1762-1829), during his geographic and ethnographic survey of Nepalese Terai region in the 1810’s, noticed a broken pillar, worshiped as Mahādeo at Paltā Devi.  He was told that the Mahādeo pillar extended much deeper in the ground. William Claxton Peppe, a British colonial engineer and landowner of Birdpur estate situated 8kms from Paltā Devi, discovered a Buddha body relic at Piprāhwā in 1898. Pepe believed the Shiva Linga at Paltā Devi to be an Ashokan Pillar.

Paltā Devi temple




















During my last meeting in November 2019 with Venerable Metteyya Sakyaputta, Vice Chairman of Lumbini Development Trust, I was told that for the people of Nepal Terai, Paltā Devi is an important cultural and religious centre.

When I was working out the route of my foot journey, I realised that Paltā Devi could fall on my way from Piprāhwā from Shravasti if I took a small detour. So I arrived at Paltā Devi early morning of 10th June. I was told that the Paltā Devi temple had opened two days ago, being closed for two months due to the lockdown. I met Shri Ram Anuj Puri who was just opening his tea and snacks shop in the temple complex.

The temple complex is spread in 1-1.5 acres. There are more than 30 shops surrounding the temple complex operating in temporary structures, selling prayer materials, eateries etc. I asked Puri ji if I could get a proper meal of roti sabzi at the temple. He told me that most people visiting the temple come from neighboring villages so do not take meals there, those who come for mundan (head-shaving ceremony for newborns), they cook their own food in the complex, themselves, and some others who do wish to eat go for something snack. Hence the eateries  did not prepare regular meals. According to him, people living in up to a 150 km radius of the temple come to see the shrine, including people from Nepal. 

Discussing with Ram Anuj Puri

Paltā Devi Temple




































Later in the day, I met the Mahant Shri Dinanath Giri in his office. He told me the temple is very ancient. It is called Paltā Devi because the Pāndava brothers (of Epic Mahābhārata) visited this temple during their Agyatvas (13 years of exile) after which their fortunes reversed (Paltā meaning overturned) hence this temple is called Paltā Devi. Later, Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pāndava brothers renovated the temple and Bhima established the Shiva Linga.  People from neighbouring villages come to this temple and apply oil and vermillion on the Devi statue for better harvest. So in the months of June and July at the beginning of monsoon the temple remains very crowded.

 Mahant Shri Dinanath Giri
Sandstone Shiva Linga
Market in the temple complex

Locals offering prayer at Temple







































































Dinanath ji told me that earlier this temple was controlled by Giri Matha (hindu monastery) but Mahant Rameshwar Giri got married and had a family of his. Since then the temple is owned by his family. He is the great-grandson of Rameshwar Giri. Dinanath ji are five brothers, he being the eldest surviving brother. The brothers share between them all the offerings that go to the temple. Since the offerings are not enough for their large families, the children that have grown up are going out to seek education and jobs in the cities.

He also shared with me about the Nepalese connection of the temple. Paltā Devi is 17kms as the crow flies from Tilaurakot, the place where Suddhodana, father of Siddhārtha (the Buddha) lived and ruled from. Once while on a hunting expedition he reached here and made a prayer that he be blessed with a son. Later that year, Siddhārtha was born. So out of thankfulness, Suddhodana renovated the temple.

I asked him how he came to know this story. He told me, when Pepe (William Pepe) excavated the Piprāhwā stupa, along with the relic casket they also discovered a written text that mentioned this incidence. I had no choice but to agree with what he was telling. I had read all reports on Pepe’s finds and there is no such mention.

He gave a lot of stress on the fact that the temple was very ancient because the walls are 4ft wide and Lakhori bricks (bricks made in 17th -19th CE) have been used in it. The temple was surrounded by dense forests teeming with tigers and leopards. The British had set up a special police station at Chilihiyā, 6kms away from the temple. People wanting to visit the temple gathered at the police station and if there were sufficient people to form a group, only then were they allowed to go - this was some 100 years ago.

I then went inside the sanctum noted by Buchanan. The Shiva Linga is made up of sandstone. It looked like the part of a massive pillar. Years of offering milk and water has led to the wearing away of the sandstone stump. The sandstone stump is around 2ft in diameter and 2.5 ft in height. They told me the stump runs very deep. The Ashokan pillar discovered at Gothiāwā at the place of the Karakchunda Buddha is broken and the top parts are not discovered yet. Gothiāwā is only 10kms as the crow flies from Paltā Devi. It is possible that the Paltā Devi Pillar is a part of the Gothiāwā Pillar.

Paltā Devi Village
























Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


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