Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Sacred landscape of Vaiśālī and the Way Forward for Revitalisation

On my foot journey, ‘Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang’, I arrived in Vaiśālī on 30 June. I didn’t follow the same route as Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) took in the 7th CE. Xuanzang went from Kushīnagara to Sārnātha (Deer Park), and from Sārnātha, reached Vaiśālī, travelling through Ghazipur. I, instead, came from Kushīnagara (Rampurwā) to Vaiśālī walking through Lauriyā Nandangaṛh, Arerāj and Kesariyā. Vaiśālī is very intimately associated with story of the Buddha, the Dhamma and Saṅgha. At the time of the Buddha (6th BCE), Vaiśālī was the capital of the Vajji Republic (DA.ii.519). Vajji was one of the 16 Mahājanapadas (great realms) (A.i.213, D.ii.200) which existed at the time. The inhabitants consisted of several confederate clans, of which, the Licchavī and the Videha were the dominant ones. The affairs of the state were managed by groups of representatives. Many times even the Buddha praised their political responsibility (D.ii.76f). Buddhist literature has many references of Buddha’s visit to Vaiśālī, and the important events that took place there.  

Heritage Walk with students of Buddha World School. Vaiśālī.

Vaiśālī, like all the other Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India which we now take for granted, was once lost into oblivion.  The new political climate after the 10th CE was not conducive for the existence of Buddhist monasteries and pilgrimage. Buddhist establishments got abandoned and turned to ruins. After centuries of neglect, the abandoned Buddhist complexes and shrines came to be occupied by new settlers.  The new populace gave new use and meaning to the Buddhist sites. For example, in Vaiśālī, a Brahmanic temple was erected on the ruins of the Ashokan stūpa which marked the place where the monkey offered honey to the Buddha. The Ashokan pillar in front of the Ashokan stūpa, as revealed in the picture, shows the pillar was buried deep under earth.  A legend still popular in villages near Vaiśālī describes the Ashokan pillar as the walking stick of legendary Bhīm of the Mahābhārata epic.   

In the mid-19th CE, when explorers started looking for Vaiśālī, there was no place of this name. Many identifications were offered for Vaiśālī. Finally, in 1863, based on the descriptions of Xuanzang, Sir Alexander Cunningham identified the ancient remains of Kolhuā and its surroundings as ancient Vaiśālī. The descriptions of Xuanzang led to identification and excavation of the ancient Palace City, the Ashokan Pillar site of Markaṭa Hṛada and the Buddha body-relic stūpa in Vaiśālī (refer to points 1, 3 and 4 in Map.1). In addition to these three sites, both Faxian (Fahien, 5th CE)  and Xuanzang have mentioned about few other shrines in Vaiśālī related with the Buddha, Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī, Āmrapāli. These very sacred sites are still unidentified and lost into oblivion.    

Ashokan Pillar in middle of Hindu Monastery when discovered in 19th CE. Vaiśālī, @ASI.

 Ashokan Pillar in middle of Hindu Monastery, 19th CE. Vaiśālī. @ASI.

Excavation of Ashokan Pillar site in early 20th Century, Vaiśālī. @ ASI.

Excavation in Progress at the Ashokan Pillar Site. Early 20th CE. @ASI.

Identification of the exact location of the stūpas and shrines mentioned by Xuanzang in Vaiśālī is extremely challenging. The Buddhist shrines mentioned by Xuanzang were abandoned more than one thousand years ago. Most of these abandoned shrines (now mounds)  have villages settled over them. People, unaware of its significance, have reused the bricks and even levelled the ‘stūpa’ mounds to repurpose the land. Another major issue is that Vaiśālī is situated on the east bank of River Ganḍak. Ganḍak is notorious for floods and frequently changes its course. Ancient river beds have damaged, and at times, buried ancient Buddhist remains under layers of silt. All this has brought a permanent change in ancient shrines related with the footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimage in Vaiśālī.   

Fortunately, descriptions of Buddhist pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang provide enough leads about the tentative locations of these sacred sites related to the Buddha, Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī and Āmrapāli. Xuanzang has provided the location of these unidentified sites with respect to the established sites of Palace City, Ashokan pillar site and the Buddha body-relic stūpa site. Plotting descriptions of  Faxian and Xuanzang on the map of Vaiśālī leads us to the local villages of Bhakrā, Arār, Udaipur and Birpur.  I had done a bit of exploration in these villages back in 2011 and again in 2015. As I had expected, I found mounds and ancient potshards in each of these villages.  

I revisited the villages of Udaipur, Arār, Bhakrā and Birpur, this time during my foot journey from 1-3rd July. According to my guesstimate, Udaipur and its immediate surroundings are the site of Double-galleried Vihāra (i.e. Kūtāgārasālā) (refer to point 10 in Map.1). Close to this site was the stūpa built over the half-body relics of Ananda. In Udaipur, I met a middle-aged person whom I asked him if he knew of any gaḍh or nonefar in the village. Villagers in Vaiśālī and around generally refer to ancient mounds as gaḍh or nonefar.  The man took me to a mound approximately 15ft higher than the surrounding fields. A house was constructed over it belonging to a person named Shri Vinod Kumar. On the east of the village, in the agriculture fields, was another high mound which had been razed some 6 years ago when a new railway line was being laid here. Some remains of the mound still exist. Many of the fields neighbouring the mound have potshards. 

Map-1. Description of Xuanzang plotted on map of Vaiśālī. @Google Earth

House of Devendra Mahto settled on mound. Bakhrā

Mound in neighbourhood of Devendra Mahto, Bakhrā

House of Devendra Mahto settled on mound. Bakhrā

Interacting with locals at Udaipur

Nonefar mound, Bakhrā
paki pe mound,  Bakhrā.

Next, I visited the village of Birpur. According to Xuanzang, this village and its surroundings could be the place where Vimalakīrti, his son, Ratnākara, and Bhikkhunī Āmrapāli lived (refer point 5 in Map.1). It was here that Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī and 500 Sākyans attained nirvāṇa. In the agriculture fields west of the village, I met two persons named Indal Yadav and Subhas Rai. They were sowing rice. They showed me a group of mounds. They told me that a few more mounds existed previously but those were destroyed over the last few years. The mounds were spread in less than one acre of land. They were about 6-7 ft higher than the neighbouring fields. In the agricultural fields neighbouring these mounds, I discovered ancient potshards and pieces of brick. 

Further northwest from here is a prominent mound, known locally as Marpasaunā (Chak Sahdani) (refer point 6 in Map.1). Marpasaunā mound could be the place where the people of Vaiśālī stood waiting for the Buddha when he was on his way to Kushīnagara to attain parinirvāṇa. According to Xuanzang, the stūpa marking this event was 4 Li (1-2 Kms) north to Sammatiya monastery (i.e. village Chakramdās)(refer point 2 in Map.1). The Marpasaunā mound is spread in about 1 acre of land and is more than 10 ft higher than the neighbouring fields. The Marpasaunā mound is badly damaged from all sides.

Further northwest from Marpasaunā mound is a place called Arār (refer point 7 in Map.1). According to Xuanzang’s descriptions, Arār could be the place where Buddha, on his way to Kushīnagara, took a last look at the city of Vaiśālī. Talking to the locals I came to know there was a mound, locally called as nonefar, but a few years back people levelled it to make houses. 

Xuanzang has mentioned the presence of a group of stūpas to mark Āmrapāli mango grove, the monastery where the Buddha announced his impending parinirvāṇa, and the existence of a Jātaka stūpa. The present day village of Bhakrā is the most likely place for this group of shrines (refer points 8 and 9 in Map.1). The village has four very prominent mounds, two of which are named nonefar and paki pe and two other mounds are located near the house of Devendra Mahto. 

The proposed identification of the sites mentioned by Xuanzang are guesstimates and need more study before zeroing in. The complete excavation and revelation of these sacred places may take an indefinite amount of time because most of the places have villages settled over them. At many places the structure is completely lost because of ignorance and negligence. 

Nonetheless, we have enough  circumstantial  evidence in favour of the proposed identifications. It is time to reclaim these neglected sacred sites and transform them into ‘living heritage’.

On my foot journey, I stayed in Vaiśālī from 3rd-5th July at Buddha World School (BWS). BWS was founded in 2016 by Dr Sarika Malhotra and Krishna Kumar. Shri Krishna Kumar ji and Dr Sarika ji have studied post-graduation in History from JNU, New Delhi. I have known Shri Krishna Ji since 2011. BWS is doing an exemplary work involving its school students in revitalisation of the heritage of Vaiśālī. During my stay in July, the students requested me to take them for a heritage walk to the sacred sites. It could not happen at that time because of COVID and monsoons. But when I revisited Vaiśālī on 16th October after a three-month break to resume my foot journey, the children of BWS insisted on taking them to the unknown heritage sites. Even though COVID threat has not yet subsided, students were extremely curious to go on the walk because they wanted to learn about Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī. In February this year, they observed the  parinirvāṇa anniversary of Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī in their school for the first time. They are very proud of the fact that a luminary like Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī was associated with Vaiśālī. For the students, she is a new icon of Vaiśālī. 

Mounds around Birpur village submerged in flood waters. 
Marpasaunā Mound.
With students of Buddha World School near Birpur and Udaipur villages. 

Shri Krishna Kumar Ji Sharing story of discovery of Vaiśālī Pillar.

Shri Rai Ji sharing local legends associated with Marpasuanā mound.

Birpur is situated  4kms north of BWS. There are a few ancient mounds situated west of the village Birpur. Going by Xuanzang’s descriptions, one of these mounds can be the stūpa marking the place where Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī attained  parinirvāṇa. But we cannot say for sure until the mounds are excavated, and it is hard to tell how many it will be before excavation happens. Till then it is our collective responsibility to preserve the neglected mounds of Vaiśālī. Most of the mounds qualify to be sacred traces of the Buddha and his prominent disciples, according to Xuanzang’s descriptions. This year Vaiśālī has witnessed unprecedented inundation because of the breaching of embankment along River Ganḍak. I wanted to take the children to the mounds but they were all drowned in water. Only the tips of the 6-7ft high mounds were visible. We met a few local villagers (Rai ji, Satish, Mukesh and Amit) who were grazing cattle. Fortunately, they became interested in our discussion, and told us that villagers believe these mounds to be haunted places where a big cobra lives guarding some buried treasure. These myths are fuelled by the presence of ancient potshards all around the mound and the occasional discovery of ancient coins. Krishna Kumar ji shared the story of how the Ashokan Pillar in Vaiśālī was discovered. The well-preserved Lion Capital of that Ashokan Pillar is now a symbol of Vaiśālī. The children and villagers present were not aware of how the Ashokan pillar was discovered and restored nearly a century ago. The 55ft tall Pillar and the surrounding stūpas were buried under earth from centuries of neglect. It was discovered in the 19th century by explorers based on the descriptions of Xuanzang. At the time, only 10ft of the pillar was visible. A Hindu monastery was settled on the ruins of the stūpas surrounding the Pillar. The Pillar was locally called Bhīm ki Lāthī (walking stick of legendary Bhīm of epic Mahābhārata). Later, excavations revealed the complete length of the Ashokan pillar and also exposed the buried stūpas. According to Xuanzang, Emperor Ashoka erected the pillar and stūpa to mark the place where monkeys offered honey to the Buddha. This event is one of the four miracles performed by the Buddha.  

After having heard this story, the villagers and the students could understand the connection between the mounds of Birpur and the Ashokan Pillar site in Vaiśālī which has become a very popular tourist destination. Future excavation could lead to similar revelations at other neglected, obscure mounds in Birpur and surrounding villages. Inspired by all they had heard, the villagers resolved to do whatever necessary for protecting them. Rai ji, who is in his late fifties, said he could now understand an incident which happened a few years ago. When some earth was getting removed, a long stretch of ancient pathway was exposed. According to him, the quality of the ancient path was very good, and it seemed to connect the village of Chak Rāmdas with the Marpasaunā mound. I shared with everyone that according to the descriptions of Xuanzang, Chak Ramdās village could be the place where the Sammittya Monastery existed at the time of Xuanzang’s visit in the 7th CE, and  according to Xuanzang, Marpasaunā mound should be the stūpa marking the place where the people of Vaiśālī stood waiting for the Buddha when he was on his way to Kushīnagara to attain Mahāparinirvāṇa. Therefore, the existence of an ancient highway, connecting these two places of significance,  such as the one that has been discovered, is very much possible.

In 2020, Krishna Kumar ji made a tangible beginning for revitalising the heritage of Vaiśālī by observing the parinirvāṇa Anniversary of Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī. Next year, he plans to organise a play by students of BWS dramatising the events related to Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī in Vaiśālī. Also, BWS would start a scholarship program in memory of Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī for meritorious girl students from the surrounding villages.

Sacred sites in Vaiśālī mentioned by Xuanzang and Faxian

1. Identification of Kolhuā and Basarh as ancient Vaiśālī (1 in Map.1)

Within the Vaiśālī kingdom, Xuanzang mentions there was Vaiśālī city that was 60-70Li (approximately 20Kms) in circuit. Inside the city, was the royal precinct, 4-5 Li (around 2kms) in circuit, with few inhabitants. Rājā Bishāl-Kā Gaḍh was identified by Sir Alexander Cunningham as being the royal precinct based on Xuanzang’s description.

2. Where the Buddha recited Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra (2 in Map.1)

At a distance of 5 Li N-W (1-2 kms) from the royal precinct (i.e. Rājā Bishāl-Kā Gaḍh) was a monastery of Sammatiya School. Xuanzang’s travelogue suggests that during his visit to Vaiśālī, he stayed in this monastery. The monastery was set up at the place where the Buddha recited the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra. Close to the monastery was the stūpa to mark this event. There was another stūpa in close proximity to commemorate attainment of arhatship by Sariputra and others. Present day village Chakramdās is the most probable site as per the Xuanzang’s description (see map).

3. Buddha Body Relic Stūpa (3 in Map.1)

Xuanzang’s description of the distance and direction of all the sacred places in the immediate vicinity of Vaiśālī are relative to the Sammatiya monastery. He mentions that southeast of the Sammatiya monastery, the Licchavīs built a relic stūpa over their share of the Droṇa relics (Sharira) obtained at Kushīnagara when the division was made after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha (DN 16, D ii 137).  Xuanzang points out how King Ashoka removed nine-tenths of all of the relics previously divided among the kings and enshrined them in 84,000 stūpas across the land. Based on Xuanzang’s description, the place was excavated in 1958-62 to discover a relic casket, the remaining one-tenth of the Droṇa relics. The relic casket containing ashes, one punch-marked coin, two glass beads, one conch and one thin small piece of gold was discovered at the site. The sacred body relics of the Buddha are currently kept at the Patna museum for devotees to pay homage.   The Government of Bihar is planning to bring back the Buddha relics  and enshrine here at Vaiśālī near its findspot. Buddha Samayak Darshan Sangrahalaya and a Smriti Stūpa are being developed for this purpose. Government has already acquired 72 acres of land and construction work is underway. 

One important revelation from the excavation of the relic stūpa was that around 1st century CE a change in the course of River Ganḍak caused the river to flow over the relic stūpa. Since ancient times this place has always experienced change in the course of rivulets. As Faxian  did not visit relic stūpa or the place further east where ‘Monkey offered honey to the Buddha’, it can be conjectured that the relic stūpa remained at the bottom of the river for the next few centuries.

4. Monkey offers honey to the Buddha (4 in Map.1)

North-West of relic stūpa, Xuanzang mentions the place associated with the miracle of ‘Monkey offering honey to the Buddha’. Once when the Buddha was staying at Vaiśālī, a band of monkeys dug a tank for Buddha’s use. Since the tank was dug by a band of monkeys it was called Markaṭa Hṛada. The monkeys then took away the alms-bowl of the Buddha, climbed a tree and gathered some honey and offered it to the Buddha. Monkey offering honey to the Buddha is one of the four miracles associated with the Buddha.  At the site Xuanzang saw an Ashoka Stūpa, a pillar with Lion Capital, a tank dug by a group of monkeys for the Buddha’s use and stūpa to mark monkeys taking the Buddha’s alms bowl to offer him honey.

5. Mahā Prajāpatī Gotamī attains Parinirvāṇa (5 in Map .1)

At the time of the Buddha, there was a village 3-4 Li (1-2kms) North-East of the Sammatiya monastery where Vimalakīrti lived. According to Vimalakīrti Sūtra and as also mentioned by Xuanzang, Mañjuśrī, the Buddhist deity of wisdom, when asked by the Buddha, visited Vimalakīrti at his house here. 

According to Pali sources, a gardener found a newborn girl child abandoned under a mango tree away from the town. Since she was found under a mango tree, she was named Āmrapāli meaning ‘like a fresh leaf of mango.’ She grew up to be a very beautiful lady and was appointed as a courtesan. Xuanzang saw a stūpa to mark the remains of the house of Āmrapāli near the house of Vimalakīrti and it was here in Āmrapāli’s house that Mahā Prajāpatī Gotamī and numerous nuns’ attained parinirvāṇa

Based on descriptions of Xuanzang, I identified the neighborhood of village Birpur as a possible site for this event. I visited the village Birpur for the first time in March 2015. You may read the story on a blog here. 

6. Buddha says last goodbye to Vaiśālī (6 in Map .1)

Buddha decided to attain parinirvāṇa at Kushīnagara. It was a poignant moment for the people of Vaiśālī. Locals of Vaiśālī collected at a place to accompany Buddha on his last journey. Xuanzang saw a stūpa to mark the place where this incident happened. This stūpa was 3-4Li north of Sammatiya monastery and also to the house of Āmrapāli.

7. A little to the northwest of 'last goodbye' stūpa was another stūpa marking the place where the Buddha stood to contemplate Vaiśālī for the last time.

(7 in Map .1)

8. Āmrapāli offers mango grove to the Buddha and Saṅgha (8 in Map .1)

When the Buddha arrived at Vaiśālī from Pātalīputra on his Mahaparinirvāṇa journey, he made a halt at the mango grove of Āmrapāli. Āmrapāli had heard praise of the Buddha from her son Vimalakondañña, who was a disciple of the Buddha. When Āmrapāli learnt about the Buddha’s stay at her mango grove, she visited him and was very impressed on hearing Buddha’s preaching. The next day, Āmrapāli requested the Buddha to accept her mango grove for the Saṅgha, which he did. According to Xuanzang, the mango grove of Āmrapāli and a temple was located a little south of the place where the Buddha stood to take a last look at Vaiśālī.

9. The Buddha announces impending parinirvāṇa (9 in Map .1)

Three months before attaining Mahāparinirvāṇa, while staying at the Cāpalā Cetiya, the Buddha announced of his impending parinirvāṇa. Xuanzang saw a stūpa at the side of Āmrapāli’s mango grove to mark the place where this incident happened. Near the stūpa where the Buddha announced his impending parinirvāṇa, Xuanzang saw stūpas to mark the Jātaka story of ‘bow and arrow’.

10. Bhikkhunī Saṅgha Instituted (10 in Map.1)

To the east of the stūpa of the Jātaka story, Xuanzang saw remains of a ‘two-storey preaching hall’ (Kūtāgārasālā) where Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī, the foster mother of the Buddha, along with 500 Sākyan women got ordained. According to 5th CE Pali commentator Buddhaghosa, Kūtāgārasālā had a storeyed hall with a hall below surrounded only by pillars. These pillars held the gabled room which formed the main part of the Buddha's Gandha-kuti there (DA.i.311). Close to the preaching hall was the stūpa which contained the half-body relics of Ānanda. 

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Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


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—— 1914. The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li by Kegan Paul. London: Trench Trubner  and Co.

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Abbreviations of Bibliography:

Source of Pāli references:

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

SHB.     Means published in the Simon Hewavitarne Bequest Series (Colombo).

A.          Anguttara Nikaya, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).

AA.      Manorathapūranī, Anguttara Commentary, 2 vols. (S.H.B.).

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

DA.       Sumangala Vilāsinī, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).

DhA.    Dhammapadatthakathā, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).

Vin.      Vinaya Piṭaka, 5 vols., ed. Oldenberg (Williams and Norgate).

VvA.    Vimānavatthu Commentary (P.T.S.).


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