Revisiting Ancient Buddhist India

Long ago there was a Korean monk named Hyecho 慧超 (704–787) who in the 8th century traveled from China to India and back. This was a time long before the comforts and security of modern travel, where much of the journey was done on foot, which took considerable time and energy. Like his predecessors Faxian (338-c423), Xuanzang (602–664) and Yijing (635–713), he also kept a travelogue detailing his journey, entitled Memoir of a Pilgrimage to the Five Indian Kingdoms (Krn. Wang Ocheonchukguk Jeon 徃五天竺國傳). While born in Silla, at a young age he seems to have departed his home to study Buddhism in China. At some point he had the inclination to travel abroad and like a number of other monks during the Tang Dynasty he set out for India.


In 723 he departed China from Guangzhou by ship and arrived in eastern India some time later, thereupon visiting various places such as Kushinagar, Kapilavastu and Varanasi before leaving India west via Karasahr. His journey took him north and west through modern day Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran before arriving back in China in 729.


Having personally visited several of the sites he himself went to some thirteen or fourteen centuries before I did, it is interesting for me to envision how he saw things from how I did. Furthermore, we also have the travelogues of other pilgrims from East Asia which we might consult and compare. This enabled me while travelling in India and Nepal to appreciate the historical richness of several ancient sites while also personally in a sense reliving the trip as some pilgrims many centuries had done before me.

Hyecho arrived in India by sea and then slowly made his way to Kushinagar, the site where the Buddha passed away. He describes it as follows.


《遊方記抄》卷1:「一月至拘尸那國。佛入涅槃處。其城荒廢。無人住也。佛入涅槃處置塔。有禪師在彼掃灑。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2089, p. 975, a27-29)

"After a month I arrived at Kushinagar, the site where the Buddha entered parinirvāṇa. The city is desolate and nobody lives there. There is a stūpa built where the Buddha entered parinirvāṇa. There is a master there who mops it."

Now, curiously, he refers only to what is presumably Parinirvāṇa Stūpa (pictured to the right), the site where the Buddha passed away, but not Makutabandhana, otherwise called Ramabhar Stūpa, which is where the Buddha's body was cremated. It makes one wonder why he did not mention the other notable stūpa as they are in short walking distance of each other. This might be due to the fact there were at the time many other stūpas which Xuanzang in the previous century provided detailed descriptions for.

Xuanzang also makes mention of the site which is now called Parinirvāṇa Stūpa as follows.

《大 唐西域記》卷6:「城西北三四里,渡阿恃多伐底河。西岸不遠,至娑羅林。其樹類槲,而皮青白,葉甚光潤。四樹特高,如來寂滅之所也。其大甎精舍中作如來涅 槃之像,北首而臥。傍有窣堵波,無憂王所建,基雖傾陷,尚高二百餘尺。前建石柱,以記如來寂滅之事,雖有文記,不書日月。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 903, b14-21)

"Northwest of the city three or four li one crosses the Ajitavatī River. The west bank is not far and one arrives at the śāla trees. The tree is a type of oak (hu 槲) and the bark is greenish-white with the leafs quite glossy and smooth. The four trees are especially tall. It is where the Tathāgata passed away. Inside the great brick temple there is a statue of the Tathāgata's parinirvāṇa. The head is to the north and it is lying down. To the side there is a stūpa built by King Aśoka. Even though it has collapsed it is still more than two-hundred chi tall. In the front there is raised a stone pillar recording the event of the Tathāgata's passing away. Although there is a written record, there is not written the day or month."

Remarkably, even today you can see this statue that he describes. As one might see in the photograph, the statue is laying down with the head facing north. It was excavated in the 19th century by archaeologists and given its age it is in quite good condition. There is also indeed something remarkable about reading Xuanzang's account from the 7th century and seeing in the 21st century the same statue he laid eyes upon.



It is notable here that the stūpa had collapsed with no mention of it being repaired. This may indicate the decline of Buddhism in India at the time. Interestingly, at the same time Nālandā University was operating and perhaps even flourishing with erudite figures like Candrakīrti on the faculty. Nevertheless, according to Xuanzang sites like Kushinagar and Lumbini were being poorly maintained. This suggests that while Buddhism was thriving amongst intelligentsia, it had lost much of the popular support it once held with the common people who would otherwise tend to such holy sites. One contributing factor that is cited in Buddhism's decline in India is that over time it gradually ceased being relevant to the common people and thus came to live on only amongst intellectuals.

Xuanzang also describes what appears to be Ramabhar Stūpa, a short distance from the aforementioned statue.

《大唐西域記》卷6:「城北渡河三百餘步,有窣堵波,是如來焚身之處。地今黃黑,土雜灰炭,至誠求請,或得舍利。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 904, b11-13)

"Crossing the river north of the city and walking about three-hundred steps there is a stūpa, which is place where the Tathāgata's body was burned. The earth is now yellowish-black with the soil a mix of ash and charcoal. With utmost sincere requests some go to obtain relics (śarīra)."

A few centuries earlier in the early 5th century Faxian seems to have come from the opposite direction.

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「從此東行四由延到炭塔。亦有僧伽藍。復東行十二由延到拘夷那竭城。城北雙樹間希連禪河邊。世尊於此北首而般泥洹。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 861, c1-4)

"From here going east four yojanas one arrives at the cremation stūpa. There is also a monastery. Going further east twelve yojanas one arrives at the city of Kuśinagara. North of the city there among the twinned trees on the banks of the Nairañjanā River the World Honored One laid his head to the north and [passed into] pariṇirvāṇa."

In the present day there is no river alongside this purported site where the Buddha passed away. That river is somewhat to the south. In all likelihood the course of the river has changed over the many centuries since Faxian visited said location. The present location of the river relative to the stūpa can be seen in the lower left corner of the following image.


Faxian also remarks that the city when he visited it was sparsely populated and largely deserted besides the monks and some families. Judging from the aforementioned records we can assume that Kushinagar was not a major center of learning or practice for Buddhists. In the 8th century when Hyecho visited it seemed all but one lonely master was left to do the mopping. This also perhaps indicates the slow decline of Buddhism on the subcontinent. Either for lack of resources or apathy the Buddhists at the time did not invest much resources in such a holy site.

This seems to have also been the case with Lumbini and Kapilavastu (now close to the Indian border in Nepal), where the Buddha was born and raised.

Hyecho makes the following brief comments on the state of Kapilavastu:

《遊方記抄》卷1:「迦毘耶羅國。即佛本生城。無憂樹見在。彼城已廢。有塔無僧。亦無百姓。... 林木荒多。道路足賊。往彼禮拜者。甚難方迷。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2089, p. 976, a2-5)

"The country of Kapilavastu. It is where the Buddha was originally born and the city [where he was raised]. The aśoka tree [under which the Buddha was born] is still extant. The city has been abandoned. There are stūpas, but no monks. There is also no populace. The forests are much neglected. The roads are full of bandits. Those going there to pay respects have much difficulty and become lost."

Xuanzang in the previous century recorded his observations in more details as follows.


《大 唐西域記》卷6:「劫比羅伐窣堵國,周四千餘里。空城十數,荒蕪已甚。王城頹圮,周量不詳。其內宮城周十四五里,壘甎而成,基跡峻固。空荒久遠,人里稀 曠。無大君長,城各立主。土地良沃,稼穡時播。氣序無愆,風俗和暢。伽藍故基千有餘所,而宮城之側有一伽藍,僧徒三千餘人,習學小乘正量部教。天祠兩所, 異道雜居。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 900, c22-29)

"The country of Kapilavastu is more than four-thousand li in circumference. There are tens of empty cities, truly abandoned and overgrown with weeds. The king's city is decrepit. The measurements for the circumference are unclear. Within there is the palace, fourteen or fifteen li in circumference built of layered bricks, the remains of the foundation tall and solid. They have long been emptied and abandoned. The villages of the people are rare and scarce. There are great lords or chiefs and the cities individually elect their headmen. The land is fertile. Sowing or harvesting they are often seeding. The order of the seasons is without lapse. Their culture is gentle and kind. There are more than a thousand old foundations for temples, though on the side of the palace there is one temple with over three thousand monks who study the Hīnayāna Saṃmitīya-nikāya teachings. There are two Hindu sites and the different paths reside together."

Clearly the local society had once undergone catastrophe, but at this point it seems to have recovered. The people are seen to be secure in their agriculture and friendly in their dispositions. However, said realm was once a major Buddhist culture, but in Xuanzang's time it was largely all but ruins that remained of its former glory. This was not unlike what Xuanzang encountered in his journey through what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan - old monasteries, once thriving and active, all but abandoned and desolate.

Faxian also visited the location in the 5th century and noted the desolation.

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「從此東行減一由延到迦維羅衛城。城中都無王民甚丘荒。止有眾僧民戶數十家而已。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 861, a22-24)

"From here going east less than a yojana away one arrives at the city of Kapilavastu. Inside the city there is neither king nor citizens and it is quite desolate. There are only the monks and some tens of households."

Fortunately for Faxian he was able to find Lumbini, the site of the Buddha's birth.

《高僧法顯傳》卷1:「城東五十里有王園。園名論民。夫人入池洗浴出池。北岸二十步舉手攀樹枝東向生太子。太子墮地行七步。二龍王浴太子。身浴處遂作井。及上洗浴池。今眾僧常取飲之。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2085, p. 861, b6-10)

"Fifty li east of the city there is a regal park. The park is called Lumbinī. The lady [i.e., the Buddha's mother] entered the pond to wash and then came out. Walking twenty steps from the north bank she raised her hands, holding onto the branch of a tree and facing east the prince was born. The prince fell to the earth and walked seven steps. Two nāga kings washed the prince. The place where his body was washed there then was created a well [from which], along with the above pond [which the lady] bathed in, the monks now often take [water from] and drink."

As to the reason why Kapilavastu ended up in such desolation it probably begun with the assault by Virūḍhaka, king of Kośala, who laid waste to the realm and slaughtered five hundred members of the Śākyas. This was during the Buddha's lifetime. However, it is unlikely this was the sole reason for the eventual abandonment of tens of cities.

It has been a joy for me to be able to revisit ancient Indian sites that correspond to the details in travelogues written by travellers centuries ago. It is a kind of applied scholarship that I imagine archaeologists can appreciate. To read these accounts and consider how things have changed and what things have stayed the same is also an exercise in analyzing history itself.

One last thing to consider is that these travelogues are often the only witness accounts we have for many of the regions they visited throughout those centuries. If it was not for these accounts our understanding might otherwise be strictly limited to scarce references and archaeological reports. As eyewitness historical documents they are extremely valuable. This makes reliving them as a modern pilgrim all the more interesting.

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