Friday, August 7, 2020

New Discovery Along the Xuanzang's Trail: The Ashes Stūpa of the Moriyas of Pipphalivana

Encouraged by the discovery of two stūpas related with the Great Renunciation  - the stūpa where Bodhisattva Siddhārtha cut his hair after renunciation and where he exchanged his robes  with a hunter - I was hopeful to find the sacred site visited next by Xuanzang on his pilgrimage trail, the ‘Charcoal stūpa’ or the stūpa over the ashes of the Buddha, constructed by the Moriyans of Pipphalivana. According to Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 602-664 CE), ‘Charcoal stūpa’ was situated 180 Li South-east of ‘hair cutting stūpa’ i.e. Sāgar Māi shrine in Valmikinagar. 180 Li converts to 50-55 kms (as the crow flies) but since Xuanzang adds that he travelled through ‘wild country,’ I took this distance to be 35-40 kms assuming Xuanzang travelled through difficult and meandering track. My friend Rajesh Kumar who is a geography student and a Geographic Information System (GIS) professional helped me in plotting on Google Earth map the possible spots where I could expect to find the ‘Charcoal Stūpa’ (see fig.1).

Fig.1- Travel of Faxian and Xuanzang from Kapilavastu to Charcoal Stūpa plotted on Google Map.

Fig.1. Travel of Faxian and Xuanzang from Kapilavastu to Charcoal Stūpa plotted on Google Earth. 


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Shri Pramod Singh ji, whom I met in Valmikinagar and who assisted me in locating the stūpas related to the Great Renunciation in Valmikinagar was familiar with this area (West Champaran) also. He had another home 40kms from Valmikinagar in the village of Tribhuani and suggested that I check out the villages of Kharat and Bairat in the vicinity of Tribhauni as he had vague memories of seeing mounds in these villages. Kharat was one of the villages that Rajesh had also strongly recommended from his list of sites to be explored that fit the 30-35 kms criterion.

So I arrived in Tribhauni on the evening of 20th June, and the next morning itself, walked 5 kms to arrive in Kharat. I was fairly confident of finding the Charcoal stūpa in the vicinity of Kharat, but surprisingly, there was not the slightest trace of ancient remains anywhere. The temple which Pramod Ji had mentioned as being situated on a mound was also situated on flat land. I inquired with villagers about the presence of ancient remains and found that they did not know of any ancient remains or mounds either in Kharat or within 4 kms of it. I was a little disappointed at not finding any clue of the stūpa.

Then I was reminded of Dr Manoj Kumar who I was told had surveyed the ancient remains of West Champaran district (my focus area as the probable site of the Charcoal Stūpa) as part of his doctoral research. I called and told him I was trying to locate the two stūpas, one of them being the ‘Charcoal Stūpa,’ mentioned by Xuanzang as being in close proximity to each other approximately 35 kms South East of Valmikinagar. He could not propose any ancient site in the range of 30-40 kms SE of Valmikinagar but suggested I visit the villages of Banwariyā and Marhiyā that were at least in the SE direction of Valmikinagar and had many ancient ‘stūpa’ mounds situated within 1 km of their radius (See fig.1).

Banwariyā and Marhiyā are 22 kms further SE of Kharat so they are located at a distance of 60 kms SE (as the crow flies) from Valmikinagar where I had discovered the stūpas related with the Great Renunciation. 60 kms exceeded the distance of 180 Li i.e. 50-55kms given by Xuanzang, however, the difference was only of about 5 kms, hence there was a possibility that these villages could contain the stūpas mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang.

Walking 25 kms from Rampurwā, touching Narkatiaganj and Chankigadh, I arrived in the village of Marhiyā on 24th June around midday. In Marhiyā, I met a person named Om Prakash Choudhary who was a construction worker who returned from Kerala before the COVID lockdown was announced on march 24th. Om Prakash and his friends told me that the villages of Banwariyā and Marhiyā both were surrounded by huge brick mounds (See fig.2). These mounds were situated in agriculture fields away from the village roads. Due to incessant rain, water had collected everywhere turning the roads and paths to the fields muddy. In spite of the drizzling rain and inconvenience of walking on the slippery roads, Om Prakash was kind enough to take me around. First he took me to Narkani Māi Sthān (27° 04' 53'' N. 84° 25' 23'' E) situated a little to the north of Marhiyā. The Narkani Māi Sthān is a very huge spherical mound like a stūpa, approximately 40 to 50ft  higher than the surrounding fields. The stūpa mound, having a diameter of about 200 ft, looks well preserved. Ancient bricks can be seen on its surface. The farmers working in the field told me that all the fields surrounding the mound had ancient bricks, especially on the west and north side of the Narkani Māi mound. On the north-west corner of the mound is a modern temple. On the east side of the mound is another small mound about 10ft higher than the neighbouring fields. There is a small waterbody on the north side. The two mounds and water body are spread in more than 2 acres of land. Dr. Manoj  has mentioned in his thesis that the bricks found in Narkani Māi measure 42cms X 30cms X 4cms.

                     Narkaṭni Māi mound surrounded by Agriculture field

                                                    Narkaṭni Māi mound

Pranālā (Gargoyle) inside the Gidhwā Pokhar Sthān Shrine.

Ancient stone sculpture at  Gidhwā Pokhar Sthān Shrine.

                  Ompraksh in front of the Gidhwā Pokhar Sthān Shrine.   

Om Prakash took me to the Gidhwā Pokhar Sthā(27° 05' 04'' N. 84° 24' 44''E) next. Pokhar means huge pond so as the name implied, there was a large water body, approximately 6 acres, with two mounds located on the north and south of the water body. The size of bricks in these mounds was noted by Dr Manoj as 33cmsX 25cms X 7cms.  There was a shrine made by reusing ancient bricks which I found to measure 22.8cms X 20.3 cms X 3.81cms. There were three Shivalinga inside the shrine and a Pranālā (Gargoyle). Both the mounds around the pokhar were spread in around 4 acres.

Next, Om Prakash took me to Itwā(27° 04' 24'' N. 84° 25' 36'' E) mound situated in the south east of the Marhiyā village. According to Om Prakash, the mound was called Itwān because it is a brick quarry. Itwān means made of bricks or a place that has bricks. Unlike the Narkani Māi mound, the Itwān mound is badly damaged from all sides because of the agriculture fields. The brick mound is about 10-15ft higher than neighbouring fields and spread in about half an acre of land only. I noticed bricks everywhere around the mound.1 km west of it was another prominent mound called Pārwati Māi Sthā(27° 04' 24'' N. 84° 24' 44'' E) about 25-30 ft higher than neighbouring fields spread in little less than 1 acre. There is a temple on the top of the mound. The mound is made of bricks measuring 33cms X 25cms X 7cms. Dr Manoj told me the bricks in the Chankigadh mound and Lauriya Nandangarh stūpa situated just 12 kms to the north and south of Banwariyā village respectively are of the same size.The next site, Dharhari Mā(27° 04' 24'' N. 84° 24' 44'' E), is situated 500 mts west of Pārwati Sthān in the middle of  Banwariyā village. The mound is huge, spread in more than 1 acre, and abound 40 ft higher than the neighbouring fields. The mound has been severely encroached upon from all directions. Village roads pass through it in three directions while houses and shops are built on the mound in all four directions. A small portion of the mound, which may be its peak, still survives as it has not been encroached by habitation. On this peak stands the Dharhari Māi temple containing a Shiva linga.

According to the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (Great Discourse on the Extinction), after the cremation of the Buddha‘s body at Kushinagara, the fragments that remained were divided into eight portions. These eight portions were allotted to Ajātasattu, King of Magadha, the Licchavis of Vashāli, the Sakyas of Kapilavastu, the Bulis of Allakappa, the Koliyas of Rāmagāma, the Brahmin of Vethadīpa, the Mallas of Pāvā and the Mallas of Kushinagara.  Droa, the Brahmin who made the division, received the vessel in which the body had been cremated. And the Moriyas of Pipphalivana, who only arrived after the division had been done, received the ashes of the funeral pyre. All the claimants (including the Moriyas) returned home and built stūpas over the relics (D.ii.166; Bu.xxviii.4). 

Fig. 2 - 'Stūpa' mounds in Banwariya and Marhiya plotted on Google Earth map  

Itwān mound encroached by surrounding farms

                                  Pārwati Sthān mound with temple on the top

                                 Pārwati Sthān mound from the West 

                               Dharhari Māi in the middle of the village

Myself on the Itwān mound

Ancient bricks in the agriculture field  
Ancient bricks in the village streets
Ancient bricks reused by the villagers

According to Pali sources, Moriyas of Pipphalivana were of Khattiya clan (Khastriya, Warrior).  Xuanzang says the claimants of charcoal (ashes from the funeral pyre of the Buddha) i.e. the Moriyas of Pipphalivana, were Brahmins.

Xuanzang, and Faxian (Fa Hien, 337-422 CE) before him, saw an old monastery near the Charcoal Stūpa. Beside this monastery Xuanzang saw numerous stūpas built over the sitting place and exercise place of the four past Buddhas. According to Xuanzang, on either side of the monastery were hundreds of stūpas and one Ashokan stūpa, which though was in ruins, was still over 100ft high. Xuanzang’s description of the Charcoal Stūpa site as containing a monastery and a cluster of stūpas suggests that the site should be large spread in a large area. According to Dr. Manoj, who has surveyed this district, only Banwariyā has ancient remains that fit Xuanzang’s description. After seeing the ancient remains of Banwariyā, I was also convinced that Banwariyā could be the most probable location for the Charcoal stūpa.

While I was surveying the mounds around the village accompanied by Om Prakash, it was drizzling every now and then wetting our clothes, soiling our shoes and tiring us out. Dr Manoj had told me that Banwariyā had a Maha (Hindu monastery) that had a Dharamshālā (guest house) which was a suitable place for night halt. Om Prakash walked me to the Shiva Temple and introduced me to the Mahant (chief abbot), Shri Giri. Shri Giri agreed at once for me to stay the night in the temple and also asked me to join him for dinner.

At the time of parting, Om Prakash asked me curiously why during the difficult COVID times and in unfavourable monsoon season, I was visiting  brick mounds in the village so painstakingly and inquiring with people about mounds and spots where ancient bricks could be found. I too noticed that as I was rushing from one mound to another, people in the streets and farms wanted to know what I was doing. Because it was constantly drizzling and I was running short of time, I could only smile at them and walk away, but now I had time to share properly with Om Prakash, Mahant Shri Giri and few others present about my reason for being in their village. I told them about my 2000km foot journey tracing the Buddha and Xuanzang and the possibility of one of the mounds in their village being the Ashes stūpa.

Mahant Shri Giri had heard about the Buddha but the rest of them could barely comprehend what I was saying. For them, the numerous mounds in their village were remains of ancient palaces currently serving as brick quarries. Ancient bricks were in fact scattered everywhere in the streets and fields in Banwariyā and Marhiyā. Ignorance and insensitivity of the villagers living amidst these ancient heritage does not surprise me anymore.

Maṭha (Hindu monastery) and Dharamshālā (guest house)

I noticed that although it was turning dark a lot of people were still gathered in the Shiva temple premises. Mahant Shri Giri told me a marriage ceremony was taking place and it was the family of the bride and groom  who had gathered from neighbouring villages. Apparently, the gathering was relatively small because of COVID restrictions otherwise the gatherings were very large. Shri Giri told me that locals residing as far as 50 kms of the temple consider it extremely sacred to hold marriage and birth related ceremonies in the Shiva temple, and this sacredness goes back to a very distant past. The sanctity of this village and its shrines for the locals appears to be a continuity of the ancient sanctity of this place noted by Xuanzang. Xuanzang had witnessed a similar situation at the ‘Charcoal Stūpa’ site. He writes: ‘ever since the erection the charcoal stūpa has given miraculous testimonies, and at it many prayers of the afflicted have been answered.’ The monasteries and stūpas in this place in ancient times were in the care of Buddhist priests. The local community participated in rituals held in the shrines and visited them to seek blessings especially when affected by disease. At the turn of the 2nd millennium, the political climate in India became hostile for the existence of Buddhist monasteries forcing Buddhist priests and monastics to gradually flee. Although the Buddhist monastics left, the sanctity of the place and its Buddhist shrines persevered among the locals. Within the next few centuries, Hindu priests took over these shrines. What I was witnessing at the Shiva temple that day was a modern form of the ancient tradition associated with this place. I have witnessed such continuity in sanctity and traditions in many important Buddhist pilgrimage places like Sankisa, Sārnatha, Bodhgayā, Shrāvasti, Nālandā etc.

Later that evening, I called Dr Manoj and expressed my gratitude to him for his guidance and help in locating the possible site of the ‘Ashes Stūpa’. He told me over the phone that he was the first archaeologist to document and report the antiquity at this site in 2012-13.  In spite of the government funds spent on documentation, preservation of ancient heritage, the conspicuous mounds of Banwariyā, which is only 35kms from district headquarter Bettiah and 12kms from Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protected monument Lauriya Nandangarh in south and Chankigadh in north, were not reported until 2013.

 Dr. Manoj Kumar at village BanwariyāPic by Dr. Manoj Kumar, 2013.

                     Dharhari Māi mound. Pic by Dr. Manoj Kumar, 2013.

                       Dharhari Māi mound. Pic by Dr. Manoj Kumar, 2013.

               Narkatni Māi mound. Pic by Dr. Manoj Kumar, 2013.

Dr Manoj added that based on my exploration now that he had come to know that the mounds in Banwariyā and Marhiyā could be the site of the Charcoal stūpa, he would revisit the two villages for surveying them in detail and this time he would know puzzles he has to solve. First, to date the antiquity of this site: although the bricks on the surface of the stūpa mounds date from 3rd century BCE to  2nd  century CE) i.e. from Maurya, Sunga and Kushān period, if this place was ancient Piphalivana village where the people who collected the relics of the Buddha lived, then its antiquity should date from the 6th century BCE or before. Second, to identify among the various mounds, the monastery, Charcoal stūpa and Ashokan stūpa mentioned by Xuanzang.


Just when I was about to go to sleep on the wooden cot of the Banwariyā Maha, I got one last phone call for the day, from my sister in Patna, who informed me that more than 80 people had died today (24th June) from being struck by lightning. Most of them were farmers who were engaged in sowing paddy. Many of those who had died were working in areas which I covered walking that morning. Hearing this news, I felt constriction in the body, felt grief for the families and thought about Anicca, impermanence. Understanding impermanence gives us great freedom. It is not something we just intellectually understand or appreciate in theory, it’s important to fully know it in practice and experience. Recognizing that every conditioned aspect of life is transient in nature, subject to arising and passing away, one no longer holds so tightly to this or that experience. This was a vivid reminder to live fully as we are not promised tomorrow.  

Myself with the children at village 

Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


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).

Kumar, Dr. Manoj : 2020 : Pashchimi Champaran jile ka Purattava, New Delhi, Swati Publication.

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).


Abbreviations of Bibliography:

Source of Pāli references:

P.T.S.    Means published by the Pāli Text Society.


D. =Digha Nikaya, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).

Bu. =Buddhavamsa (P.T.S.).



Pathfinder said...

Very interesting. Glad to see you making so much progress. Thank you on behalf of all Buddhist heritage, and world spiritual heritage for your work.

Lata Jiayala said...

Really loved this article and thanks for sharing it.

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