Finding Shravasti (Sāvatthī)

While growing up I often heard recitations of the poem Bonolota Sen, written by Jibonananda Das in 1942. In this poem, the poet beautifully describes his muse, painting her with various attributes from ancient India. One of the most enigmatic poems that I have read, the words cut deep into the reader’s soul as he or she travels back in time to the glorious past. Few lines from the poem run as such:

A thousand years I have walked these paths,
From the harbour at Malacca in the dark of night
To the straits of Ceylon at glimmer of dawn.
Much have I travelled – 
The grey world of Ashoka-Bimbisara,
Further yet,
The dark city of Vidharbha;
Around me life foams its stormy breath.
Weary of soul,
I found a moment’s respite in her presence – 
She: Banalata Sen of Natore.

Her hair the ancient darkness of Vidisha,
Face an intricate sculpture from Shravasti.
A sailor in distant oceans, rudderless, lost,
When hoves into view
Island of grass through fronds of cinnamon,
A green relief
So she felt to me….”

(translation by Amitabha Mukerjee: https://www.cse.iitk.ac.in/users/amit/other/poems/banalata.html)

From treading the magical realms of this lyrical verse, when I finally walked into Shravasti on a bitterly cold and foggy morning, I found no intricate sculptures resembling the beauty of Bonolota Sen waiting for me. What was waiting was the magic of 2600 years, compressed and hidden amidst the ruins and paths of the once thriving site known as the Jetavana monastery.

Looking back at Shravasti:

The name Shravasti is a familiar one in Indian history from ancient times, and finds mention in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist texts. Shravasti  was also often referred to as Champakpuri and Chandrikapuri, though Kalidasa called it as ‘Sravasti.’ According to the Mahabharata, the name Shravasti was derived from king Shravasta, while Buddhist folklore says the town was named as Savatthi after Savattha, a hermit who lived here. In Ramayana it is said that Lord Rama of the Surya dynasty divided his kingdom of Kosala (with capital at Ayodhya) into two parts. The elder son Kusa inherited Kushavati or Kushasthali, and Lava got Shravasti that was situated on the banks of the river Rapti (currently the Sehath-Mehath village site near Gonda and Baharinch). It is believed that Lava’s descendants ruled the area for a long time; however, during the time of Mahabharata both Kushasthali and Shravasti seem to have gone into oblivion, though we find mention of Ayodhya under control of king Bruhadbala I, who fought for the Kauravas. In Buddhist literature the name Shravasti carries great significance, as Lord Buddha spent many years of his monastic life in this city. During his life time Shravasti was considered one among the six largest cities in India. For the Jains, Sharvasti holds great religious significance, as the now ruined Sobhanath temple is considered to be the birthplace of the third Tirthankara, Sambhavanath.

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Third Jain tirthankara Sambhanath was born in Shravasti to King Jitārī and Queen Susena (photo courtesy – Wikipedia)

When we look at archaeological evidences from the Gangetic basin, we find the presence of fine Black Red Ware or B-R-W  that denotes the Chalcolithic era, thus establishing the fact that it was likely Chalcolithic people settled down in this area around the second millennium BCE. As the settlements of the BRW people expanded through first half of the 1st millennium, there was also a  shift from copper to  iron, possibly due to discovery of iron ore resources. This iron technology helped the Gangetic basin to expand and develop its unique cultural mosaic, and it is likely that Shravasti settlements started at this time (early half of 1st millennium BCE). Using these new iron tools, soon forests in the Gangetic basin were cleared, farmers started producing surplus crops, and people settled down permanently, forming cities like Shravasti.

In the later Vedic period we find that increasingly territorial identities started gaining importance over tribal ones, and by 600 BCE we find a shift from oligarchic republics to the formation of large states or kingdoms. From loyalty towards the jana (the tribe), the loyalty of the people now shifted to the janapadas (states). By subjugating other janapadas, more powerful mahajanapadas soon came into existence. According to Anguttara Nikaya (Buddhist text), during Buddha’s time 16 such mahajanapadas existed. Kosala was one of them with its capital at Shravasti (by Buddha’s time Ayodhya had been reduced to an unimportant city), and considered among the four great monarchies of that time that survived well after the 6th c. BCE.

Mahajanapadas during Buddha’s time (photo courtesy – wikipedia)

With the formation of these mahajanapadas, India saw an increase in material prosperity owing to trade with Central and West Asia and the Mediterranean region, leading to urbanization. From the strategic location on east-west route of Uttarapatha, which connected the Gangetic basin with the Himalayas, it is likely that Shravasti held great economic and political importance as a trading centre. Shravasti at that time was well connected with other important commercial hubs, such as, Taxila, Rajgir, Pataliputra, Pratisthana, Kaushambi and Varanasi

Dynasty that held Shravasti

According to the Ramayana and the Puranas, the Kosala mahajanpada was ruled by the Aikshvaka dynasty that originated from a king named Ikshvaku, and members of this dynasty held sway over Shravasti, Vaishali, Maithili, and Kushinara. The Puranas give a list of the rulers of the Aikshvaka dynasty from Ikshvaku to Prasenajita, the latter being a contemporary of Bimbisara of the Haryanka dynasty, and Lord Buddha. Prasenajita who was then the king of Shravasti or Savatthi, became one of the leading upasakas of the Buddha. As per the Buddhist scriptures, Bimbisara (who was also the brother in law of Prasenajita) met the Buddha prior to his enlightenment, and later he too became one of his leading upasakas.

Procession of Prasenajit of Kosala leaving Shravasti to meet the Buddha. Sanchi Stupa. (picture courtesy – wikipedia)

Burmese art showing King Bimbisara of Rajgir, who was the brother-in-law of Prasenajit of Kosala, offering his kingdom to the Buddha (Picture courtesy – wikipedia) 

Seeing Shravasti as it is now:

Currently what remains of this ancient city are  parts of the wall that once guarded

The remains of city walls built of mud and bricks of Shravasti in the Maheth site. The walking-path seen in the front is the site of one of the four main city gates of ancient Shravasti, and is the closest to Jetavana monastery. It must have been the same road used by the monks living in Jetavana monastery during Buddha’s times, as they went around for alms (bhiksha) in ancient Shravasti (photo courtesy – wikipedia)

Shravasti, in the Maheth village site; and the Jetavana monastery ruins at Saheth. Besides the remains of religious complexes that contained Buddhist monastic cells with a central court, excavations at Shravasti have found many idols, inscription plaques, terracotta seals in Brahmi script, copper coins of the Ayodhya series, glass and etched agate beads, blue and green glass bangles, and copper ornaments, which are now placed in the Lucknow and Mathura museums. Ramayana plaques were unearthed from the site of Kachhi kuti in the Saheth site of Jetavana, which likely came from a Hindu temple. It is believed that King Ashoka visited Shravasti, and had built two pillars on the eastern gate of Jetavana. Both Fa-hien and Hiuen Tsang in their travel accounts mention Ashokan pillars with ox-capital that they saw at the Jetavana monastery in Shravasti. When Hiuen Tsang visited Shravasti in the 6th c. CE, he found the ancient city in ruins, but he recorded  the monuments that he saw here.

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Remains of the stupa of the merchant prince name Sudatta of Shravasti, who acquired the site of jeta-vana for Buddha, from prince Jeta (son of King Prasenajita of Kosala) at a huge price that equalled the total amount of gold pieces which would cover the entire surface of the plot (the total price amounted to 18 crores). Sudatta was titled as Anathapindika, which meant “giver of alms to the destitute.” This stupa is now better known as kacchi kuti, because a sadhu had made a temporary shrine made of kaccha bricks on top of the mound. This stupa represents structural remains dating from 2nd century CE to 12th c. CE, ranging from Kushana period to Gupta era structures and later period renovations. 

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Donation by Anathapindika, as shown on Bharhut stupa.  Here we can see a cartload of coins being taken down, while the square pieces on the ground denote the gold pieces covering the site. The Brahmi text reads  “jetavana ananthapindiko deti kotisanthatena keta.” (picture courtesy – wikipedia). Buddha first came to Shravasti on an invite from Anathapindika. 

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Remains of monastic complexes at the site of Jetavana monastery. It was also in Shravasti that Buddha attracted many women disciples, which led to his forming an Order of the Nuns, much against his wishes, and he had predicted that with this reform the Buddhist order will not last for long. The first disciple to join the Order of the Nuns by forcing Buddha’s consent was his own step-mother Mahaprajapati. One of his most well known women disciple was Visakha, the daughter of a business tycoon of those times from Saketa. She built Buddha another monastery at Shravasti and named it Purvarama, by selling her expensive head dress. Of the total 25 monsoon seasons that Buddha spent teaching in Shravasti, 19 were in Jetavana and 6 in Purvarama. 

Stupa of Visakha, where her ashes were interred in Shravasti (picture courtesy – wikipedia)

Stupa 1 in Sanchi depicts the three preferred homes of the Buddha within the Jetavana monastery in Shravasti (picture courtesy – Wikipedia)

 

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Remains of the brick made plinths, foundations, and walls of the different monastic cells  in Jetavana. The ancient site of Shravasti was completely forgotten, until excavations were started under Alexander Cunningham in 1863, who followed the details given by Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang and found that Saheth was the site of Jetavana monastery and Maheth was Savatthi during the ancient times. Most of the excavated remains in Jetavana show the typical elevation and plan of early Buddhist architecture, and belong to the Kushana period, with a number of reconstructions and renovations done during the Gupta period, and some more from the later periods dating upto 11th- 12th century CE. 

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The Anandabodhi tree in Jetavana planted  by Anathapindika, considered as the second most sacred tree among the Buddhists.  A cell right behind the tree is supposed to have belonged to a goldsmith’s workshop, as derived from remains of a lump of pure gold in a clay crucible in the room and ash heaps around the building. 

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Gandhakuti, the hut where Buddha spent 19 monsoon seasons. Lord Buddha spent most his monastic life in Shravasti, preaching 871 suttas from the four nikayas, of which 844 were preached from this very spot in Jetavana. According to a description given by Fa-hien, the Gandhakuti originally had seven sections, that held different kinds of offerings, decorated insignia, marquees, and the place was lit with lamps that burned all the time. A rat supposedly set the entire vihara on fire destroying it completely, and when it was rebuilt it only had two sections. 

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Thin gold foil offerings to Buddha is seen on Gandhakuti  and other monastic cell wall remains in Jetavana. This practice of offering gold foil is common among south east Asian devotees, especially from Myanmar. 

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The stupa of the notorious robber known as Ahimsaka or Angulimala, who killed those travelling through the forests in Kosala. He killed people by dragging them out of their homes in nearby villages. To keep count of his victims he strung their fingers around his neck like a garland, which gave him the name Angulimala. While looking for his thousandth victim Buddha intercepted him and made him his disciple. Despite becoming a monk, Angulimala while out begging for alms often faced the wrath of the people whose loved ones he had once killed; but Buddha told him to endure it as a penance for his former misdeeds or Karma.

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Angulimala chasing Buddha in  their first meeting. Painting in the Sri Lanka Buddhist temple at Shravasti. 

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Shravasti is also an important religious place for the Jains. The Jain temple seen here is situated a little away from the Jetavana monastery, and is supposedly the birth place of the third Tirthankara Sambhavnath, whose symbol is a horse. Born to King Jitārī and Queen Susena, he ascended the throne at an early age of 20, and ruled ably for thirty four years, ushering in many changes during his reign. However, one day after seeing a vanishing dark cloud, he realised the transient nature of life, renounced his throne, and chose a monastic life. The remains of the structure show a basic rectangular plan with different strata, and many later additions, extensions, and superimposition. The domed roof structure built of lakhori bricks is a much later medieval Islamic imposition. The interior face of the structure had several niches that housed Jain deities and many such deities have been recovered from the site. 

 

Remains of small room like structures within the Jain temple. Just outside the temple are two more mounds of ruins, likely to hold remains of ancient monastic structures.

The Shravasti Miracle

The Twin Miracle  performed  by Buddha at Shravasti, seven years after gaining enlightenment, is considered as his best miracle. The miracle was in response to a challenge thrown to Buddha by the heretics, wherein he had predicted that he would perform a miracle while seated under a mango tree (as stated in most of the Pali texts, such as Dhammapadathakatha and Jataka tales). Hearing this the heretics destroyed all mango trees in the area; however their plans were thwarted when Buddha planted a mango seed that immediately grew into  a full grown tree with fruits, thus allowing Buddha to perform his miracle, known as the Yamaka-pātihāriya  or the Twin Miracle. This miraculous phenomena paired two opposite natural elements:  flames that came out from the upper body, while water streamed down from his lower body, and the two were alternated. At the same time,  water and fire also emitted alternatively from the left and right sides of his body. 

The twin miracle by Buddha at Shravasti (photo courtesy – wiki pediaby Ddalbiez) 

Another important text Divyavadana written in Sanskrit talks of another Great Miracle performed in Shravasti, which was a miracle of multiplication, where Buddha created multiple images of his self in front, back, and the two sides, thus forming a group of Buddhas that reached up to the Heaven.

The miracle of ‘Many Buddhas’ in Shravasti (photo courtesy – Wikipedia)

Downfall of the high and mighty

Shravasti, the once powerful city and capital of the mighty Kosala mahajanapada, a centre of economic, socio-cultural, and political activities, saw a sudden decline from 3rd-4th c. CE. The decline started  a little earlier than the other important north Indian cities of the time, from the later part of the Kushana period, when for some reason (could be economic, political, or cultural) people suddenly started moving out of this urban centre. The decline can be attributed to economic stagnation, owing to the Hun invasion and the diminishing Indo-Roman trade in the later half of the Gupta period. Thus, an economic decline led to the complete disintegration of political unity, and breakdown of the socio-cultural fabric that had been held together for many centuries.

Author – Monidipa Dey

She can be reached at monidipadey@gmail.com

 

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