Time’s Own Treasures in Kauśāmbī

Old stupas and older sculptures, tales of the Buddha and Ashoka abound this excavation site in Uttar Pradesh.  
Kosambi
Illustrations by: Sumedha Sah

The G.R. Sharma Memorial Museum turns out to be permanently shut—with a big chain and padlock on the door. Located at the University of Allahabad’s department of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, it’s been touted as one of Allahabad’s grand attractions, housing rare finds from the excavations at nearby Kauśāmbī.

I am disappointed to see the lock. I’ve heard so much about it and travelled far to see it. Kauśāmbī was one of the greatest excavation projects in India, right after it had achieved independence, and was overseen by legendary archaeologist Govardhan Sharma throughout the 1950s.

The city is mentioned in the Ramayana and other epics, and referenced by dramatists such as Kalidasa. The Buddha is known to have lived and preached here in the early years after his enlightenment. It was once a capital of ancient India. And then, it just vanished.

For the longest time, the lost city’s location was a matter of dispute with several plausible candidates being fielded by sundry experts. However, the site of a village named Kosam was where Alexander Cunningham, director of the Archaeological Survey of India in the 19th century, observed impressive 35-foot-high earthen ramparts and even taller mounds of earth, some more than twice that height. He also found clues in a travel journal by Chinese monk and scholar Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) who visited the city in the seventh century.

Cunningham didn’t make test digs, but did note that Xuanzang’s geographical description seemed to match. But it was only in 1949, when G.R. Sharma took it upon himself to explore the area that Kauśāmbī’s lost glory came to light.

***

Upon seeing my despair, Professor Pushpa Tiwari, the current head of the archaeology department, explains that I must submit an application one week in advance, so that she may depute somebody to unlock the museum. I tell her that I’m only spending five days in town.

“Come back tomorrow at 9 a.m.,” she says, “and I’ll see what I can do.”

The next day she graciously shows me around the museum herself. Tiwari is a much-respected expert on ancient Indian art and outlines the finer points of the collection, in which the oldest sculptures date as far back as the second century B.C. She shows me a mysterious statue, perhaps mistakenly labelled as a horse. Because of its missing head, the sculpture is tricky to interpret. Tiwari’s theory is that the animal must be a bull. The Vatsa kingdom, which Kauśāmbī city was once part of, was one of the 16 great mahajanapada (states) in North India during the Buddha’s lifetime and carried the name of the bull. It could well have been their royal insignia.

Among the museum’s other gems are a pair of defaced, seated Buddhas, made in the A.D. 160s, in the Gandhara style. As Sharma writes in his book History to Prehistory, “The Gandhara tradition is writ large on the heavy drapery with prominent folds on the two inscribed Buddha images.” Then there’s a carving in which one spots a double-humped camel. I look at Professor Tiwari in amazement. She confirms my suspicion, “Indian camels only have one hump.”

“It’s a Bactrian camel,” I exclaim. To me, the presence of foreign camels—or images of them at least—suggests far-reaching trading connections, as these double-humped creatures were the favoured mode of transportation along the Silk Road in those days.

Kauśāmbī was an important river port located where the Yamuna crossed a major overland route that connected Ujjain, the capital of the Gupta empire, with Magadha. It was also not far from the auspicious spot where the Yamuna meets the Ganga.

Kosambi 2

Illustration by: Sumedha Sah

After that quick but magnificent lesson in interpreting archaeological finds, I head off on a tour of the Allahabad Museum, the main museum in town. Although there are fewer Kauśāmbī sculptures here, there’s a treasure hoard of beads that testify to an Afghan, or Bactrian, connection. What’s more, there’s a substantial assemblage of elegantly carved rock weights made of chert, suggesting that significant business was going on in Kauśāmbī. There’s a remarkable display of terracotta—elaborate toys as well as pictures of social scenes such as picnic parties, drinking and romancing, ladies shampooing their hairy legs, and a truly unique anatomical study in 3D of the human abdomen, with intestines laid bare.

By the time the Buddha walked the earth, Kauśāmbī was among the six biggest towns of the subcontinent, a transhipment hub inhabited by wealthy merchants. It was sufficiently prominent to support four Buddhist monasteries funded by rich bankers, and it remained a great city for more than a thousand years—older than Rome, it lasted at least a hundred years longer. The Roman empire ended in A.D. 410, while Kauśāmbī was destroyed in about A.D. 515. by a central Asian tribe of White Huns.

Kauśāmbī continued to produce fine sculptures until the 10th century, some of which are on display in Allahabad. Xuanzang, who visited the city a hundred years after its destruction, saw a Buddha statue that had been commissioned by King Udayana, who ruled during the Buddha’s time. He bought a 33-inch replica of it to carry home to China, where it became the source for nearly all subsequent Buddha images.

***

Suitably fired up to explore more of Kauśāmbī after my museum stop, I go to the hotel reception at the tourist bungalow in Allahabad where I’m staying and book a taxi for the next morning.

The 51 kilometres from my hotel to the site takes around 90 minutes by road. Initially, the taxi crawls through an unrelenting cityscape, on streets with the most potholes that I’ve ever seen. Then, all of a sudden, I find myself surrounded by tiny villages. After an hour’s drive, the FM signal grows weak and the taxi no longer rattles with the latest Hindi hits. We’ve obviously travelled back to a pre-radio world, dominated by green ponds, grey donkeys and brightly painted huts.

The archaeological site is heralded by modern monasteries inhabited by monks from various Buddhist countries. I stop at the Cambodian one which, though small, is quite charming. Chatty monks are cooking chicken stew in the yard and tell me they have spent two years here while pursuing degrees at the Allahabad University.

From the monastery, it is a kilometre-long drive to the colossal base of an Ashokan pillar that must have stood tall back in the day. Presumably it’s the one that was later shifted by the Mughals to the Allahabad fort (off-limit for tourists). Surrounding it are the ruins of a city block. The pillar was erected at a crossroads and one of the streets leading to it can still be made out.

Residential houses, built with sturdy brick walls and fairly standardised in their design—as apparent from their foundations that suggest there were inner and outer chambers—stand on either side of the street. I even spot some highly advanced drainage systems. They seem superior to the leaky piping that I have in my own home today.

Further east, across a field, the remains of an immense fort wall with a gateway looms large, beyond which there would have been a moat, keeping out the hubbub of the suburbs. Living here was like owning a 2BHK with excellent plumbing in a secure gated community, surrounded by all the shopping options one might have dreamt of.

People fled famine and epidemics to seek refuge in Kauśāmbī where rest houses for travellers had been set up at the city gates. When the Chinese monk Fa-Hsien (Fa-Hien) visited in the early A.D. 400s, he wrote about seeing the Buddha’s residence, his exercise area, and that the place was maintained by 100 monks.

Just 800 metres down the road stands a massive monastery ruin which once contained stupas, the biggest of which was partly built by Emperor Ashoka himself, and chapels from which the finest antiques in Allahabad’s museums were unearthed. An inscribed stone slab found on the eastern side of the main stupa names the monastery as the Ghositarama. The stupa was funded by the merchant banker Ghosita, a vaishya by caste who became one of the Buddha’s main benefactors, and who was possibly also in charge of King Udayana’s treasury.

***

It strikes me that while other tourist sights such as the Buddhist shrines of Sarnath in Varanasi or Bodh Gaya in Bihar were built long after the Buddha shifted into the nirvana phase, this is one of the few remaining structures in which one can imagine him walking about, speaking, and taking shelter during the monsoons as described in the ancient texts. Weak-kneed at the idea, I walk about the ruins of the hallowed complex that witnessed the first schism in Buddhism—before the eyes of the Buddha himself. And it was also the place where the Buddha decided to restrict insobriety among his followers, for in those days downing pegs seems to have been an accepted practice among holy men.

On his last visit to Kauśāmbī in 520 B.C., the Buddha encountered a drunken monk snoring by the city gate. That gate can still be seen a hundred metres to the south of the monastery. As it happens, he was returning to town for another semester of teaching philosophy, and this fine monastery had just been built in his honour. Perhaps in order to celebrate its inauguration, the monks thought they’d treat the Buddha to a special welcome drink of potent beverage known as Pigeon’s Liquor.

Kosambi 3

Illustration by: Sumedha Sah

A venerable old monk, Sagata, went around sampling the drink which had been brewing in every devotee’s house in town, and got so sloshed that he either fainted or decided to nap in the shade under the gate. He ought to have chosen a better place. While he was slumbering, the Buddha happened to pass through the gate and the plastered monk was the first thing he saw that day.

Worse was to come. At that time the monastery was home to over a thousand monks and a fight broke out in the ranks. The issue— the flushing of a convenience facility—was so petty that it is often not even mentioned in books otherwise narrating the philosophical implications of the schism in great detail.

As far as I’ve been able to put the story together from tales and legends that have been documents and from translations of scriptures, it seems that a leading monk had left half a jug of water in the bathroom, unaware of the monastic rule about flushing the toilet properly after relieving oneself. Other monks complained that it was a sin which would promote mosquito breeding. Soon the whole community was polarised. As I prowl about the ruins, I notice several drainage outlets—in fact, Xuanzang mentions finding the remains of the Buddha’s bathhouse here—and I peek into one wondering if it might have been the same that nearly caused the collapse of Buddhism. The Buddha tried to mediate, but when the monks instead exchanged blows, he is quoted as saying, “With fools there is no companionship. Rather than to live with men who are selfish, vain, quarrelsome and obstinate, let a man walk alone.”

He was rather young to retire, only in his 40s, but he grabbed his begging bowl and walked into the jungles where he spent that rainy season in the company of a friendly elephant. Meanwhile in Kauśāmbī, the population stopped giving alms to the arrogant monks. Eventually, they begged for forgiveness. The Buddha then asked them, “If the brethren, even now, while I am yet living, show so little respect and courtesy to one another, what will they do when I have passed away?” As predicted, they continued to quarrel for centuries until Ashoka, in the third century B.C., deemed it necessary to erect his pillar here, with an edict prohibiting any future schisms.

***

Buddhism was often protected by kings. Upriver, about 1.5 kilometres away on Yamuna’s banks, stand the regal remains, 320×150 metres, of the palace of Udayana. Although the southern side, abutting the river, appears to have had parts of it swept away, much still remains—arched openings, secret chambers and doorways to balconies facing Yamuna.

According to most sources, the king endorsed the building of monasteries here, but according to others, the queen poisoned his mind against Buddhism, as she had once been besotted with the Buddha, but had her marriage proposal turned down. Now the ruins are a hiding spot for lovers who lurk in the excavated chambers. The view of the river is… well, romantic. This fort as a nest for local lovebirds is appropriate since the Sanskrit drama Ratnavali, set in Kauśāmbī, is the first ever literary depiction of Holi, the day of love. The drama is believed to have been penned by Harsha Vardhana, a king who ruled over the Kauśāmbī area in the A.D. 600s and who was also a patron of Buddhism. In this convoluted rom-com, the aforementioned king Udayana manages to confuse the identities of his queen and her maid, falls in love with the maid, Ratnavali, who turns out to be an amnesiac princess from Sri Lanka. She had journeyed to Kauśāmbī after having been shipwrecked on her way to marry the king in the first place!

From the palace I drive to the nearest hill to view the area—Professor Tiwari at the university had recommended I do so. About four kilometres away from Kauśāmbī, Pabhosa Giri or Prabha Giri has several Jain temples, and caves that have been hacked out of the rock—including one known as ‘Sita’s Window’ and from where Sagata had chased away a dragon, the reincarnation of a drowned ship’s captain. This is also where Padmaprabha, the sixth tirthankara of Jainism was born. His nickname seems to have been Prabhu Ji, so it is after him that the hill is named. Some also believe this to be the spot where Lord Krishna died of an arrowshot.

This, too, is nowadays a hotspot for mettlesome men and vivacious women using it for recreative purposes. They scamper away tying their pyjama cords when I climb up the last few steps. On top there are traces of brick buildings, perhaps a monastery either for Jains or Buddhists. Here and there stands the odd solitary statue. I go across to the edge from where I command a sublime view of the Yamuna. To the east, Kauśāmbī basks in the mild beams of the late afternoon sun.

I already miss leaving this place, perhaps the most tranquil tourist sight in all of India, but my spirits are boosted by a roadside snack, a Kauśāmbī speciality that my taxi driver stops to get for me while driving towards Allahabad. He says the snack is called mungauri, deep-fried balls of ground dal served with delicious garlic chutney. Did the Buddha ever eat this local delicacy?

He must have, since he kept returning to the place. Back in Allahabad, visiting a friend’s home, I am shown terracotta figurines and seals from Kauśāmbī on their living room shelves, which would make any museum proud.

“How did you get these?” I ask as I handle a delicate terracotta face.

“The poor villagers, they sell them.”

I sigh as I study it. “And how much did you pay?”

“Two rupees or something like that.”

Essentials

The ruins are always open and and there is no entry free. There is scarce signposting and no facilities anywhere near them. A tour is best made with Allahabad as a base and the round trip of a little over 100 kilometres comes to Rs2,000 by taxi. Allow for 2-3 hours to roam around the vast area and see all the ruins. Bring picnic food, water and toilet paper.

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

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