Bihar is known for its Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The renowned Vaishali is where Gautama Buddha preached his last sermon in 483 BCE. In 383 BCE the Second Buddhist Council was convened here by King Kalasoka. It also contains one of the best-preserved Pillars of Asoka with a single Asiatic lion.
But there is more to Bihar and its connection with Buddhist history than the world famous Vaishali. And, on a wintry afternoon in November, we set out from my hometown Muzaffarpur to unravel history lost in the pages of time.
After a drive of about 1.5 hours, we reached Kesaria—an insignificant, tiny town in the district of East Champaran. The non-descript place boasts the tallest stupa in the world, built by the Mauryan king Asoka.
After crossing the town—which ends even before it begins—you find yourself on a lonely meandering highway with no sight of life. Suddenly to your left you notice half-excavated remains of definitely one of the largest stupas one can set eyes on.
The place looks forlorn. Shod of any touristy trappings, it longs for attention. There is a makeshift boundary wall encircling the entire area—the land within generously donated at some point by a local politician.
It is believed that it was here that Buddha in his last days donated his begging bowl. On a good day, the stupa manages to get a handful of tourists—mostly Buddhist monks on a pilgrimage. But there are more bad days than the good ones. On such days, the stupa lies silent with all its mysteries hidden within.
The Kesaria stupa has a circumference of almost 1,400 ft (430 m) and rises to a height of about 104 ft (32 m). It is one-feet taller than the Borobodur stupa in Java, which was recognised by the UNESCO as the tallest Buddhist monument in the world.
The stupa was discovered in 1958 during an excavation led by archaeologist KK Muhammed of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It dates between 200 AD and 750 AD.
According to the ASI, the original height of the stupa was 150 ft. However, continuous erosion reduced it to 123 ft. But that was not all that the stupa suffered. The devastating earthquake of 1934, which rocked North Bihar, further reduced its height.
Once you approach the stupa, you can distinctly see six floors. On each floor at regular intervals there are many idols of Buddha in Bhoomi Sparsa Mudra and other sitting positions. There is also a terrace with Pradakshina Path.
The excavation has led to finding of numerous objects such as coins, arrow heads, copper and terracotta items, and many more. The ‘officials’, manning the one-room reception at the gate of the relic, claimed that a whole lot of gold utensils found at the site have mysteriously ‘vanished’.
It was also a surprise to see a few men in khaki around. The cops said that at times smugglers visit in the guise of foreign tourists and take away Buddha idols. So these brave men were guarding the site with three age-old rusted rifles slung on their shoulders.
The excavation has come to a standstill for lack of funds. It is claimed that another five floors are yet to be unearthed. Whether that will be done any time soon is anybody’s guess. Also, for how long can those outdated guns protect the heritage remains to be seen. Needless to add, one must hurry and visit before it is lost forever.
Tracing The Origin
■ Ancient Kesaria was called Kesaputta and was ruled by Kalamas
■ Alara Kalama, the teacher of Buddha before enlightenment, is said to belong to Kesaputta
■ According to Jataka stories, Buddha ruled this place as a Chakravart in Raja in his previous birth
■ It was during one of his visits to Kesaputta that Buddha gave one of his most important discourses, the celebrated Kessaputtiya Sutta
■ Kesaria stupa is believed to have been built to honour the place where Buddha spent the last days of his journey, before attaining Nirvana
■ It gained its present structure in the Maurya, Sunga and Kushana period
■ Huien Tsang mentions having seen the grand stupa in Kia-shi-po-lo (Kesaria), but it was deserted and vegetation had overgrown
Getting there: You can get regular flights to Patna airport, which is 92 km from Kesariya. Chakia is the nearest railway station—19 km. The town is well-connected to major cities via buses.
Best time to visit: October-March