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In Modi’s Vadnagar, ASI searches for Hiuen Tsang’s lost monasteries

The Chinese traveller kept a journal of his travels between 627 AD and 643 AD, a large part of which were in India.

Written by Sumegha Gulati | New Delhi | March 14, 2015 4:45:55 am

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has begun excavations in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hometown Vadnagar to corroborate the nearly 1,400-year-old account of a Chinese traveller who mentioned there were 10 Buddhist monasteries in that area of Gujarat at that time.

Excavations by Gujarat State Archaeology Department between 2006 and 2010 have already unearthed monumental remains that could be of one of the monasteries.

The ASI, which began excavations on January 5 this year, has made initial discoveries that indicate that one or more Buddhist monasteries could indeed have flourished at the site.

Dr B R Mani, ASI Additional Director General, said, “As of now, we have found shards of pottery, lead, coins and many other objects. The excavation is in progress.”

Madhulika Samanta, Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch (Baroda), said the purpose of ASI’s excavation was to find the “lost city” of Vadnagar mentioned in historical accounts.

In Si-Yu-Ki, or ‘The Buddhist Records of the Western World’, (the first English translation of which was published in 1884 by the Orientalist scholar Samuel Beal) the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang (also transcribed as Hsuan Tsang and Xuan Zhuang) wrote a few sentences about “‘O-nan-to-pu-lo”, or Anandapura, the ancient name for the area around Vadnagar.

“There are some ten sangharama with less than 1,000 priests; they study the Little Vehicle [Hinayana sect of Buddhism] of Sammatiya school. There are several big Deva temples, and sectaries of different kinds frequent them,” Hiuen Tsang wrote.

The Chinese traveller kept a journal of his travels between 627 AD and 643 AD, a large part of which were in India. Hiuen Tsang is supposed to have visited the court of Harshavardhana of Kannauj, who ruled from 606 AD to 647 AD as the last great emperor of north India before the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century.

“Vadnagar has been inhabited for over 2,300 years,” Samanta said. “Both Hiuen Tsang and Abul Fazl (who lived in the court of Emperor Akbar in the 16th century), have mentioned that Vadnagar was a huge town and a trade centre. The city was built around the Sharmishtha lake. Our purpose is to find out what happened to the lost city. Also, we are trying to find out what happened to the other nine Buddhist monasteries and elements,” she said.

Vadnagar’s Buddhist connection has been underscored by Modi himself. In September 2014, ahead of the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping to India, the PM hosted on his website a feature titled ‘Buddhist Heritage in Gujarat’, which contained text and images about the account of Hiuen Tsang, the “excavations at Vadnagar”, and unearthing of a  “monastery datable from 2nd to 7th century AD”.

Samanta said Vadnagar was fortified in the 12th century by Kumarpal of the Solanki dynasty of Patan. The ongoing ASI excavation has reached up to the level of Kumarpal, and is now going deeper, Samanta said.

“Till now, we have found housing complexes, covered drains, and evidence of a huge kiln of unusual shape which might have been put to some kind of industrial use. It is possible that we might unearth the other monasteries that Hiuen Tsang mentioned,” Samanta said.

“The main problem is that the site is very densely populated. There are houses right on top of it, making it difficult for us to unearth all the structures. But we do suspect that what we have found was a residential complex where monks lived,” she said.

Vadnagar was located on an important trade route leading to port of Bharuch. Prof Nayanjot Lahiri of Delhi University said, “Buddhism formed a key part of the religious fabric of ancient Gujarat. Ashoka put up his edicts in Junagadh, and Buddhist stupas have been found in Girnar and Sasan Gir. Hiuen Tsang’s account is a source of information for archaeologists and historians.”

Dr Ujjayini Ray of the Department of History at Lady Shri Ram College said there were Buddhist structures throughout Maharashtra and parts of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

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