When I arrive here I am surprised to see a small village by the road. Fortunately there is a hotel run by Bihar Tourism. I take a room for Rs. 300. With no TV or hot water it is a little pricey.
I have lunch and head out to see the sights of Vaishali. It is a place visited by both Buddha and Mahavira. A local guy makes a quick mental calculation and informs me that Buddha came here 48 years before Mahavira.
There is a Shanti Stupa here built by the Japanese. Across a large tank is a museum. I skip the stupa having seen similar ones elsewhere. I visit the museum. The guy takes my five rupees and pockets it. He doesn’t issue me a ticket.
The museum is not really worth a visit. It has a good collection of terracotta objects but having seen similar stuff at Patna Museum I could have skipped this one.
Near the museum is the sheltered remains of a stupa that once contained the relics of the Buddha. These are today kept in the Patna Museum and can be visited by paying a special fee of Rs. 100. The originaly stupa was a small mud structure which was later enhanced by a brick structure. A large park and garden surrounds this ruin.
From here I walk towards Kolhua, a place famous for its own stupa and an Ashokan pillar with its Lion capital. I take a shortcut through a village passing scenes never to be seen in modern day cities – harvesting of mustard, drying of mustard, making kitchen fuel, shredding of hay. Here they don’t make cowdung patties as is common in many parts of India. Instead they shape the cowdung into triangular wedges 2 feet in length. These are arranged in a line to dry. Often stacks of these are left to dry. Mango orchards are common in these parts in addition to mustard fields. In one case I say corn bunched together and tied to the branch of a tree. Does it have some spiritual significance, perhaps to ward off evil?
When I get closer to the ruins I see the pillar and the stupa across mustard and paddy fields. I pass through a small banana plantation and arrive at the entrance. Some Korean tourists are just about leaving the premises. Lots of votive stupa ruins surround the main stupa and the pillar. There is stepped tank, a Hindu temple under a tree, remains of a couple of monasteries and a new site where workers are busy with excavation. One of these monasteries built for nuns is interestingly built in the shape of a swastika. As for the Ashokan pillar, I doubt if the lion capital and the abacus are original.
Incense is burning at places around the stupa. Devotees have placed gold leaves on some ochre red bricks. A candle is burning its last at wick’s end. A couple of local boys make their rounds and salvage whatever they can use from the offerings.
Meanwhile, I find some of the brick mouldings very interesting. These can be found on votive stupa ruins. These stupas are sometimes on a platform of their own. Sometimes many stupas share a single platform. There is not a single stupa left intact.
I return to the main road and wait for a bus to Vaishaili. By the roadside, a small thatched hut has been setup. It has an entrance porch that leads to an inner room. At the entrance sits a man with earthern pots, glasses and bottles. A local drink brewed from palm is being sold. A bottle of this while alcohol costs Rs. 10. Around this countryside it is common to spot palm trunks chiselled out like a piece of sculpture. At the top a pot is tied to collect the toxicating sap drop by drop.
‘Usually I tap it at night and collect it the next day morning,’ says the seller. Outside by the road, his customer sits quietly with a half finished bottle. He is in another world.
Back in Vaishali, I visit one more ruin but it is uninteresting. I return to me room. There is a tree very near my room. Three speakers on this tree are blasting out a continous phrase into the coutryside, ‘Jai siyaram. Jai jai siyaram.’
‘When will this stop?’ I ask someone.
‘We are doing an ashtajaam puja for 24 hours. It started about noon today.’
‘You mean this will continue the whole night?’
‘Yes. But it’s good to listen to God’s name.’
At about 6 pm there is a power cut. The speakers fall silent but I can still hear the chants coming from the temple across the road. I am hoping that there will be no power for a couple of hours. A generator kicks in from somewhere with a noisy sputtering start. Against the background of generator noise, the blast of God’s name continues. I do not accept this practice of imposing one’s beliefs on everyone else.
There is actually much more to Vaishali but having got a sense of its history I will leave return to Patna tomorrow morning.