Population of Sāvatthī

Wikipedia says:

The 5th-century Buddhist commentator and philosopher Buddhaghosa, living some 900 years after the death of the Buddha, states that there were 5.7 million residents in Savatthi.

However, Buddhaghosa’s estimate is contradicted by Visākhā’s account of the daily death rate in Sāvatthī given in the Visākhā sutta:

“But Visākhā, how many people pass away each day in Sāvatthī?”
“Every day, sir, there are ten people passing away in Sāvatthī.
Or else there are nine,
eight,
seven,
six,
five,
four,
three,
two,
or at least one person who passes away every day in Sāvatthī.
Sāvatthī is never without someone passing away.”

There’s just no way that at most 10 people are dying per day in a city of 5.7 million. Even if the average lifespan in that city were 100 years, that would still be 57,000 people dying per year, which is an average of 156 per day.

Applying Little’s Law, which relates the average number of customers (in this case, residents of Sāvatthī) in a stationary queueing system, the average rate customers leave (or die), and the average time customers spend in the system (or lifespan), we can make a more accurate estimate. Assuming the population was stable over the time interval Visākhā is recalling, then the average population must have been roughly 365⋅LD, where D represents the average number of deaths per day and L represents the average lifespan in years.

Given Visākhā’s account, we can assume D is between 2 and 5. If we estimate L (life expectancy at birth) to be between 25 and 30 years, which is reasonable considering the historical context and the Buddha’s lifespan, then the estimated population of Sāvatthī ranges from 18,000 to 55,000. This is less than 1% of Buddhaghosa’s estimate.

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Interesting analysis, and this seems like a much more reasonable number.

Pataliputta at its height is sometimes said to have a population of 150,000–400,000, which can be estimated on the basis of its area. Savatthi was doubtless significantly smaller.

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Looking at arial photos of Juneau, Alaska right now as imagination fodder (as it’s a comparable size and surrounded by wilderness…) Seems reasonable. Still not that small for an ancient city! Somehow makes me nostalgic… Those were the days!

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Between 1801 and 2001, London’s population increased sevenfold. If a similar rate of population change happened for Śrāvastī - it’s population would have increased 5000x in 900 years.

So it is not necessarily unlikely for Śrāvastī’s population to have increased 100x between the time of the EBTs and the commentaries. Even a fivefold increase every 200 years could have resulted in a 150x increase. A fivefold population increase every 200 years isn’t far-fetched (an average of 2.5 i.e. 2-3 children per family would have been enough for that).

Also, Śrāvastī was a bigger and more prominent city than Pāṭaliputra (except perhaps during the time of the Mauryan empire).

But what interests me is to think about the kind of census would have had to be conducted to yield such figures in the 4th century BCE and 5th/6th century CE for such demographic facts to become common knowledge among the educated.

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The Wikipedia entry is mistaken on two counts.

Firstly, the figure given is 5.7 million families, not persons.

Sāvatthī nāma sattapaññāsāya kulasatasahassehi ajjhāvutthā
(Vinaya Atthakathā, commentary to the 13th sanghādisesa)

Secondly, it’s not Buddhaghosa himself who is making this claim, but rather Paṇḍuka and Lohitaka, two monks in the infamous “group of six”. The context is that the six men have gone forth for the sake of an easy living and are discussing with each other about what would be the most sumptuous place for them to go and live.

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Interesting point! I had assumed, without checking, that the Buddhagosa reference pertained to the population of Sāvatthī at the time of the Buddha.

Thank you very much for the correction, Bhante, and for the primary source. My Pali is weak, but with a little help from ChatGPT, I got the following:

  • “Sāvatthī” refers to the ancient city of Sāvatthī
  • “nāma” means “named” or “known as”
  • “sattapaññāsāya” is a compound of “satta” (seven) and “paññāsa” (fifty), which together mean “seven and fifty,” or more clearly, “57”.
  • “kulasatasahassehi” combines “kula” (families), “sata” (hundred), and “sahassa” (thousand), denoting the number of families
  • “ajjhāvutthā” implies being surrounded or encompassed by

57 hundred thousand families = 5.7 million families.

Thank you. I searched Google for that Pali phrase you provided, found a site that seems to give the surrounding context, and asked ChatGPT to translate (I use it only as a very rough approximation):

At that time, the Blessed Buddha laid down the training rule for those who corrupt families. There were Assaji and Punabbasuka by name in the Kīṭāgiri region. […] The shameless, evil monks are those without shame, the junior monks, who were the senior members of the group of six.

In Savatthi, six friends decided, ‘Agricultural work and such are difficult; let us ordain properly! When duties arise for those who have ordained, it’s appropriate to leave the ordination.’ Having agreed on this, they ordained under the guidance of the two chief disciples. After five years, having become proficient in the teachings, they discussed, ‘Sometimes this region is prosperous, sometimes not. Let’s not stay in one place; let’s reside in three different areas.’ Then they said to Pandukalohitaka, ‘Friends, Savatthi is supported by [5.7 million] wealthy families and adorned with eighty thousand villages, serving as a gateway for the two kingdoms of Kasi and Kosala. You should build lodgings here, plant mangoes and coconut trees, and by offering flowers and fruits, you should gather families, ordain young family members, and thereby grow the community.’"

Finally, in case it helps anyone, here’s the Pali text that was translated by ChatGPT (from the site linked above):

Tena samayena buddho bhagavāti kuladūsakasikkhāpadaṃ. Tattha assajipunabbasukā nāmāti assaji ceva punabbasuko ca. Kīṭāgirisminti evaṃnāmake janapade. Āvāsikā hontīti ettha āvāso etesaṃ atthīti āvāsikā. ‘‘Āvāso’’ti vihāro vuccati. So yesaṃ āyatto navakammakaraṇapurāṇapaṭisaṅkharaṇādibhārahāratāya, te āvāsikā. Ye pana kevalaṃ vihāre vasanti, te nevāsikāti vuccanti. Ime āvāsikā ahesuṃ. Alajjino pāpabhikkhūti nillajjā lāmakabhikkhū, te hi chabbaggiyānaṃ jeṭṭhakachabbaggiyā.

Sāvatthiyaṃ kira cha janā sahāyakā ‘‘kasikammādīni dukkarāni, handa mayaṃ sammā pabbajāma! Pabbajantehi ca uppanne kicce nittharaṇakaṭṭhāne pabbajituṃ vaṭṭatī’’ti sammantayitvā dvinnaṃ aggasāvakānaṃ santike pabbajiṃsu. Te pañcavassā hutvā mātikaṃ paguṇaṃ katvā mantayiṃsu ‘‘janapado nāma kadāci subhikkho hoti kadāci dubbhikkho, mayaṃ mā ekaṭṭhāne vasimha, tīsu ṭhānesu vasāmā’’ti. Tato paṇḍukalohitake āhaṃsu – ‘‘āvuso, sāvatthi nāma sattapaññāsāya kulasatasahassehi ajjhāvutthā, asītigāmasahassapaṭimaṇḍitānaṃ tiyojanasatikānaṃ dvinnaṃ kāsikosalaraṭṭhānaṃ āyamukhabhūtā, tatra tumhe dhuraṭṭhāneyeva pariveṇāni kāretvā ambapanasanāḷikerādīni ropetvā pupphehi ca phalehi ca kulāni saṅgaṇhantā kuladārake pabbājetvā parisaṃ vaḍḍhethā’’ti.

Here’s a reference for the size of cities in history in general.

It wasn’t until the 19th c. that cities grew beyond a million people, but cities like Rome and Beijing reached a million fairly early.

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According to the best estimates we have, in the year 1 CE, the Indian subcontinent as a whole would have had about one-fourth of the world’s population (this is a little bigger than the borders of the current-day India, and includes other Indo-Aryan speaking populations located in the subcontinent such as those of Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan). The world as a whole had 300 million by the start of the common era.

Of this Indian population of 75 million, roughly 60 million would have been Indo-Aryan, and the rest (15 million) were predominantly Dravidian.

The prominent Indo-Aryan janapada capitals such as Mathurā, Vārāṇasī, Pāṭaliputra, Takṣaśilā, Ayodhyā, Śrāvastī, Vaiśālī, Sāṅkāśya, Mithilā, Prayāga, Kauśāmbī, Puṣkalāvatī, Kanyakubja, Girivraja, Ujjayinī etc would have probably had a million each - with smaller capitals contributing to a further 5-6 million in total. It is likely that the rest of the 40 million inhabitants (or two thirds of the total Indo-Aryan population) would have been villagers.

In the Buddha’s time however (approximately 350-400 years before the common era) these populations would have been slightly lesser - perhaps 50 million Indo-Aryans and 12 million Dravidians as a whole - but still the prominent cities mentioned above would have each had hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.

So the List of largest cities throughout history which lists only Pāṭaliputra between 300 & 200 BCE (and no other prominent Indian city before or after it) is very likely a false/incomplete picture.

In A Population History of India (Oxford University Press, September 2018), Tim Dyson, a “demographer with a focus on India’s population”, estimates that there were “15–30 million people” on the Indian sub-continent circa 200 BCE. Dyson estimates Sāvatthī’s population at the time to have been between 18,000 and 51,000 (emphasis added):

Estimates of land areas have been assembled for some other major cities of the Ganges basin at the time of the Mauryan Empire. The areas of Rajagriha and Kausambi are both put at 181–240 hectares. If it is assumed that they covered 210 hectares (i.e. the centre of the range) and the density assumptions used earlier are employed, then they would each have contained about 48,000 people (range: 25,200 to 71,400). One can speculate that other important cities, such as Indraprastha, Mathura, Ayodhya, and Kashi, contained broadly similar numbers. Likewise, the areas of Ahicchatra and Sravasti are estimated at 121–180 hectares which, using the same approach, implies populations of roughly 35,000 (range: 18,000 to 51,000).

This is broadly consistent with the death rates given in the Visākhā sutta.

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