Travel Bucket List: India – Bihar Part 4

Our next destination is the ancient city of Rajgir, the gateway of Vihar that is Sasaram and Kaimur

Rajgir
Historically known as Girivraj, Rajgir is an ancient city which was the first capital of the kingdom of Magadha, which eventually evolved into the Mauryan Empire. The city finds mention in India’s greatest literary epic, the Mahabharata, through its king Jarasandha. Its date of origin is unknown, although ceramics dating to about 1000 BC have been found in the city. The 2,500-year-old Cyclopean Wall is located in the city. Rajgir was the birthplace of the 20th Jain Tirthankar Munisuvrata and is closely associated with the Arihant Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. Both Mahavira and Buddha taught their beliefs in Rajgir during the 5th and 6th centuries BC, and the Buddha was offered a forest monastery here by King Bimbisara and so Rajgir became one of the Buddha’s most important preaching locations. The ancient Nalanda university was located in the vicinity of Rajgir and it was also through Rajgir that the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka travelled to Bodh Gaya around 250 BC when placing the diamond throne or Vajrasana at the great temple where Buddha attained enlightenment.

The name Rajgir came from Rajagṛiha, meaning the house of the king or royal house, or the word Rajgir might have its origin in its plain literal meaning, royal mountain. It was the ancient capital city of the Magadha kings until the 5th century BC when Udayin who ruled between 460 and 440 BC, the son of Ajatshatru, moved the capital to Pataliputra. In those days, it was called Rajgriha, which translates as the home of royalty.

The city is in a valley surrounded by seven hills, namely Vaibhara, Ratna, Saila, Sona, Udaya, Chhatha, and Vipula. The Panchane river flows through the outskirts of the town and the town has also developed as a health and winter resort due to its warm water ponds. These baths are said to contain some medicinal properties that help in the cure of many skin diseases.

The Maniar Matth was once a monastery of a cult that worshipped snakes. This can be seen by the figures of different snakes that are found here. The structure is in the shape of a stupa and named after a small shrine that was found here on excavation. Buddha photos are seen on the outer walls.

The Lakshmi Narayan Mandir has been built over an ancient Buddhist monastery was once present at Tapodharma. There are a few hot springs found at the place and it is believed that these hot water springs have curative properties. The Brahmakund here is a popular spring and its temperature is generally around 45-degree celsius.

Also known as the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, the Japanese Stupa is a pillar situated atop the Gridhakuta hill at an altitude of 400 m and was built as a symbol of world peace by Japan. This marble pillar also showcases four golden statues of Buddha depicting different stages of his life – birth, enlightenment, preaching and death. This location can be accessed by an aerial ropeway.

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The Stupa of Sariputra contains the bones of one of the two chief disciples of Gautam Buddha. Sariputra became a celebrated Arhat after he was able to attain salvation following Buddha’s footsteps. The stupa is pyramidal and is imposing in size, surrounded by pillared structures, typical to Buddhist structures. Seven layers of construction explain its colossal size, making it a sight to behold.

The Vulture peak, also known as Griddhakuta is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. It is one of the three places where Shakyamuni Buddha or the Gautama Buddha lived for many years and preached the Lotus, Heart and Prajnaparamita sutras. Located on a small hill, just outside of Rajgir, Griddhakuta is a popular sightseeing location perched at an altitude of 400 m. This peak is known as the Vulture’s Peak as it is shaped like a vulture and also provides frequent sightings of the bird as well as offering a brilliant 360-degree view of the entire surroundings.

Makhdum Kund is a shrine of Makhdum Shah, a Muslim Sufi saint popular among Muslim devotees for religious and spiritual purposes. It is a Muslim shrine and also a hot spring near the Vipula Hills. According to local legends Makhdum Shah spent twelve years in the jungles of Rajgir during the 13th century. The hottest spring has a temperature of over 450 degrees Celcius and there are separate areas for men and women to bathe, where the temperature is fitting.

The Ghora Katora Lake derives its name from its shape which is that of a horse and the name means horse bowl. The lake is an excellent picnic spot and is known for being one of the cleanest sight-seeing locations in Rajgir. A local favourite, the lake is located at the same place where it is believed that Jarasandha from Mahabharata had his stable.

Believed to be the place where Bimbisara was confined by his son King Ajatshatru, Bimbisara’s Jail offers a brilliant view of the Japanese Stupa situated on the same hill.

Dating back 2500 years, the Cyclopean Walls are 4 meters wide and encircle the city and are 40 km long. It was built by the Mauryans to fortify the city. Today most of it stands in ruins.

The Hiuen Tsang Memorial Hall was built in memory of the Chinese scholar where he was said to have resided for over 12 years during his time in the country. The memorial hall is home to writings of the scholar about his observations regarding medieval India, which forms the basis of much of the knowledge of that time.

The Chariot Tracks are two thirty-feet long deep marks or parallel furrows cut into the rocks near the Jarasandha monuments and are believed to have been made by Lord Krishna’s chariot when he arrived in Rajgir. Other than the marks, around this area, there is an engraved script which is yet to be decrypted. The script was written at some time between the first and fifth centuries AD, probably in a language unknown today.

Two kilometres away from the jail of Bimbisar, the Sankhalipi Inscriptions are seen to be inscribed on the rocky terrain. Near the inscriptions are the Chariot Tracks. The inscriptions are of great cultural significance, as well as a tourist spot.

Ajatshatru was a king and the ruler of Magadha in the 6th century BC when he built this grand fort known today as Ajatshatru Fort. According to legend, Ajatshatru imprisoned his father Bimbisar in jail inside this fort after he ascended the throne; and Bimbisara, a staunch Buddhist, chose a spot from where he could see Lord Buddha give his sermons every morning. The once sturdy fort is now in ruins.

The Veerayatan Museum is a fascinating Jain museum showcasing the history of each of the 24 Jain Tirthankaras. It features ornate dollhouse-like 3-D panel depictions made from wood and metal. Visitors will see a lot of fantastic art on display here by the artist Acharya Shri who resides here and are a must-see.

The Sonabhandar caves meaning treasure of gold are situated on the southern slopes of the Vaibhava Hills and feature black stone statues of the first four Jain Tirthankaras and Lord Buddha. The caves are two identical caverns cut out of monolithic rocks and it is believed that the treasury of King Bimbisara is still present here and the key to opening the doorway lies in the inscriptions on the walls. . There are seated and standing figures etched onto the walls of the rocks as well as inscriptions in the ancient text of Sanklipi, which say that the cave was used by Jain saint Muni Vairadevi and other ascetics as a refuge.

Located on the Vaibhava Hills, the Saptaparni Caves was the host to the first Buddhist council, attended by over 500 monks and was led by Maha Kashyapa.

Rajgir city is famous for the seven hot springs or Saptarshi, which come and mingle together into a big pool of warm water, named Brahmakund. This is a holy place for bathing of the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike. The water is said to contain medicinal properties and healing features and was visited by the likes of Gautam Buddha and Mahavira.

Jivaka’s Mango Garden is located in the Jivakameavan Gardens. Jivaka was the royal physician of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru and had his dispensary within this garden gifted to him by Bimbisara. Jivika used the plants here to make ayurvedic medicines and cure his patients and was famous for being the one who treated Lord Buddha’s wounds when Buddha came to him for treatment. The garden contains the ruins of an old monastery built by the doctor.

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Jarasandha Ka Akhara, located near the Vaibhava Hill, was previously a wrestling arena and place for martial arts training for the armies which stood against Lord Krishna and the Yadava clan for King Jarasandha of Magadha. The great battle between Bheema and Jarasandha took place right here which lasted for a month, according to legend, and in the end, Bheema tore Jarasandha’s body into half to defeat and kill him. Now a deserted ruins with overgrown flora, it is a favourite spot for picnickers.

Jarasandha’s Baithak, located near Vaibhava Hill, is a rectangular stone at the foot which was used when Jarasandha of Mahabharata was the rule of Magadha. Locals believe that the place used to be an outpost of the military and had locations which were used as living quarters for the soldiers. The rock has two parallel cuts on it and it is famous, as the belief is that Lord Krishna made the cuts himself during the many battles between Jarasandha and Yadavas.

Yesthivana area used to be a retreat in the forest, but today is a nature park near the Tapovana and is said to be where Lord Gautam Buddha met the Magadha King, Bimbisar before the latter became a devotee. One of the major sights to see here is the 6 feet tall carved statue of Lord Gautam Buddha and the sapling of the Great Mahabodhi Tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment.

Said to be the oldest ropeway in India, the Rajgir ropeway line is the only ropeway in existence in the state of Bihar. The single person seater rope line leads you to the top of the scenic Ratnagiri Hill which houses the famous Vishwa Shanti Stupa, also known as the Peace Pagoda. The chairlift ropeway rises to a height of over 1000 feet from the ground level and is a thrilling ride to undertake. The area falls under the Pant Wildlife Sanctuary which provides unmatched views of the surrounding forest area. Other places of interest nearby include the Sugarakhata Caves which according to legends, was where the Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra and delivered sermons, the Gridhkut peak which was one of the several sites frequented by Buddha and his disciples for training, retreat and delivering of sermons and is frequently mentioned in ancient Buddhist texts. A small, quiet temple situated on the hilltop nearby has amazing views of the surroundings as well as the Ashoka Stupa. The Ropeway is open between 8 am to 5 pm and adults pay INR 60 while children pay INR 30 to go up.

Sasaram
Known as the gateway of Vihar to visit Gaya, Rajgir and Nalanda in ancient times, Sasaram, also sometimes spelt as Sahasram, is a city that the Buddha passed through on the way to be enlightened under the Mahabodhi tree in Gaya.

Modern Sasaram city covers the largest sub-metropolitan area of Bihar and is famous for the many religious and historical spots to visit such as Shershah Suri’s tomb, Rohtasgarh fort, Indrapuri Dam, Shergarh fort, Sacred Tarachandi Shaktipith, Gupta Dham and the Tutla Bhawani temple and is surrounded by the scenic mountains of the Kaimur range as well as many as 200 waterfalls, the most famous ones being Manjharkund, Dhuvan Kund, Sitakund and the Tutla Bhavani waterfalls and rivers like the Sone. During the Vedic age, Sasaram was a part of the ancient Kashi kingdom and its name originated from the word Sahastrarama, meaning a thousand groves. Sasaram was once also named Shah Serai or the Place of King as it is the birthplace of the Afghan king Sher Shah Suri, who ruled over Delhi, much of northern India, what is now Pakistan, and eastern Afghanistan for five years, after defeating the Mughal Emperor Humayun.

Sher Shah Suri’s 122 feet red sandstone tomb, built in the Indo-Afghan style stands in the middle of an artificial lake in Sasaram. It borrows heavily from the Lodhi style and was once covered in blue and yellow glazed tiles indicating an Iranian influence. The massive free-standing dome also has an aesthetic aspect of the Buddhist stupa style of the Mauryan period. Built between 1540 and 1545, the mausoleum is three storeys high (122 ft.) and stands proudly in the centre of an artificial square lake. For the same reason, it is also locally known as the Second Taj Mahal of India. The tomb of Sher Shah’s father Hasan Khan Suri is also at Sasaram and stands in the middle of a green field at Sherganj, which is known as Sukha Rauza. About a km to the north-west of Sher Shah’s tomb lies the incomplete and dilapidated tomb of his son and successor, Islam Shah Suri. Sasaram also has a Baulia, a pool used by the emperor’s consorts for bathing. The tomb is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The fort of Sher Shah Suri at Rohtasgarh has a history dating back to the 7th century. It was built by Raja Harishchandra, known for his truthfulness in the name of his son Rohitashwa. It houses the Churasan temple, Ganesh temple, Diwan-e Khas, Diwan-e-Aam, and various other structures dating back to different centuries. The fort also served as the headquarters of Raja Man Singh during his reign as the governor of Bihar and Bengal under the regime of Akbar. The Rohtaas fort in Sasaram was also built by Sher Shah Suri, during the period when Humayun was exiled from India.

The temple of goddess Tarachandi, as well as an inscription of Pratap Dhawal on the rock close to the temple of Chandi Devi, lies about 7 km south of the city. The Dhuwan Kund, located about 4.5 km south of the Tarachandi temple and Gupta Dham are also tourist destinations. Sasaram is also also a famous centre of Shiva Aradhana where devotees assemble in large numbers to worship Lord Shiva. Sasaram is also famous for an inscription by Ashoka which is one of the thirteen Minor Rock Edicts, situated in a small cave of Kaimur hill, near Chandan Shaheed.

Kaimur
The Mundeshwari Devi Temple on the Mundeshwari Hills in Kaimur is an ancient temple dedicated to worshipping the eternal duo of Lord Shiva and Shakti. It is considered as one of the oldest temples in India as well as the oldest functional Hindu temple in India with its origin put it around 625 CE and is built of stone, with the temple architecture following a rare octagonal plan. The main deities in the temple are Devi Mundeshwari and the four-faced Shiva linga. It also hosts murtis of Ganesha, Surya and Vishnu. It has been an official subject of archaeological study for some time now, with certain inscriptions dating to 635 CE.

After a study of the broken Mundeshwari inscription of Brahmi script and its two parts found in 1891 and 1903 archaeologists thought the temple to be older than the 4th century. However, the recovery of a royal seal of the great Sri Lankan emperor Maharaju Dutthagamani who ruled between 101 and 77 BC from the place in 2003, established that a group of royal pilgrims or monks from Sri Lanka visited the place during their journey to Sarnath from Bodh Gaya through the famous Dakshinapath highway sometime between 101 to 77 BC and lost the seal here. The existence of Naga or serpent on the four-faced shiva lingam, the Naga janeu or sacred thread on the Ganesha idols, not found anywhere in India, and also on broken pieces scattered around the hill indicated that it was constructed by rulers of the Naga dynasty who ruled between 110 BC to 315 AD who used the serpent as their royal insignia. After this, the date of the Mundeshwari inscription was unanimously decided as 108 AD.

The temple, built of stone, is on an octagonal plan which is rare and is the earliest specimen of the Nagara style of temple architecture in Bihar. There are doors or windows on four sides and small niches for the reception of statues in the remaining four walls. The temple shikhara or tower has been destroyed, however, a roof has been built, as part of renovation work. The interior walls have niches and bold mouldings which are carved with vase and foliage designs. At the entrance to the temple, the door jams are seen with carved images of Dvarapalas, Ganga, Yamuna and many other deities. The main deities in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple are of the Devi Mundeshwari and Chaturmukh or the four-faced Shiva linga with two stone vessels of an unusual design. Even though the Shiva linga is installed in the centre of the sanctum, the main presiding deity, Devi Mundeshwari is deified inside a niche, which is seen with ten hands holding symbols riding a buffalo, attributed to Mahishasuramardini. The temple also has murtis of other popular gods such as Ganesha, Surya and Vishnu. A substantial part of this stone structure has been damaged, and many stone fragments are seen strewn around the temple. However, under the jurisdiction of ASI, it has been the subject of archaeological study for quite some time.

The holy city of Bodh Gaya and the ancient city of Vaishali are are next destinations as we explore Bihar.

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