Vadnagar (Inde): The search for Hueng Tsang's 10 monasteries

Ojas Mehta

Source -

A tourist visiting Vadnagar, 120 km from Ahmedabad, may find it difficult to envision the sleepy town as a thriving international trading market. But, texts by Chinese traveller Heung Tsang and Mughal chronicler Abul Fazl belie these assumptions. 

Since 2006, the birthplace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen vigorous archaeological digs in pursuit of the 10 Buddhist monasteries Tsang described during his visit to Vadnagar some 1,400 years ago, recorded in his journals Hsi-yu Chi (Record of Western Countries). The efforts multiplied following the discovery of a nearly 2,000-yearold Buddhist monastery by Y S Rawat, director of the Gujarat State Archaeology Department - an excavation that was given the push by the then state government. Modi's tweet about the Gujarat connect with Buddhism in September 2014, ahead of Chinese premier Xi Jinping's visit to India, only increased curiosity about Vadnagar. Perhaps this is why, in 2013, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took over from Rawat and started excavations this January. But, it isn't going to be an easy ride. 


The Buddhist Monastery dates back nearly 2,000 years and was discovered during excavations in Vadnagar between 2006 and 2010. According to archaeologists, more such sites lie beneath the town; ASI staff and locals work on a site near the Kirti Toranas; Archaeological intrigue

The human angle 

Vadnagar has 45 villages, but it is the fortified area that forms Vadnagar town (in a 3.5-km perimeter area) that's the subject of curiosity. 

The ASI is currently conducting trial excavations at three sites. One is near the Kirti Toranas - 40-feet high intricately carved towers representing victory over enemy built during the Kumarpal Solanki rule (11-12 century AD) - while the other two are in the Baba no Tekro Locality I and Locality II. These two sites are located on the banks of Sarmishtha lake, a landmark, and is part of the Vadnagar panchayat area. The land here is owned by both, government and as private owners. And, it's these two areas that the ASI believes, have the potential for significant archaeological finds. 

Athough a team of researchers have found remnants from the Solanki era dating back to 960 AD, they haven't yet discovered any Buddhist monasteries. Trial excavations, typically, entail finding out when the city originated and its expanse in ancient times viz a viz the present town. 

In the last two-and-a-half months, says superintending archaeologist Dr Madhulika Samanta, the ASI has found about 150 coins from the 1-3rd century AD. The present fortification was built by Kumarapal Solanki (1143-1174 CE). "The main town of Vadnagar is situated on a high mound, created over a number of buildings that were built and destroyed during earlier periods, and the settlement has not outgrown the medieval fortification," says superintending archaeologist Dr Madhulika Samanta. This has led them to believe that much of Vadnagar's treasures could lie beneath the human habitation - as per the 2011 Census it had 27,700 residents. 

This, locals believe, may pose challenges. A local, who is familiar with the excavations, said, "The land under which the Buddhist monastery was found was a vacant government plot surrounded by residential houses. We believe a lot of adjoining area needs to be dug up for further findings, but they are covered by homes. Vacating these houses can be a huge problem and cause unrest among people." 

Expanding horizons 

Samant says that a search for the remaining nine monasteries might have to extend beyond the current periphery of the historic town. "I believe Vadnagar was much bigger and more densely populated during the medieval period than it is now. The existence of 10 monasteries, within the fortified area is not possible as monasteries are mostly built on the periphery. We need to carry out excavations over large areas to be able to locate them." 

But, she claims the district magistrate has failed to give permission for further excavations. "We have followed up with the collector since January. I met him on February 13 and have written to him four to five times but there is an inordinate delay. The ASI does not take land. We only excavate, document and return the land. If the land is owned by a private party, we compensate the owner. If it is government property, we do not need to." 

Excavations may soon extend to adjoining villages. "We are setting up a tent at another village in a week. Excavation will be extended to the eastern and northern banks of the Sarmishtha lake," she adds. 

While excavations are on, security for the discoveries is minimal. At the site where the Buddhist monastery was uncovered - along with a stupa, a courtyard, and several cells where the Buddhist monks are believed to have lived - there is no security, leaving the area vulnerable to vandalism. 

For now, the ASI has hired family members of private land owners as labourers or security at the site of the trial excavations - mostly agricultural land. "We pay them for their services and use their land. The more the number of working family members, the more these families earn," she adds. 

Sixty-two-year-old Mangaji Thakor, a farmer who has lent part of his land, sees profits in the deal, "I earn about Rs 50,000 per year from agricultural produce. I am being paid Rs 222 per day for guarding excavated land in my field." While the Thakors are counting the cash, not all Vadnagar residents share the joy. 

Kamlesh Patel, 37, says he used to run his scrap-dealing business on part of the land where the Buddhist monastery was discovered. Patel, who has now filed a case in the court, says, "I used to earn Rs 2.5 lakh each year from the business and have lost that much money each year since the land was taken. The state's possession of my land has ruined my 20-year-old business." 


The ASI team that is conducting trial excavations at Baba no Tekro Locality I and Locality II in Vadnagar, has found coins made of the alloy potin, lead and copper belonging to the Solanki period. They have also found seals that were used on coins of other kingdoms like the Deccan, which the Solankis had annexed. However, what intrigues them is an ash layer under the solid ground in the agricultural fields. "The ashy deposits are a metre deep. A huge area has been discovered entirely covered with ashy deposits one and a half meter below a mud floor and it is obviously built by humans. As lot of antiquities, bones of different animals and iron objects and leads have been discovered from this layer, but none of them are burnt or charred. It is an enigma," Dr Samanta says. 


The original town was a settlement of Nagars, a well-known Brahmin community of Banias. In the 7th century, Hueng Tsang visited Vadnagar, then known as Anandapura, and described it as rich and densely populated city, affluent enough to support culture, arts, literature and religious centres of learning for Buddhist monks and Hindu priests. The town is also believed to have once been called Chamatkarpura after its king was cured of leprosy after bathing in lake Shakti Tirth. Later, it came to be known as Anartapur and its warriors found mention in the Mahabharata. Vadnagar also has a Greek connect, as it is believed that the Nagars are descendants of Alexander's army who stayed back. In 1152 AD, the Solankis thwarted the Malvas attack and Kumarpal Solanki built the fort where the present population lives. After the Solanki period, the town faced attacks from the Delhi Sultanate, Marathas and Gaekwads.