Thursday, January 25, 2024

Memorialising the Last Footsteps of Illustrious Mahākassapa

Ancient ‘Footprints of Mahākassapa’ (medieval period), Gurpā Hill.

Braḥmahākăssapatheraḥnibbān, a Thai Pali text (Lagirarde 2006) has documented the lesser-known tradition of the Nibbāna of Mahākassapa (Mahākāśyapa). Mahākassapa is one of the most revered disciples of the Buddha. Mahākassapa survived the Mahāparinibbāna (Mahāparinirvāṇa) of the Buddha. The story of his last days is mentioned in many Buddhist texts with some differences in details. According to François Lagirarde, the story of nibbāna (nirvāṇa) of Mahākassapa is very popular in the Buddhist world (Lagirarde 2006). The monastic libraries in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Japan and China have preserved numerous manuscripts related to the last days of Mahākassapa (Lagirarde 2006). Pali sources mention that Mahākassapa lived to be very old, and, when he died, had not lain on a bed for one hundred and twenty years (DA.ii.413; AA.ii.596). 

Mahākassapa after the compilation of the canon entrusted his duties as the leader of the Saṅgha to Ānanda and went to worship four great cetiyas and relic stūpas of Buddha (Watters 1905:145). As per the Braḥmahākăssapatheraḥnibbān, one fine day while living in the Veḷuvana (bamboo grove, Rājgir) Mahākassapa realized that he was ready for parinibbāna which will happen the next day in the evening at the Kukkuṭasampātaparbata (Lagirarde 2006: 93).  Early in the morning the next day he invites his disciples and shares with them about his decision (Lagirarde 2006: 94). After preaching the fellow monks at Veḷuvana Mahāvihāra Mahākassapa goes begging for alms in the streets of Rājagṛiha wearing the robe given by the Buddha (Lagirarde 2006: 95). He then goes to pay last respects to King Ajātshatru, but the guards tell Mahākassapa that the king is sleeping and should not be disturbed. Mahākassapa returns to his monastery, cleans everything, and proceeds to Kukkuṭasampātaparbata (Kukkuṭapādagiri/Gurupāda Hill) with a huge retinue of monks behind him (Lagirarde 2006: 97).  Ever since I learnt about this historical fact, I have always been keen to find the possible route taken by the entourage of Mahākassapa from Veḷuvana to Gurupāda Hill.

Gurupāda Hill is approximately 55 km as the crow flies southwest of Veḷuvana. In the 6th BCE, during the times of Buddha, the settlements used to be few and far between, mostly around river channels and they were interconnected through a network of cart and pack tracks.  Veḷuvana was situated near the capital city of Rājagṛiha. It is conceivable that any track connecting the capital city Rājagṛiha and Gurupāda should be touching major habitations between the two places. I have explored the area between Gurupāda and Rājagṛiha and plotted archaeological sites. Based on my findings I think there are two shortest possible routes connecting the two places (see Fig.1).  The first possible route is through Oro, Sonsā, Kaithir, Baidyanāthpur, Bārat, Naksenā, Sankarbighā, Rasalpur, Kopin and Mehkuri. The second possible route includes Oro, Sonsā, Berautā, Narhat, Khanwā, Laund and Pirauntā. All the villages mentioned in both routes have ancient remains and in many villages, I noticed ancient images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. We don't have the complete archaeological profile of these villages, but, it is very likely many of these villages existed at the time of the Buddha with different names than what they are called now.

Fig.1. Map depicting the last footsteps of Mahākassapa from Veḷuvana Gurpā Hill.

Kukkuṭapādagiri or Gurupādagiri where Mahākassapa is waiting for the Maitreya. @Yves Guichard

According to me, the second route is the most probable route taken by the entourage of Mahākassapa. The Khanwā village in the second route has been identified as the  Khānumata of Pali sources (Kumar 2009: 82-85). Khānumata was a Brahmin village where the Buddha received patronage. It was here at Khānumata that the Buddha delivered Kūtadanta Sutta (D.i.127ff). I imagine the entourage of Mahākassapa receiving a rousing welcome at these villages. Brief stays at these villages would have provided much-needed rest and nourishment. Many people from these villages on the way may have even joined the Mahākassapa entourage to Kukkuṭapādagiri/Gurupāda. Pirauntā is the last village on this route which has ancient remains. Kukkuṭapādagiri is approximately 20 km SW of Pirauntā. The land south of Pirautnā was a dense forest teeming with tigers, leopards, bears and other wild animals until a century ago, a fact also corroborated by Faxian (Beal 1869). All the villages and settlements between Pirauntā and Gurupāda are modern. From Pirauntā onwards, the entourage of Mahākassapa may have negotiated some meandering pack track through the forest to arrive at Kukkuṭapādagiri.

Mahākassapa along with the entourage arrived at Kukkuṭapādagiri in the evening (Lagirarde 2006: 97). After reaching the Kukkuṭapādagiri mountain, Mahākassapa performed miracles and gave final preaching to the assembled monks and dignitaries. Following that Mahākassapa went to the middle of the three peaks where his funeral bed was installed (Lagirarde 2006: 86)  where Mahākassapa attained anupādisesaparinibbāna i.e. there cannot be any physical continuation in the future. At the very moment when Mahākassapa entered nibbāna the three mountain peaks closed together. The peaks were tightly sealed around his body making just one rock (Lagirarde 2006: 101).

According to the tradition, Buddha had instructed Mahākāśyapa to wait for Maitreya’s appearance into the world to transmit the robe of Gautama Buddha to him. Therefore Mahākāśyapa should live inside a mountain in a ‘cavern of meditation’ where the future Buddha will find him and then be revealed to the people (Lagirarde 2006: 89). Xuanzang has stated that the Buddha offered golden-thread robes to Mahākassapa that he received from his foster mother Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī (Watters 1905; 144).

Mahākassapa became an important disciple of the Buddha, and the Buddha even exchanged robes with him, a symbol of transmitting Buddhist teachings. Mahākassapa was hailed by the Buddha as the foremost master of ascetic practices and the foremost forest dweller. After the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha, he assumed the leadership of the Saṅgha. Mahākassapa realised the exigency of the preservation of the teachings of the Buddha.  He conceived the first Buddhist council and this is how we have the words of the Buddha recorded into a standardised canon. He is considered to be the first leader in several Early Buddhist schools.  Mahākassapa is revered as the first of the twenty-eight Indian patriarchs of the Zen/Chan Tradition of Buddha Dhamma (Baroni 2002).

Followers of the teachings of the Buddha greatly appreciate Mahākassapa for his unparalleled contributions. Just like Sāriputta and Mahā Moggallāna, Mahākassapa belongs to Magadha. Having been born and raised within the region of Magadha myself too, a profound sense of gratitude fills my heart. Mahākassapa is a local exemplar who because of his contributions to the Buddha, Dhamma and Saṅgha is revered all over the world.

I contemplate ways to revere this exceptional patron of Buddha  Dhamma- Mahākassapa. And what better way to celebrate and commemorate the legacy of this great saint than to memorialise his last footsteps to his final resting place? This will encourage the people of Magadha and the world over to remember this great luminary and reflect on his contributions. Also, Kukkuṭapāda has such a celebrated legend attached to it: Maitreya, the future Buddha will first arrive here (at Kukkuṭapāda) to usher in a new era of Buddha Dhamma and end the current era of decline of the Dhamma.

As I drift towards the end of my blog, typing my concluding words a thought comes to my mind - What if this route from Veḷuvana (Rājagṛiha) to Kukkuṭapāda (Gurupāda) is promoted for the walking pilgrimage as the ‘Mahākassapa Trail’? Like they say ‘Every tree was once a seed’. On that note, I plant this conscious seed here for the Universe to take care of its manifestation.

The ‘Mahākassapa Trail’-  Walking Pilgrimage from Veḷuvana to Gurupāda

A Medieval period image of Bodhisattva at the village Odo.

Remains of an ancient shrine, village Odo.

A priest holding an ancient image of Buddha, Sonsā.

Remains of an ancient Buddha Shrine, Sonsā.

A Buddha panel, Narhat.

An ancient image of Avalokiteśvara, Khanwā.

An ancient image of Avalokiteśvara, Laund.

An ancient image of Avalokiteśvara, Pirauntā.

On the way to the Gurpā Hill.

On the way to the Gurpā Hill.

Final few kilometres. On the way to the Gurpā Hill.

1800 steps to the top of the Gurpā Hill. 

Kukkuṭapādagiri (Cockfoot’s Mountain) /Gurupāda (Teacher’s Feet)/ Gurpā.

Discussing the ancient route to Gurpā Hill with Shri Chandreshkar Singh, Village Odo.

Story Chronichled by Deepa Nandi.


Baroni, Helen. J.; 2002, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.  

Beal, S.; 1869, Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India. London: Trubner and Co.

Kumar, Vishwajit.; 2009, Buddhakālin Magadha Ke Pramukh Gṛam: Khānumata. Prajňā, Volume XI, No.I. Bodhgaya: Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee. 

Lagirarde, Francois.; 2006, The Nibbana of Mahakassapa the Elder: Notes on a Buddhist Narrative Transmitted in Thai and Lao Literature. Buddhist Legacies in Mainland Southeast Asia. hal-01955848.

Mitchell, M.; 2022, Following Faxian to Kāśyapa’s gate : Relocating India in the 1692 Jizu shanzhi (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from

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

Watters, Thomas.; 1905, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India. Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and S.W. Bushell. Vol. II. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

Abbreviations of Bibliography:

Source of Pāli references:

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.).

D.      Digha Nikāya, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).

DA.       Sumangala Vilāsinī, 3 vols. (P.T.S.).