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Buddha's journey

Buddha's journey

Author: Uday Mahurkar
Publication: India Today
Date: May 18, 2009

Introduction: The excavation of a Buddhist monastery in Vadnagar is a historical milestone. Gujarat expects the site to grow into a prime destination for tourists on the Buddhist circuit

The Gujarat Government's extravagant plans to sell the state as a destination for Buddhist tourists have just got an unexpected boost. Archaeologists have excavated a Buddhist vihara (monastery) in Vadnagar, considered the crown jewel among historical sites in Gujarat. A votive stupa has also been discovered.

They were built by devotees to pay their gratitude to Lord Buddha on fulfilment of their desires. Over the past five decades, many historical sites have been excavated in this area but this is the first time that a Buddhist vihara has been unearthed. Gujarat director of archaeology Y.S. Rawat says, "In archaeological terms, we have discovered a gold mine since it proves what Hieun Tsang had written."

Tsang was the famous Chinese traveller and historian who in his travels in India from 629 to 645 A.D had described many towns that he visited. One of them was Vadnagar, which archaeologists regard as one of the few Indian towns to have remained continuously inhabited for the past 2,200 years.

It has lived through the Buddhist era, the Solanki era, the Sultanate and Mughal periods and Gaekwad rule. On Vadnagar, Tsang wrote there were 10 Buddhist viharas in the flourishing town and 1,000 monks lived there.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is a native of Vadnagar and the force behind the drive to sell Gujarat as a Buddhist destination, is understandably upbeat. During a recent visit to the state, Sri Lankan Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda promised that the country will look at Gujarat as a Buddhist tourist destination.

Not just this, the monastery also received global recognition recently when known British expert Robin Conningham, who is engaged in research on the great Buddhist site in Anuradhapur in Sri Lanka, called it a significant discovery.

Till now, Gujarat's main Buddhist site has been Devnimori, which was excavated by noted archaeologist S.N. Chaudhary in 1959. Like in Sarnath and Sanchi, there are many stupas across India which have stone or brick structures containing the Buddha's relics in caskets buried inside stupas where they usually can't be seen. The Devnimori casket, believed to contain the ashes of Lord Buddha, is one of the few which can be seen and touched.

Vadnagar promises more, however. What Rawat and his team of four have discovered is a 16x16 m structure with a 7x7 m courtyard surrounded by a dozen cells in which monks lived. The excavated artifacts are small in size but confirm that it was a Buddhist settlement. There is small plaque carved in stone which shows a monkey offering honey to Lord Buddha, part of a famous tale depicted at many Buddhist sites. Then there is a disfigured head of the Buddha inscribed on a stone with the prabhamandap (aura) depicted around the head. A votive tablet showing the footprint of the Buddha has also been discovered.

Archaeologists also excavated what is called Northern Black Polished Ware. Associated with Buddhist settlements, some bear inscriptions in the Brahmi script saying, "Shakasya" (probably another name for Buddha who was also called Shakyamuni), "Devrishi" (another name for Buddha) and "Dhamma" (religion). Another important find was a finely sculpted head in the Gandharva style. More fascinating is the discovery of pieces of Roman pottery in the form of amphoras, as well as decorative pieces of classical Greek art. Dalip Kushwaha, an archaeologist who assisted Rawat, says, "The discovery of these artifacts clearly indicates that Vadnagar must have had a trade link with the Romans and possibly even the Greeks."

Excavations by the team at two other spots have also confirmed Vadnagar's historicity. The findings show successive phases of occupation and construction over the past 2,200 years. The artifacts also reflect the socio-economic condition of different periods. These include coins of different dynasties and are of copper, silver, lead and potin (an alloy).

The most famous Buddhist settlement in Gujarat is at the foot of the Girnar Hills on Junagadh's outskirts in the form of inscriptions, caves and a water system built by Emperor Ashoka who spread Buddhism after embracing it following the Battle of Kalinga. The rock edict of Ashoka near Junagadh has 14 inscriptions describing the Buddhist edifice on which his empire was shaped. There are other Buddhist caves in Sana near Una and at Prabhas Patan, both in Junagadh district. Then there are two Buddhist caves in Talaja near Bhavnagar and Khambalida near Rajkot. The one at Khambalida has two large sized sculpted stone figures of Bodhisattavas- Padmapani and Vajrapani.

But the pride of Gujarat is undoubtedly Devnimori. According to the two inscriptions on the casket, there is a copper box inside which contains the Buddha's ashes. The inscriptions also name two monks who brought the Buddha's relics to Devnimori and built the stupa and the monastery around it in the 4th century A.D. Before a dam submerged Devnimori village, important remains of the monastery, including the casket, were removed. Modi now plans to build a majestic Buddhist temple around the relics of Devnimori to draw South-east Asian Buddhist tourists.

Vadnagar has a huge, exquisitely carved "Kirti Toran", a gateway believed to be part of a great temple complex built during the Solanki era (also known as the Gujarat's golden age) before it was destroyed by Muslim rulers of the Sultanate period. A similar gateway was recently resurrected by the Archaeological Survey of India. The two victory towers located near the main lake now make a splendid picture. With the latest discovery, Vadnagar's golden age may have just returned.

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