Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Vaiśālī to Sārnātha: Foot journey down the Ganges following Xuanzang

I helped the priest in meal preparation at Balluiā Bābā monastery where i stayed on19th Oct.

After a three month
Vassā (rainy season) break, I resumed my foot journey (Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang) on 18th of October from Vaiśālī. In  this leg of my foot journey, I had to cover around 250 kms along the northern bank of River Ganges to arrive in Sārnātha (Isipattana, iipattana, Deer Park). Deer Park is one of the Eight Great Places of Buddhist 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).

The Buddhist monk-scholar Xuanzang, travelled from Deer Park to Vaiśālī in the 7th century during his visit to India. I was going to walk in the opposite direction - starting from Vaiśālī walking westward to Deer Park.

Before proceeding further, I would like to inform my readers that there are two major works of Xuanzang, both of which talk about his pilgrimage to India. These are Ta-Tang-Hsi-yü-chi (Records of the Western Lands of the Great Tang Period), referred today simply as Travels, and a biography of Xuanzang written by Shaman Hwui Li (The Life of Xuanzang) referred to as Life.

Travels is like a catalogue. It contains a detailed record of the geography of the Silk Road and the Indian subcontinent, gives information about places, which Xuanzang may have visited or may not, and mentions about kingdoms, cities, monasteries and other Buddhist structures which also Xuanzang may have visited or may not. Life, on the other hand, is a biography. It records the places Xuanzang actually visited in the exact sequence of visit, describes the natural features like deserts, mountains, rivers that he crossed, narrates the major events that occurred during his travels, and tells about his interaction with kings and monk-scholars, the monasteries he studied in, and the relic stūpas he venerated.

There is a considerable amount of discrepancy in the information given in Travels and Life. In many cases, the two books differ in terms of distances between places and directions. For example, both Travels and Life mention that Xuanzang travelled from Sārnātha (Deer Park) to Vaiśālī, but give different descriptions of the path taken. Travels states that Xuanzang started from Sārnātha, crossed Chan-Chu Country (300Li E, 90-100kms), Aviddhakarṇa Monastery (200Li E, 55-65kms), Mahāśāla Town (100 Li SE, 30-35kms), Nārāyaṇa temple (E), Ashokan stūpa (30Li E, 10kms approx.), Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa (100Li SE, 30-35kms), and finally arrived in Vaiśālī (140-150Li NE, 45-50kms). This approximates 880 Li North-east (approx. 300 kms). Life states that Xuanzang started from Sārnātha, crossed only Chan-chu Country (300 Li E) to arrive in Vaiśālī (140-150Li NE). This comes to around 450 Li North-east (approx. 160 kms). The distance between Sārnātha and Vaiśālī in a straight line is around 225 kms NE. This discrepancy between Life and Travels has led to multiple identifications of Vaiśālī and many other places in between Deer Park and Vaiśālī.  

Places mentioned by Xuanzang in between Deer Park and Vaiśālī have multiple identifications. I have mapped the identifications of Xuanzang’s pilgrimage places and route between Deer Park and Vaiśālī made by the 19th century scholars - Louis Vivien de Saint-Martin (1858), Wilton Oldham (1870), Alexander Cunningham (1873) and A C L Carlleyle (1885) (see Map.1).

Map.1- Identifications  plotted on Google Earth map.

A C L Carlleyle's identification of Xuanzang's route and places.
River Ghāghrā
Crossing River Ganḍak early in morning.

Soaking my feet in the sacred river Ganges.

People fishing in river Ganges. Chochakpur Poltoon bridge. 

A dip in the Ganges cleanses one of all sins. At Balua Ghat.
Balua Ghat market.  COVID has impacted the small businesses. 

Identifications offered by French Geographer St. Martin were published as an appendix to Stanislas Julien's translation of the records of Xuanzang (Julien 1858; 251-428). St. Martin has offered only few identifications of places. For instance, he has identified the capital of Chan-Chu Country,  Aviddhakarṇa Monastery and Mahāśāla Town. He has not offered identifications for the Nārāyaṇa temple, Ashokan stūpa and the Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa sites. According to St. Martin, Ghāzipur, situated approximately 90kms north-east from Deer Park, is the capital of Chan-Chu country. He has not mentioned any specific place as the site of Aviddhakarṇa Monastery (monastery of the pierced ears) but according to him it is situated at the confluence point of  rivers Surjoo (Saryu?) and Ganges. As per St. Martin, the town of  Masār, situated six miles west of Ārā, is the Mahāśāla mentioned by Xuanzang (Julien 1858; 362-363) (see map.1).  

Wilton Oldham, the Collector of Ghazeepoor (Ghāzipur), was not convinced by the identifications put forth by St. Martin. According to Oldham, Ghāzipur did not have any ancient remains to qualify as the capital city of Chan-Chu country. Instead, he thought Sydpoor (Saidpur), situated 30 kms north-east as the crow flies from Deer Park, as the better suited identification of the capital city of Chan-Chu country. To the north-west of the capital of Chan-Chu, Xuanzang saw an Ashokan stūpa with enshrined body relics of the Buddha. The stūpa was at the spot where the Buddha had sermoned for 7 days. According to Oldham, the ancient remains of Aonreehar (Aurihar), situated north-west of Saidpur, should have the Ashokan stūpa with Buddha relics. Next, Oldham identified Gauspur, situated 15kms east of Ghāzipur, as the site of Aviddhakarṇa Monastery. Xuanzang traveled 100Li south-east of Aviddhakarṇa Monastery to the other side (south side) of the Ganges, to the town of Mahāśāla. Oldham identified Buxar, situated 30 km south-east of Gauspur on the south side of Ganges, as the Mahāśāla Town. Xuanzang mentions about a Nārāyaṇa temple with halls and terraces beautifully adorned, and with sculptured stone images in the highest style of art. This temple was situated opposite to Mahāśāla, on the north of Ganges.  Oldham identified  Narayanpoor (Narayanpur), situated opposite to Buxar on the northern bank of Ganges, as the site of the Nārāyaṇa temple. Oldham even noticed ancient remains in Narayanpoor. 30 Li (10kms approx.) east of Nārāyaṇa temple was an Ashokan stūpa and an inscribed pillar mounted with a lion. The inscription on the pillar described how the Buddha subdued and converted certain cannibal demons. The Ashokan stūpa was half sunk at the time of Xuanzang’s visit in the 7th century. Oldham identified the surroundings of the village of Bearoli (Bharauli), 6 miles east of Narayanpoor, as the possible site of the Ashokan stūpa.  More than 100 Li (30 kms approx.) south-east of the Ashokan Pillar site, Xuanznag reached the Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa. Dṛona was the Brahmin who distributed the equal share of body relics of the Buddha among eight claimants. Dṛona constructed a stūpa over the jar, which he had used to measure the body relics of the Buddha. Later, Emperor Ashoka reopened the stūpa and removed the jar and relics. The stūpa was in ruins and only a small part of it was above the ground when Xuanzang visited it. Oldham identified a mound east of Rugnoonathpoor (Raghunathpur) railway station near villages Dhoondpoor and Kant, 20 miles east of Buxar, as the Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa (Oldham 1870: 33-39). 

Alexander Cunningham proposed Ghāzipur as the capital of Chan-Chu country; Bikāpur, a village 1 mile east of Baliyā (Balliā) as site of Aviddhakarṇa Monastery; Masār as Mahāśāla town; Revelganj at confluence of Ganges and Ghāghrā, 16 miles due north of Masār, as the site of Nārāyaṇa temple, Chhaprā as the site of Ashokan stūpa and Deghwāra (Dighwara) situated 17 miles south of east from Chhaprā as the site of Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa (Cunningham 1871: 438-442).

In his survey reports of 1871-72,  Cunningham made changes in some of  his earlier identifications (mentioned above). He proposed the village of Bakri, situated 1.5 miles west of Ārā, and 5 miles east of Masār as the alternative identification of the Ashokan stūpa and pillar site instead of Chhaprā, as identified earlier.  Similarly, instead of Deghwāra, Cunningham proposed two  probable sites for Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa: (1) Cherānd (Chirānd),  17 miles north-east of Bakri (Pakri), and (2) Bitha (Bihta?), 16 miles east of Bakri (Cunningham 1873: 76-77). 

Carlleyle was of the opinion that the capital of Chan-Chu country may have long ago been washed away by the Ganges.  It must have been somewhere near Harshankarpur, about 6 miles south-east of Ghāzipur. He supposed this place must formerly have formed a part of an old north bank of Ganges when it flowed along its ancient bank. According to  Carlleyle, the town of Baliyā and few villages in its immediate neighbourhood that had ancient mounds, like Dhamoli (or Dharmaoli), Beduwali, Wazirapur and Muhammadpir, were the remains of Aviddhakarṇa Monastery. In Balliā town, Carlleyle saw a water body bearing the name Dharmāranya, which he thought was Buddhist in origin.  Carlleyle was told about a village called Narainpur on the other side (northern side) of Ganges opposite Masār. Narainpur, as per Carlleyle, was site of the Nārāyaṇa temple. He was told that the village had ancient remains but this village was washed away by Ganges just a few years ago. Godena (Godna), 8 miles from Narainpur, situated on the east bank of Ghāghrā and close to Revelganj was, as per Carlleyle, the site of Ashokan stūpa and pillar mentioned by Xuanzang.  Carlleyle offered three places to be potential site of Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa - Kundar budha and Sarua dih, situated 16.5 miles  and 12 miles respectively to the east of Revelganj, and Cherānd (Chirānd) situated 11 miles east-south-east from Godena (Revilganj) (Carlleyle 1885: 74-87).

Challenges faced by early explorers

1. The 19th CE scholars  St. Martin, Oldham, Cunningham and Carlleyle faced many challenges. Like the maps available at the time were rudimentary, many times explorers had to rely on government officials in the district headquarters for the archaeological information, archaeological information from rural areas and remote places were mostly unavailable, and most of the places were difficult to access. 

2. Xuanzang’s accounts suggest that in this 250 km stretch from west to east, he mostly walked along River Ganges. Ganges keeps changing course. Examination of the reports of Cunningham and Carlleyle for this stretch reveals that both of them struggled to comprehend how Ganges must have flowed during the time of Xuanzang. This even reflected in that they proposed the identifications with a sense of uncertainty. During his subsequent visit to Ghāzipur, Alexander Cunningham learnt about an old channel of the Ganges very clearly defined for 25 or 30 miles, running past Bihiyā, Masār, and Ārā. He then revised his study and proposed a new set of identifications for Nārāyaṇa temple, Ashokan stūpa site and Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa (Cunningham 1873: 68). 

3. Changing course of Ganges also sometimes wiped out villages situated on its bank. Villages that exist today may get wiped in a few years, like the village Bikāpur slightly  east of Baliyā (Balliā) situated on the bank of Ganges. In 1872, Cunningham proposed Bikāpur as the site Aviddhakarṇa monastery. In 1879, in his visit to Bikāpur, Carlleyle was told by locals that Bikāpur was swept away by the encroachments of flooded Ganges (Carlleyle 1885: 83).

4. There is a discrepancy in the description given by Xuanzang. Xuanzang implies that after leaving Mahāśāla town, he crossed River Ganges twice: first time, from  Mahāśāla to Nārāyaṇa temple, and second time, from Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa crossing the Ganges and going to Vaiśālī (Cunningham 1873: 72-73). This confusion influenced the identifications offered by Cunningham.     

Carlleyle was of the view that Xuanzang must have crossed Ganges only once from  Mahāśāla to Nārāyaṇa temple. While on his way to Vaiśālī from Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa,  Xuanzang must have crossed River  Ganḍak because it was on his way and he could hardly have crossed such a large river without mentioning it. Carlleyle was of the view that in Xuanzang’s time, any large river would have been called Gangā (Ganges) (Carlleyle 1885: 80).

Nothing much has changed since the first explorations were done in the 19th CE. There is no follow up work done by Archaeological Survey of India or any university. Even today, all we have for reference are the reports from the 19th century.  Many of my readers may not be aware of this. In the early 1850’s, Alexander Cunningham who was working single-handedly, tried to generate interest in the Government of India for creating an archaeological department. With the efforts of Lord Canning, then viceroy of India, and on the insistence of Cunningham himself, in 1861, Cunningham was made the archaeological surveyor to the government of India. His first proposal to the viceroy was to follow the footsteps of the Chinese pilgrim, Hwen Thsang (Xuanzang), for describing the ancient geography of India (Cunningham 1871: iv). In the next couple of decades, Alexander Cunningham and his assistants, D. Beglar, A.C. Carlleyle and H.B.W. Garrik did the groundwork which laid the foundation for the future exploration, excavation and conservation of many important Buddhist sites and monuments mentioned by Xuanzang.  There were many places and stretches of Xuanzang trails that remained puzzling to them, like the Sārnātha-Vaiśālī stretch, because of the many factors discussed above. It is more than 150 years now that the work initiated by Cunningham and his team is still unfinished. There is no systematic follow up to the initial work done by ASI.

I did some background reading before embarking on this section of the foot journey. I needed someone who could help me in my exploration of the archaeological sites in Chhaprā, Balliā and Ghāzipur districts. My archaeologist friends gave me references of Shri Obaidurraham Siddiqui, a heritage activist and author, active in preservation and protection of ancient remains in Ghāzipur district for the last 20 odd years. Due to Covid, however, he could not make himself available to join me for the exploration. But he suggested that I explore Gauspur, 12 km east of Ghāzipur. Even in Balliā and Chhaprā, I could not find anyone to guide me in my exploration.

On the morning of 18 October, I started from Vivatta Pathama Bhikkhuni Temple in Vaiśālī. After walking for 2 hrs, I crossed the bridge on River  Ganḍak and entered the district of Chhaprā. I noticed a flood-like situation - there was water on either side of the road almost touching the edge of the road as far as I could see. Chhaprā is surrounded by rivers - Ganges in the south,  Ganḍak in the east and Ghāghrā in the west. I was surprised to see the water because the usual months of flooding were already over. I was told some embankment on River  Ganḍak had broken as a result of which the water had entered the villages. The water situation continued for nearly 20 km more until I reached Garkhā at dusk. In Garkhā, I was surprised to learn that the river flowing from the middle of Garkhā town was also called  Ganḍak. A priest at Kailash Āshram, a hindu monastery, where I spent that night told me that in ancient times  Ganḍak used to flow from Garkhā. I was surprised to learn this because at present,  Ganḍak flows some 20 kms east of Garkhā, which means the river has drifted a long way.

There are two major rivers, Ghāgrā and  Ganḍak (both of which I crossed) that meet River Ganges from the north. Gangā, Ghāgrā and  Ganḍak emanate from the Himalayas, and are notorious for changing their course. On the second day, I stayed in a hindu monastery called Balluiā Bābā in Bakulahaat, 3 km west of River Ghāghrā. The priest of the monastery told me that a channel of Ghāgrā used to flow past his āshram until a few decades ago, and that for the 4 months  during the monsoon, the whole area gets submerged in knee-deep water so people  use boats for commuting.

These are some of the factors which make it challenging to ascertain the places mentioned by Xuanzang along this stretch from Sārnātha to Vaiśālī. We cannot be sure if the places visited by Xuanzang have survived the vagaries  of these rivers.

Another challenge is Xuanzang’s silence about the rivers, Ghāgrā and  Ganḍak. According to Life and Travels, Xuanzang travelled from Dṛona-Jar relic stūpa “going north-east and crossing the Ganges, after 140 or 150 li, we come to the kingdom of Vaiśālī''  (Beal 1914: 100 ; Watters 2004: II 63). There raises the question: which river did he cross - Ganges or  Ganḍak? As Carlleyle mentioned, in Xuanzang’s time, any large river could have been called Gangā, in which case, Xuanzang might have crossed  Ganḍak, and if he crossed  Ganḍak then Vaiśālī is only 30Li (10kms) from the present channel of   Ganḍak, not 150 Li as Xuanzang writes. So, could it be that River Ganḍak was flowing west of its present-day course?

I am of view of Carellyle that Xuanzang crossed the Ganges (from its north to south side) from Aviddhakarṇa monastery to visit the Mahāśāla Town - and then resumed (got back to north side) from Nārāyaṇa temple on the north side of Ganges. Hence, on his way to Vaiśālī, he must have crossed Ghāgrā and  Ganḍak. However, he has not mentioned either of these rivers. Any reference to these rivers by Xuanzang would have been of great help in identification of the places. 

It was mid-October at the time of my foot journey from Vaiśālī to Sārnātha. Afternoons were warm but the mornings had started getting chilly. Days had also become short. The sky got dark by 5.30 pm. I was walking from sunrise to sunset breaking only for 2 hrs around midday  for lunch. It was almost 7 months since the COVID 19 pandemic had started spreading in India. If one goes by print and electronic media, COVID is a life-threatening disease and one should take maximum precautions against it by using face masks and observing social distancing. Yet, on my foot journey, I noticed that people generally were not taking the situation seriously. In the villages and market places, hardly anyone wore masks and practiced social distancing. Buses and auto-rickshaws were crowded as usual. Until mid-June, the police and other government authorities were enforcing the lockdown seriously but afterwards their attitude also became lax. By October, when Covid cases in the region were steadily rising, the people I spoke to expressed doubts whether Covid was real at all. As in Vaiśālī, from where I started my foot journey after monsoon, wherever I went in villages neighbouring Kolhuā, I heard people saying that there was not even a single incidence of COVID reported in the last 6 months. This was not true of course.

Xuanzang has mentioned two places on the Sārnātha-Vaiśālī trail, where Emperor Ashoka erected  stūpas to mark the presence of the Buddha. Buddha may have frequented this trail. Travelogues of Faxian and Xuanzang suggest this was a route connecting Vaiśālī and Pāṭaliputra to Sārnātha and further west. Probably it was an established pilgrimage route following in the footsteps of the Buddha. This is also corroborated by the fact that Xuanzang   visited  Aviddhakarṇa Monastery along this trail built by a local king for the use of the Buddhist pilgrims from Tokhāra (an ancient state in Central Asia).

In conversation with priests of Kailash Āshram, Garkha. 18th Oct.
I stayed at the Balluiā Bābā Hindu monastery in Bakulaha. 19th Oct.
Students cycling to coaching schools in the morning.
Ancient remains at Gauspur.
Talking to the community at an ancient temple in Gauspur.
Ancient sandstone Lion kept in temple campus, Gauspur.
Shiv Temple, Gauspur.
Ancient image with mordern makeover.
People gathered to watch Kabbadi, a  popular sport in rural India.
. Sushant Singh offered me water once he learnt about my long foot journey.  
An election rally in Chhapra during the COVID times. 18th Oct.
Discussing Buddhist remains in Ghāzipur with Arvind Kushwaha and  Dr Rabindra Maurya.

On this foot journey, I could not add to the identifications offered by early explorers Wilton Oldham, Alexander Cunningham and Carlleyle. However, based on my study of Xuanzang’s descriptions and plotting them on maps, my opinion is that St. Martin’s identification of  Mahār as Mahāśāla Town and Carlleyle’s identification of Balliā and its surroundings as remains of Aviddhakarṇa monastery (mentioned by Xuanzang) may be correct.  Shri Baliā Dās Maharāj, the priest of
Balluiā Bābā Hindu monastery, mentioned to me about a very prominent mound in Mānjhi (Chhaprā district) on the eastern bank of River Ghāghrā. At some other point in time, I will return to examine the mound as I think the Ashokan stūpa and pillar site, where the Buddha converted demons, could be in the neighbourhood of River Ghāghrā. On my way, I visited Gauspur, which I think could be the capital city of Chan-Chu country because it fits the distance and direction provided by Xuanzang very well. It is a very ancient and prominent mound situated on the bank of Ganges.

I realise that identification of Ashokan stūpas marking the presence of the Buddha on this trail (mentioned by Xuanzang) may be difficult but it is certainly not impossible. The first step in this direction would be to meticulously mark the  ancient river channels and river bed of Ganges, Ghāghrā and  Ganḍak on satellite images. This should be followed with archaeological surveys by competent people. In the meantime, however, we could make an effort to revive the 250 km long ancient pilgrimage path along the northern bank of the Ganges connecting Sārnātha and Vaiśālī. I mooted this thought with my hosts and neo-Buddhists, Shri Arvind Kushwaha and  Dr Rabindra Kumar Maurya. Both of them are active in generating awareness on Buddhist heritage among fellow neo-Buddhists from the Shakya-Maurya community in Ghāzipur. They have agreed to discuss this idea with their colleagues and friends and work to facilitate the revitalisation of  this Buddha trail by organising annual walking pilgrimages from Sārnātha to Vaiśālī in the coming years.

Please consider supporting the Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Project

How your financial support are going to be utilised  

Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


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

Beal, S. 1969. Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Translated from the Chinese Of Hiuen Tsiang, New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation.

Carlleyle A.C.L; 1885, Archaeological Survey of India Reports of Tour in  Gorakhpur, Saran and, Ghāzipur  made in  1877-78-79 and 80, Vol-XXII, Superintendent of Government Printing, Calcutta.

Cunningham, A.; 1871, Archaeological Survey of India Four Reports made During the Years 1862-63-64-65, Vol-I, Government Central Press, Shimla.

Cunningham, A.; 1871. The Ancient Geography of India - I: The Buddhist Period. London: Trubner and Co.

Cunningham, A.; 1873, Archaeological Survey of India Report for the Year 1871-72, Vol-III, Superintendent of Government Printing, Calcutta.

Julien, Stanislas. 1858. Mémoires sur les contrées occidentales, traduits du Sanscrit en Chinois,     en l’an 648 par Hiouen-thsang, 2 tômes. Paris: L’Imprimérie Impériale.

Oldham, Wilton,; 1870, Historical and Statistical Memoir of the Ghazeepoor District, Government Press, North-Western Provinces, Allahabad.  

Patil, D. R. 2006. The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar. Patna: K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute.

Watters, Thomas. 2004. On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India. Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and S.W. Bushell. New Delhi: Low Price.