Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Prospects of Reclaiming the Buddhist Heritage of Saṅkāsya

An ancient image of the 'Buddha's Descent from Tushita' enshrined in the Saṅkāsya Temple

Saṅkāsya (also Sankissa, Sankassa) is one of the ‘Eight Great Places’ of the Buddhist pilgrimage. It was here that the Buddha performed the miracle of the ‘Descent from the Heavens, accompanied by Indra and Brahma’. According to Buddhist literature, in his forty-first year the Buddha went up from Śrāvasti to the Tushita Heaven and passed the rainy season retreat teaching Abhidharma to his mother Māyādevi, who had died seven days after Buddha's birth and been reborn as a male god in Tushita. Three months later, at the time of his descent from the retreat, a great assembly of kings and people of the eight kingdoms gathered. As the Buddha descended, a flight of gold stairs appeared, which he climbed down. He was accompanied by Brahma on the right and by Indra holding a jewelled umbrella on the left. Saṅkāsya continued to flourish as an important Buddhist pilgrimage place till around 13th CE when the Buddhist pilgrimage in India came to its ebb due to a change in the political climate. In the next few centuries, the abandoned Buddhist monasteries were reoccupied and the places were renamed by the new occupants. Mahābodhi, the place where the Buddha got enlightenment was renamed Bodhgayā. Nālandā Mahāvihāra became Baṛgāon. Migadāya, where the Buddha gave his First Sermon, became Sārnātha, and so on. It is interesting that among the Eight Great Places, Saṅkāsya is the only place where the ancient name is preserved. In 1842, Alexander Cunningham identified the village of Saṅkāsya with the place Saṅkāsya mentioned by 5th CE Chinese monk and pilgrim, Faxian (Fahien). Saṅkāsya was discovered much before some of the other prominent Buddhist pilgrimage places like Nālandā (1862), Śrāvasti (1863), Lumbīnī (1896), Vaiśālī (1862), but unfortunately Saṅkāsya remains the most obscure of the Eight Great Places of Buddhist pilgrimage till date. 

I visited Saṅkāsya on 19th April. It took us 9 hrs to drive 400 kms from Śrāvasti to reach Saṅkāsya. This was my first visit to the place. The objective of my visit was to find reasons for the low footfalls of pilgrims at Saṅkāsya and explore possibilities of improving it. Saṅkāsya is located in the village of Saṅkāsya-Basantapur in Farrukhābād district of Uttar Pradesh, where the borders of Farrukhābād, Etah and Mainpuri districts meet. The site of Saṅkāsya is visible from a distance. The mound on this site is the most prominent feature of the landscape. The circumference of the mound is 2.6 kms (approximately 120 acres). The mound is almost 70 ft high on the North-Western side and slopes gradually in the eastern and southern direction merging with the plain. 

Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th CE) saw a 70 ft high staircase at the spot where the Buddha had descended from heaven. On the top of the stairs was a temple with a stone image of the Buddha that according to Faxian was 16 cubit (16 ft) tall. Close to the stairs was a 70 ft high Aśokan Pillar. The Buddha bathed immediately after his descent, and later a bathing house and stūpa were built to mark that site. Stūpas were also raised at the spot where he cut his hair and nails and where he entered samādhi. The Chinese pilgrims tell about the presence of more stūpas and a chankramana  (a raised platform with foot impressions of the Buddha) where the Buddha and the previous Buddhas had walked and sat in meditation. According to Xuanzang, these shrines were enclosed within the walls of a Saṃmitīya Monastery, which he describes as being excellently ornamental and having many fine images. He adds that hundreds of monks dwelt there along with a community of lay followers.

Travelling two centuries earlier, Faxian had found roughly thousand monks and nuns living here and pursuing their studies, some of whom were from the Hinayāna sect and others from the Mahāyāna. Corroborating the accounts of Faxian and Xuanzang with the ancient remains in the village, we could say that the Saṅkāsya village (A in the Map-1) is sitting exactly atop the complex that enclosed the monastery, stairs, temple and numerous stūpas (i.e. the place where the Buddha descended from the heaven). The circumference of this high mound hiding the ‘enclosed complex’ is around 1.25 kms (approximately 30 acres). Saṅkāsya is only one of the Eight Great Places of pilgrimage where the main ancient shrine still remains buried. In Bodhgayā, the ancient Mahābodhi Temple has been restored. In Śrāvasti, Sārnātha, Vaiśālī, and Nālandā, the places of pilgrimage, the ancient Buddhist remains of temples, monasteries and stūpas have been excavated and conserved. The absence of excavated ancient remains for the pilgrims to offer prayers and offerings is the chief cause for the poor footfalls at Saṅkāsya.
Map-1- Ancient mounds in the Saṅkāsya  marked on Google map

View of  Mound 'A' depicted in Map-1
View of  Mound 'A' depicted in Map-1
Faxian writes that at Saṅkāsya, he witnessed a white-eared dragon (cobra snake) which lived close to the monastery, guarding it and the surrounding areas. Faxian also talks about the abundant rainfall and agricultural produce, and prosperity and happiness of the people, all brought about by blessings from the white-eared dragon. Monks and lay people worshiped this dragon and offered it food. In 1842, Cunningham noticed this tradition still existing in Saṅkāsya in the form of worshiping of Bisari Devi. Every year in the month of Āṣārha (corresponding to June-July), there is a 15-day long celebration and offering. Just before the beginning of the monsoon, people from this village and it’s surrounding gather at this temple, located in the southern side (B in Map-1) of the village, and pray for abundant rain and harvest. The small temple of the deity, Bisari Devi is built on a 30 ft high ancient mound. This ancient mound is probably a stūpa built to mark the place where the dragon existed. 

I was informed by the local people that in the ancient times, this village belonged to the Bisaria Kāyastha people. They were the landlords of Saṅkāsya, and Bisari Devi is their community deity. Some two hundred years ago, the Bisaria Kayastha families migrated to a town called Bareli, about 130 kms from Saṅkāsya. Bisari Devi temple complex has the elephant capital of Aśoka's pillar. Another small shrine in the vicinity contains an ancient statue of the Buddha. Buddhist pilgrims who visit Saṅkāsya offer their prayers at this small shrine made by Panditha Madabawita Wijesoma Thero and Dixit family.

 Stūpa mound depicted 'B' on the Map-1, Bisari devi temple sitting on the top 

    The Elephant Capital of Aśoka's pillar kept in a stone canopy
         Bisari devi temple sitting atop  the 'Stūpa mound'
                                        Bisari devi temple complex 
The entire mound (marked with white dotted line in the Map-1) is circumscribed by a narrow 3 km long meandering path. This walking trail distinguishes the mound of Saṅkāsya from the surrounding plains. I took a walk along this trail to get acquainted with the place and its people. I observed the life of the locals revolved around agriculture. At many places of the mound, I noticed large-scale illegal excavation. Mining had revealed the ruined foundations of former buildings. Mining is illegal in Saṅkāsya because of its archaeological significance, however, some people were engaged in illegally digging out earth for selling. I was also told that miners were digging with the hope of finding some buried treasure. Most of the people I spoke to on the streets and the farms were indifferent to the historic significance of their village. Many of them had little or no awareness about the Buddhist significance of the place. I believe that the main reason for this general apathy among the villagers is because they have presently no or little interaction with domestic and international Buddhist pilgrims. The average halting time of a Buddhist pilgrim at the worshiping place in Saṅkāsya is not more than 30 minutes. Pilgrims do not stay beyond this short period of time because the place does not have any arrangement for pilgrims to offer prayers and rest. There is no urinals, eateries and parking lots around.
Ancient brick structures revealed due to illegal mining of the ancient mound
Ancient sculptures lying neglected in open

The next morning, I met an energetic young person named Raghav Dixit. He shared with me how his uncle Shri Mukta Prasad Dixit and his elder brothers, Shri Devendra Nath Dixit and Chandrika Dixit made efforts to facilitate the preservation, conservation and promotion of the Buddhist heritage of Saṅkāsya. In 1957, Panditha Madabawita Wijesoma Thero, a monk from Sri Lanka came to Saṅkāsya with the intent of facilitating development of the place. Shri Mukta Prasad Dixit offered a room in his house where Ven. Wijesome stayed for 11 years. Together both of them formed an organisation called ‘Sankasya Development Board’. Raghav brought with him a couple of old looking folders that contained documents, pictures, and newspaper cuttings from 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s showing the contributions of his uncle and brothers. The Dixit family gave 25 acres of land to Ven. Wijesoma Thero for constructing a school, Buddhist monastery, an accommodation and a worshiping place for the pilgrims at Saṅkāsya. Despite their limited resources, they also constructed a small Buddhist temple inside the Bisari Devi temple compound. They initiated the trend of celebrating Buddha Jayanti (Vesak Pūrṇimā) every year. Setting up of the Wijesoma Widyalaya, monastery and the Buddhist temple were stepping stones towards the development of Saṅkāsya. Later the Dixit family also offered 4 acres of land for setting up of a Burmese monastery. The endeavours of the Saṅkāsya Development Board came to a halt due to lack of cooperation from government authorities, and because of the passing away of Panditha Madabawita Wijesoma Thero and Shri Mukta Prasad Dixit. Raghav Dixit, who aspires to continue his uncle’s legacy of developing in Saṅkāsya is challenged at present by lack of resources and support from locals. However, being a very capable youth, he hopes to overcome these challenges with time.
Raghav sharing documents, pictures, newspaper clippings, the works done by the Dixit family

Temple inside the 'Bisari devi temple complex' constructed by  Wijesoma Thero and the Dixit family.  

H.H Dalai Lama and  Wijesoma Thero at Bisari devi temple complex (Saṅkāsya, 1950's). Pic courtesy Raghav 
 Ven. Wijesoma Thero  and Shri Devendra Nath Dixit at the 'Sankasya Development Board' office. Pic courtesy Raghav 

Shri Devendra Nath Dixit and others at temple complex celebrating Buddha Jayanti (Veshak). Pic courtesy Raghav

Shri Cadrika Prasad Dixit with District Magistrate at the Bisari devi temple complex. Pic courtesy Raghav

Special thanks to Aparajita Goswami and  Raghav Dixit


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

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

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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