Thursday, May 29, 2014

Rediscovering Mahakassapa

  In 1990 when I was doing research for the second edition of my book  Middle Land Middle Way: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha’s India I first heard about the unremarkable little village of Silao, roughly halfway between Rajgir and Nalanda. I had found an article in an old copy of Epigraphica Indica of 1934 reporting that a badly damaged statue of Mahakassapa had been found in the village.  There was a picture of the statue and of  its inscription and a translation of it. Part of the inscription reads:  “He who, after taking on human form solely for the benefit of others and who attained Nirvana on the charming hill of Gurupada, that very Maha Kassapa, here shines forth.” Originally the statue must have been of Mahakassapa kneeling to worship the Buddha. It is the only  statue of the Buddha’s chief disciple ever found in India and its find-place  confirmed what  Samyutta Nikaya II,220 says that the first meeting between the Buddha and Mahakassapa took place somewhere between Rajgir and Nalanda. A few months later I was in India and I went to Silao to see if  I could locate the statue. I couldn’t and no one in the village had ever heard of it. I spent a frustrating half a day in the general area checking local tree shrines and small mandiras where old fragments of sculpture are often placed, but without luck. Nonetheless, in the 1992 revised version of Middle Land Middle Way  I mention Sialo  as the place  where the momentous encounter between the Buddha and Mahakassapa took place (page 110).
Therefore it is with real surprise and delight that I have come to know that   several Buddhist enthusiasts have just recently rediscovered the statue and there are moves to display it properly and establish a Mahakassapa Park near the village. If this project is managed properly it will bring some revenue to an otherwise very poor village and become an extra interesting stop for Buddhist pilgrims visiting Rajgir and Nalanda. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.    

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Fight Over The Fasting Buddha

Thousands of  important  statues and artefacts  of the Gandhara civilization, have been caught in a conflict of ownership between Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan. K-P has been angling for possession of these artefacts for over three years – ever since the recent   Constitutional Amendment was passed that devolved the Federal Ministry of Archaeology and Museums to the provincial governments. And yet, it seems the claims are falling on deaf ears so far. The Punjab government is unwilling to hand over possession of the antiquities displayed at the Lahore Museum, including the famous Fasting Buddha, an especially unique and valuable sculpture. Sumaira Samad, director of the Lahore Museum, categorically expressed her department’s intentions to contest K-P’s claim to the art, and asserted that the artefacts were shifted to Lahore before 1947. “Whatever is on display at our museum, established in 1865,  is our property. We will never return any of these antiquities.” Similarly, in a series of official letters, the K-P administration pleaded that over 3,000 artefacts exhibited at the National Museum in Karachi and museums in Taxila be returned to museums in Peshawar and Swat. This request, too, has been unheeded. Officials from K-P’s archaeology and museums department are suspicious that precious art has been stolen from museums outside the province in the last few years. Concerned authorities in Punjab, Sindh and Islamabad have been reluctant to share lists and records of Gandhara relics in their   keeping, despite repeated requests. “So far, the federal government and the other provinces have not provided detailed information about the Gandhara pieces with them,” said Dr Shah Nazar Khan, former director of K-P’s archaeology and museums department. According to Samad, the reason that the Lahore Museum has not  released its  records is because registers cannot be found. “Those registers have been misplaced,” she explained. The provincial government has not only corresponded with the governments of Punjab and Sindh, and the inter-provincial coordination division, Islamabad, but has also referred the issue to a UNESCO convention, according to an official letter, dated April 2, 2012, by the directorate to its own government. “It is a universally accepted principle that the archaeological material recovered from ancient sites located in a particular region/province is the property of that area and should go back to the institution /museums at the place of its origin,” the letter stated. According to another memo, the federal and provincial governments have been reminded, in multiple letters from K-P, that ‘geological boundaries of Gandhara were limited to present day K-P (except Taxila)’. Therefore, Punjab and Sindh have no cultural, historical or legal right to the Gandhara art, it inferred. Districts of Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi, Swat and Dir, as well as Malakand and Bajaur agencies formed the bulk of the Gandhara civilization. Khan recalled, rather sadly, how material recovered during the British era and after partition from various sites, including Takht Bhai, Sahri Bahlol, Jamal Gahri and Rani Gat, was either retained by the federal government or shifted out of the province.    
Adapted from The Express Tribune [January 08, 2014]

Friday, May 16, 2014

Fa-hein's Cave, The Making Of A Myth

Myths have an important  role in most religions. The very basis of some religions is a myth. Most of these myths are unconscious, i.e. they self-evolved through misapprehension and hearsay, they were kept alive by devotion and gullibility and in time became integrated into the religion and sometimes a central part of it. But others were deliberately manufactured. Some time ago  I became acquainted with just such an example of this. About  15 years ago a leading Sri Lankan newspaper ran a full-page story about a place called Pahiyangala, a cave where it was claimed the Chinese pilgrim Faxian (Fa-hein) stayed while on his way to Sri Pada when he was in Sri Lanka in about 410 CE.  The cave is in the vicinity of Sri Pada and  its name is, so it was claimed derived from the pilgrim’s name;  Pahiyan=Faxian, gala=rock. Intrigued but sceptical I did a bit of research and was soon able to dismiss the  story as baseless  and of very recent origin. 
 It is not difficult to see the problems with the Pahiyangala myth. It starts at the very beginning.  Faxian mentions Sri Pada in his travelogue, but he does not say he went there and thus  he would not have stayed in the nearby cave.  He does not mention the cave either. But even if he did go there that he, one of but many visitors, would have been remembered is implausible in the extreme. And even if he had been remembered he would have been known by his Sanskrit name, Dharmadassa, not his Chinese name. And why, it could be asked, would people in Sri Lanka decide to name a location after a (then) obscure foreign monk who stayed there for a day or two? Is there any material evidence for the myth?  Archaeological investigation of the cave shown that it has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Fragments of Chinese porcelain have been found there as they have been in many locations throughout Sri  Lanka. When I visited Pahiyangala the old abbot showed me a small piece of  such porcelain and with a straight face told me that it was “Faxian’s cup”. This would have to be the Dubai Burj Khalifa of tall stories, and the abbot knows it. Faxian was of course completely unknown in Sri Lanka and most of the rest of the world until the publication of Samuel Beal’s translation of his travelogue in 1884. In the decades after that Beals’s book must have been read by English speaking Sri Lankan Buddhists and at some point the then abbot of the Pahiyangala temple must have heard about it and the myth was born.  
 But why would  the abbot (or whoever)  do this. Did the original name of the cave sound something like Faxian and he put 2 and 2 together and came up with 15? (I have never been able to find out the pre-myth name of the cave). Did he do it on a whimsy? Did he do it in the hope of attracting visitors to an otherwise obscure and prosaic temple? I vote for this last possibility.  The earliest mention  I have been able to find to the  Pahiyangala myth is in a YMBA Vesak Annual from the early 1920s and I suspect that the story started around this time. But it has only been in the last 10 or 15 years that the myth has really began to get off the ground. The place now has its own website, it is mentioned in several tourist guidebooks to Sri Lanka and newspapers and at least one airline magazine occasionally  feature  it. About 10 years ago an official from the Chinese embassy in Colombo visited Pahiyangala and   donated a painting of Faxian (see picture) to the temple;  anything to promote a bit of  “China-Sri Lanka friendship”.
 When I visit Bodh Gaya, Sarnath or other Buddhist sacred places  sometimes Pahiyangala story pops into my head and I think: “I wonder...”      

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Gift Of Food

The other day I went to one of Singapore’s largest and most active Buddhist organizations, the Buddhist Lodge. Founded in 1943 and now consisting of several large buildings, it has an excellent library, lecture halls, shrine and in particular a large dining room and kitchen. Several religions or religious and charitable organizations, for example Sikh temples, provide free food on a regular basis, but the Buddhist Loge really does it on a big scale and has been doing so for many years. Every day the Lodge provides nutritious vegetarian meals for on average 900 people. It is interesting to see who comes for the food – most seem to be poor Chinese Singaporeans, young and old, but there are temple devotees, foreign workers, and I suspect not a few visa overstayers too. You will see a few well dressed locals as well who have come just for a change, the types who tend to make donations for the food. One of the really nice things about the place is the volunteers who do the preparation and cooking – cheerful elderly women and men, mostly retirees, wanting to be of service to others and to socialize at the same time. They sit peeling vegetables and washing cabbages as they chat, laugh, shout instructions and go about their various tasks.  Both before and after the meal there is a puja at the main shrine, and during my visit the devotees were having a break from a marathon chanting of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Huayan jing). There is a busy stall selling flowers and a very large free book section. I was the at the Buddhist Lodge to use the library, and I was only one of three people there, counting the librarian. In front of the main building and on the perimeter wall of the Lodge are a series of carvings in stone depicting scenes from Chinese legend and from the life of the Buddha. If you are even in Singapore drop in to the Buddhist Lodge for a free meal and to see something of traditional Chinese Buddhism. It’s on Kim Yam Rd just off River Valley Rd.