We took the overnight train from Kolkata to Gaya and arrived quite conveniently at around 5.30 in the morning. Bodhgaya is only about 12 kilometres from Gaya, but I had planned on going to Rajgir for a few days first, so we took a car for the approximately 70-kilometre drive to the city.
It was quite a pleasant trip after being holed up in Kolkata for a couple of days, and it was good to see the fairly fertile farm lands around. Everywhere there is a distinct lack of trees, let alone forest, and it makes quite a sharp contrast to Lord Buddha’s time when most of the land must have been under forest cover.
We managed to get good and comfortable rooms at the Bangla Association Temple, which was a bit out of the way, and we then walked into town to have a look. The town is surrounded by large hills (or small mountains) on all sides, and I realised I was in for some exercise to test my strength.
We went to the site of the first monastery given to the Buddha, the Bamboo Grove or Veluvana, which is situated not far from the Vebhāra Hill. It is now maintained by the Rajgir Forest Range, and is a little like an ornamental park (with historical associations), and one hardly gets a feel for the original grounds.
There is a tank in the centre of the park where we were assured Lord Buddha used to bathe. If he did, though, it wouldn’t have looked anything like it does now. There were also plenty of employees collecting – or hoping to collect – backsheesh (a tip or bribe, depending on which way you look at it).
We also went to have a look at the foothills of Vebhāra Hill, and climbed up to the Hindu Temple on the site of Tapodakārāma, an ancient Buddhist monastery, but it was late afternoon and the heat was up, and we were tired from the journey and preliminary explorations so we didn’t ascend it that day.
The next day at dawn we rose and quickly walked into town and to the foot of the hill, up through the Hindu Temple, and began the ascent. It is not far until the supposed Pipphali Cave is reached. What is claimed as the cave is an artificial rock-pile, with ’caves’ built in it. I couldn’t tell when it was constructed, but it clearly wasn’t 2,500 years old.
We continued climbing and looking for the Sattapaṇṇi cave, where the First Recital was held shortly after the Buddha passed away. After a long climb we were shown a short way down the side of the mountain, and presented with some small caves. This is where we are told 500 arahats gathered and recited the teachings for three months. I was definetely getting sceptical by now.
Still devotees clambered up the hill, or were carried up on palaquins, and dutifully did their devotions in front of the cave and seemed unphased by the fact that it would be hard to fit 10 people inside. They were informed this was the place: the guide books say so, the guides say so and the monks say so. So despite the fact it is impossible, it is regarded as so.
I can’t say the trip was wasted though, as the views are magnificent, and there are other interesting monuments on the hill, including Jaina and Hindu temples (Rajgir was a major center for the teaching activities of the Buddha’s contemporary Mahāvīra, who is regarded as the last Tirthankara, which more or less equals Buddha, in the tradition.
On another day we went to Gijjhakūṭa, where the Buddha was also known to have stayed. This was the place where Ven. Sāriputta attained Awakening [MN 74], where the Buddha preached the Āṭānāṭiyasutta [DN 32], one of the main protection discourses, and where the Mahāyānists believe the Buddha preached the Śūrangama Sūtra.
The way up the Hill is by foot or by chair lift. Being sensible fellows and not a little tired by now, we chose the latter. It actually goes to the top of the Hill where the Shanti Stupa stands. It was built by Fujii Guruji, who also built the Japanese Temple behind the Veluvana.
He built many other Stupas at the pilgrimage sites throughout India, and indeed in many cities throughout the world. This one was the first we saw, but it was also one of the best. At another time we also visited the Japanese Temple he built behind the Veluvana and got some good photographs from there also, including wash paintings of the main disciples of the Buddha.
From the top of the Hill we began the descent down to the site of the Gijjhakūṭa monastery. In this case it wasn’t impossible, and again there were great views from the mountain, and a number of caves, now plastered with gold-leaf by devotees. This was at least an inspiring site.
As mentioned above the leader of the Jainas, Mahāvīra, was active in and around Rājagaha at about the same time the Buddha was teaching, and there are many Jaina temples and pilgrimage centres in the area. The main centre is at Pawapuri, around 35 kilometres from the old capital, and we decided to visit there one day.
According to Jaina tradition this is where Mahāvīra attained Awakening, gave his first and last sermons and attained parinibbāna. The temple marking the parinibbāna is situated in the middle of a fairly large tank (said to be scooped out by those wishing to carry away a handful of the very ground he had passed away on).
There we met a Tamil family on pilgrimage, all of whom spoke good English, and who helped show us round and explain the significance of the temple, and the customs that Jainas follow. I sometimes happily tell people that I am vegetarian from early childhood, but here I was outdone, because all members of the family (and indeed all Jainas) are vegetarian from birth, much to their credit.
Afterwards we also visited the two other main shrines in Pawapuri associated with Mahāvīra, but at neither could we take photographs. In the case of the second temple that was a great pity, because the statues inside the Temple of the previous Tirthankaras were very striking and would have been well worth recording.
As I was walking round one of the Jaina priests came out, grabbed me by the arm – gently but firmly – and, perhaps not recognising that I was a Buddhist monk, wanted to take me to the front of a puja that was going on to worship the main idol. Now, I am willing to give credit where credit is due, but I recognise only one teacher, the Buddha, and so a short struggle ensued as I freed myself and quietly made my escape.