Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Piprāhwā to Tilaurakot: Celebrating the Ancient Kingdom of Kapilavastu

By the time of the visit of Buddhist monk-pilgrims Faxian (Fa-hein, 5th CE) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th CE), many of the important Buddhist pilgrimage places in the Indian subcontinent went into oblivion. Piprāhwā, a small village in the Terai region (lowland region), is one such lost site at the end of 2nd CE and therefore no mention of this place can be found in either Faxian or Xuanzang’s accounts.

Empty road at Piprāhwā due to COVID Lockdown

Piprāhwā lies south of the outer foothills of the Siwālik Range in the Himalayas on the Indo-Nepal border, 100kms NW of Gorakhpur. Piprāhwā came into prominence for the first time in 1898 when a British landowner, William Claxton Peppé (1852-1937), excavated a large mound on his estate in Piprāhwā and turned out to be a Buddhist stūpa. Inside the stūpa, Peppé discovered a sandstone coffer that had five caskets containing bone, ashes and more than a thousand pieces of jewels. One of the caskets had an ancient inscription of 37 characters dated to the 2nd century BCE. The language of the inscription was a mix of Magadhi and Pali. According to the inscription, the casket contained the Sakyan share of the Body relics (śarīra) of the Buddha.
As we are aware, the Buddha was a Sakyan prince before his Enlightenment.  The Sakyans of Kapilavastu were one of the eight recipients of the Buddha relics. They received and enshrined these relics in this stūpa at Piprāhwā in the 5th century BCE. 
Piprāhwā is situated 17kms South-East of Tilaurakot (Palace City, Kapilavastu) and 12kms South East of Gothiāwā (Place of Karakchunda Buddha). Both Faxian and Xuanzang visited these two sites, Tilaurakot and Gothiāwā, yet did not visit the relic stūpa situated close by where the Sakyan share of Buddha’s body relics were enshrined. A small monk community living in these two sites, Karakchunda Buddha place and Palace City, Kapilavastu, were also probably ignorant about the existence of Buddha relic stūpa at Piprāhwā.
ASI Protected site of Piprāhwā closed due to COVID.

In 1971, Shri K. M. Srivastava, Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), undertook further excavation of the stūpa at Piprāhwā believing that Peppé did not excavate till the bottom end of the stūpa and that there might be an older casket, enshrined by the Sakyans, buried still deeper in the stūpa. Srivastava dug deeper into the stūpa than Peppé had done in 1898 and discovered two soapstone caskets containing 22 fragments of charred bones and ashes.

Excavation by Srivastava has established that initially the stūpa was a simple internment site created by the Sakyans in the 5th century BCE for the one-eighth of the corporeal relics of the Buddha they were apportioned to them at Kushinagara. The stūpa was raised by piling up natural earth from the surrounding area. The stūpa was later on rebuilt and enlarged three phases: phase I (3rd century BCE); phase II (2nd century BCE); and phase III (1-2nd century CE).  Excavation has also established that the place was probably abandoned in 2nd CE.

In 1976, three years after the excavations at Piprāhwā and Ganwariyā, the findings from the excavations at Piprāhwā and surroundings were made public through a news item in The Times of India titled ‘Buddha’s Lost City of Kapilavastu Found.’ 

Both Faxian and Xuanzang have mentioned many sacred places associated with the Buddha and past Buddhas (Kanakmuni and Karakchunda) in the kingdom of Kapilavastu. These sacred sites were situated close to one another. Lumbini, Gothiāwā and Nigliawā have been identified as the places of Gautama Buddha, Karakchunda Buddha and Kanakmuni Buddha respectively based on the discovery of Ashokan pillars at these sites as mentioned by Xuanzang and the inscriptions on the pillars. Many other significant Buddhist places have been identified based on these three Ashokan Pillar sites. There are some discrepancies in Faxian and Xuanzang in the descriptions of Capital City and Palace City. According to Xuanzang, Palace City was a fortified structure 15 Li (3.5 kms) in circuit from where Suddhodana, the father of the Buddha ruled Kapilavastu and where Bodhisattva Siddhārtha spent his childhood.

These discrepancies in the accounts of both pilgrims have put in doubt that Tilaurakot is the Palace City claimed by Nepal. Ms. Debala Mitra proposed in 1971 for the first time that the Palace City should be in India somewhere near Piprāhwā. Mr Srivastava’s report of excavations at Piprāhwā and Ganwariyā which was published in 1976 endorsed the views of Ms. Mitra.  

I have published a story on how the two Indian archaeologists, Ms. Mitra and Mr. Srivastava, who put forth the theory that Piprāhwā is the Palace City have failed to provide conclusive or convincing evidence to support their claim.  Instead, the identification of the Palace City with Tilaurakot offered by R. D. Mukherjee in 1899 is more convincing.

People of Nepal saw this news ‘Buddha’s Lost City of Kapilavastu Found’ published in Times of India in 1976 quoting Shri Srivastava as India’s plot to deny Nepal from being Buddha’s homeland. Over the years, the theory that Piprāhwā and its surroundings is the ancient Capital City of Kapilavastu and that the Palace City should be somewhere near Piprāhwā has become formidable, especially among the Indians.

On my foot journey I arrived at Piprāhwā on 9th June. I stayed at a Buddhist monastery, Bharitya Baudha Mahavihara (BBM), established by Venerable Bhadant Dhammapriya, a 74 years old monk ordained under Most Ven. Ananda Mitta Mahathero in 1979. Venerable Bhadant Dhammapriya studied Buddhist texts at Thai Mrigadaya Vihara in Sārnātha for 10 years after his ordination and arrived in Piprāhwā in 1999 with aim of establishing a Buddhist Vihara and revitalizing the Buddhist heritage of Piprāhwā and its surrounding. In his twenty years of stay at Piprāhwā, he has been witness to many changes especially related to land prices and government infrastructure. Government has acquired 100 acres of land around the Relic Stūpa site in Piprāhwā. Within the 100 acres land, there are two museums, one belonging to the Archaeological Survey of India and another to the Government of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Government has used 50 acres for setting up Siddhārtha University. One can see the big campus from a distance with its tall buildings. There is a government-run guesthouse which is mostly out of use. Piprāhwā is situated exactly between Kushinagara and Shravasti, 150kms from both the pilgrimage places that receive a good number of international visitors. Yet, Piprāhwā does not receive even a fraction of visitors the other two places do. Local people have been demanding restoration of the Buddha relics of Piprāhwā currently kept in the National Museum at New Delhi. They are hoping that enshrining Piprāhwā relics at their find spot Piprāhwā would restore the status of Piprāhwā in the Buddhist world.

Ven. Dhammapiya at his monastery 

I asked Ven. Dhammapiya what he thought of the debate over the identification of ‘Palace City.’ He believes Ganwariyā is the ‘Palace City.’ In fact, he showed me a full list of sacred places mentioned by Xuanzang that lie in the vicinity of the Capital City and Palace City. Like Birdpur situated 10 kms south of Piprāhwā is Nigrodhārāma Monastery (Nyagrodhārāma) where according to Buddhist texts Buddha stayed on his first visit to Kapilavastu after his Enlightenment. Kopiya situated in Sant Kabir Nagar is Anupiya where Siddhartha donned off his royal dress and took robes of an ascetic. River Ami in Sant Kabir Nagar is the ancient Anoma River. Rāmagrama where Koliyas enshrined their share of the Buddha relics is Banarsiyākalan in Maharajganj district.

I was left speechless upon hearing of this new ‘sacred Buddhist geography’ being created without any basis. Ganwariyā, proposed by Ven. Dhammapiya as the site of Palace City, got corrupted from Ganarājya meaning Republic. Ganwariyā was the place from where Suddhodana ruled. I explained to Ven. Dhammapiya excavation in the 1970's has confirmed Ganwariyā to be a monastic site and not a city or residential place. Ven. Dhammapiya justified himself saying he was not a scholar so believed in what was being promoted locally. 
Indian version of 'Kapilavastu Circuit'

I tried to explain things to Ven. Dhammapiya in a simple way: If Ganwariyā is the Palace City and Faxian and Xuanzang visited the Ganawariyā site (as the Palace City) then why are both of them silent about Piprāhwā Relic Stūpa which is only 200 mts from Ganwariyā. Given that the relic stūpa at Piprāhwā was one of the eight original relic stūpas constructed over the body relics of the Buddha, the question is why neither Faxian nor Xuanzang mentioned it. In fact, excavations in the 1970's have revealed that the relic stūpa of Piprāhwā was surrounded by three monasteries. Inscriptions found in these monasteries mention them to Mahā Kapilavastu Monastery (Mahā Kapilavastu Bhikshusaṁghasa), that means they were the main monastery of the Kapilavastu kingdom. Yet, Xuanzang and Faxian, staying in 200mts within the most important Buddhist complex which also has Buddha Relic Stūpa are silent about it. I informed Ven. Dhammapiya excavations have revealed that the monasteries of Piprāhwā and Ganwariyā got abandoned around 2nd CE - centuries before Faxian and Xuanzang visited Kapilavastu Kingdom. So, neither Faxian nor Xuanzang had visited either Piprāhwā or Ganwariyā.

Siddhartha University Campus, Piprāhwā

Ven. Dhammapiya seemed to be slightly convinced with my arguments. He informed me in turn that many of the villages around the Piprāhwā site like Pipri, Piparsan, Ghoswā, Yashodharā udyan, Birdpur, Slārgadh have ancient remains. Many large water bodies also surround the Piprāhwā site like Bajhā Tāl, Marthi Tāl, Majhauli Tāl, Siswā Tāl, all of which are lined with ancient remains.

I knew what Ven. Dhammapiya was talking about. In the 12 kms stretch of walk from Bangangā to Paltā Devi and again in the 16 kms from Paltā Devi to Piprāhwā, I had noticed many water bodies, mounds and field potshards, and broken bricks, all pointing to the antiquity of this region. Xuanzang mentions the presence of over a thousand ruined monasteries in the Kingdom of Kapilavastu Kingdom. It was natural for Venerable Saṅgha (monks) to have set up monasteries close to the sacred Buddha body Relic stūpa in Piprāhwā. I explained to Ven. Dhammapiya that the ancient remains found around Piprāhwā could be the remains of those ruined Buddhist monasteries mentioned by Xuanzang.

Now we have two Kapilavastu pilgrimage circuits being developed: one with Tilaurkot in Nepal as Capital City and another with Piprāhwā in India as Capital City. This is quite unfortunate - it will only result in misleading Buddhist pilgrims. Studies and explorations in the recent past have confirmed time and again that Tiluarakot is the most accurate site of the Capital City according to the descriptions of both Faxian and Xuanzang. For a detailed analysis on this, refer to the link:

Resolving the Puzzle of the ‘Palace City’ of Kapilavastu and Developing the ‘Kapilavastu Pilgrimage Trail’

We should now think of integrating the pilgrimage sites of the ancient Kingdom of Kapilavastu situated on either sides of the Indo-Nepal border and develop an interpretation which would be based on descriptions of Xuanzang rather than local information.

Path connecting Tilaurakot and Piprāhwā. Ancient Kapilavastu on both sides of the Indo-Nepal border

Excavation and inscriptional finds reveal the first stūpa over the Buddha’s body relic at Piprāhwā was built in 5th century BCE by the Sakyan people. In the 3rd century BCE, the stūpa was opened by Emperor Ashoka and some of the relics were removed. In the 2nd century BCE, another king, probably a descendant of Ashoka, reopened the stūpa twice to remove and re-enshrine the relics in the stūpas elsewhere. In 1st-2nd CE, the Kuṣāṇ king who was in power at this time — either Kanishka or Huviska — without touching the relics placed a soapstone vase with jewels inside the stūpa. After 2nd CE, the sacred place was lost into oblivion for reasons we do not know.

Royal people visited Piprāhwā throughout the ancient times (5th BCE to 2nd CE) suggesting that Piprāhwā was an important place well-connected through trade routes. This is why the Sakyans choose this place to enshrine their share of Buddha body relics here. The chariots of kings and royal people who visited this place to remove and enshrine the Buddha body relics could make their way to Piprāhwā which means there must have been a highway connecting Piprāhwā with the Palace (i.e. Tilaurakot), where the Sakyan Royals lived and patronized the Relic Stūpa Complex (the Mahā Kapilavastu Monastery inside it).

The most befitting tribute to the sanctity of Piprāhwā would be to bring back the Buddha relics that rightfully belong to this place and to reestablish the connection between the two most important places of the ancient Kingdom of Kapilavastu - Tilaurakot, where the royals lived and Piprāhwā, where the important monastics (Mahā Saṅgha) resided. Tilaurakot and Piprāhwā are just 17 kms apart but cut off by the Indo-Nepal border. Travelling between these two places is not easy which is why very few Buddhist pilgrims know about them or visit them. However, it need not be so. Engagement and understanding between governments of India and Nepal can facilitate the integration of the two places into one pilgrimage circuit so that present-day Buddhist devotees can have the same pilgrimage experience as ancient pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang and thousands of others.

Myself at Bharitya Baudha Mahavihara monastery at Piprāhwā . waiting for permission to go to Nepal.

Postscript: -
I reached Piprāhwā on 11 June. My original plan was to go to Tilaurakot (Palace City of Kapilavastu) but I was told that entry into Nepal was not possible because of the lockdown and more so because of the recent India-Nepal tensions. My well-wishers inside Nepal were trying their best to get permission for me. On 12 June, Nepal police opened fire near Indian border in Bihar in which one person got killed and few others were injured. This deteriorated relations between the two countries further. On 13 June, the Nepal Government got a Map Amendment bill passed in their parliament. All these developments further lowered my chances of entering Nepal. I went to spoke to Aligarwāh border post. The official there said that going to Nepal was out of the question now. So I had to change my plan and defer my foot journey through Nepal.

Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


Allen, Charles (2008). The Buddha and Dr Führer: An Archaeological Scandal (1st ed.). London:                                           Haus Publishing.

Beal, S.; 2005, Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India, Low  Price                         Publications, Delhi: riginally published London: Trubner and Co.: 1869).

Mukherji, B. P. C., 1901, A Report on a Tour of Exploration of the Antiquities in the Tarai, Nepal, The Region of Kapilavastu; During February and March, 1899, Part 1. Volume 26, Part 1 of Archaeological Survey of India. Imperial Series. 
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).

Fleet, J.F; 1907, The Inscription on the Piprāhwā Vase. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Jan.), pp. 105-130, Cambridge University Press.

Srivastava, K. M; 1980, Archaeological Excavations at Piprāhwā and Ganwaria and the Identification of Kapilavastu.  The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.

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