Little did I know that Vaishali, a tiny one-horse town, barely 90 minutes’ drive north ofPatna, was the cradle of Indian culture over 2,500 years ago. TheLicchavis of Vaishali andseven other neighbouring clans formed the Vajji Confederacy. It was the first Republic in theworld. The citizens would elect the kings. Vaishali was the centre of thisvibrantconfederation which covered most ofthe HimalayanGangetic region of present-dayBihar. Buddha visited and stayed for a prolonged duration often in this area. Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment, is less than 200 km from Vaishali. The 24th JainTirthankar, Vardhaman, later known as Mahavira, was born just a few kilometres away fromVaishali.
I walked towards Buddha’s Relic Stupa next to the Vaishali museum on a dusty street. After theBuddha’s cremation, eight claimants shared his relics. TheLicchavis of Vaishali buried theirshare at this spot. A mud Stupa marked the place, and this, over time, was layered withbricks. A well-cobbled pathway lined with well-manicured lawns led me to the Stupa. Itwas excavated 60 years ago, and the relic casket with ashen earth and some trinkets wasexhibited in a special chamber at the Patna Museum.
Buddha spent a lot of time at Kolhua village, five kilometres away from the Stupa. He madethe last sermon and announced his imminent nirvana here. There are other significantevents associated with this site. Buddha allowed females as nuns while based here. Here,the court dancer Amrapali turned a new leaf and became a nun. Buddhists mark eightsignificant events of the Buddha’s life; his birth at Kapilvastu, enlightenment at Bodh Gaya,his first sermon at Sarnath and his nirvana at Kushinagar as the four milestones linked tohis life. One of the other four events, when the chief of monkeys offered him a bowl of honey,occurred here. Madhu Poornima festival, when the devout bring gifts of honey and fruits to monasteries, marks this. Ashoka erected a pillar to commemorate this event. It is said to be one of the earliest of theAshoka Pillars that dot India. This polished sandstone pillar with a lion atop is still intact.
He built a stupa to commemorate Buddha’s last sermon before proceeding to Kushinagar (now in UP), where he attained nirvana. Interestingly, the lion faces northwest, the direction Buddha walked towards Kushinagar. The seven-tiered, brick-lined water tank nearby is said to have been built by the monkeys for Buddha.
Amidst votive stupas
This expansive site is spotlessly clean, with hardly any tourists around. I spent some time sitting alone amid the votive stupas scattered around the area with only the soft chatter of the landscaping staff tending to the beautiful lawns and flowering trees. Monasteries of Buddhist-dominated countries, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, dot the roads of Vaishali. The majestic 125-foot tall World Peace Pagoda, constructed 30 years ago by the Japanese Buddhist sect Nipponzan Myohoji, is a major tourist attraction at Vaishali. The foundation and the dome have the Buddha’s relics.
It seems incredible to know that two of the world’s greatest thinkers and reformers of all time are associated with one place and in the same era. Mahavira, the 24th Jain Tirthankara, was born very close to Vaishali. He was an older contemporary of Buddha.
I then left for Basokund, a small village four kilometres away from Vaishali. Kundalagrama was the name of this village in ancient times.
A short drive off the highway led us to the birthplace of Mahavira. A glittering new white marble temple stands in the place of his birth. I spotted a person sweeping the steps of the temple and he gladly showed us around. Inside in the bare hall was the statue of a meditating Mahavira in Padmasana.
The fort of Raja Vishal, a Licchavi king, would have throbbed with councillors debating politics and society over 2,500 years ago. Its ruins have been excavated and protected behind a metal barricade. A reluctant security guard unlocked the metal gate to let us in. I was not sure he was aware of the importance of this site.
This large area has remnants of the red brickwork of the building’s foundations. Even to a layperson, the complex appears to be neatly planned with wide passages and a moat surrounding the complex.
A short five-minute drive took us to the Abhishek Pushkarni (Coronation Tank).
The setting was picturesque, but the water looked decidedly polluted. Elected representatives in ancient times were anointed with the tank’s water.
Currently, the tank is used for fishing, laundry, and trash dumping.
This lake, unfortunately, is not controlled by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
As I left Vaishali, I could not stop thinking about such a stellar confluence of three religions, Buddhism, Jainism and democracy! And it all happened in the same era, some 2,500 years ago. Vaishali, I say to myself, is a good part of our rich heritage, something we should cherish and preserve forever.
(Published 11 November 2023, 21:44 IST)