Saturday Magazine

The distorted heritage of Buddhist sites

by Rohan L. Jayetilleke.

One of the most baffling problems of the history of Indian culture and religion is the question, ‘Why and how did Buddhism decline in India? After disseminating the Buddha’s teachings to all parts of India of the then known world in the sixth century BC, that it should be lost to the land of its birth and growth is a paradox and misfortune with profound implications. Various reasons have been adduced for the disappearance, of which all of them are partially true. It should be classified as; (i) Spiritual decline and factionalism among Buddhists: (ii) Strong sectarian Brahaminic and Hinduistic opposition within India; (iii) Systematic destruction of Buddhist institutions such as Nalanda and other universities and plunder of stupas and monasteries by alien Islamic invaders such as Magamud Ghor in the eleventh century and hostile indigenous forces.

Today even the history of the Buddhist sites is distorted and displayed in the signboards erected for the benefit of visitors and pilgrims. These histories are based on mythical epics such as Mahabharata or Ramayana, as the archaeologists both of the British time and of present India are not learned in the Sutta Pitaka (discourses) and Vinaya Pitaka (Discipline) wherein there are chronological details of the life and times of the Buddha and the places he trod during the forty-five year long mission on foot and of his disciples. These accounts have been well rehearsed at the first Buddhist Council held just three months after the Mahapariniravana of the Buddha by Arahants Ananda and Upali, who had mastered the Master’s doctrines enunciated in Suttas (discourses) and Vinaya rules (discipline) respectively, in the second Council held hundred years thereafter at Vesali and the third Council held in the third century BC during the reign of Emperor Asoka at Pataliputta (modern Patna). Finally the oral traditions of the Tripitaka were committed to writing in the first century BC, at Matale, Sri Lanka. These Councils were not conducted with all facilities for debate and arguments and a finality was reached not by a majority vote but by a consensus of all participants. Therefore, as India has no records of history like Sri Lanka’s chronicles, such as Mahavamsa, Culavamsa etc., the best source of recorded history first by the oral tradition and thereafter the written tradition is the Tripitaka and the history of India as such has to be assimilated and studied exclusively through the Tripitakas and not on Vedic traditions, which are just an avalanche of prayers and modes of sacrifices to god Brhama and other pantheon of Vedic gods.

In a nutshell the Indian history actually begins with the story of the Buddha Gotama’s life in the sixth century BC; or to put it more succinctly, that is the point where history as record replaces archaeology and legend; for the documents of Buddha’s life and teaching—the earliest Indian document to be accorded historical standing—reveal a civilisation already stable and highly developed which can only have matured after a very long period indeed.

The locus of most of the Buddha’s activities was in Maghadha, which was formed by the amalgamation of kingdoms of Anga and Maghadha with Rajagaha (modern Rajgri). The kingdoms of Kasi and Kosala became the kingdom of Kosala, with kings Bimbisara and Prasenajit, two Buddhist votaries.

The capital of Kosala was Savatthi (modern Saheth Mahet). Two other kingdoms were Vatsa and Avanthi. The capital of Vatsa was Kosambi under the rulership of Udena. Ujjaini was the capital of Avanthi, under the king Pajjotha. Monasteries were build by kings and merchants and chieftains in Maghada, Kosala and Vatsa. Veluvanaramaya of Rajagha in Maghadha, Jetavanaramaya of Savatthi in Kosala and Ghositaramaya of the city of Kosambi in Vatsa, were some of the main monasteries Buddha stayed in. Therefore, in recording the history of places of Buddhist worship in Indian signboards erected at these sites, the Archaeological Survey of India could obtain the assistance of the Maha Sangha of Sri Lanka, who are well versed in the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas and draft these legends correctly rather than pursue nondescriptive exercises.

Distorted place names

The Indian State governments have taken action to revise the city names of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay as Kolkata, Chennai, and Mumbai respectively. However no action has yet been taken by other State governments to revise the historic names as per the Buddhist history, which is Indian history proper of places connected with Buddhism.


The first and foremost is the capital of Emperor Asoka, presently called Patna. Before Asoka this city was called Pataligama and its name was changed to Pataliputta with the building of the new town Pataliputta, which became the famous capital of Asoka’s empire, which had grown out of the kingdom of Maghadha. Asoka after his conversion visited Lumbini, with the royal preceptor Maha Moggaliputta Tissa Thera and erected a pillar with the inscription to mark the place of birth of Prince Siddartha (later Buddha). "When King Devanampriya Priyadarshini had been anointed twenty years he came himself and worshipped (this spot) because the Buddha Sakyamuni was born here" (The Rummindei Pillar Edict of Asoka). Lumbini is now called Rummindei. It is a village in the Nepalese Terai. It is in the Bithri district of Nepal and not very far from the Basti district in Uttar Pradesh of India. The Asoka pillar still stands girdled by an iron fence and there is not even an altar for devotees to offer flowers, light incense and lamps and these have to be laid on the ground. A few feet away from the pillar a Japanese monastery is coming up and the birth place of Prince Siddartha is not given the due respect it deserves by the Nepalese government. There are only three sal trees now, at the main entry to the monastery built later and other have been cut down. These are not the sal trees of Sri Lanka which bear flowers on the trunk but fairly tall trees with a sweet scented small flower blooming at the far end of the branches in season.

Enlightenment path

Emperor Asoka with the assistance of his preceptor Maha Magalliputta Tissa Thera (otherwise known as Upagupta) traced the places Prince Siddartha on having renounced household life, set out in quest of Enlightenment, which took him six years. He finally reached the Maha Bodhi Tree at Buddha Gaya.

Prince Siddarth’s journey was from Kapilavatthu, through crossing river Anoma - Rampurva (Ramagrama - modern West Champaran district of Bihar State) - Lauriya Nandanager - Lauriya Araraj - Kesaputta - Vaisali - crossing Ganges river - Pataliputra - Nalanda - Rajagaha - Tapodarama - Gaysisa - Uruvela - crossing Neranjana river and finally Buddha Gaya Maha Bodhi Tree.

This entire route is around 675 miles and Prince Siddartha would have covered around 50 to 60 miles on horse back (Kanthaka) with the horse keeper Channa and covered the balance of over 600 miles on foot, studying under the ascetics Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputra and also engaging in self-mortification in the quest of Enlightenment.

River Anoma is now called Haraborah distorting the original name. About 40 miles away from Kapilavatthu, the birth place of the Buddha to the east is Ramagrama. According to the travel records of Hieun Tsing, a king of this place had obtained some relics of the Buddha from the funeral pyre at Kusinara and built a stupa 100 ft high and there was also a monastery with a few bhikkhus. He further says about 100 miles away is a large stupa built by Asoka identifying the place as the spot where Prince Siddartha changed his royal attire to that of an ascetic and directed his horse keeper to return to the palace with the horse.

This Chinese pilgrim monk further says a short distance away from this Asoka stupa was the place where the prince shaved his head. There too Asoka had built a stupa called Kesoropana cetiya. In the north east direction of this stupa about 190 miles away in a desert in a nuga grove was a 30 feet high stupa built by a brahamin who had been late to call over at the Kusinara pyre, and procured some ashes from the pyre and built the Angara cetiya. None of these places are identified by the Indian archaeologists and no excavations have been done so far.

Lauriya Araraj is the place where ascetic Alara Kalama’s ashram was. Here Asoka set up a pillar with inscriptions. At Lauriya Nandanagar too Asoka set up a pillar with ‘Dharma lipi’. Kessaputta was the place where ascetics of the Kalama race were residing. It was here Buddha expounded the famous Kalamasutta, wherein Kalamas were advised to be rational in thought and action and not to be blindly guided by traditions, scriptures, teachers etc. This place, Kessaputta, is now mysteriously called Kesiya, which name has no relation with the old village of Kesaputta.

Lama monastery

Senanigama where Sujatha offered thick ‘milk payasa’ to the prince who was seated under the Ajapala Tree (Goatherd’s cetiya) is now called ‘Bakaror’ which has no connection with the life and times of the Buddha. Uruvela hill where the prince was engaged in self-mortification is now called Lungeshvari, which too is a distortion, in order to connect the place with god Ishwara of the Hindu pantheon. During the time of Asoka it was called Pargbodhi parvatha (the Chief cetiya hill). Presently this hill has a monastery of Lamas from Tibet, who are experts in living on hill peaks, who do a wonderful reception to pilgrims giving them a herbal drink (ranavara) with sugar on one’s palm. From the bus stop one has to traverse about three miles to reach the foot of the hill and nearly a thousand under 15 beggar boys and girls pursue you begging not for food but money and if not given they snatch your bag or your umbrella or whatever you have. This is a most risky journey for even about two miles uphill these urchins pursue. If they are not given money they will stone your buses as you leave. This area needs police protection and it is high time Bihar police took some action to secure the life and limb and belongings of pilgrims. Rumour had it that a Korean monk who wanted to lay a carpet road to this place, was murdered to rob his money and belongings. This road project is now abandoned and it is now just an apology for a road, with human excreta all over the place left by the urchins and the villagers.


A Japala Nuga Tree was situated in the eastern section of Maha Bodhi across the river Neranjana. Presently the place is marked on the east point of entry to Maha Bodhi. Mucalinda cetiya is situated about two miles from the Neranjana river’s upper bank. Even now this village is called Muchalinda. The present Muchalinda pond had been built when the Maha Bodhi Vihara was built. The earlier site is now only a mound of earth. The present statue with the hooded cobra sheltering the Buddha and amidst the pond had been built by Burmese.


Tapassu and Bhalluka

The seventh week after Enlightenment was spent by Buddha under Rajayatana Cetiya or Tree. The sign board erected by the Indian archaeological authorities calls Rajayatana a Forest Tree. This is completely incorrect. This tree was called Rajayatana because it was the place of worship of the Vedic warrior or Kshtriya clan (Kings). According to the Veda, the Sanskrit term ‘Rajayana’ is warrior clan. Buddha had bidded his time in such places of worship of followers of Brahaminism. It was while at this tree that the two merchants of Orissa, Tapassu and Bhalluka offered honey and ‘vilanda’ and who became the first lay disciples of the Buddha, having taken refuge in the Buddha and the Dhamma as the Sangha had not been formed at the time.

First stupa in Lanka

The two merchants having asked the Buddha for mementos were given hair relics and Mahawansa states that the Girihanduseya off Kuccaveli was built by them enshrining the relics, which could be the first Stupa in Sri Lanka. The port of entry to the Indian Ocean from eastern India then was the port of Tamrapti on the eastern coast of India with direct connections with the then trading centre Champa. It is possible that these sea-faring merchants were trading with Sri Lanka in spices and gems and their port of call in Sri Lanka was Gonagamaka (present Trincomalee). Burmese too claim that Shedagon Cetiya of Rangoon was built by these two merchants. It may be as they got eight hair relics, they built another cetiya in Burma at Rangoon, a port of call for their trade with Burma.

‘Sammukkha Cetiya’

Having attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree at Gaya, spending seven weeks at different places in the vicinity of Vajrasana (seat of Enlightenment) Buddha left the Rajayatana Tree and proceeded on foot to Migadaya (Deer Park) Isipatana, Varanasi (Banarasi) a distance of 120 miles and reached the destination to expound his first sermon ‘Turning the Wheel of Dhamma’ (Cakkapavattana Sutta) to his erstwhile five friends who associated with him at Uruvela in exercising acts of self-mortification, in quest of Enlightenment: Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama and Assaji (incidentally Kondanna was the youngest brahamin who attended Prince Siddartha’s naming ceremony and foretold emphatically that the prince would certainly become a Buddha and who became the first Arahant having listened to the First Sermon of the Buddha).

On seeing the Buddha approaching them from a distance they decided not to welcome this. But as he approached they knew that there was a marked difference in him and welcomed him. The place where the five ascetics met the Buddha was consecrated by a king with a small stupa called ‘Sammukkha Cetiya’ the stupa where the meeting took place. Emperor Asoka enlarged it and this stupa was ransacked and decapitated by Muslim invaders in the eleventh century AD, and on top of it a mosque was erected and named ‘Chaukandhi’ and still bears this name although the mosque is not functional.

The site with destroyed stupas, only with the plinth and walls about five feet in height and mounds of earth, commemorated by kings and by Asoka with larger stupas and monasteries later, where the sacred bone relics distributed among eight royal claimants by Brahamin is called in the signboard in situ as ‘Sona Bhandar’. Nobody knows what or how this Sona Bhandar is and there is no such person mentioned in the Mahaparinirvana sutta.

The site in Sankassa where Buddha ascended to earth after having delivered his teachings on Abhidhamma to his mother in Tusita heaven is surprisingly now called Sankissa.

Many of the Buddhist sites have no signboards and even if they do they are complete distortions. Most of the Buddhist sites are in the present huge State of Bihar. Neither the Bihar State Government, Indian Department of Tourism nor the Archaeological Survey of India are interested in rectifying these visible distortions. The Maha Bodhi Society of India, The Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka (two independent organisations with no mutual linkages) and the so-called Buddhist groups, societies and associations in Sri Lanka have never made any representations over these distortions to the Indian authorities. This was revealed to me when I met some Indian archaeologists at New Delhi recently.

Every three-wheeler and heavy duty lorry in India with the Tri-Colour legend ‘INDIA IS GREAT’ on the reverse, gives a vivid manifestation of the Indian psyche. It would be ‘GREATER’ if these Buddhist site names are revised as per the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas. In this task the Archaeological Survey of India and the Bihar State Government and the Department of Tourism of India should appoint a committee with Indian archaeologists and some erudite Sri Lankan Buddhist monks to examine the present names of sites and signboards and revise them according to the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas. On inquiry from Indian archaeologists I gathered that they are not learned in the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas and only follow the distorted Buddhist histories written by Westerners and fanatic Hindus, devaluing Buddhism and revaluing Hinduism.

‘Cart Wheels’

The height or zenith of hilarity and absurdity is commemorated at the site called ‘Cart Wheels’ now called the place where Krishna and his charioteer Arjuna had a fight. This is the place where during the lifetime of the Buddha the illegitimate son of king Prasenadi, Vidhudhaba born of a slave girl, when he sought the hand of a Sakyan princess in marriage, was insulted by the courtiers of Prasenadi, washing the chair on which he sat. Vidhudhaba struck with vengeance invaded Prasenadi’s kingdom twice and Buddha prevented these military pursuits. Finally he invaded a third time and put to the sword almost all the Sakyans of Kapilavattu and elsewhere, and some fled to Nepal and Sri Lanka. On his return after this murderous adventure Vidhudhaba’s cart got stuck. In the night there was a great flood and Vidhudhaba and his troops met with their death. This is narrated in the Sutta Pitaka.