Bihar’s vast and picturesque trail of Buddhist destinations draws tourists and devotees from around the world.
Bihar is revered as the birthplace of Buddhism. Etymologically, the state draws its name from ‘Vihara’ or monastery that were abundant in the state. It was under a banyan tree (the Bodhi tree) in Bodh Gaya that Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment, 2,600 years ago. He also delivered his last sermon in Vaishali. Centuries after Lord Buddha attained moksha, Mauryan Emperor Ashoka revived Buddhism and contributed immensely to the spread of Buddhism around the world. Interestingly, the Buddhist circuit in Bihar is amongst the 45 destinations identified by the government to be developed as Mega Tourist Hubs across India.
Presently, the Buddhist circuit in Bihar includes Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Nalanda and Vaishali. There are plans to develop several other sites like Barabar, Jethian and Gurpa in Gaya, apart from other places in Rajgir and Nalanda.
Best known for the ancient Mahabodhi temple, it is located east to the Bodhi tree that is perhaps the fifth succession of the original tree. It is an architectural marvel in its own right. The temple, standing tall at 170 ft, stems from a basement that is just 48 sq ft in size. Chhatras built on top of the temple symbolizes the sovereignty of religion. The temple’s sanctum sanctorum has a black stone statue of Lord Buddha in the sitting posture, touching the earth with his right hand — the very posture in which he attained enlightenment. The temple courtyard has several votive stupas, built 2,500 years ago.
Pilgrims also visit Animesh Lochan Chaitya — the spot where Lord Buddha spent a week looking at the Bodhi tree out of gratitude, unblinkingly. The temple complex apart, Bodh Gaya also has an 80-ft statue of Lord Buddha, a Buddha Kund, Rajayatana, Brahm Yoni, a Chinese temple and monastery, a Burmese temple, a Buddhist Monastery of Bhutan, an International Buddhist House and Japanese temple, a Thai temple and monastery, a Tibetan monastery and an archaeological museum.
HOW TO REACH
The nearest airport is at Gaya, seven kilometres away. Gaya also happens to be the nearest railhead (17 km). Bodhgaya is well-connected by road to Gaya.
WHERE TO STAY
Siddharth Vihar (+91-631-2200445, 2200127); Buddha Vihar (+91-631- 2200445, 2200127)
Some 62 km from Bodh Gaya lies a visual treat dating back to the fifth century CE — Nalanda. Its awe-inspiring ruins are steeped in history. You can’t help but take pride in the fact that it was the first residential international university of the world. The famous Chinese traveller and scholar, Hieun-Tsang, also spent time here and has described the destination. Hiring a guide is strongly recommended or else it will be difficult to make sense of the archeological grandeur. Besides, the guides also lend their own flavour to the place with their colloquial anecdotes and insights. There is a lot to see, with many stupas, monasteries, hostels, laboratories, meditation halls, lecture halls and temples. Right from Lord Mahavira, who spent 14 years here, to Lord Buddha, this place was greatly patronised. The renowned teacher, Nagarjuna, believed to have been born around 150 CE, is quite specific about having received ordination at Nalanda at the age of seven. Opposite the entrance to the ruins of the university, there’s an archeological museum that houses a beautiful collection of bronzes and a number of undamaged statues of Lord Buddha.
HOW TO REACH
The nearest airport is at Patna, 89 km away, and the nearest railhead is at Rajgir, 12 km away. Nalanda is well connected by road with Rajgir as well as Bodh Gaya (110 km).
WHERE TO STAY
There are three tourist bungalows of Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation (BSTDC) at Rajgir — Tathagat Vihar (+91-6112-255176); Ajatshatru Vihar (+91- 6112-255027) and Gautam Vihar (+91-6112-255273).
About 60 km from Bodh Gaya lies a visual treat dating back to the fifth century CE —Nalanda, the first residential international university in the world. The Chinese traveller and scholar, Hieun-Tsang, also spent time here and has described the destination in great detail
About 15 km from Nalanda lies Rajgir, a quaint little town located in a valley. Lord Buddha is known to have spent many years here. It is believed that it was at Rajgir (Jivakameavan Gardens) that a royal physician treated Buddha after he was injured by his cousin Devdatta. Also, the venue for the first Buddhist Council, the teachings of Buddha were penned down at Rajgir. The place is best known for its warm water springs with therapeutic properties and the ropeway up to the Shanti Stupa at Gridhakuta, built by Japanese devotees atop a 400 m-high hill. Most tourists take a dip in the warm springs and then visit the Stupa either by taking the ropeway or opting for a two-hour trek on foot. Do make time for the Sonbhandar caves. Constructed in the third and fourth centuries, these caves were primarily meant for meditation. Legend also has it that these still hold King Bimbisara’s treasury. “Don’t even try; the caves will explode because of a high sulphite variant underneath,” the tourist guides have the word of caution handy. Among the other must-see places in the region are Swarna Bhandar (literally, a store of gold which dates back to King Jarasandh’s rule), Venu Vana (site of the monastery built by king Bimbisara for Lord Buddha to reside) and the Bimbisar jail. Bimbisara is known to have chosen this site for his incarceration because from here he could see Lord Buddha climbing up to his mountain retreat atop the Gridhakuta hill.
HOW TO REACH
The nearest airport is at Patna, 101 km away. Though Rajgir itself has a railway station, the nearest convenient railhead is at Gaya, 78 km away.
WHERE TO STAY
BSTDC has three tourist bungalows at Rajgir — Tathagat Vihar (+91-6112-255176); Ajatshatru Vihar (+91-6112-255027) and Gautam Vihar (+91-6112-255273).
On the outskirts of Vaishali, at Kolhua, stands the Buddhist monastery where Buddha often preached. According to legend, on one of his visits, several monkeys dug up a tank for his comfortable stay and offered him a bowl of honey. It was here that Buddha preached his last sermon. To honour the event, Emperor Ashoka, in the third century BCE, erected one of his famous lion pillars here. The lion faces north, the direction Buddha took on his last voyage. There isn’t much left of the monastery anymore, yet the site is a revered one. A hundred years after Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana, Vaishali became host to the second great Buddhist Council. Two stupas were erected to commemorate this event. Make time for the Vaishali museum that houses some archaeological remains discovered here. Close to the museum is the shaded stupa which is supposed to have housed the casket relic with the ashes of Lord Buddha. A few kilometres away, at Nandangarh, you can also see a dozen Vedic mounds that contain the remains of ruling clans of pre-Buddhist times. Interestingly, Lord Mahavira was born on the outskirts of Vaishali and lived here till he was 22. The nearest airport is at Patna, 70 km away. Hajipur (35 km) is the nearest railhead. Vaishali is well connected by road to Patna (56 km) and Muzaffarpur (36 km). Tourist Bungalow at Ambapali Vihar, Vaishali (+91-622-285425)
One of the ancient cities of India, Gaya is home to the Brahmayoni and Dungeshwari Hills where Lord Buddha came in search of Nirvana. Buddha spent a few days at the Brahmayoni hills and to commemorate the event, Ashoka built a stupa, a statue of Lord Buddha and holy footprints on the hill. Two narrow caves connect the Bramhayoni hills to Matriyoni and legend has it that one who passes through these caves attains freedom from the cycle of life and death. The Dungeshwari hill (also known as Pragbodhi mountain) is equally important. It is here that Lord Buddha is said to have received divine powers to begin his journey to Bodh Gaya for enlightenment. Seven ruins of Ashoka stupa and a Buddhist temple are to be found atop the mountain today. If you have time in hand, visit the Gaya Museum, home to about 2,000 antiquities including a replica of Mahabodhi temple.
HOW TO REACH
Gaya has an international airport and railhead.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Siddhartha International (+91-631-2223352)
By Reema Bhalla