Kapilavastu is located about 28 km west of Lumbini. It is the kingdom of King Suddhodhan of Sakya clan – to whom Gautam Buddha was born. It is disputed if Tilaurakot in Nepal or Piprawah on the Indian side of the border is the real Kapilavastu of the time of Buddha. Incidentally, both the places are close enough to Lumbini. But for the international border of our age, Buddha could have lived in either place.
I visited the Kapilavastu in Nepal and here is my account of what I saw there. You can probably use this information to plan your trip to Kapilavastu. I struggled to find more information on Kapilavastu, so I sincerely hope that this post would make it easy for the readers of IndiTales to navigate their way through the Buddhist archaeological remains in and around Kapilavastu. The first thing to remember, Kapilavastu is a district in Nepal and it is not one town or village. The region identified as ancient Kapilavastu has many big and small places to be visited – most of which go back to early days of Buddha & Buddhism.
Kapilavastu was named after Kapil Muni by the kings of Ikshvashu Vansh – the same lineage that Lord Ram of Ayodhya came from.
Kapilavastu – the birthplace of many Buddhas
We usually refer to Sakyamuni Buddha as Buddha. He is the historic Buddha about whom we know a lot. However, if you study Buddhism it refers to many Buddhas & Bodhisattvas i.e. persons on their way to becoming Buddha. Some texts say 5 Buddhas preceded Sakyamuni Buddha.
At Kapilavastu, there are sites associated with as many as 3 Buddhas including the Sakyamuni Buddha.
Read more on this Ancient Website.
The word Tilaurakot is definitely post-Mauryan era as it means a city with three pillars – referring to the 3 pillars erected here by Ashok when he visited Kapilavastu on a pilgrimage. It seems he was traveling with pillars and wherever he found an important place, he planted the pillar and had an inscription written on it. We owe a lot of knowledge of that era to these inscriptions.
Archaeologists agree that this is the fort/palace of Sakya kings where Siddhartha Gautam spent the first 29 years of his life as a prince. You can see a very thick wall surrounded by a wider moat even today. The fort may not have been huge, but then 2600+ years ago, the demographics would have been different too. The geophysical survey of Tilaurakot has revealed some palatial structures beneath the ground. Some excavations have been done & more are expected.
What you see here is the western gate of the fort, a darbar hall, some basements, two stupas, a temple, a few wells and the famous eastern gate. Well, the eastern gate is the gate from which Buddha left his princely home and life on his horse Kanthak. This is also called Mahadwar. I got a picture clicked at this gate – just to feel like Buddha.
Legends of renunciation of Buddha
We all know the popular story of Buddha’s renunciation of the world. We know that he lived a luxurious well-protected early life. He was married and had a son named Rahul. We were told that he saw an old man, a sick man and a dead body that made him question the meaning of life. He left everything he had in search of the meaning of life and the world got Buddha.
At Tilaurakot, my guide told me two more potential stories that led Buddha to leave his comfortable and lead the life of an ascetic.
Story one says that Sakyas had a clash with Kauliya Clan of Devdaha. Incidentally, Siddhartha’s mother Maya Devi, step-mother Prajapati Gautami and his wife Yashoda all came from this Kauliya clan. Siddhartha too spent some of his childhood there. The clash was about the river water. When no one could resolve the dispute and a war was imminent, Siddhartha took upon himself to solve the dispute. In his youthful vigor, he made a statement that if he is not able to solve the water crisis, he would leave the palace and go and live in the jungle. He failed in solving the issue and stuck to his words and left the palace.
The second story says that when his son Rahul was born, his father Suddhodhan organized a grand Utsav to celebrate the arrival of his grandson. The most beautiful dancers came to entertain. Everyone, including Siddhartha, enjoyed the party whole night. When Siddhartha got up in the morning, he saw the mess and ugliness all around him. The women who looked beautiful at night looked unpleasant without their makeup & in their drunken state. He realized the momentary nature everything that looks beautiful. This is what triggered his departure from the royal life and his journey to seek the truth.
Well, you can choose whichever story that appeals to you the most. The idea of the first and third story is similar but the probability of the second story seems higher. I love the stories that you collect on the road, stories that are yet to make it to the popular printed word and stories that locals believe in.
Walking across Tilaurakot in Kapilavastu
I walked on the broad walls of Tilaurakot. My guide Shivpal called it ‘The Great Wall of Kapilavastu’.
I saw two stupas at one end of the fort that is supposed to be the stupas dedicated to parents of Buddha. The bigger one belongs to King Suddhodhan and the smaller one to Maya Devi.
There is a lotus pond in the middle of the ruins that is supposedly a part of the leisure gardens for the use of the royal family.
Samay Mai Temple – Tilaurakot
The most intriguing part of my walk around Tilaurakot was the temple of Samay Mai – that literally translated would mean the goddess of time. Incidentally, hers is the only shrine that is living in this whole complex that is in ruins. What is even more intriguing is the fact that the shrine is surrounded by 100s of elephant figurines. It seems if you ask for a wish here you have to offer an elephant once the wish is fulfilled. There were elephants of all sizes. Inside the shrine, there is a goddess riding the elephant while the main deity is in stone or we say Pindi form. I would later see few elephants at other small shrines in the area.
My guide said that it is believed that the kings of Sakya clan used to pray to Samay Mai Devi before going to the battle. This is in line with all the kings who may pray to anyone in general but always prayed to Shakti before going to battle.
Outside Tilaurakot Fort Walls
Outside the fort boundary lies two interesting sites – one is the stupa dedicated to Kanthak – the horse that came back after leaving Buddha. The other is the remains of an old iron workshop. You have to walk some distance to reach this mound like a spot. My guide said I am the only person who has made this effort, most people just listen to his story and move ahead. I am so happy I made that effort. These are small iron slots that have been dated back to the pre-Buddhist era. It seems this was an iron workshop for making weapons or other utility items. It was far outside the city, probably because of its polluting nature.
What is left now is the bad quality molten iron mixed with the soil. Even today, the soil around this mound is not cultivable. Archaeologists estimate tons of iron here and that is a big indication of the huge size of the workshop.
A sitemap plan is placed at every point of interest, briefly explaining what the place potentially is. There is no direction for you to move around but if you have ample time, you can find your way.
There is a small archaeological museum about 400 meters from the fortified area of Tilaurakot. This is one of the most basic museums I have seen – two rooms full of artifacts comprising
- Stone Sculptures
- Terracotta Figurines
- Black Painted Terracotta Beads
- Pottery pieces – Grey ware and Redware
- Bricks from various eras of history
- Excavated items from Caves
- Molds of Pole holes discovered at Tilaurakot
All the items at the museums were excavated from Kapilavastu region.
Gotihawa is associated with Krakuchhand Buddha. Ashoka on his pilgrimage tour erected a pillar here too with an inscription and that is how we know of this. As per the records of Chinese travelers this pillar used to have a lion capital. Excavations here have revealed a big stupa and signs of human habitation dating back to 9-10th BCE.
Today, the stupa is a mound and a green proudly stands just like the neighboring Ashoka pillar would have stood once upon a time.
Ashoka Pillar here is in-situ but broken. Only a small part of its base remains. However, its importance is visible in the gold leaves pasted on it and the colorful flags around it.
You have to go through a long kutcha road to reach Gotihawa stupa and Ashoka Pillar, though there is a thriving village around it.
Kudan was earlier known as Nyigrodharama – this is identified as a place where Sakyamuni Buddha first met his family after his enlightenment. He met his parents, his step-mother, his wife, and his son. He was presented with a cloth by his step-mother Prajapati Gautami. They all eventually joined his monastic order.
There are 3 stupas excavated here. One of them has an octagonal temple on top of it, much like the Chaukhandi stupa at Sarnath. There is a small pond that was excavated for the Buddha and his accompanying monks.
There is an intriguing brick well that can be seen here.
The central stupa with its bricks can be climbed. I saw a unique Shivalinga there – not sure what it is meant to be. The bricks of this stupa reminded me of the bricks I saw at Nalanda. The outer layer of the bricks is designed to provide an ornamental look.
Niglihawa is a small enclosure on an almost deserted road. This enclosure houses an Ashoka pillar in two pieces. Smaller of these pieces are planted in the ground and is tilting under its own weight. The taller one it seems fell off the base and is lying close to the base. This is a pillar that was erected by Ashoka when he was on a pilgrimage at Kapilavastu. He mentions and the later Chinese travelers confirm that this pillar was erected at the spot of a stupa with the relics of Kanakmuni Buddha. The capital of this pillar is missing and no one knows where it is. Even the stupa is missing – it was probably removed to make way for the pond that exists next to the pillar enclosure.
I saw the peacocks engraved on the pillar & some modern-day inscription on it. The caretaker first said it is an old inscription but later agreed that it has been done after the pillar was re-discovered from the nearby pond.
Kanakmuni Buddha is also known as Konagamana or Kanakgamana Buddha.
A statue of Kanakmuni Buddha can be seen next to the pillar enclosure in a small shrine. In black stone, it is covered in patches with the gold leaves offered by devotees. The figure is not very different from the innumerable images of Sakyamuni Buddha that we see.
A couple of Km from Niglihawa lies the ancient city of Aurorakot – the birthplace of Kanakmuni Buddha. All you can see here is a faint sign of a city wall. You see it if you search hard on the mud covered ground. Excavations are expected to take place here.
The legend is that Sakya clan had an ongoing rivalry with Kosala kingdom that existed just south of Sakya boundaries. In a revenge attack, Kosala army massacred the Sakyas. The memorial stupas were built in thousands, by the descendants of Sakyas. Sagarhawa is identified as the place of these many stupas and Dr. Fuhrer in the 1890s found many of them with.
Today, you just see a lake here with some birds leisurely floating in it.
It is a big reservoir – a perfect place for bird watching.
Travel Tips for Kapilavastu – Nepal
- To do the sites mentioned in this post you need 6-8 hours that includes to and fro travel from Lumbini.
- There is no food or water available in most places. Carry your own food & water.
- Guides are available at Tilaurakot, who can guide you to the archaeological site. At all other places, you are on your own.
- The documentation at Tilaurakot is good enough to explore it on your own.
- If you want a quick visit, you can spend a couple of hours at Tilaurakot and skip other sites.
- The museum is the only ticketed place, every other site is free.