Far from the tourist radar, Bihar guards many ancient monuments and places of reverence, including a fascinating Buddhist trail. Come here to seek solace, and whet your wanderlust for the offbeat. By Sugato Tripathy
I am under the canopy of the most famous tree in the world, where Lord Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. I am walking solemnly amidst the ruins of a 1,500-year-old
world-famous university, my ears straining for the chants of students long gone. I am thrilled to ride on a tonga en route to a pristine lake. And I am petrified while gliding up in an open-air cable car, on my way to the stunning 400-metre-high white Vishwa Shanti Stupa.
I am in Bihar. The landlocked state with no beaches and no hill stations is usually off the tourist radar. In the news almost always for the wrong reasons, the state doesn’t feature high on bucket lists. Yet, contrary to what little is known of it, Bihar can surprise you with its bouquet of offerings.
Finding Nirvana In Bodh Gaya
The landscape on either side is rustic and mundane; the National Highways here are still under construction with many diversions. An almost four-hour-drive from Patna brings you to Bodh Gaya—the most important of all pilgrimages for Buddhists. Lord Buddha is said to have meditated under the famed Bodhi Tree here, some 2,600 years ago, and attained enlightenment. A descendant of the original tree still stands tall in the compound of the magnificent Mahabodhi Temple, and attracts scores of devotees from around the world.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, the original temple was built in 3rd–century BCE by Emperor Ashoka, a staunch proponent of Buddhism in his later years. Gradually, more temples cropped up in the vicinity owing to the sacred tree. The current structure, made entirely of brick, is believed to date back to 6th-7th century CE. Walking around the complex, I can see several monks praying in front of the temple walls, and others meditating under the sacred tree. One such revered monk with a prayer and a smile on his lips repeatedly slides off coloured pebbles from a tiny inverted golden plate. “Faith, consistency, and patience are paramount for the spiritual seeker. This is the third ngöndro practice of mandala offering,” clarifies a passing monk, on my polite enquiry. I have listened to the holy chants in numerous Hindu temples, and prayed in the quietude of many churches. But never have I felt the kind of peace that imbibes my being when I sit under the Bodhi Tree. Sitting in the very place where Lord Buddha attained spiritual enlightenment is overwhelming.
Due to Bodh Gaya’s immense spiritual significance in Buddhism, many predominantly Buddhist countries of East, South, and Southeast Asia have built their versions of Buddhist temples and monasteries in the vicinity of the Mahabodhi Temple. One can easily spend a full day here exploring their varied architecture styles. I ended my day at the feet of the Great Buddha—an 80-feet statue near the Mahabodhi Temple complex, unveiled by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, in 1989. It is the first Great Buddha ever built in India.
The Adventures In Rajgir
At a two-hour drive from Bodh Gaya is Rajgir. You can sense a distinct change in the landscape here. The road winds through rocky hillocks and small villages, with exuberant yellow mustard fields interspersed between green paddy ones, and palm trees swaying in the background. Relaxed and untouched, it’s undoubtedly the better part of Bihar. Rajgir, sprinkled with Buddhist and Jain history, is home to many ancient nuggets. But it deserves a place in your Bihar itinerary for two unique experiences—the adventurous open cable car ride to the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, and the traditional tonga ride to the remote Ghora Katora Lake. “Don’t be afraid, it’ll all be fine,” says the cable car operator, noticing my reluctance to hop into one. The ropeway doesn’t halt for you, and one has to hop in when the ride is in motion! A wobbly cable car with a single bar for safety and support, is my proposed ride to the summit of Ratnagiri Hill, on which stands the 400-metre-high Vishwa Shanti Stupa.
As my legs precariously dangle from the open car, I watch the thorny shrubs and rugged rocks beneath me get smaller. I can hear two things distinctly—the clucking sounds of the ropeway as it sways mid-air, and my frantic heartbeat. But once at the top, the beauty of the stupa calms my nerves and offers a great view. Built in 1965, the dome-shaped white stupa features golden statues of Lord Buddha on its outer walls, depicted in various stages of life, birth, enlightenment, and death.
At the base of the hill is the road leading to Ghora Katora Lake. The only way to reach this pristine lake is by a tonga ride on a dirt road. The path cuts through dense vegetation surrounded by hills. The air quality is impeccable as this place hasn’t been introduced to motor vehicles yet. Surrounded by hills, the small lake houses a 70-feet Buddha statue in the middle. Paddle-boating on the waters is a must do.
The Ruins Of Nalanda
Just over an hour’s drive from Rajgir lie the expansive ruins of what was one of the world’s greatest centres of learning. The ruins of Nalanda Mahavihara (nnm.ac.in), with its vaunted history of uninterrupted knowledge propagation for almost 800 years (5th–century CE to 12th century CE), was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. Nalanda’s origin dates back to the time when Buddha lived (6th-5th century BCE).
The Mahavihara was founded by King Kumaragupta of the Gupta dynasty during early 5th–century CE. It gained prominence and flourished for many centuries under several different rulers who promoted Buddhism. Historical sources and excavations have indicated that the profound knowledge of teachers here attracted students from China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Persia, Mongolia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and many other countries in Southeast Asia. Many of the scholars, especially the Chinese, have left behind records of the university processes, teaching culture, learning ambience and infrastructure.
Spread over an area of 14 hectares, the university had several classrooms, a nine-storey library with millions of scriptures and manuscripts, temples, meditation halls, sprawling parks, and ponds. It housed around 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Various subjects like theology, grammar, logic, astronomy, metaphysics, medicine, and philosophy were taught here. The demise of the university was prompted by the many invasions it suffered, the worst and last being by the Muslim tyrant Bakhtiyar Khilji. He is attributed to have set Buddhism back by hundreds of years in India. Legend has it that the scriptures and manuscripts in the library burned for almost three days!
Walking through the ancient corridors, stepping into the empty cells, exploring the architecture, and examining the various excavated stupas, I wonder how serene the place must have been in its days of glory. With closed eyes, I imagine an array of lamps lighting up the monastery, the euphony of Buddhist chants emanating from the prayer halls, and young monks playing in the parks. Even with opened eyes, the peace and calm that flow through me seem surreal.