Friday, September 30, 2016

The Sublime Creation

Ongoing restoration work of  Giriyak stūpa
It is indeed a welcome development that after centuries of neglect, the Giriyak stūpa is now getting restored. The restoration work began in 2011-12. I learnt from ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) sources that the restoration of the cylindrical pillar of the stūpa has been partially completed. I along with a few students of Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University) climbed up the Giriyak hill to see the restored stūpa and capture this beautiful piece of Buddhist architecture at the break of the dawn. This was my 7th visit since 2009 when I along with my kite photographer friend Yeves Guichard first visited the place to take aerial pictures of the place using a kite. The hill is around 750 feet high and steep. The path leading to the top is around 400mt  of walk. It is a 30 minute climb. We started climbing to the top at 4.45 am so that we could make it to the top before the break of dawn.

There is a small Vishnu temple at 100mt on the way to the top. The local devotees have made steps to reach to the temple. These steps are a big help because the first 100mt is very steep.  In the middle, for around next 50mt  after you cross the temple, there is no path and it is very risky, especially for the aged and the people who are overweight.  In this stretch at some places one has to literally crawl. The last 200mt  of the climb is relatively easy because it is a ramp, an ancient 12ft wide path paved with dressed stones. This ancient path is now reclaimed by thick vegetation but I have a picture of this ancient path I had taken when this path was revealed when the entire hill was cleaned (of vegetation) at the start of the conservation work of the stūpa.  In ancient times this path probably ran till the bottom of the hill but now only half of it survives. The second half going to the bottom is now lost, probably because of the rampant quarrying that took place in this hill in 1980’s. The scars of the quarrying may still be seen on all sides of the Hill.

The stūpa was surrounded by 10ft of fallen debris. The removal of the fallen debris in 2012 revealed that the cylindrical pillar is resting on a 10ft high brick platform. F. H. Buchanan, E.L. Ravenshaw, A.R. Broadley and A. Cunningham, the oriental explorer who visited this stūpa in 19th CE did not notice this square brick platform. The stūpa (square base + cylindrical pillar) is now approximately 30ft tall but in the middle of the 1st millennia, in its prime as conjectured by   Cunningham, the stūpa must have been not less than 55ft tall. The top of the stūpa which is now flat was once surmounted by a solid dome or hemisphere of brick of which only 6ft remains. The dome must have been crowned with the usual umbrella motif rising from a square base. Ravenshaw in 1839 noticed some beautiful stucco images with traditional Buddhist motifs on the dome. Traces of these stuccos on the dome that has survived elements for centuries can still be seen. Scientific clearance of the stūpa also revealed a thick layer of plaster suggesting that the stūpa was covered with plaster with Buddhist ornamentation picked out in simple colours.

In the first phase of restoration, the cylindrical pillar of the stūpa has been restored. The cylindrical pillar of the stūpa had a large cavity in its middle, a scar left by some treasure hunter. This cavity was noticed by Hamilton Buchanan in 1811. The cavity in the pillar has been now filled and surface of the stūpa that had an uneven surface because of decay and vandalisation has been now covered by a layer of brick covering the entire cylindrical part of the stūpa.  

Archaeological remains suggest that at some point of time in the first millennia it was a flourishing monastery.  A team of Archaeologist from ASI who had visited the stūpa in 2009-10 had told me that the stūpa has bricks from Mauryan (3rd -2nd BCE), Gupta (5th -6th CE) and Pāla-Sena period (8th-12th CE). Unfortunately, we do not know much about the name of the monastery and the significance of this beautiful stūpa. No sculptural remains have been reported from the site by Buchanan, Broadley, and Cunningham etc. In the name of inscription, all that have been discovered are numerous sealing bearing Buddhist creed. What is most surprising is that both the Chinese monk scholars Faxian (Fahien, 5th CE) and Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th CE) who crossed this hill (see map) while visiting Indraśailaguhā (Parwati), Rājagṛiha (Rajgir) and birth place of Sāriputra are conspicuously silent about this place.  

Cleaning the hill top in 2012 had also revealed remains of numerous brick stūpas at many points on this road. These remains of the stūpas of 6ft to 12ft diameter have stone foundations. On the south east of the stūpa are the remains of an artificial pond that has a wall of dressed stone. To the south west corner of the stūpa is a huge platform made up of dressed stone. The platform of dressed stone is approximately 60mt  long, 60mt  wide and 20mt  high. On the top of this stone platform are the remains of another brick stūpa, probably from Pala-Sena period. We don’t have much information because there are no published reports after 1860’s.  Scientific clearance in 2012 has revealed many new things that were not reported by the 19th CE explorers. ASI should come out with a report regarding the correct measurements and finds made since the conservation and restoration work was started in 2012.

Sketch prepared by Ravenshaw in 1839

Cunningham identified the Giriyak hill with Indraśailaguhā, the place where Buddha had discourse with Indra well documented in Pāli sources and also mentioned by Faxian and Xuanzang. However, recent studies confirmed that this was a wrong identification and isolated hill of Pārwati was the correct identification for Indraśailaguhā. Another very important place in this vicinity visited by Faxian and Xuanzang is the Ashokan stūpa to mark the parinirvāṇa of Sāriputra, the prominent disciple of the Buddha. Scholars have proposed different identification like Chaṇḍimau, Nānand, Giriyak as the village of Sāriputra, all places in the vicinity of Giriyak hill. Since 2010, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara has been organising Sāriputta World Peace Walk on the occasion of parinirvāṇa anniversary of Sāriputra on Kārtika Pūrnimā (full moon day of November).  The objective of this walk is not only to pay rich tribute to Sariputra for his contributions to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha but also to create awareness towards the Giriyak stūpa.  

Sketch prepared by Cunningham in 1861

The cylindrical stūpa adorning the Giriyak hill is one of its kinds in the Buddhist world.  On a clear sky the stūpa is visible from as far as 15 kms. Because of its size, magnificence and placing the cylindrical stūpa has given rise to many local legends and folklore. Locally, the people call this cylindrical pillar as Jarāsandha ka Baiṭhka (sitting place of Jarāsandha). As per the Hindu epic Mahābhārata, Jarāsandha was the king of Magadha. Ancient Purānic literature that mention kings and kingdoms in India starts with Magadha as the first empire, Rājagṛiha the first capital and its list of kings starts with Jarāsandha from Bṛhadratha dynasty as the first king. We can imagine the might of Jarāsandha that many of the ancient structures in Rājagṛiha and around including the cyclopean wall are associated with his name. Giriyak since the ancient times has been strategically a very important place. The 70kms long Rājgir-Jeṭhian hill range running west to east abruptly ends at Giriyak. Many of the very important Buddhist pilgrimage sites including Rājagṛiha (Rajgir), Jeṭhian, Indraśailaguhā (Parwati), Buddhavana, Prāgbodhi are part of this hill range. In ancient times an important trade route connecting Pāṭalipūtra (Patna) and Tāmaralipti (Tāmluk, West Bengal) passed through Giriyak and now NH 31 connecting Patna and Ranchi passes from here. River Pānchāne flows past the Giriyak hill on its east making the whole landscape picturesque.

The landscape of Magadha after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha (5th BCE) became a major centre of Buddhist pilgrimage and monastic activities. The new political climate in the 2nd millennia was not conducive for growth and development of Buddhism. By the end of 13th CE, Buddhism came to its ebb in Magadha. All the stūpas, monasteries and other vestiges of Buddhism got converted into ruins. All the beautiful architectural marvels that once dotted this landscape are now unfortunately lost or are buried under the layers of biomass and now villages settled over them. Fortunately, stūpas and ancient remains on the top of the many hills of Magadha have survived to remind us of our glorious past. It is very unfortunate that revitalisation of this and many such very sacred remains is very slow. Let us cherish and celebrate marvelous creation of our ancestors.  

cylindrical pillar of the stūpa surrounded by 10ft debris covered under vegetation.
 (Pic 2010, Alok Jain)
stūpa after the scientific clearance in 2012.

12ft wide path paved with dressed rock (pic 2012).

Remains of stūpas along the path (pic 2009).
Stone platform, from the west.(pic 2009, Yves Guichard).

Aerial view of  stone platform with stūpa remains on its top, cylindrical stūpa may be seen further east and river Panchane
(pic 2009, Yves Guichard)
Water tank in the south west direction of stūpa (pic 2012).

Map depicting Giriyak and Rajgir-Jethian hill range

Telegraph new online link

Special thanks to Prabal Anand Upasak

Cunningham,  A. 1871. Archaeological Survey of India: Four Reports Made during the Years, 1862-63-64-65’, Vol.1. Shimla: Government Central Press, pp.16-22.

Dutt, R. C. 1893, A History of Civilisation in Ancient India, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, pp. 29-41.

Patil, D. R. 2006, The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna, (1st Edition: 1963), pp.148-155.

Prasad, A.K. 2003-4, “Important  Discoveries of Prehistoric Rock Paintings, Ancient Inscriptions and Stone Age tools in Southern Bihar and adjoining Jharkhand”, Puratattva, No. 34. D.K. Printworld, pp. 64-90.

Ravenshaw, Edward Cockburn. 1840. “Notice of Inscriptions in Behar”. The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, New Series, Vol. 8. Calcutta: Bishop’s College Press. pp.352.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

From Metropolitan Museum to its Rightful Place

An 8th CE statue of Buddha in Abhayamudrā (gesture of fearlessness) stolen from mahant compound (Brahmanical Monastery), Bodhgayā somewhere between February 1987 and February-March 1989 will be soon brought back to Bodhgayā and will be placed in Bodhgayā Museum. Probably, this is the first time in Bihār, where a stolen sculpture from this state, is returning back from a foreign country to its find spot. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Debala Mitra, former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India (1975- 83) that this stolen statue has been returned by the Metropolitan Museum, New York and is presently lying at Central Antiquity Collection Section, Archaeological Survey of India, Purana Quila, New Delhi. 

The Buddha statue  published in Catalogue pf Metropolitan Museum, New York

The story goes back to February 1987 when Dr Mitra on her visit to Bodhgayā had seen this statue of Buddha in the premises of Maṭha (mahant compound). In her next visit to Bodhgayā in March 1989, she found the same statue missing. Dr. Mitra discovered that the Maṭha people had not reported the theft to the local police. One of the friends of Dr. Mitra drew her attention to image of standing Buddha figure in published in catalogue Arts of South and South-East Asia (Lerner, Martin and Kossak, Steven, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, Fig. 30, Accession No. 1990.115).  Dr. Mitra after comparing her own records with the details published in the catalogue concluded that the Buddha image published in catalogue was the same statue of the Buddha that had gone missing from Bodhgayā Maṭha. She reported the matter to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) on 4-5-1990. ASI noticed that the statue was registered by Shri Shatanand Giri of Bodhgayā Maṭha on 4-10-1976 vide registration no. GYA/ BH/68/.  Once it was ascertained that it was same sculpture that was missing from Maṭha, the ASI reported the matter to the Indian Embassy, New York. The Embassy after an enquiry with the Metropolitan Museum confirmed that it was the same statue. The Metropolitan Museum agreed to return the statue without any compensation. The statue was collected from Metropolitan Museum by ASI on 23-3-1999.

    Buddha statue kept at the Mahant Compound ( before it was stolen).

The provenance of this statue as shared by Metropolitan Museum in its catalogue says that statue was purchased from Friends of Asian Arts Gifts in 1990.  The title ‘Friends of Asian Arts Gifts’ is a subterfuge created by the dealers, middlemen and collectors who were involved in stealing this artefact from Bodhgayā. The catalogue is also silent about its actual find spot (Bodhgayā, the place of origin) of the Buddha sculpture. Instead they have mentioned ‘Bihar.’ Museums most of the times like in this case are aware that many of the artefacts that they purchase were recently stolen from their place of origin. But false and incomplete titles created by middlemen and dealers like the one in this case make these stolen artefacts acceptable (ethical) to reputed museums like Metropolitan Museum. There has been a growing pressure on museums in Europe and USA to adopt ethical acquisition policies to discourage illegal trafficking and damage of heritage sites in source countries. Most of them have now adopted 1970, the year of the UNESCO Convention, as a marker for enquiries into provenances of artefacts. This means that in countries that have ratified the UNESCO Convention, museums and museum organizations are obligated to conform to the 1970 rule for all acquisitions after 1970.  To circumvent this obligation, in many market and transit countries, retailers and dealers engage in creating false provenances of stolen artefacts to make them ethical as per the 1970 rule. Museums these days are progressively distancing themselves from the sources of the acquisitions. Intervention of dealers and collectors in the chain of artefact trade allow museums to acquire ‘ethical’ artefacts through purchase or gift – at any rate without direct knowledge of destruction, stealing or illegal trade of artefacts. The absence of real knowledge of the provenances of artefacts not only allows museums to claim ignorance of an acquired object’s provenance, but also prove innocence if an object is subsequently shown to have been stolen or illegally transacted.

The sculpture kept at Central Antiquity Section, Purana Quila , New Delhi.

This Buddha sculpture could be retrieved from Metropolitan Museum because it was registered with ASI. There was sufficient photographic and documentary evidence to prove that the statue was in Mahant Compound, Bodhgayā till 1987. Hence, for the Metropolitan Museum, this artefact didn’t qualify the ‘1970 Rule’, i.e. it was not out of its place of origin (India) before 1970 and therefore, Metropolitan Museum had to return it. 
Dr Sarjun Prasad, Asst Archaeologist, Purana Quila, New Delhi
The statue is presently kept at Central Antiquity Section, Purana Quila for last 17 years. Dr. Sarjun Prasad, Asst. Archaeologist, ASI,  currently posted at Purana Quila has made initiative to bring statue back to Bodhgayā, the place from where it belonged. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Sarjun Prasad, the statue will soon be reaching back to Bodhgayā after more than 25 years since it was stolen.    
Empty shelves of the mahant compound that once had ancient statues
Mahant compound once hand hundreds of ancient sculptures kept at various temples in its premises. These sculptures of Buddha, Buddhist and Hindu deities belonged to Mahābodhi temple. Most of the sculptures that were kept at mahant compound are now missing. They have been now stolen. The selves in the walls of mahant compound had some of the finest images of Buddha and Buddhist deities are now empty. It’s a common story in Bodhgayā that most of the people who have became rich overnight in last 50 years and now own respectable business were at some point of time involved in illicit trade of artefacts. Most of time it happened in connivance with the people living inside the mahant compound.  

Online link

Special thanks to,
1. Dr. D. N Dimri, Director, Antiquity, ASI Headoffice, New Delhi
2. Dr. Sujeet Nayan, Asstt. Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Headoffice, New Delhi
3. Dr. Sarjun Prasad, Asst. Archaeologist, ASI, Purana Quila Museum, New Delhi

 1. Recent retrieval of Indian Heritage Smuggled Abroad. By Hari Manjhi (Director, Antiquties, ASI) and C. B. Patil (Assistant Superintending Archaeologist, ASI)
         CBI Bulletin, Vol IX. No.11-November 2001. Published by Central Bureau of Investigation.  

2. A Journey through Bihār to Vihāra. By Aparajita Goswami, Deepak anand, Monica Harvey. Published by Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University), Nalanda. 2015.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ancient Nālandā University: Now a World Heritage Site

Excavated remains of the ancient Nālandā Mahāvihāra (University) has joined the elite group of World Heritage Sites (WHS) that currently includes over 1000 natural and cultural treasures in over 150 countries in the world. Nālandā University was discovered in the year 1862 on the basis of travel accounts of 7th CE Chinese monk scholar, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang). More than 150 years after its discovery, WHS is not only well deserved but was also long overdue. 
Aerial view of ancient Nālandā University 
The excavated remains of the ancient Nālandā University  are a protected site under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).  International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Non-Government agency that offers advice to UNESCO on WHS has pointed out several weaknesses in the submitted nomination dossier (by ASI) and it even suggested deferring the nomination.   The report claims 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2nd Dhamma Walk (Jeṭhian-Rājgir Buddha trail) & Saṅghadāna

2nd Dhamma Walk along the Jeṭhian-Rājgir Buddha trail organized by Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM) on 13th December saw a huge turnout of the people from the villages of the Jeṭhian Valley. More than 1500 monks and nuns from 10 different countries under the International Tipitaka Chanting Council (ITCC) led the Walk. The 15km walk along the footsteps of the Buddha concluded at Veḷuvana, Rajgir. 

Highlight of the Dhamma Walk was the Saṅghadāna by the community of Jeṭhian. More than 60 monks from Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Lao etc walked in the streets of the village Jeṭhian to collect food as Buddha and Saṅgha did in the streets of the villages of the Valley some 2500 years ago. 

Buddhist literature has many references of patronage of King Bimbisāra to the Triple Gem. Bimbisāra offered Veḷuvana, the first monastery to the Buddha on his maiden visit to Rājāgṛiha after his enlightenment. Light of the Buddha Dhamma Foundation International (LBDFI) offered a statue of King Bimbisāra at Veḷuvana. 

Community of Jeṭhian offering Saṅghadāna


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

‘Live-Museum’ of Magadha

What would you call a geographic area where every second village, roughly 600 villages have ancient Buddhist remains?

I call it a Live-museum!

I am talking about the Magadha. Magadha is mentioned in ancient literature (Purāṇa) to have been the first powerful kingdom of ancient India. Legendary Jarāsaṇḍha of epic Mahābhārata fame was the first king who ruled from Rājagṛiha (now Rājgir), the capital of Magadha.