Religiously this is one of the most important places of Bihar. It has importance to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. If you do some prior research on Rajgir you will find that there are so many places that are deemed to be worth a visit. It is a place rich in history and legends. For example, history is to be found in the remains of Bimbisara’s Jail, a square space with rounded corners. Legend is to be found in the chariot wheel marks in stone of Krishna’s chariot.
But when I arrive at Rajgir I have more immediate concerns. I realize that I have less than two hundred rupees on me. That’s not even enough to pay for any room. It is already quarter past six in the evening. Someone tells me there is an SBI ATM on Dharamshala Road. After a decent walk I arrive at the ATM. It is closed. Someone tells me about another ATM at the railway station. I walk to the station. There is not even a queue but thankfully it is open till 8 pm. I get the cash I need and head back to town. I take a room at a Jain Dharamshala named Sanathan. It is basic but sufficient for a couple of nights.
The best thing about Rajgir is the prevalent mode of transport for pilgrims – tonga, which is generally called tanga. These are horse driven two-wheeled vehicles. They bestow upon Rajgir a medieval feeling. I felt I had stepped into a town many centuries earlier. It is common to hear the steady trotting of the horses as tangas go past you, the decorative flags flying in the wind. Pilgrims generally hire one for Rs. 200 to visit all the places of interest in Rajgir. A tanga can take six adults besides the driver. For singles like me, a rickshaw is a better option.
First I visit Ajatashatru’s Stupa where I find nothing interesting amongst the ruins. Then I visit a modern Japanese temple surrounded by a garden which is named New Venuvana. The original venuvana is right next to it. This is where Buddha stayed often among the bamboo groves. There are few bamboo trees left here. Newer trees, paved walkways, flower beds and pavilions make it difficult to imagine the place that Buddha walked. There is a tank in which Buddha used to bathe.
From here I head for a taste of Jainism – Sri Brahmi Kala Mandiram at Veerayatan. They have a nice exhibition here with dioramas presenting the story of Jainism and Mahavir in particular. These dioramas have been done with lot of skill, conception and meticulous execution. With a mix of plaster, paint, stones, paper, cloth, beads, imitation jewellery and even cotton, a wide variety of material has been used. Artistically, they evoked different responses from me – sometimes pretty, sometimes rich, sometimes elaborate, sometimes gaudy and even ugly. The good thing about this place is an eye hospital housed within the premises. Free eye operations are performed for the poor and supported by generous donations.
For a touch of Hinduism, I take a rickshaw to Brahma Kund. Rajgir is famed for many hot springs. It is a simple physical phenomenon in which heat escaping from below the earth’s crust warms up the water tables. Pressure builds up until a spring is formed to release and balance the energies. But in Rajgir, every hot springs has divinity attached to it. People come from far to take a holy dip in these springs. The springs are believed to have curative properties. It may be so but a divine hand is probably not behind it.
After paying a couple of rupees to a priest who insisted on blessing me, I climb the hill above Brahma Kund. It takes to some new Jain temples. I take quick snaps but avoid visiting them. The hills around Rajgir are defined by many such Jain temples. The Jains have a penchance for temple building, not big ones but many small ones. Donations to such temples are probably believed to accrue good karma. I do find on this hill the ruins of an old brick temple/monastery. Some images suggest it is a Jain one but others suggest it is a Buddhist one.
I head down to town under the hot sun. I have lunch and start walking towards Shanti Stupa built by the Japanese. En route I pass the remains of the jail and another brick ruin. Two caretakers of the place, who opportunistically double up as self-taught guides, show around troupes of Japanese and Thai tourists. The tourists make they prayers and drop their coins into the dry well that stands here. Once the tourists leave, one of them climbs into the well and collects all the offerings. There is a little argument about the split between the two but the deal is reached amidst swearing.
I have seen a similar Shanti Stupa at Dauli in Orissa. There is ropeway that can take pilgrims to the top but for some reason it wasn’t working today. So pilgrims have to huff and puff their way to the summit. But some settle themselves into comfortable dolis. Another hill nearby contains remains of an old monastery. Many of these things were reported by some famous Chinese pilgrim of the 6th century AD. This is the hill which Buddha used to visit often and meditate. It is said the Bimbimsara had requested the jail to be built at the foothill so that he could see the Buddha during his visits. The little natural caves on this hill are gilded in gold paper offerings by pilgrims. As I leave the hill, the prayer of Thai pilgrims sound the hills around in chorus. The views from here are spectacular. There are hills all around and the green cover is immense spread about the lower ground.