Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Pipphali Cave, Rāhula Stūpa and other Forgotten shrines of Rājagṛiha

Rājgir (Rājagṛiha, Rājagaha) is very intimately connected with the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Saṅgha. Bimbisāra, king of the Magadha Empire, was the first to give patronage to the Buddha. He also offered his favorite garden, the Veḷuvana (Bamboo grove), to the Buddha to establish a monastery. Veḷuvana was the first monastery (ārāma) offered to the Buddha and the Saṅgha. Buddha spent many vassā-s (rainy season retreats) in Veḷuvana. Pali sources have numerous mentions of places in Rājgir where Buddha delivered sermons and spent his time. On his pilgrimage to Rājagṛiha (‘mountain city’, ‘city of old Rājagaha’), Xuanzang visited many sacred places and recounted stories and traditions associated with them. According to him, the ancient city of Rājagṛiha, produced excellent quality of scented Kusa grass because of which, in the 7th CE, Rājagṛiha was called Kushāgrapur.

A view of Rājgir

Map of Rājgir depicting the places of interest.

Rājagṛiha was the capital of the Magadha Empire during the time of Buddha, but within a few years of the Buddha’s attaining Mahāparinirvāṇa, the capital was moved from Rājagṛiha to Pāṭaliputra (now Patnā). The ancient city of Rājagṛiha is enclosed on the four sides by steep hills. The city was abandoned during the time of Xuanzang’s visit. Xuanzang noticed Rājagṛiha overgrown with forest (kanaka trees everywhere that produced golden colour flowers round the year).

Many of my readers may not be aware of the fact that Buddhism was lost in the Indian subcontinent at the turn of the 2nd millenium. The new political climate was not conducive for the growth and development of Buddhist monasteries and Buddhist pilgrimage. All the tangible and intangible traditions related with Buddhist pilgrimage ‘in the footsteps of the Buddha’ were lost. Buddhist pilgrimage places in the Gangetic plain like Bodhgayā, Sārnātha, Shrāvasti, Lumbīnī, Vaiśālī, etc. that we take for granted today, were abandoned, turned to ruins and they acquired new names. Ancient Rājagṛiha came to be known as Rājgir.

Translation of the travelogues of Buddhist monks, Faxian (Fa Hien, 337-422 CE) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 602-664 CE), in the early 19th century, revealed the existence of ‘In the footsteps of the Buddha’ pilgrimage in the Gangetic Plain. Both Faxian and Xuanzang had themselves undertaken this pilgrimage and documented it in detail. Travelogues of Faxian and Xuanzang led to the identification of present-day Rājgir as ancient Rājagṛiha (of Buddhist literature), but it was difficult to identify the numerous shrines (temples, monasteries and stupas) mentioned in different Buddhist literatures. In the 19th CE, at the time of exploration and identification, Rājgir was a very dense forest and layers of biomass covered the ancient Buddhist remains. Identification was made still more difficult; the descriptions of Rājagṛiha by both Faxian and Xuanzang were not so clear. As a result, explorers and archaeologists ended up offering multiple identifications for shrines like Veḷuvana (bamboo grove), Gṛiddhakūṭa (vulture’s peak), site of the First Buddhist Council and others. Later explorations led to identification of Gṛiddhakūṭa, Veḷuvana and a few other shrines, but no inscriptional evidence was ever found at any of these sites. All the identifications so far in Rājgir are based on circumstantial evidence i.e. based on the accounts of Faxian and Xuanzang.

On my foot journey, my objective was to create awareness about a few sites related with the Buddha mentioned by Xuanzang, which are still not known among the Buddhist pilgrims. Some sites like Gṛiddhakūṭa, Veḷuvana, Jivaka monastery, place of First Buddhist Council became popular with the Buddhist pilgrims and many others are still not known among the Buddhist pilgrims, they are neglected and are in bad shape. I wish to work on these sites and facilitate their revitalisation.

The first site that I want to share about with my readers is Pipphaligūhā. Pipphaligūhā, according to Pali sources, is the place where  Mahākassapa (Mahākashyapa) found shelter for his intense meditation. This cave was called Pipphali after Mahākassapa who was also known by this name. The Buddha stayed at Veḷuvana during his visits to Rājagṛiha and after his one meal for the day, he would walk the path up to Pipphaligūhā. On one such visit, he found Mahākassapa affected with disease and in terrible pain. The Buddha found this time perfect to teach him the seven factors of Awakening. What Buddha preached here is now preserved as Gilana Sutta.

Faxian and Xuanzang mention Pipphali cave as the place where the Buddha often lodged. According to Xuanzang, it was west of hot water springs. A.M. Broadley, sub-divisional magistrate of Bihar (Bihar Sharif) in 1871, cleared this cave. He found: the floor considerably below the surface and was reached by a flight of eight or nine brick steps several of which he uncovered almost entire…the chamber was 36ft from east to west 26ft from north to south. The roof was 18-20ft high. The whole was lined , as it were, by a brick wall about 2ft thick…in midst of the rubbish which filled up the bottom of the cave, I found a very perfect standing figure of the Buddha in black basalt.

On my foot journey, I visited this cave which was in very bad shape, covered with dense vegetation. Due to misinformation, in place of this cave, pilgrims currently visit the small room in the large platform (locally called as Jarāsandha kā baithakā) made of dressed stone, as the Pipphaligūhā.

Another lesser known sacred site which I want to share about with my readers is Sapṭaparnī Guhā. According to Buddhist traditions, Sapṭaparnī Guhā is the site where the First Buddhist Council took place, under the leadership of Mahākashyapa. All the arrangements for the council were made by Ajātshatru, the then king of Magadha, at that time. The oral tradition of Pali Tripiṭaka began at Sapṭaparnī Guhā when for over 6 months, more than 500 Bhikkhu-s recited the suttas delivered by Buddha during his lifetime and recollected by Ānanda and Upāli. Xuanzang visited Sapṭaparnī Guhā, and recorded it as 5-6 Li (2-3 kms approximately) SW of Veḷuwan. There are at least 3 identifications of the Sapṭaparnī ‘stonehouse’. Major Kittoe and later Alexander Cunningham and A M Broadley identified the Sonbhanḍār cave as the site of the First Buddhist Council.

The first identification of Sonbhanḍār was found to be based on wrong interpretation of the directions given by Xuanzang. The second identification of Sapṭaparnī Guhā was by J. D. Beglar in 1872. He identified a natural cave on the northern face of Vaibhāra hill. This is the site popular among the pilgrims now as Sapṭaparnī Guhā (first council place). This identification was questioned by John Marshall.

The biography of Xuanzang mentions the place of the First Buddhist Council to be a ‘great house’ in Bamboo garden. Samuel Beal’s Ta Tang Hsi Yü Chi  ((Records of the Western Lands of the Great Tang Period) mentions it to be a ‘large stone house’ with ‘old foundation-wall’ of the hall made by Ajātshatru  before the ‘large stone house’ in the middle of a bamboo forest. In On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, Thomas Watters has mentioned a ‘large cave’ and in front of the large cave were the ‘foundations of the large hall’ where the participants of the council stayed. In  The Great Tang Dynasty Records of the Western Regions, Li Rongxi has mentioned it to be a ‘large cave’ with ‘old foundations of a hall’ for the stay of participants in front of the large cave.

Here i am standing in front of Pipphaligūhā. As you can see site is not in good shape.

Jarāsandha kā baithakā

First Council Place identified by J Marshall.

Aerial view of First Council Place identified by J Marshall. pic Yves Guichard.
According to Xuanzang, the Buddha delivered Ambalatthika-Rāhulovāda Sutta to Rāhula here.

Xuanzang uses the word ‘stone house’ for Indraśailaguhā, which is another site in Magadha where Buddha delivered sermons, for referring to a natural mountain cave, and also for Pipphali cave in Rājagṛiha (Beal 1969: 156), which is also a natural cave. Early explorers were confused whether the Sapṭaparnī was a natural cave or a manmade stone house.

Faxian has not left a detailed description of Sapṭaparnī Guhā. He uses the word cavern for Sapṭaparnī Guhā, for Pipphali he uses the words cave dwelling among the rocks, and for Indraśailaguh, he calls it an apartment of stone. He mentions about 500 Bhikkhus attending the council at Sapṭaparnī. According to him, Sapṭaparnī was a big natural cave.

We have to consider the logistic support that would have been required to facilitate a gathering of over 500 Bhikkhu-s for 6 months. The site identified by J. D. Beglar, situated on the mountain, does not seem to be capable of accommodating more than 500 persons for 6 months. Moreover, this site does not contain any evidence of a hall or old foundation wall nor is there any evidence of destroyed structures. 

Xuanzang mentions that Sapṭaparnī was in the middle of a Bamboo grove. This is an important point, which needs to be examined - whether a thick forest of bamboo trees could have existed at the cave site identified by Beglar as the place of the First Buddhist Council.

John Marshall was of the opinion that the site of Sapṭaparnī, as described by Xuanzang, is a ‘Stone house’, not ‘Stone cave,’ i.e. a manmade hall and not a natural cave. Marshall suggested another site further west, at the foot of the same hill as a more appropriate site for such a council. This site is at the foot of Vaibhāra hill and exactly at the same distance and direction mentioned by Xuanzang. At this site, there is a manmade platform with evidence of walled structure underneath and remains of fallen rocks from the hill behind. 

According to me, the site identified by Marshall for the First Buddhist Council is more convincing than the site proposed by Beglar. According to all the three translators, Beal, Watters and Rongxi, there was a natural cave or stone house and in front of the cave was a hall made by Ajātshatru where 999 Bhikkhus (according to Xuanzang) stayed for the first council. Xuanzang saw remains of the hall built by Ajātshatru. One can actually notice the old foundations of the hall and approach ramp at the site identified by Marshall. I hope to work towards the revitalisation of this site.

The third lesser known site which I would like to share about with my readers is where the Buddha delivered Ambalatthika-Rāhulovāda Sutta to Rāhula. In the second year of his stay at Rājagṛiha, the Buddha visited Kapilavastu and ordained many Sākyans into the Saṅgha including Rāhula. Rāhula, the Buddha’s son, was now a novice in the Saṅgha and accompanied the Buddha to Rājagṛiha. Shortly after Rāhula’s ordination, the Buddha taught him the importance of telling the truth. The Buddha placed truth as the highest of all virtues. The seekers of Truth, those who have as their goal as nibbāna (nirvāṇa), should not break the precept of Truth. The Buddha explained the virtue of truth in a way a young child could understand. The Buddha preached to Rāhula at a mango grove in the vicinity of Veḷuvana in Rājagṛiha (M.i.414-20; MA.ii.635f.; AA.i.145; ii.547). This discourse is known as the Ambalatthika-Rāhulovāda Sutta. A stūpa was later built to mark the event. Xuanzang visited the stūpa, which according to him, was on the left side of the road outside the south gate of the ‘New City’.

In Bairat Minor Rock Edict, Ashoka pays respect to the monks and nuns, and advises them to follow what the Buddha taught novice Rāhula. In the words of the King Ashoka:

the Laghulovada ("The Sermon to Rahula") which was spoken by the blessed Buddha concerning falsehood, — I desire, Sirs, that many groups of monks and (many) nuns may repeatedly listen to these expositions of the Dharma and may reflect (on them).

This site, where the Buddha delivered Ambalatthika-Rāhulovāda Sutta to Rāhula, has some temporary huts at present. The area is owned by the Forest Department and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). There is a boundary wall around the site erected by ASI. The place has no prominent ancient mound. Maybe, the stūpa built at the site was a small one, which is now buried under the biomass or got vandalised over the centuries. I believe that even without the symbols like stūpas and temples, the place retains its sanctity. Revitalisation of the Pipphali cave, First Buddhist Council place and Rāhula’s  place is my priority in coming years.

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Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


Beal, S. 2005. Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India, New Delhi: Low Price.

—— 1914. The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li by Kegan Paul. London: Trench Trubner  and Co.—— 1969. Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Translated from the Chinese Of Hiuen Tsiang, New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation.

Rongxi, Li; 1996, The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, BDK America, Inc. 

Broadley, A. M. 1979. The Buddhistic Remains of Bihar. Varanasi: Bharti Prakashan.

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.


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

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

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

M.=Majjhima Nikaya, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).

MA.=Papañca Sūdanī, Majjhima Commentary, 2 vols. (Aluvihāa Series, Colombo).