Travel Bucket List: India – Bihar Part 3

After Patna, let’s move outwards to Hajipur and the ancient university of Nalanda

Hajipur
Hajipur is the largest city and headquarters of Vaishali district and is the 10th largest and 17th most populous city in the state as well as the second-fastest developing city, next to Patna. The city is known for cultivating bananas and is only 10 km from the state capital of Patna. The Mahatma Gandhi Setu connects Hajipur to Patna and is separated by the Ganges river. Another bridge known as the Digha Pool connects the river Gandak and Ganga and narrows the distance between Hajipur and Patna. There are plans to expand Patna to Greater Patna, by absorbing Hajipur and other surrounding towns into it.

In ancient times, Hajipur was known as Ukkacala and was the first village to come after crossing the River Ganges at Patna. The village of Hajipur gained significance, as it was the venue of one of the discourses given by Gautam Buddha who preached the Cula Gopalaka Sutta, a middle-length discourse here. The place is also of interest because a portion of Ananda’s ashes, the closest disciple of Buddha who acted as the Buddha’s attendant for twenty years and outlived him by several decades were enshrined in the town. During the British colonial rule, Hajipur was a small town in the Muzaffarpur district situated on the confluence of the Ganges and Gandak. Hajipur figures conspicuously in the history of struggles between Emperor Akbar and the rebellious Afghan Karrani rulers of Bengal. The town finds its origin from the Mahabharata period and is the place where democracy found its origin around 600 BC. The ancient Licchavi republic was established here and is the place where Mahavir took birth and Gautam Buddha delivered his last sermon and announced his Parinirvana.

The Kaun Haara Ghat is one of the main attractions of Hajipur, not so much for its current existence as much as for the ancient legend associated with it. The very famous fight between the Gaja elephant and the Graah crocodile is said to have been fought here, and the place got its name from everyone asking Kaun haara? or who lost the fight? This is one of the most significant events of Hindu mythology, related to the stories of Lord Vishnu. A pictographic depiction of this fight can be seen all over the city of Hajipur, like an emblem of the place. The Sweet Water Well or Mitha Kuwan is famous for its water quality. Because Hajipur situated on the confluence of the Ganges and Gandak, the water of the well is very sweet. From ancient times till today, many many people in Hajipur use the water from this Mitha Kuwan for drinking purposes and also use it for cooking.

Located right in the heart of Hajipur at Gandhi Ashram, the Deep Narayan Singh Museum
Is named after the late Chief Minister of Bihar and was established in 1979. Among the collections here are weaponry, coins and artefacts from the Mauryan and Gupta era, both of which prospered around the then seat of power Pataliputra, now Patna. It also has blow-ups of local freedom fighters. It provides an important insight into Bihar’s past and present.

The Ramchaura Mandir is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Rama located at Rambhadra near Helabazar. Folklore says that the temple has stood here since the days of the Ramayana and Lord Rama himself blessed the place with his presence on his way to Janakpur, where his footprints are worshipped by his devotees. Ram Navami is a huge and important festival here and it is celebrated with lots of enthusiasm with a small fair also organised on the eve of the festival. Archaeological objects excavated from Ramchaura are kept at the Patna Museum.

The Bateshwar Nath Temple is the oldest in Bihar as it goes back to the Mughal era, or so says the myth. The local legend goes that the temple is a self-made and established one and it appeared magically under a thousand-year-old Banyan tree. Because of such an interesting story about its past, the local people have a lot of respect for this temple. It is, however, a quiet and spiritual place in the middle of the green stretches of pastures and will appeal to those who love to travel in the more uncommon, quaint sites. The temple has a tradition of celebrating the Vasant Panchami festival every year in February/March and a small fair is organised on the eve of Maha Shivratri for a month.

Hajipur is one of the 84 Baithaks in India. The Krishna Baithakji temple, like all other ones, is dedicated to Shri Mahaprabhuji, also known as Vallabhacharya, the founder of the Pushtimarg sect of Vaishnavism, who toured the country barefoot thrice to spread his knowledge, conduct Krishna-related seminars and discuss his path with other religious leaders. The Baithaks are the shrines which the followers of this sect visit and pay their respect. It is a spiritual and peaceful establishment to visit and take in the essence of the faith.

Located in the west of Hajipur, the Nepali Mandir is a pagoda-style temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Unlike the other Shaivite temples which are made of stones, this one is made of finely carved wood and resembles the architectural style of the Himalayan shrines. Hence it was given the name Nepali. It is a wonderful piece of structure to look at, and the confluence of traditional Hindu style and the touch of the northern mountains is worth experiencing.

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The Pataleshwar Mandir, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is said to have been in existence since ancient times and Lord Shiva is believed to be enshrined here in the form of Lingam according to local folklore.

The Jami Masjid is one of the state’s oldest mosques constructed in 1587 during the Mugal rule by Makhsus Shah the brother of Said Khan, who was the governor of Bihar Sharif according to the Akbarnamah. This remarkable monument is a spectacular example of the Indo-Persian architectural style. Measuring 84.5 feet in height and 33.5 feet in width, the mosque is crowned with three domes, the central dome being larger than the others. According to some historians, Haji Iliyas was the founder of the mosque.

Nalanda
An ancient Mahavihara and a revered Buddhist monastery which also served as a renowned centre of learning, in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, Nalanda was a university town which rose to legendary status due to its contribution to the emergence of India as a great power around the fourth century. Located about 95 km southeast of Patna near the city of Bihar Sharif, and was one of the greatest centres of learning in the world from the 5th to the 11th centuries and today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nalanda was initially a prosperous village by a major trade route that ran through the nearby city of Rajagriha, which is modern Rajgir which was the capital of Magadha. It is said that the Jain Tirthankara, Mahavira, spent 14 rainy seasons at Nalanda. Gautama Buddha too is said to have delivered lectures in a nearby mango grove named Pavarika and one of his two chief disciples, Shariputra, was born in the area and later attained nirvana there. This traditional association with Mahavira and Buddha tenuously dates the existence of the village to at least the 5th or 6th century BC.

At its peak, the school attracted scholars and students from near and far, with some travelling from Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia. The highly formalised methods of Buddhist studies helped the establishment of large teaching institutions such as Taxila, Nalanda, and Vikramashila, which are often characterised as India’s early universities. Archaeological evidence also notes contact with the Shailendra dynasty of Indonesia, one of whose kings built a monastery in the complex. Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, and later under Harsha, the emperor of Kannauj. The liberal cultural traditions inherited from the Gupta age resulted in a period of growth and prosperity until the 9th century. The subsequent centuries were a time of gradual decline, a period during which the tantric developments of Buddhism became most pronounced in eastern India under the Pala Empire. Much of the current knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of pilgrim monks from Asia, such as Xuanzang and Yijing, who travelled to the Mahavihara in the 7th century. All students at Nalanda studied Mahayana, as well as the texts of the eighteen Hinayana sects of Buddhism. Their curriculum also included other subjects, such as the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, and Samkhya.

Nalanda was destroyed thrice but rebuilt only twice. It was ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Mamluk Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate under Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1200. While it is said the Mahavihara continued to function in a makeshift fashion after this attack, it was eventually abandoned altogether and forgotten until the 19th century, when the site was surveyed and preliminary excavations were conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India. Systematic excavations commenced in 1915, which unearthed eleven monasteries and six brick temples neatly arranged on grounds 12 hectares or 30 acres in area. A trove of sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions have also been discovered in the ruins, many of which are on display in the Nalanda Archaeological Museum, located nearby. Today, Nalanda is a notable tourist destination and part of the Buddhist tourism circuit. On 25 November 2010, the Indian government, through an Act of Parliament, resurrected the ancient university through the Nalanda University Bill, and subsequently, a new Nalanda University was established which has been designated as an International University of National Importance.

Several theories exist about the etymology of the name, Nalanda. According to the Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, it comes from Na al, lllam da meaning no end in gifts or charity without intermission. Yijing, another Chinese traveller, however, derives it from Naga Nanda referring to the name of a snake in the local tank, nanda being the name of the snake and naga being a snake. Hiranand Sastri, an archaeologist who headed the excavation of the ruins, attributes the name to the abundance of nalas or lotus-stalks in the area and believes that Nalanda would then represent the giver of lotus-stalks.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nalanda University is considered as one of the oldest universities in the world and was known as Nalanda Mahavira, its origins dating back to the 3rd century. Mahavira is a Sanskrit term for a great Vihara or Buddhist monastery. Located about 85 km away from Patna, it finds references in the oldest epics of India as well as in the travels of Hiuen Tsang. The Gupta kings built various monasteries in old Kusan style of architecture. Emperor Ashoka and Emperor Harshavandhana were also patrons of this university who built few temples, viharas, and monasteries for the university. With reference found in the Tibetan and Chinese scriptures, the university was a centre of advanced Vedic learnings until it was ransacked by Bakhtiyar Khilji in the 12th century. Lord Buddha visited Nalanda several times during his lifetime, but the university became popular in the later years when Hieun Tsang stayed here in the 7th century AD and he left a detailed description of the education system and monastic life here. The site was recovered by Archeological Survey of India in 1915. It’s said that the library of the university had so many books and manuscripts that it kept on burning for six months after the entire structure went up in flames.

The total area of excavation of the Nalanda University ruins archaeological complex is about 14 hectares. The edifices are of red bricks and the gardens are extremely beautiful. The buildings are divided by a central walkway. The monasteries are situated on the east of the walkway and the temples are situated in the west. Six temples built of brick and eleven monasteries orderly laid out were revealed during the excavations. Evidence of structures built over older ones is in plenty and many of these bore signs of fire damage. The university site is open from 9 am to 5 pm and visitors will need between one to two hours to tour the place. Entry fees for Indians, SAARC and BIMSTEC passport holders is INR 15 while others pay INR 200. Children below the age of 15 enter free.

Housing the ancient relics of Nalanda University, the Nalanda Archaeological Museum offers a glance into the culture of ancient Nalanda. Pala Art is displayed through the assorted artefacts maintained here. The statues here are mainly engraved on basalt stone, but others made out of stucco, bronze, stone and terracotta are also present. The Archaeological Survey of India maintains the museum which opened in 1917 and exhibits the antiquities that have been unearthed at Nalanda as well as from nearby Rajgir. Out of 13,463 items recovered, only 349 are on display in four galleries.

Another museum adjoining the excavated site is the privately run Nalanda Multimedia Museum which showcases the history of Nalanda through 3-D animation and other multimedia presentations.

The Hiuen Tsang Memorial Hall was built as a dedication to the Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang and is a distinct reminder of the architectural style of the Nalanda University. Visitors will find multiple writings of Tsang preserved here. The Xuanzang Memorial Hall is an Indo-Chinese undertaking to honour the famed Buddhist monk and traveller. A relic, comprising a skull bone of the Chinese monk, is on display in the memorial hall.

Present amongst the ruins of the Nalanda University, the Great Stupa was built in the 3rd century by Emperor Ashoka in the honour of Sariputra. After the seven accretions to it, this structure is shaped like a pyramid and is flanked by flights of steps and splendid sculptures as well.

The Nav Nalanda Mahavihara was established by the Bihar government in 1951 to showcase the state’s ancient tradition to the modern world. It was built as a modern centre of Buddhism and today helps in educating people about the ancient Pali script and the Buddhist religion and is a great starting place for those interested in about the roots and history of the religion.

The Surya Mandir is a temple dedicated to the Sun God and is located near Nalanda University. Various Buddhist, as well as Hindu deities, are enshrined in this temple with the most attractive one being the five feet high idol of Goddess Parvati. Chatth Puja is held here twice a year in the Hindu months of Vaishakha and Kartika and is celebrated with great fervour.

Kundalpur, located just outside Nalanda, is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Mahavira, the 24th and last of the Jain Tirthankaras. It is also the place of birth of Gautam Swamiji who was the first disciple of Lord Mahavira. A grand temple with beautiful spires has been built here to mark the birthplace with a four and a half feet tall idol of Bhagwan Mahavira Padmasana. Within the complex, there is a serene Trikal Chaubeesi Jinmandir where there are 72 idols of Tirthankaras, representing 24 each of the past, present and the future age.

A holy city for the adherents of the Jain faith, Pawapuri is located about 12 km east of Nalanda. A long time ago, Pawapuri was the twin capital of Mall Mahajanpad. Mahajanpad later became a part of the kingdom of Magadha and Ajatshatru was a devotee of Lord Mahavira. During the rule of Ajatshatru, the king of Pawapuri was known as Hastipal. When in Pawapuri, Mahavira stayed in the Rajikshala of the king. It is considered as a sacred place because Lord Mahavira was buried here in 500 BC. Pawapuri has also been given the name Apapuri which means sinless town because Lord Mahavira was cremated here. After the cremation, there was a rush while collecting the ashes which led to the removal of a layer of the soil thereby resulting in the formation of a pond. This pond was later converted into a lotus pond, and a marble temple named Jalmandir was built in the centre of the pond. Some festivals celebrated here include the Rajgir Dance Festival and Chhath Puja. Other places of interest in Pawapuri include the Gaon Mandir which is the temple of the village and the place where Lord Mahavira took his last breath and the Samosaran temple which is the place where Lord Mahavira used to deliver sermons to his disciples, Gunayaji village which is located 20 km away from Pawapuri and is the place where the Shri Gunayaji Teerth Temple is situated.

In the next part, we shall see what the ancient city of Rajgir, the gateway of Vihar that is Sasaram and Kaimur have to offer its visitors

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