The holiest Hindu-Buddhist pilgrimage sites associated with the most significant events in the life of Lord Buddha and Ashoka the great, in Champaran (Bhikhna Thori, Rampurva, Lauriya Nandangarh, Lauriya Areraj and Kesariya), Vaishali, Patliputra, Bodhgaya, Rajgriha
Buddha was born in Lumbini in Terai region adjacent to the present Indo-Nepal border and raised in Kapilavastu. At the age of 29, he left the palace one night leaving his wife and son behind to find the solution for omnipresent suffering, to become an ascetic in pursuit of truth and spiritual enlightenment. He travelled southwards in terai crossing the present-day India-Nepal border to enter (the forests of) present day Champaran in Bihar. He must have had an idea of where to go and whom to see in pursuit of his mission.
The word Champaran, in Sanskrit means forest of Champa (Magnolia flower). This region then was abode of monks, hermits and solitary ascetics. On reaching the bank of Anoma river (in Rampurva village, Champaran district in present day Bihar), he cut his hair to herald renouncement of worldly world and handed over his royal robe to Chandak, his charioteer asking him to return back to the palace. It is here in Rampurva, Siddharth Gautam formally embarked on spiritual journey in search of solution for human suffering. To commemorate this, Emperor Ashoka erected two pillars here, one with lion capital and the other with bull capital. Interestingly, Rampurva in Champaran is the only place in the entire Mauryan empire from present day Afghanistan to Bangladesh to have two Ashokan pillars. This place must have been very special for Ashoka. Some recent analysis indicates this site could as well be the actual site of Kushinara, the site of his parinirvana.
From Rampurva, Siddharth headed to see Alara Kalama, his first teacher for guidance. Alara is said to be proponent of early samkhya who according to Buddhist sources lived in Kesaputa (present Kesariya)/Areraj region of Champaran and taught in Vessali (Vaishali) about 50 km from Kesariya. Alara taught Gautama the dynamic state of meditation called the “sphere of nothingness” (ākiñcaññāyatana). Siddharth lived in his ashram for some time and quickly learnt almost everything that Alara Kalama had to offer. Kalama sutra is the discussion between Buddha and Alara Kalama. Towards the end of his life, Buddha again passed through these places in Champaran towards Kushinara, the place of his parinirvana. Later on, Emperor Ashoka built stupas (in Kesariya and Lauriya Nandangarh) and pillars in Lauriya Areraj, Lauriya Nandangarh and Rampurva (the site of twin pillars) to commemorate Buddha’s life events at these sites. Champaran thus has distinction to have four Ashokan Pillars (two in Rampurva and one each at Lauria Nandangarh and Lauria Areraj) and the largest Stupa at Kesariya built originally by Ashoka. Ashoka’s mother Subhadrangi belonged to Ajivika sect is said to be from Champa. Scriptures mentions Champa to be a city near Patliputra. It is unclear if the present Champaran had any association with this Champa but certainly Champaran was very special for Ashoka possibly because of its strong association with Buddha’s life events. Significantly, the ancient trade route from Patliputra to Terai to Nipa Valley passed a good distance through Champaran.
The site of Vaishali is further south of Champaran. During Buddha’s time, Vaishali was ruled by Lichhavis and Magadh was ruled by Bimbisara of Haryanka dynasty whose capital was Rajgir (Bimbisara’s son Ajatshatru later annexed Vaishali into Magadh and also shifted Magadh’s capital to Patliputra). Buddha is said to have visited Vaishali thrice and spent long time here. Towards the end of his life, Buddha announced his parinirvana and delivered his last sermon here in Vaishali. Also, this is the place where second Buddhist council was held about 100 years after Buddha’s death under the patronage of Kalashoka, the son of Shishunaga. Later, Emperor Ashoka constructed stupa and erected pillar at Vaishali to commemorate Buddha’s association with Vaishali.
As per Buddhist sources, after leaving Alara Kalama’s ashram in Champaran (and Vaisali), Siddharth travelled southwards to meet another teacher Uddaka Rāmaputta in Rājagaha (Rajgir) who was well known for his wisdom and meditation technique. Rajgriha or Rajgir then, was the capital of Magadh under King Bimbisara of Haryanka dynasty who was a great friend and protector of the Buddha. In Rajgir, under the master Uddaka Rāmaputta, Siddharth learnt high level of meditation called “N’eva Sanna N’asannayatana” or the realm of neither perception nor non-perception. Deeply impressed by Siddharth’s achievements, Uddaka offered him leadership of his ashram however the ascetic Siddhattha preferred to leave Uddaka’s ashram Rājagaha and proceeded south-west to Uruvela situated about 75km from Rajgir. Just outside of Rajgir is Grdhrakuta mountain or Vulture peak (named so because of its resemblance to the head of a vulture). This was Buddha’s favourite retreat where he delivered many sermons and discourses. Just below the Grdhrakuta mountain is the Jivakarama Vihara, an ancient monastery at the time Buddha. It was built and donated to the Sangh by Jivaka, the royal doctor of King Bimbisara. Buddha is said to have received treatment at this monastery after having been injured by Devadatta. Saptaparni Cave is on one of the hills where the first Buddhist Council was held.
Upon leaving Uddaka Rāmaputta’s ashram in Rajgriha, Siddharth reached Uruvela which is now mapped to the modern village called Urail near Bodh Gaya. In Uruvela or Urubela (or, Buddhagaya), Siddhartha spent another six years practicing self-mortification which he gave up for middle path when the milkmaid Sujata from the nearby village Bakraur fed him milk and rice thus ending his years of fasting and asceticism. This was turning point in Buddha’s life because Buddha attained enlightenment through the middle way. It is here in Boddha Gaya, He discovered the noble eight-fold path while meditating under the Boddhi tree and achieved the supreme awakening or enlightenment. Therefore, this site (also called Sambodhi) is the most sacred site for Buddhists and Hindus worldwide. The Mahabodhi Temple complex with the Vajrasana or diamond throne and the Bodhi tree was originally built by Emperor Ashoka. The nearby village of Bakraur across the river Niranjana (now called Phalgu) was the home of milkmaid Sujata. The village has Sujata Stupa dedicated to her. Mocharim is another nearby village on the west bank of Niranjana River which derives its name after naga Mucalinda who is believed to have protected Buddha from a great rainstorm when he was meditating. Buddha supposedly spent six weeks after attaining enlightenment near the ancient pond in this village.
B. SITES ASSOCIATED WITH EMPEROR ASHOKA:
C. POST MAURYAN SITES:
- Bengal District Gazetteers: Champaran
- Report of Tours in North and South Bihar in 1880-81 by Sir Alexander CunninghamH. B. W. Garrick | pdf file
- The Ancient Geography of India by Alexander Cunningham