According to Buddhist tradition, Kapilavastu is the name of the ancient city where Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, was raised and lived until the age of 29, when he renounced worldly life. There is some controversy about the exact location of Kapilavastu. Some versions say that it is located in present-day Rummindei, in the Terai region of Southern Nepal, about 10 kilometres west of Lumbini (the birthplace of the Siddhartha Gautama) not far from the Indian-Nepalese border. Other versions hold that Kapilavastu is located in Northern India, and that the Piprahwa village used to be within Kapilavastu.
The Hometown of the Buddha
A Pali Buddhist source known as the Dathavansa, claims that Kapilavastu was built by the sons of Ikshvaku, the ruler of one of the states in Northern India, with the permission of the Indian philosopher Kapila, who lived probably about two centuries before the time of the Buddha. The city was sanctified in the memory of Kapila. It is interesting to note that the Buddha was well versed in the philosophy of Kapila and was certainly influenced by it.
About 600 BCE, Northern India was mostly composed of numerous and small independent states competing for resources. The Shakya state was one of these states and it was located at the foot of the Himalayas. Kapilavastu was the capital city of the Shakya state. The Shakyas were a warrior clan that belonged to the Kshatriya caste (the warrior rulers caste). There is some controversy surrounding the background of the Shakyas. All we know about the Shakyas is through Buddhist sources, and the historical facts in it have been clouded by many additions and variations over the centuries. Some accounts say that the Shakya princes were exiled from a previous state (identified as the kingdom of Ayodhya according to some accounts) and they moved on and found the state of Shakya.
Despite the fact that Suddhodana Gautama (Siddhartha Gautama’s father) is often described as the king of Kapilavastu, it is believed that his status was actually that of a regional leader, similar to a tribal chief. The reason for this is that the Shakyas’ government was organized as a republican system, not a monarchy: They held regular meetings in which the members of the most influential families took part. Almost certainly, the family of Suddhodana Gautama was one of the leading families within this political system.
Siddhartha Gautama lived in Kapilavastu until he abandoned his home and began to live as a homeless ascetic. At some point after he achieved enlightenment, the Buddha returned to Kapilavastu where his cousins Ananda and Devadatta, his half-brother Nanda, his barber Upali, and even his son Rahula joined the Buddha as part of his monastic community.
The Destruction of Kapilavastu
To the south of the Shakya state was the state of Kosala, which was larger, more powerful and one of the oldest states of Northern India, dating from approximately 1000 BCE. By 700 BCE, Kosala became a great power and began to exert some sort of political influence over its smaller neighbours, including the Shakya state. How strong this influence was is unclear; it is possible that some of the smaller states were tributary to Kosala. The Buddhist text known as Mahavamsa says that the Shakyas were conquered by Kosala during the time of Virudhaka.
Virudhaka was the ruler of Kosala during the time of the Buddha. He was the son of Pasenadi, the previous ruler of Kosala, and he usurped his father’s throne. After Pasenadi ascended to the throne, he requested a noble wife from the Shakya clan. The Shakyas sent a maidservant instead, leading Pasenadi to believe that she was actually from a noble family, and she finally gave birth to Virudhaka. While still a boy, Virudhaka visited Kapilavastu and learned of his low birth. Realizing that his father had been insulted and deceived by the Shakyas, he vowed to take revenge upon his neighbours. After Pasenadi passed away, Virudhaka led an army against the core of the Shakyas’ political power: Kapilavastu. The Shakya capital was destroyed, its inhabitants slaughtered and the Shakya state became absorbed by Kosala.
Kapilavastu in the Eyes of Chinese Pilgrims
The invasion of Kapilavastu by Virudhaka is confirmed by a Chinese pilgrim named Faxian (Fa-Hien, 337-c.422 CE) who visited Kapilavastu in 403 CE and reported the same version of the events. Faxian recorded his visit to Kapilavastu in his work A Record of the Buddhistic Kingdoms, in which he he wrote:
Less than a yojana to the east from this brought them to the city of Kapilavastu; but in it there was neither king nor people. All was mound and desolation. Of inhabitants there were only some monks and a score or two of families of the common people. At the spot where stood the old palace of king Suddhodana there have been made images of the prince (his eldest son) and his mother; and at the places where that son appeared mounted on a white elephant when he entered his mother’s womb, and where he turned his carriage round on seeing the sick man after he had gone out of the city by the eastern gate, topes have been erected. The places (were also pointed out) where (the rishi) A-e (Asita) inspected the marks (of Buddhaship on the body) of the heir-apparent (when an infant); where, when he was in company with Nanda and others, on the elephant being struck down and drawn to one side, he tossed it away; where he shot an arrow to the south-east, and it went a distance of thirty le, then entering the ground and making a spring to come forth, which men subsequently fashioned into a well from which travellers might drink; where, after he had attained to Wisdom, Buddha returned and saw the king, his father; where five hundred Shakyas quitted their families and did reverence to Upali while the earth shook and moved in six different ways; where Buddha preached his Law to the devas, and the four deva kings and others kept the four doors (of the hall), so that (even) the king, his father, could not enter; where Buddha sat under a nyagrodha tree, which is still standing, with his face to the east, and (his aunt) Maja-prajapati presented him with a Sanghali; and (where) king Virudhaka slew the seed of Shakya, and they all in dying became Srotapannas. A tope was erected at this last place, which is still existing.
[...] The country of Kapilavastu is a great scene of empty desolation. The inhabitants are few and far between. On the roads people have to be on their guard against white elephants and lions, and should not travel incautiously.
(Faxian, Chapter 22)
Some 200 years later, another Chinese Buddhist pilgrim named Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, 602-664 CE) also visited the region. Xuanzang reported his visit to Kapilavastu in his work Buddhist Records of the Western World, in which he wrote:
This country [Kapilavastu] is about 4000 li in circuit. There are some ten desert cities in this country, wholly desolate and ruined. The capital is overthrown and in ruins. Its circuit cannot be accurately measured. The royal precincts within the city measure some 14 or 15 li round. They were all built of brick. The foundation walls are still strong and high. It has been long deserted. The peopled villages are few and wasted.
There is no supreme ruler; each of the towns appoints its own ruler. The ground is rich and fertile, and is cultivated according to the regular season. The climate is uniform, the manners of the people soft and obligating. There are 1000 or more ruined sahghdrdmas remaining; by the side of the royal precincts there is still a sangdlirdma with about 3000 (read 30) followers in it, who study the Little Vehicle of the Sariimatiya school.
There are a couple of Deva temples, in which various sectaries worship (live). Within the royal precincts are some ruined foundation walls ; these are the remains of the proper palace of Suddhodana-raja; above is built a vihdra in which is a statue of the king. Not far from this is a ruined foundation, which represents the sleeping palace of Mahamaya, the queen. Above this they have erected a vihdra in which is a figure of the queen.
By the side of this is a vihara; this is where Bodhisattva descended spiritually into the womb of his mother. There is a representation of this scene drawn in the vihara. The Mahasthavira school say that Bodhisattva was conceived on the 30th night of the month U-ta-lo-an-sha-cha (Uttarashadha). This is the 15th day of the 5th month (with us). The other schools fix the event on the 23rd day of the same month. This would be the 8th day of the 5th month (with us).
(Xuanzang, Book 6 - 2)
The area of Kapilavastu was desolated when the Chinese pilgrims visited it, but it was not forgotten and some activity still persisted. During the 9th century CE, the area became controlled by the Muslims and later by the Hindus: During this process, the Buddhist structures were destroyed and the memory of the region was lost. Although the exact location of Kapilavastu has not been determined yet and we still have two possible sites, the Chinese description of the area have helped to rediscover many different Buddhist ancient sites in the area.