Sunday, January 24, 2021

Walking the Buddha Trail along the Prāgbodhi, Jeṭhian and Rājgir Hills

During the time of the Buddha and in the following centuries, one of the routes used by the Sangha members most frequently was the Bodhgayā to Nālandā route, connecting Rājagṛiha, Yasṭivana and Prāgbodhi. Mahābodhi (Bodhgayā)-Prāgbodhi-Yasṭivana (Jeṭhian)-Rājagṛiha  (Rājgir) route through the Dungeshwari and Jeṭhian hills was one of the most frequented in 'In the footsteps of the Buddha' pilgrimage trail since the times of the Buddha until Buddhism was lost in Indian subcontinent at the end of the 1st millenium. Thanks to the incumbent Chief Minister, Mr. Nitish Kumar, a large section of this stretch is now connected by good roads. Xuanzang has mentioned many sacred spots associated with the Buddha and the Bodhisattva Siddhārtha in this ancient trail.

I started my walk along this stretch on 6th November from Bodhgayā. It was a very calm morning. No vendors were to be found on the streets, no tourist busses and cars either. All this was very unusual in  Bodhgayā for the month of November. COVID19 has affected Buddhist pilgrimage very severely. Just as I crossed River Nairāñjanā and reached Bakrour, I noticed roads crowded with people. It was the time for morning haat (local market). Local marginal farmers had come with baskets on their heads containing freshly plucked vegetables. Bakrour and its neighbouring villages have very fertile land, and so this is a common scene here all round the year. The village of Bakrour is settled over the remains of Senānigrama of Buddha times, where Sujātā offered milk-rice to Bodhisattva Siddhārtha on the day of Veshākha Pūrṇimā (the day he attained enlightenment). Until a few years ago, there was no bridge connecting Bakrour and Mahābodhi Temple, situated on either side of River Nairāñjanā. The construction of the bridge on River Nirāñjanā has led to a rapid change in the landscape on Bakrour and its surroundings. Many buddhist monasteries, restaurants and hotels have now developed in this area.

Walking 2 kms further north-east, I arrived at Saraswati, a Hindu shrine on the banks of River Mohāne. According to Xuanzang, on the day of Veshākha Pūrṇimā,  on his way from Prāgbodhi hill to Bodhi Tree, Bodhisattva Siddhārtha crossed a blind cobra on the bank of River Mohā. The blind cobra regained his eyesight and blessed Bodhisattva Siddhārtha. Later, a shrine was developed there,  which got abandoned in the medieval period. After that, a hindu monastery was created over the remains. The place is now known as Saraswati. Some buddhist pilgrims have installed an image of the Buddha under the old banyan tree. The site is getting revitalised slowly. The government of Bihar is constructing a bridge on River Mohā river, connecting Prāgbodhi-Sujātā village (Bakrour) and Mahābodhi Temple. Once the bridge is ready, Buddhist monasteries, hotels and restaurants will sprout all around, and the place will unfortunately lose its natural look to ‘development’. I was surprised to see water still flowing in River Mohā. An old person bathing in the river told me that during his childhood, water used to flow in the river till the month of Veshākha (April-May).

Leaving Bodhgayā  for Nālandā, beginning again.  pic Vikas kumar

Bodhgayā to Nālandā route, connecting Rājagṛiha, Yasṭivana and Prāgbodhi.

Next, I crossed the Prāgbodhi Hill which looked so desolate without pilgrims. Prāgbodhi Hill is yet another Buddhist pilgrimage site, which has been identified on the basis of circumstantial evidence i.e. no inscriptional evidence has been found to support the identification. Prāgbodhi does not find mention in any other Buddhist literature except the firsthand accounts of Faxian and Xuanzang, Buddha’s biographical literature mentions Siddhārtha accepting food from Sujātā at dawn and arriving under the Bodhi tree at dusk. All the early biographical literature is silent about what happened between receiving food from Sujātā and the enlightenment. Descriptions of Faxian and Xuanzang reveal that Buddha-to-be spent his noon at Prāgbodhi hill. Please read the story of Ashokan Stūpas Calling! on my blog post (link). 

From Prāgbodhi, I walked along the hills for more than 25 kms to arrive at the village of Sakardas Nawādā. My friend, Shri Vinay Singh, who was supposed to host me had tested positive for COVID just a day ago unfortunately. But he was thoughtful enough to make arrangements for my stay that night at his friend, Shri Sanjay Singh’s place. In the evening, a few people from the village collected near me, curious to know about my foot journey. All along my foot journey, I experienced a unique excitement among the people when I told them about the fact that Buddha frequented these lands, and these trails and the whole of the Gangetic plain is dotted with footprints of the Buddha. Except for a brief period in the 2nd millennium when Buddhism was completely wiped out from the Indian subcontinent, Buddha evoked enormous respect and admiration among the people of this land, regardless of which tradition they belonged to. During my foot journey, I witnessed that people became reverential every time the name of the Buddha is mentioned, and after learning that they are inheritors of the land which the Buddha had tread, I have noticed a sense of pride in them. My experience during this foot journey has filled me with confidence about the possibility of reviving the walking pilgrimage trails connecting the most sacred Buddhist shrines in the Gangetic plain mentioned by Xuanzang. I can imagine groups of pilgrims walking, being welcomed in villages, just the way I was received by the local community wherever I went. Offering food and shelter to mendicants and pilgrims is an ancient and deep-rooted tradition in Indian society.

A busy morning market in Bakrour.

Saraswati Temple, the 'Cobra blessing' place now revitalised.   
Crossing the river Mohā. pic Vikash
The welcoming assembly approaching the Prāgbodhi Hill.

With the community elders in Jeṭhian Temple. Seeking wisdom and sharing experience.
Feeling blessed with the community elders in front of the Buddha Temple, Jeṭhian. 
'Modern makeover' of the ancient Jeṭhian-Rājgir  Buddha trail.
Early morning on the Jeṭhian-Rājgir  Buddha trail.
The ongoing beautification work of Veḷuvana is almost complete.

Shri Vijay Singh ji with Ven. Tenzin Ananda at the 'exchange of robes temple', Silāo. 

Myself with Vijay Singh ji in front of the newly constructed Dhamma Ashoka Hall, Silāo.
The  4-lane expressway connecting Nālandā-Rājgir-Bodhgayā is nearing completion.

The next day, I started for my walk very early in the morning. Shri Sanjay ji was kind enough to give me company for a mile or so to protect me from the many dogs. His wife packed lunch for me. My next stop was Jeṭhian, 22 kms away. Jeṭhian valley is 25 kms long and 5 kms wide. During the time of Buddha, Jeṭhian was known as Laṭṭhivana. The Jeṭhian valley has many sacred Buddhist spots like Buddhavana, Asura Cave and Yashodharāsthān related to the Buddha (mentioned by Xuanzang). During my stint with Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM, Deemed University), Nālandā as Heritage Consultant from 2008 to 2015 initiated many community engagement initiatives in the village of Jeṭhian and the Jeṭhian valley. Most important among them was ‘The Buddha Valley’ workshop in 2015. More than 100 village elders and decision makers from more than villages of Jeṭhian Valley participated in the event. Among other things, the participants vouched for revitalising the Jeṭhian Valley. I have special respect for the people of Jeṭhian. Some elderly people like Shri Sadhu Saran Singh, Shri Awadhesh Singh, Shri Ramuchit Singh, Shri Dinesh Ji and others have played a key role in revitalisation of the Buddhist heritage of Jeṭhian Valley. 

People of Jeṭhian already knew about my foot journey and that I was arriving in the village around 11 am. Many people in the street greeted me and welcomed me. Ever since I started my foot journey in February 2020, I kept receiving phone calls from Dinesh ji, Sadhu ji and Ramuchit ji during my walk inquiring about my walk and health. The Bihar State Assembly election was in progress, and the day of my arrival in Jeṭhian, 7 November, was the last day of voting. Many people who came to meet me were curious to know who was winning the elections. People in Jeṭhian were apprehensive in case the incumbent chief minister loses in the elections, then the development works initiated by him in Jeṭhian valley would get derailed. In the evening, we had a get together at the Buddha temple in the village. Around 20 of the village elders came. In spite of many people being in their late 70’s and early 80’s, their enthusiasm and commitment for revitalisation of Jeṭhian is inspiring for me to see. We are now promoting Jeṭhian valley as the ‘Buddha Valley’ because it has so many sacred spots related to the Buddha. The villagers who had gathered said that they wished to see proper roads for access to the Asura Cave and Buddhavana rockshelter in the Jeṭhian Valley.  I promised them that I will keep making efforts for it. I have worked with the community of Jeṭhian so closely for the last 12 years that I call Jeṭhian my second home now.

Next morning, I started my day at 4.30 am, I had to walk 33 kms to reach Xuanzang Memorial, Nālandā before 4 pm. I was informed over the phone that NNM had organised a reception ceremony for me. From Jeṭhian, I walked along the ancient Jeṭhian-Rājgir Buddha trail. This 13 kms Buddha trail was revived in 2010 by Hon’ble Chief Minister of Bihar Shri Nitish Kumar ji. The Forest Department, Government of Bihar is beautifying this ancient Buddha trail and has put a welcoming gate in the middle of the trail. 

I arrived at Veḷuvana, Rājgir at around 8.45 am. Veḷuvana is the first monastery offered to the Buddha and the Saṅgha. Since the last couple of years, the Government of Bihar has initiated many beautification works in  Veḷuvana. Veḷuvana has also been enlarged i.e. some more area from the surroundings has been brought inside the Veḷuvana campus. But, I was very disheartened to see that the Ashokan Stūpa site, which according to Xuanzang is a stūpa built by Ashoka over body relics of the Buddha, is now a dumping ground for the city waste. Something needs to be done about this urgently.

My next brief stopover was at Silāo, about 8 kms from Rājgir. In the 1920's, a broken sculpture was discovered at Silāo from the medieval period (8th-12thcentury CE) with an inscription mentioning the ‘Exchange of Robes’ between the Buddha and Mahākasappa suggesting it to be the place where this historic event took place. The historic importance of Silāo was forgotten until with the help of a few villagers, I rediscovered the ‘Exchange of Robes’ Mahākassapa image in 2012. At Silāo, I met Shri Vijay Kumar ji, who is a social worker and played a key role in the rediscovery of the Mahākassapa image. Ever since, he has dedicated himself to the revitalisation of Silāo.

During my stint with NNM (2008-2016) working as a heritage consultant, I met many individuals who were proud of the fact that Buddha once walked in their village, and were investing time and resources in safeguarding and promoting the Buddhist heritage. Shri Vijay ji is in touch with Venerable Tenzin Ananda (Asian Buddhist Cultural Centre), a Bodhgayā-based Buddhist monk, who is helping him in revitalising ‘Exchange of Robes’ Temple. Vijay ji managed to secure funds from the government of Bihar and developed the ‘Ashoka Dhamma Bhawan,’ a pilgrimage facilitation centre in Silāo, where interested Buddhist pilgrims can stay and practice.

In 2010, NNM initiated a project titled ‘Engaged Buddhism’ to facilitate community-heritage interface to felicitate and encourage heritage leaders like Vijay Ji. Here are links to some of the ‘Engaged Buddhism’ events that NNM facilitated.

From Silāo, I walked to Xuanzang Memorial, Nālandā. When Xuanzang was a young monk in China, he often encountered doubts while studying Buddhist scriptures and did not know where to learn more about them. A monk from India told him about Nālandā, the leading center of Buddhist studies in India. In 629, at the age of 27, Xuanzang  left China and after travelling for more than 5 years reached Nālandā. In 1957, the governments of India and China jointly conceived to commemorate the works and contributions of Master Xuanzang. After much delay, the Memorial was finally inaugurated on 12 February 2007. I was fortunate to witness the historic event. I then started reading about Xuanzang and realised that works of Xuanzang played the central role in identification and resurrection of the ‘In the footsteps of the Buddha Pilgrimage,’ which we take for granted now. I am sure there are many people like me who are not aware of this fact and many other  great contributions of Xuanzang.  I have published books, written blogs and made exhibitions to facilitate awareness about the contributions of Xuanzang. My exhibition, ‘The Pilgrimage Legacy of Xuanzang,’ is exhibited permanently at Xuanzang Memorial, Nālandā. 

I hope I did my job of facilitating awareness generation through my foot journey to the best of my ability. I am very grateful to all the people who helped me in the different stages of the walk. I had planned to complete my foot journey at Xuanzang Memorial, the reason being, I got my initial inspiration to follow the works of Xuanzang at Nālandā in 2007. When I participated in the inauguration of the Xuanzang Memorial on 12 February 2007.

Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (NNM) organised a reception ceremony for me at Xuanzang Memorial, Nālandā. I am grateful to Prof. Baidyanath Labh, the Vice Chancellor of NNM, Dr. S K Sinha, Registrar and teaching and non-teaching staff of NNM for this honour.

Next day, I visited the remains of ancient Nālandā University. The description of Nālandā University mentioned by Xuanzang created much curiosity among the people all over the world as to what lies beneath the structures. In the year 1914, when World War I started, initial funds for excavation were arranged by the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Most of the land on which the ancient remains of Nālandā university were situated was privately owned. The local community generously supported the efforts of the Archaeological Survey of India, and hence 48 acres of land was acquired for the excavation of the most conspicuous mounds at the center. However, the greater parts of the ancient Nālandā University could not be acquired as villages were settled over them.

Standing in front of my 2016 exhibition, 'The Pilgrimage Legacy of Xuanzang' at Xuanzang Memorial.

Reminiscing inside the Xuanzang Memorial.

With Dr. Labh and Dr. Sinha at the welcoming ceremony at the Xuanzang Memorial.
Reception ceremony at the Xuanzang Memorial, Nālandā.
We owe most of our current knowledge of Nālandā to the vivid description left by Venerable Xuanzang in his travelogue; and even though people believed in four story lofty structures despite the conditions of the ruins, there was a lot of speculation and disbelief surrounding the Xuanzang’s description of a tall, 80ft image of Buddha that stood among the towering pinnacles of the various temples in Nālandā. According to him the image was commissioned by Raja Puraṇavarman (7th CE) and it was housed over by a pavilion in six stages.

But most of these doubts were put to rest when an excavation in 1974 revealed these feet of Buddha on a lotus pedestal. The feet of the statue suggest that the sculpture must have been as tall as Xuanzang described it to be.

Please consider supporting the Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Project

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Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


Beal, Samuel.; 2005, Travels of Fah-hian and Sung-Yun, Buddhist Pilgrims from China to India, Low Price Publications, Delhi: (Originally published London: Trubner and Co.: 1869)

--------------. 1914, The life of Hiuen-Tsiang by Shaman Hwui Li, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co. Ltd, London. (New Edition 1911).

Chhabra, B. C. 1985. “Kasyapa Image Inscription from Silao.” Epigraphica Indica. Vol. 25. Edited by N. P. Chakravarti. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India.

Goswami, A., Anand, D.; 2016, The Pilgrimage Legacy of Xuanzang, Nalanda: Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University).

Watters, Thomas; 2004, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels in India, (Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and  S.W. Bushell), Reprinted in LPP 2004, Low Price Publications, Delhi. (First published by Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1904-05).


Bodhgaya /bodhitree said...

Nice deepak sir

B.Bhushan.P said...

Thanks brother.your post motivated an engineer 65+ for a village eco religious tourism with the adoption of permaculture in between Bakraur village to Rjgrih preferbly at jethian or Banganga.Thanks and hope to meet some time

B.Bhushan.P said...
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B.Bhushan.P said...
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