Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Of Kites, Bribes and Relics

It has been a wonderful journey so far with my kite photographer friend, Yves Guichard. For the past eight years, we have been playing with a kite attached with a camera, viewing beautiful Buddhist monuments of Bihār and successfully capturing some breathtaking images of many sacred Buddhist sites in BihārOnce again after a gap of four years, we took the Mahāparinirvāṇa trail, the last journey of the Buddha. The objective was to once again capture some of the stūpas along this trail. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was not on our side. With cloudy weather when we left Nālandā on the 28th of February, we still wanted to take a chance that the weather would turn favourable the next day. The last journey of the Buddha started from Griddhakūṭa (Vulture’s Peak). Moving in stages he touched present day Silāo, Nālandā, Patnā then crossed the Ganges, stopping here and there until he reached Vaiśālī.

Our First stopover is a village called Birpur in Vaiśālī district.  Xuanzang visited many sacred places in the vicinity of Vaiśālī during his pilgrimage in the 7th CE. The places visited by Xuanzang in Vaiśālī may be broadly divided into six groups. Three of these include the Ashokan Pillar site, Royal Precinct and Relic Stupa that have been correctly identified. One was the place where Mahāpajāpati Gotami, the foster mother of Buddha, and also the first of the ordained Bhikkhuni, attained nirvāṇa. In the course of the GIS study of Xuanzang’s description, I realized that Birpur could be that place. A few elderly people of Birpur joined in to help us with the survey. With their help we reached a place that up until a few years ago had a few mounds. These had been bulldozed, apparently for the dirt that was needed to create a new railway track being laid. I felt bad. I was in Vaiśālī in 2010, surveying villages. Had I visited Birpur in 2010, the story would have been different; at least we could have taken some pictures for future research that an ancient mound had existed at this place.  A large part of the places mentioned by Xuanzang are still buried under layers of biomass. The initial revelation was led by some very enthusiast, passionate western explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The entire work of exploration, excavation, conservation, etc was institutionalized and the ASI was formed. Identification, excavation and conservation is a time-taking process and might take centuries to reveal Xuanzang’s complete pilgrimage. To begin with, we should have had a projection of Xuanzang’s description completed by now and villages and places that fall under it being informed with an information board put in place. Awareness is the key.  Many of the heritage sites are vandalized out of ignorance and this could be avoided if we generate awareness. Unfortunately the passion and commitment with which the ASI was formed in the 1860’s is now lost, buried deeper than the archaeological remains itself.                                                                                                                                                 
Yves Guichard (in center) at Birpur
                                                                                                     Next, we reached Kesariyā, the place where stands a majestic 110 ft stupa to commemorate the offering of the bowl by the Buddha to the people of Vaiśālī. With efforts of Dr. K K Muhammad the process of scientific clearance of the Kesariyā mound was initiated in 2000. Due to some complications, the excavation was halted. It was a nice feeling to see the scientific clearance of the stupa being restarted. A very welcome news indeed; hopefully in next few years the complete stupa will be revealed.

We also captured the dark side (unexcavated side) of the Kesariyā stūpa. Not sensational news like the announcement of the first pictures of the dark side of the moon taken by soviet capsule Luna-3 in 1959, but to me this image of the unexcavated side of stupa is equally fascinating as it revealed part of the stupa. Just imagine a large lump of earth with dense vegetation in the middle of nowhere. This led to variety of local legends. Cunningham in 1861 was told by the local people that in ancient times King Bena along with his family burned himself inside the mound after his wife drowned in the nearby tank. Therefore, the Kesariyā mound was locally called ‘Rajā Bena ke deorā’. In an excavation in 2000, it was revealed to be a terraced stupa, one-of-kind in the Buddhist World.   
Aerial view of Kesariyā stūpa

                                                                                                      After we finished taking the pictures with the kite, I was approached by two officials who were supervising scientific clearance work of the Kesariyā stūpa. They told me that it is a ASI protected site and photography was not allowed. I should have taken their permission. They allowed us to take pictures and for that we should pay them Rs. 2000. Whooping large amount! They further added how all the tourists (mainly foreigners) pay them 2000 bucks for being allowed to take pictures. So much of easy money! Feeling envious of these guys!

Further north (of the Kesariyā stūpa) are remains of some huge structure, locally called as ‘rani ki vass’ meaning the Queen’s place.  Cunningham in 1862 saw a life size image of Buddha, a common feature south of Ganges (Magadha) but a rarity in the north of Ganges. This must be a very important pilgrimage place as remains are spread in a large area. The place was vandalized in the 1880’s and a large number of bricks were removed for some construction (Road?). On his second visit in 1881 he found the image of the Buddha missing. Cunningham reported ‘removed by a Bengali gentleman from Ramgarh Indigo Factory and its current whereabouts are unknown.’ Recently I was told that the Buddha image is kept at Indian Museum, Kolkotta. Does Bihār realize the kind of potential it holds in terms of Buddhist pilgrimage? All it has to do is to open ‘rani ki vaas’ mound (excavation) and reinstate the life-size Buddha from Kolkotta museum here (restoration). But I don’t see this happening anytime soon. It’s just too complicated!                                                               
'Rani ki Vaas' Mound
On 1st March we reached Sofā temple on the banks of the Pandai River.  The existing temple has been built over the remains of an ancient Hindu temple. We wanted to take an aerial picture of the temple but the wind was blowing too hard to play with the kite and soon it started drizzling. 
Sofā temple in the middle of river bed.

Sofā temple, new temple and the scattered ancient remains

                                                                                                       Our last stop of this Mahaparinirvana trail was the twin pillar site of Rampurwā. Rampurwā is the only place where two Ashokan Pillars have been discovered in close proximity. And this is very intriguing. I believe this site should be the true Kuśinagara, the place where the Buddha attained Nirvāa. For detail, you may visit my blog post Rampurwā: A compelling case of Kuśinārā.

At Rampurwā, I was extremely happy to see a Buddha statue installed over one of the stupa mounds. I was told by the local Hindu priest that a group of Vietnamese pilgrims enshrined this image last year.  So, it is no more only an Archaelogical site, the first step towards restoration of its livingness has begun.  For us these are ‘Ashokan Pillar’ (Inscribed or not) to them they are ‘Dhamma Pillars’ (the Pillars have Dhamma edicts). To us Ashoka installed them on trade routes but for them Ashoka marked sacred footsteps of the Buddha with Pillars with and without Dhamma edicts.

We say that it is a Buddhist circuit and Buddhist pilgrimage but instead, we promote them as an Archaeological site.   Interpretation does matter! These are living monuments, very sacred to the world. Awareness has to come; an opportunity for all of us to work upon. Let’s begin!!!
A newly enshrined image of Buddha at Rampurwā

Two Dhamma Pillars of Rampurwā

Seeking inspiration from King Ashoka.....his pillars were raised thousands of miles away from their quarries to motivate people to follow the Middle Path.