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Travelling to Rajgir and Nalanda
Shanti Stupa at Rajgir
After visiting Bodh Gaya, we travelled to nearby Rajgir surrounded by hills and the ruins of the ancient University of Nalanda. The Buddha used to meditate in a cave on Vulture Peak in Rajgir. The hill is also known as Giridkuta. We saw a few Japanese pilgrims and monks being carried to it by a sort of palanquin. I was told that it isn’t an easy climb.
We did go to the big white shining Shanti Stupa built by the Japanese. The Rajgir ropeway takes you right to it.
The stupa has corridors on two levels circling the great dome and several metal sculptures of The Buddha . A vast paved square lies in front of it. If you look over the edge of this square which is on top of a little hill, you can see a huge bell and the Cambodian monastery to your left and can hear the sound of a drum.
The Rajgir Ropeway or Chairllift
The ride on the Rajgir Ropeway between the hills (ticket costs Rs. 60) was rather scary and shaky, but thrilling all the same. You are strapped into a metal chairlift with your feet dangling in the air and getting into the contraption is quite scary too as the thing swings in over the platform, fairly rushing at you and you are shoved into it and another attendant hastily fixes into place the metal rod across the chair, strapping you in.
There was a power cut twice and we were stranded midway above the hills for quite a while. I saw other tourists going by, a girl with her eyes shut tight, a guy singing badly and another taking pictures on his mobile.
Getting off is rather scary too, Since the chairlift keeps moving, you have to jump onto the platform at the other end in a hurry although an attendant supports you so you don’t fall. The view returning from the Stupa downhill is even prettier. It was such a treat to see the hills where The Enlightened One had once walked!
My Crazy Trip on the Chairlift in Rajgir
Beware of the Langurs of Rajgir
O yes, and there are quite a few langurs around so when you buy your offering – flowers and tiny sugary white candy, keep it inside your bag as they are known to snatch it. If you stare at them, they bare their teeth at you. Just keep away from them. And if they happen to be sitting on the path, go around them quietly without looking at them. That’s what we did on the way back from the Cambodian monastery.
Cambodian Monastery at Rajgir
The Cambodian Monastery was a rather gloomy, creepy place. The constant sound of a huge drum beaten by a man who was clearly not a monk was sinister. He offered is some prasadam and then went back to beating the drum again. Not a monk in sight. There were plenty of bronze and brass statues of The Buddha and some deities and huge brass cylinder-like objects hung from the ceiling.
Souvenir Shopping in Rajgir
There are lots of shops selling local handcrafted soapstone items near the Shanti Stupa. Elephants and jewellery boxes and the like. You’ll also find cheap stuff from China like toys, bells and chimes. I bought a battery-operated mouse for my cats.
The Nalanda University Layout
Then on to Nalanda (we had hired a taxi fro Patna) where we accepted the services of an old experienced guide who said the place was too huge to navigate by ourselves and we would not know what was what.
He showed us the three levels of structures found on the site of the once world-renowned Nalanda University which boasted students from all over the world such as the famous Chinese scholar and historian Huan Tsang who even taught here. I was told that plans are afoot to revive the university with the help of former president of India, Abdul Kalaam at a site near Rajgir where construction has already begun and many countries have contributed to the project.
The guide told us that the university cum monastery was the only one of its kind in the world. It was a two-storey affair and three different dynasties had added to it beginning with Emperor Ashoka who initially built a temple here to commemorate the death of one of The Buddha’s disciples, Sariputta. Then it was the turn of King Harshavardhana and a king from the Gupta Dynasty.
Out of the 10 km stretch, only 1 km has been excavated so far. Villages have encroached upon the space. It was all very impressive.
The podiums for the teachers were set higher than the area of the classrooms meant for the students. We pottered around the ruins, climbing u and down stairs in the hot sun and a couple of guys followed us around obviously to listen to our guide who said he had been long enough in the business to know how to deal with the type.
The Persian Historian Muniz in his book ‘Tabaquat –I- Nasiri writes that thousands of monks were burnt and beheaded in the University of Nalanda by the invading Muslims who sought to eradicate all traces of Buddhism. The libraries here burned for months.
Hot Springs, Rajgir
There were beggars and con men everywhere in the hot springs area which you reach via a whole lot of stairs. There are several water holes with temples at different levels of the hill all accessed by the wide stairway and while there is also a public bath, women have their own hot springs.
It was very crowded, but curiously, I did not see any foreigners there. I got ripped off by a local guy who asked me to offer something for my family. He asked for Rs. 50 and then told me to repeat after him the well -known mantra from the scriptures – “Aham sharnam gachami, Buddham sharnam gacchami, dhammam sharnma gachami” (I go to the refuge of The Buddha and the dharma) which I did like a fool and then he added the name of my son Siddhartha, saying after all he shared the name with The Buddha. After which he said something about may my son be happy and prosperous. And then he demanded Rs. 100. I gave it to him, although I knew he was swindling me. These guys have no other way of making money.
Further up the steps I was accosted by another of his ilk. He offered me a drink of healing hot water from the springs which accepted and asked for an offering. I told him I already offered. “This place runs because of generous people like you,” he said, so I gave him Rs. 20 and he showed me an enclosure with steps leading down to a pool swarming with men. I hurried away.
The most interesting sight (macabre really) here was the funeral pyre flaming on the banks of the dirty little river at the bottom of the hill. Not too close, thank goodness. But what puzzled me was the white mangy dog standing midstream looking down at the water. A small monkey was flitting about the dog which did not move at all. No blinking either. He was a statue. I stood there for 10 minutes staring at him, but he still did not move. Was he a stuffed dog or something? I would never know.
The Sone Bhandar Caves in Rajgir
Located in Rajgir, these are two caves cut into the southern face of the Valabar Hill by the Jain Saint Muni Vairadevi in the 4th to 5th centuries AD according to an inscription inside. The western cave is known as the Sone Bhandar Cave.
When you enter the western cave, with its lovely pinkish polished stone walls, you can see a mantra inscribed into the rock. It is believed to have been etched by Maha Kashyapa, a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha.
The old guide there told us that the doorway marked on the rock wall of the cave which bears the inscription, would open to the one who could decipher it. The ‘shell script’ it is written in also found in Borneo and Java remains undecipherable. It’ s the stuff of fantasy!
The Indian government wants to open it, but the guide said there are fears of an explosion due to the radium, uranium or some such mineral in the rocks and in the hot water springs behind it. Others say the concern is about the caves caving in.
The caves are said to be three miles long, extending to the Saptaparni Caves on the other side of the hills. Maha Kashyapa held the first Buddhist council here after The Buddha’s demise. King Bimbisara is said to have hidden gold in the caves. The name itself means store of gold.