Capital of the Sakyas

Just 27 kilometres west of Lumbini, in today’s Tilaurakot, exists the remains of a fortified city widely identified as Kapilavastu, the ancient capital of the Sakya clan. Historical texts describe Kapilavastu as a bustling city full of palaces and groves. This is where Prince Siddhartha lived a gilded, sheltered life inside the palace walls until the age of 29. Mahayana Buddhist texts contain elaborate descriptions of his adolescent years as he excelled in horse-riding, archery and swordsmanship.

Pilgrims at the location believed to the East Gate of ancient Kapilavastu, from which Siddhartha Gautama embarked on his spiritual odyssey.

Kapilavastu is important to Buddhism because it was from Kapilavastu that the Buddha set out on his great quest for enlightenment. Soon after Prince Siddhartha’s birth, astrologers prophesied that the young Prince might one day renounce his royal inheritance. His father Suddhodhana thus tried to divert him with worldly pleasures.

But somehow, it wasn’t enough. Troubled by the inevitability of disease, ageing and death, he left the palace walls in search of truth. Renouncing his family and kingdom, he set out permanently, shaving his head and bidding farewell his charioteer Chandaka and his horse Kanthaka.

The Great Departure from Kapilavastu has proven a favourite theme for Buddhist artists over the centuries, including Katsushika Hokusai, the Japanese ukiyo-e painter best known for The Great Wave of Kanagawa (1832). Part of a set of breathtaking woodblock illustrations for Yamada Isai’s biography of the Buddha, Shaka Goichiki Dai Ki Zue (The Story of Shakyamuni), and one of Hokusai’s final masterpieces, created towards the end of his life.
Picture: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Buddhist texts report that the Buddha returned to Kapilavastu several times after his enlightenment to visit his relatives and friends. These fascinating stories – of his reunions with Suddhodana his father; Yasodhara and Rahula, his wife and son; his cousin Nanda, among others – give us a glimpse of what the Buddha was like as a person, and of the beginnings of Buddhism. It is in Kapilavastu that his foster mother Mahaprajapati makes her first request to be ordained, which leads to the formation of the women’s sangha.

Kapilavastu appears to have been deserted after the Shakya clan was nearly annihilated by the neighbouring kingdom of Kosala under king Virudhaka (c. 6th century BCE).

However, the archaeological record suggests that it remained an important place of pilgrimage right up through the Ashokan era, when it may have been rejuvenated as a monastic centre. Further archaeological research is needed, to sift through and uncover the stories which lie within Kapilavastu’s soil.

Kapilavastu’s significance transcends the story of Siddhartha’s renunciation and departure. The different Buddhist canons and extracanonical sources contain stories of his return visits to Kapilavastu. Nigrodharama (today’s Kudan) is the site of his first reunion with his relatives, post-enlighenment. According to tradition, his second mother, Mahaprajapati, offers him the gift of a robe of golden tissue and makes her first request to be ordained as a monastic.
Picture: Bhikkhu Vanna Chy

Today, the remains of the Kapilavastu Palace and the outlines of a planned city are clearly visible. Archaeological surveys confirm that a double moat once surrounded the city. Pilgrims continue to pray and make offerings along the brick walls. It is a matter of great significance that the Buddha had once lived here.