Thursday, June 3, 2021

Rāghopur Diara: The River Island where Ven Ānanda attained Parinirvāṇa


Following the trail of Xuanzang (Hieun Hsang, 7th CE), I arrived from Vaiśālī to Hājipur on the 10th of March. Hājipur is the probable site of the Śvetapura Monastery mentioned by Xuanzang. At Hājipur, I stayed at the Rāmchaurā Temple, which is the potential site of the Ashokan Stūpa visited by Xuanzang. Walking in the footsteps of Xuanzang, my next destination, was the place where Venerable Ānanda, one of the most prominent disciples of Buddha (6th BCE) and also his attendant, attained parinirvāṇa.

Map (1) of  the Vaiśālī-Hājipur-Patna route of the Journey. 

The Pali Canon is silent about Ānanda's last days and parinirvāṇa, but the Pali commentaries mention that Ānanda lived one hundred and twenty years (DhA.ii.99; AA.ii.596). The description of the last days and parinirvāṇa of Ānanda is mentioned by both Faxian  (Fahien, 5th CE) (Beal 2005: 101-102) and Xuanzang (Watters 2004). They give the same story with only minor differences, probably an old tradition which they heard when they visited that place. About twenty years after the assembly of the First Council, Mahākassapa entrusted his duties to Ānanda, and handed over to him the Buddha’s alms-bowl as a symbol of continuing the faithful preservation of the Dhamma (Watters 2004). Once while staying in the woods of Magadha, Ānanda heard one śrāmaṇêra (novice) reciting the sūtra incorrectly. When he pointed out the correct teachings to the śrāmaṇêra, the śrāmaṇêra reminded Ānanda that due to his great age, Ānanda had a wrong interpretation. Although wanting to stay longer for the benefit of monks and lay people who wanted Dhamma instructions, Ānanda found that it was extremely difficult to instruct the new monks. He felt it was no longer his purpose to remain in the world and decided it was time to leave the world; thereby attaining parinirvāṇa.


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Xuanzang travelled 30Li (10kms approximately) SE from Śvetpura  Monastery (i.e. Hājipur) to arrive at the place where there was a stūpa to mark the parinirvāṇa of Ānanda. I started very early in the morning from the Rāmchaurā Temple. I chose to take the ancient, narrow  road that runs along the edge of river Ganges. It was quiet and pitch dark, except for the occasional barking of dogs and street lights here and there.   I noticed that on my right hand side was the Ganges though not much visible because of the darkness and on my  left hand side was dense habitation amid large patches of mango and banana orchards. In spite of using Google for navigation, I lost my way a couple of times. After walking for an hour or so, as dawn broke, people started coming out of their homes. Occasionally, I would ask people on the way if this road would lead me to ‘Bhindā.’  I asked teenagers,  youth or old, and I was  surprised that everybody knew the name ‘Bhindā’. After walking for three hours, I arrived at ‘Bhindā’.

 I started walking early in the morning, when it was still pitch dark.

 I saw a broken piece of an ancient sculpture under a tree, a common sight in rural villages.

The beautiful tree host of the ancient sculpture.

Abundant  banana orchids along the way. 

The Bhindā mound. The temple can be seen on the top.

In conversation with my host, shri Vimal Singh ji and Radharaman Singh ji.

A generous breakfast offered by my host, shri Vimal Singh ji.

The bhindā mound is spread over more than one acre.
'Mauryan Brick' on the Bhindā mound documented in this photo by me in 2011. Now it is covered by a cement floor.
Work in progress for the new six-lane highway connecting Magadha and Vaiśālī.

Seeking guidance and blessings from Shri (Late) Ram Pukar Singh ji in 2011.
With Shri Chandrabhusan Ji, son of late Shri Ram Pukar Singh ji. Chechar Museum.





Empty roads in COVID times.




Ancient Images of the Buddha kept in Chechar Temple.

Another ancient image of Buddha in Chechar Temple.

Ancient image of diety being worshiped in Chechar Temple.

Rāghopur Diara island (can be seen) opposite the Chechar ghāt on river Ganges.

Bhindā is an ancient mound in the village Madurāpur (85° 20’ 22”E 24° 37’ 49”N).  My friend, Shri Radharaman Singh and his father, Shri Vimal Singh, who live in the neighbourhood of Bhindā, were waiting for me in  their home.   I have visited Madurāpur many  times since I first visited the place in 2011. The Bhindā mound is imposing, approximately 80 ft high spread over more than one acres. There is a Shiva temple on the top of the mound. On my first visit to the mound in 2011, I had noticed Mauryan bricks (3rd BCE) on the top of the mound which speaks of its antiquity. The ancient bricks got covered recently when a concrete floor was constructed in the temple. Bhindā literally means a mound. According to Shri Vimal Singh Ji, for the locals, the Bhindā mound is a watch tower raised in ancient times by a ruler of Vaiśālī to keep an eye on the army of the Magadha kingdom stationed on the other side of the Ganges.  What a happenstance! The Bhindā mound  is in fact associated with a feud between the rulers of Magadha and Vaiśālī.


According to Buddhist texts, Venerable Ānanda was on the island, now known as Rāghopur Diara, in the river Ganges, spending the last days of his life. Faxian and Xuanzang mention that the King of Magadha and the King of Vaiśālī, both wanted for Ānanda to spend his last days and attain parinirvāṇa in their territory. To persuade him, the two kings with their own retinues arrived simultaneously on the banks of River Ganges. Ānanda, not wishing to incur the displeasure of either party, entered into the state of parinirvāṇa in the middle of the river.  Both of the kings built a stūpa on the banks of Ganges to mark the parinirvāṇa of Ānanda. Bhindā mound should be the stūpa on the northern bank built by the king of Vaiśālī. This stupa was visited by both Faxian (Beal 2005: 101-102) and Xuanzang (Watters 2004). According to Xuanzang’s description, Ananda’s parinirvana mound is 30Li (10kms approximately) from Hājipur. There are a few mounds along the Ganges which scholars think could be the Ānanda parinirvāṇa stūpa. Based on my study, I think Bhindā qualifies for Xuanzang’s description the most. Bhindā is 12 kms as the crow flies from Hājipur. The other mound along the Ganges that  could be Ananda’s parinirvāṇa is Bāzidpur mound (85° 22’ 43”E 24° 36’ 39”N). Bāzidpur mound is situated 18 kms from Hājipur. That is way more than what it should be according to Xuanzang’s description.


The population living on the northern bank of Ganges in this region of Bidupur, Kutubpur, Madurāpur, Chechar, consists largely of people from Rājaput and Yādav communities who started settling here in the 17th century onwards. “It was a forest land when our ancestors arrived/migrated from Rājasthān here in the 17-18th century”, Shri Vimal ji who is a Rājaput said. Until as late as 1970 when a local politician tried to grab the Bhindā mound, it was not a place of worship. Local people mainly from the Rājaput community pooled in funds to build a Shiva temple on the top of the mound to make it a communal place of worship, and prevent it from getting encroached. After having a sumptuous breakfast offered by Shri Vimal ji, I left for my next destination, the Chechar Museum.


In the village of Chechar, the northern shores have been washed off over the centuries by floods and the changing course of the Rivers Gangā and Ganḍak. This has revealed many antiquities. Chechar is synonymous with Late Shri Ram Pukar Singh ji, who dedicated his entire life to the preservation and promotion of the heritage of Chechar, and collected many antiquities revealed from the shore, which  are now housed in the Chechar Museum. Shri Ram Pukar Singh ji left for heavenly abode in 2019 at a very ripe age of 97. I consider myself very fortunate that I always had his blessings. His works of heritage conservation are now carried on by his son, Shri Chandra Bhusan Singh.  I made it a point to visit Chechar Museum because I could not attend the cremation ceremony of Shri Ram Purkar Ji in 2019. I also paid my condolences to the bereaved family.


Walking 2 kms south of Chechar Museum, I arrived at the Chechar ghāt (mooring) situated on the north bank of Ganges.  A very compelling thing that happened 100 year ago here was that a severe flood which caused a large chunk of shore near the Qutub Shah mosque got washed away. This  revealed a few black basalt stone images of Buddha from 7-8th CE suggesting the remains of an ancient Buddhist monastery underneath the Mosque. Shri Chandra Bhushan ji shared with me that there was a temple in ancient times at the place where there is a mosque now. During the reign of Mughal king, Aurangzeb (reign 1658-1707), the temple was replaced with a mosque.  For many years, the Buddha sculptures that were discovered were kept in the open under a tree. In 1975, Late Shri Ram Pukar Singh ji took initiative in developing a temple to house the sacred images of Buddha which can now be seen kept properly at the Chechar temple.


Antiquities of Chechar are well established and the finds suggest the place was once an important Buddhist centre; and probably a place to stay for the monk community and pilgrims commuting between Magadha and Vaiśālī. Also, the Chechar area was a gateway to the trade route north of Ganges, connecting Vaiśālī and further North up to Kapilavastu.


Yet, the most fascinating event associated with this region happened on the Rāghopur Diara island opposite the Chechar ghāt on river Ganges. Venerable Ānanda, one of the important pillars of the story of the Buddha, spent his last days and attained parinirvāṇa here. Standing on this shore and gazing at the island on the other side of the Ganges always fills me with awe.  Ānanda was the last among the prominent disciples of the Buddha to attain parinirvāṇa. Sāriputta, Mahā Moggallāna and Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī attained parinirvāṇa before the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha,  and after  Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha, Mahākassapa took Samādhi at Gurupāda.  After Mahākassapa took Samādhi, Ānanda became the patriarch of the Saṇgha. At ripe age of 120 years, Venerable Ānanda decided to attain parinirvāṇa. Thereafter, he arrived on this river island to spend his last days and eventually attained parinirvāṇa here. The Saṇgha not only religiously preserved the teachings of the Buddha and his prominent disciples for posterity, but  also preserved and worshipped in form of a sacred pilgrimage their footsteps and important events associated with them, which passed on through generations and witnessed and documented by Buddhist monk pilgrims from China, Faxian and Xuanzang.


My last stop after the Chechar Temple in this story of parinirvāṇa of Ānanda was village of Fatehpur on the river island of Rāghopur Diara. I approached a few boatmen who were preparing to spread the fishing net. All of them became enthusiastic to ferry me to the other side of the Ganges. Each offered me a cheaper price than the other. Later,  my boatman Shri Kewat told me money was very scarce because of very few work opportunities due to COVID pandemic.


Crossing Ganges, on way to Rāghopur Diara island opposite the Chechar ghāt.


In the middle of Ganges, listening to shri Kewat, my boatman.


Walking on the sacred Rāghopur Diara island, 'created' by Ānanda to spend his last days.


With shri Thakur Umesh Narayan ji holding the brick. Also Gautam Singh and Jay Prakash in picture.


Me holding the ancient brick. With Thakur Umesh Narayan ji, Shri Mundrika Singh ji and Shri Krishna Purohit ji.  Pic @2011


I climbed down the boat and began walking towards the village of Fatehpur, situated 4 kms away from the bank. Every time I have stepped on this island, I am reminded of the great sanctity of this island for the followers of the Buddhadhamma. Tibetan buddhist literature mentions that Venerable Ānanda miraculously created this vast island in the middle of the River Ganges to practice
Dhamma and spend his last days. Even the act of the parinirvāṇa of Ānanda on  this island is described as ‘miraculous’ (Chimpa and Chattopadhyaya 1990: 24-25), as do the stories by Faxian and Xuanzang, which mention that Ānanda raised himself up in mid-air, displayed his spiritual capabilities, and attained parinirvāṇa while still in mid-air. These legends and miraculous epithet show the approbation  among the later monastics and lay followers towards this great disciple of the Buddha. It also manifests that for the Buddhistic tradition this large island is an integral part of the story of Venerable Ānanda.


In the hope of finding some tangible remnant of the ‘miraculous’ parinirvāṇa of Ānanda like Buddhist sculptures or remains of ancient stūpa on this island, I first visited  Rāghopur diara island in 2011. My exploration and enquiries (in 2011) led me to Shri Mundrika Singh ji in the village of Fatehpur (85° 20’ 28” E 24° 34’ 20” N). He showed me some ancient bricks. The bricks were very big, measuring 14 in X 7.5 in X 4.25 in, and very heavy, almost 15 kgs each. Thousands of such bricks were unearthed from 15-20 ft below the ground, when in the 1970's Mundrika singh ji and his cousins dug holes to rebuild their houses. They reused the ancient bricks to construct their houses. I discussed the origin of these large-sized bricks with my archaeologist friends. All of them believe that these bricks are from the early 1st millennia BCE. I think this is substantial tangible proof to begin based on which further explorations may be conducted. But only after thorough research by competent people can we link Fatehpur with the stay and parinirvāṇa of Ānanda.


It was starting to get dark when I arrived at Fatehpur. There was a big gathering at the marketplace because of the Mahāshivrātri festival. My friend Shri Gautam Singh who is also a local leader was waiting for me in the marketplace. I felt happy to learn from Gautam that Mundrika ji was in the village. Mundrika ji usually spends much of the year with his children settled in cities. I could not meet him in my previous visits. I requested Gautam to go straight  to the house of Shri Mundrika Singh ji without wasting any more time. Shri Mundrika ji looked old and fragile. He was very pleased to see me.  He told me how age related ailments are troubling him. The Government of Bihar in 2012 initiated a process of acquiring land to build a memorial to revitalise the legacy of Venerable Ānanda. But for some unknown reasons, the project was scuttled. Mundrika Singh ji was curious to know if I had any update on that project.


Mundrika ji believes there is some ancient brick structure of big proportion beneath the village of Fatehpur. The thousands of large-sized bricks that his family extracted in the 1970's during reconstruction of their houses is just the tip of the iceberg.  There is compelling reason to believe this. During the severe floods, when the whole of the Rāghopur Diara island, which is 20 kms long and upto 9 kms wide at some places, gets submerged in knee-deep water, only the village of Fatehpur remains unaffected. This clearly tells Fatehpur is on a raised land. There was most likely a monastery or a shrine built at this place to mark the stay and parinirvāṇa of Ānanda, which is now buried underneath. Like Rājaputs and Yādavs of Chechar and Madurāpur, people from these two communities populated this uninhabited island only after the 17th CE. Fatehpur was  among the first villages to be inhabited by the first Rājaputs who arrived on Rāghopur Diara island in early 17th  CE.


Another reason which inclines me to believe that Fatehpur could be the site where Ānanda spent his last days and attained parinirvāṇa is that Fatehpur lies exactly on the track connecting Fathuā and Chechar. The Fathuā ghāt on the south and Chechar ghāt on the north shores of Ganges are traditional commuting points  for people travelling between Magadha and Vaiśālī since ancient times. Infact, there was an ancient route connecting Rājagṛiha (Rājgir)  and  Vaiśālī through Fatuhā-Fatehpur-Chechar. Shri Vimal ji in Madurāpur village had apprised me that the ancient road connecting the port cities of Chechar and Vaiśālī passed through the villages of Khānpur Pakḍi, Dayālpur, Chāndpurā, Pānapur langā, Balkunḍā, Sarai, Sheetal Bhakurāhar, Pojhiyan, Lālganj, Bhagwānpur Ratti (see map-1). My archaeologist friend, Dr Arun Kumar, who has done archaeological survey of Vaiśālī district has confirmed  that the villages Dhanauti and Chak Sikandar near Khānpur Pakḍi, villages Uchiḍih and Bāzidpur malāhi near Dayālpur, villages Kolhadā Bāno, Jagdishpur and Kāshipur Chak Bibi near Pānapur Langā, villages Lomā  and Rājāpakaḍ near Balkunḍā, villages Malāhi and Kāshiḍih  in neighbourhood of Sarāi,  villages  Pauḍā Madansingh, Arhrā and Jagoḍih near Sheetal Bhakurāhar, and villages Salempur and Bangḍi near Bhagwānpur Ratti have antiquities from the 6th BCE and before suggesting a possible route through these villages which connected Chechar and Vaiśālī.


Descriptions of Faxian and Xuanzang and circumstantial evidence confirms that in ancient times Rāghopur Diara island was an important place of veneration for the venerable monastics. Unfortunately, for lack of awareness, in present times, this set of places is not on the Buddhist pilgrimage map.  In fact, most of the sites in the Gangetic plain related with the Buddha and his prominent disciples Sāriputta, Mahāmoggllāna, Mahākassapa, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, Upasikā Vishākā, Ānanda  etc. that feature so prominently in travelogues of Xuanzang are in  decrepit situation  in spite of more than 150 years of the publication of works of Xuanzang.


I realise revitalisation of Buddhacārikā (the sublime wandering of the Buddha) is going to be a mammoth task. It may take decades if not centuries. But I hope to contribute whatever little I can. The foot journey, Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang (RBX), could be the first step in this direction. We had planned to produce short  documentary films during the foot journey to facilitate awareness generation towards neglected Buddhist heritage. Unfortunately, COVID has disrupted our fundraising efforts. COVID has also inordinately delayed the completion of the foot journey. I expected to finish the  foot journey by November 2020. It is March 2021 and I have to still complete my walk in Magadha, central Uttar Pradesh and most importantly, Nepal.  Because of lockdowns and restrictions time and again, I have no option but to divide the remaining foot journey into very small sections of 100-200kms. I feel so fortunate, in spite of obstacles and challenges the RBX project team is very optimistic and motivated. We are hoping to attract like-minded people to collaborate in our documentary film-making efforts.


“Tough times never last, but tough people do.” -Robert H Schuller. I went to bed with these thoughts. The next morning, I walked 20 kms from Fatehpur to Patnā. This was the culmination of the 80 kms stretch of Vaiśālī-Hājipur- Chechar- Fatehpur- Patnā in my foot journey following Xuanzang.


Early in the morning crossing the Ganges on a pontoon bridge, leaving Vaiśālī and entering Magadha.



Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


Bibliography:

Anand, D. (2011, September 29). Where did the Ananda attain Parinirvana  [Blog post].

Available from:

http://nalanda-insatiableinoffering.blogspot.com/2011/09/where-did-ananda-attain-parinirvana.html 

[Accessed 25th May  2021]


Anand, D. (2012, January 20). Ananda Parinirvana Park- Fatehpur Diar [Blog post].

Available from:

http://nalanda-onthemove.blogspot.com/2012/01/ananda-parinirvana-park-fatehpur-diar.html

[Accessed 25th May  2021]


Beal, Samuel.; 1914, The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co. Ltd, London. (New Edition 1911).


Chimpa, L. and A. Chattopadhyaya. 1990. Tāranātha’s History of Buddhism in India. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Kumar, Arun; 2010, Ganḍak Ghāti mein NBP Sanskriti ka Udbhav Evam Vikāsh.  Patna: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute.


Patil, D. R.; 2006, The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna, (1st Edition: 1963).


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: http://www.palikanon.com/english/pali_names/dic_idx.html


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

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

AA.=Manorathapūranī, Anguttara Commentary, 2 vols. (S.H.B.).

DhA.    Dhammapadatthakathā, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).