The Ancient Caves of Rajagriha, Nalanda

The Ancient town of Rajagriha (present Rajgir in Nalanda district of Bihar) has been vastly explored in search of ancient ruins by numerous archaeologists and surveyors since the early 19th century. The Hills, caves and the hot springs of Rajgir have fascinated mankind since times immemorial. Even today as one travels towards Rajgir from Gaya on the road via Hisua / Naradiganj, one feels as having entered into a fortified ancient bastion. As one enters Rajgir, there is also the feeling of being under surveillance, by some watchful eyes perched on the hill tops and from the fortifications. The name “Rajgir” is derived from “Rajagriha”, the very meaning of which symbolizes royal power being the house of the ruler. As the very name would suggest, Rajgir indeed is one of the most ancient kingdoms of India. Of the sixteen Mahajanapadas described in the Puranas, Magadh gradually emerged as the strongest and the fortified town of Rajgriha was its capital.  Rajgir has been described in the epics Mahabharat and the Ramayana along with all its physical features. Jarasandha was the ruler of Magadha, with his ancient capital at Rajgir, as recorded in the Mahabharata. The legends of Jarasandha are still traceable in the local memory of Rajgir residents, and supposed remnants of the ancient fight with Bhima, one of the Pandavas, are well marked.

Sketch from Plate of Kittoe, Journal ASB Vol XVI, 1847

Rajgir was known in ancient times under various names such as VasumatiBarhdrarathapuraGirivrajaKusagrapura and RajagrihaVasumati is derived from the legend of Vasu – a son of the creator Brahma. The Puranic tradition traces the line of kings beginning with Brihadratha and having Jarasandha as one of the most famous kings, and thus the name of Brihadrathapur or Barhadrathapura. How and when the names of Kusagrapura, Girivraja and Rajgriha came into existence is not fully known, but they appear to be sort of descriptive names fully symbolizing the might of the ancient capital. While Rajgriha indeed denotes the existence of an ancient great seat of power, Girivraja describes the unique geographical identity of the place protected and enclosed by the hills, which originally was situated within the valley. Kusagrapura may either denote the Kusa grass found abundantly in the valley or the king Kusagra of the Barhadratha dynasty.

Rajgir is surrounded by several hills, the most prominent being the five hills of Vaibhargiri, Vipulagiri, Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Sonagiri. Fa-Hian states that the “five hills form a girdle like the walls of a town,” which is an exact description of the site of old Rajgir. A similar description is given by Turnour from the Pali Annals of Ceylon, where the five hills are named GijjhakutoIsigiliWebharoWepulo, and Pandawo. In the Mahabharata the five hills are named VaiharaVarahaVrishabhaRishigiri, and Ghaityaka; but at present they are called Baibhar-giriVipula-giriRatna-giriUdaya-giri, and Sona-giri.

Historically it is certain that Rajgir in the 6th century B.C. was the seat of the powerful kingdom of Magadha. Rajgir was intimately associated with the activities of the Buddha, which finds reference in the early Buddhist texts and in the travelogues left behind by the Chinese travelers Fa-Hien and Hieun Tsang. Bimbisara and Ajatasatru were the contemporary monarchs in the times of the Buddha. In the days of the Buddha, as today, Rajgir was the centre of diverse religious sects including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikas and others. Bimbisara was a personal friend of the Buddha and the early Buddhist texts tell the story of his slow death in prison, confined by his son Ajatasatru, and from where he used to look at the famous Griddhakuta peak where the Buddha sat and meditated during his stay at Rajgir.

It was during the times of Ajatasatru that the city of Pataliputra was built, and it was his grandson Udayin, who it is said shifted the capital from the hill fortress of Rajgir to the Water Fortress (jaldurga) of Pataliputra. As a result of the shift, the political importance of Rajgir declined gradually, but the religious importance remained and remains to this day. Rajgir had already become a desolate town during the visit of Fa- Hian. Describing Rajgir, Fa-Hian has mentioned “(Chap XXVIII) On leaving the town on the south side, at the distance of four “li” you come to a valley which leads to the “five hills:” these five hills form a girdle, like the walls of a town: this is the ancient town of the king “Ping-Cha” (the Old Rajagriha). From the east to the west is six “li”, and from the north to the south seven or eight; this is the place where “Che-li-foe” and “Mou lian” first met O pi (Aswajit). At the north east angle of the town the ancients erected a chapel in the garden, where An-pho-lo invited Foe and twelve hundred of his disciples to do them honor; this chapel still exists. The town is entirely deserted and uninhabited.” 

The ruins of Rajgir have been studied by British surveyors and archaeologists like Buchanan, Kittoe, Cunningham, Broadley, Beglar, Stein, Marshall and others. A regular and systematic survey of the ruins of Rajgir was made in 1905-06 by the Archaeological Survey of India, being supplemented later in 1913-14 by Jackson. In 1905-06 some excavations were undertaken by Daya Ram Sahni and Bloch. In 1950, A Ghosh did some trial digging, while in 1954 some excavations were carried out by D.R.Patil.

Regarding the existing ruins at Rajgir, Cunningham mentions (ASI Reports 1861-62, Vol 1): “The existing remains at Rajagriha are not numerous. The place has been occupied at different times by Musulmans and Brahmans, by whom the Buddhist Stupas and vihars were pulled down to furnish materials for tombs, masjids, and temples. All the eminences that must once have been covered by objects of Buddhist worship are now covered with Muhammedan graves; and all the Brahmanical temples about the hot springs have been constructed with the large bricks of Buddhist Stupas. One of these last monuments can still be traced outside the south-west corner of the town in a large circular hollow mound, which attracted the notice of both Buchanan and Kittoe. I examined this mound carefully, and I was satisfied that the hollow represented the original site of a stupa from which bricks had been carried off, while the surrounding circular mound represented the mass of earth and broken brick rubbish left by the workmen. According to Hwen Thsang’s account this circular hollow was the site of a stupa 60 feet in height, which was built by Asoka. Beside it there was a stone pillar 50 feet high, on which was iinscribed the history of the foundation of the stupa. The pillar was surmounted by an elephant.”

Kittoe (ASB Journal, Vol XVI) mentioned about the importance of Rajgir in the Hindu and Jain annals:  “There are two old works in existence, describing this curious tract of country called the Rajgriha Muhatma: one belongs to the Hindus, the other to the Jains, which I am told, to be widely different. I hope to be able to procure a good copy of each and to compare them. I have had occasion to observe, that the Jains hold most of the places, supposed to be of Buddhist origin, sacred, to wit, the caves of Kundagiri in Cuttack, Girnar in Kutch, & c. & c.” 

The Ancient Caves of Rajgir

The hills of Rajgir are dotted with numerous caves and other features which have captured the human imagination since the most ancient times. A reading of the Buddhist chronicles and the travelogues of the Chinese pilgrims has assisted all surveyors in the identification of the ancient caves. The comments of Fa-Hian, who was the earliest traveler to record about the caves of Rajgir is summarized as below. The remarks include those made chiefly by Beglar in Vol III, ASI Reports.

The Quotes of Fa-Hian and identification of the Caves

S.

No.

Quotation of Fa-Hian Remarks
1 Entering the valley and skirting the mountains along their south eastern slope for a distance of fifteen li, we arrive at the hill called Gridhra Kuta. Three li from the top is a stone cavern facing the south. Buddha used in this place to sit in profound meditation (dhyana). Thirty paces to the north-west is another stone cell, in which Ananda practiced meditation (dhyana). The hall in which Buddha delivered the law has been overturned and destroyed; the foundations of the brick walls exist however.” From this quote one learns of two caves close together, in the south eastern slope of the Baibhar mountain, one of which in which the Buddha used to sit in profound meditation, faced the south.
2 “Returning towards the new city after passing through the old town, and going more than 300 paces to the north, on the west side of the road we arrive at the Kalanda Venouvana Vihara (the Chapel in the Bamboo garden of Kalanda). This chapel still exists, and a congregation of priests sweep and water it. Two or three li to the north of this chapel is the Shi-mo-she-na (Samasana), which signifies the field of tombs for laying the dead.”
3 Skirting the southern hill, and proceeding westward 300 paces, there is a stone cell, called the Pin-po-lo (Pippal) cave, where Buddha was accustomed to sit in deep meditation after his midday meal. Going still in a westerly direction 5 or 6 li there is a stone cave situated in the northern shade of the mountain and called Che-ti. This is the place where 500 Rahats assembled after the Nirvana of the Buddha to arrange the collection of sacred books.” One learns of the existence of two more caves of Saptaparni and Pippal, also on the Baibhar Hill, and further that the Saptaparni Cave was situated to the west of the former and in the northern shade of the mountain.
4 “Leaving the old city and going north-east three li, we arrive at the stone cell of Devadatta.” One learns of the existence of a cave in Vipulgiri.

Beglar explored the sites of Rajgir in about 1872. He mentioned that there are several caves in and about Rajgir. Of these the following had distinct names and were connected with legends, and made efforts to identify these.

S.

No.

Name of Cave as described by Beglar Remarks
1 Asura’s Cave or the palace of the Asuras, mentioned by Hwen Thsang as somewhere near the Yashti vana Not identified in ASI Cunningham Reports
2 A cave close to it (Referred in the Geography of ancient India – Cunningham) Not identified in ASI Cunningham Reports
3 The cave in which Buddha used to sit in profound meditation Hypothesized by Beglar as most probably the Son Bhandar Cave.
4 The cave of Ananda Hypothesized by Beglar as the cave adjacent to the Son Bhandar Cave.
5 Devadatta’s Cell Identified in the Plate No. 41, Vol III, ASI Reports, but not mentioned in the report.
6 Pippal Cave or Palace of the Asurs Discovered by Cunningham and described in Vol III, ASI Reports
7 Sattapani Cave The identification initially remained a mystery, and was equated as the Son Bhandar cave by Cunningham. This was not accepted by Beal and others due to its non conformity with the Chinese pilgrims’ accounts. Beglar identified it on the ridge above the Vaibharagiri hill, on the northern face, on the opposite side of the Son Bhandar, and is understood to be the most probable identification. Marshall however identified another site around half mile to the west of the site identified by Beglar and Stein as the site leaving the identification unsettled.

Sone Bhandar Cave

One of the earliest rock cut caves in India with the Treasure Mystery

Of the various caves of Rajgir, the most famous ones are the Son Bhandar and the Saptaparni. During my tour of Rajgir in September, 2011, I visited the Cave of Sone Bhandar. During the visit I was not fully aware of the historicity of the caves. Only later when reading the accounts of various visitors like Buchanan, Kittoe, Cunningham, Beglar and Stein could I fully appreciate how the mystery behind the origin of the caves were analysed by successive persons, and how much of the mystery still remains unresolved. I had visited the site since it figured in the list of sites to be visited in Rajgir, and further since it was easily approachable by road. During the visit, I found that the site was not very frequently visited by the normal tourists who continuously flock Rajgir in large numbers. Most of the tourists visiting Rajgir normally visit the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, a recent construction uphill, approached by a ropeway, the site being quite picturesque, with the sole ropeway of Bihar serving as the main tourist attraction.

Only a slight detour from the normal tourist route takes the visitor to the cave which is uniquely located at the base of the small hill called Vebhara or Vyavhara, and having been cut into the hill to make two main chambers. There are two rock cut caves, adjacent to each other, excavated on the southern face of the Vaibhara Hill, facing the western portion of the valley. Of them the western one is locally called as Son Bhandar i.e. “treasury of gold” cave.

The Hidden Treasure of Bimbisara !

 During my visit, a tourist guide was found sitting near the caves, awaiting tourists for quite some time. He effortlessly narrated whatever history he was aware of. He mentioned that the site was famous locally as the treasure chamber of the King Bimbisara of Magadha, where his treasure was hidden by the Queen, subsequent to his imprisonment by his son and successor Ajatasatru. He mentioned that it was believed since ancient times that behind the cave was another chamber closed by the rock, and which still may be containing the treasure of Bimbisara. A sort of wedge in the rock face of the wall was shown as being the gate blocking the probable treasure. As stated by Kuraishi there are two perpendicular and two horizontal cracks on the northern wall of this cave which encloses a space 6’ by 4.5’, resembling more or less a blocked up passage. Local belief is that piece of rock within this space is an ancient “wedge” blocking up the passage to “the treasure of gold” in the body of the hill. The name Son Bhandar is apparently derived from this belief. It was learnt from the guide that some British officer who happened to visit the site in the nineteenth century had made efforts to locate the treasure, and had planned to blow up the walls with cannon. But later, being assured that there lied no treasure behind the rock in the cavity, he left the caves as they had been cut out centuries ago.

The wedge in the face of the wall can still be seen and the reason behind the mystery is felt. I searched for the legend about the effort made by the unidentified British officer, only to learn from Kittoe (1847), that the effort was infact made by a zemindar, again unidentified. Describing the Cave, Kittoe mentions “To proceed, first of all, as to the “chapel” in the northern hill, on the left or west side of the pass is a chamber called Sone Bhundar of precisely the same shape as those of Barabur. There are sockets to admit of timber roofing on the exterior of the cave, and there have been buildings extending to some distance in front : it would be interesting to clear the rubbish here. There are several short inscriptions and some of the shell shape, one has some resemblance to Chinese, (vide plate) there are no Pali letters, but the cave has been sadly ill used by a zemindar, who tried to blow it up with powder many years ago, hoping to find hidden treasure, and a large piece of rock has been broken away at the very spot where we should have extended to find the inscription, – the rock is soft and easily injured, there are some rude outlines of Buddhas cut on it : there is a handsome Jain (miniature) temple, much mutilated, which is also remarkable, for each of the four figures has a vahun or cognizance, the same as those of the Gyani Buddhas, on similar temples or stones of undoubted Buddha origin, unfortunately there is no inscription to help us, (see plate) – this cave is venerated by both Hindus and Jains. Whether it be the temple Fa-Hian alludes to, it is hard to say, for there are remains in the north-east corner likewise.”

The Caves 

Son Bhandar : Architecturally similar to the ones at Barabar

Of the two caves the western one, called Son Bhandar, consists of a large, 34’ by 17’, and is provided with a doorway and a window. It is worth noting here that, as described by Kuraishi, the door “has sloping jambs, the width at the top being about 6 inches less than the width at the base,” which is 3’4” while the height is 6’6”. The roof is of arched shape with a rise of 4’10”, making the total height of the chamber 11’4”.” These are exactly the architectural features, quite characteristic and rarely to be found only at Barabar caves, hardly 20 miles towards west of Rajgir. What is most interesting is the fact that the cave is “highly polished” inside, an important characteristic of the Mauryan era cut caves. The polish, the vaulted roof and the sloping door jambs of the entrance leave no doubt about the architectural affinities of this cave with those at Barabar.

In the opinion of Mr. Fergusson and Dr. Burgess, their construction is attributed to the period of the Maurya dynasty. Cunningham mentions “On Mount Baibhar there are five modern Jain temples, besides the ruins of an old Saiva temple, of which four granite pillars, 10 feet in height, are still standing, and 50 or 60 smaller pillars are lying confusedly about. At the southern foot of the mountain, the rock has a natural scarp for about 100 yards in length, which, at the western end, has been smoothed to a height of 19 feet, in front of which the rock has been cut away to form a level terrace 90 feet in length by upwards of 30 feet in breadth. Two caves have been excavated out of the solid rock behind; that to the west, now called the Son Bhandar, or “Treasury of Gold”, being 34 feet long by 17 feet broad, and that to the east perhaps somewhat fallen in naturally through the decay of the rock, or, which is more probable, was blown up by a zemindar in search of treasure, as related by Major Kittoe of the other cave.”

Cunningham further mentions “The face of the cliff at the west end has been smoothed to a height of 19 feet, in front of which the ground has been leveled to form a platform of more than 30 feet. The cave itself is 34 feet long by 17 feet broad and 11.5 feet high. To the east there has been a second cave, about 22.5 feet long by 17 feet broad; but one half of the roof fell in long ago, and the cave is now filled with masses of rock and earth. The floor of this cave is on a lower level than that of Son Bhandar, but the front is in the same line. Both caves had some building or verandah in front, as there are numerous sockets cut in the rock above the door for the reception of the end of beams. The whole length of level clearing in front of the caves is 90 feet.”

Buchanan was perhaps the first to notice the caves and document his findings in the Journal of Patna and Gaya (1811-12). Describing the city of Rajgir he mentions about the Son Bhandar as  “In the south side of the hill by which the central plain is bounded on the north and west, has been dug a cave called Sonbundar. The door is small, but there is also a window which occasions a circulation of air and gives a light unknown in the dismal caves of Burabur. The materials here are however vastly inferior, as the rock is everywhere intersected by fissures, so that some parts have fallen down, and it admits water which has stained the walls with a red ferruginous crust. The stone is an imperfect Khori, variegated, red and grey in veins, layers, and blotches, and is evidently the rude jasper of the hills, similarly marked, passing into an indurated clay. This cave is called Sonbundar, and is an object of worship with the Jain. In the middle is left a small kind of quadrangular pyramidal figure, on each side of which is carved an erect man with two arms. The chief figure is the same on all the four sides, but on each he is accompanied by different emblems. On the wall is a short inscription in a strange character. It probably contains the name of some pilgrim.”  Buchanan however does not describe anything about the treasure legend in his journal, but does call the cave as Son Bhandar, meaning thereby as being the storehouse of some treasure. He also confirms that the cave was being used as a place of worship by the Jains.

Chaumukha or four faced Jaina Statue in the Cave

Chaumukha : from Plate of ASB Journal XVI, 1847, Kittoe

After Buchanan, Kittoe was the next explorer of Rajgir in 1847, whose reports were published in Volume XVI of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He has also mentioned about the four faced figure and has also provided a sketch of the same.  Regarding the quadrangular pyramidal structure, it would be worthwhile to explore the writings of the later visitors. D. R. Patil mentions that inside the cave is placed a Jain Chaumukha with the figures of the first four Tirthankaras (viz. Rishabhanatha, Ajitanatha, Sambhavanatha and Abhinandana) carved on the four faces. The Chaumukha was noticed by Buchanan in 1812 inside this cave, as noted above.

During my visit, I do not recall having noticed any such figure of Chaumukha, nor was it there in the few photographs that I had taken. I found that Cunningham and Stein were also silent about this Chaumukha noticed by Buchanan and Kittoe, and would look for it during my next visit. Cunningham has infact not noticed any statues and mentioned “The Son Bhandar cave has one door and one window. Inside there are no traces of seats, or of pedestals of statues, and the walls and roof are quite bare, excepting where a few scarcely legible inscriptions have been cut.”


The Adjacent Cave

The adjacent cave is in a more ruinous state. It consists of a rock-cut chamber, 22.5’ by 17’, part of its front having fallen. It had once a built up verandah in its front as seen in the existing traces of a platform and courtyard built of bricks. The roof of the verandah was supported on wooden beams as seen from the holes in the outer wall wherein they were originally inserted. Inside on the southern wall of the cave, are six small figures of Jaina Tirthankaras carved in relief and representing Padmaprabha, Parsvnatha and Mahavira. No inscription is reported from this cave and A. Ghosh would suggest that both the caves were excavated at one and the same time i.e. in the 3rd or 4th century AD, as indicated by the inscription of Vairadeva. Artistically the rock cut Jaina images may not, perhaps, be assigned to such an early date. Architecturally this cave has nothing in common with the adjoining Son Bhandar cave. Its roof was not of “the arched shape” nor has its door any “sloping jambs”; and besides, there are no traces of polish on the walls.  The cave and its front are on a lower level and above it are traces of another storey built of bricks which was once approached by the flight of rock cut steps which exist even now. There is reason to believe that it was a much later work. It should be noted that a fine image of Vishnu riding on Garuda and belonging to the Gupta period, now in the Nalanda Museum, was found lying in the verandah of the cave. The point, therefore, needs to be examined carefully whether this cave was originally of Hindu or Jain origin.

The caves were later inspected and described by Cunningham, Beglar, Stein, Marshall and others; but their approach to the antiquarian importance of the caves was influenced by other considerations. They wanted to examine the possible identification of the caves with the famous Saptaparni caves of the Buddhist tradition where the first Buddhist council was held during the reign of King Ajatasatru. Cunningham was of the view that the Son Bhandar cave was the site of the meeting of that great council though his opinion is not generally accepted now.

Cunningham mentions “There are several short inscriptions on the jambs of the doorway, as well as on the outside. In the principal inscription, which is on two lines outside, the author speaks of this cave as the “auspicious cave”, evidently alluding to the fact of its former occupation by the Buddha for the purpose of meditating after his noonday meal. This inscription, which is not later than A.D. 200, and is perhaps earlier, records that a certain “Muni, named Vaira Deva, of powerful dignity, was able to obtain emancipation, having shut himself up for spiritual enjoyment in this auspicious cell, a retired abode of Arhantas, fitted for an ascetic for the attainment of liberation. On the east jamb of the door also the same epithet is applied to this cave, as if it was a well known name for it. This cave is excavated in the south face of the hill, where there is a natural scarp for about one hundred yards in length.”

Is it the Earliest Jaina Monument in Rajgir ?

The vital points of antiquity, history and religious affiliations of the Son Bhandar caves are found little discussed by the earlier writers like Cunningham, Beglar, Marshall, Stein and others, who are almost exclusively concerned with the identification of only Buddhist Monuments referred to by the Chinese pilgrims. In neither of these two caves any traces of Buddhism had been or are still noticed, except for their possible identification based on the early Buddhist annals as mentioned by Beglar (As noted in table above with quotes from Fa-Hian). Further the Vaibhara hill on the side of which they were excavated contains on its top, a number of ancient as well as modern Jain monuments. Hieun Tsang mentions that the naked heretics (i.e. the Jains) frequented the Rajgir hills, in his time, in large numbers. It is quite well known that Rajgir was as sacred to the Jains as to the Buddhists since their great leader Mahavira, also passed a good deal of his time at Rajgir for preaching his doctrines. It is therefore natural to expect Jain monuments at Rajgir. It is besides well known that the Barabar caves were excavated for the non-Buddhistic sects like the Ajivikas and others by Mauryan emperors Asoka and Dasratha. Since the Son Bhandar cave, from the architectural point of view, falls into the group of Barabar caves there is every reason to believe that it was a work of either of the two Mauryan emperors carried out probably for the Jain monks. Unfortunately an inscription, if any, which may have recorded the fact is probably obliterated, and may possibly still be traced after a careful examination of the rocks.

 That the Son Bhandar was a well-recognized Jain monument early in the 19th century is clear from what Buchanan says of it in his journal. It is equally significant that in this side of the valley practically no Buddhist monuments have so far been traced nor are they so shown located in the Buddhist texts and in the accounts of Chinese pilgrims. The Sonbhandar cave may thus be considered to be the earliest Jain monument at Rajgir datable probably to the 2nd or 3rd century BC.

The Saptaparni Cave

Identification of the Site of the first Buddhist Council

The identification of the first site of the Buddhist Council always posed a challenge to the early surveyors of Rajgir.  Even today the identification cannot be said to be fully settled, and is still open to interpretation. According to the uniform testimony of all the Buddhist canonical records the First Great Council, which was convened by Kasyapa soon after the demise of Buddha to fix the principal tenets of the Church, took place near Rajagrha in a cave in the Vebhara Hill, which bore the Pali name of Suttapanua or Sattapanni. The Mahavastu, which gives the Sanskrit name of the cave as Saptaparna, furnishes the additional detail that the cave was situated on the north of the hill, which is called there Vaihara.

In his first visit during 1861-62, Cunningham mentioned about the Son Bhandar cave and tried to identify it with the Pippala cave. He also indicated where the Sattapani cave was to be found. Cunningham mentions “In the inscriptions of the Jain temples on Mount Baibhar the name is sometimes written Baibhara, and sometimes Vyavhara. It is beyond all doubt the Webharo Mountain of the Pali Annals, in which was situated the far-famed Sattapani Cave in front of which was held the first Buddhist Synod in 543 B.C. The Baibhar Hill lies to the west of the Hot Springs, and the Vipula Hill to the east. In Baibhar there still exists a large cave called Son Bhandar, or the “Treasury of Gold”. The situation corresponds exactly with that of the Pi-po-lo cave of the two Chinese pilgrims, in which Buddha used to meditate after his noon-day meal. The famous Sattapani Cave must be looked for in northern face of the south-west end of the mountain, at above one mile from the Son-bhandar cave.”

However, Cunningham again visited Rajagriha in 1872 and this time identified the Son Bhandar cave as the Sattapanni Cave, where the first Buddhist Council was held after Buddha’s death. This however, was later refuted by others, when another cave on another face of the Vaibhargiri was identified as the Saptaparni or Sattapanni by Beglar. Cunningham mentioned that Mr. Beal had opposed the identification of the Son Bhandar with the Sattapani, since Fa-Hian had described the cave as being on the northern shade of the mountain, whereas Son Bhandar was on the southern face. Cunningham in support of his arguments mentioned that the Baibhar mountain did not lie east and west like Mount Vipula, but as nearly as possible north-east and south-west in orientation; and thus the north-east half of it could be called either the “north end” or the “east end”. Cunningham argued that in his survey, the Son Bhandar cave was actually situated in the northern half, or end, of the mountain, and therefore it truly described the position given by the Chinese pilgrims. But to make this identification certain, he made efforts to trace the second cave or “Pippala Cave”, as mentioned in the accounts of Fa-Hian and Hieun Thsang.

The account of Fa-Hian as at No. 3 above has been important for the identification of theb caves. Hwen Thsang’s account agrees substantially with the description of Fa-Hian, but he adds some particulars which give most valuable assistance in identifying the first cave. His words are “To the west of the hot springs stands the stone house of Pi-po-lo, in which Buddha formerly lived. The deep cave which opens behind its wall was the palace of the Asuras. Numbers of Bhikshus, who gave themselves to meditation, formerly dwelt in this house.”

Cunningham in 1872 discovered a cave 40 feet in length and 30 feet in width, immediately behind the stone basement at the Jarasandh ki Baithak, and identified it with the Pippal cave or Vaibhara cave, of the Chinese pilgrims. He found a flight of steps, along with a portion of the unbroken roof, after clearing some trees which had covered the entrance and seemed to be growing out of a hole. He had searched for the cave near the Jarasandha ki Baithak, considering that Jarasadha was an asura, whose palace might have been referred to by the Chinese pilgrims. Discovering this particular cave, he confirmed the Son Bhandar cave to be the famous Saptaparni cave. Cunningham related his finds as having an important bearing on the history of Indian Architecture, since there were now identified specimens of Indian stone buildings at least two hundred and fifty years older than Asoka. Since these caves were existing at the time of the Buddha, they were perhaps older than 500 B.C. Cunningham related the socket holes in front of the Son Bhandar, as showing that at some former period the caves had extended towards the front. He quoted the Ceylonese Chronicles which mentioned:- “With the assistance of Ajatasatru, Raja of Magadha, a splendid hall was built for the assembly of the first synod at the mouth of the Sattapani cave, on the side of the Webhara mountain. Five hundred carpets were spread around for the monks; one throne was prepared for the abbot on the south side, facing the north, and another throne was erected in the middle, facing the east, fit for the holy Buddha himself.

Cunningham explained that since the assembly was held in a hall prepared for the occasion immediately in front of the Sattapani cave, the socket holes demonstrated that the arrangement was carried out by a flat roof along the whole front of the two caves. Cunningham estimated the area in th front of the caves as sufficient for the seating of 500 monks, and also referred to the excavation made by Kittoe who had concluded that there must have been “buildings extending to some distance in front.” He also mentioned that the ruins in front of the Sattapani cave had also been mentioned by Hwen Thsang, who looked upon them as the remains of the hall built by Ajatasatru for the assembly of the first Buddhist Synod. Cunningham identified the Cheti of the Chinese travelers as Chaitya, and surmised that the cave may have been called as the Chaitya Cave. Further, since the Tibetan texts had also referred to the Sattapani as the “Cave of the Nyagrodha,” or “Banyan tree”, he proposed that a Banyan tree may have existed in the immediate vicinity of the cave, and that it alluded the cave its oldest name, by which it was known before the Nirvana of the Buddha, which had given it a special reputation.

The Arguments of Beglar and subsequent identification

From the above quotations of Fa-Hian, Beglar argued that five caves had been described in the quotations, but so far only Pippala and Devdutta were clearly established. Cunningham had ascribed the Son Bhandar Cave as being the same as the Sattapani cave. However, referring to the map of Rajgriha, Beglar attempted to identify the Son Bhandar caves as the on referred to as above in the first quotation from Fa-Hian. Regarding the socket holes, he alluded the description regarding the destruction of the hall as above, to being not at variance with the circumstances. Regarding the direction of the Son Bhandar, as pointed out by Cunningham, he explained that the surmise of Cunningham was mistaken, since the cave was in the northern end of the mountain, but instead of being in the northern shade, it was precisely in the opposite predicament, being in the southern glare of the hill, and the sun blazed into the cave from sunrise to about 2 p.m.

He then having settled the two caves in hand, next ventured to identify the Sattapani cave, based upon the accounts of Fa-Hian. Following the accounts of Fa-Hian, he started from Pippala Cave, which was seen to be on the ridge of the Baibhara Hill, towards the west by not entering the valley where lied the Son Bhandar on the face of the mountain, but following the ridge to find the Sattapani Cave on the face of the ridge, at a distance of less than half a mile from the Pippala Cave. He mentions that as the ridge runs not west or north-west, but south west, it is clear that going due west from here, in the northern shade of the hill was the famed Sattapani cave. He further mentioned that the Saptaparni was derived from Saptaparna plant meaning seven-leaved, and that the cave also was divided into seven compartments, of which he could count six, and notice the seventh.

Identification by Stein

Aurel Stein (1899) in the Indian Antiquary Vol XXX (1901) mentions fully about the previous views regarding the identification of the Sattapani Cave, and further identifies it at the base of the temple of Adinatha, on the Vaibharagiri.  He mentioned that the caves of Son Bhandar showed in their architectural features so close an affinity with the Barabar caves of Asoka and Dasaratha, that the opinion of Mr. Fergusson and Dr. Burgess, which attributes their construction to the period of the Maurya dynasty, had everything in its favour. He examined the views of General Cunningham and Beglar.  The serious objection, to which Mr. Beal, the English translator of Hiuen Tsiang, and others had rightly called attention, was in no way weakened by General Cunningham’s discovery of the Pi-po-lo stone cell and the Asura’s cave behind it at the eastern end of the Baibhar Hill.

For more exact indications Stein again turned to the Chinese guides. Fa-hian, starting from the north side of the Old City, takes us first to the Kalandavenuvana Vihara, which from a comparison of Hiuen Tsang’ s record can safely be located within or close to the defile leading from new Rajagrha to the Old City. He then continues as noted at No. 3 above.  Hiuen Tsiang describes the place of the great convocation as “a large stone house” situated in the middle of a great bamboo forest, which occupied “the north side of the southern mountain, about 5 or 6 li to the south-west of the Karanda-Venuvana.” Before the “large stone-house” there was to be seen an old foundation wall. This edifice was ascribed to King Ajatasatru, who made it for the accommodation of the assembled Arhats. Stein argued that though Hiuen Tsiang’s words were not as precise as wished, it seems highly probable that he meant a natural cavern, and that only the edifice marked by the foundation wall in front was structural.

He thus identified the Saptaparni caves to exist near the temple dedicated to Adinatha, which is the fourth in order from below and according to a rough estimate at a distance of about a mile from the commencement of the ascent. A path, which descends the rugged northern scarp of the ridge to a level of about a hundred feet below the temple, leads to along terrace, which, notwithstanding the luxurious vegetation covering it at the time of his visit, clearly betrayed its artificial origin.  According to Stein, the ancient wall, which supports the platform in front of the caves, is at present the only proof that these natural fissures were inhabited or visited at an early date. Their position relative to “the Pipolo stone cell” corresponds close enough to the indications which the Chinese pilgrims give as to the traditional site of the First Great Council.

Views of Marshall

In “The Antiquarian Remains of Bihar”, D.R. Patil has stated that Marshall however did not accept the above interpretation and identification of Stein and Beglar. According to him the place where the first Buddhist Council was held was not a cave but a large hall or building in the direction as given in Hieun Tsang’s account and discovered on the northern slope of the hill. He therefore tried to search for the remnants of a building or hall in the direction given by Hieun Tsang and discovered on the northern slope of the hill, at a distance of a mile and a quarter from the Satadhara hot springs, the ruins of what he considered to be the Saptaparni Hall. The spot is about half a mile west of the caves referred to by Beglar. He noticed here a plateau with its top “artificially built up and leveled” and found that “ramps had been made on each side to give approach to it, and there were remains of massive walls around the edges of the plateau.”  The area was apparently excavated  but of this no details are available except that “a spindle whorl and a small toothed wheel of copper” was discovered in the course of the work. D.R. Patil mentions that if this was the site of the first Buddhist Council of antiquity, then it is indeed surprising that not a single characteristic Buddhist monument marking the site was reported from the place. There is besides nothing to indicate the age of the ruins. The conclusions of Marshall may therefore be judged accordingly.

Conclusion

The caves as noted by Beglar / Stein are now generally believed to be the site of the first Buddhist Council. However, the caves are natural formations and it is curious and strange that no ancient Buddhist stupa or antiquity is reported from this area, though the caves are otherwise quite suitable for the identification. The district gazetteer of Patna (1924, LSS O’Malley, ICS) has referred to the views of Cunningham, Beglar and Stein on the subject. Though Stein has mentioned that he could not notice the fissures as noted by Beglar, a study of the remarks of D.R. Patil in the Antiquarian Remains of Bihar, suggests that the caves noted by Stein as near the Adinatha temple were infact first noted by Beglar in 1872-73. (ASI Reports Volume VIII).

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