Champaran: Its Glorious History

"That day in Champaran was an unforgettable event in my life...It is no exaggeration, but the literal truth, to say that in this meeting with the peasants I was face to face with God, Ahimsa and Truth."... M. K. Gandhi.

Gandhiji wrote those words about his first experience with the people of Champaran in 1917. That statement alone, and many other reasons, justify a special description of this district of Bihar. [Recently, the old district of Champran has been split into two, East (Purbi) and West (Paschhimi) Champaran. For the presnt purpose, however, it will be treated in its entirety as the old single administrative unit.]

This area is one of the oldest continuously inhabited tract of land in India with a very long  recorded history. As stated in the History section of these pages, this was the home of Maharishi Valmiki  who left behind the first written Ramayana, in Sanskrit. It was this Holy Book that was the source of the more popular version, Shri Ram Charita Manas, of Sant Tulsi Das. Champaran was a part of ancient Tirhut, the land of Raja Janak, father of the Hindu Goddess, Seeta.

Later, Lord Buddha in his final journey from Vaishali, home of the Licchavis and lying to the south,  to Kusinara (Kushinagar) in the north, travelled through Champaran along the eastern bank of the river Gandak. Later, to commemorate this event, Ashoka the Great,  erected several pillars along this same tract.  A few of these pillars are still to be found. They are at Areraj, Rampurwa, and Nanadangarh.

A small township, namely Kesariya, which has a post-office, a police-station,and a medical dispensary since the British days, has a very rich history, which is not well-known. The following is an account of Keasriya, from the noted British Archaeologist, Cunningham, of late XIX century.

The old town of Keasriya lies to the east of the Gandak River, at from 28 to 30 miles to the northwest of Besarh or Vaishali. It therefore corresponds exactly with the position of Huen Sang's ancient town, where the Licchavi's of Vaishali took leave of Buddha. According to Huen Sang it was here that Buddha in a previous birth, had ruled as a Chakravarti Raja, named Mahendra. There is a stupa here which is also called the Deora of Raja Ben Chakravarti. Buddha himself is believed to have said that a stupa should be built to commemorate a Supreme Ruler (i.e., Chakravarti Raja.) In speaking to Ananda, Buddha told him that "for a Chakravarti Raja they build a thupo at a spot where four principal roads meet."  Now this description agrees most precisely with that of Kesariya, where two high roads cross, the one leading Saran to Champaran, and the other from Patna or Pataliputra to Bettiah and Nepal.

At this place according to Fa-Hian "Buddha presesnted his alms-bowl to the Licchavis at the time of parting with them.  At Vaishali he had announced his approaching Nirvana, and on his departure they had accompanied him, lamenting loudly, with the intention of following Buddha into Nirvana, or the scene of his Nirvana. But Buddha would not hear of it. Longing for Buddha they were unwilling to depart; whereupon Buddha produced a great deep stream which they could not cross, and then giving him his alms-bowl as a memorial, sent them away to their homes. A stone pillar has been put up on which this is inscribed." The above is Mr. Giles' translation of Fa-Hian's account of the parting of th Licchavis from Buddha. Mr. Beal rather amplifies the translation of the latter part. "He then left them with his alms-bowl as a memorial, and exhorted them to return to their homes. On this they went back, and erected a stone pillar on which they engraved an inscription to the above effect."

Based on the above descriptions Maj-General Cunningham concluded that the stone-pillar must have been erected near the home of the Licchavis, that is, at Vaishali. And further, that the alms-bowl of Buddha was also taken back with them. The Great Stupa of Kesariya could not have been raised over the alms-bowl but was simply a memorial stupa built by the Licchavis to mark the spot where they had taken leave of Buddha. The great stream created by Buddha is known as the Raja Ben ka Digha, an extensive sheet of water, 3,000 feet in length, which effectively bars all access to the Stupa from the south of Vaishali side.

According to Padma Purana, Raja Ben, or Vena, was a Buddhist. The people, however, only knew him as a great Raja, who by his austerities, had become a Chakravarti, or Supreme Ruler with superhuman powers. By virtue of his penance, his Rani, named Kamlavati, was able to stand on a lotus leaf when she bathed. The site of her palace is still a mile to the north-north-east of the stupa, and the tank in which she bathed is now called the Ganggeya Taal, three-quarters of a mile to the east of the stupa. According to one account, Raja Ben took no rent for his lands. But the more popular legend represents him as taking only a "sup", or "winnowing bsket" of corn from each cultivator, both great and small. But afterwards he ordered that every one should give him a bit of gold the size of a grain of barley. The supernatural powers acquired by his austerities suddenly stopped, and as his queen was then bathing, the lotus leaf gave way under her and she was drowned. Then Raja Ben consulted his Pandits, who told him that his Rani was drowned because he had raised the old land rent. "Then Raja Ben Chakravarti built the deora  (or stupa) and going inside with all his family, he closed the entrance by his magical powers and was seen no more"

Maj-Gen. Cunningham continues: "Then Raniwas, or Rani's Palace, in which I made some excavations 19 years ago, was an old Buddhist establishment, with a temple 10 feet square inside enshrining a colossal figure of Buddha. This statue was removed only two years ago by the Bengali Babu of the Ramgarh Indigo Factory. All the bricks had been dug out, and there is now only an earthen mound, 200 feet square, covered with fragments of bricks. In 1862 I was able to trace some portions of cells on the eastern side. I conclude therefore that the Raniwas was the site of a large Buddhist monastery with a Vihara, or temple, inside. According to some people the mound was also called Gorari ; but the common name which everybody knows is Raniwas, or the "Palace of the Rani' of Raja Ben Chakravarti.

-------  "Report of Tours in North and South Bihar in 1880-81", by Major General A. Cunningham and H. B. W. Garrick. Archaeologicl Survey of India, Volumes I and XVI. Report, Arch. Surv., Bengal Circle, 1901-02.

The good people of Kesariya organize an annual Kesariya Mahotsava (festival). Here is a picture of the title page of a recent commemorative volume.

[Acknowledgement: I am most grateful to Dr. Rajeev Kumar, Ph.D. (History), Block Development Officer, Kesariya, for providing material for the account above. Here is a translation of Dr. Kumar's article published in the Keasriya Mahotsava Journal. It includes the above, and traces Keasriya's history, which is indicative of the history of Champaran, through the British period to the present.]

Here also is an old description of the Discovery of Buddha's Birthplace from the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, dated February 1897, where mention is made of the significance of Champaran in the Buddhist religion, a fact not well-known or well-publicised.