Friday, May 26, 2017

Reclaiming the Buddhist Site of Lāt Bhairava

Broken Aśokan pillar (Lāt Bhairava) covered with red cloth

Chinese monk scholar Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 7th CE) mentions about the presence of an Aśokan stūpa and pillar on the west side of River Barnā (now Varṇā) on the way from Vārānasī to the Deer Park (Sārnātha). Vincent Smith (1848-1920) has identified Lāt Saraiyā on the west banks of River Varṇā as the place mentioned by Xuanzang. According to Smith, the mosque at Lāt Saraiyā is built over the remains of the Aśokan stūpa while the Aśokan pillar mentioned by Xuanzang is being worshiped as Lāt Bhairav (Staff of Lord Shiva). 

Because of the changed political climate at the turn of 10th CE, the Buddhist pilgrimage ebbed around 13th century and hence the Buddhist monasteries and places of worship got abandoned. Subsequently, this Aśokan pillar site became a place of worship for Hindus. A Hindu temple came up here and the place became known as Lāt Bhairav (Staff of Lord Shiva). During the reign of Aurangzeb (1618-1707), the Hindu temple (Lāt Bhairav) was demolished and a mosque, Lāt Imāmbaṛah (Mosque of the Staff) was erected in its place. According to the Christian Missionary and Indologist, M. A. Sherring (1826–1880), the Pillar was left intact by Aurangzeb either because he viewed it as an ornamental structure or due to the fear of provoking the indignation of his Hindu subjects. Muslims partially allowed the Hindus access to the Pillar (Lāt Bhairav) in return for a share of the offerings.

French visitor Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) visited Vārānasī in mid-1670’s and mentioned this Pillar to be around 35ft high. The local Muslims informed him that the mound (stūpa mound) were the remains of the tomb of one of the Kings of Bhutan. Charles Allen is of opinion that Tavernier mistook the word Bhutan for Buddha. The local Muslims also informed Tavernier that this King of Bhutan (followers of the Buddha?) was driven out from his kingdom by the descendants of Timur Lang (1336-1405).

After the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the Hindu community started reclaiming the Shaivite identity of Vārānasī. Amidst the Hindu-Muslim tensions, the Pillar was destroyed in one particularly violent incident of riot between Hindus and Muslims in 1809. Thereafter, the Hindus covered the remaining part (the stump, 14 to 16 ft estimated by Sherring) of the broken Pillar with copper sheeting, which nobody over last two centuries was allowed to tamper. The copper sheeting was further covered with red cloth.

Lāt Bhairava and Lāt Imāmbaṛah settled over ‘Stūpa’            © Sanjay Jambhulkar
Xuanzang does not talk about the significance of the place but only tells that the stūpa and pillar erected by Aśoka lie on the traditional route connecting Vārānasī and Deer Park. Two months after his enlightenment on the full-moon day of āsālha (June-July), the Buddha preached the Dharmacakraparvartana Sūtra (the First Turning of the Wheel) to his five former companions, setting in motion the ‘Wheel of Dharma.’ The Buddha on his way to Deer Park may have walked this traditional track. Also, recent studies suggest that this could be the place where the Buddha received Yasa, the son of a rich merchant from Vārānasī who wished to join the Saṅgha and practice the Dharma closely with the Buddha.

I visited Lāt Bhairav on 15th April 2017 to explore ways to restore this ancient Buddhist pilgrimage site in the itineraries of Buddhist pilgrims. I noticed that Hindu-Muslim tension still exists in this place. The first step in revitalisation of the Buddhist pilgrimage, therefore, should probably be organizing interfaith dialogue at this place involving Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. The dialogue may be followed by a Dhamma Walk from this place to Sārnātha to commemorate the historic event of ‘First Turning of the Wheel’ by the Buddha. I wanted to discuss about organising an interfaith dialogue and Dhamma Walk at Lāt Bhairav with the chief priest of the Masjid, but he was not present unfortunately. The Hindu priest at the Lāt Bhairav temple welcomed the idea.
Xuanzang has mentioned many sacred places associated with the Buddha in the vicinity of Deer Park. The places mentioned by Xuanzang may be clubbed into six groups (See fig.1). Two sets of places A and C (fig.1) have been excavated, and are now under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Alexander Cunningham who did extensive exploration and documentation of ancient remains in this region is silent about other four sets of places (B, D, E and F in fig.1). Projection of the Xuanzang’s description on the survey map of Sārnātha prepared by Cunningham leads us to some prominent ancient mounds in the East and South-East direction of Deer Park. These mounds, E and F in the map (fig.1), are huge and spread in a large area. The mound E has the temple of Bansakti Devi built on it. Similarly, a Tortoise Breeding Centre and a Shiva Temple are built on mound F.

Fig.1-Xuanzang’s description plotted on the sketch prepared by Cunningham
Xuanzang visited three sacred ponds and two stūpas that he says were adjacent to the West wall of the Deer Park monastic complex. In his report of this region, Cunningham indicates one pond on the western side. I discovered some ancient remains in the village Guraopur on the western side of the Deer Park, but the three tanks mentioned by Xuanzang and one tank reported by Cunningham have probably now been lost. Villagers showed me three ditches that according to them were tanks, and because of encroachment by local people they gave now almost disappeared. Mounds have been levelled to make house. This is a general problem in almost all the prominent Buddhist heritage places. A large part of the places mentioned by Xuanzang are still buried under layers of biomass. The initial exploration of Buddhist heritage sites was done in the 19th and early 20th centuries by some very enthusiastic, passionate explorers like Alexander Cunningham, Colin Mackenzie, John Marshall and others. Lord Canning (1812-1862), the Governor-General of British India realised the importance of archaeological remains, and hence decided to institutionalize the entire work of exploration, excavation and conservation by creating the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861. Identification, excavation and conservation is a time-taking process. It might take centuries to reveal Xuanzang’s complete pilgrimage. By now, the ASI should have created a detailed map projecting the sites described by Xuanzang, and those present-day towns and villages that were found to correspond with these sites should have been marked with official notice boards informing locals about the potential archaeological significance or sacredness of their town and village. Awareness is the key. We are losing important heritage places because people living around these heritage sites are ignorant about its significance.

                             Bansakti devi temple on the ancient mound
                    Remains of the ancient tanks (?) in Guraopur village

The beginning of 11th century saw much of the Gangetic plain in turmoil because of its invasion by Turkish Muslims from Central Asia. Archaeological evidence shows that the monastic complex of Sārnātha was devastated in 1194 CE by Qutub-ud-din Aibak (1150-1210), the general of Muhammad Ghori (1149-1206). In the later centuries, the abandoned monastic complex of Sārnātha became an easy source of building material for the local population. Further damage to these already neglected Buddhist sites was caused in 18th and 19th CE by the development of railways, bridges, roadways and offices. These led to complete destruction of many monuments of significance at Sārnātha. There are two documented stories of large scale vandalisation of monuments at Sārnātha. The first was in 1794 when Jagat Singh, a local king of Vārānasī, brought down completely a large mound to collect materials for the construction a new market called Jagatganj Mahallā. He found two relic vessels, the smaller one of marble inside a larger one of stone. All the contents of the smaller vessel, including bones, pearls, gold pots and corals, were scattered into the River Gangā. Historians and archaeologists concluded based on the leftover remains of the destroyed stupa that the stupa was one of the 84000 relic stūpas (Dharmarājikā) erected by Aśoka.

My curiosity to see the present situation of the market place made by Jagat Singh brought me to Jagatganj. The Jagatganj market is situated in the heart of Vārānasī city. Presently, the Jagatganj market is a large complex consisting of many big and small shops. I met a few elderly people there and shared the objective of my visit. Unfortunately, all the people whom I met had no clue about Jagat Singh and the market he made.

Jagatganj Market

Duncan Bridge
Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), a British army engineer, at the young age of 20 discovered a 145 ft high dome-like structure at Sārnātha while being posted at Vārānasī. As an engineer, intrigued by the structure, he started excavating it. The excavations revealed lots of Buddhist sculptures but due lack of time and resources, Cunningham could arrange for some twenty of those inscription bearing sculptures to be transported to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta. Unfortunately, some forty fine sculptures were left behind by Cunningham and fifty to sixty cartloads of carved stonework from Sārnātha were thrown into the River Varṅā to serve as a breakwater for the construction of Duncan Bridge. This and other such acts of vandalisation of abandoned Buddhist complexes happened because people were oblivious of the historical significance of these sites. The sacred sculptures of the Buddha that once adorned the temples and Vihāra-s of Sārnātha are now buried under this bridge. Hopefully they are not destroyed, but lie under water waiting to be restored.

Sārnātha Museum houses some of the best artefacts and images of Buddha and Buddhist deities found as a result of exploration and excavation at the Sārnātha archaeological site. Its collection includes the Aśokan Pillar with the Lion Capital, which is the national emblem of India, and many other artefacts whose dates range from 3rd BCE to 12th CE. What caught my attention the most, however, was a large wheel with concentric circular bands of beautiful auspicious symbols and images. My friend Dr. Neetesh Saxena, Assistant Archaeologist, who is in charge of Sārnātha Museum, informed me that this red sandstone wheel was actually an umbrella meant to shade and protect the image of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha. The umbrella has a diameter of 10 ft and was originally fixed on an octagonal shaft. When the umbrella was found, it was broken into ten pieces. Eight of these have been rejoined with copper dowels. The other two are too dilapidated to fix with the rest. This statue, which stood under this umbrella, dates from the 1st CE and is one of the earliest images of the Buddha. An inscription on the back of the image mentions that the statue was a gift from monk Friar Bala. The statue is made of red sandstone from Sikri (near Mathurā). From this, it is assumed that the statue was made at Mathurā under the supervision of monk Friar Bala.
Red sandstone image of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha a gift from monk Friar Bala © ASI
Red sandstone wheel umbrella to shade the image of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha. © ASI

Special thanks to Aparajita Goswami


Allen, Charles; 2013, Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor. Little, Brown.

Eck, Diana L; 2015, Banaras: City of Light, Penguin India.

Goswami, Aparajita and Anand, Deepak; 2016, The Pilgrimage legacy of Xuanzang. Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, Nalanda.

Smith, Vincent A.; 1909, Identification of the Asoka Pillar N. E. of Benares City described by Hiuen Tsang, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 63, No. 2, pp. 337-345.

Watters, Thomas; 2004, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, (Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and  S.W. Bushell), Reprinted in LPP 2004, Low Price Publications, Delhi. (First publishe by Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1904-05).

1 comment:

Shrinked Immaculate said...

Wonderful post, just goes on to show that holyplaces remain the same even though religions change. I hope that we will one day attain a level of maturity when important Buddhist places can be restored.