Settlement in Early Historic Ganga Plain

by Chirantani Das | 143,447 words

This page relates “Discovery of a Religious topography” as it appears in the case study regarding the settlements in the Early Historic Ganga Plain made by Chirantani Das. The study examines this process in relation to Rajagriha and Varanasi (important nodal centres of the respective Mahajanapadas named Magadha and Kashi).

Part 10 - Discovery of a Religious topography

It may be pointed out that Rājagṛha’s importance was not only due to its political primacy but since it was a very important early pilgrimage point for being sacred to most ancient Indian religions. Hot springs were regarded holy by the Hindus, Jaina shrines are mostly found at the top of mountains or scattered across the valley. The Buddhist sites are most numerous, most vividly described in the Buddhist texts and best documented in archaeological work. This is partly because Buddhist sites are most clearly mentioned in the early Buddhist canonical literature and their physical identifications were doneunder Alexander Cunningham’s directions, the Founder and First Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, whose survey was based on the descriptions of Chinese pilgrims, Xuan Zang and Fa-Xian and their successors.

In the Buddhist canons the names of Buddhist sites appeared in three ways. These are direct mention of place names like Veṇuvana donated to the Buddha by Bimbisāra, description of places in a running narrative and the Buddha’s exhaustive list of topographical places when he left the city for the last time.[1] Of them the first type is the most obvious, identifiable and hence the ancient city was represented by a set of place names mentioned in the Buddhist texts. Largely the identification of these sites was done under the supervision of Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1861-2and 1872. He made a preliminary but extensive survey of Rajgir and its surroundings and identified a number of Buddhist sites. Under the auspices of the ASI in the early 20th century several surveys of Rajgir were done. They have resulted in discovery and identification of several Buddhist and Jain spots. The Buddhist places are scattered all over the valley and they are intricately related to the life of the Buddha. Veṇuvana is located near the hot springs and towards its northern boundary a large mound which could have been the site of some ruined structures. Perhaps the vihāra seen by Fa-Xian and Xuanzang lies under this mound. Towards the eastern slope of this mound foundation of a room, nine brick stūpas in a concrete floor wereexcavated.[2] It may be recalled that Veṇuvana area was donated by Bimbisāra to the Buddha. In the nearby area to the east of the Veṇuvana another stūpa suggested by Xuang Xang as Ajātaśatru’sstūpa is located to the left of the modern road while coming from Veṇuvana. On the Vaibhāra hill, couple of Buddhist sites are located.

Just a little above the Satdhara group of hot springs a stone structure, probably a watch tower known as Jarasandh-ki-baithak or Pippala stone house mentioned in the Buddhist texts was located. Marshall however identifies it as solitary meditation cell turned watch tower.[3] According to some authorities this was the residence of Mahākāśyapa who presided over the First Buddhist council held just six months after the Buddha’s demise. At the top of this mountain was the venue of this council, the Saptaparṇī cave. A lot more of religious antiquities can be found on the main road from Rajgir towards the Banganga. Near the narrow gap between the Vipula and Bhaivāra hill the north gate of the outer fortification is located. At about 1 km from the north gate, towards the east or right of the main road a small cylindrical brick shrine built on the top of an artificial mound catches the attention of the visitor. The name Maniyar Math was applied to this shrine after the name of the small Jaina shrine built at the top of this brick mound. Building and construction went on this site in all ages and the latest being very recent and Jaina in nature.

The last building activity took place in1781 CE. Chief religious antiquities obtained in the site were the Buddha’s mother Māyā lying in a couch and ascetic Buddha above, standing figure of Pārśvanātha and the third is unidentified. Besides, the base of the structure was decorated with well -preserved stucco figures of the Gupta period, belonging to the Hindu pantheon. Most of these figures were nāgas or serpents with a liṅga with a garland of flowers, four armed Viṣṇu, six armed dancing Śiva and Ganeśa. Dr. T. Bloch who extensively surveyed this site inclined to believe that the cylindrical structure itself is a large liṅga that is common at Baramula, Kashmir etc. With all these findings Maniyar Math with an overt Jaina identity furnishes an example of co-existence of an array of religious identities. Judging the figures and the strong presence of serpent deities, Dr. Bloch suggests that it represented an exclusive Rajgir pantheon and the serpents might have been popular deities of the hill tribes around the valley. Later tradition connected this building with hidden treasure and Maṇināga from whom the name Maniyar has bben derived was the guardian of this wealth. So a rich popular tradition and cult also ran around Maniyar math. But the most important historical document found at the site was a mutilated inscription containing the name of Vipulamountain, denoting the location and the name of Raja Śrenika i.e. Bimbisāra, linking him to the site was revealed. In all probability Maniyar math stood as an important eclectic religious and historical site.

Moving north-west of Maniyar Math one reaches another Jaina spot of twin caves of Sonbhānḍār at the southern end of the Vaibhāra hill. In the inner wall of the left cave short epigraphs of 3rd - 4th centuries CE were inscribed. The right cave is on a lower level contains a Viṣṇu image of the Gupta period, riding on Garuḍa, now preserved in the Nalanda museum. This was uddhaprobably installed when the Jainas left the site. On the southern wall of this cave figures of the Jaina tirthaṅkaras were carved, including Pārśvanātha and Mahāvīra. Location of these two important Jaina sites in this corner of the valley suggests that this portion was a Jaina stronghold.

Gṛdhrakūṭa was one of the most favourite spots of the Buddha. Towards this site several other Buddhist sites are also located. Moving towards Chhaṭhagiri, and taking the right way, the Jīvaka’s mango grove and Mardakukṣi monastery can be found. As per Pāli texts, Jīvaka’s mango grove was located between the eastern gate and the Chhaṭhagiri. It was donated to the Buddha and his followers by Jīvaka, the most famous physician of the time, who ornamented the circle of king Bimbisāra and was contemporary to both the Buddha and Bimbisāra. This mango garden was made into a monastery. Climbing the hill, just a little above, in the right side one can reach the Mardakukṣi deer park and monastery where once the queen of Bimbisāra wanted to abort her child by a forcible belly massage because the child was predicted to be a patricide and the place was so named. It was the same site where the Buddha was first brought before he was removed to the Jīvaka’s mango grove when he was hurt by the stone hurled on him by his cousin Devadatta. At the top of the hill Gṛdhrakūṭa or Vulture’s peak may be seen. The name has been suggested because it looked like a vulture sitting. At the spot there are two natural caves. In one cave a number of terracotta plaques with seven past Buddhas and Maitreya–the future Buddha, all seated and under each figure Buddhist inscriptions are carved. At the top in a wide stone platform numerous stone and brick shrines are built. These are of much later date showed that the place still evoked veneration for being closely associated with the Buddha. This was the venue of many important events and sermons during the Buddha’s life.

Recent excavations at Rajgir has found out a stūpa mound towards Banganga defile, only 100m south of the Chariot wheel marks and shell inscriptions and 200 north of the south western opening of the ancient city of Rajgir between the two hills Sonagiri and Udayagiri. This terraced brick stūpa contains three terraces and a brick paved pradakṣinapatha was exposed in the southern side of the second terrace. Among the important antiquities ghata shaped terracotta beads, agate bead, copperantimony rod, fragments of terracotta bangles. Range of potteries discovered was Red Ware, Grey Ware, NBPW and Kaolin Ware of which Red Ware potteries are the highest in number.118Apsidal shape of this stūpa closely resembles the Jīvakarāma monastery. From the antiquities and other finds probable date of this stūpa has been suggested as the early Maurya period.119

Footnotes and references:


Robert Harding, Archaeology and Religious Landscape in India: A Case Study in Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 13(2) p.4.


Sir John Marshall, op.cit.1905-06, pp.94-95


Ibid., pp.89-90.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: