Fabrics and Sarees of India Part 1

A flowing six-yard drape of beauty and grace, the saree can be called India’s national dress for women. Every state and community has their fabrics and materials that are unique to the region and drapes that instantly brings a specific community to mind. The saree consists of an un-stitched stretch of woven fabric arranged over the body as a robe, with one end tied to the waist, while the other end rests over one shoulder as a stole or shawl, with a part of the midriff showing. It may vary from 4.1 to 8.2 metres or 4.5 to 9 yards in length, and 60 to 120 cm in breadth. The saree is part of the traditional wear of women of the Indian subcontinent in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka & Nepal. There are various names and styles of sari manufacture and draping, the most common being the Nivi style. The sari is worn with a fitted bodice commonly called a blouse and a petticoat.

This post started as my ode to the different fabrics and sarees available in the country and I soon realised this is much larger than just naming the various fabrics in the country. So this is now a three-part short series because I wanted to showcase as much as I can of the amazing fabrics available. And on a personal note, this is also a repository for me to refer to because one of my dreams is to have a saree from every Indian state.

Sadee is a Hindustani word that means a strip of cloth that evolved to sāṛī in modern Indian languages. The word śāṭika is mentioned as describing women’s dharmic attire in Sanskrit literature and Buddhist literature called Jatakas which could be equivalent to the modern-day saree. The term for female bodice, the choli evolved from ancient stanapaṭṭa. Rajatarangini, a tenth-century literary work by Kalhana, states that the choli from the Deccan was introduced under the royal order in Kashmir. The petticoat is called sāyā in Hindi and Urdu, parkar in Marathi, ulpavadai in Tamil, sāẏā in Bengali and eastern India, and sāya in Sinhalese. Apart from the standard petticoat, it may also be called an inner skirt or an inskirt.

The history of a sari-like drapery is traced back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which flourished during 2800–1800 BC around the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. Cotton was first cultivated and woven in the Indian subcontinent around the 5th millennium BC and dyes used during this period are still in use, particularly indigo, lac, red madder, and turmeric. Silk was woven around 2450 BCE and 2000 BCE.

The word sari evolved from śāṭikā a Sanskrit word mentioned in earliest Hindu literature as women’s attire. The sari or śāṭikā evolved from a three-piece ensemble comprising the antarīya or the lower garment; the uttarīya which was a a veil worn over the shoulder or the head; and the stanapatta, a chestband. This ensemble is mentioned in Sanskrit literature and Buddhist Pali literature during the 6th century BCE. This complete three-piece dress was known as poshak, a generic term for a costume. The ancient antariya closely resembled the dhoti wrap in the fishtail” version which was passed through legs, covered the legs loosely and then flowed into a long, decorative pleats at front of the legs. It further evolved into the Bhairnivasani skirt, today known as ghagri and lehenga. The  Uttariya was a shawl-like veil worn over the shoulder or head, and evolved into what is known today known as dupatta and ghoonghat. Likewise, the stanapaṭṭa evolved into the choli by the 1st century CE.

It is generally accepted that wrapped sari-like garments for the lower body and sometimes shawls or scarf like garments called uttariya for the upper body, have been worn by Indian women for a long time, and that they have been worn in their current form for hundreds of years. Based on sculptures and paintings, tight bodices or cholis are believed to have evolved between the 2nd century BCE and the 6th century CE in various regional styles.

After this short history about the saree, let’s take a trip around the country to see the various fabrics and sarees available in the different states of India. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I have probably missed many regional varieties, so apologies in advance if I have missed something I should not have.

Andhra Pradesh

Chirala: A coastal town also known as Kshiraputi, Chirala, which means saree in Telugu is renowned for its handlooms that are soft and durable. With more than 60% of the town’s population belonging to the weaving community, the looms used in the town are mostly pit or fly shuttle looms and the motifs in the fabrics and sarees are usually geometrical designs. The weavers of Chirala produce, cotton sarees, seico sarees that are a fine blend of cotton and silk fibres and kuppadam or the Gadwal type. The hand butta is another fascinating design feature of Chirala sarees, where colours are manually added in-between the zari design. Kalamkari printing is also a speciality of the Chirala saree.

Dharmavaram: Handloom silk sarees, Dharmavaram fabrics are textiles woven by hand with mulberry silk and zari which is fine thread traditionally made from gold or silver. The Dharmavaram fabric has a GI or Geographical Indications tag.  Kriya Shakthi Vodavaru Swamy named Dharmavaram after the name of his mother, Dharmambai around 1153–54 and by the 19th century, the silk handloom industry emerged as the main occupation. Paintings on the roof wall of Lepakshi temple and the Latha Mandapam depict the designs of Dharmavaram sarees. These saris are worn in the winter months or when it is cold and on special occasions and are mostly used by dancers of Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi.

Kalamkari: A type of hand-painted or block-printed cotton textile, Kalamkari is produced in Isfahan in Iran and Andhra Pradesh. Only natural dyes are used in Kalamkari, which involves twenty-three steps. There are two distinctive styles of Kalamkari art in India, the Srikalahasti style and the Machilipatnam style. The Srikalahasti style of Kalamkari is where the kalam or pen is used for freehand drawing of the subject and filling in the colours and is entirely hand-worked. This style flourished in temples centred on creating unique religious identities, appearing on scrolls, temple hangings, chariot banners as well as depictions of deities and scenes taken from the Hindu epics like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. The Machilipatnam style of Kalamkari involves vegetable-dyed block painting, where the dye is applied to the fabric with the help of wooden blocks. The natural dyes for the cloth are obtained by extracting colours from various roots, leaves, and mineral salts of iron, tin, copper, and alum and mixing them with cow dung, seeds, flowers, and milk.  Historically, Kalamkari used to be termed Pattachitra, an art form still found in neighbouring Odisha and other parts of India and Nepal. The term Pattachitra translates to patta, meaning a cloth, with picture or chitra. Paintings made on fabric and fabric scrolls are mentioned in ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain literature. Under medieval Islamic rule, the term Kalamkari is derived from the words kalam, which means pen in Telugu, and kari, which means craftmanship and this style became popular under the patronage of the Golconda sultanate.

Mangalagiri: Mangalagiri Sarees and fabrics are produced by handloom weaving in Mangalagiri, a town in Andhra Pradesh. Mangalagiri cotton silk sarees are a unique variety, woven from cotton, and feature characteristic features such as zari on the border and no woven pattern on the body. Borders in thick gold thread or zari, traditional patterns in Nizam, and simple mono or multicoloured striped pallus adorn the fabric. The sarees have various designs like leaves, mango, parrot, and gold coins. The soft and comfortable all-weather fabric generally has no pattern on the body and is known to have no gaps in its weaving with missing saree threads rarely found. As the town is also the abode of Lord Narasimha Temple, the saris are also used by the devotees for devotional purposes.

Uppada: The Uppada Jamdani Sari is a silk sari style woven in the town of Uppada in Andhra Pradesh and is known for its light weight. The saree was also accorded the Geographical Indication tag from Andhra Pradesh. The name Jamdani is a Persian terminology, in which Jam means flower and Dani means a vase. The Jamdani style of weaving originated in Bangladesh and was brought to the south and Uppada village in the 18th century and recreated with a local flavour. old The Jamdani style of weaving is about 300 years old and in 1972, Uppada weavers were recognised by the Indian government with the President’s award. The Uppada Jamdani saree is a beautiful textile with a silk-like texture and is lightweight. The weaving of the saree takes between 10 to 60 days for which least 2-3 weavers spend 10 hours a day. There are around 3000 looms producing Jamdani sarees in and around the Uppada and Kothapalli area. Around 40% of the local weavers are women. The saree consists of a cotton body with a silk pallu and is completely handwoven. The saree is woven in such a way that it can be folded and fit inside a matchbox. The speciality of the Jamdani saree is that the design is shown on both sides of the fabric.

Venkatagiri: Woven in Venkatagiri near Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, this fabric has also been accorded the GI tag and is known for its fine weaving. The history of the saree dates back to the early 1700s in the Venkatagiri village and were encouraged by the Velugoti dynasty of Nellore and also by the Bobbili and Pithapuram dynasties. In those days, they were mostly woven fabrics for royalty and landowners.

Assam

Assam Silk: Assam silk refers to the three major types of indigenous wild silks produced in Assam —golden muga, white pat and warm eri silk. Assam was well known for the production of high-quality silk since ancient times. The knowledge of sericulture probably arrived with the Tibeto-Burman groups which arrived from China around 3000-2000 BC. Genetic research on silkworms shows that Assam silk originated in two specific regions of Assam, the Garo Hills in the ancient Kamrupa Kingdom and Dhakuakhana in the ancient Chutia kingdom.

Muga silk is the product of the silkworm Antheraea assamensis endemic to Assam. The silk produced is known for its glossy, fine texture and durability and has a natural yellowish-golden tint. It was previously reserved for the use of royalty. This silk can be hand washed with its lustre increasing after every wash. Very often the silk outlives its owner. The silk has been given the Geographical Indication (GI) status since 2007.

Pat silk is produced by the Bombyx textor silkworms which feed on mulberry leaves. It is usually brilliant white or off-white and must be dried in the shadows and not in direct sunlight. Eri silk is made by the Samia cynthia ricini which feed on leaves of castor oil plant. It is also known as endi or errandi silk. Because the manufacturing process of eri allows the pupae to develop into adults and only the open-ended cocoons are used for turning into silk, it is also popularly known as non-violent silk which is soft and warm and is popular used as shawls and quilts.

Bihar

The Bhagalpuri or Kosa or Tussar Saree is Tussar silk that is valued for its rich texture and natural deep gold colour. The tussar silk weaving industry in Bhagalpur is more than a century old and has about 30,000 handloom weavers working in producing the sarees. Bhagalpuri silk is made from cocoons of Antheraea paphia silkworms which are only found in India and is processed at Nathnagar at Bhagalpur. The unique dyeing technique of these Bhagalpuri silk sarees sets them apart from the art silk sarees. The saree was supposed to have been produced in ancient times and even Mughal rulers patronised the weavers. But the technique soon got extinct and was revived about 200 years back by the weavers. The silk fabric is extremely soft and lightweight and is known as the queen of fabrics.

Chhatisgarh

The Chattisgarh Kosa saree is Tussar silk similar to the Bhagalpuri Kosa. Kosa silk is mainly derived from Antheraea mylitta, an Indian silkworm and is special type of tussar silk that is drawn out of the cocoons grown on trees like Saja, Sal, and Arjun mostly grown in Chattisgarh. The silk is widely popular owing to its sturdiness, purity and soft texture. The dull golden brownish texture of the silk is its signature trait, but can also be found in natural shades of dark honey, fawn, orange, pale golden and cream. The actual colour of kosa is a dull gold, but the finished fabric is dyed with natural dyes extracted from natural dyes. The towns of Champa and Korba are known for their production of Kosa Silk, and the silk produced in Champa is considered to be the best silk.

Gujarat

Bandhini: A type of tie-dye textile decorated by plucking the cloth with the fingernails into many tiny bindings that form a figurative design, Bandini or Bandhani dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization where dyeing was done as early as 4000 BC. The earliest example of the most pervasive type of Bandhani dots can be seen in the 6th-century paintings depicting the life of Buddha found on the wall of Cave 1 at Ajanta. The main colours used in Bandhana are natural. As Bandhani is a tie and dye process, dying is done by hand and hence best colours and combinations are possible in Bandhanis. The fabric used for making Bandhani sarees and dupattas are loosely woven silk called Georgette, or cotton known as Malmal. The knots are tightly tied, and the rest of the fabric is dyed in multiple stages. This leaves the knots undyed and hence a beautiful flower-like pattern appears all over the cloth as a design.

The term bandhani is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root bandh which means to bind or to tie. Today, most Bandhani can be found in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Sindh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu where it is known as Sungudi and is known as chunri in Pakistan. The art of Bandhani is a highly skilled process with the technique involving dyeing a fabric which is tied tightly with a thread at several points, thus producing a variety of patterns, depending on how the cloth is tied. The main colours used in Bandhana are yellow, red, blue, green and black.

The Bandhani work has been exclusively carried out by the Khatri community of Kutchh and Saurashtra. Bandhani work is also done in Rajasthan, where different colours and designs are used than in the Kutch and Saurashtra regions of Gujarat. Establishments of varying sizes in the entire Kutch belt in Gujarat produce many varieties of Bandhani. This Bandhani style is called Kutchi Bandhani. Bandhani tying is often a family trade, and the women of these families work at home to tie patterns.

Patola: A double ikat woven sari, usually made from silk, the Patola saree comes from the town of Patan. Similar to Bandhani, Patola sarees are also a type of tie and dye process and are well known for not losing their colour at all. They are very expensive, once worn only by those belonging to royal and aristocratic families. Patola sarees are found in two different types – the Rajkot Patola and the Patan Patola. These two are differentiated with the Rajkot Patola having a single ikat weave that is dyed vertically, while the Patan Patola has a double ikat weave and is dyed horizontally. The word patola is the plural form; the singular is patolu.

To create a patola sari, both the warp and weft threads are wrapped to resist the dye according to the desired pattern of the final woven fabric. This tying is repeated for each colour that is to be included in the finished cloth. The technique of dyeing the warp and weft before weaving is called double ikat. The bundles of thread are strategically knotted before dyeing. Patola saris from Surat, Ahmedabad and Patan are renowned for their colourful diversity and geometrical style.

Silk weavers of the Salvi community from Maharashtra chose Gujarat as the home for their renowned patola fabric. It is believed that the Salvis went to Gujarat in the 12th century to acquire the patronage of the Chaulukyas Rajputs, who ruled Gujarat and parts of Malva and south Rajasthan, with Anahiwad Patan as their capital. Legend says that over 700 patola weavers came to the palace of Raja Kumarpal, at the personal request of the king. The Solanki or Chalukya rulers used to dress in patola silk on special occasions. The art of Patola weaving is an ancient one. According to some historians, the art of Patola weaving was known also in the 4th century as seen by the carvings at the Ajanta caves. After the decline of the Solanki empire, the Salvis founded a rich trade in Gujarat. Patola saris quickly became a sign of social status among Gujarati women and girls, especially as part of streedhan or the items that a woman can claim as her wealth.

There are four distinct patterns which are woven primarily in Gujarat by the Salvi community. In Jain and Hindu communities, double ikat saris with entire designs of parrots, flowers, elephants and dancing figures are generally used. In Muslim communities, saris with geometric designs and floral patterns are typical, being worn mostly for weddings and other special occasions. Maharashtrian Brahmins wear saris woven with plain, dark-coloured borders and body and a bird design called Nari Kunj.

Tanchoi: Tanchoi sarees are one of a kind, having spots all over the surface and woven with a dual colour warp. The stand-alone feature of the Tanchoi saree is that the fabric texture background has a satin finish. Extra threads are added to give these sarees the appearance of being embroidered. Famed for the intricate and small weaving patterns over the fabric, the commonly used motifs are those of flowers, small birds in flight, peacocks and parrots. Tanchoi silk is said to have been brought to India by Chinese traders in the 19th century and later adapted to suit the preferences of the Indian market. Three Parsi brothers are said to have travelled from India to China in the 19th century and were enamoured by the technique. After learning the skill, they came back to Surat, Gujarat and trained the weavers in the technique and then evolved the Tanchoi weaving technique into Indian versions.

Tangaliya: A handwoven, GI-protected textile, made by the Dangasia community, the 700-year-old indigenous Tangaliya is native to the Surendranagar district in the Saurashtra region. The textile was usually used as a shawl or wraparound skirt by women of the Bharwad shepherd community. Woven on pit looms at homes, the technique involves weaving knots in colours contrasting to the warp colour to create the effect of raised dots. The weaving is based on precise mathematical calculations. The weaver has to count the warp yarns each time, before hand-knotting the dot in acrylic yarn, to produce geometric patterns. A single mistake can lead to the final design looking faulty. The effect of the pattern also has a tactile feel, similar to braille, because of the raised surface of the dots. This has become the signature style of the textile. Another important aspect is the visual effect of dots, which is most striking and appealing on dark colour bases, especially black. The graphic quality of white dots mixed with other bright coloured dots gives the craft its special appeal. Moreover, due to the ease of knotting the white colour yarn compared to coloured yarns, white dots were common. Traditionally, most woollen shawls featured graphic patterns of white and maroon coloured dots on a black base. With every wash, the cotton textile tends to become denser and integrates the dots even more finely between the warp and weft. Today, there are only fifteen families in Surendranagar pursuing this craft.

Jammu & Kashmir

Jamawar: Jamawar is believed to have been derived from the word jam which means a shawl or robe and war, which implies the chest, in either Persian or Kashmiri. The fabric is believed to have found its way to Kashmir from Persia and reached its peak during the heyday of the Mughal dynasty in India. Owing to the elaborateness that goes into the making of the weave, it takes months on end to craft a finished Jamawar piece, and sometimes, even years, depending on the level of intricacy involved. Jamawar is traditionally woven with a rich blend of Pashmina wool, cotton and silk. Given the generous use of colours and motifs, the finished weave is highly iridescent. One of the many distinguishing factors of the Jamawar is that it is so intricately woven that its front and back, both look identical, with no stray thread sticking out of its surface. A dominating design element of the weave is the paisley, which derives inspiration from Persia; other motifs of flora and fauna, too, are seen. Jamawars also feature a wide use of hand embroidery and traditionally, a single jamawar piece was woven with up to 50 varying hues.

Kani: The Kani weave is said to have originated in Kanihama village of Jammu and Kashmir, and its exquisiteness earned it the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2008. The word Kani translates to bobbins in Kashmiri because the weave involves extensive use of wooden bobbins on which varicoloured threads are wound. Legend has it that the art of weaving Kani shawls was first brought to Kashmir in the 15th century by Persian and Turkish weavers, who introduced this art to Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin, the eighth sultan of Kashmir. One of the most defining characteristics of the Kani weave, colloquially known as Kaniwar, is its impeccably patterned motifs. These motifs, which include flowers, gardens, creepers and paisleys are brought to life through a technique called twill tapestry featuring double interlocking, wherein both the warp and weft yarns are mounted diagonally onto each other on the loom.

Traditionally, Kanis are crafted from the pashmina wool of the local Changthangi goat. At the time of weaving, the loom is packed with bobbins or kanis, through which the craftsmen carry out the fashioning of the weave; a total of nearly a thousand bobbins or more can be used for a single weave. Each colour is woven in individually, with the help of bobbins wound with threads of that particular colour. The designs are first drafted in the form of sketches, in a grid-like format called naksh, after which each step from the draft is dictated to the weaver. An elaborately woven Kani shawl can take anywhere from 9 months to a year to be made, with two artisans working on it.

Pashmina Silk: A fine variant of spun cashmere, the animal hair fibre forming the downy undercoat of the Changthangi goat, Pashmina today may refer either to the material or to the variant of the Kashmir shawl that is made from it. The word pashm means wool in Persian, but in Kashmir, pashm referred to the raw unspun wool of the domesticated Changthangi goats. Both generic cashmere and pashmina come from the same goat, but generic cashmere ranges from 12 to 21 microns in diameter, whereas pashmina refers only to those fibres that range from 12 to 16 microns.

Samples of wool fibres discovered from corroded copper artefacts from Harappa dating back to the Indus valley civilization are extremely fine and resemble Pashmina and Shatoosh. In Mughal times, this was used as an indicator of rank and nobility. Pashmina blankets were also vital additions to a wealthy woman’s dowry in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The wool for pashmina is collected by combing the undercoat of the goat, and not by shearing, as in other fine wools. The entire process is carried out by hand by specialised craftsmen. The approximate time put into producing a single traditional pashmina stole is about 180 hours. Kashmiri embroidery or Kashida as it is known, employs bright and colourful designs, with motifs of floral borders, paisley and chinar leaves and other inspirational settings of nature. The patterns and the colours of Pashmina silk saree harmonises with nature. A heavily adorned pashmina silk sari with zardozi aari embroidery is a must in any bride’s trousseau. China accounts for 70% of the world’s cashmere production.

In the next part, we’ll see more fabrics and sarees from other states.

Travel Bucket List: India – Bihar Part 6

This last part, after exploring Bodh Gaya and Vaishali, we shall peek at the offerings in Muzzafarpur, Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Lauriya Nandangarh, Bhagalpur and Bihar’s sole wildlife reserve, the Valmiki National Park Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary.

Muzzafarpur
Famous for its Shahi lychees and known as the Lychee Kingdom, Muzaffarpur is the fourth most populous city in Bihar about 72 km north of the capital, Patna. It is located on the banks of the perennial Burhi Gandak River, which flows from the Someshwar Hills in the Himalayas.

The current city was established in 1875 during the British Raj for administrative convenience, by dividing the Tirhut district and was named after an aumil, Muzaffar Khan; and the city came to be known as Muzaffarpur. Muzaffarpur’s significance is due to its position between cultural and spiritual influences and the city is a melting pot of Hindu and Islamic culture.

One of the city’s main attractions is the Baba Garibnath Temple which is home to the shivalinga of Lord Shiva known as Baba Gareebnath. Legend has it that the shivalinga was acquired from the peepal or sacred fig tree where the temple stands today and it is said the man who cut down the tree witnessed blood oozing out of the tree, revealing the shivalinga which compelled him to build the shrine that now attracts a large number of devotees. The Baba Gareebnath temple is especially crowded during the holy month of Shravan, which is in July-August according to the Gregorian calendar.

The Devi Mandir is considered a very holy temple, dedicated to the Goddess Durga. The temple is one of the 51 Shaktipeeth, which are small shrines and big temples dedicated to the Goddess Shakti in all her forms. The temple is actually called Maa Raj Rajeshwari Mandir, which is the form of Durga with 18 hands. The temple sees its largest footfall during the Navratri and Durga Puja time, usually falling sometime in October or November. It is often believed that one’s desires and wishes will come true if one visits and worships the Goddess here. The temple is open from 4 am to 11 pm daily.

Muzaffarpur is known for its lychees and lychee gardens and visiting this place especially in May and June when the lychees are ripe and in perfect taste is highly recommended. The most famous lychee gardens are the Mushahari, Jhapaha and the Bochaha gardens.

The Khudiram Bose Memorial was raised as a tribute to the 18-year-old freedom fighter Khudiram Bose who was executed along with Prafool Chaki in 1908 for throwing a bomb at Kingsford who was the then British session judge of Muzaffarpur.

The Ramchandra Shahi Museum, constructed in 1979 holds exhibits of ancient utensils, artefacts and intricate statues like the Manasa Nag and Ashtadikpal which are unique attractions.

Sitamarhi
An ancient town, Sitamarhi is the birthplace of the wife of Lord Ram, Sita. Bordered by Nepal in the North, Sitamarhi is a town of great historical importance and has a large number of tourist attractions. According to mythology, the Goddess Sita was born in an earthen pot under the land of Sitamarhi which is named after her. Sitamarhi has a rich culture of folk arts, dance and music and is well known for its lac bangles and the world-renowned Madhubani paintings.

A temple dedicated to Sita, known as the Janaki temple is located at Punaura Dham Sitamarhi. This is the spot where Goddess Sita appeared in an earthen pot. There were also some submerged building found here at this spot during the earthquake of 1934. Pupri is a village famous for the Baba Nageshwarnath temple of Lord Shiva. The Sita Temple, dedicated to Goddess Sita, has beautiful stone statues of Lord Ram, Goddess Sita and Lord Lakshman preserved in the temple. Haleshwar Sthan is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Haleshwar Sthan is a pilgrimage site in Sitamarhi dedicated to Lord Shiva, which has an ancient Hindu temple and is located 3 km north-west of the town. According to local myth, King Videha founded a temple of Lord Shiva on the occasion of Putra Yeshti Yajna which was the Haleshwarnath temple. A rock-cut sanctuary from the great Mauryan period is found near Sitamarhi. Other places worth visiting are the Janaki temple at Punaura, the Baghi Math, Goraul Sharif, the Shukeshwar Sthan, Bodhayan-Sar and Sabhagachhi Sasaula. Most of the temples close by 10 in the night and open early in the morning.

Madhubani
An ancient city, Madhubani for the richness in art and culture that the place strives for. Mentioned in the Ramayana, the city is known for the world popular Madhubani paintings which originated here. The word Madhuban means a forest of honey from which Madhubani is derived, but sometimes it is also said to have been derived from Madhu meaning sweet and Vaani meaning voice or language. The district of Madhubani emerged from the Darbhanga district of Bihar in 1972 during the reshuffling of territorial boundaries. The town has multiple temples which are the main attraction points of the town.

On the road from Madhubani to Jaynagar, Saurath is a small roadside village, known for the popular Somnath Mahadev temple. Each year, all the Maithili Brahmins from the nearby villages meet here during the annual sabha to discuss and negotiate proposals which eventually terminate into weddings which is one of the reasons the temple is very famous. The Bhawanipur village is popular for its Ugaranath temple and its association with the poet Vidyapeeth. According to Indian mythology, Vidyapet was considered an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, due to which Shiva began serving him as a servant named Ugana. The Ugana Mahadev Mandir is where Lord Shiva revealed his true identity to Vidyapeeth. On the western bank of Thumne river, stands the tall Bhagwati temple. According to historic stories, the goddess Bhagwati blessed the famous writer and poet Kalidas at this spot and it is said that the goddess was supremely impressed by the talent, skills and dedication of Kalidas. To the south-east of the temple is Kalidas’s pathshala. The temple is an ancient site and is built with an Indo Aryan of architecture. It is said that when years ago, the Maharajadhiraaj Shri Rameshwar Singh had insisted on reinstalling the head of the image of the deity, just a night before installation of the newly designed head, the goddess appeared in the king’s dream and asked him it was right for him to create the creator. The head was hence not installed and is still kept right next to the statue of the deity. 9 km from Madhubani is a small village called Kapileshwar which is known for having the Kapileshwar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple is exceptionally crowded on Mondays especially during the month of Shravan. On the occasion of Mahashivratri, the temple hosts a huge fair in which the entire village plays the host celebrating the occasion with a lot of pomp and show.

Built by Maharaja Shri Rameshwar Singh, the Nagar fort is popularly known as the Naulakha Palace. Situated in Rajnagar on the eastern bank of River Kamla, the palace is an ancient royal palace which is a popular heritage building. The palace boasted of well-paved gardens, tinkering ponds, temple complexes and the like. However, it suffered a major loss and extensive damage in 1934 when an earthquake hit it. It has never been repaired and currently lies in ruins. The Navlakha Palace has a central tower which is seven storeys. Originally, it had a Durga Bhawan towards the north end of the complex. The Bhawan has a glittering pond in the front and a pearly white marble temple dedicated to Goddess Kali to its north. The Durga Bhawan is still in function while the other structures have been dismantled. It is made of ivory marble and resembles the Taj Mahal. The portico has four arches resting on cement elephants. There is a functioning family room in the building called the Gausani Ghar which houses the family deity. It is here that you can also find the oldest existing Mithila painting. Even in ruins, it boasts of an old world charm and brilliant architecture.

Jainagar, also spelt as Jaynagar is a town located situated on the holy Kamala River and is the nearest town to India’s border with Nepal. Jainagar is situated in the centre of Mithilanchal so visitors to this place can immerse themselves in the Mithilanchal culture.

Lauriya Nandangarh
Also known as Lauria Nandangarh, Lauriya Navandgarh, is a town in West Champaran situated near the banks of the Burhi Gandak River. The village draws its name from a pillar or laur of Ashoka standing there and the stupa mound Nandangarh about 2 km south-west of the pillar. Remains of the Mauryan period have been found here. Lauriya Nandangarh is also a site for about 20 archaeological banks organized in three rows. Forty pillars were built here by Emperor Ashoka originally but today only one pillar exists in complete form, at its initial position in Lauriya Nandangarh. The Ashokan pillar consists of the six Ashokan proclamations. The height of the pillar is more than twelve meters and the pillar has been inscribed with six Ashokan edicts, issued by the Emperor in the year 244 BC and the top of the pillar is adorned with a lion, in a crouching position. One of the main tourist attractions here is a large stupa, which is believed to be one of the biggest stupas in India which is 24m in height and has a circumference of almost 457 m. The Stupa with a polygonal or cruciform base;[1][5][6] with its missing dome which must have been proportionately tall, the Stupa must have been one of the highest in India. The walls of the four cardinal directions at the base are each 32 m long and the wall between each has a zigzag course with 14 re-entrant and 13 outer angles. An extensive later restoration hid the four upper walls and provided new circular ones; the polygonal plan of the walls of the base and the first terrace were left unaltered. The top of each terrace served as a pradakshina-path or a south facing pathway, though no staircase to reach the top was found in the excavated portion. Lauriya has 15 Stupa mounds in three rows, each row upwards of 600 m; the first row begins near the pillar and goes E to W, while the other two are at right angles to it and parallel to each other. Less than half a km from the village and 2 km from the mound, stands the famous pillar of Ashoka which is a single block of polished sandstone over 32 feet high. The top is bell shaped with a circular abacus ornamented with Brahmi geese supporting the statue of a lion. The pillar is inscribed with the edicts of Ashoka in clear and beautifully cut characters. The lion has been chipped in the mouth and the column bears the mark of time just below the top which has itself been slightly dislodged. Signs of vandalism over the years are clearly visible.

Bhagalpur
Also known as the Silk City of Bihar, the historically significant city of Bhagalpur lies on the southern banks of the river Ganges and is the 3rd largest city in the state located about 250 km east of the state capital of Patna. The river Ganges at Bhagalpur is home to the Gangetic dolphin, the national aquatic animal of India with the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary established near the town.

Known to be one of the most prominent Buddhist learning centres during the Pala Empire, Vikramshila was established when the quality of education at Nalanda started declining. Founded by the Pala King Dharmapala sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries, Vikramshila was part of the network of the five important learning centres of that time, and it was home to more than 100 teachers and 1000 students. Information on the Vikramshila is mostly found in Tibetan writings of Taranatha, a Tibetan Monk of the 16th and 17th centuries and the subjects taught here included philosophy, metaphysics, grammar, Indian logic, tantra, etc. One of the most famous scholars of Vikramshila was the abbot Atisha Dipankara who also found the Sarma tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. Vikramshila taught its students for more than four centuries before it came to an end when Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed it in the year 1193 along with the other Buddhist centres.

Source

The Ajgaivinath Temple, located in Sultanganj, is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva with the idol in the main temple believed to be swayambhu or self-manifested. The temple has been associated with Muni Jahnu, as a belief says that the idol in the temple protruded in Jahnu Muni’s ashram. There is a story which says that when Muni Jahnu was meditating in his ashram, the Ganges on her way to the ocean disturbed Jahnu with the ripples of her waves. Muni Jahnu is believed to have swallowed the whole river, and Muni Bhagirath saved the Ganges by making an incision on Jahnu’s thighs to make way for the Ganges. Thus river Ganges is also known as Jahnavi. The temple is open from 9 am to 12:30 pm and then again between 5 and 8 pm.

The Budhanath temple is one of the main attractions of Bhagalpur and is located on the banks of the Uttaravahini Ganga or the northward-flowing Ganges, spread over three acres. The temple is one of the oldest temples of the region and Baba Budhanath is referred to in the Shiva Puranas as Bal Vridheshwarnath in the first of the eight segments. The Shiva Linga that resides in the temple is believed to have been self-manifested as it is not known about the birth of the Shivalinga.

The Champapur Digambar Jain Mandir dedicated to Vasupujya, the 12th Tirthankara is located in Nathnagar and is an ancient and historical Teerthkshetra. It is believed that all the five Kalyanakas of Vasupujya Tirthankara took place in Champapur which is said to have been the capital of the Anga Kingdom ruled by Karna. The Anga Janpada was one of the 52 Janapada established by Adi Teerthankar Bhagwan Rishabh Deo. Champapur also existed as Mahajanapada among the six Mahajanapadas during the time of Bhagwan Mahavira Swami. The main temple of Champapur is believed to be about 2500 years, adorned with five altars symbolising the Five Kalyanakas. There are two spectacular columns of fame or Keerti Stambhas that have survived among the four that existed on each corner of the compound. The most recent addition to the sculptures is the 31 feet tall statue of Vasupujya that was built under the guidance of a charitable trust based in Nagaland.

Situated beside Bhagalpur Railway Station and founded in 1577 AD, the Khanqah e Shahbazia is one of the most revered shrines of Bhagalpur, visited by people of all faiths every year. A mosque and a shrine of the Sufi Maulana Shahbaz Rahmattullah who is considered to be one of the 40 sacred Sufis sent to spread the message of Allah, the shrine is still being run by his 13th generation descendants. The Mosque was built by Aurangzeb and was frequently visited by him. Every Thursday, visitors assemble at the place to be blessed with most of the visitors from the eastern parts of India and Bangladesh. There is a belief that the water in a pond here has medicinal qualities that can cure illness and snake bites. The Archeological Survey of India has discovered some ancient manuscripts from the Basement of Khanqah-e-Shahbazia. The Khanqah is also famous for its library, which has a vast collection of Arabic and Persian theological texts, including a copy of the Qur’an transcribed by Murshid Quli Khan, the Nawab of Murshidabad in Bengal.

Mandara Parvat is a 750 feet high granite hill located about 48 km to the south of Bhagalpur. According to mythology, Bhagalpur was the place where Samudra Manthan took place, and the Devatas and the Asuras churned the ocean of milk using Mount Mandara to obtain the elixir. The Serpent King Vasuki is said to have offered himself to be used as a rope to churn the ocean of milk, and the faint impressions of a coil on the Mandara hill stand as a proof of this story. One of the Puranas says that Lord Vishnu defeated the demon Madhu and placed the hill, now known as Mandara, over him. The conch shell, Panchajanya, which marked the start of the war of Mahabharata is believed to have been obtained from the Shankha Kunda here. Kalidasa refers to Vishnu’s footmarks on Mount Mandara in his epic Kumarasambhava. The Hill happens to have numerous sculptures of Hindu Gods cut into its Rocks. A belief among the Jains depicts that the 12th Tirthankara, Vasupujya attained Nirvana at the peak of the same hill.

The Vikramshila Setu is 5th longest bridge over water in India. The 4.7 km long two-lane bridge serves as a link between NH 33 and NH 31 running on the opposite sides of the Ganges. This bridge has reduced considerably the road travel between Bhagalpur and places across the Ganges, like Darjeeling, Siliguri, Assam etc. Before the opening of this bridge, steamers were being used for transportation across the Ganga river.

Located 30 km west of the city, the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary is stretched for 50 km of the river Ganges, starting from Sultangunj to Kahalgaon. The sanctuary was established in the year 1991 to protect the endangered species of the Gangetic dolphins which were once abundant, but today is in danger of extinction. The Gangetic Dolphins were declared as the National Aquatic Animal of India on 5 October 2009 and classified under the IUCN Red List of 2006 as threatened and endangered species. The Sanctuary is also home for various other aquatic and wild animals that come under the threatened category such as the Indian otter, gharial, freshwater turtles etc and the best time to visit the Sanctuary is between October and June.

The Kuppaghat Ashram is located by the banks of the Ganges. Kuppaghat translates to cave by the banks of a river and has a cave which is believed to have been used by Maharshi Mehi Paramhans as a place for meditation. Kuppaghat has been transformed as Maharshi Mehi Ashram and has grown to be a pilgrimage for the Followers of Santmat. Every year on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Maharshi Mehi, Maharshi Santsevi who was Mehi’s successor and on Guru Purnima, the ashram is visited by many devotees which made the Ashram as the national headquarters of the Akhila Bharatiya Santmat – Satsang. The Kuppaghat Ashram has a well-maintained garden and an orchard with sculptures and paintings of scenes depicting Lord Rama’s visit to Shabari and also of Jatayu’s death in the hands of Ravana along with spiritual quotes.

Valmiki National Park, Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary
The Valmiki National Park, Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary is located at the India-Nepal border in the West Champaran district on the banks of the river Gandak and is the only national park in Bihar. The National Park gets its name from Valmiki Nagar, the adjoining town to the forests which is also the only possible entrance to the wildlife reserve. The extensive forest area of Valmiki Nagar, formerly known as Bhainsa Lotan was previously owned by the Bettiah Raj and the Ramanagar Raj until the early 1950s. One of the natural virgin recesses in east India, the Valmiki Tiger Reserve has pristine forest and wilderness which is an excellent example of the Himalayan Terai landscape and covers 899.38 sq km, which is 17.4% of the total geographical area of West Champaran and as of 2018, there were 40 tigers in the reserve. The park is divided into two sections: the wildlife sanctuary declared in the year 1978 covers an area of 545 sq km and the national park which was established in 1990 covers an area of around 335 sq km.

The Valmiki landscape harbours a vivid socio-cultural diversity. Tharu, a scheduled tribe, is the dominant community in the landscape with several theories on the colonisation of this community and maintain socio-cultural relationships with the Tharus of Nepal. Other tribes in the Valmiki landscape are collectively called Dhangar comprising of four tribes, the Oraon, Munda, Lohra and Bhuiya. Communities other than the tribes are called Baaji who are outsiders and involved in agriculture as well as small businesses in the villages.

Flaunting flourishing wildlife with extensive varieties of flora, fauna and avifauna, the highlight of the region is the Bengal tigers. The government further plans to convert 800 hectares of the forest area into grasslands to make it the largest grassland in the country.

The Valmiki Tiger Reserve stays open from 1st October to 31st May with the best season to visit the sanctuary between November to March. The place is dotted with temples, shrines and historical monuments. Some of the prominent and must-visit attractions of the national park include the Bheriyari Watch Tower which is located in the Bheriyari Grassland region and is ideal for bird watching several exotic bird species at play and viewing the herbivores in their natural habitat. Located exactly on the Indo- Nepal Border, the Bhikhna Thori at the northeastern end of the sanctuary is a popular route to Tibet across Nepal. According to local history, this was a resting place called thaur in the local language, for Buddhist monks and hence is called Bhiktchuk Thaur or Bhikhna Thori and is a popular picnic and leisure spot. Rohua Nala is a tributary of the river Gandak and is situated in the Mandalpur range which is a combination of wetlands, forests, swamps and canebrakes and the region has been declared as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Indian Bird Conservation Network. Kapan is a major perennial river originating from the Raghia Range. Walking northwards along the river, one can witness one of the most beautiful trails of the park with the forest on the side and the trailing river in the centre. Lalbhitiya is a beautiful vantage point providing a bird’s eye view of pure sal forests with mesmerising sunrise and sunset views. On clear days, one can also see the snow-white pearly peaks of the Himalayas. The Manor Trek is a comparatively easy trek of 1.5 km which can be done solo with the trail passing along the forest to the Manor watchtower which provides majestic views of the adjoining snow-clad Himalayas and beautiful panoramas of the river manor below. Parewa Dah is the most beautiful spot of the forest and a trip to the park is considered incomplete without a visit to this place. Parewa means pigeons and dah means water bodies and Parewa Dah means a place where both these factors co-exist. The water here is so clear that you can even see the fish swimming at shallow levels. Perched at an elevation of 2884 metres, Someshwar Peak is the highest peak in the region which can be reached through a trek of 14 km from the base camp. On the border the Someshwar temple dedicated to Shiva and Kali is located with the ruins of the hermitage of Baba Bhatrihari at the base of the temple, Valmikinagar is the adjoining tiny town with the Gandak Barrage offering magnificent views of the Triveni and iother places from here.

A Gypsy or Jeep Safari for 4 people for 2.5 hours will cost INR 600 per group while 8-person rafting for 3 hours will set your group back by INR 2000 and a 4 person boating will cost you INR 500 per group. A nature walk for a group of 4 to 6 persons for 3 to 4 hours is INR 100 per person and the Border Trek for a group of 10 to 15 persons for 10 to 12 hours is INR 500 per person. The Jungle Camp for 4 to 6 persons for a night will cost INR 200 per person and the Tiger Trail for 4 to 6 persons for 3 to 4 hours will set one back by INR 200 per person. If you like cycling, it will cost INR 20 per hour per cycle.

And with this we come to the end of our journey through the state of Bihar. I really enjoyed reading about this amazing state which has so much to offer, especially to students of history, religion and archaeology. We will soon explore more of what India has to offer and in times like this, armchair tourism is all that we can do!

Travel Bucket List: India – Bihar Part 5

After Rajgir and Sasaram, we explore the holy city of Bodh Gaya and the ancient city of Vaishali in this part.

Bodh Gaya
Located 126 km south of Patna, Bodh Gaya is a religious site and place of pilgrimage associated with the Mahabodhi Temple Complex and is famous as it is where Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment which in Pali means Bodhi under what became known as the Bodhi Tree. Since antiquity, Bodh Gaya has remained the object of pilgrimage and veneration both for Hindus and Buddhists. For Buddhists, Bodh Gaya is the most important of the main four pilgrimage sites related to the life of Gautama Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar, Lumbini, and Sarnath. In 2002, the Mahabodhi Temple became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Considered the holiest site in Buddhism, Bodh Gaya was known as Uruwela during the Buddha’s time and is situated by the bank of the Lilajan River with the first temple at the site built by King Ashoka. The disciples of Gautama Siddhartha began to visit the place during the full moon in the month of Vaisakh during April–May, as per the Hindu calendar. Over time, the place became known as Bodh Gaya, the day of enlightenment as Buddha Purnima, and the tree as the Bodhi Tree. The history of Bodh Gaya is documented by many inscriptions and pilgrimage accounts. Foremost among these are the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims Faxian in the 5th century and Xuanzang in the 7th century. The area was at the heart of a Buddhist civilization for centuries, until it was conquered by Turkic armies in the 13th century. The name, Bodh Gaya, did not come into use until the 18th century. Historically, it was known as Uruvela, Sambodhi meaning complete enlightenment in Ashoka’s Major Rock Edict No. 8, Vajrasana or the Diamond Throne of the Buddha and Mahabodhi or the Great Enlightenment. The main monastery of Bodh Gaya used to be called the Bodhimanda-vihara in Pali and today is known as the Mahabodhi Temple.

The Mahabodhi temple also called the Great Awakening Temple, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that marks the location where the Lord Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. The temple spreads over an area of 4.8 hectares and is 55 meters tall. The Bodhi Tree is situated to the left of the temple and is believed to be the direct descendant of the actual tree under which Lord Gautam Buddha meditated and attained enlightenment and laid down his philosophy for life. The original temple was built by Emperor Ashoka after he turned to Buddhism to seek peace and solitude from war and conquests around 260 BC. He built a small temple by the Bodhi tree and an inscription dating back to between the 1st and 2nd centuries reads that the temple built by Emperor Ashoka was replaced by a new one. A gold-painted statue of Buddha, built by the Pala kings of Bengal and made of black stone is placed in the sanctum shrine of the ancient temple. The Buddha is seen seated in the Bhumisparsa Mudra asana or the Earth touching posture. The Mahabodhi temple is surrounded by two distinct types of railings on all four sides, and they are about two meters high. The old railings made from sandstone dates back to 150 BC and has illustrations of Goddess Laxmi being bathed by elephants and of Lord Surya riding a chariot that is being drawn by four horses. The newer ones are made of unpolished granite and are believed to have been constructed in the Gupta period and have carvings of stupas or reliquary shrines, garudas or eagles and lotuses made out on them. In 2013, the upper portion of the temple was covered with gold, as a gift from the King of Thailand and the devotees of Lord Gautam Buddha. The original structure was made primarily of brick, covered with stucco, which has survived many years and is one of the oldest and most imposing structures made entirely out of brick standing from the Gupta period. The temple is open from 5 am to 12 noon and then again from 4 to 9 pm. There is no entry fee charged, except the ones charged for cameras and video equipment.

Devotees who wish to visit the Brahmayoni Temple must go through a gruelling climb of 424 high stone steps to reach the top of the hill, atop which lies this temple. Two caves namely Brahmayoni and Matreoni are also situated on the hill along with an ancient temple of Astabhujadevi. The Brahmayoni hill was the place where Buddha preached the fire-sermon to a thousand former fire worshipping ascetics and it is said that each ascetic became enlightened after hearing his teachings.

The Sujatha Temple is dedicated to a humble tribal woman named Sujatha who offered pudding to Gautam Buddha. It is said that the pudding was the first meal Gautam Buddha had consumed after years of starvation ever since he renounced the materialistic life including food to attain enlightenment. The temple is considered to be religiously important as the offering is believed to have saved Lord Buddhaês life.

The Daijokyo Buddhist Temple is a tranquil respite for those seeking one amidst beautiful surroundings. The most prominent feature of the temple is the 64 foot tall Great Buddha Statue made of sandstone and granite. It draws visitors in large numbers. The temple also houses a grand meditation hall where one can sit in solitude and soak the peaceful vibe of the surroundings.

Sujata Kuti is a stupa built in the honour of a tribal woman named Sujata who saved Gautam Buddhaês life by offering him rice pudding after he had starved himself for years in the process of attaining Nirvana and renouncing every luxury he had including food. Sujata Kuti, is thus, considered religiously important in the Buddhist Culture.

The Chinese Temple was constructed by Buddhist monks and displays beautiful Chinese artwork with a statue of Lord Buddha within the sanctum. An outstanding example of Buddhist culture and Japanese architecture, the Indosan Nippon Japanese Temple was built in 1972 with the help of the international Buddhist community. The structure of the temple is carved out of wood and it looks like a Japanese shrine. It also showcases a lot of Japanese paintings narrating events from the life of Gautam Buddha. The Vietnamese Temple is the most recently constructed shrine in the area and features a serene-looking statue of Buddha which exudes a calming aura and appears to be smiling.

The Animesh Lochan Chaitya Shrine is where Lord Buddha spent his second week of meditation after attaining Nirvana. It is believed that his meditation involved gazing at the Bodhi Tree continuously without blinking. The place, therefore, was named Animesh Lochan which means Open Eyes and is considered important as it teaches self-control and focus.

The Great Buddha Statue is the tallest in India and was instated by the XIV Dalai Lama in 1989. It is a meditating Buddha resting on a giant lotus, constructed using intricately carved sandstone and red granite.

Situated alongside the Bodhi Temple, Cankamana is a holy shrine featuring a carving of Lord Buddha’s feet into the black stone lotuses.

As its name suggests, the Vishnupad Temple was built as a dedication to Lord Vishnu and features a 40 cm long footprint of Lord Vishnu that is enclosed by a basin made of silver plates. This footprint marks the act of Lord Vishnu subduing Gayasur by placing his feet on Gayasur’s chest. Within the courtyard, there are other temples situated as well. One is dedicated to Lord Narasimha and another to Lord Shiva in the form of Phalgwisvara.

The Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in the state and dates back around 200 years. It was built by the royal family of Muzaffarpur and the shrine is well known for its festival of Shabina when prayers are offered on the 27th night of Ramadan.

The Bodhi Tree is perhaps the most prominent and respected of all sacred places in Buddhism because of the rich historical significance. It is under this tree that Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the spiritual teacher who later became to be known as the Buddha, attained enlightenment. A shrine known as Animisalocana Cetiya was erected on the spot where he had sat down and a small temple built near the Bodhi tree in the 7th century. The Bodhi tree is one of the four main Buddhist pilgrimage sites and the Anandabodhi tree in Sravasti and the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, are believed to have been propagated from this tree. The spot where the Buddha stood is marked by the Animeshlocha Stupa, or the Unblinking Stupa, and lies in the northeast of the temple complex. According to legend, the Buddha often walked between the Stupa and the Bodhi tree, and lotus flowers sprung up along this route. This path is now known as the Ratnachakarma or the Jewel Walk. The temple built by King Ashoka was replaced by the present Mahabodhi temple in the 2nd century, and later refurbished in AD 450, 1079 and 1157, and then finally fully restored by the Burmese Buddhists in 1882. An interesting feature is that prayer beads are formed using the seeds of the Bodhi tree which pilgrims consider sacred. Bodhi Day is celebrated here on 8 December annually. Buddhists and followers of Dharma visit this place without fail and greet each other by saying “Budu Saranai!” which translates to “may the peace of Buddha be yours” in English.

Once considered a heritage tree, Ajapala Nigrodha Tree, which no longer exists, is the sacred location where Gautam Buddha completed his fifth week of meditation after attaining enlightenment and held a discourse to address and answer the queries locals had about religion, humanity and equality. Now marked with a pillar, the place still is considered religiously important and is visited by believers.

The Root Institute for Wisdom Culture is a Buddhist Centre that educates and promotes wisdom culture through programmes and social service. It functions as per the Tibetan tradition and is often considered as a spiritual retreat that offers a tranquil atmosphere to study and practise the culture in its true form. The Burmese Vihara Monastery is a spiritual retreat for those who wish to take a break from their stressful lifestyle. Located amidst beautiful gardens, the tranquil monastery was built according to traditional Burmese architecture and houses a Buddha Meditation Hall, a library with a large collection of books on the teachings of Lord Buddha and a guest house. Well known for its curved roof covered with exquisite tiles of gold, the Thai Monastery houses a bronze statue of Buddha and another recently erected 25m high statue in the garden. The Royal Bhutan Monastery has been named as it was built by the King of Bhutan as a dedication to Lord Buddha. Clay carvings are seen on the interior walls of the monastery that depict different aspects of the Buddhist culture.

A popular site at Bodh Gaya, the Muchalinda Lake is located next to the main temple. It is associated with a mythological tale stating that Lord Buddha was protected from the storm by Snake King Muchalinda.

Dungeshwari Hills is where Lord Buddha spent a few years before travelling to Bodh Gaya in search of enlightenment. The hills are mostly known for the caves that Gautam Buddha used for shelter and meditation. The Stupas/ Buddhist shrines exist even today amidst the beautiful natural surroundings. The picturesque location of the Dungeshwari Hills is also a well-known trekking destination and draws enthusiasts in large numbers.

The Archaeological Society of India Museum was established to display ancient articles belonging to the Brahmanical and Buddhist belief, mostly related to the Pala period. Exhibits of splendid stone and bronze statues and sculptures, panels, rods, plaques, pillars, railings, etc are found in the galleries, courtyard and the veranda of the museum that is located inside the Mahabodhi Temple Complex.

The Bodhgaya Multimedia Museum was established to provide a glimpse into the historical life of Gautam Buddha in the most interesting way possible. The museum covers his journey right from his childhood till he attained Nirvana. It also includes content on his teachings and all of this is presented in the form of multimedia and 3D animation movies.

Vaishali
A small district and town, Vaishali is equally revered by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is the place where Lord Mahavir was born and is considered as the first republic of the world and the city where Buddha delivered his last sermon. Vaishali is believed to have been named after King Vishal, from the time of Mahabharata. Surrounded by groves of mango and banana and extensive rice field, the village is an important religious and historical attraction site and is flocked by tourists year in and year out.

It was the capital city of the Vajjian Confederacy, considered one of the first examples of a republic around 6th century BC. Gautama Buddha preached his last sermon before his death in 483 BC, then in 383 BC, the Second Buddhist council was convened here by King Kalasoka, making it an important place in both Jain and Buddhist religions. It contains one of the best-preserved of the Pillars of Ashoka, topped by a single Asiatic lion. The city finds mention in the travel accounts of Chinese explorers, Faxian in the 4th century and Xuanzang in the 7th century, which were later used in 1861 by British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham to first identify Vaisali with the present village of Basarh in Vaishali District. Lord Ram’s footprints in Ramchaura temple is why Hindu pilgrims flock to Vaishali, which is also renowned as the land of Amrapali, the great Indian courtesan, who appears in many folktales, as well as in Buddhist literature who later became a disciple of Buddha.

Vaishali is well known for its close association with the Buddha. After leaving Kapilavastu for renunciation, he came to Vaishali first and had his spiritual training from Ramaputra Udraka and Alara Kalama or Alark Ram. After the Enlightenment, the Buddha frequently visited Vaishali and organised his Bhikshu Sangha on the pattern of Vaishalian democracy and established his Bhikshuni Sangha here. His last Varshavasa or rainy season resort was in Vaishali and he announced his approaching Mahaparinirvana or the final departure from the world just three months in advance. Before leaving for Kusinagara, where he died, he left his alms-bowl or Bhiksha-Patra here with the people of Vaishali. The Svetambaras state that the final Tirthankara, Lord Mahavira, was born and raised in Vaishali to King Siddhartha and Queen Trishala.

King Ashoka became a great follower of Buddhism after the massacre of Kalinga and erected his famous Ashokan pillar in Vaishali to memorialise the last sermon of Lord Buddha that took place here. There is a life-like figure of an Asiatic lion engraved, at the top of the pillar facing north, believed to be the direction of Lord Buddha’s last voyage as well as a brick stupa and a pond known as Ramkund next to the pole which makes for a sanctified spot for Buddhists. There is also a small tank here known as Ramkund.

A 125-ft tall peace pagoda which built by the Buddh Vihar society in collaboration with the Japanese government and the Japanese Nichiren Buddhist sect Nipponzan-Myōhōji, the Vishwa Shanti Stupa or World Peace Pagoda is a huge, white, beautiful stupa surrounded by greenery, serenity and a pond where visitors can spend time boating and breathing in the fresh air. A small part of the Buddha’s relics found in Vaishali has been enshrined in the foundation and the chhatra of the Stupa.

Just next to the Pagoda is the Abhishek Pushkarini or the coronation tank which is the tank from whose sacred waters anointed the elected representatives of Vaisali. Near the Coronation Tank is Stupa 1 or the Relic Stupa. Here the Licchavis reverentially encased one of the eight portions of the Master’s relics, which they received after the Mahaparinirvana. After his last discourse the Awakened One set out for Kushinagar, but the Licchavis kept following him. Buddha gave them his alms bowl but they still refused to return. The Master created an illusion of a river in spate which compelled them to go back. This site can be identified with Deora in modern Kesariya village, where Ashoka later built a stupa. Walking around the tank, visitors can find a museum on the north bank which houses the artefacts found during excavation, dividing them into four galleries, one of which has terracotta items of human figures, while another gallery has terracotta items of animal figures with wheels, cast coins etc. The third gallery exhibits antlers, bones and iron and copper commodities while the fourth gallery houses earthenwares.

The Kutagarasala Vihara is the monastery where Buddha most frequently stayed while visiting Vaishali and is located 3 km from the relic Stupa, and on its ground can be found the Ananda Stupa, with an Asokan pillar in very good condition, perhaps the only complete Asokan pillar left standing, and an ancient pond.

Housing some of the beautiful images of Hindu gods and goddesses situated on Bawan Pokhar’s northern end, the Bawan Pokhar temple is a piece of ancient artwork built during the rule of Pal dynasty. An old temple built in the Pala period stands on the northern bank of Bawan Pokhar and enshrines beautiful images of several Hindu gods

The Vaishali museum was established in 1971 by Archaeological Survey of India to preserve and display the antiquities found during exploration of sites with ancient Vaishali. The Vishal Fort is in ruins today and has a 1 km governing house of the Lichchavi tribe.

The Vaishali Mahotsava or the great Vaishali Celebration is held every year on Baisakh Purnima or the Full Moon Day of the 1st Hindu month which occurs during mid-April to celebrate the birth anniversary of the 24th Jain Tirthankar Mahavir who born here in the village of Kundalpur, 4 km from Vaishali.

In our next part, which is the last one, we will explore Muzzafarpur, Sitamarhi, Madhubani, Lauriya Nandangarh, Bhagalpur and the Valmiki National Park, Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary.

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.

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