Sunday, March 15, 2020

Revitalisation of Ashokan Pillar site of Topra Kalan

A local heritage preservationist in Haryana named Siddhartha Gauri, whom I have known for a long time now, has been engaged in protecting and preserving the Buddhist heritage of Haryana. I met Siddhartha for the first time when he was visiting Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University) at Nalanda in 2012. During his short stay at Nalanda, we had many conversations over protection and preservation of Buddhist heritage in India. Thereafter, we stayed in touch and regularly exchanged thoughts and ideas in this regard.

30ft Dhamma Wheel at Edict Park, Topra Kalan. Pic: Pauly

Siddhartha is an engineer by education, who diverted into heritage work after coming into contact with the eminent historian Shri D. Handa. Siddhartha’s work is funded mostly by his mother who is a school teacher and his elder brother who is a doctor in Australia. Siddhartha lives in Yamunanagar in Haryana.

My foot journey gave me the opportunity to witness Siddhartha’s efforts. For the last 10 years, he has been working incessantly to facilitate the incorporation of the prominent Buddhist sites of Haryana (ancient Kingdom of Kuru) into ‘the Footsteps of the Buddha’ pilgrimage circuit. Presently, the Buddhist pilgrimage is limited to the Eight Great Places - Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnatha, Kushinagara, Sravasti, Sankashya, Rajgir and Vaishali - but in ancient times all the places associated with life and events associated with the Buddha including Buddhist sites of Kuru region were part of the Buddhist pilgrimage.
A commemorative park at Ashokan pillar site in the village of Topra Kalan

The village of Topra Kalan in Haryana had an Ashokan pillar in ancient times which was removed to Delhi in the 14th century by Emperor Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1309-1388) during the era of the Delhi Sultanate. Siddhartha who lives at Yamuna Nagar, about 12 kms away from Topra is currently focused on revitalising the site of the Ashokan pillar at Topra Kalan with the involvement of the local people. Topra Kalan has a population of about 3000 and is a model of communal harmony as people from different religious backgrounds live side by side in peace and mutual respect.

Sketch depicting Firoz Shah removing Ashokan Pillar from Topra. @ Praful Sasane

Siddhartha has already been able to install a 30 ft replica of the Dhamma Chakra (Dhamma Wheel) at Topra. The Gram Panchayat (elected village council) are also in support of reviving the ancient glory and cultural heritage of Topra, and have offered 35 acres of land to Siddhartha for building a commemorative park in the name of Emperor Asoka called “Maha Sambodhi Vihara '' containing replicas of all major Ashokan pillar edicts complete with capitals replicas of select rock edicts that presently scattered all across the Indian Subcontinent and a life-size statue of Emperor Asoka.

Ancient Kammāsadhamma - where Buddha delivered some of most revered discourses

Ancient Kuru comprises the present-day region of Delhi-Kurukshetra-Ambala and its immediate neighborhood including part of present-day western Uttar Pradesh. Buddhist literature mentions that the people of Kuru were capable of penetrating deep into Dhamma talk. This reputation is mentioned as the reason why Buddha delivered some of his most profound discourses on causation and inner exploration to the people of Kuru. Pali texts mention about a particular township in Kuru called Kammāsadhamma where Buddha gave three of the major sermons of all his teachings: Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna SuttaMāgandiya Sutta and Mahānidāna Sutta.

  1. Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta has been described as the most important discourse given by the Buddha on mental development. The discourse opens with Buddha declaring: There is, monks, this way that leads only to the purification of beings, to the overcoming of sorrow and distress, to the disappearance of pain and sadness, to the gaining of the right path, to the realization of nirvāa — that is to say the four foundations of mindfulness. 

  1. Māgandiya Sutta is a discourse on abandoning sensual desires and craving with the example of Buddha relinquishing his own pleasures in life.

  1. Mahānidāna Sutta is the most important sutta dealing with dependent arising, a central teaching in Buddhism.

Another important place in ancient Kuru associated with the Buddha was the township of Thullakotthita.  The Buddha stayed there during a tour among the Kurus. The town received its name from the fact that it had plenteous crops and its granaries were always full (thullakottham, paripunnakotthāgāram). 

Ancient Kammmāsadhamma/ Thullakotthita may be present-day village of Topra Kalan

Ancient Kammāsadhamma and Thullakotthita have still not been identified. Siddhartha Gauri is convinced that Topra Kalan is the most probable place to be Kammāsadhamma. Topra had an Ashokan Dhamma pillar which was removed to Delhi by Emperor Feroz Shah Tuglaq (1309-1388) as a trophy. The Topra Pillar is now installed in the premises of Feroz Shah Kotla in South Delhi.

With Siddhartha Gauri at Edict Park, Topra Kalan. Pic: Pauly

During his reign, Emperor Ashoka installed monolith pillars throughout the Gangetic plain marking the footsteps of the Buddha. Since there used to be an Ashokan Pillar at Topra Kalan installed by Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, Siddhartha believes that this place must have been associated with an important event in the Buddha’s life.

Topra is located more than a thousand kilometres away from the village of Chunar where the sandstone quarry from which the monolith for Ashokan Pillar was obtained is located. Since the distance between the quarry in Chunar from which the monolith was extracted and Topra, the site of installation of the pillar, is fairly large, it may be conjectured that Topra was not just any place but held certain significance associated with the Buddha because of which it was chosen by Ashoka for installing the pillar. Siddhartha also brings to notice that the pillar in Topra is the only one inscribed with the 7th edict of Ashoka. The 7th edict is special because it summarizes Ashoka’s philosophy and Dhamma works.

Shri Surinder Singh Saini, another heritage activist and a school teacher belonging to Topra has made some observations that support Siddhartha’s conjecture that Topra must have been associated with Buddha’s life. According to Saini, Topra is situated 2 kms north of the Vedic river Saraswati - a channel of this ancient river flows through Topra. At the same time, Topra is situated on an ancient trade route. Saini, who owns agriculture lands in Topra, has found on his land remains of ancient pottery and bricks. His claims are that ancient remains are situated at a depth of 3-5 ft. A few years ago, Saini invited an archaeologist from Kurukshetra university, who based on the pottery finds concluded that the antiquities in the village date from 5 centuries even prior to Emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE).  Saini takes pride that his village is the only one in the region to be surrounded by 18 acres of water bodies, which it is believed, indicates that the settlement dates from very ancient times.

Edict Park and the village with water bodies in the background. Pic: Pauly

Saini ji took me to a Shiv temple situated in the centre of the village which is situated on top of the mound. As we walked to the temple, I observed the gentle slope turning steeper and steeper until we reached the temple which was the highest spot in the entire village. The temple appeared to be about 40 ft higher than the surrounding fields. I met with the temple priest Shri Ramji Das, a man in his late 70’s. Showing me an ancient brick which he had discovered during the renovation of the temple, he told me that there was a wide wall made of large bricks, which he thought ran beneath the temple from west to east. Saini also thinks that the Ashokan pillar of Topra (Ashok ki Lat) was situated at the spot of the temple. Not only he, all the villagers I met believed the same.

Ancient brick in Topra Kalan

Saini’s passion for preserving the ancient heritage of his village led him to write a book. Written in Hindi, the language which most locals can read and write, the book is titled ‘Ashoka Gitā.’ His aim of writing the book is to facilitate awareness about the historical importance of his village. Currently, Saini is worried that the archaeological mound on which the village is settled may come under threat because of encroachment on the surrounding water bodies by the residents.

From looking at the topography of Topra Kalan, it is indeed not hard to tell that the village is situated on an ancient mound surrounded by water bodies on three sides. There is an extremely high probability of finding antiquities from the Ashokan period or from the times of Buddha himself. However, a formal exploration is needed to make a headway into this. Meanwhile, local people are generally ignorant about the significance of the village. For most of them, the pillar is simply a story passed down from generation to generation called Ashoka ki Lat (Ashoka’s Pillar).

Topra Pillar at Firoz Shah Kotla, New Delhi. pic: Siddhartha Gauri

Buddhism was lost in the Indian subcontinent at the turn of the 1st millenium. Buddha, Emperor Ashoka and Buddhist places were lost into oblivion. Only as late as 1838, James Princep deciphered the script inscribed on the rocks and pillars found in many places throughout the Indian subcontinent. Together, the deciphering of the script and the translation of Buddhist texts including travel accounts of Xuanzang led to the discovery of the Buddha and Ashoka. Although Buddhism was lost in the Indian subcontinent, the Ashokan Pillar in Topra, and many such pillars, were still known by popular names among the locals. It was in this way that word reached Emperor Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1309-1388 CE) about the presence of an impressive monolithic pillar at Topra inscribed with illegible script. In 1356, Firoz Shah ordered it to be removed and reinstalled in Delhi. The episode of removal of the pillar is documented by the court historian of that era in his book titled Tarikh i Ferozi Shahi-Records of Court Historian Sans-i-Sira.  Almost all the people I met in the village of Topra knew the story of removal of the pillar - the Emperor arranged for tons of cotton on which the pillar was felled, wrapped in layers of silk, placed on 14 carts, brought to the banks of Yamuna about 10 kms away from Topra and sailed to Delhi, also situated on the banks of Yamuna.

Map depicting ancient Kuru (Haryana) and buddhist sites

I came across quite a few interesting people in Topra, all engaged in heritage preservation work in their own ways. Shri Meher Singh Saini, former Sarpanch (village head) and an octogenarian now thinks Topra housed the palace of Ashoka. Shri Munish Nehra, the current Sarpanch, is working together with his friend Siddhartha to build the Commemorative Park at the site of Ashokan Pillar. When he was at school, Munish became so fascinated with the story of Rājā Ashoka ki Lat that he went to Firoz Shah Kotla in Delhi only to have a look at this pillar. He visits the pillar still once in a while. He says that this gives him inspiration to carry on his work:  prerna milti hai (I feel inspired).

The views of Siddhartha and Surendra ji that Topra is Kammāsadhamma or at any rate, a place deeply associated with the Buddha’s wandering, are supported by Xuanzang who records having seen remnants of the presence of the Buddha and his prominent disciples at Śhrugna (now Shug). At the time of Xuanzang’s visit in the 7th century, the ancient Kuru of the Buddha’s times was subdivided into small kingdoms and Śrughna was one of them (see map).  Near the capital city of Śrughna, Xuanzang saw an Ashokan stūpa at the place where the Buddha had given sermons and inducted people into the Saṇgha. In proximity of the Ashokan stūpa was a stupa constructed over the hair and nail relics of the Buddha and other stūpas built over similar relics of Sāriputra, Mahāmoggallāna and numerous Arhat-s (One who is worthy). This suggests, Sāriputra and Mahāmoggllāna, the disciples closest to Buddha, probably visited the Buddha and went to Śhrugna with him.

Xuanzang mentions the existence of hundreds of Buddhist monasteries in Śrughna. This was confirmed by the discovery of numerous archeological remains in Chaneti, Shug, Asandh and other places in the region. Alexander Cunningham identified ancient remains of Shug on the western bank of Yamuna as the remains of the capital city of Śrughna. As Topra is situated close to Shug and Chaneti, two important Buddhist sites as well as situated on the ancient pilgrimage route connecting Kurukshetra and Haridwar, it is highly probable that Topra may be Kammmāsadhamma. The only inconsistency is that Xuanzang does not mention the presence of any such Ashokan Pillar at Topra when he visited Shug although Shug was just 15 kms away from Topra. This could be explained by the logic that the pillar may have receded into oblivion already by the time Xuanzang visited the region which was in the 7th century, nearly ten centuries since the time of Ashoka. So, I think Siddhrtaha’s and Surendra Saini’s conviction that Topra is Kammmāsadhamma has weight and should be given a serious thought by archaeologists.

Need for grassroots awareness generation and formal exploration at heritage sites

Kingdom of Śrughna as described by Xuanzang touched River Ganges in the East and Himalayas in the North. There were 5 monasteries with about 1000 Buddhist ecclesiastics. This region corresponds to the present-day Yamuna Nagar district in Haryana (part of ancient Kuru of Buddha’s times). The ancient Buddhist remains at Adi Badri, Chaneti and Shug in Yamuna Nagar district are testimonial to Xuanzang’s records.

Shri Meher Singh Saini. Pic: Pauly

Siddhartha has made extensive surveys in this district and noticed numerous ancient mounds which are mostly unprotected. The few that are protected fall inside villages whose local residents are usually ignorant about the significance of the sites. Residents have been taking away bricks from these sites and using it for construction of their homes. This is a very common practice that I have witnessed also in Bihar in every village which has ancient remains. They do not have a sense of ownership towards the Buddhist sites.

Shri Surendra Saini presenting me copy of his book 'Ashoka Gita". Pic: Pauly

On his part, Siddhartha has been facilitating awareness among the residents about the importance of these sites, but he feels that formal exploration and documentation at these sites is needed to truly preserve them as well as find out more about the Buddhist past of Yamuna Nagar and Haryana generally. 

Siddhartha is working towards the integration of the Buddhist heritage sites of ancient Kuru region with other important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Bihar, Nepal and Uttar Pradesh and facilitating the creation of a larger ‘The Sublime Wandering of the Buddha’ pilgrimage circuit - a dream that both of us share. He hopes that circuits are treaded not only by Buddhist devotees but also become popular among the local people because only then would they take steps to protect it.    

People of Topra giving me send off on 25th February

                                 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.


Vik Kennick said...

I am thrilled to hear about your work to preserve Buddhist sites. I just finished writing a biography of Buddha and was looking around for material to make a map of his wanderings. Buddha's visit to Kuru is highly significant as that is where, as you note, he taught the meditation on four foundations of mindfulness, which has be come extremely popular in the West. Buddha remarked how intelligent, diligent, and dedicated were the people of Kuru. Therefore, he presented them with those precious mindfulness teachings.

subodh kumar singh said...

अद्भुत शोध परक सरजमीनी रिपोर्ट इस तरह के आलेखों का इतिहास में नितांत अभाव है आप की पैदल यात्रा के दौरान ऐसे आलेख इतिहास की धरोहर बन जाएंगे