Friday, September 11, 2020

The Arduous Journey: Mahāprajāpatī and the Courageous, Committed 500

Mahāprajāpatī and the Courageous, Committed 500.  Sketch@ Praful Sasane

One of the lesser-known but very inspiring stories in the history of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Saṅgha is the story of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī (Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī) and her Journey along with 500 Sākya women to Vaiśālī to convince the Buddha to admit them into the saṅgha. I believe the world should know this story, and more importantly, visit and follow this epic journey which took place in the 6th BCE from Kapilavastu to Vaiśālī.

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Mahāprajāpatī and Mahāmāyā were sisters belonging to the republican clan of Koliya in the foothills of the Himalayas. Both the sisters were married to the Sākyan king Suddhodana of Kapilavastu. Kapilavastu like Koliya was situated in the foothills of the Himalayas and the two kingdoms were separated by the Rohinī river. When Mahāmāyā died, seven days after giving birth to Siddhārtha, the Buddha-to-be, Mahāprajāpatī, raised the infant prince. At the age of twenty-nine, the crown prince Siddhārtha left the life of the palace in search of the truth.


Bodhisattva Siddhārtha after six years of ardently seeking different types of spiritual practices attained enlightenment under the Bodhī tree at Uruvelā (now Bodhgayā).  One year into his enlightenment, the Buddha, on an invitation from his father, King Suddhodana, visited Kapilavastu. The Buddha during his stay at Kapilavastu preached dhamma to the Sākyans. Mahāprajāpatī also participated in these teachings; she attained the first stage of the Arahant Path becoming a sotāpanna ('stream-enterer').  She now desired to practice closely with the Buddha and attain higher stages of the dhamma path but she could not do so, her ‘duty’ as wife towards her husband and family had precedence over her own wish. 


Four years later, the Buddha revisited Kapilavastu to resolve the water sharing dispute between the Koliyas and the Sākyas. Mahāprajāpatī had continued her devoted practice in his absence. This visit provided Mahāprajāpatī an opportunity to share her yearning to join the saṅgha with the Buddha. She was hopeful that he would see her commitment to monastic life and admit her to the saṅgha. She had a strong case, king Suddhodana, her husband and father of the Buddha, was no more. She was now relieved of her ‘duty’. She was deeply considerate when the Buddha said no to her and he, along with the newly ordained 500 Sākyan men, left for Vaiśālī.


Mahāprajāpatī was now not alone in the mission, the 500 Sākyan women, wives of the newly ordained 500 Sākyan men also desired to leave the worldly life and dedicate themselves to the dhamma practice.  500 Sākyan women led by Mahāprajāpatī shaved their heads, donned the monastic robes and they set out barefoot on a 200-mile foot journey to Vaiśālī, where the Buddha was doing his vassā

More than 2600 years after this epic journey I had the opportunity to walk and experience this trail during the Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang foot journey for myself (see map.1). This trail was a trade route in ancient times connecting the kingdoms of Vajjī, Mallas, Koliyas, Sākyans, Kosala, etc. situated between the Ganges and Himalayas. Many of my readers may not be aware of the fact that Buddhism was lost on the Indian subcontinent at the turn of the 2nd Millenia. The new political climate was not conducive for the growth and development of Buddhist monasteries and the pilgrimage. All the sites of Buddhist pilgrimage in the Gangetic plain like Bodhgayā, Sārnātha, Shrāvasti, Lumbīnī, Vaiśālī, etc. that we take for granted today were abandoned, converted into ruins and they assumed new names. Shrāvasti became Sāhet-Māhet, Rishipattana became Sārnātha, Mahābodhi became Bodhgayā, Vaiśālī was known as Kolhuā, Lumbīnī became Rumindie, Nālandā got renamed Badgāon, and so on.

Map 1. The Great Renunciation Trail. 

The sacred geography, where the Buddha made his wandering was discovered after the travelogues of Buddhist monks Faxian (Fa-Hien, 5th CE) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th CE) were translated from Chinese to oriental languages in mid 19th CE.  Buddhist literature mentions that Bodhisattva Siddhārtha in renunciation left Kapilavastu and arrived at Rājagṛiha (Rājagaha) touching Rāmā, Anomā River, Anupiya, and Vaiśālī. My immense gratitude to both the pilgrims that we now know this route connecting Kapilavastu palace city (Tilaurākot) and Vaiśālī was an ancient route that passed through present-day Rāmagrāma (Parasai, Nepal), river Ganḍak, Valmikinagar, and Ashokan pillar sites of Lauriyā Nandangaḍh and Arerāj.

I set off on this trail from Valmikinagar (ancient Anupiya) on the banks of river Ganḍak (ancient Anomā) on the 16th of June. A large part of this 200miles long route runs parallel to the foothills of the Himalayas. In the rainy season, many small and wide rivers emanating from Himalayan foothills intercede this path. Monsoons had already arrived. Rivers and rivulets had water flowing into them. Thanks to modern blacktop roads and bridges, I could travel this path with so much ease.  I often thought of the immense difficulties faced by these fellow travelers, so long ago, especially since it was in the months of monsoons.

I can well imagine their hands, heads, and shoulders occupied with the loose bags filled with the provisions for ten to fifteen-day travel. Think of them entering knee-deep into rivers and streams, trying to balance themselves as they cross shifting soil, slippery stone pebbles, and boulders on the river bed. Navigating with just one spare hand, trying best that they not be injured or robes don’t get wet. Traveling long days, negotiating wild, natural vegetation, and thick forests. Unlike now there were fewer habitations on the way and not many villages could provide much help to a nomadic group of 500 women. I dread to think of them sleeping in the open sky, under the shade of trees and it being monsoon a looming threat of rain always hanging on their heads not to mention monsoons being the most notorious season of snake bites in the Indian subcontinent (till date) and a very difficult time to find dry wood to cook a fresh meal. There would be very few opportunities to cook fresh rice and vegetables. I can see them consuming readymade snacks sattu (toasted gram flour), chuḍā (beaten rice) and bhunjā (rice grains fired dry). Finding safe drinking water was another challenge, the rivers would be muddy. To the present day, monsoon season is still notorious for stomach related ailments.


At Tribhauni, where I spent two nights local people recounted how this area was a wild forest until a few decades ago.  It is hard to picture that just a century ago wild animals including tiger, leopard, and bear would roam freely. To attract and settle farmers into this region, the British India Government in the 19th and early 20th century encouraged killing wild animals by rewarding people who exhibited the head and skin of a tiger. Xuanzang and Faxian both mentioned the wild animals and dense forest while crossing this stretch of land.  

Monsoon has arrived.

Passing by the Valmikinagar Forest.

Enjoyed the traditional Sattu (toasted gram flour) Drink in a roadside eatery.

My host at Valmikinagar offered me bhunjā (rice grains fired dry) and mangoes for the breakfast. 

Puddles and streams of rainwater every now and then.
Slippery muddy roads. 


 Bridges on numerous rivers and stream have made my foot journey easy.
Conversing with village youth in village Tribhauni.
A couple farming in rice paddy field.
Ashokan Pillar of Lauriya Nandangarh.

Day 127 of my foot journey. Having a deep respect for the efforts of the would be bhikkhunī-s.

After days of walking, the Sākyan women arrived at Vaiśālī. They were exhausted, their feet wounded but this didn't dampen their spirits. They met the Buddha at Kūtāgārasālā. Their repeated requests did not yield any results. Yet they didn't lose hope. Sākyan women then met Ven. Ānanda and requested that he put forth their request to the Buddha. After some hesitation, the Buddha was convinced by seeing his aunt and the gathering of women had clarity and conviction in their resolve and with arguments put forth by Ven. Ānanda. He allowed Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and 500 Sākyans into saṅgha providing a social and legal framework for the establishment  and integration of the bhikkhunīs' community (vinaya).

The Buddha’s consenting to establish a bhikkhunī (bhikṣuṇī) saṅgha was truly a historic step. To my knowledge, this was the first women institution in known history that has a glorious continued history, and immense contributions, since its inception at Vaiśālī more than 2600 years ago. All the ancient Buddhist literature irrespective of tradition has numerous references of contributions of bhikkhunī-s and upāsīkā-s to the Buddha and the dhamma sāsana. More than 1000 years later, even while the state of women in religion in India came to be progressively restricted to the domestic sphere, by the time of Faxian (5th CE) and Xuanzang (7th CE) important contributions of bhikkhunī-s and upāsīkā-s survived in the pilgrimage tradition. One such tradition that survived in pilgrimage tradition was the place where these 501 Sākyan therī-s attained parinirvāṇa. At Vaiśālī, Xuanzang saw the stūpa to mark the house of Āmrapalī, the courtesan who later became a follower of the Buddha. According to Xuanzang, it was here, near the house of Āmrapalī, mahātherī bhikkhunī Gautamī Mahāprajāpatī and 500 Sākyan therī-s attained parinirvāṇa


As the story goes when Gautamī learnt about the impending parinirvāṇa of the Buddha. She met the Buddha at Kūtāgārasālā and said, ‘I cannot bear that you quit this world while I am living. I want to die before you.’ Having returned to their monastery, she along with many other nuns sat down to meditate. Immediately Mahāprajāpatī lifted herself in the sky, exhibited all the gifts of ṛṣi, traversing in space at will, and emitting rays of light. Her followers did the same. Finally, all of them passed from ecstasy into nirvāṇa. It is said that the marvels which attended her cremation rites were second only to those of the Buddha. (Cited from Mahāprajāpatī-Parinirvāṇa-Sūtra)

My sincere appreciation to the monk-pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang whose descriptions have facilitated the identification of the tentative locations of Kūtāgārasālā (double-galleried vihāra) where Gautamī and her group met the Buddha on their arrival from Kapilavastu and the place where the Sākyan mahātherī bhikkhunī-s attained parinirvāṇa.  Plotting the description of both the pilgrims on the map of Vaiśālī leads us to the village of Udaipur and its surroundings which should be the site of Kūtāgārasālā, where Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and 500 Sākyan women met the Buddha.  Similarly, the village of Birpur and its vicinity is the most probable location where mahātherī Gautamī and 500 Sākyan attained parinirvāṇa (see map.2).

Map.2. Sacred landscape of Vaiśālī as described by Xuanzang.

Udaipur is approximately one kilometre west of Birpur (see map.2). Walking in the streets and agriculture fields of village Udaipur and Birpur I felt a sense of deep appreciation, deep reverence. I can imagine through my mind’s eye, somewhere here 500 sākyan women tired after a long grueling foot journey would be sitting in small groups, under the shade of trees eagerly waiting for the response from the Buddha. This would have been a long wait physically, mentally, and emotionally. All eyes set on the door of Kūtāgārasālā eagerly watching and anxious as Mahāprajāpatī thrice petitioned the Buddha. All of them uncertain what the future holds, whether they will have to march back to Kapilavastu. Some younger Sākyan women and local villagers caring for aged members, preparing meals and serving all the while waiting, and finally, the news arrives, all the faces lighten up, “Yes, ordination”. The ordination of 500 women would have taken a day or two, maybe longer. They were bhikkhunī-s, with all of the duties and responsibilities of monastic life, now they were not only dhamma practitioners but also its preservers and carriers.

It was here where the first bhikkhunī saṅgha was instituted and it was here the first 500 therī-s practiced dhamma and eventually attained parinirvāṇa together under the guidance of mahātherī Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī. What a history and sanctity.  I wish to share these stories associated with these places with everyone I see in the village. It being a COVID time I cannot request villagers for a group meeting.

With Indal Yadav and his friend in his farm at village Birpur.


An ancient mound in village Udaipur.

Discussing the Buddha and Mahāprajāpatī with local people at a roadside eatery in Vaiśālī

Remains of recently damaged ancient mound in village Udaipur.

Agriculture fields in Udaipur and Birpur has ancient potshards.

Marpasauna Mound near Birpur.

Villagers in Birpur engaged in rice paddy plantation.


Ancient mound in Village Birpur.

The stretch between the two villages Udaipur and Birpur has lush green rice paddy fields and a newly constructed railway line passes through the middle of the paddy fields. Some discussion with the farmers engaged in sowing paddy in the fields revealed that a few ancient mounds in these fields got destroyed when the new railway track was getting laid.  Indal Yadav, a local villager, who was working in his field showed me a few mounds that had fortunately survived. The mounds were surrounded by rainwater. Many agriculture fields on the west of Birpur and east of Udaipur villages according to Indal ji had ancient potshards and brick pieces. The people living in these villages have no idea of its sanctity and glorious past. There are a number of us trying to educate locals and preserve this rich history and facilitate revitalization.

These sacred places associated with the Buddha Gautama and Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī in Vaiśālī like all other Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India were abandoned when Buddhism declined in this subcontinent more than one thousand years ago. All the symbols like stūpas and chaitya-s mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang that once existed here to mark the presence of these luminaries have been lost. The new population who reoccupied these places, ignorant about its significance, repurposed the shrines (and the materials). Sometimes, completely razing the shrines to reuse the land. It is possible that we may never know exactly where the shrines are/once were. I appreciate that we are very close, we at least now know that it happened here, or very near here, therefore the sanctity associated with these places is eternal. For the followers of these great teachers, who’s foundational teaching is impermanence, the exact location probably doesn’t matter. For the livelihood of these villagers, the historical record and the multitude of pilgrims, it matters quite a lot. Revitalisation of these sacred places of Mahāprajāpatī will not only inspire the local people about their forgotten legacy, revitalization also paves a way to a sustainable community-pilgrim-dhamma interface to facilitate ‘right livelihood’. A significant goal of this foot journey, Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang, is to raise awareness, funds and collaborative effort towards revitalization.

I have been visiting Vaiśālī since 2010. In one of my visits in 2011 I met Shri Krishna Kumar ji. Shri Krishna Kumar ji is a history graduate from JNU, New Delhi, and a social worker. He is aware of the significance of the Buddhist past of Vaiśālī. He is actively involved in sensitising the stakeholders towards the preservation of the Buddhist legacy of Vaiśālī. In 2016, he along with his wife, Dr. Sarika Malhotra, set up Buddha World School (BWS) which besides the regular studies also cultivates among the students an appreciation towards the illustrious past of Vaiśālī.

On my Foot Journey, I had an opportunity to stay on the campus of BWS from 3rd to 5th July. The school was closed due to COVID. Nevertheless, there were 30 odd students in the hostel. During my short stay, I had meaningful group and individual interactions with the residential students.  I was amazed to learn their awareness about the Buddha. All of them had a sense of honour in association of their place (Vaiśālī) with the Buddha, Gautamī, and Vimalakīrti. Sarthak Sandilya, a class sixth student said, ‘Vaiśālī is a world-known place because of the Buddha.’  Students shared how a few months ago they celebrated the parinirvāṇa anniversary of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī.  BWS also organizes heritage awareness walks to raise awareness of the rich history of Vaiśālī among the community living in the villages. Heritage awareness interactions with the community in the neighbouring villages have become a part of the school extracurricular activities. Students offered me to join them for a heritage walk after the COVID situation gets normal.

Observation of lunar anniversary of Most Venerable Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī Therī's Parininivāna by Buddha World School. February 2020. @BWS

Myself with the children of the Buddha World School.  

The ancient Kapilavastu-Vaiśālī route has witnessed two historic marches, the two great renunciations, first of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha and the second of 500 Sākyan women led by Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī.  These two journeys of conviction, grit, and courage have shaped human history in the most sublime way.  Discrimination on the basis of gender has been part of many cultures and civilisations over the ages, and this continues today across the globe. There are degrees, and Early Buddhism appears to have offered unique opportunities for women’s excellence in spiritual practice, awakening, teaching and leadership, unparalleled since. The Fourfold Saṅgha, as established by the Buddha, has been through challenging times over the centuries. Patriarchal systems are still the norm, although interest in re-expanding opportunities for women in Buddhism is growing, together with interest in their ancient heritage: in texts, inscriptions, art, and now a return to their sacred pilgrimage sites. Spiritually charged by the fully awakened arhatī therī-s renowned for their spiritual powers, and by the Buddhist pilgrims for more than a thousand years, these sites, as they once again come to life as living heritage, have powerful potential to support the path of the seekers in their spiritual journey. I will continue to work towards revitalisation of the Kapilavastu-Vaiśālī trail. To me, this trail is an acknowledgment and celebration, equal opportunity for all and no discrimination in the name of Gender. Let us not forget, the arduous journey taken by 501 Sākyans 2600 years ago still continues today for women seeking true saṅgha, respect, and full ordination.

There are these fools who doubt

That women too can grasp the truth;

Gotami, show your spiritual power

That they might give up their false views.

-The Buddha’s instructions to Mahāpajāpatī (Gotamī Therī Apadāna 79) trans.  Tathālokā Bhikkhunī 

(Source: Lasting Inspiration)


This article is dedicated to the thousands of bhikkhunī around the world following the path laid by the Buddha and Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī.


To learn more, I suggest: A History of the Bhikkhuni Order

My article, where Bodhisattva Siddhārtha Cut His Hair   has more information of the ancient trade route connecting Kapilavastu and Vaiśālī.

Thanks to Sheila Garrick, USA for collaboration.

Deepest gratitude and appreciation to Venerable Tathālokā Bhikkhunī for editorial review.



Beal, Samuel.; 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).

---------------. 1969, Si-yu-ki: Buddhist records of the Western World, Translated from the Chinese Of Hiuen Tsiang, Oriental Books Reprint Corporation,Delhi(1st Pub. 1884. London: Trubner & Co.).

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

Anand, D. (2020, August 8). New Discovery along Xuanzang's Trail-- Site where Bodhisattva Siddhārtha Cut His Hair. [Blog post]. Available from:

 [Accessed 5th September 2020]

Anand, D. (2015, March 11). Of Kites, Bribes and Relics. [Blog post]. Available from:

 [Accessed 5th September 2020]

 Anand, D. (2011, June 20). Vaishali and around. [Blog post]. Available from:

 [Accessed 5th September 2020]

Anand, D. (2015, May 19). Where did Mahāpajāpatī Gotami attained parinirvāṇa (Death)?. [Blog post]. Available from: [Accessed 5th September 2020]

Goswami, A., Anand, D.; 2016, The Pilgrimage Legacy of Xuanzang, Nalanda: Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University). 



subodh kumar singh said...

Splendid journey, marvellous description and lots of research. Fist hand report of a journey which is taken after 2500 years . A must read article for ASI, budhist world, and teacher and students of ancient history.

Paul Michael Burton said...

This is a great read and inspirational account of the trip in the footsteps of the 500 bhikkunis. Thank you for sharing it.

Paul Michael Burton said...

This is a very inspirational account of the voyage in ancient times by the bhikkhunis and an interesting account of the modern trail with archaeological evidence. Thank you for sharing.