On his way to the kingdom of Magadha from Vaiśālī, Xuanzang first went to the site of the Second Buddhist council, situated 14-15Li (4-5Kms) SE from the City. This comes to around 4-5kms SE of the Rājā Vishāl kā Gaḍh.
According to Xuanzang (Hieun Hsang, 7th CE), 110 years after the Mahāparinirvāṇa (Mahāparinibbāna) of the Buddha, some bhikṣu-s in the city of Vaiśālī deviated from the buddha-dharma and observed the disciplinary rules in an erroneous way. In order to address the issue, a council was convened in Vaiśālī. Xuanzang has not mentioned how long the Second Buddhist Council lasted. All he says is that the 699 senior monks from Kosala, Mathurā, Hanruo, Vaiśālī, Pāṭaliputra and other places who assembled for the council summoned the faulty bhikṣus and, in accordance with the Vinaya regulations, they reproached them and stopped their misdeeds. Thus the wrong practices ended and the holy teachings were clarified. It is generally believed the Second Buddhist Council eventually became a source for the first schism in the Saṇgha.
|Map (1) of the Vaiśālī-Hājipur route of the Journey.|
As per the descriptions of Xuanzang, the village of Bhagwānpur, situated 5kms as the crow flies SE of the Rājā Vishāl kā Gaḍh, is a potential place for the site of the Second Buddhist council. I first visited Bhagwānpur in 2011. Nothing much has changed in the last ten years since I visited Bhagwānpur. Xuanzang had seen a ‘great stūpa’ to mark the place of the Second Buddhist Council. It is generally believed that Jangli Maṭha (25° 56' 12'' N. 85° 07' 30'' E), a Hindu monastic complex, situated 1km west of Bhagwānpur, is the most probable site of the ‘great stūpa’ mentioned by Xuanzang. The Jungli Maṭha is situated on a big raised land, probably an ancient mound. The Jungli Maṭha consists of a Rām-Jānki temple and a living quarter of the priest of the temple. There are few more stūpa shaped mounds just behind the Rām-Jānki Temple. The temple, according to locals, is called Jungli (meaning dense forest), because it was a very dense forest until a few decades ago. It is very popular locally and people living within 5 kms of Bhagwānpur visit the shrine often. The local villagers are now aware of the historical significance of the place because of occasional visits of international Buddhist pilgrims.
Dr Arun Kumar, a research scholar who has done archaeological exploration of the Vaiśālī district, is of the opinion that the mounds at the Jungli Maṭha could be Buddhist stūpas. He has noticed potteries from 6th BCE in the villages of Salempur, Kutubpur Bangdi and Hasanpur, all of which are in the neighbourhood of Jungli Maṭha. According to Dr. Arun, archaeological features in the surroundings of Jungli Maṭha suggest this to be a flourishing place at the time of the Buddha and later centuries as well. But more archaeological exploration and excavation is required to reveal the structures beneath the mounds.
|Jungli Maṭha is situated on a mound.|
|Another mound behind the Jungli Maṭha.|
|A view of Jungli Maṭha from south.|
|With my friends, Krishna Kumar ji and Dharmendra ji, in front of Jungli Maṭha.|
|Ancient Buddhist sculpture originally from Jungli Maṭha now kept in another nearby shrine.|
|Some ancient remains that I noticed in Lālganj.|
Next, Xuanzang travelled 80-90 Li (approx 30kms) South to reach Śvetapura monastery. It was a Mahāyāna monastery that had many lofty buildings and magnificent pavilions. It is generally believed that present-day Hājipur should be the site of the ancient Śvetapura monastery. Hājipur is 30kms as the crow flies, exactly south of Bhagwānpur village (the possible site of the Second Buddhist Council).
Walking along the 37 kms of Vaiśālī-Patnā highway, I reached Hājipur at 4 in the evening. Hājipur is situated at a very strategic place, which is the confluence of three perennial rivers, Gangā, Ganḍak, and Sone. Besides the Mahāyāna monastery, Xuanzang mentions an Ashokan stūpa to mark the place where the Buddha halted to rest on his way to the country of Magadha in the south and looked back at the city of Vaiśālī in the north. It is generally believed that the Rāmchaurā Temple (25° 40' 39'' N. 85° 12' 22'' E) on the southern side of Hājipur is situated on the top of a stūpa - probably the one mentioned by Xuanzang.
This was my second visit to the Rāmchaurā Temple, the first being in 2011. Then in 2011, it was a small temple within a walled complex without gates, but now they are making a 5-storey building. The framework of the building - the beam and pillar structure - is ready. One can clearly notice the temple is situated on the top of approximately a 15-20ft high spherical mound of 100-150ft diameter. I approached the priest in charge of the temple with folded hands, shared about my walk, my objective of visiting the temple and a place to stay at night. The priest welcomed me. He gave a brief introduction of himself and offered me a chair.
The priest, Shri Babulal Rai, got very curious about my foot journey especially when I mentioned the Buddha. He said that Buddhist pilgrims visit the place occasionally - at least 1 or 2 pilgrims in a year. But in 2014, more than 400 Sri Lankan pilgrims came in buses to visit the temple and circumambulate it. The leader of the Sri Lanka pilgrimage group even requested him not to damage the mound in the ongoing temple construction works because they believed it was a stūpa.
Rāmchaurā, according to Shri Rai, is actually corrupted from Rām Charan (literally means footprints of Lord Rām). Lord Rām of epic Rāmāyana (7th incarnation of Lord Vishnu) on his way to Janakpur (the birthplace of Sitā in Nepāl) from Ayodhyā (through Buxar and Sonbhadra, Koilwar) briefly stayed here. During his stay here his (Lord Rāma’s) munḍan (head-shaving ceremony) was performed. While leaving, Lord Rām left his footprints here, which are venerated in this temple. Soon Shri Ram Babu Bhagat, a devotee of the temple who lives in the neighbourhood, joined in the conversation. Shri Bhagat added. Lord Rām disembarked from his boat exactly opposite the temple. Ganges until a few decades ago was flowing past less than 100 m away from the temple. Now it has drifted more than five kilometres from the temple.
I noticed a striking similarity between the story of the Rāmchaurā Temple and what Xuanzang noticed in Pāṭaliputra. At Pāṭaliputra, Xuanzang saw footprints of the Buddha on stone being venerated. Buddha left his footprints at Pāṭaliputra, looking back at Magadha while on his way to Kusinārā (Kushinagara) to attain Mahāparinirvāṇa. This story is also corroborated in Pali sources. Mahāparinibbāna sutta states that when Buddha was on his way to attain parinibbāna at Kusinārā, he visited the village Pāṭaligāma. At that time the city of Pāṭaligām (later Pāṭaliputra) was getting erected. Sunidha and Vassakara, the ministers of King Ajātshatru (of Magadha), named the gate from which the Buddha left as the Gotama-gate and the ford by which he crossed the river Ganges as Gotama-ford. Rāmchaurā Temple (and also Hājipur) is situated just opposite to Patnā (ancient Pāṭaliputra) on the other side of Ganges. If the Buddha crossed the Ganges at Pāṭaliputra to travel further towards Vaiśālī and Kusinārā as stated in Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, he should have arrived somewhere near Rāmchaurā Temple.
Though Xuanzang has mentioned the stūpa in discussion to be associated with the Buddha's journey from Vaiśālī to Magadha, it is possible that this stūpa could be associated with the Buddha’s Mahāparinirvāṇa journey. Possibly on the way to Kusinārā ( and Vaiśālī) from Magadha, the Buddha looked at Magadha for one last time at that spot.
But in any case the question is: is the mound on which the Rāmchaurā temple situated the Ashokan stūpa mentioned by Xuanzang?
Dr C P Sinha, the former Director of K P Jayaswal Research Institute, Patnā conducted excavation in Hājipur for 5 seasons from 1992-93 to 1997-98. He also explored one trench in the immediate vicinity of Rāmchaurā Temple mound. Though this was a small-scale excavation close to the Rāmchurā mound, according to Dr Sinha, the immediate vicinity of Rāmchaurā Temple was a habitational area. Among other things, he found few ring wells to support his decision; he found continuous cultural remains from the Chalcolathic period (1600 BCE) to present times. He didn't find any excavational evidence to support the Rāmchaurā temple mound to be a stūpa mound. But he thinks the excavation was too small, and little away from the actual Rāmchaurā temple mound. He also admitted it is likely that the religious tradition (sanctity) at Rāmchaurā temple could be ancient.
|A picture of Rāmchaurā Temple from my visit in 2011.|
|The multi-storeyed Rāmchaurā Temple under construction.|
|In conversation with Shri Babulal Rai, Head Priest of Rāmchaurā Temple.|
|Shri Babulal Rai showing me the Temple.|
|'Foot Prints of Lord Rām' worshiped at Rāmchaurā Temple.|
|In conversation with Shri Babulal Rai and Shri Ram Babu Bhagat.|
|The ancient temple is made of Lākhori bricks.|
|Shri Rai offered me a room for night accommodation in the temple.|
In fact, the sanctity of Rāmchaurā Temple is not only ancient but also widespread. Shri Rai says that on the day of Rāmnavmi (day of birth of Lord Rām) and Kārtik Pūrṇimā (full moon day of Oct-Nov), there is a big gathering of people. Popularity of its sanctity may be gauged from the fact that there were eight maṭha (Hindu monastery), namely Tulsiwādi, Baghdā, Senuri, Majhuli, Barbarā, Rāmchaurā prominent among them. Mahants (high priests) from far off places set up these monasteries at Rāmchaurā Temple for their priests and followers to stay here during their pilgrimage to Rāmachaurā. Most of these pilgrims would set off on their pilgrimage journeys on bullock carts and travel for more than 10 days to reach here. They came from far off places like Darbhangā, Bhāgalpur districts (150-200 kms from here). The surroundings would get crowded with thousands of bullock carts, Rai ji mentioned with a sense of wonder.
Shri Rai pointed towards the abandoned Hindu/Brahmanical monasteries situated north of the temple. Now with modern day conveniences, better roads and fast travel pilgrims don't need to stay here in these maṭha. He lamented the lands and buildings of all the maṭha are now encroached upon by the local people.
He then took me inside the temple for a walk through the temple campus. Rāmchaurā Temple is part of Bihār Dhārmik Nyās Board (Bihar State Religious Trust). In 2014, the Board offered funds for the renovation of the temple. A Patna-based devotee Krishna Murari Agarwal, in 2015 provided funds to make a new temple in place of the old temple. I had first visited the Rāmchaurā temple in 2011. I had then noticed two temples, one housing footprints of Rām and another with a Shiva Linga. The old temples were made of Lākhori bricks (bricks used in 15-18th CE). The priest Shri Rai Ji dismantled the old temples. ‘They were in a very bad situation’, he said. Shri Rai ji got the top of the mound levelled, over which the new temple was constructed.
Shri Rai ji revealed a very interesting fact. When they drilled holes about 70ft deep for piling the foundation of the temple, they found bricks inside the mound upto a depth of 40ft. This means the mound is made of bricks. It is very likely that this mound may be the Ashokan stūpa mentioned by Xuanzang. Dr. Sinha had excavated in the vicinity of the temple mound but not on the actual Rāmchaurā temple mound. This news by the priest brings some hope to me that this mound could be the stūpa mentioned by Xuanzang. The actual nature of the mound may be revealed only through proper excavations.
If the Śvetapura monastery mentioned by Xuanzang was here in Hājipur then what happened to the monastery seen by Xuanzang? We are aware of the fact that the new political climate in the Indian subcontinent at the onset of the 2nd millennium was not conducive for sustenance of Buddhist monasteries. Like all other Buddhist establishments in the Indian subcontinent, Śvetapura monastery must have been abandoned and over a period of time the remains may have been repurposed or reused. The structures were razed and new structures were raised over them. Dr Arun ji is from Hājipur and he has done archaeological exploration of this city and its neighbourhoods. He has noticed ancient remains in Jadhuā (also Jaruā) area, 1 km north-east of Rāmchaurā temple. Dr Arun thinks of this area as a potential place to search for the Śvetapura Monastery. He believes the eidgāh and hazrat māmu-bhanjā mazār are settled over ancient remains. Any remains of the monastery that existed here are now probably buried underneath the Jadhuā locality. Dr Arun thinks a proper study using the latest technology like GPR (ground penetrating radar) can be used to locate them.
I am of the opinion that the Rāmchaurā Temple could be the stūpa site mentioned by Xuanzang. After the teachings of the Buddha were lost in Indian subcontinent, the very sacred spots popular among the local population were absorbed into Brahmanical tradition once the Buddhists abandoned them. This is seen in many Buddhist pilgrimage places in the Indian subcontinent like Sārnātha, Sankissa, Bodhgayā etc.
I think the Buddhist pilgrimage to Rāmchaurā Temple and Jungli maṭha should not wait indefinitely. The complete archaeological study may take time. The present evidence is compelling enough for its revitalisation.
At 8 pm, Shri Rai ji offered to take me to his house for dinner. The house was walking distance from the temple. It is a small, old looking tile roof house. He has 5 sons and 2 daughters, all of them married. Shri Rai ji has many grandchildren. One of his granddaughters brought me dinner. Shri Rai ji is now 74 years old. He has been taking care of the temple premises since 1975. I asked him since he is a householder so what attracted him to become priest cum caretaker of the temple. According to him, when he first arrived at this place in 1975, the high priest of the temple was absconding after having illegally sold the temple land. There was nobody to take care of the temple. So as a pious Hindu, he decided to dedicate his life to take care of the temple.
The next day, I set off at 4 am for my next Xuanzang destination, the parinirvāṇa place of Venerable Ānanda. Shri Rai ji came to see me off with folded hands. I thanked him for his time and hospitality. He smiled and thanked me for the interesting conversation we had and requested me to visit him again.
Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami
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