To find a place not steeped in history, heritage or culture in India would be an anomaly. After living for eight years in the country I should be used to the cultural avalanche that typifies most things Indian by now.
After all, we are talking about 2 million years, 29 states, 7 union territories, and 9 practiced religions. But nope. Every time I come across a place, either firmly established as the country’s top sights or obscure and unknown on the road-less-travelled, I am overwhelmed. 🙂
Take for instance my recent travels to Bodh Gaya. On doing my travel research one specific name kept popping up—Rajgir. It came highly recommended. Unsure of what exactly to expect, I added it to my itinerary with an overnight stay, but alas, I wish I had stayed longer.
Known in ancient times as Rajagriha, which translates to “house of king” or “royal house,” Rajgir, located between Bodh Gaya and Nalanda, was the first capital of ancient Magadha up until the 5th Century BC. But what was Magadha?
Though overshadowed by the achievements and splendours of India’s later empires, Magadha was where it all started. One of the 16 great countries of Ancient India, the two golden epochs—the Mauryan and Gupta Empires—originated in Magadha.
If that’s not enough, Magadha belonged to Buddha and Mahavira’s era. Both the men lived in Magadha. Both taught their sermons within its borders. Both received political support by its kings, helping their new religions, Buddhism and Jainism, to plant roots and spread branches.
With its capital and origins in southern Bihar, Magadha in its hey-days spread over northern and eastern India, and across present-day borders into Bangladesh and Nepal. Pick up any Buddhist, Jain or Hindu classical texts, and you will be inundated with its mention. Stories of Magadha’s legendary kings and their foibles and passions comprise many a tale recounted in Indian folklore. Its love for knowledge culminated in Nalanda, the world’s first residential university.
Avalanche, I said in my opening lines.
Unlike other Indian heritage centres, there are no exquisite temples or grand palaces in Rajgir. No breath-taking bursts of nature. But who says avalanches are only in the tangible! In Rajgir, they are in the stones, in the bamboo groves, and on the mountain peaks, which 2,600 years on still echo tales of yore. Read on, and let me tell you more.
Part 1. Buddha’s favourite site for his discourses
Top: The chair-car up Ratnagiri Hill; Above: Vishwa Shanti Stupa, one of 80 peace pagodas around the world, sits atop the hill.
Perched atop Ratnagiri Hill overlooking Rajgir and in Venu Vana, a bamboo grove in the valley below are two of Buddha’s favourite sites for his discourses. It is uncanny, to say the least, to stand in these precincts, aware that Buddha too once stood at these very same spots and shared his understanding of the path to an enlightened life with those who were ready to listen.
Rajgir’s prized, much flaunted attraction is a brightly painted, albeit shaky chair-car to Ratnagiri’s hilltop. A gold-edged, snow-white pagoda, aptly called Vishwa Shanti [world peace] Stupa, built by the neo-Buddhist organisation Nipponzan Myohoji, sits on the peak in honour of the sanctity of the place.
A 30-minute downhill walk leads to Vulture Peak aka Gadhrakuta, wrapped in a fluttering web of colourful prayer flags, where Buddha used to preach and meditate with his disciples. The day I visited there were three generations of a Japanese family deep in meditation with the youngest a mere 10 years old. Why not plonk yourself down too and let the peace and calm wash over you.
Whilst Buddha tends to be more closely associated with Rajgir, the founder of Jainism, Mahavira has no less linkages with this little town, having spent 14 years here. The Veerayatan Jain Museum pays homage to this connect through a series of around 50 delicate handmade dioramas on the lives of the 24 Tirthankaras. Filled with delicate detailing they are an absolute treat to the eyes. Sorry, no photography allowed inside.
Travel tips: 1) Chair car charges Rs. 80 return. 2) Make sure you make your way down before dark as the paths are not lit. 3) The Veerayatan Jain Museum is open from 9 am – 7 pm every day.
Buddha’s favourite preaching grounds: Vulture Peak and Venu Vana.
Part 2. Stories of Magadha royalty’s foibles and ambitions in its stones
Bimbisara’s Jail where Bimbisara was imprisoned by his son Ajatashatru. Bimbisara spent his hours finding solace looking out of the window at Vulture Peak where Buddha preached, comforted by the thought of his friend.
Jeevak Aamravan, the Magadha medicine man’s hospital-cum-home. Buddha and his disciples used the surrounding mango groves as a retreat and for sermons.
Where there is power, there will invariably be sagas of ambition and betrayal. Things were no different 2,600 years ago in Magadha, and its capital Rajgir.
With all the manifold stories over the millennia in its folds, it would be fair to state that Rajgir is first and foremost the story of a father and son. A father who loved his son, and a son who loved power. Rajgir is the story of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru.
Founder of the Magadha empire, Bimbisara was born to a chieftain called Bhattiya. After ascending the throne at age 15 in 543 BC, Bimbisara, a good friend of Buddha, went on to expand his kingdom and build the city of Rajgir. He loved his son Ajatashatru dearly, putting him above all else. Legends claim he even swallowed the pus from his child’s infected finger rather than spit it away.
But Ajatashatru was ambitious and willing to pay any price to become monarch, even if it meant imprisoning his father and torturing him to death. By the time he realized his mistake it was unfortunately too late. Bimbisara had committed suicide inside the jail. Hey, but don’t they say, what goes around, comes around. Ajatashatru was eventually murdered by his son Udayabhadra for the same reason: The throne.
All that remain of these evocative tales are accounts in both Buddhist and Jain classical texts with slight variations. And the ruins of Bimbisara’s Jail and the mango groves around the royal physician Jeevak’s hospital-cum-home where Buddha and his disciples lived. And the fact that we still remember this saga, even after two-and-a-half thousand years.
Ancient medical treatments in continuance: Herbs and roots for hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis.
Part 3. An epicentre for knowledge and learning at Nalanda
A corridor in Monastery 1 leading into the monks’ cells. At any given time, there were 10,000 scholars and 2,000 teachers inside Nalanda “university.”
Nalanda’s most famous ruin: The Sariputra stupa.
The seed which eventually bloomed into the establishment of the world’s first residential international university in Nalanda, some 16 km from Rajgir, was planted in the most unassuming way. It was through Buddha and Mahavira’s discourses in the mango groves which covered the grounds during the Magadha empire. Little did they both know, that even after a thousand years, the land would be considered hallowed and, thus, appropriate as a world centre for learning.
For eight centuries, Nalanda Mahavihara, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracted the brightest scholars from within India and from all over the ancient world including Central Asia, China, and Korea. There were no degrees granted. There was no fees. Its alumni comprised the likes of Aryabhata [476 – 550 AD], the celebrated Indian mathematician and astronomer, and Nagarjuna, formaliser of the Buddhist concept of Shunyata.
Across the road, a small Museum contains artefacts and effigies of Buddha found at Nalanda and Rajgir. Don’t miss the many-spouted pot and 7th Century AD inscription recording the installation of a 24.4-metre-high bronze statue of Buddha at Nalanda by Purnavarman.
I had mentioned earlier in this blog post, Magadha is about stories. No write-up about Nalanda is complete without mention of Hiuen Tsang aka Xuanzang. A Chinese traveller and pilgrim, he embarked on a 16-year, jaw-dropping overland journey [much of it on foot] to Nalanda and back, in 629 AD. Walking through the arid Gobi Desert and the Silk Road, past the formidable Himalayas, he was determined to come to India to not just study the Buddhist texts in their original form but also take them back with him.
He later turned his travels into a book which provided the world with in-depth first-person accounts of the ancient world; a book which is still used as a reference source today. A Memorial Hall [built in 2007] in his honour stands on the outskirts of Nalanda with an exhibition chalking out his journey.
A befitting end to one’s explorations of Rajgir—the little town which completes the Buddhist circuit in Bihar. Don’t you agree? ❤
Travel tips: 1) A guide in Nalanda helps put things in perspective. May I recommend Sanjay Kumar, cell no. +91 96086 46853. He was fantastic! 2) To read more about my visit to Nalanda click here.
Archaeological finds from Nalanda and Rajgir fill the ASI Nalanda Museum. Above: Multi-spouted vessel, terracotta, 2nd – 3rd Century AD. Not too sure how it was used though. 😀
Left: Avalokiteshvara, 9th – 10th Century AD; Right: 7th Century AD Sanskrit inscription in Brahmi script recording the installation of a 24.4-metre-high bronze statue of Buddha at Nalanda by Purnavarman.
Xuanzang Memorial Hall, on the outskirts of Nalanda, pays homage to one of the foremost pilgrim travellers from the East.
The pilgrim traveller himself: Hiuen Tsang aka Xuanzang aka countless other names by which he is known throughout the world.
- Rajgir is one of the few places in India where horse-driven tongas are still used for local transport.
- The best bet for getting around, however, is to hire a car as Rajgir’s sights are scattered in various directions.
- Best time to visit: November to March.
- Rajgir is 105 km from Patna and 70 km from Bodh Gaya. The roads in Bihar are in pretty bad shape with extensive ongoing roadworks.
- Staying there: I stayed for 2 days at Indo Hokke Hotel [an ex-Centaur hotel with a fantastic in-house restaurant] through yatra.com.