A bright sunny morning with a clear sky and the watch ticked at 9 am. Well, after a mesmerizing visit of Mahabodhi temple, it was time for breakfast, as my hunger pangs started to admonish me. I reverted back to the hotel to enjoy my lavish complimentary breakfast before heading towards Rajgir. Talking about Rajgir it is a small hill grit town covered with lush green trees, and home to centuries-old history.
From Bodhgaya, its two-hour drive, as Rajgir is at a distance of 71 km. Only the winter wind greeted us, as we drove along the green paddy field. Our driver was an enthusiast who gave a background about the initiation of the city’s name. He started with the name Rajgir oriented from Rājagṛiha, meaning “home of the royal” or ” the royal house”, or the word Rajgir might have its source in its plain literal meaning, “royal mountain”. It has also been the ancient capital of the land of Magadha until the 5th century; later the capital was moved to Patliputra. Hence this state eventually evolves being a portion of the Mauryan Empire for its association with Haryanka dynasty ruled by Kings like Bimbisara (558–491 BC) and Ajatashatru (492–460 BC). The picturesque Rajgir is also known as Panchpahari as it is hemmed in by five holy hills. My driver was an exciting historian, as he had his versions of history too, which he shared along the way.
Another interesting fact, this city also finds itself mentioned in India’s most remarkable literary epic, the Mahabharata, through its king Jarasandha. The portion in Mahabharata is called Girivraja. It recites the story of its king, Jarasandha, for his battle with the Pandavas and their allies Krishna. Jarasandha, who hailed from this place, was defeated 17 times by Krishna. However, on the 18th battled, Krishna left the field of battle without a fight. For this reason, he is also called ‘Ranachorh’ (one who has left the area) in the epic.
Considerably, I wanted to check the places to see if we can still find evidence. And there I found an area marked by ASI as chariot route marks; thus, I started my trip from that point. A strange phenomenon, as I discovered two parallel furrows cut deep into the rock about 30feet on the ground. The local belief that when Lord Krishna entered Rajgir during the Mahabharata time, the chariot burnt into the stone because of his speed & power. Do not know if its possible, as physics does not confirm the logic.
All the same, another exciting thing which caught my attention, was the several shell inscriptions with the undeciphered character engraved on the rock around the chariot marks. The inscriptions date between 1st to 5th century. I stood stunned, literally ogling at them, and thinking Indian history is magic.
It is said a wrestling match between Bhima (one of the Pandavas) and Jarasandha, the then king of Magadha which is even narrated in the Mahabharata. Known as Jarasandha’s Akhara (the place where martial arts are practised) is marked by ASI for a sojourn. That was way ahead from chariot marks. Though entirely in ruins now, but it’s a vast area. Rather interestingly, Jarasandha was said to be unconquerable since any dismembered limbs his body could rejoin. According to the legend, Bhim ruptured Jarasandha into two halves and threw it opposite to each other so that they could not join. Woohoo! What power.
Also, 2500year-old and 40 km long walls encircling the ancient Rajgir called the Cyclopean Wall is another favourite architecture of this site. A kind of stonework basically found in Mycenaean architecture, where massive limestone boulders are used to build this wall, roughly fitted together with minimal clearance between adjacent stones with clay mortar or no use of mortar. As per Xuanzang(a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim)in particular states that the Cyclopean Wall divides the town into Old and New Rajgir. The origin date is unknown, although ceramics dates back to about 1000 BC have been found in the city. Probably a pre-Mauryan structure and the traces of the wall I saw particularly at the exit of Rajgir.
Furthermore, Rajgir has a close connection with Buddhism since Lord Buddha spent a few years here and delivered sermons. He even evangelized emperor Bimbisar at the Griddha Kuta hill. On Griddha Kuta hill the two stone-cut caves were the favourite retreats of the Buddha. He said-” All things appear and disappear, but he who awakens shall be awake forever.”
Hence, I started to towards the Griddha Kuta hill, where the Vishwa Shanti Stupa is also situated. So from Jarasandha’s Akhara, it took 10 min drive to reach the base of Griddha Kuta hill. However, to get the hilltop, you can either use the serpentine staircase or can take the aerial ropeway. I preferred for the ropeway its Rs 60 per person. This 2,200-foot-long ropeway, which is held by the Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation (BSTDC), and as the symbol of Indo-Japanese friendship, it was presented to the State by Fujii Guruji.
I was on the hilltop looking at the world’s highest peace pagoda, conceptualized by renowned Buddhist monk Nipponzan Myohoji. Built atop the Ratnagiri Hill by Japanese monk Fujii Guruji. Taking a good look at the Stupa, it’s made of marble which comprises four golden statues of Lord Buddha each presenting his life periods-birth, enlightenment, preaching and death. Along the side of the Stupa, there is a temple called the “Nipponzan Myohoji”.
It is believed Lord Budhha delivered his famous Atanatiya Sutra here. Also one of the cave name-Saptaparni Cave is where the first Buddhist Council was held under the leadership of Maha Kassapa. The entire spot is so tranquil, you can feel a positive vibe in the air. The full city can be viewed from the hilltop, along with few monks, can be seen meditating. After spending some quiet time, I headed towards my next spot.
The Jivekarma- it used to be Lord Buddha favourite residence in Rajgir. It is the tush of the Royal Physician’s dispensary, where Buddha was taken to have his wound dressed. Beautifully decorated green lawn.
Though I passed over this place and moved to the Venuvan Vihar monastery. It is another residence of Buddha here, gifted by emperor Bimbisar. A beautiful serene monastery, with a giant Buddha statue just outside the sanctuary. Aside from this, the teachings were Lord Buddha was penned down.
Though there are various other places to visit in Rajgir; like the Karanda Tank – which Buddha used to bathe or the Ajatsatru fort which is mostly in ruins including the Bimbisar Jail. You can likewise visit the Pandu Pokhar or Ghorakatora Lake for boating, or just take a walk in the gardens where nature’s peace flow in soothing mind & soul.
Not only Rajgir attracts Buddhist pilgrimage, but also other for its hot water springs which have medicinal properties. Situated at the foothill of Vaibhava Hill, a staircase leads to these bathing chambers. The water adds up through the sprouts from Saptdhara- the seven streams whose origin is behind Saptarni caves. The hottest Kund is Bramhakund with a temp of 45 degrees. Damn! High working temperature.
Talking to locals, I came across this area is notable in Jainism too, since it’s the birthplace of the 20th Jain Tirthankar Munisuvrata. The 24th Tirthankara Lord Mahavira did spend fourteen years of his life at Rajgir and Nalanda. Still, mainly it’s known for Jain Tirthankar Munisuvrata as an ancient temple dedicated to him (about 1200 years old) stands tall here, along with other 26yrs Jain temples in the vicinity. Veerayatan is another famous temple converted into a museum nowadays. As I was running out of time in hand, I was unable to see. But I propose spending an overnight in Rajgir to cover these places.
My last spot of the visit was the Swan Bhandar caves, but I halted at Maniyar Math since it’s lies on the way. It’s fundamentally a well covered and designed as a Jain temple. It is devoted to a monk named Salibhadra, who left his luxurious life to become an ascetic. It is alleged that many precious jewels and gemstones are buried here, but cannot be traced. All the same, as per the archaeologist, this old well was built time of Magadh king Ajatshatru in 494 BC.
Further forward is the Swan Bhandar caves-two artificial caves which belonged to the Jains. These caves are dated to the 3rd or 4th century CE, as per the dedicatory inscription found. And the construction of the cellar was done by a Jain Muni (“wise man”) named Vairadeva. This is the largest cave which uses the Gupta script of the 4th century CE, although some historian suggests the caves could actually extend back to the period of the Maurya empire from 319 to 180 BCE.
The main cave is rectangular with a pointed ceiling, with a trapezoidal entrance. The stone of Swan Bhandar is hard, and the interior is mirror polished. On that point is a famous myth among the local that the caves were used to store gold of King Jarasandha or Bimbisar not sure of, & the script on the walls is the codes to unlock it. Exactly like the movie Mummy. After passing some time & clicking a few pictures, we headed towards Nalanda.
It was past 1pm, time for lunch. We halted at a roadside Dhaba & ate “Litti Choka”- the staple food of Bihar. It was delicious but had to drink ample water post that. Talking about Nalanda, many theories exist about the etymology of the figure itself.
If I Agree to the Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, Nalanda name is derived from an al, Illam dā, which means no end in gifts or charity without intermission. On the other hand, Yijing, another Chinese pilgrim, counters the name is from Nāga Nanda meaning snake in a local tank. However, Hiranand Sastri, an archaeologist who directed the excavation of the ruins, found an abundance of nālas (lotus-stalks) in the area, hence believes that Nalanda would then represent the giver of lotus-stalks. Therefore there is no confirmation on the orientation of the name. Though now it’s under the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nalanda was an ancient Mahavihara- a Pali term for monastic complex or monasteries, which even served as the famed centre of learning during the ancient Kingdom of Magadha. It has been the most important centre of learning in the creation from the 5th CE till 1200 CE.
Nalanda has been destroyed thrice, however, was rebuilt twice only. However, with the systematic excavations commenced in 1915, led to the revelation of six brick temples and eleven monasteries which are neatly arranged on the grounds of 30 acres in area. A trove of sculptures, coins, stamps, and inscriptions have also been discovered in ruins. Pilgrim travellers Faxian Xuanzang, Yijing Buddhist monks, mentioned in the writings of a detailed stay in Nalanda, this even I have read in my history syllabus.
The Gupta era resulted in evolution and prosperity due to the liberal cultural traditions inherited until the 9th century CE. But in the subsequent centuries, Nalanda leads a gradual diminution, because of the dull decay of Buddhism in India. During the reign of Palas, the traditional Mahayana and Hinayana forms of Buddhism were imbued with Tantric practices involving secret rituals and magic.
Besides, Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji, attacked Bihar looted & destroyed the whole area. Islamic culture is another cause for the decline of Buddhism. The last throne-holder of Nalanda, Shakyashri Bhadra of Kashmir, fled to Tibet in 1204 at the invitation of the Tibetan translator Tropu Lotsawa. Hence this is the reason how & why Tibetan Buddhist tradition is regarded to be a continuation of the Nalanda tradition.
Nalanda was forgotten tale until Francis Buchanan-Hamilton surveyed the site in 1811–1812. Later Alexander Cunningham, along with its newly formed Archaeological Survey of India, conducted an official survey in 1861–1862. Finally, the systematic excavation of the ruins by the ASI started in 1915 and ended in 1937. The second round of excavation and restoration took place between 1974 and 1982. Now what we see is the ruins of a planned layout of a lost centre of knowledge.
It was time to leave, as the time for my train was nearing. Hence we drove towards the Gaya railway station. I just witnessed a detailed & rich history of an era, it just reminded me of Georg Cantor statement that so well related to Nalanda -“My beautiful proof lies all in ruins.”
How to reach
The nearest airport is Gaya Airport, 57Km away from Rajgir. Patna is another airport approximately 100 kilometres away from Rajgir. A cab can be hired outside the airport.
Rajgir is the nearest railhead, which is well connected with Patna, Kolkata & Delhi since there is regular train service. A taxi can be hired outside the station, or even local buses can opt.
The roads are well connected with Rajgir. Bus(standard as well as deluxe buses) of Bihar State Tourism Corporation ply to the destination. Even a new line of luxury air-conditioned Volvo buses have been introduced that connect Bodh Gaya with nearby towns and cities. You can self-drive or take cab services from the various operator.