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VAISHALI: A site worthy of further attention
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Tuesday, 29 September 2009 10:23


A site worthy of further attention

Vaishali the Capital of the Lichchhavi Confederacy was a favourite place of the Buddha, who visited it on a number of occasions and according to the Scriptures spent at least two rain retreats in the kingdom. In fact the last rain retreat before he attained the state of Mahaparinirvana was spent in this kingdom. At this time the Lord was already 80 years old, ill, feeble and had nearly been murdered by his cousin Devadutta at Rajagrha and had to flee for his life under severe pressure of Ajatsatru's army  under the behest of  Devadutta. These entire events plus the long walk to Vaishali had left the Buddha being physically shattered.

Having visited the site of Koluha only 5 kms from Vaishali, I made my way to the site in veneration. Here for the first time since I began my journey, I was able to find a monastery where I could spend a night of rest. What I liked most about the place was that unlike sites like Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, Sarnath, Vaisali still maintained a semblance of tranquility, and as I was told by the Monks there that not all the pilgrims visiting the Buddhist sites in the winter, came to this Sacred site. After an exploration of the sites here, I understood why it lacked a large patronage. In fact I too was quite disappointed with the utter neglect by both the Archaeological Survey of India and the State Government for not doing justice to this site. 

Koluha and its magnificent Asokan pillar, was primarily part of the District of Vaishali till very recently when the division of additional Districts brought the site being included into Muzzafarpur. Never the less the close proximity of the site to Vaishali does motivate some pilgrims to come to Vaishali to visit this site and the remains of the Relic Stupa.

The ancient Buddhist site at Vaishali, which during the British period or maybe even much before that, was known as Basarh. The site, according to the British records was discovered by Mr. J. Stephenson sometime before 1835. In his journal he wrote, "the Ruins and Site of an ancient city near Bakhra." He goes on to mention that he observed the ruins of a large fort of an oblong shape ' of considerable antiquity' but he heard of no existing tradition that he could depend upon regarding its existence (cf. JASB, 1835, p.129). It was only in 1861-62 that Alexander Cunningham on a tour of the neighboring sites came to this place. Following the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims he was able to identify Basrah with the famous city of Vaisali of the Buddhist tradition; but this was not readily accepted by Scholars till the beginning of the 20th Century. Eminent Scholars like Rhys Davids thought that the site of Vaishali was somewhere else in Tirhut; while Hoey attempted to locate it at Chirand (in Saran District). In 1902 Mr. V. Smith did a thorough investigation of the site and finally identified Basrah and the adjoining villages surrounding it as the ancient village of Vaishali (cf. JRAS, 1902, pp.167-288). In 1904 Maj. Bloch excavated at the mound and from his report of the excavation the identity of the site became quite clear, for some of the seals that were discovered therein bear inscriptions actually mentioning the name 'Vaisali'; thereby obviously referring to the town which existed at the site.

According to earlier historical records, Vaisali like Rajagriha or Rajgir definitely goes back to pre-Buddhist times; and we find it to be quite an important town in the days of the Buddha. The early Buddhist texts refer to Vaishali as the capital of the powerful kingdom of the Liccchhavis who followed a peculiar oligarchical form of government. The Buddha often visited Vaishali in the course of his travels to teach the Dhamma. It was also at Vaishali that the Buddha announced his approaching Mahaparinirvana. It was also the venue of the second Buddhist Synod which was held about 443 B.C. From that date till the 4th century A.D. hardly anything is heard about Vaishali. At this period of time history has recorded that Chandragupta I married a Lichchhavi princess and established the kingdom of the Guptas. The township, it appears continued to exist till the end of the Gupta period. In the early 5th Century Fa-Hian, the Chinese pilgrim, visited Vaisali, he found the town well populated and flourishing. But two centuries later Hieun Tsang describes it in ruins to a great extent. He refers to the circuit of the town as 60 or 70 li (10 to 12 miles), containing several hundred monasteries- most of them were already in ruins. Vaishali continued to be recorded in historical annals till the end of the Gupta period after which it was completely forgotten. The name Vaishali was also a town in Tirhut which may have continued to exist till the 12th century A.D., since M. Foucher refers to two palm-leaf manuscripts containing inscribed miniature paintings, mentioning; Tirabhuktau Vaisali-Tara, which in English means " the Tara of Vaisali in Tirabhukti or Tirhut." 


In his Journal Hieun Tsang mentioned a very detailed account of the important Buddhist monuments he saw at Vaishali. He could not deal with all the Buddhist remains and gives a reason for it, he says, "the sacred monuments are so many that it would be difficult to enumerate on them." He visited Vaishali in the early seventh century when most of the monasteries and monuments were already in ruins. Historical evidences tell us that most of the monuments and monasteries much before the visit of this pilgrim probably in the early Gupta period or even much earlier.

While writing this account I have deliberately omitted any mention of the excavation of Raja Visalka Gadh as practically no Buddhist antiquities were recovered there and out of the hundreds of seals found there, none were religious seals belonging to the Buddhist tradition as found at Nalanda or other places. This fact comes as a surprise, as in the vicinity of the fort remains of Buddhist sites were excavated just outside its enclosure walls.

Amongst the important monuments mentioned by Hieun Tsang near the gadh was the monastery of the Sammitiya School of the Sthiravada tradition of Buddhism where he resided during his stay at Vaishali. Near this monastery, he mentions, were three stupas, of which the most significant was the one built over the Liccchhavis' share of the Buddha's relics and was situated to the south-east of the monastery. The second stupa marked the site where Sariputta and other monks who had received teachings from the Buddha attained arhatship or nirvana here. Hieun Tsang locates the monastery and the three stupas about a mile from the gadh or fort mound. If the information this Pilgrim had been told was accurate, then the area we would be nearer to Kharauna Pokhar and the high level ground of Chak- Ramdas. The area of nearly 24 square miles around Basarh was surveyed around 1903 and a map was published by Bloch with his report of the excavation. Later V. Smith who based his conclusions on the information supplied by P.C. Mukherji defined the site of the Sammitiya monastery and the three stupas somewhere between the Kharauna Pokhar and the village Pharawal or to be more specific Uphraul which is about a mile further north-west of the tank. In his exploration report in 1897, Mukherji had mentioned the existence of a large mound in this area, but in 1903, but in 1903 Bloch mentions that in spite of repeated enquiries he failed to either hear or see anything about the mound in the area.

In the year 1957- 58, the Jayaswal Institute undertook under took the work of excavating the area near the Kharauna tank with a view of actually solving the mystery of the existence of the Buddhist monastery and stupas that existed in the area. The work was undertaken by Dr. Altekar who finally discovered the existence of the walls of the Monastery and the Stupa which had been enlarged over the centuries. Because of the commendable work of this team, Vaishali at last found proof of being the site where the Buddha was honoured


According to Hieun Tsang a number of stupas and monasteries were located in an area about half a mile north-east of the Sammitiya monastery i.e. about a mile north of the gadh mound. These monuments included the site of the house of the famous courtesan Amrapali whose hospitality the Buddha accepted, and the stupas marking the sites of the residence of Vimalakirti and Ratnakara. The possible location of these monuments, if they existed, has not been explored till date. If the Central and State Government Authorities responsible for the excavation of archaeological sites were to make an attempt to find these sites, it would attract a lot more Pilgrims to Vaishali.

Ref: Stephenson, JASB, 1835, pp. 218 ff; Cunningham, ASI, I, pp. 55-56; XVI, pp. 6-12 and 89-92 and Plate III; Smith, JARS, 1902, pp. 467-88; Bengal List, p. 39 ff; Bloch, An. Rep., ASI, B.C., 1903-4 pp. 14-20; Spooner, An. Rep., ASI, 1913-14, p. 98-185; Kuraishi, List, pp. 20-28; Homage to Vaisali, published by Vaisali Sangha, 1948; Indian Archaeology, 1957-58, pp.10-11; Altekar, JBRS, Buddha Jayanti Special Issue, Vol.II, pp. 1- 11. 

Images Of Vaisali

Buddha Relic Stupa

Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 September 2009 08:16