Monday, June 29, 2020

In the streets where Upāsikā Visākhā once walked

On 31st May, I was at the village Khandbari which more than 2500 years ago, during the time of the Buddha (6th BCE), was called Pubbārāma (Purvārāmameaning eastern monastery. 
Buddhist literature has many references of bhikṣuṇī-s (nuns) and upāsikā-s (lay female devotees) who made contributions to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Saṅgha. But one name, whose contributions stands tallest, is upāsikā Visākhā.  Upāsikā Visākhā offered a large monastery Mīgāramātupāsāda (Migara's Mother's terraced abode) in the Pubbārāma, to the Buddha and the Saṅgha for their stay and practice. 
View of a street on a normal day in Khandbari.

Please consider supporting the Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Project

At the turn of 2nd millennia CE, after flourishing for more than a thousand years, Buddhism started declining in the Indian subcontinent due to the arrival of Turkish rulers from Central Asia who brought with them a different religion. Over time, all tangible and intangible Buddhist heritage in India got lost. Sacred places associated with Buddha like Lumbīnī (birthplace of Buddha), Mahābodhi (place of Enlightenment), Migadāya (place of delivering first sermon), Kuśinagara (place of attaining Mahāparinirvāṇa) and several other sacred places lost their significance. Buddhist monasteries, stūpas and temples were abandoned and in the next few centuries they became ruined and got buried under earth. The sacred places where important events of Buddha’s life had taken place acquired new names like Vaiśālī and Śrāvasti came to be called Kolhuā and Sāhet respectively.  Similarly, for Pubbārāma, the new population which settled over its ancient mound, were unaware of its great past and named it Khandbari.

Purvārāma Mahavihara of Ven. Vimala Tiss ji.

With Ven. Vimala Tiss ji at his Purvārāma Mahavihara, Khandbari village.

In the mid-19th century CE when the Oriental world became an obsession with Western scholars, the travelogues of Buddhist monk-pilgrims Faxian (Fa-Hien, 5th CE) and Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang, 7th CE) were translated from Chinese into French and English for the first time. When subjected to interpretation and investigation, these ancient travelogues indicated that Buddhism originated in India and there existed an elaborate pilgrimage to the sacred places associated with the Buddha called ‘In the Footsteps of the Buddha’.  The accounts of Faxian and Xuanzang led to discovery of all the prominent Buddhist pilgrimage sites like Sankissa, Sārnatha, Māhābodhi, Rājgir, Nālandā, Śrāvasti, Kapilavastu etc. in the Indian subcontinent. Accounts of Faxian and Xuanzang played the key role in revealing the location of Pubbārāma - the monastery of Upāsikā Visākhā.
Identification of Pubbārāma (Purvārāma)
According to Pali sources, Pubbārāma, as the name implies, was outside the eastern gate of Śrāvasti (capital city) (DhA.i.413; see also MA.i.369). Therefore, it should be outside the ‘Kand-Bahāri Darwaza’- the present name of the gate of the ancient city of Śrāvasti - depicted on the map (see Fig.2). Śrāvasti city had many gates on each side of the city. As may be seen in the map, the ancient remains at Khandbari village are immediately outside the eastern gate of the City.     
According to Faxian, the monastery of Visākhā in Pubbārāma was located 6-7 Li (approximately 2 kms) to the north-east of Jetavana. Xuanzang does not mention the name Pubbārāma but instead mentions a place where Visākhā, the benefactor of Pubbārāma, met the Buddha. Xuanzang visited the stūpa built to mark this meeting place. This stūpa was close to another stūpa which marked the place where Śāriputra had held discussions with six non-Buddhist teachers. The ‘Śāriputra stūpa’ was located more than 4 Li (little more than one km) to the east of the ‘Shadow covered temple’ (the conjectured locations of the two stūpas are Burma temple mound, marked as 1,2 in Fig.2).
In 1863, Alexander Cunningham identified a cluster of ancient remains at Orajhār as Pubbārāma. Cunningham’s identification of Orajhār as Pubbārāma is not convincing.  Faxian mentions Pubbārāma to be to the north-east of Jetavana. Orajhār mound, as can be seen in the map, is not to the east but south of ‘Kand-Bahāri Darwaza’ (see Fig.2) whereas Khandbari village is exactly 1.5 kms north-east of Jetavana as the crow flies. According to Xuanzang, Visākhā's place (i.e. Pubbārāma) should be in the east of present-day Burma temple Mound. As can be seen in the map, Khandbhari village is exactly in the east of Burma Temple Mound.
Plotting Faxian’s and Xuanzang’s description on the map (see Fig.2), we can see that ancient remains at Khandbari village matches the location (i.e. distance and direction) provided by both Faxian and Xuanzang and are the more convincing identification of Pubbārāma than Orajhār (see Fig.2). It is in general awareness as well as known to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that Khandbari village is settled over the remains of ancient Pubbārāma but excavation is not possible because of the displacement of people which is a big challenge. 
I have been visiting Khandbari since 2016. Move around in the village, one cannot see much of the mound because the new population reused the ancient bricks and other usable objects. However, the buried foundations of ancient monasteries and stūpas still get revealed from time to time when there is digging in the village and neighbouring agriculture fields. One can notice ancient bricks and pottery kept at several places in streets.

Fig.2. Depiction of descriptions by Faxian and Xuanzang on Google Map.

Ancient remains get revealed during excavation of the agriculture 

A villager using ancient bricks to layer his porch.

Ancient antiquities collected from Village Khandbari kept with Ven. Vimala Tissa ji.
Revitalisation of Upāsikā Visākhā’s Pubbārāma    
As I walk in the streets of Khandbari, I see children of all age groups smiling and playing, young men and women returning from their work, old people resting on cots. Seeing all this my thoughts were to the times of Upāsikā Visākhā. According to Buddhist tradition, offering of the monastery to the Buddha and the Saṅgha was a very important moment in the life of Visākhā. During the offering ceremony, Upāsikā Visākhā walked around the monastery accompanied by her children, her grandchildren and her great grandchildren, and in five stanzas sang joyously: ‘Now is entirely fulfilled the prayer which I prayed in times of yore’ (DhA.i.416f). To think that this important event happened here in Khandbari where all these people now live brought a surreal feeling. I wondered if these children, old and young people of Khandbari were even aware of this extraordinary woman who once walked, sang songs and danced in bliss in their town.
People here, as everywhere else, are presently living in fear of COVID19. It was a little difficult for me to organise a group meeting for exchanging thoughts, learning about what locals knew about Upāsikā Visākhā and the monastery she offered. 

I went to meet Ven. Vimala Tiss who has set up Pubbārāma Vihāra on the western end of the Khandbari village. Ven. Vimala Tiss was ordained as Buddhist monk in 2003. In 2009, he established Pubbārāma Vihāra in Khandbari with the objective of revitalising the past glory of the place. He is developing a small collection of all artefacts found by him in the village. 

Ven.Vimala Tiss ji introduced me to Smt. Indu Kumari, a very dynamic lady in her mid 30’s, she contested in the village election but lost by a few votes. I requested her if she can arrange a small gathering. As people generally spend the whole day working in fields, she asked me to come around 12 noon the next day. The meeting happened the next day. About 10 people showed up. Among the attendees were two farmers in their 60's, Shri Ram Dhani ji and Shri Shyam Narayan, five middle aged ladies - Smt. Kiran Kumari, Smt Chotka Kumari, Smt. Meera Kumari, host Smt. Indra Kumari and one woman who was so shy she didn't tell her name - a young girl studying in class 6th named Chanda, and a 22 year old school dropout named Kanhaiya. 
Meeting with some locals in Khandbari.

Priyanka is 13 years old school girl who happened to be aware of the Buddhist heritage of her village.
I began the meeting by introducing myself and stating the purpose of my visit. I found out that hardly any of them had visited the world famous Buddhist site of Jetavana where the Buddha had spent so much of his time. This shocked me because Jetavana was walking distance from their village. They explained that since it is a ticketed monument, they did not think to go. However, I know that the ticket cost only 5 Rs until last year. Ram Dhani ji told me people in Khandbari village are not at all eager to visit Jetavana or any of the Buddhist sites in the vicinity. Very few locals actually know the significance of these sacred sites - such things are generally not discussed in houses and community places. I asked Ram Dhani ji what he knew about Jetavana. He answered that Buddha had done tapasya (took penance) in Jetavana. Encouraged by the answer, I went on to ask another person present at the meeting, Shyam Narayan ji, what he knew about the Buddha. His reply left me speechless: he had never heard of the Buddha before. I wondered if there were others in the village who had not heard of the Buddha. Very few people would in fact know about the Buddha, Ramdhani ji told me. The women present at the meeting also seemed to have little idea of the Buddha and the sacred Buddhist sites. The schoolgirl, Chanda, had heard about the Buddha and Jetavana, but given that she was a student, I expected her to know a little more. Villagers referred to Jetavana as chotka jungle (small forest) still. This was the name used for generations before the place was identified as a Buddhist sacred site.
As the meeting proceeded, I grew unhappy seeing the apathy of locals towards their own heritage. As I have found elsewhere in India, the population which settled over the sacred remains were largely unaware of the significance of the places because all the ancient links had got broken and the Buddhist traditions were lost. However, over the last few decades, things have changed quite fast. In the villages of Bihar at least, where I live, any average person is fairly aware about the Buddhist heritage of that place. It is nothing like the situation in Khandbari or Sankisa.
Over here, what shocked me more was that locals were ignorant and indifferent despite the facts that Ven. Vimala Tiss had set up Pubbārāma Vihāra on the outskirts of this village in 2009 and dozens of Indian and foreign visitors passed through the streets during the pilgrimage season to reach the Pubbārāma Vihāra situated at the other end of Khandbari. I asked those present at the meeting if they ever wondered why these people came to visit their village (Pubbārāma Vihāra). All of them seemed to know that the place where the foreigners visit is called ‘Pubbārāma’ but they didn't know what the significance of the place was or more precisely, who Visākhā was. Only Chanda had heard about Visākhā who, according to Chanda, was the daughter of the local king and a very generous lady. Dhaniram ji told me that for the villagers, the Pubbārāma Monastery of Ven. Vimala Tiss is actually a Shiva Temple and the sandstone stump kept inside the temple is believed to be a Shiva Linga

Ancient Sandstone Pillar in campus of Ven Vimala Tiss ji's Vihara is worshipped as Shiva Linga by villagers

A 13-year old girl, Priyanka, joined in the meeting and she happened to know the maximum of them all. She was aware not only about Pubbārāma Vihāra and Visākhā but also that Khandbari was settled over the place where Pubbārāma existed in ancient times. She had learnt all this in school and the coaching classes organised by Venerable Vimala Tiss in his monastery campus. I was glad to have at last met a person who was both aware of her heritage and enthusiastic and proud about it. She said she was very inspired by Visākhā’s good work and saw herself as a descendant of Visākhā.
I saw an opportunity to share the full story of Visākhā with everyone. Visākhā was only 7 when she got the first opportunity to listen to the Buddha when the Buddha was visiting her city Bhadiya (in Anga, present-day Bhagalpur). Buddha’s words left a lasting impression on her. Later, Visākhā was married into a wealthy family and moved to Śrāvasti. She was extremely happy at this because it would provide her with many opportunities to serve the Buddha and the Dhamma and the Saṅgha. Visākhā was very generous indeed. She fed five hundred monks at her house daily. During Buddha’s stay in Śrāvasti, she visited the Buddha every day in the afternoon. For all her service, she was granted eight boons by the Buddha: that as long as she lived she was allowed to give robes to the members of the order for the rainy season; food for monks coming into Śrāvasti; food for those going out; food for the sick; food for those who wait on the sick; medicine for the sick; a constant supply of rice-gruel for any needing it; and bathing robes for the nuns. Visākhā served the Buddha and the Saṅgha until her death at 120. Afterwards her great grandchildren continued her good work. Visākhā’s last major act of generosity was offering a monastery (Pubbārāma) to the Buddha - in the modern-day village of Khandbari where we were now having this meeting - which is what so many foreign pilgrims visit the village for.
I tried to make all those present at the meeting realise how fortunate they were that Visākhā who is revered in the Buddhist community all over the world belonged to their village. Buddhist literature, especially, Therīgāthā, the verses of the elder nuns, has numerous references about Visākhā. Since the time of the Buddha, contributions of Upāsikā Visākhā have inspired generations of followers of the Dhamma all over the world. One can still see many Buddhist institutions in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and the US dedicated to Upāsikā Visākhā. By sharing the story of Visākhā, I secretly wished and hoped that all the locals, especially every young girl in the village come to appreciate the contributions of Visākhā and some of them follow in the footsteps of Visākhā. Priyanka told me that some other students in the village were equally aware and enthusiastic about the heritage of the village. They would like to learn more and participate in spreading awareness.

In conversation with people of Khandbari.

Later in the evening, I met Ven. Vimala Tiss ji and apprised him of the meeting and my opinion of the locals. He told me that Khandbari has one of the lowest literacy rates in the entire state of UP. I could gauge this - barring the two young girls, the rest who came for the meeting were utterly illiterate, they could not read or write a word. Ven. Vimal Tiss ji told me that although there is a government primary school in the village where teachers can very well tell students about the historical significance of the village and increase the level of awareness among locals quite easily, they will not take the trouble to do so.
The biggest obstacle for Ven. Vimala Tiss ji in educating villagers about their own heritage, however, is a local man formerly a Member of Parliament who wields enormous influence on the way people think in the village. He is opposed to Ven. Vimala Tiss Ji's awareness generation work giving it the colour of religious proselytism. He got the coaching classes closed down in which Ven. Vimala Tiss ji would teach children, among other topics, about the past glory of their village as Purvarama in Buddha’s times. Vimala Tiss ji told me that because of the influence of this Former MP, villagers even if they know about the Buddha or Pubbārāma, pretend ignorance sometimes.

Ven Vimala Tiss ji remains undeterred though by this opposition, instead focuses his energies on finding ways of involving the younger generation in his activities because in their hands is the future. He is optimistic that change will come. He thinks what the village ideally needs is an inspired person among them, like Visākhā herself, who would revive the past glory of the place.
Ven. Vimala Tiss ji’s efforts towards revitalisation of Pubbārāma is really commendable. This place is one of the few tangible remains of an inspiring Upāsikā who because of her sincere devotion is considered foremost among female lay disciples (A.i.26).

Like Jetavana, Rājagriha, Nālandā and others, Pubbārāma is an important place also because Buddha spent six Vassā (rainy season retreat) in the Mīgāramātupāsāda i.e. Pubbārāma.  The Buddha also gave many discourses like the Aggañña, the Utthāna, the Ariyapariyesana, the Pāsādakampana at the Mīgāramātupāsāda monastery.  
We wish Ven. Vimala Tiss ji the very best of luck for his efforts!!

Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami

Bibliography : 

Aboshi, Y., Sonoda, K., Yoneda, F., & Uesugi, A. (1999). Excavations at Saheth Maheth 1986-1996. East and West, 49(1/4), 119-173. Retrieved from

 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).

--------------. 1914, The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner &
Co. Ltd, London. (New Edition 1911).

Cunningham, A; 2000, Archaeological Survey of India Four Reports Made During the Years 1862-63-64-65, Vol-I, Published by ASI, GOI, 2000, (First Published in 1871).

Sinha, K. K.; 1967, Excavations at Śrāvasti-1959, Published by Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.

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), ISBN: 81-7536-344-4.

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.

Abbreviations of Bibliography:

 P.T.S.    Means published by the Pāli Text Society.
SHB.     Means published in the Simon Hewavitarne Bequest Series (Colombo).

A. Anguttara Nikaya, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).
DhA.    Dhammapadatthakathā, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).
MA.  Papañca Sūdanī, Majjhima Commentary, 2 vols. (Aluvihāa Series, Colombo).


Pathfinder said...

So interesting! Thank you so much for sharing this chronicle. Keep up the great work! Namo Ratanatraya!

Shrinked Immaculate said...

I have been to this place a couple of times. It is one of the most backward places in Uttar Pradesh. I think whenever anyone comes and try to tell them about their heritage, they get worried that their lands will be taken away.

Shrinked Immaculate said...