Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Kapilavastu Palace City: Witness to the Two Great Renunciations (Part-I)

An artist's impression of renunciation of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and 500 Śākyan women. 

@Praful Sasane.

We are told the Bodhisattva Siddhārtha’s  ‘great going forth’ (mahāpravrajyā/mahāpabbajjā) took place on the night of the Āṣāḍha (Āṣhāla) full moon (i.e. full moon of July). The Buddha-to-be left the Palace in the middle of the night and moved in stages touching Rāmagrāma, river Anomā, Vaiśālī and Rājagriha arrived at Uruvelā. My best calculation through mapping and experience is that he traveled 600kms. As the story goes, after six years of deep and dedicated spiritual practices on the banks of the river, Nīlājanā (Nerañjarā), in Uruvelā Siddhārtha attained enlightenment on the full moon of Veśāk (month of May).  On my foot journey, Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang (RBX), I have come here to Tilaurākot (Palace City, Kapilavastu) to walk the Kapilavastu-River Anomā stretch of this ‘great renunciation’ trail. 

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

As a guide, explorer, independent researcher, and enthusiast of the life of the Buddha, I’ve been here many times.  This time I began to think more deeply about the people who lived here, their lives, experiences, hopes, and dreams. Historically, Buddhist tradition and texts have prominently recounted the renunciation of the Buddha-to-be, and I believe there is an additional story of import that is overlooked. The palace-city witnessed not just one but two great renunciations 2600 years ago: first of the Prince Bodhisattva Siddhārtha and another, equally intriguing, eleven years later, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī (Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī) and 500 Śākyan women. These two renunciations shaped mankind and their legacy continues to disrupt, evolve, inspire and support millions across the globe to this day. 


All the texts which document the Buddha’s life, like Mahāvastu, Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra, Nidāna-kathā, Lalitavistara, Buddhacarita, have bestowed eulogical narratives,  painting beautiful pictures of the Palace where the blessed one spent his formative years. Juxtaposed to these narratives, today the Kapilavastu palace complex is a very humble-looking place with brick remains, and wooden walkways tracing old streets and paths buried several meters beneath the earth. Reclaimed by nature, this once Palace City of an ancient,  small kingdom ensconced in the foothills of the great Himalayas gives no hint of its importance in the world or of its famous inhabitants. 

Map depicting best approximation of the Two Great Renunciation trails.


Ancient remains of Kapilavastu palace complex. Giving no hint of its importance in the

world or of its famous inhabitants. 


Kapilavastu palace complex, Tilaurākot. Bodhisattva Siddhārtha spent his formative years. 


With Shri Bikram Ji at the Eastern Gate, Palace City, Tilaurākot.

Like all the Buddhist sites in the Indian Subcontinent, Kapilavastu, an important site in the footsteps of the Buddha pilgrimage in ancient times, was abandoned sometime in the 1st millennia. Faxian, a Buddhist pilgrim from China in early 5th CE, noticed Kapilavastu in utter neglect. ‘All was mound and desolation. Of the inhabitants, there were only  some monks and a score of families  of common people.’ Yet, we know pilgrimage to the sacred spots related with the Buddha in Kapilavastu and Lumbīnī continued for the next few centuries until the new political climate in the Indian subcontinent at the turn of the 2nd Millennium brought down the final curtain. 


After multi-millennia of neglect, overgrown with vegetation, the walls crumbling here and there, the place was discovered by an Indian archaeologist, Shri P C Mukherji, in 1899  because the outlines were still clearly recognizable. Like most of the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the Indian subcontinent, the travelogues of 7th CE  monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-Tsang) were the basis of the identification and resurrection in the 19th and 20th CE. Thanks to Xuanzang's vivid descriptions this walled complex becomes interactive. As I walk along the wooden pathways I imagine how the two historic Great Renunciations unfolded here.


That day was the eve of Āṣhāla Pūrṇimā, coincidentally, it is also the day when Queen Mahāmayā conceived the Buddha-to-be. Xuanzang saw a shrine marking the place where Śākya Bodhisattva’s spirit descended to incarnate in his mother’s womb. According to Buddhist legend, Mahāmāyā dreamed that a white elephant with six tusks entered her right side, which was interpreted to mean that she had conceived a child who would become either a world ruler or a Buddha. The only living shrine in the center of the Tilaurākot complex has some connection with this Elephant legend. One can see numerous miniature elephants around this 15ft X 10ft X 10ft shrine. This shrine is called  ‘Samāi Māi’(Mother Samāi) bearing a strong resemblance to the name Mahāmāyā. Two millennia is a long time for languages and words to face phonetic and semantic shifts. It seems probable Mahāmāyā may have become Mahā Māi and Mahā Māi into Samāi Māi.

Smt. Phoolmati Ravidas and Ramrati Ravidas ji, priest caretaker of Samāi Māi Shrine, Tilaurākot Complex.

Wooden walkways crisscrossing the complex, tracing old streets and paths buried several

meters beneath the earth.

Palace complex where the Buddha-to-be spent 29 years was transformed into a place of

worship. Ancient remains of the shrines are now being restored by LDA.

As dusk was falling in the Tilaurākot complex I  noticed two women in their 40’s facilitating the last few devotees in the Samāi Māi shrine. It's a little unusual to spot women priests or keepers in Hindu folk shrines. The women priests seemed to be in a hurry to shut the shrine. I approached, greeted them, and started enquiring curiously.  They were Smt. Phoolmati Ravidas and Ramrati Ravidas, the caretakers and custodians of the shrine.  I didn't notice them in my previous visits, rather I remember there was an elderly priest.  They informed me that their family has been the caretaker of this shrine for the last two generations. In my previous visits, I might have met any male member of their family.  Both of them together invoke the Samāi Māi goddess. Phoolmati-Ji does the incantations and Ramrati-Ji plays traditional drums. Māi bahut shaktishaali Devi hai (Samāi Māi is a very powerful deity), Phoolmati-ji said. People in this region and from far away visit the shrine. Once their wishes are granted and prayers answered they come and offer the miniature elephant.  The sheer number of elephant offerings that surround the shrine speaks of its established sanctity. P C Mukherjee, who explored this part of the region in 1899 and made an important discovery of the Tilaurākot Complex, mentioned the Samāi Māi shrine hidden in this dense forest with tigers living and roaming the complex.  Another reason I think Samāi Māi shrines are a relic of Mahāmāyā, the mother of the Buddha, is that the shrines of  Samāi Māi and the tradition of miniature elephant offering are something very unique to the Terai region (a belt of marshy jungle lying between the lower foothills of the Himalayas and the plains) that comprises ancient Kapilavastu and Koliyā empire. I was told by my local friend Manoj Paudel (who works as a journalist for Kantipur Samachar, a National Daily in Nepal)  that the Samāi Māi shrine at Tilaurākot is the most popular among all the  Samāi Māi shrines in the region. People from as far as 50kms including the Indian part of Terai come to visit the shrine.


Xuanzang recorded the existence of shrines in this ‘Palace City’ dedicated to marking these and other important events related to Siddhārtha’s life. These shrines, Xuanzang noted, were raised over the old foundations (i.e. a shrine with the image of Suddhodana at the place where there used to be his palace, etc.). Recent geophysical study and excavations by the Nepal Government in collaboration with Durham University have revealed at the time of the Buddha the structures including the palace, the fort wall, and the gates were made of timber and mud. Later, in 2nd CE, this palace complex where the Buddha-to-be spent 29 years was transformed into a place of worship, an elaborate pilgrim’s destination of brick structures, and make-shift shrines over the ancient foundations, more than one meter thick, and surrounding boundary walls of more than a mile. Today, a network of raised wooden paths crisscrossing the complex, and informative signboards mark the efforts of the Lumbini Development Authority (LDA) to recreate the  bygone ‘living museum’ beneath.


Geophysical studies have also revealed a large complex measuring 132 meters north-south and perhaps 120 meters east-west inside the Tilaurākot complex which could be a place of ‘high significance.’  Probably, the place where (according to the excavators) the royal family/elite lived. Maybe this is the location of the first rumblings of renunciation by Mahāprajāpatī and other Śākyan women. One can imagine the first breaths of the formation of the Bhikkhunī (Bhikṣuṇī) Gautamī saṅgha took place here. 

Place of ‘high significance’ inside the palace complex. A picture from the  excavation.

Pic @ LDA

I continued to think about the Buddha and his return to Kapilavastu after his enlightenment. Mahāprajāpatī invited the Buddha and saṅgha for the meal in her quarters. Today, standing here in front of the remains of a ‘large complex of significance’ I can picture the Buddha leading the way followed by 500 Bhikkus (Bhikṣu)) entering the palace complex. Mahāprajāpatī and other Śākyan women, maybe Rāhulamātā (former wife of the Buddha also known as Yashodharā, Gopā)  was among the women waiting to receive the Buddha and saṅgha at the entrance of the quarters of the Mahāprajāpatī. It must have taken them a great deal of time and effort to prepare the choicest dishes for so many people.   After the meal, the Buddha gave the large audience ‘graduated discourse on dharma’(Jones 1956: 245-246). Mahāprajāpatī after hearing this discourse became sotāpanna i.e. she attained the first stage of the four levels of realization. The Dhamma seed was planted.


After parting with the caretakers, I thought of the birth of the crown prince, the Buddha-to-be, Siddhārtha. His name means ‘he who has found meaning (of existence)’ or ‘he who has attained his goals.’ I thought about him growing up in princely luxury, shielded from the outside world, entertained by musicians and dancing girls, instructed by brahmins, and trained in archery, swordsmanship, wrestling, swimming, and running. As I walked the boardwalks, I understood he encountered three simple things known today as the heavenly messengers: a sick man, an old man, and a corpse being carried to the burning grounds, in the streets buried beneath the ground on which I now walk. He passed a wandering ascetic walking peacefully along the road, wearing the robe and carrying the single bowl of a sādhu ( a religious ascetic or mendicant). These four sightings were the turning point. He resolved to leave the palace in search of the answer to the problem of suffering.


I think also of his wife, Gopā, the mother of his son. Bodhisattva Siddhārtha had resolved to renounce worldly life and set out to find if there is a way to end the sufferings of life. However, the act of renunciation didn't happen until he became a father. Upon the birth of his son, Rāhula, he felt a strong tug towards the newborn.  Siddhārtha realized if his renunciation does not happen now then it may not happen ever. He decided to take a look at his son's face before leaving. He peeped through the doorway, his beloved wife and newborn baby, fast asleep. He could not see the face of the newborn as Gopā’s hand was resting on the baby's head. The prince understood, if I try to move her hand so I can take the child for a cuddle I fear I will wake her and she will prevent me from going. He knew he must go. His conviction to find the end of suffering was for them, for all, as much as for himself.


It was 11 pm. People began to gather at the historic Eastern Gate of the Palace City complex.  Venerable monks and government officials from Lumbīnī and Kathmandu were in attendance. The occasion is the commemoration and celebration of the 3rd annual ‘Mahābhiniṣkramaṇa’ event in honor of the Great Renunciation of the Buddha-to-be more than 2600 years ago. This revitalization of the historic Great Renunciation through re-enactment event is the brainchild of Shri Bikram Pande Kaaji Nuwakott, a Kathmandu-based tourism entrepreneur. He partnered with Kapilavastu Tourism, a loose body of local youth to facilitate its implementation.  It was a very charged moment. There was excitement and a sense of pride, particularly among the people from nearby villages. All the speakers very proudly highlighted the rare feat of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha. On my turn, I shared with them the equally important renunciation of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī. Her renunciation like that of the Siddhārtha continues to inspire many. I believe the renunciation of Mahāprajāpatī and 500 Śākyan also deserves a commemoration. My thoughts were well received by the audience.


The literature says in the middle of the night when Siddhārtha approached the strong gates, intended to keep him in, they opened on their own.  Xuanzang has a different story. According to Xuanzang, Siddhārtha did not exit from the gate, instead, riding on his white horse, Kaṇṭhaka ​​(Kannthaka), they galloped in the air and jumped the wall. As the clock ticked midnight amid the shouts of encouragement and thunderous applause a grey horse named Kaṇṭhaka, ridden by Siddhārtha Śākya (his real name), galloped out from the celebrated Eastern Gate. The enactment marked the commemoration of the 3rd Mahābhiniṣkramaṇa. I thanked everyone and followed suit, exiting the Eastern Gate following in the footsteps of Siddhārtha, Mahāprajāpatī, Faxian, and Xuanzang.  It was a beautiful night sky with the clouds, time and again, dimming the full moon. l had requested a walking partner to accompany me through Nepal. I snuck into Nepal without valid permission. The Indo-Nepal border check posts have been closed since March 2020 because of COVID19. An Indian without valid documentation walking alone at night would attract unnecessary attention from the villagers and the police.

Speaking on the occasion of 3rd Mahābhiniṣkramaṇa event.  Pic Manoj Paudel.


Enactment of Boddhisattva Siddhārtha leaving the Eastern Gate.

3rd Mahābhiniṣkramaṇa Event.  Pic Manoj Paudel.

Beautiful night sky of Āṣhāla Pūrṇimā. Clouds dimming the full moon.  


Siddhārtha snuck out of the palace in the middle of the night for the same reason, to avoid any attention. However, his objective was to exit the Kapilavastu and Koliyā kingdoms (that belonged to his maternal grandparents) to reach river Anomā by daybreak. My objective for leaving at this hour was to walk 30kms and reach Lumbīnī by daybreak. As I struck off from the Palace City, I thought again of the renunciation of Mahāprajāpatī and the 500 Śākyans, eleven years after Sidarthatha’s departure. Theirs was not a midnight escape. I imagine it would have been an elaborate well-planned event with a send-off ceremony. The renouncing Śākyan women must have felt a similar tug for their near and dear like Siddhārtha felt for his newborn. They were planning to leave their children, grandchildren, siblings, and friends. For the common people of Kapilavastu, the turn of events in the previous months must have been emotionally overwhelming. First, the King, Suddhodana, passed away. Then 500 Śākyan men took refuge in the Triple Gem and now, 500 women led by the matriarch Mahāprajāpatī were preparing to leave. This would have felt like a mass exodus in a small community of only a few thousand Śākyan.  Persuasion and dissuading must have happened. A few women may have had a change of heart or mind but for most, the idea of full ordination was the way!


It is overwhelming imagining how events could have unfolded, how the to-be-bhikkhunīs prepared themselves; the shaving of heads, friends, and family prepared and provided robes and bowls. Siblings, children, and grandchildren prepared and packed dry food material for the journey. Anticipation, uncertainty, excitement, fear, so much more and finally the day and time of farewell. As per the Pali-text traditions, team Gautamī set off on renunciation sometime after the Āṣhāla full moon,  a few weeks after the Buddha and newly ordained 500 Śākyan men left Kapilavastu (Buddha and 500 men left a few weeks before the Vassā). I recall conversations of my youth with my late grandparents about travel in their day. Long-distance travel when there was no electricity, no modern-day transportation system, required knowledge of the lunar cycle. My grandfather would watch the moon and set out at the end of teesrā pehar (3rd quarter of the night, roughly 3 AM). Usually, if not an emergency, they would choose krishna paksha (15-days of the waning moon) when there is moonlight to guide them. My grandmother would get up even earlier and prepare a fresh meal and pack some sattu (roasted gram flour), chilli, and onion for the journey. And not to forget an ancient practice to carry a white onion in the kurtā (traditional shirt) pocket that would protect from heatstroke.


All the to-be-nuns might have collected at a predetermined place, followed by a quick headcount, and then walking out of the palace complex, leaving the only home most had ever known. I can imagine, in spite of it being the dark of night, a large gathering of women, men, and children from neighboring villages might have assembled to bid farewell. The new king Mahānāma, ministers, and Śākyan populace queued up to hug and charan sparsh (touching the feet, the traditional way to send off elders and respected ones) as the renunciants walked past them. And Rāhulamātā somewhere with some gift/souvenir for her son Rāhula handed over to the queen mother. A very emotional moment for all of them and for many, a moment of great pride. Many including the king Mahānamā, as a gesture of respect, might have walked along with the renunciants for a couple of miles, a few accompanied till the Koliyān border, and some to the river, Anomā. It is possible a handful of royal soldiers may have even escorted the queen mother and her companions to Vaiśālī.


My walking partner Shri Rajkumar kept checking with me every 3-4 kms.


After five hours of walking,  time to thank  and say goodbye to Rajkumar.

My walking partner Shri Rajkumar injured his leg the day before, so instead of walking along with me, he was on his motorbike checking with me every 3-4 kms. As I had suspected I was stopped by patrolling police a couple of times, and each time Rajkumar gave the explanations. Occasionally, I noticed farmers busy in the night managing water, preventing paddy fields from getting inundated by rainwater runoff from the hills. I walked past many villages where villagers were fast asleep and the dogs did their duty welcoming me with barks of acknowledgment. This may not have been the case for team Gautamī.  News of the renunciation of the women must have spread like jungle fire in far-flung remote corners of the kingdom. If the practice was in any way like current custom it was a subject of discussion and wondering in homes, streets, and community places. As the large contingent of to-be-nuns, attired in robes, head tonsured, walked past the villages on the way villagers would have come out of their homes to witness the first of its kind spectacle 500 Śākyan women with head shaven and donning robes of mendicant. Team   Gautamī must have received a warm welcome from people. Everyone in the village must have rushed to touch feet and seek blessings from the queen mother and other senior Śākyan women. Women in villages must have queued up with decorated ārti thāli (prayer plate). Every woman with their plate decorated with a lighted butter lamp waving before the queen mother and many hands trying and vying to reach the forehead of the mother queen for applying auspicious tikkā (vermillion mixed in clarified butter).  It must have been a very poignant moment for one and all, a welcome and bid-adieu hand in hand.


I could see the tip of Shanti stūpa (World Peace Pagoda) anchoring the eastern end of the Lumbīnī Heritage complex as the first hint of dawn greyed the sky. One hour more of walking to reach my first stopover retracing the great renunciation trail.  One can only guess the individual feelings of the people present along the route and those on the journey. I am sure of one thing, I am wholeheartedly inspired, so much so, I did not realize I had walked 30kms overnight without a break. 


This article is dedicated to the thousands of bhikkhunī around the world following the path laid by the Buddha and Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī.


Thanks to my kalyan-mitra and a dedicated practitioner, Sheila Garrick, USA, for collaboration.


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