Thursday, December 17, 2020

‘Day of the First Turning of the Wheel’ Walking Pilgrimage Trail

On my foot journey, Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang, I started from Vaiśālī on 19th October. I crossed two rivers, Ganḍak (in Vaiśālī) and Ghāgarā (in Chaprā), then walked along the River Ganges touching Baliyā and Ghāzipur to arrive at Sārnātha on 25th October. 

Walking trail following in the 'footsteps of the Buddha' from the Ganges to Deer Park.

 Ashokan Pillar Site. According to Xuanzang Buddha gave the First Sermon at this spot.

Excavated remains of the Deer Park

Sārnātha, in the times of the Buddha, was known as Isipatana (iipattana). Isipatana was so-called because sages, on their way through the air (from the Himalayas), would alight here or start from here on their aerial flight. Isipatana was also known as Migadāya (deer park) because deer were allowed to roam about here unharmed.  Isipatana is one of the Eight Great Places of pilgrimage. It was here that the Buddha on the full-moon day of āsālha (june-july)  preached his first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (the First Turning of the Wheel).    

My objective in this foot journey was to explore the path Buddha might have taken on his way  from River Ganges to Deer Park (now Sārnātha). Sārnātha is situated 6.5 kms as the crow flies from River Ganges, Vārānasī. Based on my exploration of the path, I would like to facilitate a thematic walking Buddhist pilgrimage commemorating the ‘First turning of the Wheel.’ I am sure that like me, many would like to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha from River Ganges to the Deer Park where he delivered the first sermon after his enlightenment. 

In one of my guiding assignments last year with The Buddha Path, a New Delhi based Buddhist organisation facilitating revitalisation of Buddhist pilgrimage since 1980's established by Dharmāchārya Shantum Seth, I had the privilege to undertake a walking trail from the River Ganges to the Deer Park with a group of monastics and lay-followers from the Plum Village, France. The group was led by Dharmācārya Shantum Seth. We had a local expert Shri Mukesh Gupta to guide us. Mukesh ji  has worked with Shri Krishnamurthy Foundation, Vārānasī. According to Mukesh ji,  the old Vārānasī of the times of the Buddha was on the east side of River Barnā (now Varuṅā). According to Mukesh ji, the  Buddha may have arrived somewhere on the east bank of River Varuṅā - the location of present-day villages of Sarai Mohānā or Rājapura. We walked through the villages of Navapurā, Dināpur and Tilampur, thereafter taking Baluā road (guided by Mukeshji) reached the Āshāpura Fountain. From there, taking the iipattana Marg, covering a little more than 10 kms, we arrived at Deer Park. Mukeshji has been promoting this walking ‘Buddha trail’ after he felt inspired by his teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986).  On the way to Deer Park, the final destination of this trail, Mukesh ji took us to an enclosure with a platform inside and a place to sit. According to Mukeshji, Late Krishnamurti ji believed this site to be the place where the Buddha had sat hence, later this enclosure was constructed by Shri Krishnamurthy Foundation.

'Krishnamurty Point' along the 'Buddha Trail' through the villages, east of river Varuṅā.

With Shantum Seth and Mukesh Gupta at 'Buddha tea stall'. Tilampur. Oct, 2019.

During my stint as heritage consultant at Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM, Deemed University, Nalanda), Dr Arun Kumar, a friend and colleague, specially came from Nalanda to help me in my explorations in Vārānasī  and Sārnātha. Dr Arun is a native of Sārnātha. He has done his PhD in Pali & Buddhist Studies from Banaras Hindu University (BHU). He is  currently working as Assistant Professor in NNM.

According to the Lalitavistara (3rd CE), one of the earliest biographical texts of the Buddha, when the Buddha arrived at the River Ganges, it was swollen, flowing from bank to bank. The Buddha had no means of paying the ferryman for crossing the river. The ferryman denied Buddha a free ride. Lalitavistara further says, Buddha then flew through the air from one shore to the other. This story is also mentioned in the Chinese version of the Abhinikramaṇa Sūtra (Beal 1875: 246-247) with slight variations. Dr Arun is of the opinion that the Buddha must have landed at present-day  Rājaghāt, and not on the east of River Varuṅā as mentioned by Mr Mukesh Gupta. Information revealed from the archaeological excavation from Rājaghāt till the present-day city of Vārānasī shows that Vārānasī was started growing as a city at the confluence of rivers Ganga and Varuṅā by the turn of the 8th BCE  (Rana 2018: 11). Dr. Arun believed Rājaghāt could be the port and also an entry point into the Vārānasī city for people coming through the route of the river.

At the time of the Buddha, the city of Vārānasī had four gates (Beal 1875: 264).  After landing on the shore of River Ganges, the Buddha entered the city of Vārānasī through the western gate (Beal 1875: 248). After arriving in the city of Vārānasī, he went to seek alms. He finished his meal that he collected at the bank of a river (Varuṅā?) (Beal 1875: 248). After finishing his meal, the Buddha proceeded northward (Beal 1875: 248) to the Deer Park to meet five former companions. A stūpa, now known as Chaukhanḍi stūpa (also known as Sitā kā Rasoiyan) was erected later to mark the place where the Buddha met the five of his former colleagues (later known as Pañcavaggiyā monks). Rājaghāt to Chaukhanḍi stūpa is 6 kms away as the crow flies. I asked Dr Arun what, according to him, was the most probable path taken by the Buddha from the city of Vārānasī (i.e. vicinity of Rājaghāt) to Chaukhanḍi stūpa and then further to Deer Park where the Buddha then delivered the First Sermon. 

Abhinikramaṇa Sūtra mentions a gate called Bhadra-Pati which was the gate that Yasa took to meet the Buddha (Beal 1875: 263). Yasa was the son of a rich merchant from Vārānasī, who wished to join the Saṅgha and practice closely with the Buddha. As mentioned in Abhinikramaṇa Sūtra, at that time of staying in Deer Park, the Buddha perceived by his innate power that on that night Yasa would become a recluse. The Buddha then proceeded towards Vārānasī, crossed the river Varuṅā and made a small leaf-hut where he waited for Yasa who was to come from Vārānasī city through Bhadra-Pati gate (Beal 1875: 263). This description suggests the place where the Buddha made a leaf-hut waiting to receive Yasa was situated near Bhadra-Pati gate between the city of Vārānasī and River Varuṅā. 

According to Dr Arun, the city gate Bhadra-Pati has survived in the form of a locality named Bhadau chugi. ‘Bhadau chugiis a market cum residential area situated 1.5 kms (as the crow flies) northwest of Rājaghāt. Bhadau chugi, like Bhadra-Pati, is situated between Rājaghāt area (ancient Vārānasī) and River Varuṅā/Barnā (on the road from Rājaghāt towards Deer Park). The  Govindchandra Dev (1114-1155CE, Gāhaḍavāla dynasty) inscription discovered at Rājaghāt suggests Bhadra-Pati of Buddhist times became Bhaādrya in the medieval period (7th-13th CE) (Motichandra 2010:149). In later centuries, the name got corrupted to Bhadau (present name). The suffix chugi was added during the British period (17th-20th CE). Chugi means octroi i.e. a duty levied on various goods entering or exiting a town or city. Being situated on the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Varuṅā, Vārānasī was an important trading centre. The Bhadra-Pati gate and all other three gates, being a point of entry and exit, would be a tax collection (chugi) point since ancient times. 

Dr Arun took me to a crowded marketplace in Jalālpur, situated on the north-western edge of  Bhadau chugi. It is very difficult to pinpoint exactly where the Bhadra-Pati gate was situated in this large Bhadau chugi area,’ he said. He thinks the crossroads in Jalālpur should be tentative site of  the Bhadra-Pati gate.  

Picture from excavations in Rājaghāt. @ASI.

With Dr. Arun Kumar at Rājaghāt.

Excavated remains of Rājaghāt
Jalālpur Crossroads

Site of Lāt Bhairava. Ashokan Pillar worshiped as Shiva Linga.

Buddhist monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang,7th CE), mentions visiting an Ashokan stūpa and pillar on the west of River Varuṅā as he left the city on his way to Deer Park from Vārānasī. According to Xuanzang, the Ashokan stūpa and pillar was north-east of the city and in between the city and River Varuṅā on the path leading to Deer Park. Xuanzang does not talk about the significance of the stūpa and pillar erected by Ashoka. But there is a resemblance in the reference about the waiting place of Buddha to receive Yasa, found in Abhinikramaṇa Sūtra, and the description of Ashokan Pillar site by Xuanzang. Both descriptions point to the same place, which is the area between Vārānasī and River Varuṅā on the road connecting Vārānasī and Deer Park. Emperor Ashoka (3rd BCE) installed monolith pillars and erected stūpas to mark important events related to the Buddha. Citing a recent study, Dr. Arun says the stūpa-pillar site mentioned by Xuanzang would be the place where the Buddha made his leaf-hut to receive Yasa (Yadav 2015).

The same study which Dr. Arun cited shows that Lāt Saraiyā Shiva temple and mosque complex situated just 100m north of the Jalālpur four-way intersection is the Ashokan stūpa and pillar site mentioned by Xuanzang.  The study says that the mosque at Lāt Saraiyā is built over the remains of this Ashokan stūpa while the Ashokan pillar that Xuanzang mentioned is being worshiped as Lāt Bhairava (Shiva Linga) (Yadav 2015).  

Dr. Arun and I walked to the Lāt Saraiyā shrine. One can notice that the temple and mosque complex situated on an imposing mound about 10-15 ft higher than the surroundings. The mound is semicircular in shape and approximately 90 m in diameter.  

The Ashokan pillar and stūpa site, i.e. now Lāt Bhairava, used to be a Buddhist pilgrimage site until the changed political climate at the turn of 10th CE, brought about the decline of the Buddhist pilgrimage in the next two centuries and all the Buddhist sacred sites got abandoned. Subsequently, this Ashokan pillar site became a place of worship by Hindus. A Hindu temple came up there and the place became known as Lāt Bhairava (Staff of Lord Shiva). During the reign of Aurangzeb (1618-1707), the Hindu temple (Lāt Bhairava) was demolished. In its place, a mosque was erected, Lāt Imāmbaṛah (Mosque of the Staff). Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) of France visited Vārānasī in the mid-1670's and mentioned this Pillar to be around 35 ft high. After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Hindu community made efforts to reclaim the Shaivite identity of Vārānasī. Amidst the Hindu-Muslim tensions, the Pillar was destroyed in 1809 in one particularly violent incident of communal riot. Thereafter, the Hindus covered the remaining part [the stump, 14-16 ft estimated by Christian Missionary and Indologist, M. A. Sherring (1826–1880)] of the broken Pillar with copper sheeting, which nobody in the last two centuries was allowed to tamper. The copper sheeting was further covered with red cloth.

I first visited the Lāt Bhairava site in March 2017 (read my story here). I noticed that Hindu-Muslim tension still exists in this place. A police force is permanently stationed here to avoid any untoward incident. Police personnel on duty became a little friendly with me and told me that this was the most tense area of Vārānasī, especially on Fridays, when thousands of people gather to offer the namāz (prayer).  The mosque and temple shrine is falling at many places and needs repair but no one is allowed to construct or repair there by the orders of the court, the police personnel told me.  

On my first visit to Vārānasī in 2017, I promised myself that I would facilitate revitalisation of this ancient Buddhist site. In year 2018, I had the privilege to be a part of the third annual Dhammayātrā of the International Saṅgha of the LBDFI (Light of the Buddha Dhamma Foundation International). On my request, Venerable International Saṅgha of LBDFI offered prayers and recited sutta at Lāt Bhairava. Perhaps such offering of prayers by the Buddhist Saṅgha happened only after centuries (read the story here). International Saṅgha of the LBDFI again offered prayers at  Lāt Bhairava in 2019. 

The present highway from Lāt Bhairava to Deer Park passes through Duncan bridge over River Varuṅā. This bridge was made by Jonathan Duncan (1756-1811), superintendent and resident at Vārānasī (British India), in the 1780’s.  According to Dr Arun, local people still call it Purane pul (Old Bridge) and not Duncan bridge because Duncan made the new bridge on River Varṅā by dismantling the old Mogul-period bridge called Purane pul. The Purane pul was built on an ancient path connecting Vārānasī and Sārnātha (Motichandra 2010: 12) to facilitate trade and connect the port city of Varanasi with towns further north , east and west.  Dr. Arun told that the highway connecting Lāt Bhairava and Deer Park through Duncan bridge and Āshāpura Fountain is a direct road  and shortest possible path connecting both the  Buddhist sites. 

There is very little literary and archaeological evidence to identify the path taken by the Buddha from Vārānasī city to Deer Park, however, the arguments presented by Dr Arun are logical and convincing. Archaeological study has confirmed that the development of the city of Vārānasī started growing in 8th BCE from the immediate vicinity of Rājaghāt and gradually expanded towards the west and north. Purane pul (Duncan bridge) was built on an ancient crossover point on River Varuṅā for people travelling north towards Sārnātha and further north. Bhadau chugi may be a corrupt form of Bhadra-Pati because  in 6th BCE Vārānasī was not very large. Bhadau chugi area could be the northern border post of Vārānasī. Also, the crossroad in Jalālpur situated on the border of Bhadau chugi  aligns exactly with the Ashokan pillar site of Lāt Bhairava, Purane pul and further with Sārnātha.  At the time of Xuanzang, nearly one millennia after the Buddha, the city was extended further west of the present-day Bhadau chugi area. Therefore, Xuanzang travelled north-east from the city of Vārānasī to reach Purane pul, and from there, travelled to Sārnātha - that is how he came across the Ashokan pillar and stūpa site (Lāt Bhairava) which lay on the ancient path connecting Vārānasī and Sārnātha.  It seems Rājaghāt- Bhadau chugi- Lāt Bhairava- Purane Pul- Chaukhanḍi stūpa was a traditional route connecting Vārānasī and Sārnātha. Buddha took this route not only in his maiden journey to Deer Park but also for later interactions with the city of Vārānasī.   

Purane Pul in alignment with Lat Bhairava. Alexander Cunningham, 1871.

Sketch of Purane Pul by Thomas and William Daniell, 1789. @The British Library Board

'The Buddha Trails' from Ganges to Deer Park. @ Google Earth

A walking pilgrimage trail, 7 kms long, connecting Rājaghāt with Deer Park through the modern Mirzāpur-Vārānasī road-Golgaddā road-Madan Mohan Marg-Āshāpur Road - iipattana Marg could be developed as ‘Day of the First Turning of the Wheel.’ This would be a befitting tribute to commemorate the historic event of the First Turning of the Wheel. 

Those interested in exploring the rural areas around Vārānasī can even try the 10 kms long route through Navapura, Dināpur, Baluā road situated on the east side of  River Varuṅā (the one which  I walked with The Buddha Path).  

I thank Dr Arun Kumar for his guidance and support. 



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