Rajgir lives in two time zones. The south Rajgir, where most of the sites visited by pilgrims are located, lives in a kind of time warp, taking visitors back by 2500 years to a period when Buddha walked there. North Rajgir is very much like an ordinary town of twenty-first century Bihar with narrow unplanned roads and crowded. The southern part of the town has quiet and picturesque roads. It lies amongst hills and is dotted with dense vegetation. Compared to that, northern part is located on flat land that is almost barren. It is no wonder therefore that South Rajgir appears flooded with visitors, whereas north Rajgir appears like any other normal town from Bihar.
As suggested by our tour operator Jackie, we come down to hotel lobby by 8 AM to have our breakfast. The first sight, where Jackie wants us to take is the “Vishva Shanti Stupa” on the “Ratnagiri” Mountain. Interestingly, Bihar Tourism has provided a ‘chair lift’ system for climbing this mountain, which makes life easy for the tourists. By late morning however, a large queue forms usually to avail of the “Chair lift” facility. That is the reason why Jackie wants us to start early. We leave hotel by 9 AM and start towards southern part of the town. Today, weather Gods seem rather pleased with us because the sky is cloudy and day temperature very moderate. We soon reach the parking lot at the base of Ratnagiri Mountain. I look up, the clouds are so low that they are almost touching the mountain top, making it almost hidden in the clouds.
Drive wheel of Chair lift cable
The “Chair lift” system appears to be an interesting contraption. A steel cable continuously runs along the slope of the mountain, supported by two large wheels at top and bottom. The Bottom wheel is rotated by means of an electrical motor, making the whole system run continuously. Steel chairs are attached to the cable, so that they also climb and come down along the mountain slope again in a continuous way. Chairs can swing to front and rear, making it possible to stop them for a few seconds, for people to quickly sit in or get out of them. An iron rod in the front is locked in position to prevent the forward movement of the chair rider and provide safety to him. Mounting a chair is little tricky but not difficult at all.
Chair lift system
There are only a few people waiting in the queue ahead of us, to ride the chairs. When my turn comes, I quickly manage to sit in the chair. Expert attendants stand by my side to easily put me in a chair in about a couple of seconds and lock the safety bar in position in case of any difficulty. Mercifully, I do not require their help. Attendant also instructs me to lift my feet so that they would not hit the land below, which immediately starts rising up. There are foot rests provided, attached to the chair, to keep my feet rested during the climb. Slowly I start climbing the mountain. The ground below my feet rises with the climb or drops deep, whenever my chair crosses a deep forested valley. The drops could easily measure to 50 or 60 feet deep. The view around is really spectacular with tall mountains and heavy vegetation on the slopes everywhere. I find the ride truly exhilarating and enjoyable. After I reach the top I quickly dismount and we are on our way to a small but steep climb before we can reach the “Vishva Shanti Stupa” located at the highest point of “Ratnagiri” mountain at a height of roughly 1200 feet or so.
After little huffing and puffing, we manage to reach the gates of the Stupa. However a surprise waits for us here as we find the gates locked. We make a few enquiries with the road side vendors, who tell us that the way is closed because the road on which we climbed just now is under repairs. We have no way but to go down to the chair car station again and take an alternative road on the right side that is longer. This road is much easier to climb, with steps cut in rocks. We do the climb quite easily and finally reach the Stupa.
Vishva Shanti stupa hidden in clouds
“Vishwa Shanti Stupa”, built in 1969, is one of the 80 peace pagodas built around the world, to spread the message of peace and non-violence. Rajgir peace pagoda is the oldest one, built in India and was gifted by Japanese spiritual leader Fuji Guruji. The Stupa is a huge white dome with a golden pinnacle at top and with circular pathways along the periphery, to climb up to the base of the Stupa. It is made up of white marble stones, symbolic of world peace and enshrines four golden statues of Buddha.
I have seen a similar Stupa at Leh (Ladakh) India and do not feel inclined to climb up to the base here again. This Stupa however appears quite magical today because of the heavy cloud cover up above. The clouds almost touch the high white dome, creating a foggy environment, which makes the high pinnacle on the top of the dome disappear intermittently. We walk all the way round the Stupa. It is difficult to see the ground below in the valleys, because of the foggy environment. I can see the chair lift system to the southwest and hills to south and southwest behind it. I notice two large water reservoirs and lush green paddy fields towards north. There is a Japanese temple to the west. I visit that. According to Jackie, this temple displays some special paintings. I do not find them. Perhaps these have been removed from display for some special reason.
Jackie points out to a large outcrop or rock formation to the southwest, almost half way up from the ground below. The outcrop with three rocks has an appearance of a large vulture. One rock forming the head and the beak and remaining rocks forming the body. On top surface, I can see ruins of a small hut like construction. Some people are seen sitting and meditating. This outcrop is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites and is known as “Gridhakuta” or vulture peak. It is by tradition, one of several sites frequented by the Buddha and his community of disciples for both training and retreat. Its location is frequently mentioned in Buddhist texts of Theravada Buddhism and in the Mahayana sutras as the place where the Buddha gave certain sermons. The sermons that were delivered here include the “Heart Sutra”, “the Lotus Sutra”, ”the Surangama Samadhi Sutra” as well as many of “Prajnaparamita sutras”. It is explicitly mentioned in the Lotus Sutra, as the Buddha's pure land.
Path around the stupa
Instead of taking the chair lift, one can climb the “Ratnagiri” Mountain by a stone path. Half way to the top, another path branches off and leads to the Vulture peak. Votaries keen on visiting Vulture peak, use this path. Since we were not particularly eager to visit this sacred spot, I decide to go down by chair lift. A large queue however, has now formed at the chair car station. I wait in the queue until my turn come up and again have a ride to quickly reach the foot of the mountain.
After having a cup of Tea, we leave the picturesque surroundings of “Ratnagiri” hill. On our way back, we stop near some ruins of buildings. All the ruined walls are up to the plinth level or even below that. This place is known as Jivika’s Mango grove. Jivika was a physician at the time of Buddha and it is believed that he had donated this mango grove to Buddha. However, by now there is neither any mango trees nor any grove is left. What we have is just a few ruined walls. Jackie tells me that this was Jivika’s hospital too, where he treated patients.
Jivika's Mango grove
Our next stop is at a very curious site. The land here is rocky and rough. I can see two parallel furrows cut deep into the rock ground for about thirty feet or so. Surprisingly surface of these furrows is polished and smooth. They appear to have been created by wheels after a long use of many years. There are inscriptions too written in shell (Shankh) script that has not been deciphered so far. It is believed that these have been made by Lord Krishna's Chariot. Leaving the site of Chariot tracks, we next visit a site known as Bimbisara’s Jail. Bimbisara was the king of Magadha during late 5th century and belonged to the Haryanka dynasty. He was a great friend and protector of the Buddha. According to Chinese traveler Xuan Zhang he built the city of Rajgir (Rajagriha). According to a legend, his son, Ajatshatru, captured and jailed him here.
Chariot tracks in rocks
Carvings in Sonbhandar caves
Jarasandh ki Ranbhoomi
We board the car and drive in a heavily wooded area. The road is not paved. After driving for a kilometer or so we stop near a stone platform about 5 or 6 feet high, with a flight of steps to climb it. On top of the platform are ruinous walls of a hut, only to plinth level. According to a legend, the final epic battle beween Magadha king Jarasandha and Bhim, one of the Pandava brothers, was fought here. Whatever may be the truth behind this legend, the fact cannot be denied that Jarasandha ki Ranbhoomi, the name with which this place is identified, is a stunningly picturesque spot. Hills with barren tops enclose this site from all sides. Dense forests exists from lower slopes of the hills to the foot of the hills everywhere with this place right in the middle of it. Bihar Government is now building a wild life animal Safari here. A tall fence marking the boundary of animal safari can be clearly seen from here.
Maniyar Math ruins
We move on. On way we visit another ancient Stupa known as Maniyar Math to complete our visits in Rajgir. Since this is only lunch time and we still have entire afternoon available to us, Jackie suggests that we make a short visit to Nalanda today itself and come back to Rajgir by evening. This would make it less strenuous for us tomorrow as Nalanda campus is very large and visiting it in half a day could be very tiring. We therefore return to our hotel and have lunch. By 3 P.M. we are on the road again, proceeding to Nalanda Vihara, where one of the largest universities flourished once.
Nalanda ruins are located about 16 Kms to north of Rajgir. To visit Nalanda, one has to take Highway no. 82 and branch off after a village known as Silao. The entry gate to the ruins is marked by a large number of curio shops selling Buddha images and other things of Buddhist interest that have sprung up near the entry gate. Entry tickets can be purchased from an office located on roadside opposite to entry gate. Jackie buys entry tickets for us and we enter the Nalanda ruins campus, which is really huge by any standards. Ruins today occupy an area of around 1,600 feet (488 m) by 800 feet (244 m) or roughly 12 hectares. It is estimated however that Nalanda Mahavihara occupied a far greater area in medieval times.
Actual ruins are located about a Kilometer away from the entry gate. Most of the tourists enter the ruins by a narrow path between Vihara No. 1 and Vihara No. 4. However since we are going to split our visit in two parts, Jackie has other ideas. Today we shall do Vihara 1, 1a, 1b and temple no. 3 and rest of the campus tomorrow.
Nalanda ruins were excavated by ASI during 1915-37 and again in 1974-82. The excavations exposed remains of six brick temples and eleven monasteries arranged on a systematic layout spread over an area more than a square Kilometer. Basically a 30 meter wide passage runs north-south with the row of temples in the west and that of the monasteries on the east of it. The dimension and disposition of rooms within monasteries is almost identical. The temples are numbered as 2, 3, 12, 13, 14 and monasteries as 1, 1a, 1b, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.
Monastery 1b (Temple no. 3 in background)
Monasteries 1a and 1 b are located at the southern extremity of the campus, just south of tallest temple no. 3. We walk way round these monasteries. Since we are standing at a height, the construction of the Monasteries is clearly visible. Both of them have a square layout with cells for monks on all four sides with a central courtyard. The most imposing structure is temple No. 3 at the southern extremity, which was constructed in seven phases. It is surrounded by a number of Votive stupas and other minor shrines. The fifth of these layered temples is the most interesting and the best preserved with four corner towers of which three have been exposed. The towers as well as the sides of the stairs are decorated with exquisite panels of Gupta-era (4th-5th centuries) art depicting a variety of stucco figures including Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, scenes from the Jataka tales. The apex features a shrine chamber which now only contains a pedestal.
Temple No. 3
Monastery No. 1 is considered the oldest and the most important of the monastery group and shows as many as nine levels of construction. The building was originally at least 2 stories high and contained a colossal statue of a seated Buddha. Because of the large number of changes, I find construction of monastery no. 1 very confusing. We visit number of monk’s cells. Two rooms, used as granary. We also visit a monk’s cell having an antechamber. It is believed that Chinese traveler Xuan Zang had stayed here and he used the antechamber for meditation.
We come out of monastery no. 1. In front of it is a complete map of the ruined campus. This gives a fairly complete idea of the vastness of this once flourishing university. It is now time to go back to hotel. In the late evening, Jackie takes us to a hotel called “Indo Hokko” for dinner. The entire hotel is constructed in Japanese style and is located in southern part of Rajgir. It receives many guest from Japan. There is however none today. The food is usual Bihari North Indian. Our drive to and from this hotel turns out to be a pleasant experience, because of greenery and wide roads maintained in good condition.
( To be continued)
(For anyone interested, our tour operator Jackie’s e-mail address is email@example.com)