After the ancient city of Kapilvastu saw both India and Nepal lay claims to it, a new crisis point is developing over Devdaha and Ramgram sites, thanks to a proposal from the Maharajganj district administration to excavate and develop the two sites in the district.
Buddha is believed to have spent some years of his childhood in Devdaha and it is said to be his mother Maya Devi and aunt Mahaprajapati Gautami’s birthplace. “Ramgram,” is where the only untouched stupa known to house the eighth portion of Buddha’s relics is believed to be located, according to Buddhist texts.
While Nepal has conducted some excavations in its Devdaha municipality area, a geophysical evaluation of the Ramgram site has been carried out twice by a team of archaeologists from the UK and Nepal’s department of archaeology in 1997 and 1999.
The Nepal government plans to develop the areas surrounding the Lumbini UNESCO world heritage site and has also proposed to enlist the Ramgram site as a world heritage site.
Maternal home and sacred relics of Buddha
In 1899, Purna Chandra Mukherji of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) led excavations at Nepal’s Tilaurakot. It was widely considered the ancient Kapilvastu where Buddha lived with his parents King Śuddhodana and Queen Maya before he renounced worldly ties. Later excavations by ASI pointed out Piprahwa in India’s Uttar Pradesh as the Kapilvastu.
Chinese travelers Fa Hein and Hiuen Tsang have described Kapilvastu along with the Devdaha and Ramgram sites in their travel accounts.
The official website of Lumbini Development Trust identifies Devdaha as the maternal hometown of Queen Maya, Buddha’s aunt Gautami and Buddha’s consort Yaśodharā. It describes the site as “the ancient capital of the Koliya Kingdom where Siddhartha spent [a] few years of his childhood.”
“Enlisted as UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Property in 1996, Ramgram is a site of great archaeological and pilgrimage importance as the stupa is believed to be the only stupa that was not interfered by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC and hence still contains the body relics of Lord Shakyamuni Buddha. Among the eight relic stupas of Buddha, this is the only one which is still in its original form,” the site states.
The Indian Journal of Archaeology, published by the National Trust for Promotion of Knowledge, Lucknow, notes Hiuen Tsang’s description of Ramgram from his account of his visit to India in the 7th century.
The journal’s chief editor Vijay Kumar, who has served in Maharajganj district as superintendent of police, compiled the list of different archaeological sites and antiquities found across the district in 1996 along with Krishanand Tripathi, curator, Archaeological Museum, Department of Ancient History, Archaeology & Culture, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gorakhpur University.
“Traveling eastward five Yojanas from Buddha’s birthplace, there was a country called Ramagrama, the king of which obtained a share (one-eighth) of the relics from Buddha’s ashes and returning home built a pagoda,” the journal mentions.
It further describes Ashoka’s failed attempt at recovering the relics from the stupa at Ramgram, which was being guarded by a snake or dragon.
Maharajganj tourist spot
Over the past two decades, local people have demanded that the sites at Banarsihan Kalan village (which they claim to be Devdaha) and Dharmauli village (which they claim to be Ramgram) be excavated and developed. The Devdaha Baudh Vikas Samiti and Ramgram Baudh Vikas Samiti have been formed.
Maharajganj District Magistrate Satendra Kumar has written to the state archaeological department to excavate the two sites.
“Earlier too, some excavation had been carried out in one of the sites at Banarsihan Kalan when several antiquities were recovered,” Ravindra Kumar, Gorakhpur-based regional tourism officer told ThePrint.
On their part, the UP state archaeological department has declared the Banarsihan Kalan site as “protected” and has submitted a proposal for its excavation to the ASI.
“A trial trenching (to check the cultural sequence) had taken place at the Banarsihan Kalan site by the Patna excavation branch of the ASI in 1991. Their findings included a brick stupa, terracotta objects, sealings, animal figurines, beads, balls, moulds, a limestone head of Bodhisattva and coins dating to the Sunga-Kushana period. Now, after getting the license, we propose to extend the excavations,” Renu Dwivedi, director of the UP archaeological department, said.
ASI maintains that the local people’s claims can only be established if the excavations result in concrete evidence.
“Nepal also has developed Devdaha and Ramgram sites and has taken steps to enlist the latter on the UNESCO Tentative List of World Heritage Property. Archaeology is based on evidence and so far, we don’t have enough evidence to support the claims of Maharajganj residents,” an official said.
UP archaeological department sources said they won’t be able to conduct a survey of Dharmauli for now due to a lack of staff.
The district administration has, however, sent a proposal to the UP-tourism department to develop the two sites as tourist spots for a total of Rs 11 crore — Rs 8 crore for Ramgram and Rs 3 crore for Devdaha.
On November 15, the district administration started the jungle safari covering the Sohagi Barwa Wildlife sanctuary and neighbouring spots and two routes have been made operational, one of which includes the Ramgram site as well.
UP tourism department director Prakhar Misra said that the proposal will be studied and “estimates will be approved according to the reasonable amount”.
On Wednesday, the UP government cleared the new tourism policy which envisages a Ramayana circuit, a Krishna circuit, and a Buddhist circuit.
The Buddhist circuit will witness development of cities where Gautam Buddha is known to spent some parts of his life. These include Kapilavastu, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Kaushambi, Shravasti and Ramgram.
Maharajganj DM said that they have proposed to develop tourist amenities at the edge of the forest, inside which the Ramgram Stupa lies. If approved, the construction of cottages, meditation centre, guest house, ponds and a water body will take place.
“The land at Ramgram is roughly three acres in two parcels—one parcel will be for a meditation centre and the second for a jungle safari,” he said.
Shiva, Krishna, Buddha
Located under a Schleichera tree, the Stupa is a mound inside the forest of Dharmauli village, about 58 kilometers from Maharajganj’s Sohagi Barwa Wildlife Sanctuary. In the middle of the “Stupa” is a one-feet tall black pillar-like structure which some confused as a shivling.
Buried deep inside the mud are remains of an ancient structure possibly made of bricks. Local residents say that it has been damaged by environmental interventions and natural disasters including floods.
“Earlier local people would say that the place has a shivling and associated the pillar (stupa) with Lord Shiva. About 10 years ago, a self-styled seer had erected a small cottage at the spot and told people that the place was associated with Krishna. Elderlies would call this the Kanhaiya Baba Ka Sthan. His cottage was set on fire when people realised that his intention was to take illegal possession of the land. Now we know that it is Buddha’s maternal home,” said sexagenarian Trilokinath who lives in a nearby village.
Villagers from nearby hamlets arrive to pay their obeisance and the place hosts several Buddhist devotees throughout the year, especially from the districts of Kushinagar, Maharajganj and Gorakhpur.
Feroz Kumar Bharti, chairman of the Ramgram Baudh Vikas Samiti, said that the remains of the old structure house the main kalash (pot) with Buddha’s relics.
“The pillar is much deeper under the ground and if the area is dug out, then we may find much more. According to Buddhist texts, the Ramgram stupa is about 2,500 years old. The presence of the five ponds corresponds to the description given by Tsang. Two of the ponds have dried up while five of them continue to have water,” he said.
But senior archaeologists call for evidence through excavations before jumping the gun.
Dr Arun Kumar, coordinator of archaeological projects at Bihar Heritage Development Society who has been part of several projects associated with Buddhist sites, said that since India was a huge country in ancient times and since present Nepal was also a part of India, such claims are bound to arise.
“When we talk from the archaeological perspective, we have to see that Nepal was a part of India. We don’t have enough work to back such claims. For the same reason, even the location of Kushinagar is disputed. Until excavation is not completed and we don’t get evidence, it is impossible to prove such claims,” he said.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)