Friday, November 30, 2018

Wanderings in Buddha’s land- 3

Vishva Shanti Stupa at Rajgir

(Continued from)

Day 4

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.

Gridhakuta Rocks

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

Bimbisara's Jail

The ruins of Bimbisara’s jail, look like that of a fortress with two bastions. There is nothing particularly interesting except for the fact that “Gridhakuta” outcrop can be seen from here very clearly. We therefore move on to the next site “Sonbhandar”. According to a legend, this cave was king Bimbisara’s gold vault. A single look however is enough to convince me that “Sonbhandar” must have been a small monastery like place.  There are actually two rectangular caves excavated on a rocky surface. The cave on left is still intact. For the cave on right, the roof is gone and the front wall is half broken.  The cave on left has a pointed ceiling, and the entrance is trapezoidal. The finish of the walls is rough and quite inferior. There is an inscription at the entrance of the cave, which indicates that these caves were excavated for “Jaina munis” in 4th century. The broken cave on right also has some engravings showing a Buddha and Jaina Tirthankars. Indicating that Buddhist monks also had resided here at some point in time. However the quality of engravings is again very inferior.

Sonbhandar  Caves

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.

Plan of Nalanda as excavated by ASI

It has been a long day. Now is the time to hit the bed.

( To be continued)

(For anyone interested, our tour operator Jackie’s e-mail address is


Sunday, November 18, 2018

Wanderings in Buddha’s land- 2

Mahabodhi temple 

Day 3

We come to hotel lobby exactly at 6:30 AM, as suggested by our tour operator Jackie, to visit the Mahabodhi temple.  No cars are allowed near the Mahabodhi temple.  You also cannot carry with you, your mobile phones or any other baggage inside the temple premises. These precautionary conditions are in force as, on 7 July 2013 a series of ten bombs had exploded in and around the Mahabodhi Temple complex. Five people, including two Buddhist monks, were injured by the blasts. Three other devices were defused by bomb-disposal squads at a number of locations in Gaya.

Jackie suggests that we leave our mobiles phones and other stuff with the hotel reception, take our cameras and start for the temple on foot. While we are just outside the hotel, an ‘e-Rickshaw’ (Tuk-Tuk) silently approaches. Jackie tells us that these battery powered electric rickshaws are a recent addition and have completely replaced the cycle rickshaws. We decide to take the ride and board. A few minutes later, we alight in the chowk, up to which ‘e-Rickshaws’ are allowed to ply. We find the ride smooth, silent and pollution free. From this chowk onwards we would need to walk. We hand over our shoes to a service shop, which specializes in safe-keeping the shoes and start walking. The weather is not very cold yet the flooring on which we walk has already turned colder.  Temple management seems to be aware of this and have provided a green plastic foam carpet for people, who want to walk towards the temple. We soon reach the temple entrance. There is another security check. Our cameras are checked for any hidden stuff and we have a body check to see that we are not carrying any non-allowed things. Another few steps and we are standing at Gate no. 2 to east of the temple.

View from Eastern Gate

Pillar in front of Eastern entrance 

Entire temple complex except for the three sacred sites of Buddha's enlightenment, stands on a low ground, at least 10 to 15 feet below the adjacent ground on which entrance gate stands. The present Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya comprises the 50 m high grand Temple, the Vajrasana, sacred Bodhi Tree and other  sacred sites of Buddha's enlightenment, surrounded by numerous ancient Votive stupas, well maintained and protected by inner, middle and outer circular boundaries.  A seventh sacred place, the Lotus Pond, is located outside the enclosure to the south. Both the temple area and the Lotus Pond are surrounded by circulating passages at two or three levels and the area of the ensemble is 5 m below the level of the surrounding land.

     Buddha image in the sanctum  of Mahabodhi temple 

Mahabodhi temple complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  UNESCO’s web site describes the temple complex in these words. “The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th or 6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, from the late Gupta period. The Main Temple wall has an average height of 11 m and it is built in the classical style of Indian temple architecture. It has entrances from the east and from the north and has a low basement with mouldings decorated with honeysuckle and geese design. Above this is a series of niches containing images of the Buddha. Further above there are mouldings and chaitya niches, and then the curvilinear shikhara or tower of the temple surmounted by amalaka and kalasha (architectural features in the tradition of Indian temples). At the four corners of the parapet of the temple are four statues of the Buddha in small shrine chambers. A small tower is built above each of these shrines. The temple faces east and consists of a small forecourt in the east with niches on either side containing statues of the Buddha.”

Ashoka Pillar 

Muchlind Lake 

We go down the steps leading to the main temple, the temple has a statue of Buddha in the sanctum, worshipped by Buddhists. We see many of them, coming in groups. Jackie tells me that these Buddhist groups come from all Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Japan.  After having a look at the main temple, we climb a flight of steps to come to the spot, where we find a sandstone pillar, believed to be erected by Emperor Ashoka. Further to the south is a small lake known as “Muchlind” lake, where Buddha is supposed to have sat in the sixth week after he attained enlightenment.  Jackie tells me that this is probably not the real “Muchlind” lake and this one has been built for convenience of the pious pilgrims. Real “Muchlind” lake is located far beyond the boundaries of the temple in a nearby village.  From “Muchlind” lake we again go down to the temple wall and walk across it.  The temple has at the top a pinnacle (Kalasa) made from gold, Jackie tells me that it weighs 298 Kilograms and it has been presented by Thai Buddhists.  We walk along the southern face of the temple. This wall has series of niches in which images of Buddha have been placed. Above the niches, I can see a frieze band running continuously along the wall. This frieze has a series of gargoyle faces projecting out. Above the frieze there are niches again with Buddha figures. Above that, all along the southern face of temple tower to the top are niches in row after row. Most of them are empty. Only a few show lotus flower motifs carved in them.  At the top I can see the golden pinnacle.

View from southeast

Golden Pinnacle

Gorgoyle images on southern face of the temple

We turn right and come to the western face of the temple. In front of us is the Bodhi tree. The tree trunk is now enclosed in a sandstone railing.  On the inner side of the sandstone railing there is an enclosure made from round steel bars painted with golden colour. For additional protection there is a thick and transparent acrylic sheet fixed on inside of steel enclosure, on all three sides. (On fourth side stands the western face of Mahabodhi temple.) In the space between the tree and the western temple face, I can see a stone platform with carvings on top and edges. This carved stone, known as “Vajrasana” has been dated to first few centuries of our era. It is believed that this is the exact spot where Buddha sat, when he had attained enlightenment. Gates made from round steel bars, painted with golden colour, are seen fixed to north and south faces of the sandstone railing. These must have been provided for temple staff to enter the area adjoining Bodhi tree for cleaning up as well as for temple monks to carry out daily Buddhist rituals. While standing next to the sandstone railing, I can see people meditating on all three sides of the Bodhi tree. They include Buddhist monks and some foreigners.  The environment is whisper quiet. I feel much enchanted.

Bodhi tree- View from south

Vajrasana platform

Bodhi tree- view from north

We climb the steps on the northern side of Mahabodhi temple and come to a small shrine with Buddha’s image in it. This is called “Ratanaghara”. It is believed that Buddha meditated here in fourth week after his enlightenment. We walk towards the northeast, where another small shrine stands. This is known as “Animesh Lochana”. It is believed that Budha spent second week after his enlightenment at this spot gazing unwinking at the Bodhi tree. We walk along and come to the eastern gate again. IN the southeast corner, there is a beautiful garden with a giant bell in it. This has been gifted by an American lady known by name Mrs. Wango Dixit.

North face of temple

Votive Stupas 

Bell donated by Mrs. Wango Dixit.

We come out of the eastern gate and walk back to the chowk, where we were earlier dropped by the “e-Rickshaw”. Another “e-rickshaw” ride and we are back at the hotel. After break-fast, we are ready for day’s sightseeing.  Our first halt is “Bodhgaya Archaeological Museum”.

The greatest attraction of the museum is the “Sanchi” type, stone railing, which once enclosed the Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi temple. Made of sandstone and granite, these pillars belong to the “Sunga” (1st or 2nd century BCE) and early medieval (6th-7th century CE) periods respectively.  The pillars have sculptured panels and medallions at both faces representing themes from Jataka, events of Buddha’s life, zodiac signs, folk scenes etc. Some of the pillars also bear inscriptions, Hinayana motifs like a Bodhi tree or Dhammachakra. Only very few coping pieces and horizontal beams are on display, though number of pillars is large. To hold the horizontal beams in place, Pillars have blind slots carved out in them.  Coping members have animal figures carved on them in repetitive fashion. Museum also displays sculptures of Padmapani, Tara, Buddha in different attitudes (Mudra), maitreya, Manjushri and Jambhala. Also displayed are the images associated with Hindu Vedic religion such as Vishnu, Surya, Uma-Maheshwara, Ganesha and Kamdeva. A special attraction of the museum is the display of antiquities unearthed during excavations conducted by ASI at Bakraur village situated on the opposite bank of “Niranjana” River.  The museum also displays a large number of old photographs showing, how Mahabodhi temple looked at the time of excavation in year 1880 and afterwards at the time of restoration in 1899.

80 feet tall Buddha- Gift from Japanese 

After visiting the museum, we move on to visit rest of the places in Bodhgaya. The first site to visit is the 80 feet Buddha statue. This has been gifted by Japanese Buddhists.  The unveiling and consecration of this Great Buddha Statue, took place on November 18, 1989. Japanese spent seven years on construction of this statue and had employed 120,000 masons in total. The next items on our itinerary are the Buddhist monasteries built by Buddhists from foreign countries such as Thailand, Bhutan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar and also Tergar Monastery, where 14th Dalai Lama stays when he visits Bodhgaya.

We now drive on and cross Niranjana Ricer bed. There is hardly any water left in the river. All we can see is the sand filled bed of this river. On the other bank of the river, in the Bakraur village, are the ruins of “Sujata Garh” stupa built in memory of Sujata, a maiden, who had offered sweetened milk-rice to Buddha before his enlightenment.  Chinese traveler Xuan Zang, who visited Bodhgaya in 7th century, makes a mention in his travelogue of this Stupa in following words. “To the east of the Bodhi tree, crossing the Niranjana River, in the middle of a wood, is a Stupa. To the north of this is a pool”.

Sujata Garh

ASI made excavations here in 1973-74 and 2001-06. A plaque found in the excavation has an inscription from the 8th-9th century CE that reads "Devapala Rajasya Sujata Griha", Devapala is believed to be the 9th century Pala dynasty king. The legend therefore can be translated as "Sujata House, of King Devapala". This probably means that the last phase of construction of the stupa was completed sometime in the 9th century CE, to commemorate the house where Sujata lived.  The Stupa is circular and had double terraces, There were four pillar platforms (Ayakas) extending in all cardinal directions. The Stupa was constructed in three phases from Gupta to Pala period. There was a wooden railing around the “Pradakshina Patha” at the ground level. Entire structure was originally plastered with lime.  As mentioned above, the antiquities found here have been displayed in Bodhgaya Archaeological museum visited by us today.

Sujata Temple

From Sujata Garh, we drive on to reach a garishly painted Sujata temple. It is believed that after 6 years of practicing meditation, kheer (Milk-rice) given by Sujata was the first mouthful of food, Buddha ate. This temple, situated close to the Niranjana River, is thus dedicated to this tribal woman. The temple is surrounded by huts of very poor people.  Jackie tells me that these people are so poor that they can eat even rats and mouse to satisfy their hunger. I wonder, why Bihar Government is not doing something to uplift these poor.  Begging appears to be their only occupation.  Actually Sujata temple is located on a large earthen mound. It is quite possible that a large stupa might be hidden underneath it. We see another similar mound nearby, which again could have a stupa hidden underneath.

We decide to have lunch in a nearby restaurant and after lunch immediately leave for Rajgir. Our day’s site seeing is not yet over. We have to still visit two or three more sites. The first on the agenda is a visit to “Pragbodhi” Hill. After Prince Siddhartha renounced the world he practiced austerities for six years. One of the places he stayed during this period was a mountain that later came to be called Pragbodhi. It is also now known as Dungeswari. It is believed that Prince Siddhartha sheltered in the small cave half way up this mountain.

From Bodhgaya, we retrace our path to Gaya and then turn into northeast direction. Dungeshwari Hill is about 13.5 Kilometers from Gaya town.  Initially we pass through rich paddy fields but as our destination nears the landscape changes to a rocky kind of country with plenty of rocks lying around in a shrub forest. Soon a solitary hill appears in view. The car stops near the foot of this hill. I can see a long, steeply climbing path going up towards hill. As we view the landscape, our car is suddenly surrounded by seven or eight motor cyclists, a scary experience. Jackie explains that these people have come to see if we are interested in hiring a ride up the mountain on their motor cycles. Before we could get out of the car, it starts to rain heavily.  We wait patiently.  Surprisingly motor cyclists also wait surrounding the car. After 10 minutes, the rain stops and we get down and start climbing up. After realizing that we are not going to hire a ride, motor cyclists disappear, probably cursing us for having wasted their time.  After climbing up a little distance, we have a good view of the Hill.  Half way up, I can see a group of three buildings and up above the mountain top faint outlines of three or four Stupas. The cave is near the temple on the left. Jackie tells me that the small temple near the cave is run by some Tibetan monks and the Stupas on top of mountain are very ancient.

Pragbodhi temple

View of forest from Pragbodhi hill

We return to the car and continue in northeast direction. After travelling some distance, I notice that we have now reached a hilly country with hills of medium height flanking us on one side.  We soon reach village of Jethian.  Fa Xian, the Chinese traveler, who travelled to India in 4th century, mentions Jethian as “Yashtivana” (Bamboo Grove) in his travelogue.  Xuan Zang, travelling three centuries later also mentions “Yashtivana”.  Buddha is believed to have delivered a few sermons here. Japanese have now erected a small Buddha temple here.  We visit the temple and are on our way again.

Yashtivana Temple at Jethian

The road now passes through a picturesque valley. On one side we have hills and the other side forestland.  We cross quite a few tribal villages on way.  I do not see any brick structures in the villages. There are only huts with straw walls and  thatched roofs.   Jackie points out to a narrow pass near Gehlour village. This is the pass that has been cut single handedly by Dasharath Manjhi, a villager. He did an unbelievable task of carving a path 110 m long (360 ft.), 9.1 m (30 ft.) wide and 7.6 m (25 ft.) deep through a hillock using only a hammer and chisel. He took 22 years to complete this job.

Mountain pass chiseled by Dashath Manjhi 

The hills on one side of the road are getting taller now and there is vegetation too. Soon we see a narrow pass opening out in the line of hills. A signboard says that we are about to reach Rajgir town. We pass through a stone wall that extends to both sides. Jackie tells me that this wall, known as Cyclopean wall, was a four meter high and 40 Kms long wall, made up of stone blocks, encircling the Rajgir city. It is believed that this wall was constructed by King Ajatshatru  of Haryanka Dynasty,  more than 2500 years ago. Obviously, the wall is now in the ruinous condition.  On the other side of the pass, the environment changes suddenly, almost in a magical fashion. Gone is the shrub forest. There are tall hills on both sides with dense vegetation everywhere.  We soon come out of the hilly tract and enter Rajgir town located    on a flat surface. Hills now remain behind to distant south.  We soon enter our hotel, Anand International. It is time now to relax in the comfort of the hotel.

(To be continued)

(For anyone interested, our tour operator Jackie’s e-mail address is


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Wanderings in Buddha’s land -1

Didarganj Yakshi, Didarganj Bihar, (3rd Century BCE)

Day 1

I think it to be a good omen, as our flight to Patna is announced almost on the dot. Pune airport has only two aerobridges, so most of the times; boarding or alighting from the aircraft is by a ladder; after or before a brief walk to or from the aircraft; in the cold, hot sun or even rain. We are lucky as we board the aircraft through an aerobridge and manage to avoid the walk in the hot sun. Routine announcements follow and the aircraft leaves the aerobridge almost immediately. We roll down the tarmac and start moving towards the runway by the separate taxiway built for aircraft movements. About half way to engine revving up point on the runway, aircraft suddenly stops.  Our pilot tells us that he has been asked to wait, as there are a few military flights before us. We wait patiently. After another 10 or 15 minutes, aircraft starts moving slowly again to stop somewhere near, where the taxiway joins the runway. Through the left window, we can see number of SU 30 fighters parked. They are so near us that we can even see the pilot and co-pilot sitting on their seats under the canopy. Shortly before he takes off, the pilot of the nearest parked SU-30 aircraft, waves to us. We wait for another 10 or 15 minutes, before we are allowed to take off by the control tower. Finally, we take off and are airborne.
The flight is comfortable but service is too slow. It is ages before we get our meals. As I doze off after the meals, announcement comes that we shall be landing shortly at “Jaiprakash Narayan international airport” in Patna. We land exactly at 4 PM. The weather outside is warm but not very hot. Patna airport, even now, is exactly like many other airports in India, as they were 20 or 30 years back. Most of the airports in India have been rebuilt or undergone renovations during last decade or so, but not the Patna airport. Even today, there is only one baggage belt in domestic arrivals. We get our bags rather quickly and come out of the airport. I search for the placard with my name, which our driver for next week, Ravi, was supposed to hold for us. At the first glance, I do not see him, so I decide to call him. He responds immediately and tells me, where he is standing. He takes our bags and we move slowly to a point, where he asks us to wait, as he would drive his car to that point to pick us up. The car comes in and we sit in it. Shortly, we are dropped at “Pataliputra Continental” hotel, which is barely 10 minutes’ drive away. The hotel and specially our room, both are rather pleasant; however, occupancy at the hotel appears to be rather low. Our tour operator Jackie calls to fix up tomorrow’s travel plans. For now, there is nothing else to do, but relax in the comforts provided by the hotel.

Maulana Azad Engineering College Building

Day 2

We get ready by 10 AM. Ravi, our driver, has already arrived. We check out of the hotel. As we come out, our attention is caught by two beautiful quaint buildings: constructed in the ornamental Mughal or Rajput building style of the medieval period; complete with grills, arches, decorative doors, and windows. Both buildings are well maintained; one painted in ochre red and other in light blue colour.  Enquiry with hotel people tells us that it is an Engineering College now called as “Maulana Azad Engineering College” but belonged to a former Maharaja. A few snaps, and later we head for the car. Our first destination today is “The Bihar Museum”
The oldest museum in Patna was established in 1917 during British Raj. It was always considered as Patna’s showcase. The museum displayed archaeological objects, coins, art objects, paintings, instruments, textiles, bronze images, sculptures, and terracotta images by Hindu and Buddhist artists. It also houses, even today, a casket — said to contain the sacred ashes (relics) of Gautama Buddha: unearthed in 1958 by archaeologist, A. S. Altekar, at the Relic Stupa of Vaishali.
A project was started in 2009 by the state Government, to build a replacement museum in Patna to enable the display of larger collections. This museum, known as Bihar museum, was finally inaugurated in October 2017. The artifacts from ancient India to year 1764 are now kept in Bihar Museum and those of the post-1764 period are kept at Patna Museum. Our tight schedule for the day means that we can visit only one museum. We opt for the Bihar Museum, simply because it houses the ancient artifacts, in which we are more interested.

History Gallery A

The spanking new Bihar Museum is huge. It has an area of 25000 square meters. As we approach the gate, a guard tells us to get inside the campus from a gate on other side, to the car parking area. From there, it is a long walk to the museum entrance. After usual formalities, we get in. A huge map catches our attention. With our tight schedule for the day, we know that we can spare just about two hours for the museum. We therefore decide to visit Historical galleries only. All the Galleries are air-conditioned and have quite high ceiling height, creating a pleasant environment to visit the musum.  History Gallery follows a chronological order as prehistory, protohistory, early Bihar, the rise of Magadha Empire and successive dynasties. The collection however is not from Bihar only. There are artifacts from the Sindhu & Sarswati Civilization, Gandhar and Swat regions of present day Pakistan-Afghanistan. The gallery also has objects from the 4th century BCE to the 1st century BCE. It has objects spanning three major dynasties of India; the Mauryas, the Nandas and the Shishunagas.
Artifacts in Gallery A are arranged very aesthetically and whole arrangement is very eye pleasing. Special mention can be made of a few bas-reliefs done in Gandhar style and a lion’s head pillar capital. As I approach the last few sculptures kept towards the end of Gallery A, the lights suddenly go off, coming back after a few seconds. There is supposed to be a backup arrangement in the museum as Bihar is known to be notorious for sudden disappearance of electric power. We are in Patna for less that twenty-four hours and have our first test of the power failure. From this time onwards, until we leave the museum premises, power outages, which last from few seconds to tens of minutes, just keep happening. Luckily, for us, there is no power failures in the galleries located on first floor and we can visit them without hindrance.

 Bodhisatva,  Gandhar style, Charsadda, Pakistan ( 1st Century)

Birth of Buddha, Swat, Pakistan,  ( 2nd century)


Head of a Lion  (Pillar Capital)

We come out of Gallery A. The passage leads to a staircase. In the open space or foyer, adjacent to flight of stairs, a grand three-dimensional mural has been created. The mural, named as “Silent Sermon”, shows a huge Buddhist begging bowl at center with hundreds of miniature Buddhist monks rushing around it. The large foyer, light and shadow patterns created by the tall rectangular pillars forming the wall between the foyer and the courtyard outside and the mural, all create a magical effect. I sit down on one of the benches provided and enjoy the effect.

Silent Sermon

Light and shadows in the foyer
Museum also has a cafeteria. Since there is no power in the gallery, we decide to have a cup of coffee. As we finish our coffee, the lights return and we decide to climb up the stairs. Gallery B any way is closed, and Gallery C does not have any exhibits of our interest. So we move on to Historical Arts Gallery, where prime attraction of the Bihar museum, “Didarganj Yakshi” is displayed.
“Didarganj Yakshi” is considered a unique and outstanding example of Indian art. The sculpture, 
displayed at the center of gallery, is 5 feet 4 inches (162.56 cm) tall and is carved out of a single piece of sandstone. The life-size standing image is of a tall, well-proportioned, freestanding female with well-polished surface, a characteristic usually associated with Mauryan polish. The Flywhisk (chauri) is held in the right hand whereas the left hand is broken. The lower garment creates a somewhat transparent effect.  

According to the legend displayed in the museum, “The Didarganj Yakshi was made 2000 to 2300 years ago, possibly during emperor Ashoka’s reign. Carved out of a single piece of buff coloured sandstone, this highly polished life size sculpture was discovered in 1917 near the banks of the Ganga at Didarganj, near Patna. She was found submerged in riverbank mud, where the underside of her base was supposedly been used by villagers, when washing clothes. Pursuing a snake that crawled under the base, a man named as Maulavi Ghulam Rasul discovered the piece. The Yakshi meets the standards of beauty and proportion in Sanskrit and Pali treatises. Her face is beautifully sculpted, her skin folds delicately at the neck and the waist and she is heavily adorned. She wears a flywhisk over her right shoulder.The Yakshi has represented Indian art in international exhibitions. She remains the most beautiful and important piece in our (Bihar museum) collection”.

Deedarganj Yakshi ( more views)

There are other noteworthy artifacts in this gallery. Just to name a few, a gargoyle and a bas-relief of a lady with a parrot can be mentioned along with miniature terracotta artifacts.

Lady with Parrot Rajmahal Jharkhand ( Fifth Century)

A dancing girl, Bulandibagh, Patna Bihar (2nd century)

Gorgoyle, Munger Bihar ( 12th Century)

After our visit to the museum, we decide to have lunch. Our driver takes us to a place called “Ghar Angana”. A place gaudily decorated with Rajasthani décor. The food is tasty but oily. After the food, we immediately leave for Bodhgaya.  The distance between Patna and Bodhgaya is about 125 Kilometers. The road however is mostly just a two lane highway and that too not in a very good condition.   We cross two major towns on our way; Jahanabad and Gaya. Both towns are congested, shabby, dirty and highly populated. In these towns, roads are very narrow and again congested. Only after we cross Gaya and enter Bodhgaya cantonment, the road widens. After four long hours, since we left Patna, we reach our hotel, “Anand International” in Bodhgaya. At the first appearance, Bodhgaya looks to be a spread out town with many open places. Our tour operator Jackie meets us at the entrance.  After the pleasantries, we discuss tomorrow’s plans. Jackie wants us to be ready by 6:30 AM, as there is less rush at Mahabodhi temple early in morning. The hotel is nice and comfortable but occupancy again is very low. Later, when we have dinner, we find that we are the only occupants, who have checked in for that night.  I hit the bed rather early, as it has been a long day.

(To be continued)

4th November 2018