-The Kingdom of Bimbisara
Rajagriha or present day Rajgir was the Capital of Bimbisara, one of the King’s who had the opportunity to meeting Prince Siddhartha while he was on his way to Pragbodhi hill in Gaya where he stayed for six years striving for enlightenment. After having attained Buddha hood, the Blessed One proceeded to Sarnath in the District of Varanasi, where he turned the ‘Wheel of the Dhamma’ by teaching the Four Nobel Truth to his five disciples who were at that time residing there. After having converted sixty persons into the fold of the Dhamma, the Buddha spent the ‘first rain retreat,’ he decided to return to Gaya where he converted the three Kasyapa warlords and their one thousand Sanyasis and soldiers and ordained them as monks. With strength of over a thousand monks, the Blessed One proceeded to Rajgir. The Scriptures narrate that when the Buddha was striving for Enlightenment, he passed through Rajagriha, begging in the city for a meal when King Bimbisara, heard about Prince Siddhartha, offered him half his kingdom, but when the Prince declined the offer and insisted that he was in search for answers as to why man suffered, King Bimbisara made the future Buddha promise that if he should find the solution he sought, he would return to Rajagriha and tell him about his achievements. Remembering his promise to King Bimbisara, he returned to Rajagriha.
On arriving at the outer fortification gates of Rajagriha, the Buddha went to the ancient cremation ground known as Sitavana. It was here that King Bimbisara with a large entourage of Ministers, servants etc. came to welcome him to the palace. After the Blessed One gave a befitting discourse, King Bimbisara offered him Venu Vana, the magnificent bamboo grove. The Buddha in return, gave the grove to the Sangha for their stay. For the next three years, the Buddha stayed permanently at Rajagriha. It was also here that he spent the ‘Rain Retreats,’ created most of laws (Vinaya) for the monks to abide by. King Bimbisara was a true friend of the Buddha and an enormous support to the Dhamma, then in its infancy.
Over the last 15 days I undertook an extensive survey of the area mentioned in the Scriptures as well as the ‘Reports of the British Archaeologists.’ Apart from a few land marks, I am sorry to say that the majority of sites that would make a pilgrimage to Rajgir more interesting are either hidden in the dense forests on the hills that surround Rajgir or lie below the foundations of the ever expanding modern township created to cater largely to accommodate the growing demand for hotels for Hindu and Jain pilgrims who make up the majority of tourists visiting the city. Unfortunately, its popularity as a major Buddhist pilgrimage site was lost centuries ago. And the only Buddhist site that attracts the public is the PEACE STUPA – a peak above Gridharkuta Hill. The Gridharkuta hill was one of the favourite places of the Buddha while residing at Rajgir. The Scriptures mention the fact that the Blessed One taught a number of Suttas to the monks at this place. Compared to the crowds who use the ‘chair lift’ to visit the Peace Stupa, only a few devotees visit the ‘sacred hill?’ This is just one example of how many sites connected with the stay of the Buddha over a large number of years have been lost.
The modern village of Rajgir is situated about 40 kilometers south-west of Bihar Sharif and about 15kilometers south of Nalanda. It is said that in the 6th century B.C. Rajgir was undoubtedly the capital of a very powerful kingdom of Magadha. King Bimbisara was a personal friend of the Buddha and a well wisher of the Sangha, as he constantly made generous donations of land and offered the monks a place to stay as well as meals. Of the few Buddhist sites left, I have no other recourse than to refer to what the British Archaeologists saw and left behind records on.
MODERN EXPLORATION AND EXCAVATION AT RAJGIR
Buchanan was the first modern explorer of the antiquity of Rajgir in the year 1811-12. During his visit to the ‘Ancient city’ he explored the ruins near the village and in the immediate vicinity of the Vaibhara and Vipula hills and the hot springs nearby. His original account was only partly published in 1847 in Martin’s Eastern India (cf. Vol.1, pp.86 ff.) but it has recently been published in full. After Buchanan, Kittoe was the next explorer to visit Rajgir. Later, Cunningham’s reports for the year 1861-62 and 1872-73 throws more light on what was left of the Buddhist sites. After him, Beglar and Broadley explored various areas in the valley in about 1872. A regular and systematic survey of the locations of the ruins and the fortifications was, however, made in 1905-6 by Daya Ram Sahni and Bloch for the Archaeological Survey, the work being supplemented later by Jackson in 1913-14. After a large gap of time, the work was continued again in 1950 by A. Ghosh who undertook some trial diggings and finally D.R. Patil excavated some sites. Of the few Buddhist sites that can be visited by pilgrims, we are mentioning them below:-
VENUVANA – THE BAMBOO GROVE DONATED BY KING BIMBISARA TO THE BUDDHA
I personally find it difficult to imagine that the little piece of land that the Government claims to be Venuvana was the land donated by Bimbisara to the Buddha. As far as I remember reading in the Scriptures that it was a huge ‘bamboo grove.’ How much of that Bamboo grove was usurped by the local public – is anybody’s guess? Situated between the larger fortification of the old town and the hills is this apology of what used to be the Bamboo Garden where, according to the Buddhist tradition, ‘ one of the favourite resorts of the Buddha when he stayed at Rajgir. In the southern side of this area is a large mound on top of which are a few Muslim tombs and towards the north of it is a tank renovated some decades ago. The tank has been identified with the Karanda tank of the Chinese pilgrims or the Kalanda-nivapa or Karanda-nivapa of the Buddhist Canonical text. The identification was first proposed by Marshall which was eventually accepted. In his map of Rajgir, published with his 1871-2 report (cf. ASI, III, plate XLI) Cunningham had located the tank almost at the northern opening of the valley which is now considered as an ‘error of judgment’ of the Archaeologist. In 1905-6 Bloch excavated a portion of the mound around the grave and on the eastern slope and discovered the foundation of a room and the bases of nine brick stupas surrounded by a concrete by a concrete floor, about 6 feet below the level of the grave. All the stupas were opened; but they contained nothing but jars filled with earth. The trenches on the eastern slope revealed some clay tablets with the Buddhist creed formulae in characters of the 11th century and other pieces of Buddhist sculptures. In the records of the Chinese pilgrims and the Buddhist Scriptures refer to the existence of stupas and Viharas, yet till dates no such evidences have been revealed at this site.
RUINS OF THE GRIDHRAKUTA HILL
The Gridharkuta or Vulture’s Peak at Rajgir was, according to Buddhist tradition, the spot where the Buddha frequently stayed in the course of his visits to Rajgir. It has therefore, always been held as a ‘Sacred site’ by the devotees of this faith. The valley of Rajgir is famous for its many hills that surround it. As such confusion abounded when the British explorers made an attempt to identify the site. Cunningham was certain that the Sailagiri hill was the ancient Gridharkuta hill; while Beglar sought to locate it somewhere at the south-western end of Vaibhara Hill. Broadley was perhaps the first to indicate the isolated peak of the present Chhatagiri as the Gridharkuta of the Buddhist tradition and his identification was fully borne out as correct after Marshall conducted a thorough survey in 1905-6.
There are a number of sites claimed by Monks, Travel Agencies and Archaeologists to be the authentic places related to events in the life of the Buddha. Truly we cannot take the sites they mention as absolutely accurate, as in reality only haphazard excavations and diggings have been done in the past. Rajgir truly needs to be properly investigated, and I truly believe that a lot of sites that were sacred at one time, now lie buried under modern buildings – thus making it impossible to locate them ever again.
The modern Venu Vana Garden
Monks chanting at Venu Vana Garden
Probably Ajatsatru’s Stupa
A Buddhist land mark that still awaits proper investigation
Another site that still needs to be properly identified
The popular modern Japanese Peace Stupa – above Gridhikut hill
Ven. THICH NHAT HANH meditating on the Gridhikut hill in 2008
Where the Buddha taught on Gridhikut hill
References: Buchanan, Patna-Gaya, I, pp. 179-213; Kittoe, JASB. 1847, pp. 956-961; Cunningham, ASI, I, pp. 20-27; III, pp. 140-44; Beglar, CASI, VIII, pp. 85-99; Broadley, JASB, 1872, pp. 230-250; Bengal List; pp. 262-65; A. Stein, Ind. Ant., Vol. XXX, 1901, p. 55-61; Marshall An. Rep. , ASI, 1905-6, pp. 86-105; Jackson, An. Rep., ASI, 1913-14, pp.265-271; D.N. Sen, JBORS, IV, pp. 331-343; Kuraishi, List, pp. 112-136; Bloch, An. Rep., ASI, B.C., 1905-6; pp. 14 ff; BDG, Patna, pp.225-232; B.C. Law, Rajagriha in Ancient Literature, MASI, No. 58; A. Ghosh, Rajgir, 1958.