Early Buddhist scripture is heavily punctuated with references to places that still exist in Rajgir, a small city in the state of Bihar, in northeastern India. It was the early capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha and one of the eight great places identified with the life of the historical Buddha. The Squirrel Sanctuary in the Bamboo Grove (Veluvana), a place the Buddha described to his disciple Ananda as “pleasant,” and the site of…Early Buddhist scripture is heavily punctuated with references to places that still exist in Rajgir, a small city in the state of Bihar, in northeastern India. It was the early capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha and one of the eight great places identified with the life of the historical Buddha. The Squirrel Sanctuary in the Bamboo Grove (Veluvana), a place the Buddha described to his disciple Ananda as “pleasant,” and the site of many of his teachings, is pleasant still: a picnic-perfect park with a large pond and bursts of bamboo trees.
But it’s hard to image that the relatively poor but colorful town of Rajgir, or Rajagriha (which means “royal abode”), bustled with prosperity while the Buddha lived, that it became one of his favorite places to pass rainy seasons, or that eighteen practice centers flourished here during his lifetime. One month after the parinirvana—the Buddha’s passing into nirvana—Rajgir was the site of the first Buddhist Council, in 483 B.C.E., at which five hundred monks gathered to recite the teachings of the Buddha and to settle disputes concerning matters of doctrine.
Described in the Mahabharata as “large and beautiful, flowing with water, healthy and wealthy with fine houses,” the area is surrounded by five mountainous hills; one of them, Gridhrakuta, is considered more than any other place to be the Buddha’s home. “After being a guiding light to all for fifty years,” the seventh-century Chinese pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang wrote, “[the Buddha] dwelt much in this mountain and delivered the excellent law in its most refined form.”
I set out one day to climb the ancient, oversized stone steps of Gridhrakuta, known in English as Vulture’s Peak. As I ascended, all signs of modernity gradually faded, leaving only a panorama of green, dotted by small white Jain temples sitting like hats on outlying hills. What better way to practice walking meditation, I asked myself, than on what were literally the Buddha’s steps—placed here for him by the grateful King Bimbisara?
Closer to the summit I spotted several caves whose craggy rock openings were carpeted with moss and lichen. Earlier visitors had left offerings: candles and burnt incense and remnants of gold leaf. Sariputta and Moggallana, two important disciples of the Buddha, may have been retreatants in these very same caves; indeed, the Buddha himself is said to have occupied a cave farther to the west.
At the apex of the peak there is only a small low wall, on which I sat. Periodically my sitting was interrupted by small parties of Asian pilgrims arriving to offer flowers and incense, and perform prostrations. Some chanted from the Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”; others recited the prayer of the Pure Land tradition, “Namu-myoho-renge-kyo” (“Homage to the Lotus of the Wonderful Law”), because Vulture Peak is also said to be the setting of the Lotus Sutra. Thinking of the Blissful One speaking from here to a thousand gathered monks, I called out a greeting to some tourists at the new Japanese stupa on the adjacent hill; to my amazement, they responded.
At the end of the day, I returned to another kind of nirvana: the elegant, air-conditioned Hokke Hotel, which has cold soba noodles, hot showers, and crisp, clean sheets.
The following day I visited the remains of Nalanda University, only eleven kilometers away. The greatest Mahayana philosophers all studied and taught here, at what was—for nearly a thousand years—one of the world’s great learning centers. The most impressive structure at the Nalanda site is the Sariputta Stupa, which contains the relics of the Buddha’s chief disciple. The Pala period carvings of the Buddha and bodhisattvas on its northern face still show their remarkable artistry. Of equal brilliance are the famed bronze sculptures of Nalanda, housed in a museum across from the archeological park.
Before leaving Rajgir, I visited the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara Buddhist University, which opened in 1951 near the ruins of old Nalanda. It offers courses in Buddhism and Pali texts and has a library of its own that is worth visiting.
When to Visit
November to March (the Indian winterl is the best time to visit; days are hot and nights are cold. Because Bihar is the poorest state in India, one should avoid wearing valuable jewelry or going out after dark.
Rajgir is about 70 km from Bodhgaya on a distressed but passable road. The nearest airport is in Patna (90 km from Rajgir) with bus or car service to Rajgir. It’s safest to avoid trains.
“In the Footsteps of the Buddha,” with Shantum Seth.
Contact Bina Aranha, c/o Seth,
309B Sector 15 A,
Noida, 201301 India;
Fax: 91-120- 2511633;
Centaur Hokke Hotel, a fusion of Indo-Japanese style, offers twenty Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats and teak wood furniture (opt for these over the Western rooms). Hot green tea and warm towels are provided. The hotel restaurant serves Western, Indian, and Japanese cuisine. Room rates are from $90 to $130. Centaur Hokke Hotel, Rajgir District, Nalanda, Bihar; Tel. 91-6119-5032-5037
Middle Land Middle Way by Ven. S. Dhammik
Walking With the Buddha by Swati Mitra
Old Path, White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh
The History of Indian Buddhism by Etienne Lamotte
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