Just 68 miles (110 km) from Patna, in India’s eastern Bihar province, the Kesaria stupa lies in the landscape partially hidden amongst vegetation. The original Kesaria stupa is believed to date back to the 3rd century BC, with more recent structures built from the 2nd century AD. Inextricably linked to the history of Buddhism and even the Buddha himself, according to Bihar Tourism “the stupa mound may even have been inaugurated during the Buddha’s time.”
The Kesaria Stupa at sunrise. (Photo Dharma / CC BY 2.0 )
Understanding the Kesaria Stupa: What is a Stupa?
In order to understand the Kesaria stupa, it’s important to understand what a stupa is. WorldAtlas explains that “a stupa is a Buddhist monument usually built to commemorate certain events in a Buddha’s life, to keep important sacred relics, and for burying the remains of monks and other saintly personalities related to Buddhism.”
The original stupas were simple mounds made of earth, similar to burial mounds for venerated Hindu teachers which were usual in India at the time. Buddhist stupas are freestanding monuments, surrounded by walkways or paths, and they contain some kind of sacred relic. Buddhists believe that when the Buddha died his followers created either 8 or 10 stupas around India, each containing some of his remains.
In the 3rd century BC, Ashoka the Great spread the teachings of Buddhism after his conversion. According to legend, one of his strategies was to remove the remains from these original stupas and build thousands more, dividing the sacred relics amongst them and spreading with them the energy of Buddhism.
Ashoka even sent missionaries abroad. In this way, this type of architectural structure spread alongside Buddhism to different parts of the Buddhist world, such as Sri Lanka, Java, Tibet and China. Thanks to globalization, this idea has now spread throughout the world, and the architectural forms and materials used have changed over time.
Pilgrims and visitors ritually walk clockwise around the base of the stupa while reciting prayers and mantras. As explained in the World History Encyclopedia , “visitors move clockwise around it to symbolically trace the path of the sun, giver of life, which sustains the natural order; moving counterclockwise around the stupa is to resist the positive energies of life, change, and transformation.”
Niches at Kesaria stupa in India. Source: Photo Dharma / CC BY 2.0
The Kesaria Stupa: The Tallest Buddhist Stupa in the World?
The Kesaria Stupa is touted as being “the tallest and the largest Buddhist stupa in the world” by Bihar Tourism . While this may not be exactly true, it does rise up from the surrounding landscape to 103 feet (31.5 m) and measures 403 feet (123 m) in circumference. Archaeologists do however believe that the structure was once higher. The Kesaria stupa was affected by an earthquake in 1934, before which it is thought the structure was 123 ft high (37.5 m). Future excavations are needed to find out conclusively.
The base itself is polygonal in structure, made of brick and with at least six terraced levels. At the top there is a cylindrical brick tower. There are cell shrines on each terrace with stunning stucco images of the Buddha and geometric patterns. The design of the Kesaria stupa is unique thanks to these special features. Many of the Buddha statues are still visible today, although they are either headless or broken from the waist, a fact attributed to Muslim invaders.
While the first professional excavations took place from 1998, managed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the ruins were first mentioned in western texts by legendary archaeologist Alexander Cunningham in the 1860s, who claimed that the stupa contained in the mound was at least 150 feet (45.7 m) tall, explains The Pioneer .
Previously it was thought to be the fort of King Bena, a generous monarch with alleged special powers, and only the tower was visible. Excavations unveiled the rest of the mound, although much of the area remains hidden underground.
Archaeologists believe that the original Kesaria stupa dates back to Ashoka the Great, since a capital of an Ashoka pillar was discovered during excavations. The monument was built on the remains of a previous site, but the current ruins date back to between the 2nd and 6th century AD. Today the remains have a wild feel to them. The ruins are covered in vegetation and there are no services as yet for visitors.
East Javanese relief depicting the Buddha in his final days. (Anandajoti Bhikkhu / CC BY 2.0 )
The Legends Related to the Kesaria Stupa
Siddhartha Gautama has gone down in history for having left his life to become what is known as a “wandering ascetic.” After his “awakening” where he discovered the core teachings of Buddhism, he is known to have travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent, sharing his teachings.
Legend has it that as he approached death, or Nirvana, the Buddha left Vaishali. As explained in Earth is Mysterious , the people of Vaishali, known as Licchivis, followed him on his journey to Kusginagar in Uttar Pradesh. In order to convince them to leave, he gave them his alms bowl when they reached Kesaria, known at the time as Kessaputta. Locals believe that the stupa was built to house this bowl and to worship the Buddha.
The stupa was mentioned in the writings of two prestigious Chinese travelers, both of whom wrote their experiences, albeit with few details. The 5th century Chinese Buddhist monk, Faxian, referred in his writing to a stupa built over the Buddha’s alms bowl. Another Buddhist monk, scholar and traveler, Xuanzang, also travelled to India in the 7th century, and mentioned the Kesaria stupa.
A broken Buddha at Kesaria stupa. (Photo Dharma / CC BY 2.0 )
Visiting the Kesaria Stupa
The Kesaria stupa is located near the town of Kesaria in eastern India, about 3 hours from Patna by car. The nearest airport is at Patna. The best time to visit is between October and March. Although a popular tourist attraction, there are no services at the site and the ruins have only partially been excavated, but some visitors have said that this adds a particular charm to exploring the remains.
The site has been declared a protected monument of national importance by the ASI and visitors are not allowed to climb up onto the ruins. Covid-19, heavy flooding and a lack of funds have affected plans to improve conditions at Kesaria stupa, leaving it in a state of “dereliction and negligence,” reported Hindustan Times in June 2021.
Top image: The Kesaria stupa in India. Source: charnsitr / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard