What does a town in the heart of Bihar have in common with an ancient kingdom in faraway Vietnam? As incredible as this may seem, the Indian town we’re referring to is Bhagalpur, 240 km east of Patna. While few would equate this non-descript region with an ancient capital, old trading routes and exalted empires, the truth is that Bhagalpur is steeped in layers and layers of history.
In the old part of the town is the ancient quarter- Champa. This was the seat of an ancient empire. Here, you will find archaeological mounds, ancient temples and terracotta figurines that go back over 2,000 years.
Bhagalpur or Champa as it was then called was the capital of the Anga republic, one of the 16 Mahajapadas of the later Vedic period. Like the other great cities along the Ganga, like Varanasi and Kaushambi, Champa continues to be relevant through time – through the Mauryan period, Shunga and Pala empires, the Mughal era, British period and even today.
One of Bhagalpur’s most interesting tales is how it connects to the ancient kingdom of Champa in Central and Southern Vietnam. Before we get to that, a little about the Indian Champa.
The Mahajanapadas were 16 kingdoms that existed in ancient India from the 7th to the 4th centuries BCE. Classically associated with the end of the Vedic period, they preceded the monarchies that emerged later. Champa is believed to have been the capital of the ancient Mahajanapada of Anga; it was later annexed by Magadha and became a part of the Mauryan Empire. During the Mahajanapada and Mauryan periods, Champa was a significant politically, culturally and for religious reasons.
In the great epic the Mahabharata, Karna is said to have been given the territory of Anga by Duryodhana, and according to lore, his capital was either Champa or Munger, another nearby settlement. It has since played a role in the growth and development of two major faiths on the subcontinent – Buddhism and Jainism.
Buddha is believed to have visited six major cities in his lifetime, and Champa is said to be one of them. On the banks of the Gharghara Pushkarni Lake in Champa, Gautama Buddha brought a congregation of 500 monks for a religious meeting. During the proceedings, Buddha’s disciple Sariputta preached Dasuttara Sutta (a Sutta from the Digha Niyaka, the first of the 5 Niyakas of the Sutta Pitaka) here in the presence of Buddha himself. Historian Prof Raman Sinha of S M College in Bhagalpur interprets this as the first Buddhist Council, one that was held during the Buddha’s lifetime.
Besides Buddhism, the region is important to the Jain faith as well. It is believed that the 12th Tirthankara, Vasupujya, was born here. In fact, all the five auspicious events in the life of the Tirthankara Vasupujya took place here, namely – conception, birth, renunciation, attainment of wisdom and liberation. The 24th and last Tirthankara, Mahavir, is said to have spent three of his monsoon retreats in Champa.
Literary sources tell us that the city of Champa was designed by the same architect as Rajgriha (Rajgir), Mahagovinda, in the 6th century BCE. A mound called Karangadh in Bhagalpur was excavated between 1969 and 1970 by archaeologist B P Sinha and many terracotta objects, vessels and ornaments were found here.
Further excavations were conducted here by the Bihar State Archaeology Department in 2017 and more terracotta artefacts and sculptures were found. It has been speculated that many of the artifacts may be of the Mauryan era but that hasn’t yet been scientifically proved. Surprisingly, no follow-up excavations have taken place in the old quarters of Champa, which is tragic because the site is very fragile, being under threat from present-day settlements which are moving closer to the mounds.
In the 6th century BCE, Champa was a fair-sized city, with evidence of fortifications and towers in four corners, three of which still exist. Situated on the bank of the river, it was also significant for trade, and traders would head from here to the ancient port of Tamralipti in Bengal. Interestingly, literary works from the ancient and medieval period refer to prominent traders like Mahajanaka, Sonkotivis and Chandsaudagar.
According to the Jataka tales, the people of Champa were very wealthy and set up another Champa in South-East Asia. This may be a legend but we can see the Indian influence in the Vietnamese Champa due to Indian traders, who also bought their culture to Vietnam.
Hundreds of miles from Champa in India, the kingdom of Champa was founded in the Annam region of Vietnam in 192 CE. The kingdom became a political, economic and cultural force in the ancient and early medieval periods. The Indian influence can be seen not only in the spread of Hinduism but also the adoption of Sanskrit and the Brahmi script as well as the Indian calendar, astronomical and philosophical systems.
Historically, the Vietnamese Champa consisted of five major territories – Vijaya, Panduranga, Indrapura, Amaravati and Kauthara – names that have Indic roots . Hinduism was a major faith in the region till 1471 CE. Today, the region still has a small community which practices Hinduism, called the ‘Balamon Cham’. It is said to be one of only two non-Indian, indigenous Hindu communities in the world, the other one being in Bali.
The state which emerged in Champa in Vietnam became known for its syncretic culture. The kingdom of Champa was so significant that the sea around it was called the Champa Sea. Today it is known as the South China Sea.
In India, with the decline of the Mahajanapadas including Anga and their successor states, Champa too declined but its historic importance and geographic vantage point didn’t let it stay irrelevant for long. Champa in Vietnam went on to forge political and cultural relations with other parts of the Indian subcontinent, most significantly with the Pallavas from the 7th to 9th centuries CE.
Bhagalpur and the old area of Champa returned to prominence during the reign of the Palas, who ruled present-day Bihar and Bengal from the 8th to 12th centuries CE. During this period, Champa saw a revival and it became an important centre of Buddhist learning. The Vikramshila University was established around 40 kms from Bhagalpur, between the 8th and 9th centuries CE by king Dharmapala. The university, which was 200 km from the illustrious Nalanda University, was a famed centre of Buddhist learning.
Vikramshila was built as a response to the decline of Buddhism and its patronage as well as the decline of Nalanda University. Built by the last great Buddhist kingdom in India the university is believed to have had a hundred teachers and a thousand students. It is said that it is from here that Buddhism spread and reached Tibet. The learning of Buddhist philosophy was the most significant branch at the university, some of the others being grammar, metaphysics and logic.
Besides the University of Vikramshila, Champa’s significance can also be seen from the finds of copper plates of the Pala period, which trace the genealogy of the Pala dynasty.
By the later medieval period, Champa was better known as ‘Bhagalpur’ and saw renewed importance during the Mughal era with a Sufi shrine – the Khankha-e-Pir-Damariya – being set up here. An old tale, still repeated here, points to an interesting story of how the Mughal emperors believed that they ruled over India because of the blessings they received here. The Mughal emperors, starting with Akbar (1542-1605) and all the way to Shah Alam II (1728-1806), issued farmans awarding land rights to the family which manages the Dargah and surrounding lands to this day.
The 18th century saw Champa and with it Bhagalpur don a new role. It became an important collectorate for the British East India Company. The focus also shifted out of the old city to the suburbs, which are now recognised as the larger Bhagalpur area, and is now a district and an administrative division. The collector’s lavish house was called Tilha Kothi and was even visited by Rabindranath Tagore. It is believed that Tagore wrote a part of his Nobel Prize-winning work Gitanjali in this very house.
Meanwhile, the kingdom of Champa in Vietnam was greatly reduced by extensive wars of aggression and defence with the Khmers, Trans and even the Mongols, and was absorbed into the neighbouring territories by the 17th century CE.
In India, Champa and the larger Bhagalpur area may be seen as a mofussil region today, but it has a rich history that is just begging to be discovered.