Monday, July 3, 2017

Piprāhwā Buddha Relics: Restoring from the Museum to the Place of its Origin

In 18th and 19th century CE, there was a trend in the Indian subcontinent of cursory digging at ancient mounds in the hope of finding treasure or to simply retrieve bricks for using as building material. In many incidences, cursory digging led to important discoveries. One such interesting incident is the discovery of Buddha’s Śarira (body relics) in 1898 from a small place called Piprāhwā. Piprāhwā is a small village in the Terai region (lowland region) that lies south of the outer foothills of the Himalayas, the Siwālik Hills, and north of the Indo-Gangetic Plain. In 1898, a British landowner, William Claxton Peppé (1852-1937) excavated a large mound on his estate in Piprāhwā, close to India’s border with Nepal, which turned out to be a Buddhist brick stūpa.
Excavated remains of Piprāhwā Relic Stūpa
Inside the mound, Peppé discovered a damaged soapstone casket a depth of 10 ft, and some beads, crystals, gold ornaments and cut stars scattered around it. Further below, at a depth of 18 ft, he discovered a large, high quality hard sandstone coffer 2.5 ft in height, 2 ft in width and three-quarters of a ton in weight. The sandstone coffer had five caskets containing bone, ashes and more than a thousand pieces of jewels. One of the caskets had an ancient inscription of thirty-seven characters dated to the 2nd century BCE. The language of the inscription was mix of Māgadhī and Pāli. It read: Sukiti-bhatinaṁ sabhagiṇikanaṁ sa-putadalanaṁiyaṁ salila-nidhane Budhasa bhagavate sakiyanaṁ. The meaning of this inscription became a subject of debate because in 19th century, Pāli was still a newly discovered language.

Sandstone coffer discovered by Peppé, presently kept at Kolkata Museum.                          Pic @ Biswarup Ganguli

Five caskets containing Relics and Jewels discovered inside sandstone coffer
One of the sandstone casket (reliquary) with inscriptions from 2nd century BCE
Inscriptions from the sandstone casket (reliquary)

Scholars like Silvain Lévi (1863-1935) and John Fleet (1847-1917) were of opinion that the inscription meant that the relics were not of the Buddha but his Śākyan kinsmen who were killed by the Kosala King Virūḍhaka. According to them the whole inscription translated as: Here are the relics of the Śākyas, blessed brothers of the saint Buddha, with their sisters, their sons and their wives.

Eminent orientalists like J G Bühler (1837-1898), Harry Falk, Vincent Smith (1848-1920), Emile Senart (1847-1928) and Auguste Barth (1834-1916) were convinced that the inscription implied the relics belonged to the body of the Buddha. Auguste Barth translated the inscription as: This receptacle of relics of the blessed Buddha of the Śākyas (is the pious gift) of the brothers of Sukirti, jointly with their sisters, with their sons and their wives. Barth’s interpretation of Piprāhwā casket inscription continues to be the generally accepted interpretation.

We know that the Buddha belonged to the Śākya tribe, who were the rulers of the kingdom of Kapilavastu. In 6th century BCE, the King of Kapilavastu was Suddhodhana, the father of Prince Siddhārtha (the Buddha).  Following his Mahāparinirvāṇa at Kuśīnagara in 5th century BCE, the Buddha was cremated and his ashes were divided among the royals of eight kingdoms which were then preserved as Holy Relics in eight śarīra stūpas constructed over the Buddha’s Relics.  The Śākyans of the Kapilavastu were one of the eight claimants.

The findings at Piprāhwā are intriguing because although the inscriptions on the caskets establish that the caskets contain the Śākyans share of the Buddha’s body relics, the inscription also suggests that these caskets were enshrined in 3rd or 2nd century BCE, which was a few centuries later than 5th century BCE when the Śākyans received these Buddha relics. As mentioned earlier, the Śākyans were one of the eight recipients of the Buddha relics. They received and enshrined these relics in this stūpa in Piprāhwā in 5th century BCE. The inscription on the casket, however, belongs to 3rd or 2nd century BCE implying that the casket belongs to 3rd or 2nd century BCE and cannot be the original casket enshrined by the Śākyans in 5th century BCE.

In 1971, Shri K M Srivastava, Superintendent of the, Archaeological Survey of India undertook further excavation of the  stūpa at Piprāhwā believing that Peppé did not excavate till the bottom of the  stūpa and that there might be an older casket, enshrined by the Śākyans, buried still deeper in the  stūpa. Srivastava dug deeper into the stūpa than Peppé had done in 1898, and at a depth of 19.7 ft, uncovered two chambers (North and South) each containing a soapstone casket and two damaged redware dishes. Together, the two soapstone caskets contained twenty-two fragments of charred bones and ashes.

Sandstone relic casket, redware dishes and brick chamber discovered by Srivastava in 1971 (figure showing one of the two chambers)
Two sandstone caskets with twenty-two relic shards discovered by Srivastava in 1972

Peppé excavation of 1898 and Srivastava’s excavation of 1972 raised several questions:

1. Both Peppé and Srivastava discovered two soapstone caskets containing the relics. The two caskets discovered by Srivastava were identical to the two caskets discovered by Peppé. From this, it may be argued that the two set of caskets were made at the same time and at the same place. Assuming they were, question arises whether these two set of caskets were enshrined by the same person or by different persons. If they were enshrined by different persons then at what difference of time.

2. Both Srivastava’s and Peppé’s excavations yielded identical caskets but at different depths: Srivastava discovered them at the depth of 19.7 ft while Peppé discovered them at a depth of 18 ft. Assuming that the two set of caskets were enshrined by the same person, question arises that why were these caskets enshrined at different depths: could it be because they were enshrined at different times?

3. As mentioned in Aśokāvadāna, King Aśoka who ruled from Pāṭaliputra around 3rd century BCE collected the Buddha’s relics from seven of the original eight stūpas constructed over the Buddha’s relics and enshrined them in 84,000 stūpas throughout his realm of Jambudvīpa (Indian Subcontinent).  Considering that the Piprāhwā stūpa is one of the original eight relic stūpas, question arises whether Aśoka uncovered the Piprāhwā stūpa at all. Given that the two set of caskets discovered by Peppé’ and Srivastava were dated to 2nd century BCE and Aśoka belonged to the period of 3rd century BCE, it may be reasoned that Aśoka did not enshrine either of the two set of vases. Question arises then who enshrined these relics.

4. According to the inscription on the Peppé casket, the Buddha relics where the share of Śākyans which they received at Kuśīnagara in 5th century BCE. However, neither of the two set of caskets discovered by Peppé and Srivastava belonged to the Śākyans. Question arises then what happened to the relic casket enshrined by the Śākyans.

5. Srivastava discovered four redware dishes along with the soapstone casket in each of the brick chambers. While the soapstone caskets contained the relics, the redware dishes were empty and damaged.  Question arises as to what is the significance of the empty redware dishes found in the two chambers excavated by Srivastava.

6. The Chinese monk pilgrims Faxian (Fahien, 5th century CE)  and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th century CE) who visited important Buddhist pilgrimage places like Lumbīnī and places of Kanakmuni and Krakchunda in the kingdom of Kapilavastu surprisingly do not make a mention about the relic stūpa at Piprāhwā.  Considering that the relic stūpa at Piprāhwā was one of the eight original relic stūpas constructed over the body relics of the Buddha, question arises why neither Faxian nor Xuanzang mentioned about it.

  In his book The Buddha and Dr Führer, Charles Allen attempts to analyse the findings at  Piprāhwā and resolve some of the conflicting issues. According to Allen, excavations at Piprāhwā establish it as relic stūpa. Initially the stūpa was a simple interment site created by Śākyan in 5th century BCE for the one-eighth of the corporeal relics of the Buddha they were apportioned at Kuśīnagara. The stūpa was raised by piling up natural earth from the surrounding area.

The stūpa was then rebuilt and enlarged three times (three phases): phase I (3rd century BCE); phase II (2nd century BCE); and phase III (1-2nd century CE) (refer to chart-1).

Phase I (3rd century BCE): Three steps were taken to enlarge the stūpa. First, the stūpa was opened up and two chambers of burnt bricks were constructed at the centre of the mud stūpa- the site of the original pit where Śākyans had deposited the relics in 5th century BCE-for protecting the relic caskets. Second, the original reliquary deposited by the Śākyans in the 5th century BCE was removed and replaced by two redware dishes. The two redware dishes containing the relics were then covered with similar redware dishes.  Third, the original mud stūpa was covered with a brick stūpa.

According to Allen, the brick encasing of the stūpa and placing of the relics in redware dishes could be the work of Aśoka (3rd century BCE). Based on these evidences, Allen believes that Aśoka did uncover the Piprāhwā stūpa and replaced the original Śākyan relic vase with the redware dishes. Based on writings from Buddhist literature, it may be conjectured that Aśoka also removed a part of Piprāhwā relics for enshrining in the 84,000 stūpas that he constructed all over the Indian subcontinent.

Phase II (2nd century BCE): Allen further believes that a century after Aśoka first opened the stūpa and replaced the Śākyan relic casket with the redware dishes, the stūpa was opened again in the 2nd century BCE. Although there is no evidence to suggest who opened the stūpa the second time, Allen believes that it was some powerful king in India, possibly a descendant of the Aśoka. This king divided the relics of the two redware dishes kept in the two brick chambers into two parts. He placed one part of the relics in two specially created soapstone caskets which he finally enshrined in the two brick chambers, and carried away the second part with him. After removing the relics from the redware dishes, he did not remove the empty redware dishes but placed them in two chambers along with the two soapstone caskets. According to Allen, these were the two soapstone caskets and four redware dishes that were discovered by Srivastava in 1971 at the depth of 19.7 ft.

Allen writes that with intent to earn more merit, the king returned to the Piprāhwā stūpa a few years later. He restored the part the Buddha relics that he had carried away with himself a few years ago along with hundreds of pieces of fine jewels and precious stones. He placed the relics and jewels in four soapstone caskets and a crystal vase put them all in a large sandstone coffer and deposited the coffer in the stūpa. This is the sandstone coffer containing the relic vases that was discovered by Peppé in 1898 at the depth of 18 ft. This king also further enlarged the stūpa.

Chart 1- Summary of Piprāhwā excavations and the finds
Phase III (1-2nd centuries CE): During this phase, which coincided with the Kuṣāṇ period, the stūpa was greatly enlarged reaching to a height of 6.35 m. A square base with niches was made. The Kuṣāṇ king who was in power at this time — either Kanishka or Huviska — did not disturb the relics enshrined in the stūpa. Instead, he donated a soapstone vase with jewels. This was the broken soapstone vase discovered by Peppé at the depth of 10 ft.

Based on a study of Allen’s writings, the only explanation for why both Faxian and Xuanzang do not mention about the stūpa at Piprāhwā seems to be that the stūpa and the monastery sites were probably abandoned in the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE and became obscure by the Faxian and Xuanzang visited its surroundings.

The relics and jewels discovered by Peppé were kept with him for more than a year at his house at Birdpur. The discovery of the corporeal relics of the Buddha was a very important news. In the months following their discovery, many people including eminent monks visited Birdpur to see and venerate the relics. During my visit to Piprāhwā on 17th April, I enquired about Peppé’s house at the Birdpur market. In the market, a boy showed me to a retired schoolteacher named Shri Ram Charan Yadav. Shri Yadav shared enthusiastically his memories of the excavations by Srivastava from 1971 to 1975. The Piprāhwā stūpa site is approximately 10 kms from Birdpur.
A part of the Piprāhwā Jewels currently in possession of Peppé family

Shri Yadav recalled that he and his friends often escorted Srivastava and his colleagues to Piprāhwā site on their bicycles because the roads were not good at that time and only a few horse carts could reach the Piprāhwā site. Shri Yadav, his friends and I took a walk to Peppé’s house popularly known as the ‘Banglā’. This Bangla — Peppé’s private bungalow — became a government inspection building in 1952 after the abolition of the Zamindari system. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama stayed at this bungalow twice: the first time in 1956, and the second time in 1959 when he came for pilgrimage to Lumbīnī and Piprāhwā. Shri Yadav explained that the bungalow has changed a lot in the last twenty years. The beautiful woodwork of the bungalow was replaced with concrete, and the bungalow now serves as the office of the Irrigation Department of the Government of Uttar Pradesh. Shri Yadav felt that Peppé’s house is an integral part of the story of the Piprāhwā relics, and therefore, should be given the status of a heritage building.

Shri Ram Charan Yadav in front of Peppé’s banglā (house), Birdpur, now it is office of Irrigation Department 
Shri Ram Charan Yadav sharing how the beautiful woodwork in Peppé’s house is now replaced with concrete

A year after the discovery of the relics at Piprāhwā in 1899, Peppé offered the relics, jewels and caskets to the British Government of India. According to the Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878, Peppé was given one-sixth of the finds (jewels). The sandstone coffer and caskets were deposited at the Indian Museum in Kolkata and the relics and jewels were offered to the King of Siam. The King of Siam offered a part of his portion of the relics and jewels to monasteries and temples all over the world. Relics from Piprāhwā currently reside in a number of locations except the place where they originally belong (refer to the chart 2). Shri Yadav and his friends believe that Piprāhwā relics belong to Piprāhwā and should be brought back to their home.

Chart 2- Summary of discovery of different relics and jewels and its present locations

The twenty-two pieces of bone fragments that were found in the two soapstone caskets discovered by Srivastava are currently locked away at National Museum in New Delhi. Shri Yadav feels that since these were enshrined in Piprāhwā for more than two thousand years before being carried to New Delhi, they should be restored, at least in part, to Piprāhwā. Shri Yadav’s view is noteworthy. Not the Piprāhwā relics only but almost all of the relics discovered in Indian subcontinent in last two centuries currently lie in museums under lock and key (refer to map 1). These relics are sacred object and should be accessible to everyone for worshiping. The ideal home for these relics, therefore, are the stūpa where they were originally enshrined.
Map 1- ‘Relics of Buddha’ discovered in India and their present location

The inscription on the casket containing the relics read that the relics of the Buddha were the belongings of Śākyans. The discovery of the Śākyans share of the Buddha relics at Piprāhwā suggested that Piprāhwā and its surroundings were an integral part of the kingdom of Kapilavastu. Government of India should not only restore the Piprāhwā relics back to Piprāhwā, but also integrate the sacred places associated with ancient kingdom of Kapilavastu that are on both sides of the border in India and Nepal and develop them under the banner of Kapilavastu Pilgrimage Circuit

Special Thanks to Aparajita Goswami


Allen, Charles; 2008, The Buddha and Dr Führer: An Archaeological Scandal (1st ed.). London: Haus Publishing.

Fleet, J.F; 1907, The Inscription on the Piprahwa Vase. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Jan.), pp. 105-130, Cambridge University Press.

Srivastava, K. M; 1980, Archaeological Excavations at Piprahwa and Ganwaria and the Identification of Kapilavastu.  The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume 3, Number 1, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

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

The ancient kingdom of Kapilavastu, mentioned in the Buddhist literature as located in the foothills of Himalayas, is situated across the present-day boundary between Nepal and India. The Buddhist sites of Kapilavastu, mentioned in the accounts of Chinese monk-scholars Faxian (Fahien, 5th century CE) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th century CE) and revealed in the excavations in the past century, lie on either side of the India-Nepal border. Consequently, both India and Nepal are responsible for protecting and promoting these sites. Ideally, both countries should join hands in developing a Kapilavastu Pilgrimage circuit that would integrate the sacred Buddhist pilgrimage places on either side of the border. However, due to the clashing claims between India and Nepal over the identification of ‘Palace City’ of Kapilavastu — both countries claim the ‘Palace City’ to be lying within their territory — an atmosphere of mistrust has developed between the two countries leading to distrust stalling the idea of ‘Kapilavastu Pilgrimage’ indefinitely. Let us understand this issue in detail.
         Map 1- Kapilavastu Pilgrimage Circuit based on the description of Xuanzang

The name Kapilavastu refers to the kingdom as well as the capital (administrative center) of the Śākya dynasty, ruled in the 6th century BCE by King Suddhodhana, the father of Prince Siddhārtha. Kapilavastu was the place where Siddhārtha (the Buddha) spent his boyhood before renouncing worldly pleasures in search of the truth. Faxian and Xuanzang both had visited the kingdom of Kapilavastu on their journey to the Buddhist scared places in India. Xuanzang writes that Kapilavastu was a kingdom with a circumference of 4000 Li (1300 kms approx.) in circumference. Faxian too mentions Kapilavastu as a country, but does not give its size. According to Xuanzang, the kingdom of Kapilavastu contained a ‘Royal City’ or ‘Capital’ within which was a ‘Palace City’ or ‘Inner City’ about 15 Li (5 kms approx.) in circumference. Faxian neither refers to ‘Royal City’ nor ‘Palace City,’ but instead mentions a ‘City of Kapilavastu’. Faxian’s descriptions of the ‘City of Kapilavastu’ and Xuanzang’s descriptions of ‘Palace City’ indicate that both are referring to a place where King Suddhodhana lived and the Bodhisattva Siddhārtha (the Buddha) spent his childhood. Xuanzang and Faxian both saw numerous shrines within the ‘Palace City’/‘City of Kapilavastu’ and in its neighbourhood to mark places associated with the Buddha, his mother, Mahāmayā, and his father, King Suddhodhana. Therefore, it may be concluded that Xuanzang’s ‘Palace City’ and Faxian's ‘City of Kapilavastu’ are the same place.

At the time of Faxian’s pilgrimage to India, Kapilavastu was already in ruins. Faxian saw only some monks and a score or two of families of common people at the ‘City of Kapilavastu’. Two centuries later, Xuanzang had a similar experience to share. He mentions of more than a thousand villages and monasteries lying in ruins in the kingdom of Kapilavastu. In spite of the kingdom being in ruins, both pilgrims found a small community of monks, who guided them to the sacred Buddhist pilgrimage places. The sacred places mentioned by them can be grouped into four set of places.
1. ‘Palace City’ (mentioned by Xuanzang)/‘City of Kapilavastu’ (mentioned by Faxian), henceforth referred to as ‘City’.
2. Place of Kanakmuni Buddha
3. Place of Krakachunda Buddha
4. Birth place of Gautama Buddha (Lumbīnī)

Both Faxian and Xuanzang, had visited all these places, but in different sequences. Faxian visited first the place of Krakachunda Buddha, from where he went to Kanakmuni Buddha and then to ‘City’. Xuanzang visited first the ‘City,’ from where he went to the places of Krakachunda and then Kanakmuni Buddha. Xuanzang mentions seeing three Aśokan pillars in Kapilavastu kingdom at the birthplace of the Buddha (Lumbīnī), the place of Kanakmuni Buddha and at the place of Krakachunda Buddha. Faxian is silent about these Aśokan pillars. In the 1890’s, three Aśokan pillars were actually discovered in Nepal at Rumandie, Niglivā and Gothiāwā. The pillars at Rumandie and Niglivā have Aśokan inscriptions dating from the 3rd century BCE establishing them to be the birth place of the Buddha (Lumbīnī) and the place of Kanakmuni Buddha respectively. Obviously, the third Pillar at Gothiāwā marks the place of Krakachunda Buddha. Some scholars conjectured that the Aśokan pillars at Rumadie, Niglivā and Gothiāwā were brought to these places from elsewhere. Research, however, shows their speculation to be incorrect.

                 Map 2- Map depicting pilgrimage of Faxian and Xuanzang in Kapilavastu kingdom

After the discovery of places of Kanakmuni Buddha, Krakachunda Buddha and Lumbīnī, the focus of archaeological exploration shifted to finding the fourth place — the ‘City’. Locating the site of the ‘City’ was not difficult because both Faxian and Xuanzang described the location of the ‘City’ with respect to the other three sites that were already established. When the early explorers who examined Faxian’s and Xuanzang’s description of the ‘City’ with respect to the sites of Lumbīnī, Niglivā and Gothiāwā — established on the basis of the Aśokan pillars as explained earlier — they found a contradiction. Faxian travelled 1 Yojan (10 kms approx.) in the East direction from Kanakmuni Place (Niglivā) to reach the ‘City;’ accordingly, the ‘City’ should be on and around B (refer to map 2). Xuanzang travelled 50 Li (16 km approx.) in the North direction of Karakchunda Place (Gothiāwā) to reach the ‘City;’ accordingly, the ‘City’ should be around A (refer to map 2). Summarising our findings till this point, we can say that if we follow Faxian’s descriptions, the ‘City’ lies at B, and if we follow Xuanzang’s descriptions, it lies around A.  Further in the puzzle over the identification of the ‘City,’ we find that the locations of B and A are substantially apart on the map. But since the ‘City’ can be located only in one of the two spots — B or A — we are led to conclude that either Faxian's or Xuanzang’s description is inaccurate. To establish whose description is accurate, let us examine their respective travel accounts further.
    Broken Aśokan Pillar at Lumbīnī at the time of discovery    Pic: ASI

                                 Broken Aśokan Pillar of Gothiāwā            Pic: Cambridge University Press
                               Broken Aśokan Pillar of Niglivā with inscriptions 

Faxian and Xuanzang both travelled from the ‘City’ to Lumbīnī. Faxian travelled 50 Li (15 kms approx.) in the East direction from the ‘City’ to reach Lumbīnī. Xuanzang, on the other hand, travelled 32 Li (10 km approx.) South-East of ‘City’ to reach the Arrow Spring, from where he travelled 90 Li (27 kms approx.) South-West to reach Lumbīnī. At present, Rumandie is identified with the site of Lumbīnī. If both Faxian and Xuanzang arrived at Lumbīnī from the ‘City’, then by charting their travel routes on the map, we should reach Rumandie. However, that is not so. Faxian’s description leads to point C (refer to map 2). This means that the distance and direction of the ‘City’ provided by Faxian are incorrect. The distance and directions of ‘City’ provided by Xuanzang, on the other hand, are consistent with respect to Lumbīnī (Rumandie) and two other Aśokan pillar sites. If we assume Xuanzang’s descriptions to be correct, then based on these descriptions, the most probable place for the ‘City’ of Kapilavastu appears to be in Tilaurakot and its surroundings (point A in map 2).

In 1962, at the request of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, Government of India appointed Ms. Debala Mitra, Superintendent of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), to survey Lumbīnī and its surrounding. Mitra excavated at Tilaurakot, but could not find anything substantial to support Tilaurakot as the remains of the ‘City’. Mitra’s findings were a disappointment for Nepal. In her book Buddhist Monuments, published in 1971, Mitra rejected Tilaurakot as the site of the ‘City,’ arguing that the ‘City’ instead was Piprāhwā and its surrounding that lay on the Indian side of the border.

Piprāhwā is a village in Siddharthnagar District of Uttar Pradesh in India. Piprāhwā is 16 kms away from Rumandie, which is in Nepal, and 1.5 kms away from the India-Nepal border. Piprāhwā is the place where in 1898, William Peppé discovered relics of the Buddha from an ancient stūpa mound. The inscription on one of the caskets containing the relics read that the relics of the Buddha were the belongings of Śākyans. We know that the Buddha belonged to the Śākya tribe, who were the rulers of the kingdom of Kapilavastu. The discovery of the Śākyans share of the Buddha relics at Piprāhwā suggested that Piprāhwā and its surroundings were not only an integral part of the kingdom of Kapilavastu but was also an important place for the Śākyans. Peppé had excavated only the most prominent mound at Piprāhwā which turned out to be the relic stūpa. The relic stūpa was surrounded by many other mounds. Mitra expected that these mounds would be the remains of Nyagrodha Monastery (Nyagrodhārāma).

According to Buddhist tradition, in the first year after his enlightenment the Buddha returned to Kapilavastu to meet his father, King Shuddhodhana. During this visit, the Buddha stayed at Nyagrodha Park. At the Nyagrodha Park, the Buddha preached the Dhamma to his father and his Śākyan brethren. Many Śākyans embraced the Buddha’s teachings and joined the Saṅgha. A monastery was built later at this place for the Śākyans who became monks. This monastery was the Nyagrodhārāma. According to Xuanzang, the Nyagrodha Monastery was 3-4 Li (approx. 1 km.) South of the ‘City’.  

Mitra expected the excavations at Piprāhwā to yield some inscription that would confirm the site as the remains of the Nyagrodha Monastery. If Piprāhwā could be identified as the site of the Nyagrodha Monastery, then ’City’ would be 1 km south of Piprāhwā — on the Indian side. To substantiate her claim that the ‘City’ was in the vicinity of Piprāhwā, Mitra referred to the accounts of Faxian. Faxian travelled from Kanakmuni Place in the East direction to reach the ‘City,’ and from the ‘City’ he travelled further East to reach Lumbīnī (refer to map 2). If Faxian reached Lumbīnī by travelling in the East direction from the ‘City’, then it means that the ‘City’ was in the West of Lumbīnī. Based on this logic, Mitra argued that the ‘City’ should be in the West of Rumandie - point D in map 2 - which coincides with Piprāhwā and its surrounding. We may say that Mitra’s argument is not justified because she bases her theory on Faxian’s accounts. On the Map 2, we see that Piprāhwā is on the West of Rumandie, which is the site already identified as Lumbīnī. However, Faxian’s Lumbīnī should be at spot B in Map 2. Piprāhwā is not on the West of spot B.  Hence, Piprāhwā cannot be the site of the ‘City’ according to Faxian's reference.

Mitra’s reports encouraged Mr. K M Srivastava, Superintendent Archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India to take up excavations in Piprāhwā and other potential mounds in the its neighbourhood. Hoping to find some evidence that would help in linking Piprāhwā to the ‘City,’ Srivastava began excavating at Piprāhwā in 1971. Excavation revealed that the Relic stūpa of Piprāhwā was surrounded by three monasteries. Many monastic seals were also discovered. These were classified into three sets. (1) The first set of seals read Om Devaputra Vihare Kapilavastu Bhikkhusaṁghasa (Om of the community of monks of Kapilavastu in the monastery of kanishka/ huvishka). Twenty-one such seals were discovered. The word Devaputra (son of the gods) was an honorific title used by Kuṣāṇ king, Kanishka (126-150 century CE) and his successor, Huvishka (150-193 century CE). (2) The second set of seals read Maha Kapilavastu Bhikshusaṁghasa (Of the community of Buddhist monks of great Kapilavastu). Thirteen such seals were found belonging to the Kuṣāṇ period (2nd century BCE – 3rd century CE). (3) The third set of seals carried names of monks. The inscriptions on the three sets of seals together proved that the monasteries of Piprāhwā were established by Kuṣāṇ kings for the community of monks of the kingdom of Kapilavastu.

Unfortunately for Srivastava Piprāhwā turned out to be Maha Kapilavastu Monastery and not Nyagrodha monastery as predicted by Mitra. So, ideally this was a closed case but Srivastava still conducted more excavation in the south side of Piprāhwā, at a village called Ganwariyā, hoping to find the remains of the palace of King Suddhodana, and thereby establish the place as the site of the ‘City’. Srivastava’s excavations, however, revealed Ganwariyā to be another monastic site like Piprāhwā. In 1976, three years after the excavations at Piprāhwā and Ganwariyā, the findings from these places were made public through a news item in The Times of India tilted ‘Buddha’s Lost City of Kapilavastu Found.’ People in Nepal saw this as India’s plot to deny Nepal claim over the Buddha’s homeland. The claim of Indian archaeologists of having discovered the ‘City’ or even of the ‘City’ being on the Indian side of the India-Nepal border is controversial because, as we have seen, it lacks supporting evidence.

                                                       Excavated monastic remains of Piprāhwā

                                                 Excavated monastic remains of Ganwariyā
Explorers and archaeologists like Alexander Cunningham, who successfully identified many ancient places mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang, found that Faxian’s descriptions were often inconsistent in terms of distance and direction of places. Consequently, they preferred to rely on the descriptions of Xuanzang. Mitra and Srivastava, on the other hand, based their excavation and analysis on Faxian’s description of the ‘City’ rather Xuanzang’s, without explaining why they did so.

Mitra and Srivastava both failed to notice the error in Faxian’s description. A careful study of the descriptions by Faxian and Xuanzang and a little observation should have helped them to realize that if we change Faxian’s direction of travel from the Place of Kanakmuni Buddha (identified as Niglivā) to the ‘City’ from East to West then the description of the ‘City’ and its neighbouring places including the Arrow Spring and Lumbīnī provided by Faxian coincide with the descriptions provided by Xuanzang. Map 3 shows Xuanzang’s route according to his description, and Faxian’s route with the direction of travel changed from East to West (refer to map 3). In the map, we see that the travel routes of Xuanzang and Faxian actually coincide (or are similar), once we take Faxian’s direction of travel as West instead of East.
                   Map 3- Map depicting travel of Xuanzang and Faxian (after ‘correction’) 

A team from Bradford University conducted a study in 1997 using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and found substantial evidence supporting Tilaurakot as the most likely place of the site of the ‘City’. It may be argued that since no inscriptions have been found at Tilaurakot, the place cannot be conclusively identified as the ‘City’. However, we know many of the important Buddhist pilgrimage places which were identified in the last century, namely Griddhakūṭa (Vulture’s peak), Veḷuvana (Bamboo’s grove), Saṅkāsya, Prāgbodhi, Brahmayoni, were identified on the basis of circumstantial evidences, that is to say, on the basis of descriptions provided by Faxian and Xuanzang. In the case of locating the site of the ‘City’, circumstantial evidences are strongly pointing to Tilaurakot and its surroundings.  

At present, India and Nepal both are promoting their claims of Kapilavastu causing a deadlock in archaeological exploration, analysis and identification. The attitudes of both the countries are criticisable because we know that boundaries of ancient kingdoms were not constant. Since Kapilavastu is an ancient kingdom, in the modern times, its parts may be spread across Nepal and India. Findings at Piprāhwā and Ganwariyā confirm that the remains of the Buddhist Kapilavastu are scattered on either side of the India-Nepal border. Xuanzang mentions about more than a thousand monasteries laying in ruins in Kapilavastu. The governments of India and Nepal should work together to explore, document, identify and develop the sites mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang around the ‘City’, such as the place where after his enlightenment, the Buddha was received by his father, King Suddhodhana, for the first time, the place where the Bodhisattva Siddhārtha became absorbed in Sāmādhi (deep meditation) while watching ploughmen at work, and other places around the ‘City’ related with the Buddha. The governments of India and Nepal should also together develop the sacred places of Kapilavastu on either side of the India-Nepal border, such as Lumbīnī, Gothiāwā, Niglivā, Piphrāhwā, Ganwariyā and Tilaurakot, and promote pilgrimage and tourism to these places under the banner of the ‘Kapilavastu Buddha Trail’.

Tilaaurakot Area

Special Thanks to Aparajita Goswami


Allen, Charles (2008). The Buddha and Dr Führer: An Archaeological Scandal (1st ed.). London:                                           Haus Publishing.

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

Srivastava, K. M; 1980, Archaeological Excavations at Piprahwa and Ganwaria and the                                  Identification of Kapilavastu.  The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume 3,  Number 1, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA.

Watters, Thomas; 2004, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, (Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and  S.W.                           Bushell), Reprinted in LPP 2004, Low Price Publications, Delhi. (First published by  Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1904-05).