Thursday, May 30, 2024

Kauśambī (Part II)- In search of the Dragon Cave

Prabhāsa (also Prabhosā) Hill is situated on the northern bank of River Yamunā. Drone Image@ Manish.

Xuanzang has mentioned a ‘Dragon Cave’ situated 8-9 Li (2-3 km) SW of the capital city of Kosambī (Kosam, 25° 20' N. 81° 23' E). A venomous dragon (cobra snake) lived in the cave.  As per Xuanzang, the Buddha subdued the dragon and left his shadow in the cave. 

Since Xuanzang in his description has not mentioned the physical situation of the dragon cave, Alexander Cunningham in his survey reports of 1862-63 proposed that the dragon cave would be some chamber on earth which was washed away by the river Yamunā (Cunningham 2000: 311). In 1883-84, Cunningham revisited Kosambī and proposed a man-made cave on an isolated hill called Prabhāsa (also Prabhosā) as the dragon cave mentioned by Xuanzang (Cunningham 1885: 1-2).

Prabhāsa Hill (25° 21'  N. 81° 19' E) is situated 5-6 km as the crow flies southwest of the ancient remains of  Kosambī City. I along with my local host Venerable Dhammaratan (Dhamma Mitra Bauddha Vihāra, Kosam) and Shri Shyam Lal Maurya visited Prabhāsa Hill on 20th October 2023. Shri Vinod Singh (Village Pachamā) and Shri R N Maurya (Fatehpur) also joined us in the exploration of Prabhāsa Hill.  The Prabhāsa is an isolated hill, about 150-170 ft high, situated on the northern bank of Yamunā. It is the only hill in the entire Doāb i.e., the stretch of land between the Ganges and Yamunā rivers. Shri Shyam Lal ji is a heritage volunteer and lives in the village of Gorāju situated 3 km from Prabhāsa Hill. The first thing that caught my attention was that Prabhāsa was a sandstone hill and therefore it had numerous natural rock shelters and caverns of different shapes and sizes. The hill has two peaks. Shyam Lal Ji has frequented the hill many times and has noticed ancient bricks on both the peaks of Prabhāsa Hill.

Both peaks have a set of stairs leading to the summit.  We first climbed the southern peak which has a modern Krishna Temple on the top. I noticed some ancient broken bricks behind the Krishna Temple. Probably, there was some ancient structure which has been lost long back.  Next, we walked up the northern hill. After climbing around 100 steps we reached a levelled man-made surface in the middle of the hill. The plane area was roughly 150 mt in the circuit, having a modern Jain Temple.  I noticed a rock-hewn cave situated behind the modern Jain temple. The man-made cave is situated on a lofty rock, high up, in the southern face of the peak. The cave is in an inaccessible position. Access to the cave probably was destroyed due to quarrying activities rampant on this hill since ancient times. One can see chisel marks all over the face of the hill around the cave. The cave is called ‘Sitā Rasoi’ (also Sitā Window) or the kitchen of Sitā. Sitā is the wife of Lord Rāma of the Rāmāyana epic.

Alois Anton Führer the Assistant Archaeological Surveyor in the N. W. Provinces surveyed the Sitā Window cave in 1887 (Führer 1894: 240-244). Führer noted the entrance gate of the cave to be 2ft 2in by 1ft 9in. Führer found two major inscriptions in the cave. The first inscription is on the outside wall and the 2nd, is inside the cave. Both the inscriptions are from 1-2nd BCE.

Translation of the inscription outside the cave:

‘By Āsāḍhasena, the son of Gopālī Vaihidarī (i.e. Vaihidara-Princes), and maternal uncle of king Bahasatimittra, son of Gopālī, a cave was caused to be made in the tenth year of Odaka for the residence of the Kaśśyapīya Arhats.’ 

Translation of the  inscription inside the cave:

‘Caused to be made by Āsāḍhasena, son of Vaihidarī (Vaihidara-princes, and) son of king Bhāgavata, son of Tevani (Traivarna-princes, and) son of king Vaṁgapāla, son of Śonakāyana of Adhichhatrā.’  

Besides these two major inscriptions, there are 10 short inscriptions by the pilgrim visitors. Visitor inscriptions are from the early Gupta period (4-6th CE) to an inscription from the 8th CE (Führer 1894: 240-244). The access to the cave was probably destroyed sometime after the 8th CE. The inscriptions imply the cave site on Prabhāsa Hill was made for use by the Buddhist monks of the Kaśyapīya tradition and the cave was used by the Buddhists at least till the 8th CE.

The situation of Jain Temple, Sitā Window, ‘Stūpa’ and ‘Dragon Cave’ etc., on the Northern Hill, Prabhāsa. @Google Earth.

Drone view of Northern Hill, Prabhāsa. Jain Temple is situated on a platform

in the middle of the Hill. Drone Image@ Manish.  

Man-made cave- Sitā Window (Sitā Rasoi) high up, in the southern face of the

Northern Hill. Drone Image@ Manish.  

Chisel marks all over around the Sitā Window.

Remains of ‘Stūpa’ on the summit of Northern Hill, Prabhāsa. Drone Image@ Manish.

Remains of ‘Stūpa’ on the summit of Northern Hill, Prabhāsa. Drone Image@ Manish.

Myself sitting by the remains of ‘Stūpa’ on the summit of Northern Hill, Prabhāsa.

Ancient bricks. Remains of ‘Stūpa’ on the summit of Northern Hill.  

Ancient bricks. Remains of ‘Stūpa’ on the summit of Northern Hill.  

Remains of ‘Stūpa’ on the summit of Northern Hill, Prabhāsa. Drone Image@ Manish.

Ancient bricks. Remains of ‘Stūpa’ on the summit of Northern Hill.  

Ancient bricks. Remains of ‘Stūpa’ on the summit of Northern Hill.  

‘Dragon Cave’- a deep cavity juxtaposed towards the north of the stūpa.

Brick flooring of ancient brick (remains of an ancient shrine), north of

the ‘Dragon Cave’. Drone Image@ Manish.

Brick flooring of ancient brick (remains of an ancient shrine), north of the
‘Dragon Cave'.

Myself with Shri Shyam Lal ji sitting by the ‘Dragon Cave’.

Remains of ‘Stūpa’ can be seen behind towards the left.

Ancient bricks. Remains of the shrine (1) on the edge of the  Northern Hill. Drone Image@ Manish.

Ancient bricks. Remains of the shrine (1) on the edge of the  Northern Hill.

Ancient bricks. Remains of the shrine (2) on the edge of the  Northern Hill. Drone Image@ Manish.

Ancient bricks. Remains of the shrine (2) on the edge of the  Northern Hill.

There are numerous rock shelters on the Hill.

The locals told me numerous caverns and cracks in Prabhāsa Hill are home to snakes, particularly Pythons. Locals believe the Sitā Rasoi cave is the dwelling of a huge nāga (cobra snake), a local legend also documented by Cunningham and Führer. The traditional association of the Sitā Rasoi with the huge Nāga led Cunningham and  Führer to believe that the rock-hewn cave was the Dragon Cave mentioned by Xuanzang (Führer 1894: 240-244; Cunningham 1885: 1-2). Cunningham and Führer found no remains of the other shrines including the 200ft Aśokan stūpa mentioned by Xuanzang.

Inscriptions on the Cave have confirmed that the Sitā Window/Sitā Rasoi is a man-made cave created in 1-2nd BCE for the use of the Buddhist monks. The inscription confirms the Sitā Window cave was created roughly 400 years after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha (6th BCE). I believe the Sitā Window does not represent the Dragon Cave of Xuanzang as proposed by Cunningham and Führer.

A flight of steps by the side of the Jain temple led us to the top of the northern hill. The top of the northern hill is mostly flat with some elevation in the southeast quadrant. I noticed a stūpa-shaped brick structure on the summit. The summit appeared like a man-made stack of stones arranged as the base for the brick stūpa. On careful examination, I found that the summit was a naturally cylindrical terrace forming the rock plinth of the brick stūpa. The brick structure is not tall but still distinctly retains a hemispherical shape akin to a stūpa (25° 21' 19'' N. 81° 19' 02'' E). The brick stūpa is approximately 27 mts in diameter and 4-5 ft high. Almost all the bricks I saw on the surface and around the stūpa were broken. Here are the dimensions of a few bricks from the stūpa.

  1. 7in wide X 2in depth (broken)

  2. 6.5in wide X 2in depth (broken)

  3. 10.4in long X 7.3in wide X 2in depth

The (Aśokan) stūpa, according to Xuanzang, was beside the dragon cave. I noticed a deep cavity juxtaposed towards the north of the stūpa. The mouth of the cavity is facing east. The cavity is approximately 6 ft deep and 6-7 ft wide. The cavity is now partially collapsed and filled with small rocks and garbage.  Though I noticed many rock shelters and caverns on the hill, I think this cavity adjacent to the stūpa represents the Dragon Cave of Xuanzang.  Just beside this natural cavity is a flooring of ancient bricks (25° 21' 20'' N. 81° 19' 03'' E). This brick floor most probably represents the remains of the shrine to mark the place where the Buddha used to sit and walk up and down. This floor of ancient bricks is 13 mts in diameter. Besides this, there are at least two more structural remains on the edge of the hill that have ancient bricks. One of the structures on the northeastern edge is 15 mts in diameter (25° 21' 21'' N. 81° 19' 03'' E). The ancient remains on the northeastern edge may represent the stūpa containing the hair and nail relics of the Buddha that Xuanzang described.   Except for the brick structure on the summit which retains its stūpa shape, the other ancient structures are almost flattened. Broken brick brats could be seen all over the summit.

None of the ancient remains on Prabhāsa Hill are big enough to represent the remains of a 200 ft stūpa mentioned by Xuanzang. However, I believe the ancient remains on Prabhāsa Hill represent the descriptions of Xuanzang. The first possibility is that the dimensions of 200 ft of the stūpa given by Xuanzang may be a recording error by Xuanzang himself or by a later copyist. The second possibility is that Xuanzang may not have visited the dragon cave, and the description is a second-hand account. The two major works of Xuanzang, both of which talk about his pilgrimage to India, are the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (‘Records’) and The Biography of Xuanzang  (‘Biography’). ‘Records’ (Rongxi 1996; Watters 2004) and ‘Biography’ (Beal 1914) have mentioned the visit of Xuanzang to the shrines inside the Capital City of Kosambī and the shrines to its southeast. But unlike the ‘Records’, the ‘Biography’ does not mention the visit of Xuanzang to the Dragon Cave and the other shrines situated southwest of the City. Students researching the works of Xuanzang know there is substantial variance in the pilgrimage route suggested by ‘Records’ and that suggested by ‘Biography’. ‘Records’ is like a catalogue: it contains a detailed record of the geography of the Silk Road and the Indian subcontinent; it gives information about places, that Xuanzang may have visited or may not; and it mentions kingdoms, cities, and monasteries and other Buddhist structures which also Xuanzang may have visited or may not. ‘Biography’, on the other hand, is a dossier of the places Xuanzang actually visited in the exact sequence of visits; it describes the natural features like deserts, mountains, and rivers that he crossed; it narrates the major events that occurred during his travels; and it talks about his interaction with kings and monk-scholars he met, the monasteries he studied in, and the relic stūpas he venerated. A mismatch between ‘Records’ (Rongxi 1996: 140) and ‘Biography’ (Beal 1914: 91) in terms of the details has posed challenges in interpreting Xuanzang’s work and often leads to speculation as in the case of the Dragon Cave that whether Xuanzang visited the Dragon Cave at all or simply collected information about it from people at the Kosambī City.

As for why Cunningham and Alois Führer failed to notice the remains on Prabhāsa Hill, here are a few likelihoods, Cunningham and Führer, who took much interest in documenting the ‘Sitā Window’ situated in the middle of the hill may not have climbed to the summit. The hill is bounded from all sides by steep escarpments.  Possibly, the summit was not easily accessible when Cunningham and Führer visited Prabhāsa then, as it is now.  It is also tenable that the ancient shrines on the summit of Prabhāsa Hill were robbed of their bricks long before the visit of  Cunningham and  Führer, and the local people didn't consider the depleted remains worthy of notification.

It is widely believed that Prabhāsa Hill is Mankulapabbata (Mankula Hill) of Buddhist literature where the Buddha spent his sixth Vassā (a rainy season retreat)(BuA.3). As per Thomas William Rhys Davids, the hill Makula, where the Buddha did his 6th Vassā was located in Kosambī, near Allāhabād (Davids 1894: 70-71). Unfortunately, Rhys Davids has not provided the primary sources of his information.

The Pali sources mention there was a monastery called Mankulakārāma near Mankulapabbata where the Buddha stayed only for seven days of the (6th) Vassā (SA.iii.15ff).  Many Buddhist pilgrims visit Prabhāsa Hill believing it to be the Mankula Hill. As per the Pali literary sources, Mankulakārāma and Mankulapabbata were situated in the country of  Sunāparanta (Malalasekera 1938: 407). The route connecting  Sunāparanta and Sāvatthi had a mountain called Saccabaddhapabbata where the Buddha transformed a hermit named  Saccabaddha (SA.iii.17f.; MA.ii.1017f). Therefore, if Prabhāsa Hill is Mankulapabbata then we must have a hill between Sāvatthi (Śrāvasti) and Kosambī, which we know is not a fact. Further, Buddha on his way back from Sunāparanta to Sāvatthi stopped on the banks of the river Nammadā (Narmadā) (MA.ii.101f.; SA.iii.176). This means Sunāparanta was situated further south of River Narmadā. Narmadā is more than 400 km as the crow flies south of Prabhāsa Hill.  The Pali sources suggest that Mankulakārāma and Mankulapabbata were situated more than 400 km south of Kosambī. Therefore, it is conceivable that the Prabhāsa Hill and the Mankulapabbata may not be the same place.

After the Buddhists abandoned the site it was the Jains who made the Prabhāsa Hill their center. This is evident from many inscriptions (Führer 1894: 240-244) and Jaina images on the Hill and its immediate surroundings.

Available inscriptional evidence from Prabhāsa Hill indicates an early association of the place with the Buddhist Saṅgha.  I am convinced that the archaeological structures on the northern summit of Prabhāsa Hill correspond to the descriptions of Xuanzang.  Scattered broken bricks on the summit are definitely very ancient. However, I am not an expert. Ancient structures on the summit of the Prabhāsa Hill need a careful investigation by competent archaeologists and scholars. 

Ancient bricks. Remains of the shrine on the summit of Southern Hill.

An ancient image of Jaina Trithankara on the Northern Hill.

Shri Shyam Lal ji and Vinod Kumar ji with remains of an ancient temple at

the base of the Prabhāsa Hill.

Remains of an ancient temple at the base of the Prabhāsa Hill.

With Shri Vinod Kumar, Shri R N Maurya and  Ven. Dhammaratan. (L to R)


I revisited the Prabhāsa Hill with Shri Vinod Kumar on 9th March 2024 and 10th May 2024. 

Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang project is humbled by the generosity of Venerable Shravasti Dhammika (Australia) and thankful for his commitment to our cause. Venerable, your support makes a huge impact. 

Thanks to Shri Surinder Talwar for proofreading the story.

Thanks to Shri Shyam Lal Maurya  (Gorāju), Shri Vinod Kumar (Pachamā,  Kosambī)  and Shri R N Maurya (Fatehpur) for their support in explorations.


Beal, S.; 1869, Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist Pilgrims, from China to India. London: Trubner and Co.

Beal, S.; 1914,  The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li by Kegan Paul. London: Trench Trubner and Co.

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

Cunningham, A.; 2000, Archaeological Survey of India. Four Reports Made During the Years 1862-63-64-65, Vol-I. Published by ASI, GOI(First Published in 1871).

Cunningham, A.; 1885, Archaeological Survey of India. Reports of a Tour in Bundelkhand and Rewa in 1883-84, and of a Tour in Rewa, Bundelkhand, Malwa, and Gwalior, in 1884-85, Vol XXI. Calcutta: The Superintendent of  Government Printing.

Davids, T. W. R.; 1894, Buddhism: A Sketch of Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Frothingham, A. L.; 1887,  Archæological News. The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts, vol. 3, no. 1/2, pp. 136–204.  Baltimore: Archaeological Institute of America.

Führer, A,; 1894, Pabhosā Inscriptions. Epigraphia Indica II. Calcutta: The Superintendent of  Government Printing.

Ghosh, N. N.; 1935, Early History Of Kauśāmbī. Allahabad: Allahabad Law Journal Press.

Ghosh, A.; 1963, Buddhist Inscription from Kausambi. Epigraphica  Indica- XXXIV. New Delhi.

Malalasekera, G.P.; 1938,  Dictionary of Pāli Proper Names, Vol II. London: John Murray.

Rongxi, Li.; 1996, The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions. California: BDK America.

Sharma, G. R.; 1960, The Excavations at Kauśāmbī. Allahabad: The Department of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, University of Allahabad. 

Vost, W.; 1904, Kausambi. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, pp. 249–67. JSTOR, Accessed 7 Jan. 2024.

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.

Abbreviations of Bibliography:

Source of Pāli references:

P.T.S. Means published by the Pāli Text Society.

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

BuA       Buddhavamsa Commentary (S.H.B.). 

SA.        Sāratthappakāsinī, Samyutta Commentary.

MA.       Papañca Sūdanī, Majjhima Commentary, 2 vols. (Aluvihāa Series, Colombo).