On my foot journey, I arrived at Valmikinagar area in Bihar on 16th June. I was specifically interested in identifying three important shrines (associated with the Great Renunciation) in this region recorded by Faxian (Fa Hien, 337-422 CE) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 602-664 CE)as the site where the Buddha sent back his charioteer Chandaka (Channa), exchanged his princely robes for the deer-skin dress given to him by a hunter, and cut off his hair. I had been working on mapping these shrines using GIS mapping since 2008 based on the descriptions of Faxian and Xuanzang. This was my first chance to actually visit the area. Just on the second day of my arrival, after asking around in the village, what I was led to left me dumbstruck. I discovered two shrines exactly where I had plotted them in the locality. The shrines appear like stūpa mounds - their shape is fairly well-preserved though covered with earth and grass. This discovery can mark a breakthrough in developing the Great Renunciation pilgrimage trail. The detailed story of this discovery follows below.
River Ganḍak. Kaṇṭhaka, the horse, at once leaped across the river covered with fine sand.
pic@ Alok Jain
Bodhisattva Siddhārtha cutting his hair in renunciation Gandhara, 1st century CE, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Prince Siddhārtha of Kapilavastu, a small kingdom in the foothills of Himalayas now in Nepal, felt deeply moved when he observed that all living beings were trapped in a vicious circle of suffering. Siddhārtha sincerely wished to free the people from their suffering and therefore resolved to leave his life of comfort in the palace and wander in search for the truth. At the age of twenty-nine, in the silence of a moonlit night on Asāḷha (full-moon day of July), Siddhārtha left the palace on his horse, Kaṇṭhaka, along with a charioteer named Chandaka. His act of leaving the princely life in search of the truth is called the Great Renunciation (Mahābhiniṣkramaṇa, Mahābhinikkhamaṇa). Xuanzang travelled east from Rāmagrāma (in Nepal) for 100 Li (30 kms approximately) (4 Yojan East according to Faxian) through a great wood to arrive at a great Ashoka stūpa. This Ashoka Stūpa was the place where Siddhārtha made a halt after having passed the city-wall of Kapilavastu at midnight and rode on until daylight. ‘Here I go out of prison, put off fetters, unyoke for the last time’. Then the prince took out the jewels from his crown and gave them to his groom, Chandaka (Channa) along with a message for his father, the king- ‘My present retirement to a great distance is not a separation from you- I desire to have done with impermanence and put an end to moral defects’.
Travel of Xuanzang and Faxian from Kapilavastu to Hair-Cutting Stūpa on Google Earth map.
All the ancient biographical texts on Buddha have mentioned about this event but they vary slightly in the details. Pali sources, Burmese accounts, Lalitavistara and Nidāna-kathā mention that after travelling throughout the night, Siddhārtha reached at the bank of River Anomā (VvA.314) (Anumaineya in Lalitavistara). The river was very wide, approximately 200 ft according to Pali sources, and 500 yards, according to Nidāna-kathā (Childers, Davids & Davids 1925: 177). When the first rays of the sun fell on the river in the morning, Kaṇṭhaka, the horse, at once leaped across the river covered with fine sand resembling pearls (Bigandet 1880: 64, Childers, Davids & Davids 1925:176).
Arriving at the riverbank, Siddhārtha asked Chandaka what the river was called. ‘It is Anomā (glorious),’ replied Chandaka to which Siddhārtha said: ‘My renunciation shall also be anomā.’ (J.i.64). According to Buddhaghosa, Anomā means having no ‘defect,’ that is, endowed with perfection (SA.i.67). According to Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra, the place where Siddhārtha landed after his overnight journey was 2 Yojans from Kapilavastu (Beal 1875:140); according to Mahāvastu it was 12 Yojans southwards (Jones 1952: 159); according to Lalitavistara 6 Yojans; according to Burmese accounts (Bigandet 1880: 64) 30 Yojans. Pali sources say that Siddhārtha crossed three kingdoms - Sākiyans, Koliyans and Mallās - in his overnight flight from Kapilavastu (BuA.5.). (1 Yojan = 10 kms approximately)
It is possible that the place where Siddhārtha arrived - Anomiya of Mahāvastu, Anuvaineya of Lalitavistara, Anumegha of Abhiniṣkramaṇa sūtra - are corrupted versions or variations of the name of the same place - a town named Anupiya of Mallā kingdom mentioned in Pali sources (J.i.64f.; SnA.382).
There are many identifications of River Anomā and the place where Bodhisattva Siddhārtha crossed the river. For my foot journey, I am strictly following the descriptions of Xuanzang and cross-checking them with the descriptions of Faxian. Xuanzang travelled eastward from Lumbīnī and Kapilavastu palace city (Tilaurākot) to reach Rāmagrāma (Parasai, Nepal), the place where the Koliya people had made a stūpa over the Body relics of the Buddha. From Rāmagrāma, Xuanzang travelled east to arrive at the place where Siddhārtha turned Chandaka back. This is confirmed by Faxian also.
If we combine the information from the different texts (biographical texts and travelogues) mentioned above about the place where Siddhārtha arrived after his overnight flight, we find that he must have arrived at River Ganḍak or crossed it. Xuanzang and Faxian are silent about Siddhārtha crossing a river named Anomā. But plotting their travel routes on the map, we find that both Xuanzang and Faxian must have arrived upto present-day River Ganḍak. Mahāvastu is also silent about Siddhārtha crossing a river. Instead it mentions that after an overnight journey, Siddhārtha arrived at the town Anomiya (Jones 1952: 160). Abhiniṣkramaṇa sūtra also does not mention the river but instead talks about Siddhārtha arriving in a village called Anumegha (Beal 1875:153) near Rāmā (Rāmagrāma?).
People in Nepal believe that present-day River Narayani, which is River Ganḍak in India, is the River Anomā mentioned in Buddhist literature (Burmese accounts, Lalitavistara and Nidāna-kathā). Lalitavistara, Abhiniṣkramaṇa sūtra (Beal 1875:152) and both Xuanzang and Faxian mention the presence of a memorial stūpa at the spot where Siddhārtha turned back Chandaka. My conjecture is that this stūpa should be on the banks of River Ganḍak. Based on the descriptions of Faxian and Xuanzang that I have plotted on GIS maps, I believe Point A is the location where the Siddhārtha must have crossed River Ganḍak. It lies in Valmikinagar in Bihar exactly east of Rāmagrāma as mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang.
My original plan was to follow Xuanzang’s track: go from Shrāvasti to Kapilavastu Palace City (Tilaurākot) and Lumbīnī, then go to Rāmagrāma, make an exit from Nepal and go into Valmikinagar in Bihar. But because of COVID lockdown, I was not allowed to enter Nepal, hence from Piprahwā I arrived directly in Valmikinagar on 16th June. It was my first visit to this area. Valmikinagar is densely forested. In between the forest are patches of green farms. A network of wide irrigation canals originating from River Ganḍak criss-crosses the landscape. Some villages can be seen here and there. The terrain is basically a very difficult one to explore on foot.
Since settlement in this area is recent so not many oral traditions are preserved. Hoping to find some lead on ancient remains in the region, I decided to first go to the village of Thāri. It is a village situated on the eastern bank of River Ganḍak inhabited by the Thāru tribe. They are one of the earliest settlers in the Tarai area. When the British first encountered and documented these people, they called them ‘Tarāu.’ Over time, the name Tarāu changed to Thāru. In the village, I asked a few elders whether they had come across any ancient bricks or mounds. They seemed to be completely ignorant. One person, Shri Sugba Yadav, a non-Thāru, told me that some bricks and pots had been found when the River Ganḍak breached the eastern bank carrying away lots of earth. This incident had happened more than a decade ago near the village of Rampurwā, further south of Thāri.
I went to check out the village of Rampurwā for which I had to walk another 4 kms from Thāri through fields and forest. The people in Rampurwā directed me to a man named Shri Pramod Singh who as it turned out belonged to a family of local landowners. In 1954, Pramod Singh ji’s father, Late Shyam Bihari Singh purchased some 200 acres of land from Bettiah Raj and settled down on the land. He owned a large house, cattle and mango trees. Late Shyam Bihari Singh brought men and women to clear the forest and turn it into arable land. These people also eventually settled down on the land. In the last six decades, their settlements have turned into a full-fledged village called Rampurwā.
I shared with Pramod Singh ji the purpose of my visit. He was very surprised to hear of a possible link between Valmikinagar and the Buddha. He informed me that the River Ganḍak has been changing its course many times over the centuries hence it would be very difficult for an ancient structure situated on the bank of the river to have survived in a recognisable form. Descending from mountains, a river brings down tonnes of silt which gets deposited as the river flows downstream to the plains. Silt collects gradually in the main stream of the river flow causing the river to change its course over centuries, and sometimes even within decades. As the river changes its course many times, the river bed becomes very wide - just as in the case of Ganḍak at Valmikinagar where it is about 7 kms wide.
A street view of village Thāri.
Talking to village elders in village Thāri.
On way to village Rampurwā through forest.
With Shri Pramod Singh ji at village Rampurwā.
With Shri Pramod Singh ji pointing at the India-Nepal border on Google Earth map.
Pramod Singh ji explained to me on the Google Earth map the changes that have occurred in the course of River Ganḍak. In a revisional survey done in 1913-14 between India and Nepal for border demarcation, it was decided that the middle stream of the river would be taken as India-Nepal boundary. Parmod Singh ji showed me the middle stream on the Google Earth map represented as the yellow line depicting the India-Nepal border (Bihar-Nepal border). According to him, if the Ashokan stūpa to mark the incident of Siddhārtha sending back Chandaka was situated exactly on the bank of the river then I should have explored the areas near the middle stream of the river. Because of lockdown and shoot at sight orders at border areas because of Indo-Nepal border tension, these areas were not open to the public. As a result, I had to defer my plans of exploring this Ashokan Stūpa to a later date when the situation would be conducive for exploration.
Xuanzang says that after sending off the charioteer, Chandaka, and his favourite horse, Kaṇṭhaka, back to Kapilavastu, Siddhārtha cut off his hair and exchanged his princely robes for the dear-skin dress given to him by a hunter. There was a small stūpa to mark the place where he exchanged robes. It was on the east of the ‘Chandaka’s Returning stūpa’. ‘Near’ the exchanging of the robes stūpa was another Ashokan stūpa where Siddhārtha cut off his hair. Erection of a memorial stūpa at these spots is also confirmed by Lalitavistara and Abhiniṣkramaṇa sūtra (Beal 1875:152). I explained these descriptions of Xuanzang to Shri Pramod ji and asked if he knew of places where ancient bricks and mounds had been found. He told me the names of a few places where he had personally seen ancient bricks and mounds. He emphasised on two places the most, Rājagaḍhi and Bāwangaḍhi. Gaḍhi is a suffix meaning ancient fort or brick remains.
In spite of the season being when Pramod ji is engaged in paddy sowing on his farm, he spared some time to show me the ancient remains he had mentioned. We went first to Bāwangaḍhi (27° 23' 01'' N. 83° 55' 15'' E) which is situated approximately 1.5 kms north of Bagha-Valmikinagar highway close to the village of Daruābāri. Daruābāri is an old settlement of Thāru tribal people nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. At first when I saw the Bāwangaḍhi mound, I just could not believe my eyes. It appeared to be almost like a stūpa. The structure was made of ancient bricks and it was possible to make out the circular base with a gradual tapering towards the top.
On top of the mound was a present-day temple. Pramod ji introduced me to the priest of the temple, Shri Bhgawan Das Mahato. Bhagwan Das ji told us about another mound called Sāgar Māi or Teḍhi Sāgar Māi situated 1km to the north from Bāwangaḍhi. Since we had planned to visit Rājagaḍhi, situated in another corner of Valmikinagar, also on the same day, we decided to come back next morning to visit the Sāgar Māi mound site.
Rājagaḍhi is situated southwest of Bagha-Valmikinagar highway, 20 kms away from Valmikinagar. It is a huge mound made up of ancient bricks. Prima Facie, it looked like a fort with brick towers on four corners. A modern temple was built in the centre and small temples on the four corner towers. The site did not fit Xuanzang’s description hence did not catch my interest.
The next morning, I visited Bāwangaḍhi again, measured the ancient bricks and sent the dimensions along with photos of the bricks to my Archaeologist friends. It was 7 am. Inside the Bāwangaḍhi temple premises was a family which had brought a goat with them. Female members of the family were preparing food for offering. Shri Bhagwan Das ji told me that local people, both Thāru and Bāji (outsiders, non Thāru, people who settled here in the recent past), sacrificed goats, pigeons or cocks upon fulfillment of their wishes. This family had been blessed with a granddaughter so they were sacrificing a goat as an offering. The meat would be distributed among family members. The priest told me that there were four prominent temples in Valmikinagar where locals, especially the Thārus, made sacrificial offerings.
The visible part of the stūpa mound in Bāwangaḍhi is 100ft in diameter. A large part of the mound seems to be buried. It is around 5-6 ft higher than the neighbouring fields and has a flat top. The priest informed me that the temple on the top was a recent construction. Earlier, in place of the temple, there were pinḍi-s on the top. Pinḍi-s are earthen blocks in which Brahmin priests have invoked life. Bāwangaḍhi Complex was taken over by Jatāshankar Maṭha (Hindu monastery) which belongs to the parent body, Junāgaḍh Akhārā. The Jatāshankar Maṭha built a temple over the mound. The current priest of the temple, Shri Bhagwan Das, was appointed by Jatāshankar Maṭha 25 years ago. The temple complex is spread in more than 2 acres of land with many mango trees. I noticed that the newly constructed temple had eight faces. This led me to wonder whether the stūpa on whose foundation the temple was built could also have had eight faces (on the top layer) because many ancient Buddhist monuments have eight faces symbolising Buddha’s Eight-Fold Path. I shared my observation with the priest but he could not tell for sure if this was so.
|Temple over the stūpa mound in Bāwangaḍhi.|
|Temple over the stūpa mound in Bāwangaḍhi.|
|Bāwangaḍhi is a place of worship to the local Thāru tribe|
|Ancient bricks collected from the Bāwangaḍhi mound|
A cross section of Bāwangaḍhi mound revealing brick structure.
Following Shri Baidyanath ji to the Sagār māi mound.
Shri Baidyanath ji in front of the sagār māi mound.
Myself with Shri Baidyanath ji on top of the sagār māi mound.
Shri Baidyanath ji holding ancient bricks found at the sagār māi mound.
. A shrine on top of the sagār māi mound.
|A view of village Daruābāri|
Later, I met a local Thāru man from the village of Daruābāri called Shri Baidyanath Mahto. I was surprised by his surname Mahto because it sounded non-Thāru. Thārus were incorporated into the Schedule Tribe by the British because their religious ceremonies and offerings were not performed by Hindu Brahmins indicating that they were distinct from the Hindu/Brahmanical tradition. Nowadays, however, the Thārus follow Hindu rituals showing an erosion of their traditional tribal identity. “We have become Biharis”, Baidyanath ji commented laughingly.
Baidyanath ji walked me to Sagār Māi shrine (27° 23' 26'' N. 83° 55' 42'' E) which was hidden in the forest, surrounded by tall trees. I gasped in astonishment at the sight of the shrine. It was a huge mound exactly like Xuanzang has described: ‘An Ashokan stūpa to mark the place where the Bodhisattva Siddhārtha cut his hairs.’ The mound was about 30 ft higher than the neighbouring fields and spread in 1 acre. It was covered with green grass and tall trees. A series of brick steps led to the top where a shrine stood. The shrine had terracotta elephants and pinḍi-s.
I have been plotting Xuanzang’s description on maps using GIS software since 2008. It was my hunch that these two stūpas (where Bodhisattva Siddhārtha exchanged his robes and cut his hair) would be somewhere in the locality of Valmikinagar. Finding them exactly in the locality expected that too just on my first visit to the area, was an unbelievable feat for me. It took a while for the whole thing to sink in. It was just overwhelming to visualise that in the 7th CE, Xuanzang stood here offering prayers, and a thousand years prior to him, Bodhisattva Siddhārtha stood here as he held his hair with one hand and cut it off with a sword in the other. This mound is a living heritage as local people worship here still although they are not aware of its actual significance. Once again, I felt immense personal gratitude to Xuanzang for preserving the location of this site such that we were able to identify it even fourteen centuries later.
According to Baidyanath ji there was an ancient path connecting Bāwangaḍhi and Sagār Māi- they are approximately 1km apart - but the path got destroyed due to modern construction work. Baidyanath ji told me there were 52 Gaḍh (mound) and 53 ancient wells in the Valmikinagar area, the majority of which were in the forest and over the hills. He had not visited all of them. Oral tradition said these ancient mounds and wells were built by a local hero named Allahārudal (12th CE?). The priest Shri Bhgawan Das told me that the Thārus in Valmikinagar district worship four local shrines - Rājagaḍhi, Sagār Māi, Bāwangaḍhi, Nar Devi - of which Bāwangaḍhi is the most significant.
Bricks discovered from Bāwangaḍhi and Sagār Māi shrines are similar. There were bricks of various sizes: 20X20.5X3.5cms, 22.5X21X3.5cms, 20.5X15(broken)X4.6cms, 20.5X20.2 (broken)X6cms. My archaeologist friend, Dr. Sujeet Nayan, Dy Superintending Archaeologist, Incharge Aizwal Circle has confirmed that the bricks discovered at Bāwangaḍhi and Sagār Māi sites may belong to Sunga or Kushān period (1st century BCE to 2nd century CE). However, his confirmation can be considered only a preliminary stage. The antiquity and other details of the site need to be confirmed after a proper excavation of both the mounds.
This discovery will help facilitate in establishing the route of the ‘great renunciation’ by Bodhisattva Siddhārtha from Kapilavastu to Uruvelā (Bodhgayā and around). Once that is established, I can see the development of the Mahābhiniṣkramaṇa Trail (the great Renunciation trail). Moving around the village and interacting with the locals, I had already started visualising how we could involve the local community in facilitating development of the Renunciation trail and transform this site into a living heritage.
After charioteer Chandaka and horse Kaṇṭhaka left, and having ordained himself, Siddhārtha spent the first week after his renunciation in a mango grove in Anupiya (the Anupiya-ambavana) situated on the bank of River Anomā (J.i.64f.; SnA.382) (Bigandet 1880: 67, Childers, Davids & Davids 1925: 179). Very interestingly, this area still has a large number of mango groves. As if to complete the experience for me, Baidyanath ji brought me a mango to eat from his own mango grove.
Biographical texts mention some ascetics whose hermitages were in Anupiya or its immediate vicinity. Pali sources mention about a place where the Paribbājaka of the Bhaggavagotta lived (D.iii.1ff). Abhiniṣkramaṇa sūtra mentions about Rishi Bagava (Beal 1875:146) and Buddhacharita about Bhargava (son of Bhōgu), probably both the sources are mentioning about the same ascetic Paribbājaka of the Bhaggavagotta of Pali sources. According to Buddhacharita, Siddhārtha spent some time understanding the teachings of this ascetic (Willemen 2009:75-93). Mahāvastu mentions of the hermitage of the seer Vaśisṭha (Jones 1952: 160), not far from Anomiya (Anupiya). Lalitavistara mentions Siddhārtha visiting hermitages of a Brahmin woman called Śākī and after that of another Brahmin woman called Padmā. Later, he also went to the hermitage of a sage priest called Raivata. Valmiki Nagar area has many shrines tucked away in the hills and forest. It is very likely that Siddhārtha may have spent time in one of these shrines. However, as neither Faxian nor Xuanzang have mentioned any other episodes in Siddhārtha’s life associated with the Valmikinagar area, it is not possible to link the existing shrines in this area with events mentioned in other Buddhist literature.
This reiterates Xuanzang as an authoritative source. Descriptions from other Buddhist texts are of little value if they are not present in Xuanzang’s writings. One cannot proceed to identify the location of the place only on the basis of those texts. For centuries, the Buddhist Saṅgha all over the world has preserved the teachings of the world at first orally and later in written form, but only Xuanzang and Faxian have meticulously recorded the footsteps of the Buddha. And we owe our knowledge about the footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimage to both of them. The world needs to be aware of this fact.
1. I would like to extend my gratitude to GIS experts Shri Sanjay Mathur and Rajesh Kumar for their guidance in helping me plot the descriptions of Faxian and Xuanzang on Google Earth.
2. Mahāvastu (2nd BCE-4th CE), Lalitavistra (3rd CE), Buddhacharita (2nd CE), Nidānkathā (5th CE?) and Abhiniṣkramaṇa sūtra (6th CE) are the earliest biographical texts of the Buddha.
Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami
Beal, Samuel.; 1875, The romantic legend of Sākya Buddha: from the Chinese-Sanscrit, A translation of the Chinese version of the 'Abhinishkramana sūtra', done into that language by Djnanakuta. London: Trübner & Co.
—— 1914. The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li by Kegan Paul. London: Trench Trubner and Co.
Bigandet, Right Reverend P.:1880, The Life of Legend of Gaudama: The Buddha of the Burmese, Vol I. London: Trübner & Co.
Childers, R. Caesar., Davids, C. A. F. Rhys (Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys)., Davids, T. W. Rhys (Thomas William Rhys).; 1925. Buddhist birth-stories (Jataka tales): the commentarial introduction entitled Nidāna-kathā, The story of the lineage. New and rev. ed. London: G. Routledge.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee (tans.).; 2013. Lalitavistara. Published by 84000. www.84000.co
Jones, J.J. (trans.); 1952, The Mahāvastu Vol.II, London: Luzac & Co.Legge, James.;2013, Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms by Chinese Monk, Fa-Hien. http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/rbddh10.pdf
Laidlay, J. W. 1848. The pilgrimage of Fa Hian: from the French ed. of the Foe koue ki of MM. Remusat, Klaproth, and Landresse; with additional notes and illustrations.Calcutta: J. Thomas, Baptist Mission Press.
Watters, Thomas. 2004. On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India. Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and S.W. Bushell. New Delhi: Low Price.
Willemen, Charles; 2009, Buddhacarita: in praise of Buddha's acts: (Taishō volume 4, number 192) by Aśvaghoṣa. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.
Abbreviations of Bibliography:
Source of Pali references: http://www.palikanon.com/english/pali_names/dic_idx.html
· P.T.S. means published by the Pali Text Society.
· BuA. =Buddhavamsa Commentary (S.H.B.).
· D.=Digha Nikaya, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).
· J.=Jātaka, ed. Fausboll, 5 vols.
· SA. =Sāratthappakāsinī, Samyutta Commentary.
· SNA. =Sutta Nipāta Commentary, 2 vols. (P.T.S.).
· VvA. =Vimānavatthu Commentary (P.T.S.).