Sunday, December 19, 2021

Tilaurākot to Piprāhwā: Revival of the Royal Avenue of Ancient Kapilavastu

A heart-warming welcome banner in Nepal by Kapilavastu Tourism and Radio Tourism.

I arrived at the Aligarhwā border (Piprāhwā) on 22nd  July to enter Nepal to complete the unfinished Nepal leg of my foot journey. This time again, I was denied entry into Nepal. I had faced a similar situation when I arrived in Piprāhwā on my foot journey earlier on 9th June 2020.   The Indo-Nepal border was closed in March 2020 because of COVID19 and since then the border has remained closed except allowing people to pass occasionally who have valid proof of their purpose. Fortunately, I met a person named Suresh Kumar who also wanted to enter Nepal with his family from the Aligarhwā border to attend a family occasion. Suresh ji knew about an alternative route further west through a mango orchid to sneak into Nepal. Because of incessant rains in the previous week, I was faced with knee deep water in a few places. I had to  remove my shoes and work  my way through the  puddles. On the border crossing, a couple of policemen  stood patrolling the border but they didn't bother to stop me. Like me, many others were sneaking into either side of the border. The border police were generally lenient, Sureshji told me. Like Sureshji, there are thousands of people along the 1800 km long Indo-Nepal border who have families and business interests on the other side of the border. Patrolling officials are strict at the integrated border check-posts but the rest of the border is porous. 

Once I entered Nepal, I was received by my friend Shri Bikram ji and a team from Kapilavastu Tourism. Bikram ji’s full name is Bikram Pande Kaaji Nuwakott, which has a very interesting story behind it. Kaaji is a Gorkhali title meaning ‘General’, someone who can govern. Bikram ji  belongs to one of the four Nepali political clans ‘Kaaji Pande’.  He proudly tells that his forefathers were warriors. The word Nuwakott at the end of the name denotes the province where he originally belongs to. I met Bikram ji first at the 4th Kalinga International Buddhist Conclave held in Bhubaneswar (India) in 2017.  During our  interaction at the 3-day  Buddhist Conclave  we realised we share a common interest for Buddhist heritage and more importantly development of an Indo-Nepal Kapilavastu Pilgrimage Circuit.  We have been in touch since then.

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It was around 2 pm. The sky was clear blue and the sun was scorching. After the warm  welcoming ceremony at the Aligarhwā checkpost was over, I started my Nepal leg of my foot journey. My destination was   Tilaurākot, 20 kms from Piprāhwā (Aligarhwā border).

We are aware of the fact that the  Bodhisattva Siddhārtha (the Buddha-to-be) was the crown prince  of Kapilavastu, a small kingdom nestled in the foothills of Himalayas. In the present times, the Indo-Nepal border divides the ancient Kapilavastu into two halves. Inscriptional and circumstantial evidence based on the record of Buddhist monk-pilgrims Faxian (Fa-hein, 5th CE) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th CE) have confirmed the birthplace of the Buddha (Lumbīnī)  and the Palace City of Kapilavastu  (Tilaurākot) where the royals lived and where Siddhārtha spent his childhood are in Nepal. And the ‘royal monastery’ of Kapilavastu  where the Sākyans, the rulers of Kapilavastu enshrined their share of the Buddha’s body relics, is in India (Piprāhwā). But unfortunately, because of conflicting descriptions given by Faxian and Xuanzang of the Palace City of Kapilavastu, a theory has emerged, particularly prevalent in India, that the area around  Piprāhwā could be the Palace City. While most scholars believe that Tilaurākot is the Palace City identified based on Xuanzang’s description.   This has led to the development of two Kapilavastu pilgrimage circuits: one in Nepal with Tilaurākot as the Capital City and another in India with Piprāhwā as the Capital City. This confusion is a big roadblock in the development of an integrated and  authentic Kapilavastu Pilgrimage circuit. 

Read my full story on ‘Palace City’, Kapilavastu here:

Resolving the Puzzle of the ‘Palace City’ of Kapilavastu and Developing the ‘Kapilavastu Pilgrimage Trail’

Piprāhwā, the site of the body relics of the Buddha is 17 kms as the crow flies from Tilaurākot, the site of the Palace City of Kapilavastu. In ancient times, there would have existed a highway connecting these two very important places of the ancient Kapilavastu. Archaeological study has confirmed that the monastic establishment in Piprāhwā was abandoned around 2nd CE. Faxian (in 5th CE) and Xuanzang (in 7th CE) found the Kapilavastu kingdom and places associated with the Buddha in this region abandoned and utterly neglected. Because of centuries of neglect these significant sites including the connecting routes were reclaimed by vegetation. However, recent archaeological explorations and excavations have revealed a series of ancient sites like Dohani, Taulihāwā, Sisāniyā, Kudān, Gothiāwā in between Piprāhwā and Tilaurākot. An ancient route connecting Piprāhwā and Tilaurākot should have passed through one or more of these ancient sites.

Aligarhwā check-post (closed) of Indo-Nepal border. 

With Sureshji and his family.

With Bikram ji and Kapilavastu Tourism.

It was a very warm afternoon. Therefore, I chose to take the shortest route (Piprāhwā) to Tilaurākot, the one which passed through Dohani and Taulihāwā.  It was a 15ft wide road   along which flowed a narrow stream of muddy rain water coming from the Himalayas. Lush green paddy fields stretched out on either side of the road as far as the eyes could see with the mighty Himalayas in the background. These vast stretches of green fields of paddy are a living answer to why the father of Buddha, the King of Kapilavastu called himself ‘Suddhodhana’ meaning the ‘one who grows pure rice.’ The region in the foothills of Himalayas is a very fertile land and numerous streams gushing from the Himalayas makes it an ideal place for paddy cultivation.

During the 17-19th centuries, the region between India and Nepal situated in the foothills of the Himalayas in the north and the Gangetic plains in the south was popularly known as  Terai meaning marshy jungle. At the time of the Buddha (6th BCE), this region was flourishing with produce and trade which continued until the 2nd CE. At the time of the visit by Faxian and Xuanzang, the kingdoms of Kapilavastu and the neighbouring Koliyas (Rāmagrāma) were in ruins. They were covered with forests teeming with wild animals.

At the turn of the 2nd millennium, the political climate in the Indian subcontinent was no longer favourable to the Buddhist monasteries. Monastic complexes, stūpas, and temples, all were gradually abandoned. Over the centuries, the abandoned Buddhist institutions got buried under layers of earth, turning into mounds.

In the 19th century, when oriental scholars in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Nepal translated ancient Buddhist texts, it was revealed that Buddhism - the predominant religion in Southeast Asian countries - had actually originated in India. The translations of the travel accounts of Faxian  and Xuanzang from Chinese to French and then into English in the mid-19th century described the existence of an elaborate pilgrimage trail in the Gangetic plain known as Buddhacārikā (‘In the Footsteps of the Buddha’). Two centuries after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha, Emperor Ashoka embellished the sublime wanderings of the Buddha with Dhamma markers like stūpa and monolith pillars. The example of Ashoka was followed by subsequent kings and dynasties thus giving birth to an elaborate ‘in the footsteps of the Buddha’ pilgrimage in the Gangetic plains. Basically, the travel accounts of both pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang, were eyewitness accounts of many of these sacred places and shrines associated with the Buddha and his prominent disciples in the Gangetic plains.

Oriental explorers faced an uphill task in resurrecting the pilgrimage route described by Faxian and Xuanzang. The demography and geography of the Gangetic plains had changed a lot in the centuries since the visit of Faxian and Xuanzang. Furthermore, the maps of the Indian subcontinent available in the 19th CE were rudimentary - the part of the Terai region in question was not mapped at all.  However, in spite of these hurdles, the early explorers did a marvelous job in resurrecting the ancient Buddhist geography.

One of the biggest hurdles was that the Buddhist pilgrimage places mentioned by both the pilgrims had assumed new names during the medieval period after being abandoned by the Buddhists. Thanks to the precise descriptions of Xuanzang, explorers in 19th CE could successfully identify Sārnātha in the vicinity of Vārānasi with ancient Rishipattana, the place where Buddha gave first sermon. Similarly, Sāhet, in the north of Balrāmpur, was identified with Jetavana (Śrāvasti), the  place  where Buddha  spent 25  rainy  seasons. Similarly, Mahābodhi, Sankisa, Nālandā, Vaiśālī and many other sacred Buddhist places were identified.

While many of the important places related to the Buddha like Sankisa, Śrāvasti, Rishipattana, Mahābodhi, Vaiśālī and others were discovered by the 1860s, there was no clue about Kapilavastu and Lumbīnī in the foothills of the Himalayas even till the 1890s.

In the middle of the 2nd millennium, the Terai region was a thick forest, impenetrable for Akbar’s (1542-1605) imperial troops. In 1810, when the troops of the late East India Company (colonial rulers of India then) were first quartered in Gorakhpur (slightly south of Nepalese Terai), there was no open space for them to camp (Nesfield 1885). In 1834, the British India Government invited European capitalists and leased the Indian side of Terai for cultivation. They transformed it into the subcontinent's rice bowl. The Nepalese counterpart retained the marshy forest with tall sal trees as a form of natural defensive barrier against pre-colonial Indian rulers and British invaders until the late 19th century (Pravat 2009). As a result of this intervention  by the British India government - of transforming marshy forest into agriculture fields - there were a series of large estates in India bordering the Nepal side of Terai. It was the estate managers and government officials based in the Indian side of Terai, like Duncan Rickets, William Claxton Peppé, Dr. Alois Anton Führer, Poorna Chandra Mukherjee and Dr. William Hoey, who made key discoveries in 1890’s, which established the ancient Kapilavastu. Efforts of Duncan Rickets and Alois Anton Führer led to the discovery of three Ashokan Pillars, at Gothiāwā, Niglivā and Rupandehi respectively, based on which the places were identified as,  places of  Karakchunda, Kanakmuni and Gotama Buddha. Similarly, Mukherjee identified Tilaurākot as the site of Palace City of Kapilavastu; Hoey proposed the mound in  Nawalparasi as Rāmagrāma relic stūpa; and a cursory digging of a huge mound in Piprāhwā by  Peppé revealed it to be the Sākyan stūpa enshrining the body relics of the  Buddha.

Some candid pictures from Piprāhwā- Dohani-Tilaurākot route

I was sweating profusely, the trees on the side of the road were few and far in between.  The  newly made blacktop road was almost empty as far as my eyes could see. Shepherds passed by occasionally.  Only a hundred years ago, this landscape was very different. It was covered so thickly with tall elephant grass that it was difficult to navigate. PC Mukherjee, who explored this region and discovered Tilaurākot (Palace City, Kapilavastu) in 1899, noticed: ‘There is no road in any direction, the pedestrians travelling in the fields and across nullahs and streams, which are seldom bridges.’  Führer, who explored Rupandehi, Gothiāwā and its neighbourhoods in 1896 thanked Babu Shohrat Singh of Basti District for providing him two elephants. According to him it was impossible to negotiate the marshy forest without Elephant. Besides this, there was a threat of wild animals. Mukherjee narrowly escaped a tiger attack at Tilaurākot.

After walking for more than 3hrs I reached Dohani. I could not visit the protected archaeological site of Dohani because it was knee deep in water. Dohani and many other sites in the vicinity are potential sites visited and mentioned by  Xuanzang. This and many such sites are waiting for more study to confirm Xuanzang’s descriptions. From Dohani, I walked 5 kms to reach Taulihāwā in the evening. Taulihāwā is well known in Terai for the Tauleshwar Mahādeva Temple. I was warmly received by Bikramji and team  KT  at Taulihāwā. Bikram ji had made my stay arrangement at Hotel Tilaurākot in Taulihāwā for the  night  stay.  Taulihāwā is a municipality in Kapilavastu district. It is interesting to note that the governments of both India and Nepal are reclaiming Buddhist geography by renaming places and districts. India and Nepal have now created districts and subdivisions like Kushinagar (place of Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha), Śrāvasti (Buddha spent 25 rainy seasons), Nālandā (ancient Buddhist University), Vaiśālī (Buddha performed miracle), Lumbīnī (birth place of Buddha), Rāmagrāma (relic stūpa of the Buddha), Kapilavastu (Buddha was a crown prince of ancient Kapilavastu kingdom) etc. to honour their past Buddhist significance.  Kapilavastu is a district in Lumbīnī province. Kapilavastu district has municipalities by the name of Yashodharā (wife of the Buddha), Māyādevi (Mother of the Buddha) and Suddhodana (Father of the Buddha).

Dohani archaeological site submerged in rain water.

The next day, Bikram ji and I visited the office of KT in Taulihāwā market.  It is a small two-room office situated on the Lumbīnī-Taulihāwā highway. They were expecting us. They welcomed both of us by offering a local delicacy, Kapilavastu Penḍā (a sweet dish made from  dried evaporated milk solids). KT is a loose forum of local youth of Kapilavastu. It  was formed by a group of 5 like-minded media professionals from Kapilavastu - Manoj Paudel, Brijesh Kumar, Raju Panday, Manoj Srivastava and Khaga Prasad Chapagain. All of them have one common interest i.e. sustainable development of Buddhist sites in Kapilavastu District.  All of them are in their early 40’s. I knew Manoj Paudel from one of my previous visits in 2018. Paudel  works with Kantipur  Publications, a national newspaper.  Basically, all of them are in some way associated with digital or print media. Taulihāwā is a small place, but is blessed with a rich Buddhist legacy. Four very significant Buddhist pilgrimage places Tilaurākot (Palace City, Kapilavastu), Gothiāwā (place of Karakchunda Buddha), Niglivā (place  of Kanakmuni Buddha) and Kudān (Nigrodha monastery) are located in the present Kapilavastu district. KT is raising awareness locally, nationally and internationally about the situation of heritage sites in Kapilavastu.

Lumbīnī, the birthplace of  the Buddha, is situated 30kms from Tilaurākot. Lumbīnī receives lakhs of domestic and international pilgrims each year. But many of these pilgrims are not visiting sites in Kapilavastu district. But Paudel is confident that the day is not far when they will also visit the sites in Kapilavastu district. The infrastructure in Kapilavastu district has improved and  soon, Tilaurākot, like Lumbīnī, will be a  UNESCO  World Heritage Site (WHS). Presently, Tilaurākot is in the tentative list of WHS.

The whole of the KT team sees Bikram ji as their guide and mentor. Bikram ji is in his late sixties. But his passion and enthusiasm for tourism and Buddhist heritage is contagious. I noticed how everyone in the room (KT office) paid full attention to every word from Bikram ji. Bikram ji started his career in 1984 as a facilitator of the international Everest Expeditions, but soon he developed a fascination for Buddhist pilgrimage. Bikram ji thinks opening the Aligarhwā border checkpost for international tourists is key to the development of tourism in Kapilavastu. This will allow pilgrims to travel directly from Piprāhwā to Tilaurākot (20 kms), unlike now, when they have to travel 110 kms through the Sunauli border to reach Tilaurākot.  This is one reason why the KT team came to welcome me at Aligarhwā border - to highlight the need to open this border post  for Buddhist pilgrimage.  Paudel showed me the story, which came out in the newspaper, of my welcome at Aligarhwā border in the National daily. The story has brought my foot journey in Nepal to prominence.  Bikram ji and  KT are working towards developing a walking pilgrimage trail from  Tilaurākot to Piprāhwā. Bikram ji plans to launch this trail soon. I promised him that I would join the inaugural event of the walk. Like  Bikram ji and KT, I  believe the Tilaurākot- Piprāhwā pilgrimage trail can play a crucial role in resolving the confusion over the ‘Palace City’ and bring about an Integrated  Kapilavastu Circuit.

With Bikram ji and team Kapilvastu tourism in KT office.

Local delicacy, Kapilavastu Penḍā.

Nepali Newspaper highlighting Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang foot journey.

At Gothiāwā.

Gothiāwā Ashokan Pillar Site.

Gothiāwā Ashokan Pillar and Stupa mound. Place of Karakchunda Buddha.

Archaeological site of Kudān (Nigrodha monastery).

Archaeological site of Kudān (Nigrodha monastery).

After visiting the KT office, I went to the Buddhist sites of Gothiāwā and Kudān with Shri Bikram Ji. The government of Nepal is doing commendable work in developing infrastructure in and around these sites. I have visited these sites many times before, however, this was my first visit in the months of monsoon. The archaeological remains at these sites were flooded from the rains. I have noticed a similar situation in other Buddhist pilgrimage places in India, like Kasiā, Nandangaṛh, Kesariyā, Rāmpurwā and Vaiśālī, where the ancient structural remains get drowned in more than knee deep water during monsoons. These more than 2500 years old sites are situated much lower than the surrounding fields.

Later in the evening after visiting Gothiāwā and Kudān, we reached ‘Palace City’ complex in Tilaurākot. What is interesting about this complex is the shrine Samāi-Māi. Samāi-Māi is considered to be a very powerful and very popular deity in Terai. As a tradition, devotees offer miniature elephants at the Samāi-Māi shrines.  I noticed Samāi-Māi shrines in the Indian and Nepal parts of the Terai which I have walked during the RBX foot journey.  Samāi-Māi shrine here in Tilaurākot is very popular in this region. I am intrigued by the fact that Babu P C Mukherjee, who discovered Tiluarākot, noticed this shrine in 1899. According to him, this was a popular shrine locally. I asked Paudel ji which were the closest inhabited places to Tilaurākot in the 19th century. According to Paudel ji, Tilaurākot was very thinly and sparsely populated in 1899 at the time of its discovery. P C Mukherjee noticed a few villages, namely Tilaurā, Siugaṛh, Derwā, Sadwā and Rudhala, which were most probably small settlements of the Thārus, a tribal community. Paudel ji said that most of the present-day settlements in the surroundings of Tilaurākot have appeared only in the last 70 years after the forests were cleared for cultivation.

In the 19th century, Terai was mostly inhabited by Thārus. They are considered to be the original inhabitants of the Terai. They were forest-dwellers and made their living as hunter gatherers. Things changed in the 20th century when the government of Nepal decided to follow the example of India and started transforming Terai forest into agricultural land for cultivation. Increasing numbers of migrants were brought from India to cultivate. As the primeval forest disappeared from the south, the Thārus were forced to move further and further into the northern (or sub-Himālayan) forest. Now Nepalese Terai has become the grain basket of Nepal (Pravat 2009). Tall sal trees that dotted this land, tigers, black bears, elephants, rhinoceros  that roamed freely are all wiped out. Terai is now called Madhesh meaning ‘plains country’. According to Paudel ji, Thārus were originally the worshipers of these Samāi-Māi shrines who believed that Samāi-Māi protected them from all dangers.

At  Tilaurākot, I met a family who had come to Samāi-Māi to get their one year old son tonsured. They were Madhesi and not Thārus. Even the caretakers of the shrine, two women, were Madhesis.  It's interesting that the new population of Madhesis from south (i.e. India) who replaced the old population of the Thārus absorbed the existing traditions of Terai.

A Madhesi family preparing for tonsuring ceremony at Tilaurākot (Palace City).

With Shri Bikram ji at Eastern Gate,  Palace City, Tilaurākot.

Remains of the Kapilavastu Palace City, Tilaurākot.

Samāi-Māi Shrine, Kapilavastu Palace City, Tilaurākot.

Mahābhinishkramana (the Great Renunciation) ceremony being coordinated by Bikram ji.

Re-enactment of the Great Renunciation. 

At 11 pm, there was a small gathering on the ancient Eastern Gate of Kapilavastu Palace City. It was the eve of āsālha pūrṇimā (full moon day of July). The people had gathered to celebrate the Great Renunciation of Siddhārtha (Buddha-to-be). According to Buddhist tradition, Bodhisattva Siddhārtha left his worldly life in search of the Truth at the midnight of āsālha pūrṇimā . This act of Siddhārtha - leaving the Palace - is called Mahābhinishkramana (the Great Renunciation). Bikram ji in collaboration with KT conceived the idea of having an event to celebrate this great Buddhist legacy of Tilaurākot and Nepal by reenacting Siddhartha’s leaving the Palace City from the Eastern Gate on the midnight of āsālha pūrṇimā. The event named ‘Mahābhinishkramana’ was celebrated for the first time in 2018.  According to Bikram ji, this event is very well received by the locals. Venerable Maitri Bhante and other important government officials from Nepal Tourism, Lumbini Development Trust, and the who’s who of Lumbini Province had arrived to participate in this event. Since Siddhārtha left the Palace from the Eastern Gate riding his favourite horse, Kaṇṭhaka ​​(Kannthaka), a white horse led by a charioteer exited the ‘Eastern Gate’ at 12.00 of midnight as Siddhārtha did according to literature, symbolically marking the celebration of The Great Renunciation.

Bodhisattva Siddhārtha, in his great renunciation, travelled overnight from Kapilavastu Palace touching Rāmagrāma and reached the River Anomā  (now Narayani/Ganḍak) at the daybreak. Eleven years after the renunciation of Siddhārtha, Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī and 500 Sākyan women took the same route in their renunciation. More than one thousand years later Buddhist pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang, followed the same track of Kapilavastu-Rāmagrāma-Anomā river taken by Siddhārtha and Mahāprajāpatī.

This was the reason why I risked entering Nepal without proper permission: I wanted to start my Xuanzang trail in Nepal [Kapilavastu Palace City to River  Ganḍak  (ancient Anomā)]  from the ‘Eastern Gate’, at midnight of  āsālha pūrṇimā as Siddhārtha did more than 2600 years ago.

I thanked Bikram ji and the Team KT for their hospitality and began my foot journey at mid-night when moonlight shone through the clouds following the Footsteps of   Siddhārtha, Mahāprajāpatī Gotamī, Faxian and Xuanzang.

Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


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