“Pleasant is Vaisali,” the Buddha reportedly remarked to his attendant Ananda. “Pleasant are its shrines and gardens.” The first thing you notice about Vaisali, Siddhartha’s first stop on his quest for enlightenment, are the trees, tall and with immense parasol foliage. They bestow a sense of peace and majesty upon this lovely village north of the Ganges. Indeed, during the time of the Buddha, Vaisali was renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in India, counting among its many charms hundreds of lotus ponds and ten square miles of broad lanes lined with mango and banana trees. The trees of Vaisali are memorialized in an image carved almost two thousand years ago on the great stupa at Sanchi, three hundred miles to the south. In the carving, a monkey offers honey to Shakyamuni Buddha under these very same mango trees, rooted in soil that nourished the foundations of democracy as well as Buddhism.
The first thing you notice about Vaisali, Siddhartha’s first stop on his quest for enlightenment, are the trees, tall and with immense parasol foliage. They bestow a sense of peace and majesty upon this lovely village north of the Ganges. Indeed, during the time of the Buddha, Vaisali was renowned as one of the most beautiful cities in India, counting among its many charms hundreds of lotus ponds and ten square miles of broad lanes lined with mango and banana trees. The trees of Vaisali are memorialized in an image carved almost two thousand years ago on the great stupa at Sanchi, three hundred miles to the south. In the carving, a monkey offers honey to Shakyamuni Buddha under these very same mango trees, rooted in soil that nourished the foundations of democracy as well as Buddhism.
During the Buddha’s lifetime, Vaisali was the capital of the Licchavi Republic, which may have been one of the earliest democratic republics in history. Archaeological excavations reveal that an ancient parliament house flourished here in the sixth century B.C.E. Shakyamuni Buddha was apparently so impressed by the republic’s frequent public assemblies, reverence for elders, and respect for women, that he said to his disciple Ananda, “So long as this is the case, the growth of the [the people of Vaisali] is to be expected, not their decline” (Mahaparinibbana Sutta).
What we know for sure is that among the groves of Vaisali, Siddhartha Gautama became the student of the elder Alara Kalama, a teacher renowned for being able to maintain a meditative state even on the city’s noisy streets. Under Kalama’s tutelage, Siddhartha learned how to reach the higher states of meditation known as the jhanas, and within a year Kalama had invited him to help lead his community of three hundred disciples. But the Buddha-to-be was beginning to realize that, despite his advancement in the jhanas, Kalama’s teachings were not freeing him from suffering.
Siddhartha moved on from Vaisali to Bodh Gaya, and five years later he returned to the city as the Buddha, the “awakened one,” bringing with him his unique insights as well as a retinue of five hundred monks. As a result of the Buddha’s influence, Vaisali became a flourishing center for the practice of the Middle Way between materialism and extreme asceticism.
The grateful people of Vaisali built a monastery, called Kutagarasala, for the Buddha and his sangha. The monastery was also the destination of a legendary march of five hundred women from Kapilavastu, the city of the Buddha’s childhood, who came seeking ordination. At the insistence of his closest disciple, Ananda, who is said to have later reached nirvana in Vaisali, Buddha allowed the women to join the monastery, thus establishing the idea of a bhikshuni, or female monastic, setting a precedent for all world religions.
One of the Buddha’s disciples was the famously beautiful courtesan Sirima. Upon realizing the transitory nature of all things, including her beauty, an aging Sirima took ordination. When she died, the Buddha delayed the traditional burning of her corpse, instructing the sangha to watch her decompose before their eyes. Thus the Buddha enabled Sirima to use her magnificent form one last time, as an important teaching on impermanence.
Little is known about how Vaisali, a city of forty-two thousand homes and many busy streets, came to be replaced by the soft dirt roads and quiet ruins that characterize the city today. In 400 C.E. the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien visited the city and described a monastery as well as a stupa erected over Ananda’s remains. In 630 C.E. another Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan-tsang, claimed to have found a great many stupas and monasteries deserted and in ruins.
In 1861, Vaisali was rediscovered by the British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham. A century later, in nearby Kolhua, a beautiful soapstone casket was taken from a crumbling Ashokan stupa that straddled ruins dating back to the time of the Buddha himself. Found amid the ashes inside were thin gold leaf, a conch shell, a copper coin, and sharira, the glasslike beads typically found in the ashes of great teachers. This was enough evidence to convince archaeologists and historians that these must have constituted a sacred portion of Shakyamuni Buddha’s charred remains, brought directly to Kolhua from his cremation in Kushinagar, the site of the Buddha’s death (see Tricycle, Summer 2004), some 145 miles to the north. Vaisali’s third-century Ashokan pillar is topped today by a lion facing in the direction of Kushinagar.
The only remaining traces of ancient Vaisali are the coronation pool (a large tank), the magnificent old trees surrounding it, a small adjacent museum housing objects from the excavation, and a few important ruins. The most recent addition is a new 125-foot stupa built by the Japanese Buddhist order Nipponzan Myohoji, similar to the stupa in Rajgir (seeTricycle, Fall 2003) above Vulture Peak.
Vaisali has managed to retain its serenity largely because its proximity to the commercial city of Patna has prevented it from becoming a resort town in its own right. Tourist coaches of pilgrims visit regularly but briefly, just long enough to get a snapshot before moving on. The first day I was there, local kids were splashing about in the coronation pool to the drumbeat of a lone Nipponzan Myohoji monk slowly circumambulating it—a reminder that Vaisali continues to have significant resonance for Buddhists. We come here just as the Buddha did: abandoning the familiarity and comforts of home, giving up the pleasures of the material world in the hope of finding the pleasures of the spiritual one. Vaisali reminds us of what these are.
Vaisali is in the state of Bihar and thirty miles from Patna, a large city accessible by direct flights from Delhi. In Patna it is easy to hire a car for a day trip. Bus service is available from Patna, and you can also take the train to Hajipur or Muzaffarpur and hire a car for the 25-minute drive (from both towns) to Vaisali.
For two dollars, I was able to avoid Patna and stay right in Vaisali in one two circuit-rider rooms in the government-run guesthouse. This was clearly the finest accomodation available, albeit without electricity or running water. The nearest modern accommodations are in Patna at the Hotel Maurya-Patna, Bihar’s only five-star hotel (Tel: +91 612 220 3040, Fax: +91 612 220 3060, email:firstname.lastname@example.org) or the more moderately priced, goverment-run Pataliputra Ashok (Tel: +91 612 222 6270).
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