Master Xuanzang and his contribution on Nepal

by Min Bahadur Shakya Director, Nagarjuna Institute of Exact Methods Center for Buddhist Studies Lalitpur, Kathmandu Nepal Introduction The travels of Master Xuanzang were extraordinary, and his contribution to the Buddhist world is beyond measure. Most of the holy places in South Asia connected with the life of Buddha Shakyamuni had been lost in oblivion, but the writings of this great master threw enough light on them to enable these sacred sites to be pinpointed and their mysteries unfolded. The Great Xuanzang travelled widely throughout South Asia from 629–645 A.D., and accurately recorded whatever he deemed necessary. His writings leave clues to the religious history of Nepal during the Licchavi period (464-880 A.D). I. Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley Master Xuanzang wrote on the status of Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley, the number of monks and nuns, about the kings, buildings, lakes, mountains and so forth.1 With regard to the Kathmandu Valley, he gave the following account in his diary:2 This country is about 400 li in circumference, and is situated among the Snowy Mountains (Himalaya). The perimeter of the capital city is about 20 li. Mountains and valleys are joined together in an unbroken succession. The area is suitable for the growth of cereals, and abounds with flowers and fruits. It produces red copper, the Yak and the Mingming bird (jivanjiva). In commerce they use coins made of red copper. The climate is icy cold. The manners of the made of people are false and perfidious. Their temperament is hard and fierce, with little regard to truth or honour. They are unlearned but skilful in the arts; their appearance is ungainly and revolting. There are believers and heretics mixed together. The sangharamas and Deva (Hindu) temples are joined together closely. There are about 2000 priests, who study both the Great and Little Vehicles. The number of heretics and sectaries of different sorts is uncertain. The king is a Ksatriya, and belongs to the family of the Licchavis. His mind is well informed, and he is pure and dignified in character. He has sincere faith in the law of the Buddha. Lately there was a king called Anchu famo (Amsuvarman) who was distinguished for his learning and ingenuity. He himself had composed a work on

It is unanimously held that Xuanzang visited Vaishali. This is certain. He did not actually visit Nepal in 629A.D., but rather wrote his account of the Kathmandu Valley according to informants. 2 After Samuel Beal, Buddhist Records of the Western World-Si Yu-ki, repr. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidas, 1981, pp.80-81.

“sounds” (sabdavidya); he esteemed learning and respected virtue, and his reputation was spread everywhere. To the south-east of the capital is a little stream and a lake. If we fling fire into it, flames immediately arise; if other things are thrown in it, they change their character. Analysis of Xuanzang’s account 1. One of the remarkable features noted by this Chinese master is the religious harmony in Kathmandu Valley between Nepalese social systems when he spoke of the Hindu temples touching the Buddhist monasteries. It is a unique quality of the Nepalese people that the Hindu and Buddhist population have lived in peaceful harmony throughout the centuries. 2. Furthermore, the same structure of harmony and fraternity was observed among the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist monks who lived together side by side. Xuanzang had mentioned that there were about 2000 Buddhist monks from both Hinayana and Mahayana sects. That such a large number of Buddhist monks were present shows that Buddhism had developed significantly in the Kathmandu valley. This observation has considerable historical importance. 3. Master Xuanzang spoke highly of the learning of King Amsuvarma (604-621), who was knowledgeable in the Sanskrit language. This was in part because Amshuvarma had a wise adviser and a great grammarian called Chandra Varma who was well-known even in Nalanda Monastery as a talented Buddhist scholar of Magadha. 4. Xuanzang also indicated in his statement the presence of Buddhist King in the family of the Licchavi dynasty. The question is whether his description of Nepal is true for the year of his visit, or at the time he left India, or at the time when he returned to China. Jayaswal holds that this observation is true of the year 643, when he had just left India.3 Then the king referred to must be King Narendradeva, who was ruling in that year. No kings after Amshuvarma’s death had any Buddhist leaning, except for Narendradeva. King Narendradeva’s buddhist affiliation is substantiated by Tang dynastic records.4 5. In the last passage, Xuanzang also mentioned the existence of a small spring in the south-east of the capital on the surface, where a brilliant flame rises if one throws fire into it. If one throws other objects, they change their nature and become fire. The reference is probably to Ankhe Pokhari in the vicinity of Godavari village, southeast of Patan, not Toudah (southwest) as proposed by Lévi (vol I, p.159). II. Critical analysis of Xuanzang’s account of Lumbini
3 4

JBORS, p.162. “The King, Naling-ti-po ( Narendradeva) adorns himself with the pearls, rock crystals, mother of pearl, coral, and amber, he has in the ear rings of gold and pendants of jadem, and a breloc belt ornamented with the figure of Buddha...” Lévi, vol.II, pp.164; JBORS,1936, pp.238-39.

The texts on early Buddhist history and Buddhist geography as reflected in the life of the Buddha can be divided into the following groups: 1. Textual sources on the life of the Buddha such as the Lalitavistara, Mahavastu, Nidanakatha, Abhiniskramana-sutra, Divyavadana and so forth. 2. Other descriptive material consisting mainly of travelogues written by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims. In the case of Lumbini and Kapilavastu we have to rely on two main figures: 1. Faxian’s Gaoseng Faxian-zhuan 高僧法顯傳 (Report of the Great Monk Faxian), from the begining of the 5th century, and 2. Xuanzang’s own report of his journey, the Datang-xiyuji 大唐西域記 (Report of the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty), followed by his biography, the Datang-cien-si-Sanzang-Fashizhuan 大 慈 恩 寺 三 藏 法 師 傳 (Biography of the Dharma Master Tripitaka of the Cien-Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty). For the present purpose, I have left out the Faxian’s account. Let us then first have a look at what Xuanzang has to say about Lumbini: On the name of Lumbini: While Faxian’s transcription of Lumbini, Lùnmín 論 民 , is quite compatible with the Prakrit form of the name given in the Ashokan inscription: Lummini. Xuanzang’s Làfání 臘伐尼 is difficult to associate with any Indic form of the name. Watters thought that it is related to Skt. lavani, “beautiful women”, referring to Queen Maya. When he came to the grove of Lumbini, like his predecessor, he was first of all struck by the pool: Going 80 or 90 li north-east from the Arrow spring, one comes to Lumbini. There is a bathing pond of the Sakya clan whose water is clear as a mirror, and on whose surface flowers are scattered and drift. Twenty-four or twenty-five steps to the north of the pond there is an Asoka flower tree (Wuyou-hua-shu) which is now already withered; this is the place where the sacred birth of the Bodhisattva took place.The bodhisattva was born in the second half of the month Vaisakha (Feishequ-yue), on the eighth day, that is, on the eighth of the third month (in the Chinese calendar); the Sthaviravadins say it was the 15th day of the second half of the month Vaisakha, that is the 15th day of the third month. Farther to the east are two stupas which were built by King Asoka and these are places where two nagas bathed the prince. After the bodhisattva was born he took seven steps in each of the four cardinal directions without being supported and said: “In heaven and on earth I alone am the venerable. From now on my rebirths have come to an end”. Big lotus flowers sprang up at the spots where he had set his feet. The two nagas leapt out from the earth and rested in the

air. Each of them spewed water to wash the prince—one cold, one warm. East of the stupa which marks the place where the prince bathed are two springs, and beside them two stupas were built. This is the place where the two nagas leapt out from the earth. After the bodhisattva was born, servants and relatives rushed away to look for water to bather him. Two springs sprang up in front of the consort Maya—one cold and one warm—in which the prince was bathed. To the south of this place there is a stupa which marks the place where the ruler of the gods, Sakra, received the bodhisattva while kneeling on a marvellous, heavenly piece of cloth. Nearby there are four stupas; this is the place where the four heavenly kings took the bodhisattva in their arms. When the bodhisattva was born from the right thigh of his mother the four heavenly kings received the bodhisattva in a piece of golden cloth, set him on a golden stand in front of the his mother and said: “The consort has given birth to that blessed child. She must indeed be happy. All the gods rejoice—how much more will mankind rejoice!5 On the sacred pond: Xuanzang says that the distance between the pond or pool and the tree was 24 or 25 steps and the tree was situated to the north of the pond. He calls the pond the “bathing pool of the Sakya”, Shizhongyuchi, implying that this was already a well-known and frequented spot before the birth of the Buddha. He describes the tree as having been an asoka tree. However, the most conclusive evidence for Lumbini being the place where the Buddha was born is the inscription on the asoka pillar. While Xuanzang refers to the pillar, he does not mention the inscription. When Xuanzang saw it, the pillar was covered and hidden under a mound of earth, and probably also under vegetation. When Fuhrer rediscovered it in 1896 even less of the pillar, only nine feet, was visible, according to Buhler’s report. On the pillar capital: What was on top of the capital? As fragments were found during excavations, scholars usually give credence to the statement by Xuanzang that there was a horse statue on the top. Many scholars refer to the occurrence of a horse as one of the four animals— horse, bull, elephant, lion—seen on the abacus of the Sarnath pillar to substantiate this assumption. But there is no unanimity in opinion on this issue. Xuanzang’s visit to Ramagrama: After visiting Lumbini, Xuanzang continued to Lan-mo (Ramagrama): Ramagrama is the maternal home of queen Maya Devi and the country of the Koliyas and situated in Nawalparasi district some 76 kilometres from Lumbini.


Xuanzang’s Xiyuji, English translation published by Max Deeg in The Places Where Siddhartha Trod: Lumbini and Kapilavastu, Lumbini, 2003, p.54.

A huge, ten-meter high brick stupa, one of the eight dhatu stupas containing the relics of the Buddha Shakyamuni stands on the bank of the Jharahi river. Legend has it that after the parinirvana of Lord Buddha his relics were divided among eight states—Magadh, Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Alkappa, Ramagram, Vediwa, Pawa, and Kushinagar. Ajatasatru, the king of Magadh, is said to have grabbed the relics of Lord Buddha from other states and built another stupa but he could not grab the relics at Ramagram as it was believed to be protected by Nagarajas (serpent kings). It is said that relics of Lord Buddha are still in the dome of the present 9-metre-high Stupa. Research recently carried out by Lumbini Development Trust and the Department of Archaelogy also proved that different artifacts and antiquities are laid in the dome of the Ramagrama Stupa. Xuanzang’s visit to Kapilavastu: The seventh century A.D. was an important period in the history of Kapilavastu, the home town of Buddha Shakyamuni. It was in this period that the eminent Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang come to Kapilavastu. He arrived at Kapilavastu, Ramagrama and Lumbini in 636 A.D and left detailed descriptions of these areas. Xuanzang described Kapilavastu in his diary: Going about 800 li from there (Sravasti) to the south-east, one arrives in the country of Kapilavastu (Jiebiluofasudu 劫比羅伐窣堵 ), which formerly was called Jiapiluowei. The circumference of the country is about 4000 li. There are ten empty cities which are totally ruined. The royal capital has collapsed and its perimeter is not clearly discernable. The inner palace district has a circumference of 14 or 15 li; it is made of bricks and its foundations are solid. It was abandoned long ago and the population is sparse. There is no supreme ruler but each city establishes its own lord. The soil is fertile and crops are abundant at the time of the harvest. The climate is not extreme, while customs of the people are gentle. There are more than one thousand monastery (jialan 加 藍 or sangharama) foundations, one monastery being next to the palace district. About thirty monks study the Hinayana of the Sammitiya school (Zhenliang-bu) there are two deva temples (tianci) around which scattered heretics (yidao) live.6 P.C. Mukherji claims that the above description of Xuanzang applies to Tilaurakot and its neighbourhood and nowhere else. The historical and archaeological site of present day Tilaurakot is located three kilometres north of Taulihawa, the district headquarters of the central part of the Nepalese Terai of Kapilavastu district. It seems that the status of Buddhist practice at the time of Xuanzang was fairly strong, as can be estimated from the sheer number of extant Buddhist monasteries and sangharamas. Xuanzang’s visit to Nyagrodharama at Kudan (lat. 27° 32’N 83° 2’30” E):

Xuanzang’s Xiyuji, ibid., p.50.

Kudan is situated about 1.5 km south of the town of Taulihawa, the district headquarters of Kapilavastu district of western Nepal. Xuanzang describes it is as follows: Three or four li to the south of the city, in a nyagrodha-forest (nijulu-shulin), there is a stupa built by King Asoka. This is the place where the Tathagata Sakyamuni preached the dharma to his father when he returned to his home country to see him after he had attained enlightenment. King sudhodana, having learnt that the Tathagata had subdued the armies of Mara and was travelling around and converting people, yearned to invite him home in order to get an opportunity to pay reverence to him.Therefore he sent a messenger to invite the Tathagata with the words: “After you have become a Buddha, you will return to the place of your birth. As the first part of these words are fulfilled, you should now come home”. The messenger arrived at the place where the Buddha was and told him what the king had said. The Tathagata said: “After seven days I will come back to the place of my birth”.7 Interestingly, both the Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang visited this very site in the 5th and 7th centuries A.D. respectively. Both saw the Nyagrodha Monastery and stupas there. It was an important and holy place still known to the people at the time. The distances and directions to it mentioned by these pilgrims differ a little, but Xuanzang is more accurate. He pinpoints the site: “to the south of the city (present-day Tilaurakot) 3 or 4 li is a grove of Nyagrodh trees”. The distance 3 or 4 li equates to around one and half kilometres from Kapilavastu (1 li = 400 m), which is very close to the present site. Xuangzang’s visit to Gotihawa: Gotihawa is an important historical, archaelogical and religious place in the Kapilavastu district of Western Nepal. It is a well-known site because of the presence of the stump of an Asokan pillar rising next to a stupa. This site lies about 6 km south west of Taulihawa, 2 kilometres west of Kudan, 7 kilometres southwest of Tilaurakot (the ancient Kapilavastu), and about 31 kilometres west of Lumbini. This place is of special importance to Buddhists. It is believed that Kraukucchanda Buddha, one of the Buddhas who lived before Shakyamuni, was born and attained nirvana in this holy place. It shows that the cult and worship of the previous Buddhas was prevalent in the 3rd century B.C.8 Xuanzang, during his visit to this place, recorded the following account: Going 50 li south from the city of Kapilavastu, one reaches an old city in which there is a stupa.This is the city in which the Buddha Krakucchanda (Jialuojiacunduo) was born—in the bhadrakalpa, when people still reached the age of 60,000. To the south of the city, not far away, there is a stupa at the place where this buddha saw his father after his enlightenment. To the southeast of the
7 8

ibid. p.53. N.R.Banerjee in Nepalese Architecture, Agama Kala Prakashan, Delhi,1979, p.74.

city there is a stupa in which the relics of the complete body of this Tathagata are preserved; in front of it stands a stone pillar, about 30 chi high, on top of which is standing the statue of a lion and on whose sides the events of the nirvana of Krakuchchanda are inscribed. It was erected by King Ashoka.9 This is a very important note which shows that this pilgrim personally saw the inscription on the pillar at Gotihawa. He clearly mentions in his account “a record relating the circumstances of his nirvana.” Unfortunately the inscriptional parts of pillar were broken off after his visit and remain lost till today. Prof. Verardi, in “A Preliminary Report on the Excavations at Gotihawa and a Territorial Survey in Kapilavastu District of Nepal” summarizes the conclusions drawn from the excavations and future plans for the site:10 Significant results have already been reached for establishing the chronology of Gotihawa. It can be stated that the pillar and the Stupa are contemporary, and that both go back to the mid-third century B.C. The evidence from the pottery assemblages and the building materials may suggest an earlier date for the Stupa, but more evidence would be necessary to support this view. Also, the relative chronology of the monument and the date of its final abandonment seem to have been clarified. The restoration of the Stupa probably goes back to the first-to-second century A.D. and it was in the third century that the sacred area was abandoned... Xuanzang’s visit to Niglihawa (the stupa of Kanakamuni Buddha): Niglihawa or Nigali sagar is situated nearly 32 km northwest of Lumbini via all-weather roads. It is about 8 km north east of Taulihawa in the Kapilavastu district. The site has a quadrangular pond, locally known as Niglisagar, surrounded by bushes. On the western bank of the pond are two broken pieces of the Ashokan pillar, the longer one lying flat and the shorter one stuck into the ground. The shorter portion of the pillar which is partly buried in the ground measures 1.52m in length and bears four lines of Ashokan inscription in the Brahmi script which roughly translates: “King Piyadasi, beloved of the gods, 14 years after his coronation, enlarged for the second time the stupa of Buddha Kanakamuni; and 20 years after his coronation, he came himself and worshipped and he caused this stone pillar to be erected.” This site is regarded as a very important religious place for Buddhists and research scholars of the entire world. It is believed that the Kanakamuni Buddha, one of the earlier Buddhas before Shakyamuni, became enlightened and met his father in this place.11 Xuanzang gave the following account of his visit to this place:


Xuanzang’s Xiyuji, ibid., pp.52. Basanta Bidari, Kapilavastu: The world of Siddhartha, Lumbini, p.69-70. 11 Basanta Bidari, ibid., pp.83

Going about 30 li north east from the stupa of the Buddha Krakucchanda, one reaches a large old city in which there is a stupa. This is the city in which the Buddha Kanakamuni (Jianuojiamoni) converted his father after his enlightenment. Further to the north there is a stupa in which the relics of the body of the Tathagata are preserved; in front of this stupa there is a stone pillar, about 20 chi high, on top of which is standing the statue of a lion, and on whose sides the events of the nirvana of Kanakamuni are inscribed. King Ashoka erected it. Niglihawa is now a protected monument and is managed by the Lumbini Development Trust. The present Niglihawa pillar seems to be located at its original site. Xuangzang’s visit to Sagarhawa (the place where the Sakyas were massacred): About 12 kilometres north of Taulihawa there is a forest area called Sagarhawa. In the midst of the forest there is a huge rectangular pond popularly known as Lumbusagar, or a long lake. The ruins of the ancient pond which was excavated and identified by Dr. A. Fuhrer as the site of “massacre of the Sakyas” can still be located on the southwest bank of the Sagar. The ancient ruins are situated on the west and south banks of a large manmade pond. It lies to the west of the Niglihawa Asoka pillar. When Xua Zang visited this place, he noted: To the north-west of the city there are over 100000 stupas; this is the place where the Sakya clan was all slaughtered for its wantoness. King Virudhaka (Piluduojiawang) subjugated the Sakya clan, enslaved their whole clan, seized 99,900,000 men, massacred them one after the other and piled up the bodies like a haystack. So much blood flowed that it formed a lake. The gods were alarmed by the humans, and later collected the bones and buried them.12 No archaeological work was carried out at Sagarhawa after the visit of Dr. Fuhrer. The beauty of the site is being lost, its forest being cut down for fuel and housing. The site is slowly being occupied by villagers and turned into cultivated fields and pastureland. There is a need for a large-scale excavation to determine the actual history of the site. Conclusion One of the highlights in the archaeological discovery of Kapilavastu was the finding of two pieces of Asokan pillar near Niglihawa village. The pillar was supposed to mark the birth place of the Buddha Kanakamuni, as depicted in the inscription.13

12 13

Xuanzang’s Xiyuji, ibid., p.52. The Brahmi-script inscription on the Niglihawa pillar reads as follws: Devanam piyena piyadasin lajina-chodasavaa bhisitena Budhasa Konakamanasa thube-dutiyam vadhite visativa sabhisena-cha atana-agacha-mahiyete silathabe-cha usa papite

This inscription, together with the description of Xuanzang’s account, paved the way for the identification of Kapilavastu at the mound of Tilaurakot, near the pillar fragments of Nigali sagar. In addition to pinpointing the birthplace of the past Buddha Kanakamuni, the discovery of the Gotihawa pillar has indicated the birth place of another Buddha, Krakucchanda, in the Gotihawa area. Master Xuanzang gave a vivid account of this site, as related above. From textual sources, it is clear that the Kapilavastu witnessed by the Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang is the modern site of Tilaurakot on the Nepalese side of the border. If the area can be excavated properly in future, without being hindered by modern political or ethno-sectarian barriers, then a certain identification would definitely be in sight. After all, sites such as Kapilavastu and Lumbini are the heritage of the Buddhist world and of mankind as a whole.