In the year 1880-81, the then Director General of the Archeological Society of India, Major General A. Cunningham, made a tour of the Archeological sites of the Indian state of Bihar. During course of his visit, Cunningham visited a place known as ‘Besarh’, which was immediately identified by him as the famous medieval town of India known as ‘Vaishali’. Cunningham did not find any artifacts in this village. He however came to know a very interesting story that Buddha’s original alms bowl was preserved and celebrated for many centuries in this town. Cunningham collected more information about this story and wrote a note on this1in his book.
Buddhist birth stories have an interesting anecdote about this story. According to the anecdote, the original alms bowl given to ‘Goutama’ by ‘Mahabramha’ vanished when ‘Goutama’ became Buddha. The four guardian deities, Indra, Yama,Varuna and Kubera, each brought an alms-bowl made from emerald to Goutama, which he refused to accept. They then brought four alms-bowls made from stone of mango colour and each and every one of four begged to Goutama to accept their alms-bowl. Not to disappoint any of them, Buddha kept all the alms-bowls and after placing them one into another, miraculously transformed all the four bowl in a single bowl, upper rim of which appeared, as if four bowls have been placed one within the other.
In the days of Goutam Buddha, (5th century BC) part of Bihar or Magadha was ruled by Lichchhava Dynasty with Vaishali as their capital. According to Cunningham, Buddha had given his alms-bowl to the Licchavi king and people, when they took final leave of him at the old city on their northern frontier, which Cunningham identifies with Kesariya, 30 miles to the north-west of Vaisali. The famous Chinese travelers Fa- Xian (AD400) and Xuen Zang (AD520) have mentioned this story in their travelogues. Fa-Xian mentions that Buddha gave them (Lachchhvis) his alms-bowl as a memorial. Xuen Zang says that Buddha gave them his religious vase as a souvenir. In any case this alms-bowl was preserved and celebrated in Vaishali for next four to five centuries. In fact Vaishali city had become famous for this alms-bowl.
In the first or second century, Magadha state was invaded by a king from west. Cunningham feels that this King was either Kushan king Kanishka or his predecesor Huvishka. For the proof, he refers to Vassilief’ s translations of a book by Buddhist monk Taranath. This book says that ” the king of the Little Yuchi invaded Magadha and carried off the bowl of Buddha and Aswaghosha .” Kushan kings were originally from a tribe known as Yuezhi (mentioned as Yuchi here in book) and Aswaghosa is known as an autobiographer of Buddha , who lived in first century. He was a disciple of Parswa, who conducted the third Buddhist Synod under Kanishka. These facts corroborate the fact that Buddha’s alms-bowl was moved from Vaishali to Kanishka’s capital Purushpur (Present day Peshawar in Pakistan)
Buddha’s alms-bowl remained at Purushpur at least till AD 400 when Chinese traveler Fa-Xian saw it there and has described it in his travelogue. It must have been removed from here later because Xuen Zang (520 AD) and Song Yun have not seen it during their visits to Purushpur. However Fa-Xian describes in his travelogue, about an unsuccessful attempt in the third century, much earlier to his visit, to remove the bowl. He says that ” Buddha’s alms-bowl is in this country, and a king of the Yueh-shih got together a large army to attack this country, wishing to carry it off. When he had subdued the country, being an ardent supporter of Buddhism, he wanted to take the bowl away with him.” Here king of Yueh-shih, might be a Bactrian or a Khotanese King and attempt must have made to move the bowl to Kabul , Balkh or Khotan, This attempt however failed and the bowl remained in Purushpur only, where a pagoda and a monastery was built by this invading king with a garrison left there to protect it.
Around AD 425-450 Gandhara was again invaded by King of Yu Chi. This king despised Buddhism. After his invasion, the alms-bowl was perhaps moved by Gandharian people to a place also named as Gandhar, near present day Kandahar in Afghanistan. This was the reason why Chinese travelers in AD 520 could not see the Alms-Bowl. The name ‘Gandhar’ given to this new place in present day Afghanistan, slowly corrupted to Kandahar. This place, where the Bowl was preserved, is known today as old Kandahar and the bowl was preserved here in an obscure mosque, almost till recent times. This bowl was near Kandahar city, till Mohamad Nasibulla continued as the president of Afghanistan and was moved to Kabul museum only in last decade. During Taliban rule. This museum was attacked by Taliban extremists couple of times. By good fortune, it has survived there and can be seen in the museum.
We have only Fa-Xian’s description of the original bowl. Since Fa-Xian’s original writing had been in Chinese characters, three translations of the original work, which we have, differ to an extent. According to Remusat’s translation : ” The pot may contain about two bushels. It is of a mixed colour, in which black predominates. It is well formed on all four sides, about two lines thick, bright and polished.” According to Beal : ” The bowl contains about two Tan (a dry measure equal to if gallons). It is of a mixed colour, but mostly black. The seams, where the four parts join together, are bright. It is about 2 inches thick, and is kept well polished and bright.” The third translation is by Giles : “ It might hold over two gallons, and is of several colours, chiefly black. The four joinings are clearly distinguishable. It is about one-fifth of an inch thick, and is transparent and bright”.
The common description from all the three translations, appears to be mixed colour, though predominantly black, capacity about 8 or 9 liters and 4 rims seen clearly as if 4 bowl have been joined together. There is some confusion about the opacity or transparency of the bowl. Dr. Bellew saw the Bowl at Kandahar in Nineteenth century. He describes it as “A huge bowl, carved out of a solid block of dark green serpentine. The straight part above is carved with six lines of Arabic inscriptions”
After seeing the pencil sketch obtained by Cunningham and also the photographs of the Bowl in Kabul museum, I feel that the chances of this bowl being the original bowl are quite high. The bottom portion has been shaped like a lotus flower, which could relate to an early Buddhist period. The Arabic character lines could have been carved later. This bowl is so huge that it appears to be a pot kept in Buddhist Viharas to collect alms, like what we have in Hindu temples even now and known as ‘Hundi’ or Charity Box. . In ancient days alms would be given in form of grains or gold ornaments, coins etc. This would make it necessary to have a large bowl for receiving alms.
This story of Buddha’s alms bowl, indeed is very fascinating and romantic without least doubt.
26 December 2011
1. Report of Tours in north and south Bihar in 1980-81 By Maj.General A, Cunningham
2. Fa-Xian’s record of Buddhistic Kingdoms By James Legge