Ramagrama Stupa: The One That Got Away!



In 260 BCE, Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE) decided to open up all the great stupas that had been built to preserve the bodily (sharirika) remains of the Buddha and redistribute them among a much larger number of stupas. According to Buddhist texts, he built 84,000 new stupas with these relics. Of all the stupas built on the remains of the Buddha, the only one he did not open was the Ramagrama Stupa, also known as the Stupa of the Nagas. This is the story of the Ramagrama Stupa in Nepal.

When the Buddha died at Kushinagar (in present-day Uttar Pradesh) around 485 BCE, his mortal remains were cremated at the site. Kushinagar, then known as Kushavati, was the capital city of the Mahajanapada of the Mallas. The Mallas tried to keep all the mortal remains of the Buddha for themselves. But the cremation of the Buddha was delayed as the monks waited for one of his oldest disciples, Mahakassapa, to arrive. By the time Mahakassapa reached Kushinagar, news of the Buddha’s passing had reached far and wide, and seven clans arrived with armies in tow for their share of his relics.

There was a showdown that almost led to an all-out war. Finally, it was decided that the mortal remains of the Buddha would be shared, and a Brahmana called Drona divided them into ten portions. Eight portions of his bones, one portion of his ashes and the broken potsherd used by Drona became the most important relics of the Buddha. Some texts say there were only eight portions.

War over the relics of the Buddha, Sanchi torana, Sanchi
War over the relics of the Buddha, Sanchi torana, Sanchi |Wikimedia Commons

Stupas were built over eight sets of relics. They are: At Allakappa by the Bulis (location unknown); Kapilavastu (modern-day Piprawaha in Uttar Pradesh, according to some scholars) by the Shakyas; at Kushinagar by the Mallas; at Pava (modern-day Fazilnagar about 15 km from Kushinagar); at Rajagriha (the Maghadan capital, now in Bihar) by Ajatashatru; at Vaishali (in present-day Bihar), the capital of the Vajjians; at Ramagrama, a city of the Koliya kingdom (in modern-day Nepal); and at Vethadipa (location unknown) by the Vethadipa Brahmanas to whom Drona belonged.

These sites became the most revered sites of pilgrimage along with Lumbini (where the Buddha was born); Bodh Gaya (where he attained enlightenment); and Sarnath (where he preached his first sermon in the Deer Park). Ramagrama was the capital city of the Koliyas and was also known as Koliyanagara.

The legend of Ramagrama is perhaps the most interesting of all of these stupas. Around 260 BCE, the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka opened up all the stupas bearing the bodily remains of the Buddha and redistributed them into the stupas that he built. Buddhist tradition says that Ashoka built 84,000 stupas and distributed among them all the relics he had removed from the original ones. The number, of course, is an exaggeration and is more mystically important than anything else, but we do know that many stupas were built in the Mauryan era and that Ashoka was responsible for them.

Nagas worshipping the Ramagrama Stupa, Amaravati drum slab
Nagas worshipping the Ramagrama Stupa, Amaravati drum slab|Kurush Dalal

Interestingly, there is a twist in the tale. According to Buddhist tradition, Ashoka opened all the stupas and retrieved the relics from them with the exception of the Ramagrama Stupa, which was fiercely defended by the Nagas, mythical beings that are half-human and half-serpent. He then let them keep their stupa intact. Another version of the story says that when Ashoka arrived at Ramagrama, he was faced down by the king of the Nagas, who were protecting the stupa. Ashoka then agreed not to harm the stupa and returned empty handed.

The Ramagrama Stupa was well known in antiquity and Chinese monks, Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang, visited it, according to their memoirs in the 5th and 7th centuries CE, respectively. The story is also mentioned in the Asokavadana, a part of the Divyavadana, a Sri Lankan Buddhist text, dated 1st-2nd century CE. It tells us that Ashoka was rebuffed by the king of the Nagas, who protected the Ramagrama Stupa, and returned empty handed.

Fa Hien tells us an interesting version of the story. He says it was guarded by a dragon, which took Ashoka into his palace and showed him all the offerings made to the stupa and said, “If you are able with your offerings to exceed these, I will not contend with you.” Ashoka knew he could never make the same and thereupon returned from Ramagrama.

The Ramagrama Stupa covered in Nagas and being worshipped by Elephants, Amaravati
The Ramagrama Stupa covered in Nagas and being worshipped by Elephants, Amaravati|British Museum

Fa Hien tells us that the stupa later fell into disuse, and when a wandering monk arrived here, he was amazed to see a herd of elephants bringing water and clearing debris. The monk was so amazed and yet so saddened by the disused state of the stupa premises that he renounced his monkhood and became a shramana so that he could take care of the premises. This seems to imply that the stupa had been abandoned by the time Fa Hien visited it.

Hiuen Tsang says that the 100-foot-tall stupa of Ramagrama lies in a forested country, which is not well populated. To the east of the city, he says, lies the stupa, beside which is the Naga tank. According to Hiuen Tsang, the Naga frequently changes his appearance into that of a man and encircles the tower. He goes on to say that wild elephants bearing flowers in their trunks constantly come to make religious offerings. He says there is a Buddhist vihara (monastery) adjacent to the stupa and retells the story of the lone monk told by Fa Hien.

After the time of Hiuen Tsang, the Ramagrama Stupa receded into obscurity and its location was lost. Both Alexander Cunningham, the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, and ACL Carlleyle, a famous British archaeologist who worked in India in the 19th century, searched for it in vain. The search received fresh impetus only after the discovery of Lumbini, the place of the Buddha’s birth, in 1896. Many archaeologists were soon hot on the trail of the Ramagrama Stupa based on the directions provided by the Chinese visitors. One of the foremost experts on Hiuen Tsang, Buddhist and Chinese scholar T Watters, wrote that it was time to discard the contemplations of Cunningham and Carlleyle and to head into new research.

Interestingly, the stupa site had already been visited by Dr Hoey in the 1890s but he had failed to make the link with Ramagrama. P C Mukherjee had also written that the search should take place in the Eastern Terai, north of Gorakhpur, but he never followed it up. Prof S B Deo, of the Deccan College, was here at Parasi (as it was then known) and recorded a tall mound in 1964 (at Deoria village). Finally, in 1974, it was Babukrishna Rijal of the Department of Archaeology, Nepal, who visited the site and was convinced of its affiliation and identity. He boldly declared that it could be none other than the Stupa of Ramagrama.

Rijal proved this by triangulating the site using the distances mentioned by Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang with other known sites like Lumbini. Rijal’s analysis was so convincing that the Government of Nepal accepted it and made the site a part of the Lumbini Development Trust. The site lies on an island in the middle of the Jharahi River. This was not always the case and, at some point in the past, the river flowed in a loop which flooded and created a parallel course around the area of the stupa and the monastery adjacent to it.

In 1997, the Department of Archaeology in Nepal conducted a geophysical survey and discovered a monastic complex barely 4 m north-west of the stupa mound. In 1999, preliminary excavations and clearance work were undertaken. In the first season itself, the excavator, Sukra Sagar Shreshtha, was convinced they had found the monastery that Fa Hien had written about.

Ramagrama Stupa
Ramagrama Stupa|Wikimedia Commons

Today, what remains of the Ramagrama Stupa lies in the Ramagrama Municipality in Parasi District of Nepal, not far from the Indian border. It is approximately 86 km North-Northwest of Kushinagar, where the Buddha died and attained Mahaparinirvana. It is a small structure and agrees with the ‘sramanera’ description of Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang. Interestingly, there were much older deposits seen under the monastery. This agreed with the abandonment and subsequent reuse of the site. A huge flood deposit was also seen overlying and interspersing the archaeological horizons.

In 2000 and 2001, there were two more seasons of excavations. The stupa mound was partially cleared, a pradakshina patha (circumambulatory path) was noticed around it, as was a massive prayer platform adjacent to the stupa. Moulded bricks from the stupa were also recovered.

The monastic complex is 13.5 x 13.5 m square. It has 2.4 m wide rooms with a courtyard of 4.8 m. There is a small votive stupa in the centre of the courtyard. Interestingly, it post-dates the complex and seems to have been unexpectedly and coincidentally placed right in the middle of the monastery’s remains as there is a clear flood deposit between it and the monastery levels. Also, it seems to be made up of salvaged bricks. A Kushana copper coin was recovered from a corner of the monastery, thus giving us a possible datum for the existence of the monastery.

The lower-most levels have yielded a fine Grey Ware and Black and Red Ware, and have been tentatively dated 5th-3rd centuries BCE. A very clear Pre-Mauryan/Mauryan horizon has been identified for the stupa by the excavator, based on brick sizes dated at Lumbini to these levels, followed by what he calls a Kushana/Gupta horizon.  The stupa was clearly damaged by floods and then rebuilt.

The story of the Ramagrama Stupa doesn't end here. The story now shifts to Sri Lanka. The most revered of all the stupas in Sri Lanka is the Maha Stupa, Ruwanwelisaya, at Anuradhapura, built by King Dutugamini (161-137 BCE). According to the Buddhist scriptures of Sri Lanka, the Ramagrama Stupa had been given double its share of relics, which were destined for Sri Lanka. It had been predetermined by the Buddha that these relics would one day be enshrined in the Ruwanwelisaya on a pre-appointed day in the future by a King named Dutugamini.

The Sangha thus ordered the arhanta (one who is advanced on the path to Enlightenment but is yet to attain Buddhahood) under training called Sonuttara, who had been equipped with the six paranormal abilities to go to the Naga-loka (the kingdom of the Nagas), which was below the seas, to recover the artifacts. The legend goes on to tell us that the stupa at Ramagrama was inundated in a flood and the reliquary was washed into the Bay of Bengal, where the Nagas enshrined it under the seas in their city of Naga-loka, in a special stupa and venerated the same.

Nagas led by their King Mahakala/Kalika worshipping the reliquary of the Buddha, medallion from Amaravati
Nagas led by their King Mahakala/Kalika worshipping the reliquary of the Buddha, medallion from Amaravati|British Museum

The Mahavamsa, a very important Sri Lankan Buddhist text dated to the 5th century CE, says that Sonuttara visited the palace of the Naga King, Mahakala, and asked him for the relics which had once been enshrined in Ramagrama. Mahakala was unwilling to part with them and asked his nephew Vasuladatta to hide them.

Sonuttara, through his magic prowess, knew this, and when Mahakala told him he might take the relics if he could find them, Sonuttara, with the help of his paranormal powers, took the relics casket from Vasuladatta, unknown to him, and brought it back with him to Anuradhapura, so that the relics could be enshrined in the Maha Stupa there. Chapter 29 of the Mahavamsa lists the visit of numerous delegations from various parts of India, and a delegation of 30,000 monks from Alexandria of the Caucasus (modern-day Bagram in Afghanistan), led by the Indo-Greek monk Mahadharmaraksita.

The Thupavamsa, a text composed in the 13th century CE, tells us that the reliquary was placed on a golden throne, crafted by Vishwakarma, artificer of the gods, and was brought to Anuradhapura by Indra himself. Brahma offered his invisible umbrella of sovereignty, and even Mahakala, the Naga king, came there to attend the consecration. As Dutugamini carried the relics to the relics chamber, they flew off his head and the Buddha was momentarily recreated. He then performed the miracle of Shravasti.

The Mahavamsa then tells us that Dutugamini died sadly before the Maha Stupa was completed. But, as he lay on his deathbed, he was told it had been completed, to make him feel better. To everyone’s surprise, he demanded to be taken there, so his brother Tissa draped the construction site in a white cloth so that with his hazy eyes close to death, Dutugamini would see the stupa complete. He breathed his last here and ascended to the Tushita heaven.

The Ruwanwelisaya Maha Stupa
The Ruwanwelisaya Maha Stupa| Wikimedia Commons  

The Sri Lankan is tale is greatly intriguing. When we take the story in toto, the relics travel from Kushinagar to Ramagrama; from Ramagrama to Naga-loka; and from there to Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. This links Sri Lankan Buddhism very firmly to the Buddha and his sharirika remains. The matter of great interest here is that the story of the flood is something that was known to the Buddhists as was the probable loss of the relics due to the stupa being swept away by the flood. They understood the geography of Northern India and linked the Jharahi and its course with the eventual emptying into the Bay of Bengal and thus into the mythological realms of the Nagas.

Though the story of the flood is not well represented, what we can ascertain is that there were repeated floods at Ramagrama and this is clearly seen in the excavations where flood deposits are encountered between the Mauryan and Kushana/Gupta levels. Thus it appears that the possible loss of the relics was known and accepted, if not necessarily talked about.

The possible loss of the Ramagrama reliquary gives the Sri Lankan school the perfect way to ‘acquire’ the original relics of the Buddha in a way that is above suspicion. It is also a way in which no stupa is destroyed in the process. It also rather obliquely shows how Dutugamini managed to do something that even the great Ashoka had been unable to do – securing the Buddha’s relics from the Ramagrama Stupa and enshrining them in a stupa – thus gaining him much merit.

The Ramagrama Stupa is today a very important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Nepal and is revered as the only original stupa built over the bodily relics of the Buddha which still contains his untouched relics. In Sri Lanka, these ‘same relics’ are greatly revered and the Ruwanwelisaya is one of the 16 great sites of Buddhist pilgrimage in the island nation and is one of the greatest attractions at Anuradhapura, if not the greatest. Pilgrims from all over the world come here to revere the relics of the Buddha and to pay homage to King Dutugamini for his most meritorious act.

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