The remains of Ancient Vaishali, Kolhua

Tracing the imprints of the Buddha near the villages of Kolhua, Besarh and Bakhra in Muzaffarpur and Vaishali districts of Bihar

A click on the internet today guides one to the details about the ancient sites of Vaishali. But just about more than 150 years back, life was not so comfortable, and the site of the ancient city of Vaishali was even not known, with its importance almost forgotten. How the passage of time changes the facade and importance of a place can very well be witnessed at Vaishali. But as history has demonstrated, certain silent pages of the bygone era do remain, only to be read at some later date. The silent pages of Vaishali were read and identified with much effort in the nineteenth century by surveyors like Stephenson and Cunningham. While Stephenson in 1835 was one of the first persons to document the existing remains near the villages of Besarh and Bakhra, it was actually Cunningham in 1861-62, who properly correlated the existing remains with the descriptions left by the Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang about “FEI-SHE-LI (VAIśāLĪ)”, and thus identified the site of ancient Vaishali. Vaishali, the capital of the Licchavi family was also famous as the scene of the second Buddhist council.

Today the remains of Vaishali are found spread over a large area, and include several identified ancient sites, including the site of the stupa in which the relics of the Buddha had been consecrated by the Licchavis, and the site where the Buddha took rest before his final departure to Kushinagar, where he obtained nirvana. The story of Vaishali and of its recent discovery after having been fully erased from contemporary local memory, is very interesting. I visited the ancient remains of Vaishali at Kolhua in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar on two occasions in January, 2005 and in August, 2008. No other tourists were seen during the first visit in 2005, when it was about 4 pm already, and the site lay deserted. The next visit in 2008 happened during the afternoon, and some tourists including a Japanese national were seen visiting the ruins. The months from October to March are the best time to visit the ancient remains. The law and order in the district has improved over the years, but there has been no corresponding significant increase in the tourist amenities. The site at Kolhua remains a desolate one, visited by some visitors during the day. A larger number of tourists visit the World Peace Pagoda or the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, near the Museum, which is a recent construction.

The Story of Vaishali

In the remarks about Vaishali, Hieun Tsang has mentioned about the great size of the city, the name of which possibly emerged from its great size as “Vishal” meaning great. He has mentioned about the abundance of mango and banana plantations, which remain the characteristics even today.

In the opening remarks, he mentions “This kingdom is about 5000 li in circuit. The soil is rich and fertile; flowers and fruits are produced in abundance. The āmra fruit (mango) and the mocha (banana) are very plentiful and much prized. The climate is agreeable and temperate. The manners of the people are pure and honest. They love religion and highly esteem learning. Both heretics and believers are found living together. There are several hundred sanghārāmas, which are mostly dilapidated. The three or five which still remain have but few priests in them. There are several tens of Deva temples, occupied by sectaries of different kinds. The followers of the Nirgranthas are very numerous.”

He further informs that the place even then was already in ruins, but still enjoyed a prominence as a centre of Buddhist learning.  He mentions “The capital city of Vaiśālī is to a great extent in ruins. Its old foundations are from 60 to 70 li in circuit. The royal precincts are about 4 or 5 li round: there are a few people living in it. North-westof the royal city (precincts) 5 or 6 li, is a sanghārāma with a few disciples. They study the teaching of the Little Vehicle, according to the Sammatīya school.”

The remarks of Hieun Tsang in the 7th century A.D., belong to a time when Buddhism was already on the decline. The ancient city of Vaishali was already in ruins to a great extent. About 900 years had passed since the rule of the Mauryan era, when Asoka – the Great, had embarked upon a building spree and dotted the landscape with numerous stupas, pillars and edicts for the propagation of the dhamma.

The ancient city of Vaishali is believed to have been founded by the Raja Vishal, referred to in the epics as a great ruler. Vaishali has been immensely referred in the early Buddhist and Jain chronicles apart from the Puranas. The life of the Buddha is deeply connected with the activities of the Licchavis of Vaishali. Early Buddhist texts mention that the Buddha had rested at Vaishali on his last journey before attaining the Parinirvana at Kushinagara. It was from the existing remains at Kolhua village along with the ones at Besarh, that Cunningham could identify the ancient town of Vaishali. The vestiges of the rule of Asoka can still be traced in the ancient land, which though does not retain a single soul who could possibly trace his lineage correctly to the ancient Licchavis. Vaishali today is the name of a district in Bihar state, having with no proper town as such named as Vaishali.

The ancient citizens of Vaishali are learnt to have been highly cultured and intellectually prosperous. At a time when of the main sixteen Mahajanapadas, the power of the monarch of Magadha was growing in power, the people of Vaishali still clung to the rule of the republican form, with elected chiefs taking decisions on matters of state policy including war and peace. Several interesting stories from the ancient days have survived including the one of the maiden  Amrapali – who was the chief court dancer of Vaishali, and who chose to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha. Amrapali was the owner of a large garden of mangoes near the town of Vaishali, and welcomed the Buddha in the garden during the stay in Vaishali. The old Bollywood movie Amrapali with actress Vyajanthi Mala as Amrapali and actor Sunil Dutt as Ajatasatru, tried to recreate the times for the modern viewer. The archaeological remains are very few, but are nevertheless valuable in tracing some of the major sites of historical activity near Vaishali.

Cunningham mentions that the ruins of Vaishali consist of two distinct groups – one at Besarh itself, and the other at 2 miles to the north-north-west of Besarh, and 1 mile to the south-east of Bakhra, the whole of which must have belonged to the ancient Vaishali, as described by Hieun Tsang. Cunninghham became more definite about the identification of the site with Vaishali, on further confirming physically the descriptions of Hieun Tsang. To begin with the description of the ruins, it will be worthwhile to recall the accounts left behind by the Chinese travellers.

Vaishali described by Fa-Hian

Fa-Hian in the early 5th century visited Vaishali and has mentioned about the stupa called “Weapons laid down”, and about the Buddhist Council.  He has mentioned :-

East from this city ten yojanas, (the travellers) came to the kingdom of Vaisali. North of the city so named is a large forest, having in it the double-galleried vihara where Buddha dwelt, and the tope over half the body of Ananda. Inside the city the woman Ambapali built a vihara in honour of Buddha, which is now standing as it was at first. Three le south of the city, on the west of the road, (is the) garden (which) the same Ambapali presented to Buddha, in which he might reside. When Buddha was about to attain to his pari-nirvana, as he was quitting the city by the west gate, he turned round, and, beholding the city on his right, said to them, “Here I have taken my last walk.” Men subsequently built a tope at this spot.

Three le north-west of the city there is a tope called, “Bows and weapons laid down.” The reason why it got that name was this:— The inferior wife of a king, whose country lay along the river Ganges, brought forth from her womb a ball of flesh. The superior wife, jealous of the other, said, “You have brought forth a thing of evil omen,” and immediately it was put into a box of wood and thrown into the river. Farther down the stream another king was walking and looking about, when he saw the wooden box (floating) in the water. (He had it brought to him), opened it, and found a thousand little boys, upright and complete, and each one different from the others. He took them and had them brought up. They grew tall and large, and very daring, and strong, crushing all opposition in every expedition which they undertook. By and by they attacked the kingdom of their real father, who became in consequence greatly distressed and sad. His inferior wife asked what it was that made him so, and he replied, “That king has a thousand sons, daring and strong beyond compare, and he wishes with them to attack my kingdom; this is what makes me sad.” The wife said, “You need not be sad and sorrowful. Only make a high gallery on the wall of the city on the east; and when the thieves come, I shall be able to make them retire.” The king did as she said; and when the enemies came, she said to them from the tower, “You are my sons; why are you acting so unnaturally and rebelliously?” They replied, “If you do not believe me,” she said, “look, all of you, towards me, and open your mouths.” She then pressed her breasts with her two hands, and each sent forth 500 jets of milk, which fell into the mouths of the thousand sons. The thieves (thus) knew that she was their mother, and laid down their bows and weapons.  The two kings, the fathers, thereupon fell into reflection, and both got to be Pratyeka Buddhas. The tope of the two PratyekaBuddhas is still existing.

In a subsequent age, when the World-honoured one had attained to perfect Wisdom (and become Buddha), he said to his disciples, “This is the place where I in a former age laid down my bow and weapons.”  It was thus that subsequently men got to know (the fact), and raised the tope on this spot, which in this way received its name. The thousand little boys were the thousand Buddhas of this Bhadra-kalpa.

It was by the side of the “Weapons-laid-down” tope that Buddha, having given up the idea of living longer, said to Ananda, “In three months from this I will attain to pavi-nirvana;” and king Mara had so fascinated and stupefied Ananda, that he was not able to ask Buddha to remain longer in this world.

Three or four le east from this place there is a tope (commemorating the following occurrence):— A hundred years after the pari-nirvana of Buddha, some Bhikshus of Vaisali went wrong in the matter of the disciplinary rules in ten particulars, and appealed for their justification to what they said were the words of Buddha. Hereupon the Arhats and Bhikshus observant of the rules, to the number in all of 700 monks, examined afresh and collated the collection of disciplinary books.  Subsequently men built at this place the tope (in question), which is still existing.”

Vaishali described by Hieun Tsang

Hieun Tsang visited the site in the 7th century, and has mentioned about the major sites he saw at Vaishali which included :-

S.No. Site described by Hieun Tsang
1 The ruined capital city of Vaiśālī :- whose old foundations were from 60 to 70 li in circuit. The royal precincts were about 4 or 5 li round, with a few people living in it.
2 Sangharama :- North-west of the royal city (precincts) 5 or 6 li, was a saghārāma with a few disciples, who studied the teaching of the Little Vehicle, according to the Sammatīya school.
3 By the side of the above, was a stūpa where Tathāgata delivered the Vimalakīrti Sūtra (Pi-mo-lo-kie-king), and the son of a householder, Ratnākara, and others offered precious parasols (to Buddha).
4 Stupa of Sariputra’s exemption : – To the east of the above was another stūpa where śāriputra and others obtained perfect exemption (became Arhats).
5 Relic Stupa : To the south-east of this last spot was another stūpa, built by a king of Vaiśālī, which contained a portion of the relics of the Buddha. He mentioned that in this stūpa there was at first a quantity of relics equal to a “hoh” (ten pecks). Aśoka-rāja opening it, took away nine-tenths of the whole, leaving only one-tenth behind. Afterwards there was a king of the country who wished again to open the stūpa, but at the moment when he began to do so, the earth trembled, and he dared not proceed to open (the stūpa).
6 Kolhua Stupa : -To the north-west was a stūpa built by Aśoka, by the side of which was a stone pillar about 50 or 60 feet high, with the figure of a lion on the top.
7 Tank at Kolhua :- To the south of the stone pillar was a tank. This was dug by a band of monkeys (Markata-hrada) for Buddha’s use. When he was in the world of old, Tathāgata once and again dwelt here.
8 Not far to the south of this tank was another stūpa, where the monkeys, taking the alms-bowl of Tathāgata, climbed a tree and gathered him some honey.
9 Not far to the south was anothr stūpa at the place where the monkeys offered the honey to Buddha.
10 At the north-west angle of the lake there was still a figure of a monkey.
11 To the north-east of the saṅghārāma 3 or 4 li was another stūpa at the old site of the house of Vimalakīrti (Pi-mo-lo-kie), where various spiritual signs (manifestations) were exhibited.
12 Not far from this was a spirit-dwelling (a chapel?), with its shape like a pile of bricks, where according to tradition Vimalakīrti preached the law when he was sick.
13 Not far from this was another stūpa at the site of the old residence of Ratnākara (P’ao tsi).
14 Not far from this was another stūpa at the old house of the lady Amrapali, where the aunt of Buddha and other Bhikshunis (nuns) obtained Nirvāṇa.
15 To the north of the saṅghārāma 3 or 4 li was another stūpa at the place where Tathāgata stopped when about to advance to Kuśinagara to die, whilst men and Kinnaras followed him.
16 From this not far to the north-west was another stūpa; where Buddha for the very last time gazed upon the city of Vaiśālī.
17 Not far to the south of this was a vihāra, before which was built a stūpa at the site of the garden of Amrapali, which she gave in charity to Buddha.
18 By the side of this garden was another stūpa, at the place where Tathāgata announced his death.
19 Not far from this spot was another stūpa at the spot where the thousand sons beheld their father and their mother. The interesting legend  as quoted by Fa-Hien is also quoted here.
20 Not far from this spot was another stūpa where Tathāgata walked for exercise, and left the traces thereof.
21 To the east of the spot where Buddha explained this birth (jātaka) was a ruined foundation above which was built a stūpa. A bright light was from time to time reflected there. Those who asked (pray) in worship obtained their requests. The ruins of the turretted preaching-hall, where Buddha uttered the Samantamukha dhārai and other sūtras, were still visible.
22 By the side of the preaching-hall, and not far from it, was another stūpa which contained the relics of the half body of Ananda.
23 No far from this were several stūpas, where a thousand Pratyeka Buddhas (To-kio) attained Nirvāṇa.

There were several other sacred sites which were not accounted for since “Both within and without the city of Vaiśālī, and all round it, the sacred vestiges are so numerous that it would be difficult to recount them all. At every step commanding sites and old foundations are seen, which the succession of seasons and lapse of years have entirely destroyed. The forests are uprooted; the shallow lakes are dried up and stinking; nought but offensive remnants of decay can be recorded.” The traveller also described other sites at distance from Vaishali, some of which like the massive stupa at Kesariya have been identified.

The rediscovery of Vaishali : Remains at Kolhua

As has been related in the earlier blog article on the rediscovery of Bodh Gaya, the situation regarding the ancient site of Vaishali was no different. Time and neglect had obliterated the memories of the glorious times and legends referred to in the early texts of Buddhism and Hinduism. The local populace had totally disconnected itself from Buddhism, and the main sites were lost in oblivion. The name of Vaishali stayed, but the main sites were not identified.

The remains near Kolhua are all situated on a low mound, two miles to the north north-west of the Besarh Fort. The greater portion of the mound was found to be under cultivation by Cunningham, and is much the same today, but the whole is covered with small fragments of bricks. The edge of the mound is best defined on the western side, where it has an elevation of four feet.

The remains consist of

  1. A stone pillar
  2. A ruined stupa of Solid Brick
  3. A tank
  4. Four small eminences which mark the sites of ancient buildings
  5. Life size statue of Buddha, discovered around 1853.

Cunningham has given a detailed account of the site under the title of Besarh in his first volume of the reports made for the Archaeological Survey of India. He mentions that the distance and direction of the site from Patna, pointed to its being the same as Vaishali. The name was also the same since it was mentioned as Besarh by Abul Fazl in his Ain-i-Akbari.  He then recalls the mention of Hieun Tsang who in his travelogue about Vaishali had placed the King’s Palace at 120 li or 20 miles to the east of north from the northern bank of the Ganga, opposite Pataliputra i.e. present Hajipur. Hiuen Tsang had also described the King’s palace as being from 4 to 5 li (from 3500 to 4400 feet) in circuit, which agreed with the size of the ruined fort now called as “Raja Bisal ka Garh”, which is about 1580 feet long and 750 feet broad inside, or 4660 feet in circuit round the crest of the mound. Cunningham thus on matching the features like name, position and dimensions, identified the site of Besarh as being the same as the ancient Vaishali, beyond all reasonable doubt.

The fortifications of Vaishali

Stephenson has referred to the existence of the remains of a mound of solid brick work near the village (Besarh), about 40 feet high, and about the same diameter at the base; on the top of which were two muslim religious structures and the tomb of a saint who he was told as having the name as Mir Abdulla, dead about 250 years ago. On the side of the mound fronting the north, a large Burr (Banyan) tree reared its branches to a great height, supported by about 30 trunks, forming a cool pleasant shade for the muslim devotee. A little to the north were seen the ruins of a large fort (called Raja Vishal ka garh) of an oblong shape, one side of which was full 1000 yards in length. It was found to be surrounded by a ditch, then filled with water and jungle grass. The remains of the wall can still be seen by the visitor. He further mentioned that the elevation of the wall above the ground was from 6 to 8 feet, and it appeared to be built entirely of brick – which was taken advantage of by the local hindus who had built a temple on the south end of the ruins, though it was then only half finished.  He mentioned that the mound and the fort were certainly coeval with each other and of considerable antiquity, and that he could not find any credible tradition regarding their origins. During his visit seldom did he know that he was at the site of Vaishali – one of the most important cities in ancient India, and frequented by visitors from faraway places, and also blessed by the Buddha.

Cunningham mentioned that the remains at Besarh consisted of a large deserted fort and a ruined brick stupa. The fort is a large brick covered mound of earth with round towers at the corners, and the whole is surrounded by a ditch which was full of water at the time of his visit. The ruined ramparts along the edge, and the four towers at the corners are somewhat higher than the mass of the mound which hass a general elevation of 6 to 8 feet above the country. The main entrance was in the middle of the south face where still existed a broad embankment across the ditch as well as a passage along the rampart. There was no embankment on the northern side, though a postern gate seemed to exist. The only building within the fort was found to be a small modern brick temple. Outside the south west angle of the fort, and about 1000 feet distant, there was found a ruind mound of solid brick work, 23 feet, 8 inches in height above the fields. The whole of the top was found to have been levelled for the reception of Muhammadan tombs, of which the greatest belonged to Mir Abdal, then said to be about 500 years old. This was the same which was described as “Mir Abdullah”, by Stephenson, who gave the age around 250 years. Cunningham also noticed the magnificent Banyan tree found by Stephenson, which stood on various trunks, and shaded the different tombs. On the same side also a flight of steps led to the village of Besarh. Cunningham ascribes the brick mound as being one of the stupas, or solid towers of Vaishali, of which many were described by the Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang. Cunningham mentions that the Chinese traveller had described several stupas at the south end of the town, one of which he identifies as the one that now beared the tomb of the Muslim Saint Mir Abdal.

The Mauryan Pillar at Kolhua

Of all the remains at Vaishali, the most remarkable is the Mauryan Pillar. The village of Kolhua is situated about 2 to 3 miles north west of Basarh, with which the ancient ruins of Vaishali were earlier associated. As stated by Princep, as early as January, 1784, Mr. Law had presented to the Asiatic Society of Bengal “a short account of Two Pillars to the north of Patna.” The account was of a cursory nature and was therefore not published. It is not known whether he then referred to the pillar at Kolhua, then known as Bakhra Pillar from another village of the same name nearby.

Some drawings or paintings of the pillar were also made in 1814 by an Indian artist for J.R. Elphinstone; but the first descriptive account on the pillar and the ruins was published in 1835 by Stephenson and Princep accompanied by drawings from Hodgson. This appeared in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In a note along with the drawings Hodgson remarked “I have at last the pleasure to send you my drawings of the Bakhra coloumn, and the Radhia coloumn, with their iinscriptions, and a third of the Kesariyah mound, surmounted with its hemispherical temple or Dehgope (stupa). I trust you will animadvert severely upon the barbarous custom of cutting ciphers and names upon these ancient monuments – if there were any inscriptions on the Bakhra column, it must in this way have been scribbled over and destroyed.”  Princep mentions that the name of CH Barlow in 1780 and General Brisco and others in 1799 were found scribbled on the ancient Bakhra Pillar. He mentions “This practice of scribbling over and disfiguring ancient monuments is as barbarous as the vain glory of Jehangir, evinced in the zone of Persian cut over the Allahabad inscription; but fortunately in the case of the Bakhra column, it seems to have been harmless, for there are no traces of an ancient inscription upon it, at least on the parts of the shaft overground. Such Nagari characters as appear in Mr. Hodgson’s facsimile are all modern, and record merely the names and dates of native visitors as gothic as their European precursors.”  Later in 1861 and 1880, Cunningham explored and described the ruins more fully and most of the subsequent accounts on the place, are based mainly on what he had stated earlier.

Stephenson was the first to effectively document his findings at the site of Bakhra, as it was then known, and his note was published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in March, 1835. It was aptly titled as “Excursion to the Ruins and Site of an Ancient City near Bakhra, 13 cos north of Patna, and six north from Singhea”; this was read to the Asiatic Society on the 14th January, 1835.

When Stephenson (1835) visited the site, he discovered an interesting ancient tradition regarding the pillar being believed as the walking stick of “Bhim Sinh”, perhaps referring to the ancient legendary Pandava Bhim. Stephenson calculated the dimensions of the pillar and remarked that the sculpture was better than the Egyptian, and that the general appearance was striking and good. He noticed that the names of several Europeans who had visited from time to time were scribbled upon the pillar. The natives called the pillar as “Bhim Sinh ka Lattea, Lath or Gada; literally, Bhim Sinh’s walking stick.” He quoted a contemporary tradition that mentioned the existence of one “Bhim Sinh the great”, about two thousand years ago, who had used the pillar as his walking stick by which he supported himself when carrying a large tree on his shoulder as a bhangi, laden with two hills. The bhangi however broke with the weight near to the spot where the pillar stood, and the two hills or mounds were there left by Bhim Sinh, and remained to the present day, and could be seen near the pillar.

It is indeed interesting to note how legends were created to justify the existence of the pillar once its Buddhist connection was virtually forgotten, and was connected with the legendary Pandavas, who were believed to have traversed the length and breadth of India. As learnt from various texts like the Tarikh-i-Feroz-Shahi (Shams-i-Siraj Afif) and others, the rule of Asoka and the construction of pillars and stupas by him for the promotion of the Dhamma was erased out of the public memory with the passage of time. However, many of the strong edifices built in his time did survive and offered to the modern generation an unique challenge about their origins since the anscient Brahmi script had also become outdated and failed to be deciphered despite serious efforts by the Brahmins in the times of Feroz Shah Tughlaq, who arranged for the transport of one of the Asokan Pillars discovered near Topara to the newly built palace, now seen near the ITO junction in New Delhi.

Stephenson also referred to the local story that the place near the base of the pillar was dug for treasure, many years before, by a Bengali gentleman, who perished in the attempt. Similarly an Englishman had come and dug down to discover the base of the pillar but he too lost his life, and thus the pillar was locally believed to be haunted.

Stephenson wrote “Many years after this happened, the spirit of the place appeared to a Bengali in a dream, and informed him that there was immense treasure buried under the pillar in copper handis or vessels bound with chains. The spirit requested him to take a journey or pilgrimage to the spot and possess it. The Bengali travelled to the place, and found the pillar a few feet above the ground, in the middle of a large jungle, inhabited by wild beasts of every description. However, notwithstanding the danger, he began to clear away the jungle, and dig for the treasure. At a great depth, he came to a well or small tank, on the surface of which floated a large silver choki (or seat), and through a hole in the middle, the pillar descends down into the water into an unknown depth. By the side of the well are stationed two swams (large black bees), the size of a man’s fist, to protect the treasure. The Bengali entered this sanctuary, disappeared, and was never heard of more. The pillar after this affair rose to the height of two tadi trees, and has since been sinking at the rate of an inch annually. Many years after the Bengali’s disappearance, an English gentleman came to the place and dug down to discover the base of the pillar, but when he came to the silver choki he was attacked by two swams, one of which stung and killed him on the spot: since that time, no one dare venture to dig below the pillar, which has subsequently remained unmolested.” Stephenson conjectures to relate the legend with the attack by porcupines who were seen in the vicinity having dug up their dens, and who could have infact killed a man with their sharp armour.

Stephenson further added that a “Hindu Faqir” had then availed himself of the excavated spot of the mound nearby and converted it into a place of worship; while in 1861 Cunningham found another sanyasi, about 30 years of age, having settled down near the pillar with a small residence and a court-yard enclosing the pillar. He mentioned that the “superb monument is the only remains of its former grandeur, that has escaped the ravages of time, owing to the solidity of its structure.” He imagined that the pillar may have had a pedestal in the ancient times, which may have sunk into the ground owing to the alluvial nature of the soil, and that it could be discovered if digging was done in the vicinity of the pillar. He also figured that if such pedestal was discovered, that could also lead to the discovery of an inscription. He figured that the place must have been the site of a large city inhabited by a numerous and civilised wealthy people, since there were about 50 magnificent old tanks in the vicinity.

The pillar as seen above ground is a monolith of highly polished sandstone, consisiting of a circular shaft, surmounted by a bell shaped capital, supporting a life size figure of a lion, facing the north. The shaft, as measured by Cunningham, is 18’ above the level of the courtyard, the bell portion and the plain oblong abacus, or pedestal for the lion above it, being 2’10” and 1’ respectively; while the figure of lion itself measures 3’6”. The total height of the pillar with the capital would thus come to 25’6” above the courtyard level.

As alluded to above, several attempts had been made to dig round the base of the pillar for treasure or for inscriptions but without success. Cunningham made another attempt and dug down to 14’, where the water level was reached, still finding the shaft with the polish all around “but no appearance of any basement” upto the point of his excavation. He was however told by the local people that in some earlier excavation, by the Bengali gentleman, at the instance of some ‘saheb’, just at the water level “a square pedestal in three steps” was found. Cunningham did not dig down further; but since the pillar was still polished upto water level, he thought that it must have gone down at least 4’1” below, if not more.

If this is treated as the correct height of the pillar with the lion capital would come to be 43’5” or more from its bottom to the top of the capital. The diameter of the shaft at the water level is 49.8” and it tapers up to the top where it is 38.7”. The pillar is leaning a little to the west, 4 to 5 inches out of plumb, due to perhaps the weakness of its foundation and its very heavy weight of about 50 tons, as calculated by Cunningham, who noticed it to be “the heaviest of the Lion-monoliths” seen by him. The lion figure of the capital is rather stiff, it being seated on its hind legs, with mouth half open, as if snarling and with the tongue slightly protruding. On the shaft itself there are found rudely carved human and animal figures and symbols such as scales, wheels, mandipadas etc.

During the visit of Cunningham, the lion pillar was found to be situated in the middle of a small courtyard with small rooms on three sides – which was being used as a residence by a sanyasi called locally as “Baba”, aged around 30 years. The baba allowed Cunningham to proceed with the excavation around the pillar and unexpectedly did not raise any religious scruples. Cunningham made an excavation all round the shaft till he reached the water level. He found the pillar polished till that point, and was told that the Bengali who had excavated earlier had found a square pedestal in three steps at the level of water. He also learnt that previous excavation upto the water level had not fructified in the discovery of any inscription. He however found a few short records in the shell shaped characters, that were believed to be of the 7th to 8th century A.D. He concluded that the pillar had sunk in the times since it had been erected partly to the insufficiency of the basement and partly due to the low stiffness of the soil. Cunningham also found the general appearance of the lion capital very striking.

There is no inscription on the pillar to declare the reason for its erection, however it is possible that a former inscription may have weathered away with the passage of time, as the surface has suffered considerably. The names of several visitors were found scribbled. Cunningham found that none of the Nagari inscriptions were more than 200 or 300 years old.

The Stupa at Kolhua and the Buddha Image discovered by Stephenson

Close to the north of the pillar is a ruined stupa of solid brick, 25’10” above the fields; but only 15’11” above the ground level of the pillar as stated by Cunningham. Both Stephenson and Cunningham refer to an excavation having been done here by some doctor from Muzaffarpur early in the 19th century, but without any notable discovery. Kuraishi gives the base of the stupa as measuring 65’ in diameter, the bricks being 12”x9.5”x2.5” (Stephenson says “a foot square” while Cunningham gives the measurements as 13.5”x9.5”x2.5”)  According to Cunningham the Stupa was clearly the monument built by Asoka, but the purpose was not stated. A modern brick temple was then found built upon the stupa, with a long flight of steps on the east, enshrining a well preserved medieval image of the Buddha in bhumi-sparsha-mudra, then worshipped as Ramachandra. This image was found in situ in 1854 by the local zemindar amongst the ruins of an old temple or a Buddhist chapel monastery, some 720 feet to the north of the pillar.

Stephenson describes the Stupa as a mound or tumulus of solid brick work, of a conical shape, similar to the one described above near Basarh, and that the top was surmounted by a large pipal tree, which appeared many centuries old. He further mentioned that the bricks were a “foot square”, and that mud had been used instead of mortar. He was informed that on the north side of the Stupa, an excavation had been recently made by a doctor who was resident of Muzaffarpur, 30 years ago, but whose name was not known. The Doctor could not find the treasure, but only a well of great depth, situated immediately under the centre, which he could not find any vestige of, on searching for it. At that time a hindu faqir had converted the extremity of the excavation made by the doctor into a place of worship, making a few images of clay, which were fixed into the sides of the cavity.

Image discovered by Stephenson with the “Interesting Inscription”, later deciphered as the Buddhist Sutra

Stephenson found one sculpture to be very interesting among the images installed in the cavity. He mentions that it had a grotesque appearance, and that the lower part was of stone and well ssculpted, which was altogether different from the upper part made of clay. He managed to convince the faqir and purchased the image for two rupees. Then on being washed and being separated from the outward covering of clay, a fragment (lower part) of beautiful ancient sculpture of the Buddha in bhumi-sparsh mudra was revealed. It was learnt from the faqir that the image had been discovered by the zemindar while digging for bricks to build his present pukka house, at a distance of a few hundred yards. The back of the fragment was beautifully sculpted, with two lions standing in an erect position, upon two elephants. On each side of the base was cut a lion half couchant with a female figure in the centre. The stone was red fine grained sandstone, which was very hard. He found an inscription on the lowest part of the fragment which could not be deciphered by the local pundits (being in Brahmi script, which was forgotten since long).

Princep mentions that the mutilated image thus rescued by Stephenson was presented by him to the Asiatic Society. The inscription on the pedestal of the sculpture excited considerable curiosity on being exhibited in the society, since at that time no such images with inscriptions existed in the museum of the society. This was later deciphered with the assistance of Govind Ram Shastri, the pandit of Wilson, who compared it with the Tibetan and Gya forms of the Sanskrit alphabet, and they were able to decipher the same as the Buddhist sutra “ye dhamma hetu pabbhava…”  The inscription found on the image’s pedestal was found to be similar to that of another on a stone found during excavation of the site at Sarnath by Lt. Alexander Cunningham and others including Major Grant, and Captain Thorrsby.

The Tank and other remains at Kolhua

The Mauryan pillar is surrounded by a high level ground, 6’ to 7’ high above the surrounding country and measuring roughly 1000’ x 600’ with other mounds and a large tank, called as Ramakunda, 240’x140’, close to the south of the pillar, all situated within its limits. Bloch described the tank in 1903 as “ancient brick-faced”; but 25 years later, Kuraishi stated that “the brick-facing is now all covered with mud.”

By a comparison withe the description of the monuments at Vaisali by Hieun Tsang Cunningham identified the tank with the “Monkey Tank” (Markata-hrada) of the Buddhist tradition, on the southern bank of which it is said, stood the “Kutagara hall” or “the upper-storeyed hall”, where the Buddha addressed his disciples, after having announced to Ananda his approaching nirvana. While excavating the low mound, to the south of the tank, Cunningham discovered traces of some large building with thick brick walls, the bricks being 15.5”x9.5”x2”. Along its west was exposed a small brick stupa, 7’ to 8’ in diameter, with several ornamented bricks in its ruins, including one with rounded top and a square hole in its middle, perhaps forming one of the umbrellas of its original pinnacle. This small stupa in fact occupied the position, where Hieun Tsang locates the stupa, which marked the spot, where the monkey offered the Buddha a pot full of honey; but Cunningham was not sure whether it should be identified as such, though he proposed to identify the remains of the large building , referred to above, with the Kutagra Hall, described by the Chinese pilgrim.

About 250’ to the north-east of the above stupa is a low mound but, it appears, it was not fully explored by Cunningham. Similar mounds existing to the west of the tank were excavated by him, but without any result. Half a mile to the west of the pillar Cunningham noticed two high conical mounds, locally known as Bhim Sen’s pallas or baskets, standing near the corner of a tank, having no indications of brick ruins; though they were universally believed to be old, some people even calling them as Raja Bisal ka Murcha or Raja Bisal’s fort or Battery. Cunningham does not seem to have explored it further.

Cunningham noticed the small temple dedicated to Mahadeva, on the island on the east side. All sculptures found in the ruins of Besarh were found collected in this temple which included both Hindu and Buddhist ones. There were several sheets of water to the north and north west of the fort, which were irregular in shape, and were alluded to being formerly 52 in number (Bawan Pokhar), two of which still existed in the neighbourhood of Bakhra.

Due north from the pillar, and just outside the courtyard then used by the Baba, Cunningham noticed the Stupa where an excavation had been made right into the centre of the mound from the north west. He learnt that the excavation was supervised by the Bengali servant of some Saheb more than 50 years ago, i.e. previous to 1835 AD, around 1805 AD. Cunningham did not find it necessary to make any further excavation, since the centre had already been reached.

To the north east of the stupa, at a distance of 250 feet, there is a low mound similar to those near the tank, and due north at a distance of about 500 feet, there is a small temple containing the life size image of Buddha, discovered around 1853-54 AD, while digging up some brick walls immediately to the east of the temple. The statue is well preserved, and is dated to the 8th or 9th century. Cunningham related that the spot on which the statue was found may have been the site of an ancient vihara or Buddhist monastery, in which the statue was enshrined. He found several of the bricks with bevelled edges similar to those that formed part of the mouldings of the Mahabodhi temple and the Stupa at Giriyek.

Identification of Vaishali from the ruins by Cunningham

As related by Hieun Tsang, at a short distance to the south of the town, there was a vihar, and also a stupa in the garden which Amradarika had presented to the Buddha. Besides the garden there was another stupa erected on the spot where the Buddha had announced his approaching nirvana (or death). Beyond this there was a third stupa on the spot where the “thousand sons had recognised their mother.” A fourth stupa stood over the spot where Buddha was said to have taken exercise, and a fifth, erected on ancient foundations, commemorated the site on which he had explained certain sacred books.  A sixth stupa held the relics of one half of the body of Ananda, the other half being enshrined at Raja-griha.

The bearing of these stupas from the garden of Amradarika was not stated; but Cunningham mentioned that since the mass of the existing brick ruins lied to the westward of the southern entrance of the fort, the whole of the monuments should have been situated in this direction. He further mentioned that of the six stupas described by Hieun Tsang, it was probable that only two were of any size, namely, that erected on the spot where the Buddha had announced his approaching nirvana, and that which contained the relics of Ananda. Cunningham mentioned that the site could not be excavated further due to the existence of religious shrines (tombs) on the top of the mound, which could have revealed the purpose of the erection of the stupa. The stupa of the relics of Ananda at Rajgir is mentioned by Hieun Tsang as being superb. Cunningham mentions that an annual fair used to be held at the site of the Besarh stupa, in the month of Chaitra, attended by thousands of persons who assembled at the shrine of Mir Abdal. Since the occurrence of the fair was regulated by the solar reckoning of the Hindus, he concluded that the fair must have been established long before the arrival of the saint. He thus conjectured that the festival may have been held in the honour of the Buddha or of one of his disciples. He mentioned that two ornamented stone pillars of medieval date were found during excavation at the foot of the mound, some time back. The stupa containing the holy relics of the Buddha was excavated later in 1958 and are presently preserved at the Patna Museum.

Cunningham tried to identify the lion pillar and the surrounding remains with the group of holy buildings described by Hieun Tsang as being situated upwards of one mile to the north-west of the Palace of Vaishali. The nature of the existing remains tallied with the descriptions of Hieun Tsang.  The first work noticed by Hieun Tsang  as being upwards of a mile to the north west of the Palace of Vaishali was a Stupa built by Asoka, of which the purpose was not stated. Besides the stupa was a stone column from 50 to 100 feet in height, surmounted by a lion. To the south of the pillar was a tank which had been excavated by a group of monkeys for the use of the Buddha. At a short distance to the west of the tank was a stupa erected on the spot where the monkeys climbed a tree and filled Buddha’s begging pot with honey. On the south side of the tank there was another stupa erected on the spot where the monkeys offered the honey to Buddha, and at the north west angle of the tank there was a statue of a monkey.

Cunningham identified the ruined stupa to the north of the pillar as Asokan stupa, and the small tank to the south of the pillar as Markata-hrada or “Monkeys’ tank”. The two mounds to the west and the south of the tank were identified with the sites of the two stupas built to commemorate the monkey’s offering of honey to Buddha; and the low mound to the north west was identified with the site of the monkey’s statue. Cunningham fixed the original height of the pillar to about 50 feet, much of which had actually sunk, as described above.

Cunningham conjectured that the name Bakhra may have been derived from Vak or Vach meaning “to speak”, and may have been derived from the fact that in the Kutagra Hall, the Buddha had addressed his disciples for the last time.

Inscriptions noticed from Kolhua

Imscriptions scribbled by visitors
  1.  On the Mauryan Pillar :-  Various excavations were made, from time to time, to ascertain if any original inscription existed on the pillar, but no such inscription was found. As late as 1903 Bloch also made an attempt but to no result. In 1861-62 Cunningham, however, had discovered a few short records on the buried position of the shaft in the “shell characters”, which have not been deciphered so far, nor have they been dated with certainty. The shaft is covered by numerous scribbling made by visitors, in English as well as nagari, two of the early English records mention the names of “G.H.Barlow, 1780” and “Reuben Burrow, 1792.”
  1. On the Image of the Buddha, found in worship in modern temple on the stupa near the pillar. It records the pious gift of the image by one Utsaha, son of Manikya and is assigned to 8th or 9th century by Cunningham. It is not included in Bhandarkar’s list.
  1. On pedestal of a broken image found at the site and presented by Stephenson to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1835 and now in Indian Museum, Kolkata. The inscription contains the usual Buddhist creed formulae only.

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