Vesali or Vaishali, capital of the Licchavis or Vajjis, was the headquarters of the powerful Vajjian confederacy of eight clans, of whom the Licchavis and Videhans were the most important. It was the first republic in the world modelled on the Aparihaniya Dhamma, or the seven conditions leading to welfare, which the Buddha taught to the Vajjians when he was dwelling at the Saranda shrine in Vaishali. Thus united, they became so powerful that Ajatasattu of Magadha had to resort to treachery by sending the brahmin Vassakara to sow discord among the Vajjian princes for three years in order to weaken them. By then, they were too disunited to defend their country and Ajatasattu conquered them.
The Buddha visited Vaishali several times, spending his 5th and 44th vassas there and many Licchavi nobles became his disciples. When Vaishali was plagued with famine, disease, and evil spirits, the Buddha was invited by the Licchavi nobles to help them alleviate the plagues. The Buddha then preached the Ratana Sutta (Jewel Discourse) and instructed Ven. Ananda to go around the city walls reciting it as a Protection. Thereafter, the Buddha recited it for seven days and all the plagues then abated. But the event that elevated the status of Vaishali to an important pilgrimage site was the offering of a bowl of honey by a band of monkeys to the Blessed One, an incident mentioned among the Four Great Miracles in the Buddha’s life.
At Vaishali, the Buddha allowed women to be admitted to the Sangha after Ven. Ananda successfully pleaded to the Buddha for the ordination of Maha Pajapati Gotami and several Sakyan ladies. The Buddha then decreed the Eight Chief Rules, in addition to the Disciplinary Code observed by monks, which bhikkhunis or nuns “should revere, reverence, honour and respect for life and which should not be transgressed”. Thus the Bhikkhuni Sangha came to be established in Vaishali.
Once, the Buddha was staying in a mango grove of Ambapali, the chief courtesan of Vaishali, who invited him to a house dana, forestalling the Licchavi nobles who then offered her money in exchange for the invitation. But she politely declined their offer for she valued the dana more and after the meals even donated her mango grove to the Buddha and Sangha. The Buddha spent the last vassa in Vesali where he relinquished the will to live at the Capala shrine. After the Mahaparinibbana, the Licchavis obtained a share of the Buddha’s relics from Kusinara and erected a grand stupa over the holy relics in Vaishali.
After the Mahaparinibbana, the Vajjian confederacy was defeated by Ajatasattu, whose son Udayibhadda slew his father and moved the capital from Rajgir to Pataliputta, across the Ganges river from Vaishali. According to the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle of Ceylon), the dynasty of Udayibhadda was succeeded by three
124 generations of parricidal kings, namely: Anuruddha, Munda and Nagadasa, who each slew his own father to take over the throne. By then, the people could not tolerate this dynasty of parricides. Nagadasa was deposed by the minister Sisunaga, son of a Licchavi prince. Sisunnaga was succeeded by his son, Kalasoka, and by then a hundred years had passed since the Mahaparinibbana.
At that time in Vaishali, many shameless bhikkhus of the Vajji clan were practising the Ten Points, which were not in conformity with the Vinaya or monastic rules. The Venerable Yasa of Kosambi, while in Vaishali, noticed the deviations and strongly protested against them, resulting in his expulsion by the Vajji monks. Ven. Yasa, together with other monks appealed to Ven. Revata of Soreyya, the chief of the Sangha to settle the dispute. Thereupon, the Second Council was convened at Valukarama monastery in Vaishali during the reign of King Kalasoka and attended by seven hundred Arahants. The Venerable Sabbakami, the most senior Arahant, questioned by Ven. Revata, adjudged the Ten Points as unlawful according to the Vinaya. Although the decision was accepted unanimously by the Council, the Vajjian monks did not accept the verdict. This resulted in a schism in the Sangha and the secession of the Mahasanghika (Vajji monks), who held a great assembly of their own called the Mahasangiti, from which the sect derived its name, and decided matters according to their own light. From then on, further schisms led to the formation of different subsects, and in the course of time, eleven sub-sects arose out of the Theravada while seven issued from the Mahasanghika, leading to the well-known Eighteen Schools of Buddhism.
Asoka, the Mauryan emperor who had his capital in Pataliputta, near Vaishali, raised a stupa in which he enshrined some of the Buddha’s relics and erected beside it an Asokan column with a lion capital when he visited Vaishali during his pilgrimage to the holy places in 249 BC. Fa Hsien visited Vaishali around 400 AD and mentioned the stupas built in its vicinity in honour of the Buddha. He also saw a stupa built at the site of the Second Council as well as a stupa built over half the remains of Ven. Ananda.
According to a story, when Ven. Ananda reached the age of 120 years he knew that his end was near and went from Rajgir to Vaishali, following the Buddha’s example. Hearing of his intention, the citizens of Magadha and Vaishali hurried from both directions to bid him farewell. To do justice to both sides, Ven. Ananda levitated in the air and entered into the Samadhi of the Fire Element, whereby the body was consumed by spontaneous combustion and reduced to ashes, which fell on both sides. So the people of each city taking half the relics, returned and erected stupas over them.
Hsüan Tsang, who came in 630 AD, described Vaishali as covering an area of 26-31 sq. km, but it was in ruins. He saw the stupa built by the Licchavi princes over their portion of the Buddha’s relics from Kusinara, the Asoka stupa and stone pillar surmounted by a lion capital and nearby the pond dug by a band of monkeys (Markata-hrada) for the Buddha’s use. Not far to the south were two more stupas; one at the site where the monkeys, taking the Buddha’s alms-bowl, climbed up a tree to gather honey and another at the site where the monkeys offered honey to the Blessed One. Hsüan Tsang wrote that both within and without and all around the city of Vaishali, the sacred monuments were so numerous that it was difficult to remember them all. After Hsüan Tsang’s visit, the history of Vaishali remained blank for over twelve centuries. It lay in ruins, unknown and unheard of until the late 19th century, when Cunningham identified the ruins at and around Basrah in Muzaffapur district of Bihar with ancient Vaishali. Today, most of the principal ruins are located in the village of Kolhua, about 55 km from Patna.
Place of Interest
(i) Raj Vishal ka Garh
Basrah, 35 km south-west of Muzaffarpur, has been identified as the site of the ancient city of Vaishali. The site of the Raj Vishal ka Garh is believed to represent the citadel of Vaishali, where the 7,707 rajas or representatives of the Vajjian confederacy used to meet and discuss the problems of the day. The ruins consist of a large brick-covered mound 2.5 m above the surrounding level and 1,500 m in circumference, with a 42.7 m moat surrounding it. Beside it is a pond believed to have been used by the Licchavi princes to take their bath. It is located about 3.2 km south-west of the Asokan pillar at Kolhua.
(ii) Relic Stupa of the Licchavis
About a kilometre to the north-west of the citadel stands an open shelter with a dome-shaped roof. Inside it are the remains of a stupa, which was originally a mud structure with thin layers of cloddy clay, 25 feet in diameter. It appeared to have undergone enlarge-ment in which burnt bricks were used, increasing its diameter to 40 feet. The original mud stupa was a very old one, believed to be pre-Mauryan. From its primitive features and from the fact that a trench had been driven into its core in olden times, it is believed that this stupa is none other than the one erected by the Licchavis over their share of the relics of the Buddha. The trench was probably excavated by Asoka to reach the relics, some of which, according to Hsüan Tsang, were left in their original position by Asoka.
(iii) Asokan Pillar
At Kolhua, 3.2 km north-east of the citadel of Vaishali, stands the impressive Asokan Pillar erected by Asoka 2,250 years ago. It is a complete monolithic pillar of highly polished sandstone surmounted by a lion capital. The height is 6.7 m above the ground with a considerable portion sunk underground over the years. Though devoid of inscription, it appears to be a part of the line of pillars that Asoka erected along his pilgrimage route from Pataliputta to Lumbini during 250-249 BC. Around the Asokan Pillar at Kolhua are the ruins of many smaller brick stupas.
(iv) Asoka Stupa
Just near the Asokan pillar are the ruins of the Asoka Stupa seen by Hsüan Tsang. The dome-shaped mound is 4.6 m high and has a diameter of 20 m. During excavation by Cunningham, a stone casket containing some relics of the Buddha was found enshrined beneath it. This site is a conducive place to offer puja, followed by walking or sitting meditation at the stupa.
(v) Monkey’s Tank (Markata-hrada)
Near the stone pillar is a small tank (pond) called Rama-kunda, identified by Cunningham with the ancient monkey’s tank believed to have been dug by a colony of monkeys for the Buddha’s use.
Places of Interest in Patna
(i) Kumhrar or Asokarama Park
This park in Patna is believed to be the site of the Third Buddhist Council held in Pataliputta in the 17th year of King Asoka’s reign, about 236 years after the Mahaparinibbana. It was attended by 1,000 Arahants and presided over by the Venerable Moggaliputta
128 Tissa. At this Council, the Kathavatthu or Points of Controversy, one of the seven books of the Abhidhamma, was compiled wherein the heretical doctrines were thoroughly examined and refuted. The Third Council marked a turning point for Buddhism which, prior to this, was confined mainly to Magadha and some neighbouring states. With King Asoka of the Mauryan empire reigning supreme over the whole Indian sub-continent as its chief patron, the time was now ripe for expansion. Accordingly, it was decided to send competent Arahants to propagate the Buddha’s Teachings all over India as well as Sri Lanka in the south, Kashmir and Gandhara in the north, Bengal and Burma in the east and Yonaka and countries in the west. Thus the Teachings of the Buddha spread in the four directions after the Third Council.
At the Kumhrar one can see a large pool, where 32 ancient pillars of polished sandstone were found, a specimen of which is exhibited at a nearby pavilion. Within the vicinity of the park is the site of a vihara of Asoka’s time.
(ii) Patna Museum (Closed on Mondays)
The museum at Patna, capital of Bihar, where Buddhism originated, houses one of the largest collections of ancient Buddhist antiquities in the world. The sculptures of stone and bronze on display can be divided into a few distinct periods, namely:
• Mauryan Sculptures (4th-3rd century BC)
On display here are Indian stone sculptures of highly polished sandstone in magnificent forms of animals such as the lion, bull and elephant capitals, fashioned to be placed atop Asokan pillars. Besides this refined courtly art, an archaic religious art based on the widespread cult of tutelary deities is on display, featuring the gigantic Patna yaksa (yakkha) and yaksi (female yakkha).
• Gandhara and Mathura Buddha Images
Prior to the beginning of the Christian era, the Buddha was never represented in human form but only by symbols. The demand for Buddha images started when the movement of ‘Bhakti’ or devotion gained strength among the Buddhist laity due to Mahayana influence. Buddha images came into existence in the first century AD, when two ancient schools of sculpture emerged separately – Gandhara (Afghanistan) in the far north-west of India and Mathura (Muttra) in the east.
In Gandhara, the Buddha-image is represented in Grecian style, almost Apollo-like in physical beauty and even the robe is sculpted with folds characteristic of Greco-Roman sculpture. The contours are not rounded off and great pains are taken to model the human form to display the physical perfection through sharp, elegant features. In Mathura, the sculptures are indigenous, in the Mahapurisa style, large and rounded. A typical example is Bhikkhu Bala’s image of the Bodhisatta in Sarnath. The treatment of the Buddha’s robe is schematic and clinging, so no folds are shown and the body is revealed as though it were nude. In Patna Museum one is able to see some rare specimens of Buddha and Bodhisatta images from Gandhara that survived destruction by Muslim fanatics when they conquered Northern India.
• Gupta Period (AD 300-550)
The Gupta period was the golden age of Indian art and the great Buddha images of Mathura, Sarnath, Ajanta and Bihar are magnificent specimens from this age. The Buddha images from Mathura during this period underwent some modifications by the Indo-Grecian art mode. There is a large collection of Buddha-images from the Gupta period in this museum for one to admire.
• Pala Period (9th-12th century AD)
During the Pala period metal images became increasing popular and elegant bronze Buddha images were produced in Bihar. For stone sculptures, Nalanda in Bihar state was famous for its distinc-tive black slate Buddha images. In Patna Museum there is a section showing black slate and bronze images of the Buddha and some bronze images of Tantric deities as the cult of Tantrayana, a decadent and perverse form of worship of deities unrelated to the Buddha’s Teaching, emerged during the Pala Period.