Śrāvasti (Sāvatthi) is very intimately associated with the life of the Buddha. It is one of the Eight Great Places (Attha-mahathanani) that constitutes the core of ‘In the footsteps of the Buddha’ pilgrimage. Buddha spent twenty-five Vassā rainy season retreat) in Śrāvasti and also performed one of the four miracles here. I reached Śrāvasti from Saṅkāsya (Sankassa) in 11 days walking 310 kms touching Farukhabad, Bhadohi, Sitapur, Baharaich and Tandwa. But the route taken by Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 602-664 CE) in 7th CE to arrive at Śrāvasti passed through Kanyākubja-Ayodhya-Hayamukha-Prayāga-Kauśāmbī-Viśoka.
|Jetavana Site (ASI Monument) closed due to COVID19
|Ven. Monks outside the Jetavana Site, waiting for site to reopen
Pilgrimage accounts of Faxian (Fa Hien, 337-422 CE) and Xuanzang have been the key source of information for the identifications and discoveries made till date related to the Buddhist heritage of the Indian subcontinent. The French translation of the works of Faxian titled Foĕ Kouĕ Ki (or the Travels of Fa Hian in India) was published in 1836. Foĕ Kouĕ Ki also contained the itinerary of Xuanzang extracted and compiled from Pian-i-tian, a general historical and geographical compilation by Ernest-Augustin Xavier Clerc de Landresse (1800-1862). Pian-i-tian was published as an appendix of Foĕ Kouĕ Ki (Wilson 1839: 109).
Faxian’s accounts became the basis of identification of Saṅkāsya with the modern-day village of Sankisa near Farrukhabad in 1842 by Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893). But it took 21 more years to identify Śrāvasti. Cunningham who discovered Śrāvasti in 1863, attributed this delay to lack of proper maps of this region (Oudh) and discrepancies in the accounts of Faxian and Xuanzang about the location of Śrāvasti. Faxian travelled eight Yojan-s south from Ayodhya to reach Śrāvasti whereas Xuanzang writes that Śrāvasti was 500 Li north of Viśoka. Viśoka, according to Xuanzang, was on the northern side of Prayāga and Kauśāmbī. On basis of Xuanzang’s descriptions, Cunningham identified the ancient remains of Sāhet-Māhet as the site of Śrāvasti in 1863. Excavation by him at Sāhet site led to the discovery of a colossal standing image of the Buddha, 7 feet 4 inches in height. The image is of spotted red sandstone. The head of the image was broken and the image had inscriptions reading the names of the donors of the image and name of the place as ‘Śrāvasti’. Excavations by Jean Philippe Vogel (1871-1958) in 1908 led to the discovery of a 12th CE copper plate grant of ‘Govinda Chandra of Kannauja.’ The inscription mentioned ‘Jetavana Vihāra’ which established further that Sāhet was the correct identification of Jetavana (Sinha 1967).
According to Pali Buddhist sources, Śrāvasti was the capital town of Kosala in India and one of the six great Indian cities during the lifetime of the Buddha (D.ii.147). Buddha first visited Śrāvasti on the invitation of Anāthapiṇḍika (born Sudatta), a rich merchant from Śrāvasti. Buddha spent 25 rainy seasons here (DhA.i.4). His teachings in Śrāvasti are preserved in 871 suttas in the four Nikāya-s (volumes) of Pali texts (KS.v.xviii). Śrāvasti is also where the Buddha performed the ‘Twin Miracle’ (Yamaka pātihāriya) (DhA.iii.205; cf. Mtu.iii.115; J.i.88).
|Image of the Buddha discovered by Cunningham in 1863. Kept at Indian Museum, Kolkotta. Pic@ Abira Bhattacharya
|Fig.1. Ancient Remains of Śrāvasti identified by Cunningham.
|Details of the Fig.1
Decline of ancient Sravasti
During their visits, Faxian and Xuanzang found Śrāvasti in total neglect. Archaeological excavations also suggest that vigorous construction activities occurred at Sāhet and Māhet during the Kushan period (1st- 2nd CE). Monastic complexes were newly constructed on a large scale. The scale of occupation had considerably declined after the Kushan period, consistent with the records of Faxian. In the Gupta period (3rd- 5th CE), the construction and renovation of Buddhist structures continued. But, by the end of Gupta period, the rapid decline of the Buddhist activities started (Aboshi, Yoshinori, et al. 1999).
At the time of Faxian, Śrāvasti was no more the flourishing capital city that it used to be during the Buddha’s time, nevertheless, at Jetavana monastery, Faxian was welcomed by few monks who had seen pilgrims from China visiting Jetavana for first time.
Faxian and Xuanzang paid pilgrimage to many spots where events associated with the Buddha and his disciples had taken place. Cunningham made identifications of the places based on the descriptions left by the two pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang. We may say these identifications by Cunningham were calculated guesses as no corroborating evidence like inscriptions were discovered. His identifications are marked on a sketch of the site prepared by him. Inside this ‘City’, both pilgrims saw remains of a stūpa at the place where King Prasenajit (Pasenadi) had constructed a Preaching Hall for the Buddha (B in Fig.1). There was a stūpa to mark the nunnery where Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī (C in Fig.1), Buddha’s foster mother had stayed. Sudatta the rich merchant of Śrāvasti who had offered the Jetavana grove to the Buddha lived in the ‘City’. There was a stūpa to mark the site of the house of Sudatta (D in Fig.1). Aṅgulimāla was a ruthless serial killer. His name literally means ‘necklace of fingers’. He had killed 999 people, cut their fingers and made a garland out of them. People of Śrāvasti were scared of him. Later, he came in contact with the Buddha and transformed. Both pilgrims saw a stūpa to mark the place where Aṅgulimāla took refuge in Triple Gem (E in Fig. 1). The ruins of Māhet now have excavated remains of two Stūpas, one of which is believed to be that of Aṅgulimāla. His Stūpa is known as Pakkī Kuti, while the other stūpa, which is believed to be that of Sudatta, is known as Kachchī Kuti.
At Sāhet i.e. Jetavana, Faxian and Xuanzang visited many places related to the Buddha and his disciples. Tentative locations of sacred spots mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang plotted by Cunningham may be seen on the map (fig.1).
F- Jetavana Monastery
G- On the east gate of Jetavana were two Ashokan pillars. The left pillar was surmounted by a sculpted wheel and the right by an Ox.
H- North-east of Anāthapiṇḍikārāma (F) was a stūpa to mark the spot where Buddha washed a sick bhikkhu.
K- North-west of Ārāma was a small stūpa to mark the place where Maudgalyāyana (Māhāmoggallāna) made an ineffectual attempt to raise the griddle of Śāriputra (Sāriputta).
L- Near the Maudgalyāyana stūpa (‘raising the griddle stūpa’) was a well from which Buddha used water.
M- Close to the well was the Buddha relic stūpa and another stūpa to mark the spot where the Buddha took exercise.
P-100 paces east of Jetavana was a deep ditch where Devadatta went to hell.
Q- South of Devadatta pit was another pit where Bhikkhu Kokalika went to hell.
R- 800 paces further south was a third pit or trench where the Brahmin women passed into hell.
S- 60-70 paces east of Jetavana was a 60ft high temple which contained a sitting image of the Buddha (Buddha Temple).
T- To the east of the Buddha Temple was a Deva Temple (‘Shadow Covered Temple’).
V- 4 Li east of Shadow covered Temple was Śāriputra stūpa where Śāriputra had discussion with six non-Buddhist teachers.
W- Purvārāma (Pubbārāma)
X- Beside Śāriputra stūpa was the Temple and the Stūpa where Visākhā welcomed the Buddha. According to Faxian, Visākhā’s place was 6-7Li north-east of Jetavana.
To the south of Visākhā stūpa is place where Buddha met Virūḍhaka (Viḍūḍabha), the prince of Kosala.
According to Faxian place where Buddha met Virūḍhaka was 4 Li South-East from the City.
Re-examining Alexander Cunningham’s Identifications of Śāriputra Stūpa (V), Visākhā Stūpa (X), Virūḍhaka place (Y & Z)
|Fig.2. Projection of Faxian and Xuanzang description on Google Map.
Purvārāma means ‘eastern monastery’. According to Pali sources, Pubbārāma was a park outside the eastern gate of Śrāvasti (capital city) (DhA.i.413; see also MA.i.369). Mīgāramātupāsāda, the monastery offered by Upāsikā Visākhā to the Buddha, was situated in the Pubbārāma park.
According to Faxian, the monastery of Upāsikā Visākhā was 6-7 Li (approximately 2 kms) north-east of Jetavana. Xuanzang has not mentioned about this monastery offered by Upāsikā Visākhā, instead mentions about the place where Upāsikā Visākhā welcomed the Buddha. Xuanzang visited the stūpa marking their place of meeting. The stūpa was near another stūpa to mark the place where Śāriputra held discussion with six non-Buddhist teachers. The ‘Śāriputra stūpa’ was more than 4 Li (little over a kilometer) East of the ‘Shadow covered temple’ (S, T in Fig.1/ 1, 2 Fig.2).
Alexander Cunningham has identified the Śāriputra stūpa and Visākhā’s place mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang with the ancient remains at Ora-jhār (W and X in Fig.1/3 in Fig.2). On close observation, we find that Ora-jhār mound is to the south of Jetavana monastery and the ‘City’ (i.e. Māhet) rather than to the east as mentioned in Faxian and Xuanzang’s texts. To suit his own proposition better, Cunningham has modified Faxian’s North-East to South-East. When we plot the descriptions of Faxian and Xuanzang on the map of this area, we notice the ancient remains at Khandbari village, which is 1.6 km NE as the crow flies of Jetavana, is more convincing than the Ora-jhār mound to be the potential place where we should look for the Upāsikā Visākhā’s monastery.
Also, as mentioned in the Pali sources, the Pubbārāma was just outside the City’s eastern gate, therefore, it should be outside the ‘Kānd Bhāri Darwaza’, the eastern gate of the Māhet depicted on the map (See Fig.2). Śrāvasti had several gates on each side of the city. As may be seen in the map (Fig.2), the ancient remains at Khandbari village are immediately outside the eastern gate of the ‘City.’
The places associated with Virūḍhaka, the prince of Kosala also need to be reexamined. Virūḍhaka was son of Prasenajit (Pasendi), the King of Kosala. After he became the king of Kosala, he wanted to avenge a former insult meted out to him by Sakyans. Sakyans were the rulers of Kapilavastu and clansmen of the Buddha. While Virūḍhaka was on his way to Kapilavastu to massacre the Sakyans, he was stopped by the Buddha in attempt to convince him to give up his murderous intention. Xuanzang found a stūpa marking where this meeting took place. In spite of Buddha’s intervention, Virūḍhaka carried out his vengeance by killing 500 Sakyan maidens of his harem. Later a stūpa was built at the site of the killings. It was close to the stūpa making the meeting place of the Buddha and Virūḍhaka. It is said Virūḍhaka died within seven days of killing of the 500 Sakyan maidens. Xuanzang saw a large dry pond at the spot. According to Xuanzang, all the places related with Virūḍhaka were situated south of Upāsikā Visākhā’s place. According to Faxian, the places related to Virūḍhaka were 4 Li or 1-2 kilometers to the South-East of the ‘City’ (Māhet). Cunningham identified mounds and tanks in the Ora-jhār cluster of ruins with the places associated with Virūḍhaka (Y and Z in the Fig.1).
I believe we should look for the places related to Virūḍhaka on the south side of Khandbari village. To examine the archaeological remains in the vicinity, I have plotted on map the places related with Virūḍhaka. These places should be a maximum within 1kms South of the place of Upāsikā Visākhā (Khandbari village). Ora-jhār cluster of mounds is on the south side of Upāsikā Visākhā’s place as mentioned by Xuanzang and around 1.7 kms as the crow flies South-East of City (i.e. Māhet) as mentioned by Faxian (4Li) (See Fig.2).
On 1- 2nd June, I surveyed the ancient mounds in the vicinity of Khandbari village. There are four very prominent mounds of which three - Kharahua jhār (also Jhua jhār), Penahia Jhār and Orajhār - are protected monuments of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) while the fourth - Dodhe Dās Samādhi - is not. I enquired with local people about the meaning of the names given to these mounds - they had no idea and mostly mentioned the palace of the King and watchtowers. I could see the exposed big-sized bricks at Penahia Jhār and Dodhe Dās Samādhi which are standing in concentric circles much like in stūpas. These four mounds qualify the descriptions of Faxian and Xuanzang and any two of these mounds should be the stūpas related with the Buddha and Virūḍhaka as mentioned by both the pilgrims (See Fig.2). Similarly, there are two prominent tanks - Khajwā tāl and Vendā tāl - in the vicinity of these ancient mounds which could be the tank where Virūḍhaka drowned as also speculated by Cunningham (See Fig. 4).
|Kharahua jhār (also Jhua jhār) mound
|Penahia Jhār mound
|Exposed bricks at Penahia Jhār mound..looks like a stūpa
|Dodhe Dās Samādhi mound
|Exposed bricks at the Dodhe Dās Samādhi mound
Identification of ‘Wood of Uncovered Eyes’
|Fig.3.Projection of description of Faxian and Xuanzang on Google Map.
Another place of significance mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang was a grove where 500 brigands arrested by King Prasenajit were blinded and left to their fate. The Buddha was staying at Jetavana at time. Out of compassion, the Buddha healed them and all 500 of the brigands recovered their eyesight. According to Xuanzang, this grove called ‘Wood of the Uncovered Eyes,’ was 3-4 Li (1.4kms) North-West of Jetavana. Faxian also places this grove 4Li (1.4kms) North-West of Jetavana. 4 Li should be something between 1-2 kilometres. Cunningham has identified the grove with the village of Rāgarh Gulariyā which at the time of Cunningham was situated in the midst of a very large grove of trees. He noticed one small brick mound to the east of the grove. He tried to find some inscription to confirm his identification. He even offered monetary reward to the villagers as incentive to help him find inscriptions. I visited Gulariya village on the 2 June and examined the mound identified by Cunnigham. I noticed that there are two mounds which qualify the descriptions of Faxian and Xuanzang. One of the mounds, Bani nāth, has been excavated by ASI. It has a Shiva temple today. The priest of the temple, Bhola Bharti, said the temple was a very old one. The second mound, Brahmadeva, is in the middle of an agricultural field and close to the village of Gulariyā. Both these mounds are 1.2 kms as the crow flies from the Jetavana (see Fig.3). Either of these two mounds could be the ‘Wood of Uncovered Eyes’ stūpa mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang.
Re-examining Ashokan Relic Stūpa Identified by Alexander Cunningham
Slightly North-West of Jetavana, Xuanzang visited an Ashoka Relic Stūpa. Close to it was another stūpa marking the place where Maudgalyāyana made an ineffectual attempt to raise the griddle (belt) of Śāriputra. Besides these two stūpas, there were other stūpas to mark the places where Buddha took exercise, preached and did miraculous manifestations. This cluster of monuments was identified by Cunningham in the village of Husen-Jot situated 500 mts North-West of Jetavana. In the village, he identified one particular shrine called Pir-Barāna as Maudgalyāyana stūpa. He believed the Pir-Barāna shrine had been built by reusing the bricks from the stūpas mentioned by Xuanzang. In my foot journey, I visited the village of Husen-Jot and enquired about the Pir-Barāna shrine. Elders in the village told me there was no such shrine nor had it ever existed. They had never heard of this name from their forefathers. I asked them if there was any ancient mound in the village or in its vicinity. They told me there were a few ancient mounds but were destroyed by the Mahamongkol Chai Dhamma Thai temple after they acquired the surrounding land and enclosed it with a boundary wall (see Fig.3). A former employee of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Shiv Kumar Yadav, whom I met during my exploration of Śrāvasti, confirmed this. He told me the land acquisition and subsequent destruction of the mounds happened more than a decade ago.
Scene of miracle of the ‘double appearances’ (Yamaka pātihāriya)
According to Buddhist sources, the Buddha performed the miracle of ‘double appearances’ (Yamaka pātihāriya) in the 7th year of his Enlightenment (DA.i.57). Buddhist sources mention the Buddha performed the miracle under the foot of the Gandamba mango tree on the full moon day of Asālha (in July). The mango tree was situated at the gate of Śrāvasti city. According to the Pali texts, the king's gardener, Ganda, while on his way to the palace to give the king a ripe mango fruit from the palace gardens, saw the Buddha going on his alms rounds and offered the mango to the Buddha instead. The Buddha ate it immediately and gave the seed to Ananda to be planted by the gardener at the city-gate.
Cunningham believed the present village of Chakra Bhandār, which is only a few hundred feet outside the city of Śrāvasti on the road to the Jetavana is the place where the miracle took place. Cunningham noticed that the village of Chakra Bhandār occupies a large mound (Kuti Behāri Dās, Fig.3, Fig.4), 450 ft long and 350 ft broad. On the mound, Cunningham saw a very fine mango tree which he believed to be a descendant of the mango tree planted according to the Buddha’s wishes.
Shiv Kumar ji told me that the present entrance gate to the ancient Śrāvasti city (Māhet) is a recent construction done in 1956 when the State Governor visited the site. The actual ancient gate is a little further west known today as Imli Darwazā. In ancient times, Jetavana was linked to the City through this gate (Imli Darwazā, See Fig .4). I noticed an ancient mound on the left side of the Imli Darwazā. In ancient times, this mound would be situated just at the point of exit from the Śrāvasti city. The mound is locally called Bhurā (see Fig.3). Its location is very close to the ancient gate that leads to Jetavana (See Fig.4). I think this mound could be the site where the Buddha performed Yamaka pātihāriya.
|New Gate of Śrāvasti City (Māhet)
|Imli Darwazā in background and Bhurā mound in front
|Discussing about ancient remains around Guleriya village with Gulrez Ahmed and his children
|Bani nāth mound is now excavated.
With Shive Kumar Yadav, Ghanshyam Yadav, Anil Kumar Verma, Lalu Yadav ji at
|Burma Monastery Mound
|Ancient bricks at Kuti Behāri Dās mound
|Husen Jot village
|'Kachi Kutti' and 'Pakki Kuti' excavated sites inside the City
|Updated map showing the ancient remains of Śrāvasti prepared by ASI.
|Fig.4. Sacred Landscape of ancient Śrāvasti based on Faxian and Xuanzang projected on Google Map
Shiv Kumar Yadav ji belongs to the village of Chakra Bhandār. He retired from ASI in 2018. As he explained to me about the sudden loss of ancient remains, I could see how upset he was by this issue. ASI is facing difficulty in protecting archeological sites on many fronts. One issue is that most of the heritage sites are being encroached at the behest of people with vested interest. He gave the example of Tandwa Mahant (site of Kashyapa Buddha) where the stūpa mound is losing its form because of construction of Government buildings over it by order of the village Pradhan (elected head). The village head and the local politicians are in connivance with the local police, hence there is no one to stop them. Another issue is the dearth of committed officers. Shiv Kumar ji named a couple of officers and said that in his entire career only these handful of officers were sensitive and passionate about the heritage. The rest were least bothered.
Presently, the focus of Buddhist pilgrimage in Śrāvasti is limited mainly to Jetavana. But monk-pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang have mentioned a larger sacred landscape around Jetavana inducing several stūpas and other structures to mark events related to the Buddha. One can actually see the outlines of these ancient mounds at the locations described by them (see fig 4). Unfortunately, these mounds have not been excavated but nevertheless, they are sacred and efforts should be made in transforming these neglected mounds into “living heritage” sites.
In this regard, efforts should be made to bring back the colossal standing image of the Buddha discovered at Śrāvasti by Cunningham in 1863 but currently kept in the Indian Museum in Kolkata. The situation in Śrāvasti has improved greatly since the time the image was discovered and removed for its safety.
Note: Identification of places mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang offered by me are approximations and guesses based on calculations. It would certainly need more examination, excavation and supporting evidence.Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami
Aboshi, Y., Sonoda, K., Yoneda, F., & Uesugi, A. (1999). Excavations at Sāheth Maheth 1986-1996. East and West, 49(1/4), 119-173. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/29757424
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).
Sinha, K. K.; 1967, Excavations at Śrāvasti-1959, Published by Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.
Wilson, H. H. 1839. “Account of the Foe Kúe Ki, or Travels of Fa Hian in India, translated from the Chinese by M. Remusat”. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. vol. v. London: John W. Parker and Son, West Strand.
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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).
D. Digha Nikāya, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).
DA. Sumangala Vilāsinī, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).
DhA. Dhammapadatthakathā, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).
J. Jātaka, ed. Fausboll, 5 vols.
MT. Mahāvamsa Ṭikā (P.T.B.).
Mtu. Mahāvastu, ed. Senart, 3 vols.
KS. Kindred Sayings, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).