Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Tapassu, Bhallika and Kassapa Brothers- Shrines and Stūpas south of Mahābodhi Temple

Mahābodhi Temple. Pic @Vikash Kumar

The Buddhist monk-scholar Xuanzang (Hsüan-Tsang, 602-664 CE) during his visit to Mahābodhi (ancient Uruvelā, now Bodhgayā) mentioned numerous shrines to mark various events related to the great awakening of the Buddha. Upon careful analysis, I determined that these shrines in Mahābodhi mentioned by Xuanzang could be classified broadly into three categories (refer to Map.1).

a) The shrines which mark the events that occurred while Bodhisattva Siddhārtha underwent a six-year penance/austere practices. 

b) The shrines that were linked to the great awakening of The Buddha and the subsequent events that followed for the next few weeks.

c) The shrines associated with the transformation of Uruvelā Kassapa.

Map.1- Situation of shrines in Uruvelā as described by Xuanzang.  

The identification of sacred shrines in Bodhgayā mentioned by Xuanzang is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), the first Archaeological Surveyor to the Government of India was the first scholar who proposed the tentative locations of sacred places in Bodhgayā. Because Xuanzang explained the locations of the sacred shrines in Mahābodhi relatively using phrases like ‘near that’, ‘by the side of’, ‘not far from’, ‘besides’ etc., Cunningham was led to believe that all the places were located within a small area around the Mahābodhi Temple (see map 1). In the 5th century CE, Faxian (Fa Hien, 337-422 CE), another intrepid monk-scholar visited the seat of the great awakening of the Buddha, some two centuries before Xuanzang and mentioned accounts of sacred shrines in ancient Uruvelā in his reports. Cunningham, however, didn't seem to take Faxian seriously and claimed that his notices are of no use for the purpose of identification (Cunningham 1875-76; 1877-78: 147). Had Cunningham taken into account descriptions of Faxian, he could discern the locations Xuanzang alludes to in immediate surroundings were situated in a relatively larger geography. If Cunningham had referred to reports of Faxian, he would have observed that in contrast to Xuanzang, who suggested shrines associated with the six-year austere practices in relation to the Bodhi Tree, Faxian’s description of places related to austere practises was rather with reference to Gayā town and Prāgbodhi hill. This implied that, contrary to what Xuanzang suggested, the austerity-related sites were not in the immediate neighbourhood of Bodhi Tree.

A careful analysis of the eyewitness accounts of Faxian and the Tibetan monk-scholar Dharmaswāmin (13th CE) in collaboration with the earliest biographical texts of the Buddha like Mahāvastu (2nd BCE-4th CE), Lalitavistra (3rd CE), Buddhacharita (2nd CE), Nidānkathā (5th CE?) and Abhinishkramana Sūtra (6th CE) confirms that village Bakrour and its surroundings represent shrines related to six-year austere practices taken by Bodhisattva Siddhārtha (Anand 2019). Therefore, the shrines commemorating the locations where Bodhisattva Siddhārtha spent six years, where Sujātā offered food to him, where he consumed food, where he entered into river Nairañjanā ​​(also Nilāñjanā, Nerañjarā) and where he threw his bowl into the river were located east of the Bodhi Tree on the opposite bank of river Nairañjanā. 

Similarly, circumstantial evidence has fairly established that the village of Mochārim ​​(24° 40' 49'' N. 84° 59' 33'' E) represents the ancient site of the Muchalinda Tank, the place where the Buddha spent his sixth week following the Great Awakening (O'Malley 1906: 46; Anand 2019).  Identification of the site of Muchalinda is important because as per Xuanzang the places associated with the austere practices were located east of Muchalinda and the sites related to Uruvelā Kassapa were situated south of it. Consequently, the intersection is located in the village of Mochārim, also known as Muchalinda which makes this a crucial junction.

Records of Xuanzang reveal that he took a round trip from Muchalinda (the junction point). That is, he travelled from Muchalinda to the locations on its eastern side that were linked to the austere practices. Before making his way back to Muchalinda from the south, he travelled from the locations connected to the austerities to the locations where Tapassu and Bhallika offered food. Finally, he travelled to the locations connected to the Uruvelā Kassapa events. The locations of Austerities and Muchalinda are on either side of Nairañjanā. Even though Xuanzang has not mentioned crossing the river Nairañjanā on his round trip from Muchalinda, it is evident on his round trip, that he must cross the river at least twice.

Xuanzang started his journey from Muchalinda by going to austerity-related shrines in a forest east of Muchalinda, on the other side of the Nairañjanā River. Following his tour of the austerity-related locations, Xuanzang then refers to the shrine (shrine.1) where the merchants Tapassu and Bhallika presented food to the Buddha. The Tapassu/Bhallika location was ‘beside’ or ‘near’ the shrine connected to the austere practices, the place where Siddhārtha (the future Buddha) bathed in the Nairañjanā river. According to Burmese custom, the Rājāyatana tree, or Tapassu and Bhallika food offering place, was located ‘40 fathoms’ south of the Bodhi Tree (Bigandet 1880: 98-110); however, Xuanzang does not specify the location or direction.

Map 2. Descriptions of Xuanzang plotted on Google Map.

‘By the side of’ / ‘near’ the Tapassu-Bhallika place is the stūpa where the four Deva-Rājās presented bowl to the Buddha (shrine.2).  ‘Not far’ / ‘close to’ this bowl presenting place is the stūpa to mark where the Buddha preached for the sake of his mother (shrine.3). ‘Beside’ the place where Buddha preached to his mother is a dry pool, on the border of which is a stūpa to mark the place where the Buddha displayed various spiritual changes to convert those who were capable of it (shrine. 4). ‘By the side’ / ‘close to’ the place where Buddha displayed spiritual changes is a stūpa to mark the place where the Buddha transformed the Kassapa brothers Uruvelā, Nadi and Gayā (shrine. 5). To the north-west of the Kassapa brothers’ transformation stūpa is the stūpa to mark the place where the Buddha tamed nāga (cobra snake) at the fireplace of Uruvelā Kassapa (Shrine.6). ‘By the side’ / ‘Beside’ the nāga taming place is the stūpa to mark, where 500 Pratyeka Buddhas at the same time entered Nirvāṇa (shrine.7). ‘To the south’ of the tank of Muchilinda Nāga is a stūpa to mark the spot where Uruvelā Kassapa went to save Buddha during an inundation (shrine.8).

To find archaeological sites that might be a match for the shrines mentioned by Xuanzang, I explored villages south of Mochārim. Identifying the most likely match for shrines recorded by Xuanzang among the archaeological sites are mostly calculated guesses based on circumstantial evidence.

Xuanzang has described the locations of shrines in relation to one another using ambiguous terms like ‘not far,’ ‘close to,’ ‘beside,’ etc. However, he has once provided a clear hint when he spots a ‘dry pool,’ or pond. This pond stood close to the stūpas, symbolizing the locations of the Buddha's sermons to his mother (3) and the conversion of those capable of (4). The village of Kāzichak (24° 39' 11'' N. 84° 59' 55'' E), located 3km south of Mochārim, boasts a sizable historic pond. Kāzichak is located on the western bank of Nairañjanā. A large part of the village is situated on an ancient mound. Kāzichak is my best guess for the shrines to mark where the Buddha preached to his mother (3) and the place where the Buddha converted those who were capable of (4). 

According to Xuanzang, the location where The Buddha preached to his mother (3) was ‘Not far’ / ‘close to’ the shrines to mark the place where Tapassu and Bhallika offered food (1) and four deva-rājā-s offered bowls to the Buddha (2). There is a very prominent mound in the village Gothu (24° 39' 12'' N. 85° 00' 25'' E) situated 800 mt precisely east of Kāzichak on the eastern bank of the Nairañjanā river. This prominent mound may very likely represent the site where Tapassu and Bhallika offered food to Buddha (1). Spanning over two acres, the Gothu mound is befitting to the momentous occasion of Tappasu and Bhallika offering food to the Buddha.  In the seventh week following his great awakening, the Buddha was meditating under the Rājāyatana tree. On the last day of the 7th week, Tapassu and Bhallika the two merchants from Ukkalā visited the Buddha and offered him milk-rice and honey-balls. Tradition holds this was the first food taken by the Buddha since he attained Bodhi on the day of Veśāk Pūrṇimā (full-moon day of May) seven weeks ago (Beal 1875: 236-244). Buddha had no vessel to accept the offerings, Xuanzang mentions how four deva-rājā-s offered him stone pātra-s (bowls). The Buddha, to avoid accepting one and rejecting the others, forthwith joined all bowls into one and accepted the rice cakes and honey offered by the merchant brothers in it. Tapassu and Bhallika became the first lay followers of the Buddha (Vin.i.3f; A.i.26; UdA.54; J.i.80).  The village Gothu is situated on the mound and the shrine to mark the offering of the bowl by the four Deva-rājās (2) should be buried somewhere in the neighbourhood of this Tapassu-Bhallika shrine (i.e. the prominent mound).

As discussed earlier, Xuanzang in his round trip to Muchalinda must cross Nairañjanā at least twice. When he first crossed the Nairañjanā, he moved from Muchalinda, which was located on the western bank of the Nairañjanā, to the austerities-related shrines on the eastern bank (refer to Map-2). On the second occasion, he moved from the village Gothu (proposed to be  Tapassu-Bhallika place) situated on the east bank of Nairañjanā to the village Kāzichak (proposed as the site of shrine 3 and 4) on the western bank of Nairañjanā (refer to Map-2).

Aerial view of the mound of Gothu. @ Vikash Kumar

Aerial view of Dharmāranya, where the Buddha took six-year penance practices. @ Vikash Kumar
Aerial view of the pond, Kāzichak. @ Vikash Kumar
Aerial view of the mound in Kāzichak. @ Vikash Kumar

Aerial view of village Khajawati. @ Vikash Kumar

Aerial view of the mound of Babhani. @ Vikash Kumar

Aerial view of the mound of Shivrājpur. @ Vikash Kumar

Ancient Muchalinda Pond in village Mocāhrim.

Mound of Shivrājpur.

Reused ancient bricks in the shrine in Shivrājpur.

Next, from the place where the Buddha converted those who were capable of (4), Xuanzang went to the shrine to mark the transformation of the Kassapa brothers (5). The Kassapa brothers Uruvelā, Nadī and Gayā were Agnihotri (fire worshipers) and all of them had their respective hermitages by the bank of river Nairañjanā. The eldest Uruvelā Kassapa (Kassapa of the village Uruvelā) lived at Uruvelā with five hundred disciples. The Buddha visited Uruvelā Kassapa and expressed his desire to stay by the ‘sacred fire’ for one night at Uruvelā Kassapa’s hermitage. Uruvelā Kassapa initially hesitated but then offered him space, cautioning the Buddha about the fierce nāga which lived by the ‘sacred fire.’ The next morning, a surprised Uruvelā Kassapa was greeted by the Buddha who had tamed the Nāga. Uruvelā Kassapa, thinking that the Buddha was a magician and hoping to obtain the magic of protection against the Nāga, requested that the Buddha stay by his hermitage by promising to offer him daily rice (Oldenberg 2008: 120).  Dwelling to the south of Kassappa’s hermitage, the Buddha patiently spent four winter months waiting for an opportune time when Uruvelā Kassapa would be ready for the transformation (Oldenberg 2008: 120).  A heavy rain came and inundated all of Uruvelā and its surrounding areas. Kassapa fearing the worst reached the place where the Buddha dwelled and was surprised to see that while the whole area was deep under water, the place where the Buddha was standing was dry.  Pali sources mention that during his stay near Uruvelā Kassapa’s hermitage, the Buddha performed many miracles to facilitate the transformation of Uruvelā Kassapa. One day the Buddha took the initiative and asked Kassapa if he was an arhat or if not, then, was ‘Fire Worship’ leading him to arhatship. Uruvelā Kassapa understood and was now ready to receive the teachings. The Buddha then preached the Dhamma to Uruvelā Kassapa and his disciples. Uruvelā Kassapa along with his five hundred disciples took refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Saṅgha.

Village Khajawati (24° 38' 39'' N. 85° 00' 05'' E) is situated on the western bank of Nairañjanā, one km further south of Kāzichak, and most likely represents the shrine to mark the transformation of the Kassapa brothers (refer to Map- 2). From the place of transformation of the Kassapa brothers, Xuanzang went northwest to the stūpa to mark where the Buddha tamed Nāga (6). In my opinion, the best location for stūpas (6) and (7)—that is, the stūpa to mark the location where the Buddha tamed the Nāga (6) and the stūpa to mark the nirvāṇa place of 500 Pratyeka Buddhas (7)—is the village Bhabhani (24° 39' 25'' N. 84° 59' 18'' E), which is about two km northwest of Khajawati (refer to Map- 2). In the village Bhabhani, close to the main temple, is a notable mound. The mound is dispersed throughout a sizable region. Lastly, an ancient mound in the village Shivrājpur (24° 39' 53'' N. 84° 59' 44'' E) situated 1.5km south of Muchalinda should represent the stūpa to mark the spot where Kassapa went to save Buddha during an inundation (8).  The ancient mound of Shivrājpur is situated less than 100 mt west of Nairañjanā River (refer to Map- 2).

All the villages mentioned above have ancient mounds. These earthen mounds have ancient brick structures covered under layers of biomass. These mounds most likely represent the stūpas mentioned by Xuanzang.  Some villages like Khajawati and Shivrājpur have large Brahmanical monasteries settled over mounds. The Brahmanical monastery in Shivrājpur is now abandoned but in its prime, it must be a big complex. All the archaeological sites are either encroached on or mutilated beyond recognition.  People in Gothu, Bhabhani and Kāzichak shared about the demolition of mounds in their village a few years back.

Cunningham was not consistent with the identifications of shrines in Bodhgayā (Anand 2019). In his first report of his visit to Bodhgayā in 1861, he proposed the Buddhokhar tank being the Muchalinda tank. In his report of 1877-78, he proposed Taksal Tāl (Teska) to be the site of the Muchalinda tank. In his book Mahābodhi, published in 1892, he proposed the Urel Tank as the site of the Muchalinda Tank. Accordingly, Cunningham proposed a small hamlet Urel, to the southeast of Mahābodhi temple as Uruvelā, the village of Sujātā and the place where Siddhārtha took austerities.  Cunningham relied only on Xuanzang for his identification of the sacred footsteps of the Buddha in Bodhgayā. He did not refer to the accounts of Faxian, Dharmaswāmin and other ancient biographical texts like Lalitavistra, Nidānkathā, Buddhacarita etc.  A lot has changed in our understanding of the various sacred shrines since Cunningham offered his identifications in the 19th century. The identifications proposed by me are also an educated guess and logical deductions based on our updated understanding of ancient texts and local geography. There is still a long way to go before we can precisely locate the shrines mentioned by Xuanzang in Uruvelā. There is a dire need for scientific exploration and excavation by competent people and authorities willingly joining hands to work actively towards revitalization of the sacred sites. The idea is to consider and strive towards bringing back to life the ‘lost’ pilgrimage of the sacred footsteps of the Buddha in ancient Uruvelā.

According to Xuanzang the sacred traces of the Buddha were situated more than 10Li (approximately 3 km) to the south of the Bodhi tree. Xuanzang further added how every year, hundreds of thousands of monks and laypeople from all over the four quarters come here after the bhikṣus end their retreat from the rains (vassā). They hold flowers, play music, and wander through the woods for seven days and nights, performing acts of veneration and making offerings (Rongxi 1996: 229).

As I visualise these picturesque words from the travelogues of Xuanzang, I dream of a similar day in the near future. But as of now, I can only reminisce about these lines by Robert Frost -

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.’

The story is chronicled by Deepa Nandi.


Anand, D. (2019, January 10). Ratanāgiri Rock: The place where Siddhārtha ate food offered by Sujātā.[Blog post]. Available at:

[Accessed 29th January 2024]

Beal, Samuel.; 1875, The romantic legend of Sâkya Buddha: from the Chinese-Sanscrit, A translation of the Chinese version of the 'Abhinishkramana sûtra', done into that language by Djnanakuta. London: Trübner & Co.

Bigandet, Right Reverend P.;1880, The Life of Legend of Gaudama: The Buddha of the Burmese, Vol ILondon: Trübner & Co.

Beal, Samuel.; 2005, Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India, Low Price Publications. Delhi: (Originally published London: Trubner and Co.: 1869).

Beal, Samuel.; 1914, The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li.  London: Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co. Ltd,. (New Edition 1911).

Beal, Samuel.; 1875, The romantic legend of Sâkya Buddha: from the Chinese-Sanscrit, A translation of the Chinese version of the 'Abhinishkramana sûtra', done into that language by Djnanakuta. London: Trübner & Co.

Cunningham, A.; 2000, Archaeological Survey of India, Four Reports Made During the Years 1862-63-64-65, Vol-I. Published by ASI, GOI, 2000, (First Published in 1871).

Cunningham, A.; 2000, Archaeological Survey of India Report of Tours in Gangetic Province from Badaon to Bihar in 1875-76 and 1877-78, Vol-XI. Published by ASI, GOI, 2000, (First Published in 1880).

Cunningham, A.;1892, Mahabodhi or the Great Buddhist Temple under the Bodhi Tree at Buddha-Gaya. London: W.H. Allen.

Oldenberg, Herman.; 2008, The Dipvaṃsa. New Delhi: Asian Educational Service. (First Published, 1879, Berlin).

O'Malley, L.S.S.; 1906, Bengal District Gazetteers, Gaya. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot.

Reorich, George.; 1959, Historical Research Series, Vol-II, Biography of Dharmaswāmin (Chag lo tsa-ba Chos-rje-dpal). Published on behalf of Kashi Prasad Jaysawal Research Institute, Patna by    Shantilal Jain, Shri Jainendra Press, Jawaharnagar, Delhi, K.P Jayaswal Research Institute.

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.

Vin.- Vinaya Pitaka, 5 vols., ed. Oldenberg (Williams and Norgate).

A.-  Anguttara Nikaya, 5 vols. (P.T.S.).

UdA.- Udāna Commentary (P.T.S.).

J.-   Jātaka, ed. Fausboll, 5 vols.