Thursday, May 13, 2021

Uruvelā to Sārnātha- Maurya kā Maṭha (Part II)

After his enlightenment, the Buddha went to Rishipattana (Isipattana, now Sārnātha) from Uruvelā (now Bodhgayā) in search of his five former colleagues. All the ancient texts which document Buddha’s life, like Mahāvastu, Abhinishkramana sūtra, Nidāna-kathā, Lalitavistara, Buddhacarita, have mentioned this very important episode. It is generally believed that on his way to Rishipattana, the Buddha took the present-day Grand Trunk highway, which was known as Uttarāpatha (literally the ‘Northern Route’) in ancient times.  Ancient Brahmanical texts have mentioned Uttarāpatha, a trade route, or network of trade routes, that cut across north India from present-day Afghanistan to the eastern coast. Pali Buddhist literature, unlike Brahamical literature, describes Uttarāpatha not as a trade route but as a northern division of India (Jambudvipa). According to Pali Buddhist literature, Uttarāpatha was probably the name of the region through which the highway passed i.e the Gangetic plain and little further west. 

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Retracing the historical journey of the Buddha, I arrived in Sasarām on 28th February after 4 days of walking from Bodhgayā covering 120 kms. Dr Shaym Sundar Tiwary, my host and guide in Sasarām, shared with me a fact about this region that it is called Rohtās, which is most probably the ancient Rohitavastu mentioned in Buddhist literature.  Buddhist biographical texts like Lalitavistara, Mahāvastu and Abhiskramana sūtra have mentioned about  Rohitavastu (also Lohitavastuka) as the place where the Buddha stayed on his maiden journey to Rishipattana following his Enlightenment. Presently there is no place with the name Rohitavastu or Rohtās, but the region which has Sasarām as the capital is called Rohtās. Since ancient times, Sasarām has been an important place situated on the ancient trade route. This is also evident from the fact that Emperor Ashoka in 3rd BCE chose this place to inscribe his first minor rock edict (known as MRE I)(Neelis 2010: 188).

Minor Rock Edict-I of Emperor Ashoka at Mur Muriyā.

Map depicting ancient trade routes and the route I travelled. (Map-1)

In an isolated trail, in company of Sheep.

The alignment of the Uttarāpatha (now Grand Trunk road also known as Bādshāhi or Sadak-e-Āzam) has changed from time to time. According to Shri Shankar Sharma, during the Mauryan period (3rd BCE), the trade route connecting Sasarām and Vārānasi did not pass through Mohania or  Khurmabād bridge made by Sher Shah Suri (1540-1545), as it does now, but it was along the foot of the Kaimur Range. Shankar Sharma, Asst. Archaeologist in Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), participated in an archaeological exploration and study in the year 2016-17  to trace remains like inscriptions, religious structures, rest houses, mile markers, wells etc. related with the ancient trade route, Uttarāpatha. Shri Shankar is of the opinion that presence of Munḍeshwari temple, Ashokan Inscription sites (MRE I) of Basahā (Mur Muriyā) and Ahraurā, and Buddhist  site of Ghurahopur situated on the hills along this route are the biggest proofs that this trail was the main artery of the trade route, Uttarāpatha.

A large part of my 2000 km Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang foot journey was through Uttar Pradesh. Most of the time I was hosted by people from Shākya and Maurya communities. Both these communities and more than ten other sister communities in the Gangetic plain which collectively form part of the Koeri/Kushwāhā community/clan believe they are the descendants of Shākya and Maurya clans/tribes to which the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka belonged respectively. People from Shākya, Maurya and other sister clans of Kushwāhā/Koeri communities are embracing Buddhism on a mass scale. I have known about Samrāt Ashoka Club  (SAC), a Ghāzipur-based organisation, which since 1996 spearheads this pan-India awareness movement among the Koeri/Kushwāhā communities about their Buddhist roots. I am particularly grateful to Shri Rajendra Shākya, a grassroots volunteer of SAC since 2005. Rajendra Ji has helped me greatly in facilitating my stay and interactions with people of Shākya and Maurya communities in Uttar Pradesh during my foot journey. In this section of my foot  journey, Shri Rajendra ji had recommended me to meet Shri Rajesh Prasad Maurya Ji. Walking 25 kms from Wat Thai Sasarām, Auwān, where I stayed, I arrived at the village Odār which fell on my route. Rajesh ji is a rural medical practitioner. He was waiting for me at his clinic. Rajesh ji is in his late forties and a full time SAC volunteer since 2001.  Initially, he was a bit sceptical about their being the descendants of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. His first questions to himself were: ‘kyā hum Maurya log Rājā Ashoka ke vansaj hai?’ (are we Mauryan people really the descendants of Emperor Ashoka?) How is this possible? How do we know that? But once he was convinced, through his own research, that they are the descendants of Emperor Ashoka, he decided to dedicate his life to facilitating awareness among other fellow Mauryan people. He  told me with pride that he was appointed as the National General Manager of SMC because of his dedication and organisational skills. So now the whole of India is his working area.

There is a considerable population of Maurya community  in Mirzāpur, Vārānasi, Bhadohi, Chandauli, Ghāzipur districts of Uttar Pradesh and Kaimur, Buxar, Rohtās in Bihar. Since 1996, each year on 2nd february, the Mauryan community organises an Sangītī (communal gathering) called Latiyā Mahotsava at a place called Latiyā in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Latiyā is popular for a 30ft sandstone pillar locally called Lāt. The Mauryan community believes this is an Ashokan Pillar. Rajesh ji proudly says in 1996 only 300 people participated in Sangītī but now more than 3 lakh people, mostly from Mauryan community, participate in this annual gathering. I noticed a striking similarity between Shākya people in western UP and Maurya people in eastern UP.  Shākya people have the Buddhist site of Sankissa as their focal point of the Shākya identity to involve fellow Shākya people and here, in eastern UP,  Mauryan people have the site of the Latiyā.

After a brief rest at Rajesh ji’s place, I resumed my walk to reach village Amādhi 15kms from Rajesh ji’s place, near district headquarter of Bhabhua. It was almost dark when I reached Amādhi. Although I was tired after walking 38kms that day, my host Shri Seshmuni Maurya at village Amādhi was keen that I visit the newly built Buddha temple in the village. The Temple was situated in the corner of the village. So I went to see the temple. The villagers plan to install a statue of the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the temple, Seshmuni ji proudly told me.

Next morning, on my way to the Ashokan Inscription site of Basahā. I made a brief stopover at  village Akhwārā. Rajeshji had arranged for my breakfast at the house of Shri Sudama Maurya. Sudama Ji is a marginal farmer and owns  a few cattle. He supplies milk to the local cooperative.  He is an active volunteer with SAC. As I finished my breakfast, 15 years old Shivani Maurya, daughter of Sudama ji, came and gave me a miniature Ashokan Pillar of Sārnātha made by her in plaster of paris. Shivani is very appreciative of the fact that she is Mauryan i.e. of the lineage of emperor Ashoka. Shivani learnt making miniature Ashokan pillars in plaster of paris watching youtube tutorials. She now likes to present her handmade miniature Ashokan pillars to friends and guests as mementos to educate them about the great Emperor Ashoka.

I arrived at the village Bharari Kalān at noon. Shri Awadhesh Kushwāhā, another very active SAC volunteer. He was waiting for me to take me to the Ashokan Inscription site of Basahā, which was situated near his village, Bharari Kalān.  A 1-km long narrow, meandering, unpaved track along the Kaimur Range from the Ratanpurwā-Basahā village road took us to a place called Mur Muriyā (25° 00' 57'' N. 83° 20' 28'' E)

There were a couple of mud houses belonging to two families of washermen. Dr. Awadhesh introduced me to Shri Munawwar Hewari, one of the washermen, who according to him was the local guide cum facilitator at the Ashokan Inscription site. The rock shelter with inscription was situated almost on the top of the hill. Munawwar’s children, Shaukat and Kosal, both about 10 years old, were playing there. I told them that I would  pay them INR 50 if they could take me to the rock shelter. It was a warm afternoon, the sun was directly over the head. I was literally crawling up the steep vertical climb, and trying to find my way through the  patches of dense bushes and big boulders.  I was so curious to get there that I didn't stop even once to catch my breath.  It took us 10 minutes to climb 150 ft. It was an overwhelming feeling once I got there. Waiting for me was a big cave almost 25ft deep and 20ft wide inside and 10ft high in the centre with a  large terrace-like, flat rock at the mouth of the cave, where 20 people could comfortably sit.  On the southern side of the  cave were 9 lines of  inscriptions. Inscribed after smoothening of the surface, they were  perfectly legible. Though the inscriptions were  2300 years old - same as the time of Emperor Ashoka (3rd BCE) - they appeared as if they were inscribed just yesterday. Inscriptions were placed at more than 8ft  from the surface - fairly higher than the reach of people.  The view from the rock shelter was breathtaking - a vast expanse of green agricultural field on the north-east and hill range on the south-east.

In discussion with Shri Rajesh Maurya and Shri Ajay Kumar.

Shivani Maurya offering me miniature of Ashokan Pillar.

Assisting Dr. Awadhesh ji in preparation of lunch.
Newly installed Dhamma Pillar at Mur Muriyā. The rock shelter can be seen behind on the top of the hill.

Shaukat, my guide, leading the way to the Mur Muriyā rock shelter.
Inspired in the shade of the Ashokan Edicts, Mur Muriyā.

Expansive view from the Mur Muriyā rock shelter.

The Mur Muriyā Cave/Rock shelter.

Platform in front of rock shelter. Afternoon resting place of shepherds.

Ancient mound  (stūpa?) at the base of the Hill. 

Dr Awadhesh in front of the ancient mound (stūpa?). 

Buddhist flag, Dhamma Pillar and image of the Buddha. Mur Muriyā now a Living Heritage site.

These inscriptions are referred to as Minor Rock Edict I (MRE-I). In MRE-I, Emperor Ashoka has written of his Buddhist practice as a lay follower (upāsaka) for more than 2 and a half years. He also says that for the last one year, he has started practising closely with the Saṅgha and hence  become more ardent. Through these edicts, Ashoka has motivated the audience i.e common people, visiting this place to practice the Buddha Dhamma. ‘Moreover this is not something to be obtained only by the great, but it is also open to the humble, if they are earnest and they can even reach heaven easily.’ 

MRE-I has been discovered at many places throughout the Indian subcontinent, including three places (Sasarām, Basahā and Ahraurā) in close proximity along the Kaimur Range. Harry Falk is of the idea that Sasarām, Basahā and Ahraurā  - the three MRE-I sites within a span of 100 kms on the northern face of the Kaimur Range - were places of worship on an ancient trade route.

A brief video of the Mur Muriyā Inscription site.

Dr Awadhesh ji later told me that the track I took to climb to the rock shelter was the shortest and direct one, but was not the ancient route. The ancient route was from the western side. Infact, the rock shelter could be approached from three directions including one from the south i.e. from the other side of the range. According to Falk, Ashoka chose sites which were peculiar - like the one here - often on the top of hills, requiring an ascent of 20 - 40 minutes and usually away from the settlement where folk religions found expression in yearly rites. Such places in many parts of India are still part of folk religion.

The Mur Muriyā rock shelter was not a place of worship when it was discovered in 2009.  But in ancient times it may have been a sacred place. According to Rajesh ji, this place in ancient times would have been called Maurya Maṭha meaning ‘Monastery of Maurya.’ Emperor Ashoka was the 3rd emperor from the Mauryan dynasty whose Dhamma inscriptions are here at Mur Muriyā. According to Rajesh ji, the ancient name Maurya Maṭha may have got corrupted into Maṭha Mauryā and then into Muṭh Mauriā and finally turned into the present name Mur Muriyā. There is a huge spherical mound with a flat surface approximately 65 m in diameter and 5 m high at the base of the hill just at the place from where the traditional access to the rockshelter begins. I noticed potsherds on the spherical mound and its surroundings. Shri Shakar Sharma who did an archaeological exploration of this site had noticed a stone structure in an exposed section of the mound. He noticed the stone structure had regular courses paved with mud mortar. He strongly believes this could be a Buddha relic stūpa built by Emperor Ashoka. On the east side of ‘stūpa’ mound is an approximately 60 m X 50 m rectangular pond. The presence of a pond by the side of the mound is, according to Sankar Sharma, another feature common among the Buddhist  sites.

Dr Awadesh ji and I think that instead of naming the site after the biggest villages in the area - Basahā or Ratanpurwā Ashokan Edict site - the site should be called Mur Muriyā Ashokan Edict Site because the area is called as Mur Muriyā and the rock shelter that has the Ashokan Inscription is locally called as  Mur Muriyā Guphā (cave).

Since 2010, SAC has organised an annual one-day festival called Samrat Ashoka Silālekh Samāroh (SASS) on the 27th February. More than 5000 people, mostly from the Maurya community, participated this year - in spite of COVID - Awadhesh ji enthusiastically added.

The Mur Muriyā inscriptions i.e. Basahā/Ratanpurwā inscriptions were revealed to the outside world only in 2009. Traditionally, this place has been a popular afternoon resting place for the shepherds. ‘We were aware of its presence since my childhood but nobody in Basahā and the neighbouring villages ever took it seriously’, Shri Amlesh Singh, a resident of Basahā and also a member of SASS organising committee, told me. There are many rock shelters in this region that have ancient paintings. For people living here, inscriptions and paintings in the hills are nothing unusual, said Shri Awadhesh ji. Shri Munnawar has  been living here at  Mur Muriyā for the last 25 years but he told me that he had never noticed the inscriptions in the rock shelter  until people from outside started coming in 2009. 

Revelation of the Mur Muriyā Ashokan Inscription site to the outside world is a complicated story with many versions. I tried my best to understand the sequence of events that led to its discovery. Discovery of Mur Muriyā is linked with rediscovery of another rock shelter called Pithiyā Pahār, situated  2 kms west of Mur Muriyā and 400 m south of the village of Ghurahopur. Late Shri Susheel Tripathy, a press reporter from Saidupur, published in 2008 a news of the rediscovery of a previously reported but later forgotten rock shelter site in Ghurahopur. After the news was published scholars started visiting the Pithiyā Pahār site. Scholars noticed Buddhist wall paintings  in rock shelters from the Gupta period (4-6th CE). Following the news of discovery of a new Buddhist site, many people, particularly from the Shākya-Maurya community, started visiting the site. A team of SAC members, consisting of  Shri Devi Dayal Maurya, Shri Sachidanand Maurya, Shri Subhash Maurya and others, also visited the Ghurahopur site. Some shepherds from Ghurahopur present  at the site informed the team from SAC about another similar site called Mur Muriyā, further 2 km east. The SAC team visited the Mur Muriyā site and then shared the pictures of the inscription with the scholars from ‘Jňāna-Pravāha- Centre for Cultural Studies Research’, Vārānasi who then in 2009 announced the discovery of the Ashokan Inscription (MRE-I)  to the world.

Dr Awadhesh ji took me next to the Buddhist site of Pithiyā Pahāra (25° 00' 51'' N. 83° 19' 15'' E) near Ghurahopur. It has a rock shelter painted faintly with figures of Buddha. The images are faint but if you splash water on them they will get brighter said Dr Awadhesh ji. Linking the Buddhist sites with the visit of the Buddha helps attract Buddhist pilgrims. Local people have now started circulating stories during his Cārikā (wandering) in this region, the Buddha took rest in this rock shelter.

The site is actually a valley; the rock shelter is on the south hill and in between the north and south hill is a huge flat ground. On that day, some village boys were playing cricket on the mound. But during its prime i.e. in the mid-first millennia, this flat ground must be a suitable assembly place for the monk community.

I noticed ancient sculptures in roadside shrines.

Some more ancient sculpture along the route.

A welcome offering of sugarcane juice after a long day's climb.  

View of rock shelters at Pithiyā Pahāra Site.
Buddhist art in the Pithiyā Pahāra rock shelter.

Dr Awadhesh showing me Pithiyā Pahāra site.

Evening crowd during the COVID time, Mughal Sarai.

The 2nd of March, which was the 7th day of my foot journey, turned out to be a very long day. I had climbed two hills, Pithiyā Pahār and Mur Muriyā, in the scorching sun and had already walked about 35 kms. By the time I arrived in Saidupur to the home of SAC volunteer, Shri Kamlesh Maurya, for halting the night, I was dead-tired. I saw a small  group of people eagerly waiting for me at Saidupur. Although the sun had already set, the number of inquisitive visitors kept growing. Everybody was curious to know about my foot journey.  All along my foot journey in Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bihar, I saw great enthusiasm among people, including teenage children, of the Shākya and Maurya  communities, to learn and share about their new-found Buddhist identity. I spent three days among the Mauryan people of  Kaimur district, and what I noticed is that the grassroots awareness movement among the Maurya people about their Mauryan ancestry is relatively new here. In other words, it was less deep rooted than what I had noticed among the Shākya people about their Shākya ancestry in western UP in the districts of Etā, Farookhābād, Mainpuri and Kāshganj. People from both the sister communities are now embracing Buddhism. I noticed images of the Buddha and Emperor Ashoka in the homes I visited in those three days. Mauryan people from Kaimur and Rohtās districts are now rallying around the Mur Muriyā AI site. This year, they installed a 15ft pillar with Dhamma Wheel (a miniature Ashokan Pillar) at the base of the Mur Muriyā hill. Almost every Mauryan person I met during my foot journey very proudly showed me his picture with the newly installed Dhamma Pillar in Mur Muriyā. The sites of Mur Muriyā and Pithiyā Pahār now have images of Buddha and Buddhist flags all over. After remaining abandoned for centuries, with the contributions and participation of the locals, these sites have now become a ‘Living Heritage’. I hope while reviving these sites, locals take precaution not to harm the archaeological value of the place. Rajesh ji also informed me the foot fall at Mur Muriyā and Pithiyā Pahār sites is going up each year.  SAC  is therefore collecting contributions to develop a Buddhist pilgrimage facilitation centre in Mur Muriyā.  It was indeed a very welcome development.

On the 9th day, which was the final day of the Bodhgayā-Sārnātha leg of my foot journey, I started walking from Mugal Sarai where I stayed the previous night. I hoped to reach the Ganges  in Vārānasi at daybreak. As I was getting closer to my destination, I noticed more and  more people, young and old, coming out of streets and lanes joining the main road to the Ganges. For many of the local men and women, the day starts with a dip in the Ganges. I struck a conversation with a middle-aged person who was walking next to me at my pace. His name was Baichu Kewat. Kewat literally means boatman. People of the Kewat community are traditionally boatmen and also engage in fishing. Baichu ji told me he was on his way to start his day to spread fishing nets in Ganges. Baichu ji has been a fisherman since his childhood, taking this profession from his father.  I told him that I was doing a foot journey following the maiden journey of the Buddha from Bodhgayā to Sārnātha. I shared how some 2600 years ago, on his way to Rishipattana (Sārnātha), Buddha arrived on the East bank of Ganges somewhere near where we were now headed. The Buddha had no means of paying the ferryman for crossing the river. The ferryman denied Buddha a free ride. When the king Bimbisāra  of Magadha later learnt about this incident he made it a rule that mendicants should not be charged by ferrymen.  Baichu ji nodded his head in approval. ‘Hum log to sadhu logo se paise nahi lete hain’ (we don't charge mendicants to ferry here in Vārānasi). He offered to take me to Rājghāt situated on the western bank  for INR 50.  I asked him why he was charging so less, because the ferrymen in Assi, Dasaswamedh and other ghats on the western side of the Ganges charged INR 300-400. He laughingly answered that those ghats on the western bank are popular among international tourists and those boats are better furnished.  Baichu ji has three sons and three daughters, all of them married. None of his sons took his profession. He said that he works from dawn to dusk in fishing, yet doesn't make enough. The period of COVID lockdown was an especially difficult time for him for managing his livelihood. So in a way, he is glad that his children did not follow the family tradition of fishing. They are better off than him in terms of incomes.

I got lost in  conversation with  Baichu  ji and didn't realise that we had arrived at Ganges before the sunrise. I didn't cross the Ganges and walked 7 kms further to Sārnātha  because I had already done that  part on my previous foot journey from Vaishāli to Sārnātha in October 2020.   Instead, I sat on  the sandbank  contemplating about  this leg of my  foot journey.

Arriving at the the Ganges.  Vārānasi.
Baichu Kewat ji on his boat getting ready to start his day.

Boats in waiting. An image that has not changed since Buddha's time. Vārānasi.

It took me 9 days to walk the 250 kms from Bodhgayā to Vārānasi. The trail I walked (yellow dotted line in map-1) is Bodhgayā-Dubbā- Dehri- Sasarām- Bhabhua-Mur Muriyā- Mugal Sarai- Vārānasi (Sārnātha) (see map-1). But I think the route more likely to have been taken by the Buddha was Bodhgayā- Gayā- Dubbā- Dehri- Sasarām- Karanpur- Munḍeshwari- Mur Muriyā- Ahraurā- Mugal Sarai- Vārānasi (Sārnātha) (see map-1). I wish to work towards the revitalisation of this historical trail. All the people whom I met  during this foot journey were very welcoming about the idea of Bodhgayā-Sārnātha walking pilgrimage following in the footsteps of the Buddha and vouched for their support and participation. 

I am sure Buddhist pilgrims will appreciate this trail besides its spiritual and religious significance since a large part of this trail runs along the northern side of Kaimur Range which has a beautiful landscape of green agricultural fields dotted with villages and still retains its pristine looks as perhaps during the Buddha’s times.

Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


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