Friday, May 15, 2020

The Sakya Trail: Ashokan Stūpa to Mark the Presence of Buddha

During my stint with International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) in 2017-18, I had many opportunities to meet and know about the Dhamma revival work being done by the people belonging to the Sakya, Maurya, Kushwaha communities. These communities identify themselves as descendants of the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka. Ven. Lama Lobzang who heads the Asoka Mission, a Delhi-based organization in coordination with Ashoka Club, was conducting many awareness generation activities like distribution of reading material about Buddhism, public meetings, distribution of statues of the Buddha among the people of this community. I had always been keen to experience firsthand this silent revolution brewing in the Gangetic plain since the last couple of decades.

Ancient mound of Atranji Kherā. According to Xuanzang, this was the capital of Piloshana country.

On the 24th day of my walk, which was 14th March, walking 30 kms northeast from Grand Trunk road (ancient Uttarāpatha) I arrived at Achalpur Atranji Kherā. As I was approaching the village from the west, I noticed a very huge mound surrounded by green fields at a distance of about 1 km. It was easy to guess what this mound was. Both Alexander Cunningham and Prof. R.C. Gaur has identified this mound as the capital city of Piloshana Country mentioned by the pilgrim-monk Xuanzang (7th CE). 

The country of Piloshana, according to Xuanzang, was situated on the western side of River Ganges, 200 Li (approx. 60 kms) northwest of Saṅkāsya (Sankisa, Sankassa). The capital of the country was 10 Li in circuit (approx. 3 kms). Atranji Kherā is situated 18 kms north of district headquarter Etah of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Piloshana, according to Xuanzang, is associated with the wanderings of the Buddha. Xuanzang saw an old monastery in the capital of Piloshana inside which was an Ashokan Stūpa marking the place where the Buddha for seven days gave Yun-chie-chu-ching Sūtra (Pali translation still not found). Close to the Ashokan Stūpa were the sitting and exercising places of four past Buddhas. The Ashokan Stūpa at the time of Xuanzang’s visit to India in the 7th century was already in ruins.

View of Theriyā mound from the east. This is probably the site of the 'Ashokan Stūpa' mentioned by Xuanzang.

View of Theriyā mound from the south. Boundary wall around it being constructed along with a Shiva Temple and Tourist Centre. 

There At Atranji Kherā, I was very warmly received by Sanjay Bauddh, an enthusiastic man in his early thirties who is active in protection and preservation of the antiquities of Atranji Kherā. He took me to an ancient mound, 30 to 40 ft high, spread on one acre of land approximately. Over the mound is a Shiva temple and a three room, double storied Buddhist monastery. Sanjay made arrangements for my stay at this monastery. 

There was a small group of people including children who had come to meet me. They were all aware about my foot journey and my visit. They were curious with all kinds of questions. The first thing I noticed was that all of them including small boys and girls greeted me ‘Namo Buddhay’ (salutations to the Buddha). I asked the children what Namo Buddhay meant. They just smiled, probably they didn’t know the answer. I was told that Namo Buddhay is the formal and informal greeting used among the people of the Sakya community. Atranji Kherā has 500 households of which 75 families are from the Sakya community. Sakya Community is one of over 25 communities which identify themselves as descendants of the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka.

Sakya children greeting me with Namo Buddhay! 

In the monastery, I shared the room with a 65 years old monk Venerable Bhikkhu Anomdarshi ordained as monk in 1994 at Sankisa - one of the Eight Great Places of the Buddhist pilgrimage, where the Buddha descended from Heaven. He is also of the Sakya community, a native of Mainpuri, 70 kms from Atranji Kherā.
Among the local Buddhist community, Atranji is believed to be the ancient place, Verañjā, mentioned in Pali sources. Buddhist Pali literature mentions Verañjā, a town in which the Buddha spent his 12th rainy season retreat (vassā) at the invitation of a Brahmin by same name (AA.ii.758; cf. BuA.3).  Verañjā was situated between Shrāvasti (Sāvatthi) and Sankassa. After completing his vassā here, Buddha went to Benares, passing through Soreyya, Sankassa and Kannakujja (Kannauj). During Buddha’s times, a road led from Verañjā to Madhura (Mathura) and also to Sāvatthi and Uttarākuru. Based on these circumstantial evidences, Prof R.C. Gaur proposed that Atranji Kherā is most likely to be Verañjā. Excavations at Atranji have revealed it to be a very ancient place dating from the beginning of the 2nd Millennium BCE. 
Achalpur Atranji Kherā is now being promoted by local Sakya people as Verañjā, where the Buddha did his vassā. Many monks from neighboring districts like Farrukhabad, Mainpuri, Etah come here to observe the three-month vassā. Venerable Anomdarshi observed his Vassā here in 2000 and thereafter decided to stay back at Verañjā and work towards its development. He even got an organization named Bauddh Tirth Stahal Barenja, registered in 2010. His efforts have now started paying dividends. Ven. Anom informed me how because of his efforts they now have a 3-day pujā - Jestha Purnima (full moon of May-June) - just before the beginning 3-month vassā. More than 2000-3000 Sakya people from the villages of neighboring districts Etah and Kashganj and Bareilly participate in this 3-day festival.
I asked Sanjay as to why his surname was Bauddh, not Sakya. He told me he has taken deekshā (been ordained) as Buddhist lay-follower. I asked what that meant. He told me it meant that, ‘I am now following panchsheel (five precepts). I have been issued a certificate by Buddhist monk that now I am Buddhist. I have submitted the certificate to the district office and registered myself as a Buddhist. I am no longer Hindu.’

Village elders told me kherā means ruins. According to villagers, Atranji is kherā (ruins) of the living place of King Vena. Nobody could tell which period King Vena belonged to. The kherā (Atranji) was surrounded by seven check posts (watch towers), the ruins of which are now referred to as theriyā meaning smaller mounds. They brought a few ancient bricks which were excavated recently when some construction work was being carried out on the theriyā mound. It was evident from the huge size (15in and 16in) that these bricks were very ancient. From my little experience, I could say that these bricks belonged to 2nd CE to 5th CE. 

The Buddhist temple cum monastery and Shiva temple were also situated on theriyā, north of the village of Achalpur Atranji Kherā. Ven. Anom and Sanjay then showed me four ancient sandstone ‘Stūpa’ situated on the Theriyā which was worshiped both by the Sakya community and the Hindus. The Buddhists worshipped it as Ashokan Stūpa while the Hindus worshipped it as Shiva Linga. This has led to serious tensions between the two communities. The tension, according to Ven. Anom flares up during the 3-day Buddha festival when people from the Sakya community gather in big numbers and their speakers say things against the Brahmans. The matter is now sub judice. Sanjay told me that he was not happy about the anti-Brahmanical speeches given by some of the monks who visited the place. He said, ‘I am doing my best to ensure that such hate mongers don’t come here.’ He says these monks do not know the subject (teachings of the Buddha), hence they resort to such hate speeches to remain popular and thereby collect donations.

Ram Naresh, Sanjay and Ven. Anomdarshi standing by the 'Ashokan Stupa' (Shiva Linga).

Sakyan youth who are engaged in preserving heritage showing me an ancient brick.

Remains of an ancient temple.
People from the village sharing their curiosity about my Walk.

Later in the day, a few more visitors came to meet me, all of them in their 20s and belonging to the Sakya community. They were very curious to know from me more about the Buddha and the Sakya community. I asked them what they knew about the Buddha. They told me, ‘The Brahman king, Pushyamitra, killed the last king of the Mauryan dynasty, Brihadratha, and this is how Brahmans ended our empire.’ I was shocked by what I heard. Young minds are getting or being corrupted by wrong information. I asked them whether this was all they knew and who had told this to them. They replied innocently, “Our monks and opinion makers keep telling us such stuff.” I did my best to share with them about the great accomplishments of Buddha and Emperor Ashoka and how they could learn more primary literature.

Sanjay then took me to meet Shri Narottam Singh, Sarpanch (elected head) of the village.  Shri Singh’s house was in a very beautiful campus. He asked me if I was comfortable staying in the village and if not, I could move into his place. Narottam ji is not a member of the Sakya community. He is in his early 60’s and studied till Class XII. He is very fascinated by the Buddha and Buddha’s association with Atranji Kherā. I have met many people in my 15 years of heritage volunteering who have great interest in heritage conservation, but I never met anyone with such passion about the heritage of the place and objective vision of how to develop the place. He then showed me a copy of the excavation report of Atranji Kherā mound carried by Prof. G. C. Gaur. The book was very thick and heavy. He told me he had purchased many copies of it and had been giving this to officials in the state and district capital.
With village Sarpanch Shri Narottam Ji (to my right) and Sanjay Sakya (to my left).

Shri Narottam ji and Sanjay make a good team together. With their efforts they have been able to get 4 Crore INR for constructing a boundary wall for the Atranji Kherā mound and another 88 Lacs for the boundary wall of the theriyā mound and a community hall for the pilgrims. Narottam ji told me that he had lots of plans but things moved painfully slowly. It took him 10 long years to get this small thing done. Achalpur Atranji Kherā was visited by the Buddha and it deserves a lot more attention and prominence. I agreed with him that the place should get a big exposure which it actually deserves. Our discussion moved to future plans. Narottam ji sought my advice on what immediate steps could be taken for heritage revitalisation. I suggested that first, they should try to get the Tehriyā mound excavated. I told them that I strongly felt that this mound could be the ‘Ashokan Stūpa’ and the monastery complex mentioned by Xuanzang. I also told them that the constructions going on over the theriyā mound was not good. The mound has a Shiva temple and a Buddhist temple and now a pilgrims centre is being constructed. Both Narottam ji and Sanjay were surprised at what I said. They had never given a thought that the theriyā mound itself could be the stūpa. I showed them a few pictures of stūpas that were unearthed from such mounds elsewhere in the country.

Second, I suggested they organise a 3-day walking pilgrimage from Atranji Kherā to Sankisa. These two places are 60 kms apart and both are associated with the wanderings of the Buddha. The path of the walk could touch the villages that host the Sakya communities. A heritage walk like that would facilitate awareness generation worldwide. My inputs were welcomed by both Narottam ji and Sanjay and I feel they will work on these ideas.

Later in the evening I went on a tour of the village. The first thing I noticed was that all the Sakya households had images of Buddha painted on the entrance gates of their houses. I spoke with a few women and found that they had only basic knowledge about the Buddha. For most of them, Buddha and Sankisa, were synonymous. All of them had either visited or aspired to visit Sankisa which was about 60 kms from there.  Sankisa is one of the ‘Eight Great Places’ of the Buddhist pilgrimage. It was here that the Buddha descended from heaven after preaching to his mother. I asked a woman named Priyanka Sakya if she had heard about Mahāprajāpati Gotami, the foster mother of the Buddha. She hadn’t. Priyanka’s neighbour, Pravesh Sakya joined in our conversation and it turned out that she knew about Mahāprajāpati Gotami. She also knew about Yashodharā - wife of Siddhārtha (who later became the Buddha). Pravesh told me she had studied till Class X but could not study further because there were no schools and colleges in her village and being a girl, her parents did not send her to another town to study. I asked her how she knew about Yashodhara and Mahāprajāpati Gotami. She told me that her brother-in-law was a preacher who distributed awareness generation material among the Sakya community. It was from him that she had learnt all this. 

Buddhist images can be seen on the walls of every Sakyan house.

I was offered homemade snacks at whichever house I visited.

Sakya sisters - Priyanka and Parvesh.
Sakya girls - Madhu, Mahima and Bandana - proud of their Buddhist heritage.

I met a couple of young girls- Kumari Madhu Shakya, Mahima Shakya, Kumari Bandana Shakya, Sonam and Preeti - all of them students. They were aware about Mahāprajāpati Gotami. I asked them why they did not have images of Mahāprajāpati Gotami adorning the walls of their homes the way they had posters of the Buddha. Madhu told me she in fact wanted to have that but couldn’t find pictures of Mahāprajāpati Gotami in the market nor had they been made available by the people who distributed images of the Buddha. I told them that images of Mahāprajāpati Gotami are available online and she could download and get it printed. Mahima Sakya, Sonam and Preeti brought to show me the awareness books on Buddhism that they have read. They were aware of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Preeti told me that she had visited Sankisa a few times and now wanted to visit other places associated with the Buddha like Shrāvasti and Lumbīnī. Her elder brother had visited these places last year but did not take her along in spite of her requests. She told me, “Once I will start earning, I will visit all these places on my own. I want to see for myself all the places that I have read in these books.”

Mahima, Sonam and Preeti.

Sakya people are marginal farmers. Most of them also keep cows and goats.

I have been so blessed to receive such wonderful hospitality. All the people in the village were aware about my foot journey and appreciate my effort of doing a foot journey in the name of the Buddha. Everyone I meet is offering to take me to their homes and they want to offer food. The next day, I left the village very early in the morning for my next destination, Sankisa. On the way, I had to stay a couple of nights with Sakyan people to get more insights into the Dhamma revival activities going on among Sakya people.

L-R: Sanjay, Ven Anom, Kirpal Singh, Ram Naresh,  Pal, Rohit, Krishna  and myself.

Story chronicled by Aparajita Goswami


Gaur. R.C.;1983, Excavation at Atranji Kherā. New Delhi: Motilal Banarshi Dass.

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.

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

AA.- Manorathapūranī, Anguttara Commentary, 2 vols. (S.H.B.).
BuA- Buddhavamsa Commentary (S.H.B.).

1 comment:

Jackie said...

i am loving ur stoy... specially when you are sharing ur experience with people and their living stand and ofcourse, they awareness about Buddhist sites..