From the highway, we could see the huge stupa towering above a marshy field. After the beautified grandeur of Bodh Gaya and Nalanda, Kesariya looked primitive at first glance. But my travelling companion gasped in surprise. “It reminds me of Borobodur,” she said softly, drawing comparison with the famous Buddhist temple in central Java, Indonesia. In fact, many historians believe this stupa in Bihar could be the Indian equivalent of Borobudur.
A narrow path cut through field, past a small Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) site office and reached the base of the stupa. It is said that the stupa was built at the spot where Buddha had offered his alms bowl to the monks who were following him from Vaishali, urging them to go back. According to Buddhist scriptures, Buddha had delivered his last sermon at Vaishali and announced his approaching nirvana (death). From here, Buddha departed for Kushinagar.
According to the ASI, the stupa built in the Sunga-Kushana period was expanded during the late Gupta period. The stupa was mentioned by Chinese travellers Fa Xian and Xuan Zang, who visited India during 5th and 7th century, respectively. However, its significance was lost with time and the local people referred to it as the deora or garh of Raja Ben, a mythological figure. The first detailed mention of the stupa was made by Alexander Cunningham, the father of Indian archaeology, in the early 1860s.
Being diligently excavated since 1997-98, the visible part of the brick-built stupa consists of six terraced circular layers with a solid drum-like structure on top. The terraces were inter-connected with flights of stairs. The extant stupa is about 31.5 metre in height and 123 metre in diameter. Archaeologists believe that the ongoing excavation is likely to expose more layers of terraces, which will then increase the height further.
The terraces contained cell-shaped shrines with Buddha images; however, since the ASI has now prohibited visitors from climbing the stupa, we were not able to see the shrines. Soon we realised that to see the shrines, we would have to leave the paved pathway and step into the grassland on the other side of the path. It was soon after the rains and we were scared of snakes. But with faith in the Buddha and loads of assurance from a kindly local man who was cutting the grass, we did walk across the patch and to our delight were able to see the cells. However, most of the images did not have a head and were in various states of disrepair. They were mostly seated Buddha images.
While the stupa in Kesariya did not seem to attract visitors except for young couples and students from nearby villages, we were pleasantly surprised to find a large group of Vietnamese visitors, monks and lay disciples, arrive to pay their respect to the stupa on their way to Bodhgaya from Lumbini via Kushinagar.
Information: Kesariya is about 115km from Patna by road and 175km from Gorakhpur. The place is best visited between November and February. In 2019, entry was free and the monument was open from morning till late afternoon. But do check with Bihar Tourism for latest information.