Kesariya Stupa: Unravelling A Monumental Mystery

Kesariya Stupa: Unravelling A Monumental Mystery

With virtually nothing else in sight except for an endless carpet of emerald fields at its feet is one of the most astonishing Buddhist monuments in India. This is the Kesariya Stupa, which is significant not only for its spectacular architecture but also for the legends and history it hides within. It is also one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world.

The Kesariya Stupa is situated deep within the state of Bihar, 110 km north-west of the capital city of Patna, in East Champaran District. Looming above the countryside, it is located in the small township of Kesariya, between two important Buddhist sites, Vaishali and Kushinagar. This only adds to the significance and aura of Kesariya. 

A relief depicting the Buddha in his final days and his disciple Ananda | Wikipedia

According to Buddhist traditions, Buddha delivered his last sermon at Vaishali, which was once the capital of the Licchavi clan of the Vajji Mahajanapada. And it was at Kushinagar that he attained mahaparinirvana, the ultimate state of nirvana

According to early Buddhist texts and traditions, Buddha had announced his approaching state of nirvana to his disciples at Vaishali. As he left Vaishali for Kushinagar, the people of the town, the Licchavis, followed him as they weren’t ready to be parted from him. Buddha is said to have persuaded them to return and presented his alms bowl to them as a memento. 

To commemorate this event, a stupa was built at the site, now known as the Kesariya Stupa.

According to this tradition, the Kesariya Stupa is identified as a paribhogik stupa, that is, containing his belongings, and not a saririka stupa or a ‘relic stupa’. 

Hiuen Tsang | Wikipedia

Interestingly, Chinese travellers Fa-Hien (5th century CE) and Hiuen Tsang (7th century CE), who travelled to India, also mention this stupa and the legend of Buddha and the Licchavis, in their records. While Fa-Hien talks of a pillar erected at the site, Hiuen Tsang mentions the stupa itself. 

The earliest available survey account of this site is by Brian Houghton Hodgson, a senior British official who worked in India and Nepal. He published a sketch of the mound in 1835, made with the help of a local artist. But it was Alexander Cunningham, the ‘father of Indian archaeology’, who briefly excavated the area surrounding the stupa and studied it in some detail in the 1860s. 

In his records, Cunningham mentions that before Hodgson, Colonel Mackenzie, a Scottish officer in the British East India Company and the first Surveyor General of India, had ordered the excavation of a gallery at the stupa, but no significant discoveries were made at the time. 

A view of the Kesariya Stupa | Wikimedia Commons

There is another interesting legend associated with the Kesariya Stupa, according to which this is the site where Buddha announced his previous existence as a ‘Chakravarti Raja’. Hiuen Tsang also mentions this in his records while describing the stupa and says the site, around 200 li (around 33 miles) north-west of Vaishali, possessed a stupa built over the spot where Buddha had announced that in one of his former lives, he had been a Bodhisattva and had reigned over that town as a ‘Chakravavi Raja’ named Mahadeva. 

Alexander Cunningham mentions this tradition in his reports and says that the locals referred to the mound as ‘Raja Ben ka Deora’. They considered ‘Raja Ben’ one of the most supreme kings of India, and thus called him ‘Raja Ben Chakravarti’. Cunningham concludes that this tradition might be a version of the story that Hiuen Tsang mentions in his records, about Buddha being a ‘Chakravarti King’ here. 

According to Cunningham, the present stupa is dated between 200 and 700 CE. He believes it was built on top of the ruins of a much older and larger stupa. After Cunningham, the Archaeological Survey of India excavated the stupa from 1998 onwards. Archaeologist K K Muhammed has led the excavations, which are still underway. 

Cunningham had carried out some excavations at a nearby mound, north-east of Kesariya, which is known as Raniwas. Here he found the ruins of an old temple, enshrining a colossal Buddha image and an old Buddhist monastic establishment. He suggests that these buildings were attributed to an ancient queen and this was the site of a large Buddhist monastery or vihara linked to the stupa of Kesariya.

Kesariya Stupa | Bihar Tourism

Known for its magnificent architecture, the Kesariya Stupa is a 31.5-metre (101-foot-high), circular, terraced stupa, which measures 123 metres (400 feet) in diameter at its base. 

Partially excavated, the Kesariya Stupa is made of brick and is dated to the Gupta period (5th -6th century CE), although an earlier phase dating to the Sunga-Satavahana period (1st-2nd century CE) has been found below it. Recent excavations reveal that the huge stupa has a polygonal base. It has at least seven circular floors. The top of the polygonal brick floors is capped by a solid brick tower, which originally might have been 80-90 feet high. 

A Buddha sculpture discovered from Kesariya | Wikimedia Commons

Ishani Sinha, a scholar from Deccan College, Pune, in her paper Kesariya Stupa: Recently Excavated Architectural Marvel, writes: “The drum and upper two terraces which have been cleared fully from all around has exposed 80 cm wide staircase on the south-west corner connecting the upper two terraces. This staircase is concealed by the polygonal designs between the group of cell shrines and is not prominently visible in the general view of the stupa… The lower three terraces contain groups of three cells at regular intervals. The gap between the groups of cells have been aesthetically filled up with stellate or serrated patterns which add elegance to the architecture.”

From the stupa’s architecture, which rarely has any parallels yet in India, we can conclude that this monument marks a great evolution in stupa architecture.

There are colossal stucco Buddha images enshrined in on almost each terrace. In the decorative niches of the cells, one can see traces of Gupta architecture. Sinha also writes: “The clay or stucco images of Kesariya stupa are comparable to those placed in the stupa shrine at Vikramshila and Nalanda in content, posture and state of preservation, although the Kesariya images are much smaller in size.”  

While excavations are still underway and the stupa has been excavated only partially, there’s hope that this giant stupa will reveal a lot more.

Cover Image: The Stupa at Kesariya, Bihar Tourism

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