Friday, March 13, 2020

Lost Ashokan Stūpa of Śhrugna (now Sugh)

The present-day region of Haryana in western India has very ancient roots. Buddhist texts including Xuanzang’s accounts indicate that this region corresponds to the ancient Kingdom named Kuru known to be the westernmost province in the Gangetic plains where the Buddha made his wanderings following his Enlightenment. In spite of this enormous significance of Kuru, the sacred sites of Kuru are not visited by Buddhist devotees as part of the ritualistic pilgrimage which follows the footsteps of the Buddha. My endeavour to Retrace Bodhisattva Xuanzang led me to Haryana where began my personal journey in the footsteps of the Buddha.

Map showing wanderings of Buddha and Xuanzang in the ancient Kingdom of Kuru.

Kuru's association with the Buddha

  1. Kuru was a kingdom during ancient times: Pali literature mentions that Kuru was one of the 16 Mahājanapadas (great kingdoms) that existed at the time of the Buddha. Buddhist literature mention that Kuru was a kingdom ruled by Yuddhitthila gotta i.e. the family of Yudhishthira (possibly the same as in the Mahābhārata epic) and the capital of this kingdom was Indapatta (Indaprastha). Buddhist texts do not provide geographic specifications of where Kuru was located in the Indian subcontinent. The prevalent belief is that the present-day regions of Haryana, Delhi and the western part of Uttar Pradesh, together constituted the ancient Kuru kingdom either wholly or partially (Handa 1989).
  1. Buddha delivered sermons in Kuru: According to ancient texts, in Buddha’s time, Kuru was supposedly a minor state ruled by a chieftain named Koravya. The Buddha visited Kuru many times and delivered several sermons there including some of the most profound discourses - Mahānidāna, Mahāsatipatthāna Suttas, Māgandiya Sutta, Anañjasappāya Sutta, Sammosa Sutta and Ariyavasā Sutta. All these were preached at a place called Kammāssadhamma, which is described as a nigama (town) of Kuru where the Buddha resided from time to time. The people of Kuru were reputed for their deep wisdom, good health and virtuous conduct.
  1. Asoka installed Dhamma pillar in Kuru: In the 3rd century BCE, Emperor Ashoka installed a pillar inscribed with Dhamma teachings at a spot corresponding to present-day town of Topra Kalan near Shug in Haryana.
  2. In the 7th century CE, when Xuanzang visited India, he travelled all across Kuru (refer map) and mentioned the existence of two prominent kingdoms. It seems that since the time of Buddha, ancient Kuru kingdom got divided into many smaller kingdoms of which Sthāneśvar (now Kurushetra) and Śrughna (now Sugh) were two.  According to Xuanzang, the Buddha delivered some very important sermons at Śhrugna. Śhrugna was identified by Sir Alexander Cunningham as present-day Sugh situated on the western bank of Yamuna.
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Xuaznang’s description of Śhrugna and Sthāneśvar

The Kingdom of Śhrugna described by Xuanzang touched River Ganges on the east, the Himalayas on north and River Yamuna flowed through the middle of the kingdom (see map).  The capital was situated on the west bank of River Jumna, and was 20 li, or 3.5 miles, in circuit. The greater part of the city/capital was in ruins, but the foundations still remained. Śhrugna kingdom had 5 Buddhist monasteries hosting all together about 1000 ecclesiastics, the majority of them were Hinayānist. The brethren were experts of abstract doctrines, and distinguished brethren from other lands came to them to reason out their doubts. Śhrugna had about 100 temples of the Brahmans whose followers were extremely numerous. Outside the east gate, towards the river and to the south-east of the city, there was a stūpa built by Ashoka on the spot where Buddha had preached. Beside it was a second stūpa containing some hair and nail of Buddha, and all around, to the right and to the left, there were dozens of other Stūpas containing hair and nails of different holy men such as Sāriputra (Sāriputta) and Maudgalāyana (Mahāmoggallāna). The inhabitants of the city were naturally honest. They were not Buddhists. They held useful learning in respect and esteemed religious wisdom.

About Sthāneśvar, Xuanzang writes that it had only 3 Buddhist monasteries. The place was associated with Pandavas and Kauravas and was called a ‘place of religious merit’.  An Ashoka Stūpa with wonder-working relics of the Buddha was also situated there.

Xuanzang at Śhrugna. Sketch by Praful Sasane

Cunningham identifies ancient Śrughna as present-day Shug in Haryana

During his surveys in the region of Haryana, Alexander Cunningham noticed three projecting citadel or fort like structures on North, South-East and South-West corners of the city fortification wall in the village of Shug. Each of the forts was 1500ft long and 1000ft broad. Villages were settled over the corner citadels. Village Dyālgarh over the North fort had 150 houses, village Māndalpur on South-East fort had 100 houses and the South-West fort was unoccupied.  Village Shug had 100 houses. Cunningham noticed many houses to be made of ancient bricks which he could understand were taken from the archeological ruins. In the North-West of village Shug Cunningham noticed a ruined mound. This evidence led Cunningham to identify the ancient remains of Shug as the remains of the capital city of Śrughna.

Observations of Cunningham at Shug plotted in the Map

Ancient Śhrugna (now Sugh) was situated on the banks of River Yamuna. 
Strolling on the banks of Yamuna in Shug with my local friend, host and heritage activist, Siddhartha Gauri.

Search for a lost Ashokan Stūpa and Meeting the lady whose house sits atop the Stūpa

Xuanzang mentions a monastery to the south-east of the capital of Kuru, on the western side of River Yamuna, outside the east gate of which, was an Ashokan Stūpa where the Buddha gave teachings and inducted many people. Besides this main stūpa were numerous smaller stūpas in built over hair and nail relics of the Buddha and similar relics of Buddha’s prominent disciples Sāriputra, Mahāmoggallāna and others. The spot that fits best Xuanzang’s description of the place where the Asokan Stūpa was situated is today in a village named Amadalpur. 150 years ago, at the time of Cunningham’s visit to the Haryana region, Amadalpur was called ‘Mandar’ or ‘Mādalpur’. Enquiries with the village residents confirmed for Cunningham that in ancient times, there existed a remarkable Mandir (temple) at this place which is also how the village got its name ‘Māndar’.  

A local heritage preservation activist named Siddhartha Gauri has been working for over a decade to revitalise the Buddhist remains of Haryana. Having spent a lot of time examining the archeological ruins in the region, he believes that the Ashoka Stūpa mentioned by Xuanzang is none other than the mound found in the village of Amadalpur. This mound currently is a part of the private property of a local resident named Surender Singh Hara. I arrived at this place early in the morning. Even through the mist I could see the mound on which Surinder Singh Hara’s family house was situated. The mound is about 150 metres on the west of a channel of River Yamuna.

Siddhartha explains to me the history and his findings of the Ashokan Stupa at Shug, located behind him.

After Surinder Singh Hara’s death in 2014, the property passed to his wife Valveri Hara. We met with Ms. Valveri Hara at her residence. She was impressed after knowing about our project and welcomed our team warmly to the palatial bungalow. She knew quite well who Master Xuanzang was and about his visit to Śrughna. She shared how her late husband would often say that their bunglow was settled atop an ancient Buddhist university. It seems Mr. Hara was aware of Xuanzang’s description of the Buddhist monastery complex and the footsteps of Buddha.

The house of resident, Ms. Hara, supposedly sits atop the 'Ashokan Stupa' where once the Buddha delivered his teachings. 

Ms. Hara met her husband in Switzerland during a Conference. They got married after a brief period of courtship. Mr. Hara recieved global recognition for his innovations in agroforestry. He owned more than 500 acres of land in Sugh (Yamunanagar district) and its surroundings. He was passionate about Buddhism and Buddhist heritage. He would spend hours discussing these subjects with friends and neighbours including Siddhartha Gauri.

Based on my studies, I was convinced that the Ashokan Stūpa mentioned by Xuanzang where Buddha gave discourses was exactly the spot of Ms. Hara’s home. I shared the same with her. Her reaction took me by surprise: “I feel honoured if it is so.” She seemed to be in agreement with me. She revealed that while renovating the swimming pool in her house, plenty of artefacts came up seeing which she halted the renovation. It is indeed irrefutable that the house is on the highest point on the mound and hence most likely to have a stūpa buried underneath. I sought Ms. Hara’s response on how she would like if Buddhist devotees visited her house to meditate and offer prayers. Quick and certain, her answer was that she would be glad to welcome them to her home as would her late husband. This was indeed a welcome gesture from Ms. Hara.

Ms. Hara and myself by the swimming pool in her house during whose construction ancient artefacts began to surface.
Artefacts collected by Ms. Hara during the construction of her swimming pool.
Sites such as the Ashokan Stūpa buried under Ms. Hara’s home are probably never going to be excavated for more than one reason. However, I think that it is not necessary for these sites to be excavated in order for them to be preserved. What we need to remember is that ancient Buddhist structures like the Ashokan Stūpa in Shug or the Ashokan pillar in Topra which mark the footsteps of the Buddha were actually places of worship. Xuanzang’s descriptions about these structures and their locations are helping us to identify the sites. The next step may be excavation or may not be. However, the important thing is once it is established that a certain site has the footsteps of Buddha, the sanctity of the site should be restored, that is to say, the site should be transformed into a `Living Heritage.’

How Shug appears today

Cunningham visited Shug more than 150 years from now. The appearance and situation in this village has changed extensively during this period. Today Shug, Amadalpur and Dayalgarh are densely populated. Farming is the primary economic activity. Most of the people are Hindus or Sikhs with a few Muslim families.

The ancient mound in Shug spread over more than 15 sq kilometres is severely damaged at most places. People are not aware of its significance. Artefact traffickers visit these mounds routinely enticing children into digging up artefacts which are then smuggled out of the country and sold to auction houses, private collectors and in some cases to museums.  Little is discussed among the people about the ancient heritage of this village. Only a few elders and educated people seem to even know about the existence of Buddhist remains in this region.

Everyday life in Shug.

During our exploration of the ancient remains in Shug, Siddhartha took me to a mound, relatively unharmed. Here, amid dense bushes, he showed me a cluster of pillars called Sati Stambha (sati markers). During the medieval times, in some parts of the Indian subcontinent, there existed a tradition that a woman whose husband had died would sacrifice her life by sitting in the funeral pyre of her husband. There are many theories why wives sacrificed themselves alongside their deceased husbands. According to Siddhartha, this cluster of Sati Stambha may belong to warriors who died in battles with foreign Muslim invaders. Sati was abolished in India during the 19th century through the efforts of Raja Rammohan Rai (1772-1833), an educationist and a social reformer. The last known cases of Sati occurred till as late as the 1980s. Today, however, Sati is an illegal practice and no case has been reported throughout India for the last 3 decades.

Sati Stambh at Sugh.

At Chaneti, where in 2005, a stūpa was excavated, I felt more optimistic. I met the village sarpanch (elected head), Shri Ashok Chaneti (some communities bear the name of the village as their surname). Together with his wife, he is doing everything in his capacity to create awareness about the Stūpa discovered in this village. Like most of the Buddhist heritage in India, this stūpa is situated at the centre of the village. What is amazing is that Ashok Chaneti and his wife themselves do know who Buddha was, when he existed, what he did, and yet are trying hard to protect the stūpa discovered in their village because they understand that it is an ancient monument of historical and cultural significance. Smt. Reshma Devi, wife of the Sarpanch and Mamta Rani, their daughter-in-law occasionally offer prayers at the stūpa. They take pride that monks from various countries come all the way to visit their village.

Coming to know that Shug is visited by Buddhist monks and devotees, I made a suggestion to Siddhartha Gauri and Sarpanch Shri Ashok Chaneti to bring a sapling of the Bodhi tree from Bodhgaya with the help of venerable monks and plant it at the excavated stūpa. By organising this activity as an event, the stūpa would attract public interest and could give a chance to sensitize the residents about the Buddhist heritage of Chaneti.

Smt. Reshma Rani and Mamta Rani offering prayers at Chaneti stūpa.
Aerial view of Chaneti stūpa, surrounded by village. Drone pic credit: Pauly.
I felt good seeing that Siddhartha’s efforts of heritage preservation are bringing results. From hosting public meetings, engaging in dialogues to collecting funds and constructing a commemorative park, Siddhartha is doing plenty. Yet the goal he has set out to accomplish is so enormous that all his efforts put together still appear small. Haryana, corresponding to the ancient kingdom of Kuru, was the region of the wanderings of the Buddha, and like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh has rich and abundant ancient heritage. This heritage cannot be protected by the efforts of lone individuals. It needs the contribution of the authorities, local people, and international community.

Revitalising Kuru as Living Heritage

Most of the information we have about Kuru and its significance in ancient times comes from the writings of Xuanzang. My foot journey through the heritage sites of ancient Kuru reveals to me an enormous potential for developing these Buddhist sites as living heritage. As part of the revitalization process, we can create awareness about the eternal sanctity of these sites owing to their deep association with the Buddha and generate interest among the various stakeholders to preserve the archeological remains of these sites from further degradation. Kuru should also be included in the “Footsteps of the Buddha” pilgrimage circuit. By visiting the sacred sites of Kuru, devotees can deepen their association with the Buddha and the Dhamma. 

Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Team with Ms. Hara at her residence where we interviewed her regarding the heritage buried underneath her house.

Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami 


Handa, D.; 1989. Heritage of Haryana-2, Buddhist Remains. Chandigarh: Department of Archaeology and Museums, Haryana.

Ahir, D.C.; 1971, Buddhism in the Punjab Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. New Delhi: Maha Bodhi Society of India. 
Watters, Thomas. 2004. On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India. Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and S.W. Bushell. New Delhi: Low Price Publications.

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

Cunningham, A.1871. Archaeological Survey of India.  Four Reports Made During the Years 1862-63-64-65, Vol. II. Shimla: The Government Central Press.

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