SRAVASTIOn Buddha Jayanti, a journalist pays homage to a town that she was named after that dates back to the Buddha’s time
From my childhood, I have had to explain the spelling and meaning of my name to most people. Hardly anyone had a name like mine, in those days. Some Bengalis, however, are aware of Sravasti due to its mention in two well-known poems – Nagarlakshmi by Rabindranath Tagore and Banalata Sen by Jibanananda Das.
Due to the above, I felt a connection with this city that I knew was part of ancient India during the Buddha’s time. Came to know much later that it still existed in Uttar Pradesh. It topped my bucket list but remained a distant dream for years. After decades and multiple failed attempts, I managed to visit this Buddhist pilgrimage, in February 2023.
I dedicate this article to my parents.
Lying in the plains below the Himalaya near where the West Rapti River flows down from Nepal, Sravasti is a sleepy agricultural district in India’s Uttar Pradesh state.
Sravasti dates back to the Purana literature of ancient India. As the prosperous capital of Kosala, an important kingdom among the 16 Mahajanapadas, Sravasti was a political, economic, religious and philosophers’ hub during the 5th and 6th century BCE.
It is extensively cited in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and later Hindu texts of Harshcharita and Kathasaritsagar. The Ramayana cites Lord Rama dividing Kosala into two parts, giving Sravasti to Luv and Kushavati to Kush.
In the Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana, the town is said to have been built by a Suryavanshi king named Sravasta, the son of King Srava. In the Ajivika and Jain literatures, it has been referred to as Saravana, Kunalnagari and Chandrikapuri.
Sravasti is called Sahet-Mahet in archaeological research papers. In 1862-63, Alexander Cunningham discovered mounds and identified Mahet as the actual ancient mud-walled city of Sravasti that was damaged during excavation. Bordering Mahet was the smaller site of Sahet, which Cunningham recognised as Jetavana.
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Gautama Buddha spent 24 monsoons after his enlightenment here, imparting many of his sermons, converted most of his famous disciples, and performed the Twin Miracle. Consequently, Sravasti features among the eight most significant sites of the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit.
Ancient idols of Sita and Lakshman were unearthed in Sitadwar in Tenduwa Mahant, Bahraich. Supposedly, this was where Valmiki’s ashram was located. Lakshman left Sita nearby. When she was thirsty, Lakshman made a hole in the ground with his arrow that transformed into a 365 hectare scenic lake, the biggest in the area.
Sita spent her exile here. Luv and Kush were born and raised in the nearby forest. The simple Sita and Valmiki temples are regularly visited by devotees during Akshay Navami, Devotthani Ekadasi and Kartik Purnima when an annual fair is held. The historical authenticity is difficult to determine.
Prithvinath and Pacharannath Temples
These temples in Khargupur, Gonda, in Sravasti district are located close to each other. Legend says that the five Pandavas established four Shivalingams in this area of Chakranagari during their Agyatvas. Bhim and Arjun established Prithvinath and Pacharannath temples, respectively.
The Prithvinath temple might have been built by the Gahadavala kings (11th -12th century CE) and renovated in 1282 CE by Ram Chandra Paramhans Giri. The lingam and a copper plate grants were excavated from under a six-metre high mound. The well-kept temple is made of bricks, stone and limestone, and has a sanctum sanctorum with a circumambulatory path. The lingam, apparently the world’s tallest, goes 11m below ground.
The Pacharannath temple, however, is ill-maintained. The structure of the temple is similar but not painted, with plants growing roots and parrots finding a resting place on the tower. The lingam is much smaller. The priests’ families have served the temples for generations, but do not have much information about them.
Archaeological expeditions in Sravasti were led by Cunningham and thereafter by Dr Hoe, Dr Vogel, Dr K K Sinha and Archaeological Survey of India in association with the Archaeological Research Institute of Kansai University in Japan. Cunningham unearthed several temples and monasteries, including the Mulagandha Kuti in Jetavana and inscriptions of Gahadavala kings Madanpal and Govind Chandra confirmed donations by these kings to the Jetavana Viharas. Excavations led by Dr Sinha exposed terracotta figurines of the Mother Goddess, a Naga and several Mithuna idols.
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Japanese archaeologists dug deeper layers and unearthed relics from the 8th century BCE. Sravasti was damaged by annual floods and fires, and citizens tried rebuilding the monuments repeatedly. Excavations at Mahet revealed well-planned houses with proper sanitation and drainage, temples, stupas, fort and watch towers.
Some findings in Mahet were the remains of Jain art and architecture belonging to the 4th century BCE to 12th century CE. After that these were most probably destroyed when Alauddin Khilji raided Sravasti.
In contrast to Sravasti’s violent destruction, serenity prevails in all its Jain and Buddhist sites today. Tourists rarely visit these well-preserved brick ruins. The sprawling rectangular courtyard of the Jain temple of Bhagwan Sambhavnath or Shobhnath seems soaked in peace. A converging flight of steps leads to the 2.5m x 2.5m shrine.
From the top-most platform, several smaller ruins can be seen below. The temple has distinctive architectural features with two courtyards at different levels and instead of a spire, has an Iranian style lakhauri brick vault, of which only half remains. The inner wall of the sanctum has niches where Jain idols must have been kept. Idols of all 24 Tirthankaras and an almost 1,000-year-old seated idol of Bhagwan Rishabhdeo, engraved on a flat stone, were discovered with carvings of an ox, lions and yaksha.
This is the birthplace of the revered third and eighth Jain Tirthankaras Bhagwan Sambhavnath and Chandraprabha. The Ajivika literatures state that Guru Gosal Mankhaliputra was born in Sravasti.
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A few kilometres away from the Jain temple, lie the monuments of the Sudatta Stupa or Kachchi Kuthi and the Angulimala Stupa or Pakki Kuthi. The excavations revealed ruins of brick stupas, shrines, residences and 300 terracotta panels, illustrating scenes from the Ramayana in the Gupta style.
Fa Hien, the Chinese Buddhist Monk, visited Sravasti in the 5th Century CE, during the reign of Chandragupta II. He observed that the flourishing Buddhist cities had lost their importance. Only 200 families inhabited Sravasti but the roads were safe to travel. When another Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang came to Sravasti, it was in wild ruins inhabited by honest citizens. There were hundreds of dilapidated Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples.
Hiuen Tsang identified the foundations of the old ‘Palace city’, ruins of the chapel that Prasenjit built for Gautama Buddha, the nunnery of Bhikkhuni Prajapati, the site of Sudatta’s house, and the stupa where Angulimala gave up his evil ways to become the Buddha’s devout disciple and saint.
The Angulimala Stupa is a terraced monument on a rectangular platform that is undergoing maintenance. It has signs of structural modifications of different periods, maybe starting from the Kushan Age. Fa Hien determined that this was where Angulimala was cremated. A tunnel through the mound, drainage for floodwater and constructional supports were made during excavation to preserve the memorial.
Sudatta, the Buddha’s chief male patron, was popularly addressed as Anathapindika. The Sudatta Stupa has a gradual flight of terracotta steps that leads to a platform from where the sunken substructures of two circular stupas are. The stupa is impressive and has remains of several alterations done during the 1st to 12th centuries CE.
Fa Hien noted that the stupa was erected on the foundation of Sudatta’s house. However, the numerous relics and ruins excavated here reveal that there might have been a Brahmanical temple from the Gupta period below a Buddhist tope from the Kushan period.
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Sahet lies outside Sravasti/Mahet, and Fa Hien identified this as the Jetavan Vihara. He saw two 17m high stone pillars – one on each side of the east gate, reportedly built by Emperor Ashok when he visited in 249 BCE. The sole structure that remained was a brick building containing a 1.3m high image of the Buddha created by King Prasenjit.
Hiuen Tsang mentioned only the Jetavana monastery, the ruins of which are from 1st and 2nd century CE. Among them, the earliest unearthed artefact possibly from the Mauryan era was a sandstone casket with bone relics, a gold leaf and a silver punched coin.
Jetavana is of great religious importance. Gautama Buddha spent 18-19 monsoons here and six monsoons at the Purvarama Vihara. Scholars believe that 871 suttas of Buddhist canons were imparted in Sravasti.
Anathapindika built a spacious monastery for the Buddha to stay, in a peaceful and secluded garden named Jetavana (Garden of Jeta), outside the south gate of Sravasti. He bought the land from Prince Jeta, son of King Prasenjit of Kosala.
The aura of this historical park with lush foliage bordering the walls and the cloisters is most sublime during sunset and dawn. Monks in kasayas and international pilgrims, mostly wearing white, offer homage with incense sticks and flowers at the bases of the different brick temples. Soft, solemn chanting and the scent of incense sticks permeate the air. The monuments are well- marked with relevant information. Gautama Buddha’s residence with his bed, the Gandhakuti, used to be a 7-storeyed sandalwood building that was later destroyed by a fire. Beside this is the Kosambikuti, the Buddha’s meditation room. Opposite lies Stupa H, where he delivered his sermons. Adjoining are a well where he bathed and two elevated rectangular brick terraces marking the original promenade where he went for walks.
Above the stupas is the now fenced and propped ancient Anand Bodhi tree. Anathapindika planted a sapling from the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya to offer prayers during the Buddha’s periods of absence from Jetavan.
Some of the stupas are devoted to the great disciples. The largest structure, Temple and Monastery 19, has a shrine, a well within the courtyard, a portico and 21 cells for the monks’ use. An engraved copper plate charter of Govindachandra of Kanauj and a sculpture showing the Buddha receiving a bowl from a monkey, belonging to the 10th century CE. were found here.
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On the highway near Jetavan lies the Orajhar mound. After hiking up a worn-out trail to the top, a stunning 360o view greet the pilgrims who meditate in the middle of a star-shaped monastic complex from the Kushan period.
The Buddha performed the Twin Miracle here. He silenced his pedantic dissenters by creating a jewelled walk in the air and standing on it. He levitated on a thousand-petalled lotus and appeared in pairs of opposite characters, producing fire from the upper part of his body and streams of water from the bottom part. The Miracle lasted for days, during which the Buddha gave sermons answering various philosophical questions.
A few metres away from the Orajhar Mound is the Purvaram or Pubbarama Monastery. A narrow road winds into an isolated semi-forest area to reveal a raised ground with the stump of an Ashokan Pillar. Two rusted boards declare it to be the monastery erected by Mrigara Mata Vishakha. Alongside the pillar is a semi-dark modern room, inside which are a few broken relics of red stone and a Buddha idol donated by the Thais. Regular thefts have depleted the monastery of many more artefacts.
Vishakha, an aristocratic lady, donated 90 million worth of gold coins towards the Buddhist Sangha and built this two-storeyed vihara with meditation halls and 500 residential rooms for monks and nuns on each floor. Of the 24 monsoons that the Buddha spent in Sravasti, 6 were spent here where he preached 23 important discourses.
King Ashoka visited Sravasti in 232 BCE and erected the pillar which was 20m long and thicker at the base. The Archaeological Survey of India excavated only 2.2m. It was damaged during the Hun and Muslim invasions in 512 CE and between the 9th and 12th century CE, respectively. It is now being worshipped as a Shivalinga.
The simplicity and peacefulness of these religious sites steeped in history raise a dichotomous question: Should this lesser known gem of a historical city be advertised in the tourism world and be subjected to commercialism? Or, should it be allowed to retain its austerity and tranquility that is so ideal for Buddhism?
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Sravasti Ghosh Dastidar is a photographer, travel and lifestyle journalist. [email protected]