RAJGIR

Rajgir, the erstwhile Rajagriha, ancient capital of Magadha, finds mention in Fa Hien’s and Hieun Tsang’s narratives. Its principal attractions for today’s traveler are the 5th century BCE remains of places associated with the Buddha. The Gridhrakuta Hill (Vulture Peak) is where he delivered his ‘sermons on the mount’ and where he proselytised King Bimbisara. The Buddha is believed to have frequented Venuvan, the tranquil bamboo grove near the hot springs. The Saptaparni Cave nearby is a 1,000-step climb up from the hot springs. This is where the first Buddhist Council was held, following the Buddha’s passing. A Vishwa Shanti Stupa, built by the Japanese, today stands on Gridhrakuta Hill, accessed by a 7-minute ropeway ride. The Japanese have also constructed a Nipponzan Myohoji Temple near the springs — the 5 am chanting session makes for a mystical experience.

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Theravadin monks praying at the Gridhrakuta Hill
Theravadin monks praying at the Gridhrakuta Hill

Venuvan timings 6 am to 8 pm Entry fee Indians 7, foreigners 100 Ropeway timings 8 am to 12.50 pm, 2-5 pm Ropeway ticket 40 for a two-way ride

Rajgir also has historical associations with Mahavira and there are 26 Jain temples on the hills around the town. The town also claims a place in the Mahabharata: it is here that Bhima and Jarasandha are believed to have waged a bloody battle for 28 days.

The hot springs, south of the bus stand, are overcrowded but well worth a visit after a tiring day. The cleanest, most well-lit facility is the Brahma Kund. If you want to beat the rush, get there before 5 am or after 7 pm, but do be cautiouis and don’t carry much cash or any valuables. You can bathe either at the row of piped outlets or soak in the hamam. There’s no separate enclosure for women, though, and no dearth of gawkers.

The 500-strong tonga union has ‘banned’ taxis in Rajgir. Their horsedrawn carriages (called tum-tums) can be hired for anything from 200 to 500 for half a day.

Rajgir can be done in a day (taxi 2,000 return), but it’s worth staying overnight and making a day trip to Nalanda. Accommodation options are fairly limited since most hotels near the centre of the town seem to consider clean sheets an extravagance. Siddharth Hotel (Tel: 06112-255216; Tariff: 450-650), near the hot springs, has spartan but clean rooms, with attached baths. Tathagat Vihar (Telefax: 255176; Tariff: 600-800), near the Veerayatan, has comfortable AC rooms with TV, and also its own restaurant.

At the higher end, there are two options. Indo-Hokke Hotel (Tel: 255245; Tariff: 6,000-6,500), with 44 rooms (4 of them with Japanese-style floor-level seating), has spectacular views from the balconies and an ofru (Japanese-style bath) facility. The Rajgir Residency (Tel: 255404; Tariff: 6,000), across the road from Indo-Hokke, offers similar facilities, except for the ofru.

Syed Saad Ahmed
Details of a ruined votive stupa in Nalanda
Details of a ruined votive stupa in Nalanda

NALANDA (93 km)

About 10 km from Rajgir are the ruins of the famed Nalanda University. For more than 400 years from the 5th century CE, Nalanda acquired world renown as a centre of Buddhist learning to which scholars from various countries came. Built over three periods — the 5th, 7th and 9th centuries CE — by three different rulers, the 50-sq km campus had row upon row of monasteries, cells where monks studied and rested, extensive waterworks and chaityas (shrines) for prayer and meditation.

Hieun Tsang, whose accounts of his prolonged stay and study in Nalanda helped identify the ruins when they were excavated in the 19th century, noted that in his time there were several thousand “men of distinguished talents and deep learning” studying and teaching here. Admission procedures were rigorous. Students who came here from all parts of India and abroad were first accommodated in guest houses near the university gates for weeks. Here, their intellectual and emotional quotients were critically assessed by dwar pandits (‘gate professors’). Hieun Tsang further recalled that seven or eight out of every 10 candidates were eliminated. And the few who qualified were further interrogated by the whole order. Once they were admitted, the scholars studied the Buddhist scriptures, logic, philosophy, grammar, medicine and, on occasion, the Vedic texts.

Syed Saad Ahmed
Stucco carvings on an excavated tower in Nalanda
Stucco carvings on an excavated tower in Nalanda

This beacon of learning slowly lost its brilliance from about the 10th century CE when Buddhism itself was on the wane in India due to a surge of Hindu revivalism.

At the extreme south of the excavated ruins stand the remains of the main temple — the most recognisable image of Nalanda — which is believed to have housed a colossal image of the Buddha.

Entry fee Indians 5, foreigners Rs 100 Guides Up to 150 for 2 hrs

University site timings 7 am to 5.30pm, April to September; 7.30 am to 5pm, October to March

Across the road from the university site, the Nalanda Archaeological Museum exhibits sculptures and archaeological finds from the university site and the official seal of the Nalanda Mahavihariya Arya Bhikshu Sanghasya (Community of Venerable Monks of the Nalanda University).

Entry fee 2 Timings 10 am-5 pm, except Fridays

Getting to Nalanda To get to Nalanda, take one of the regular buses heading for Bihar Sharief from Rajgir. Get off at Nalanda and hire a shared tonga for a 10-minute ride to the university gates. From Rajgir, you could also share a jeep to get you as far as the Nalanda bus stop. Taxi to Nalanda costs 2,000 (return).