As a teenager when I moved out of home to join my college, I started hating train travel. Because they used be too long. But then when I moved on in life and train journeys became rare, I started longing for them.
Yesterday night was another such opportunity. And after an almost sleepless night when I landed up here early morning, this was the view in front of my eyes. The number 1 platform of this historical city, Gaya.
It was so very special. This city was so special. And it took me back years. Gaya, my birthplace. There on the left used to be an office I used to visit frequently. It was my father’s office. The Telegraph Department. And it brought back all my memories of childhood, of my father, our railway quarter and my growing up years. The railway station, the Railway Institute and our Marshalling Yard Railway colony, where we grew up. A feeling which just can’t be described. Gaya, the city which still keeps me ticking, has stayed in my heart and will always be there forever.
Gaya finds mention in the great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Rama along with Sita and Lakshmana visited Gaya for offering Pind Daan (a mandatory ritual for departed souls) to their father Dasharath. In Mahabharata, the place has been identified as Gayapuri.
Gaya has experienced the rise and fall of many dynasties in the Magadh Region. From the 6th century BC to the 18th century AD, about 2300–2400 years, Gaya has been occupying an important place in the cultural history of the region. It opened up with the Sisunaga dynasty founded by Sisunaga, who exercised power over Patna and Gaya around 600 BC. Bimbisara, fifth in line, who lived and ruled around 519 BC, had projected Gaya to the outer world. Having attained an important place in the history of civilization, the area experienced the bliss of Gautam Buddha and Bhagwan Mahavir during the reign of Bimbisara. After a short spell of Nanda dynasty, Gaya and the entire Magadha region came under the Mauryan rule with Ashoka (272 BC – 232 BC) embracing Buddhism. He visited Gaya and built the first temple at Bodh Gaya to commemorate Prince Gautama’s attainment of supreme enlightenment.
The period of Hindu revivalism commenced with the coming of the Guptas during the 4th and 5th century A.D. Samudragupta of Magadh helped to bring Gaya in limelight. It was the headquarters of Behar district during the Gupta empire. Gaya then passed on to the Pala Empire with Gopala as the ruler. It is believed that the present temple of Bodh Gaya was built during the reign of Dharmapala, son of Gopala.
During the period we stayed in this city, till my father retired and a few years more, such sights were very common for us.
I had booked my hotel, near the station. The city has many hotels but it is always good to stay in one near the station. That way it makes your travel to the station for your departure journey, which are either in the night or early morning, much hassle free. You could check out Hotel Viraat Inn near the station with reasonable room rates and is quite good.
Immediately after we checked in, freshened up and finished our breakfast, we went out to check out our old house and our locality, the railway colony. It was so nostalgic and seemed it was just the other day. Our football and cricket field next to our home, the water tank, the streets, the houses, the railway yard were all there in front of me just like before.
Childhood relived for a few moments before we moved towards our next destination. My School. Nazareth Academy.
Nazareth Academy is a Roman Catholic higher secondary school for girls and boys. The school was established as Saint Michael’s School in 1939. The name was changed to Nazareth Academy in 1953. The first two Principals, Sister Charles Miriam and Sister James Leo, availing themselves of the strong foundation of their predecessors, continued to maintain traditions already established and to expand on the good scholastic standards attained. Our third Principal was Sister Anne Marie. The school has grown over the years and today our school supports a school for the underprivileged and a school system for the poor who cannot afford to pay for their education.
The gates through which we walk in determine what we become in life. And for me this was my Temple, this was my Church and this was the place where I discovered a Goddess in the form of our Principal, Sister James Leo. And there were two more Sisters who have made a huge difference in my life, Sister Eugenia and Sister Anne Marie. And of course all my other teachers during the eight years I studied here.
This school is special and for all of us who have studied here, it still is so very special.
This Auditorium was the one where I have walked up to the stage so many times to receive my first prizes, once a second prize and always the hundred percent attendance prize. This stage was also the one where I had performed in many plays and once as a lead actor and also sung many a songs. This stage I realized, meant so much to me. Had a quick look inside before going around seeing the new buildings and more.
Why do I place Sister James Leo on the same pedestal as a Goddess? I always wanted to study in this red tie school and do remember pestering my parents about it. But I was a little underage and the session had already started. When approached by my parents with a request to admit me midway, Sister James Leo agreed as a special case. I came first in my Beginners class despite joining late and got promoted to Class I.
But then the fees in those days in the mid sixties was Rupees twenty four per month for boys. And affording that amount was becoming a little difficult for my father. So one fine morning my mother, without even informing my father, approached Sister with a request to waive off my fees. Sister James Leo readily agreed and I studied thereafter without ever paying any fees. That I continued to come first in class always, except on one occasion and that I never missed school even for a single day throughout those years perhaps made her shower me with her love and care, the way she did. How can I ever forget her and those days. I still pray to her at times. Sister James Leo. The very special person in my life.
We all move on in life. As so we decided to move to our next destination. Bodh Gaya.
Bodh Gaya is the holiest of Buddhist destinations and a World Heritage Site since 2002. It was here, under a bodhi or pipal tree, that Siddhartha Gotama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. A simple shrine was built by the emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE) to mark the spot, later enclosed by a stone railing (1st century BCE), part of which still remains. The uprights have representations of the Vedic gods Indra and Surya, and the railing medallions include carvings of imaginary beasts. This shrine was replaced in the Kushan period (2nd cent. CE) by the present Mahabodhi temple, which was refurbished in the Pala-Sena period (750-1200), heavily restored by Sir Alexander Cunningham in the second half of the 19th century, and finally restored by Myanmar (Burmese) Buddhists in 1882. The bodhi tree behind the temple is believed to be a descendant of the original.
The whole temple is built with bricks and is the oldest among the brick structures in India. The Mahabodhi temple tower stands at a height of about 55 meters, which is bounded by four more towers which are built in the same manner. The Mahabodhi temple is bounded by railings made of stone two meters tall. In addition, the ancient railings are made of sandstone around 150 B.C. There are a few structures of Indian gods inside the temple namely “Surya”, the god of sun and “Lakshmi”, the goddess of wealth.
For Buddhists, Bodh Gaya is the most important of the main four pilgrimage sites related to the life of Gautama Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar, Lumbini, and Sarnath. Situated by the bank of river Neranjana, the place was then known as Uruwela. King Ashoka was the first to build a temple here.
Wish to know some more about Buddha & Buddhism. Come let me take you through. Traditionally, Buddha was born in 563 BC in what is now Nepal on the following auspicious Baisakhi purnima. As Siddhartha, he renounced his family at the age of 29 in 534 BC and and meditated in search of truth. After practicing self-mortification for six years at Uruwela (Buddhagaya) in Gaya, he gave up that practice because it did not give him the results he desired. Then he discovered Noble Eight-fold path, practiced it and then attained Buddhatva or enlightenment. Enlightenment is a state of being completely free from raga (lust), dosa (hatred) and moha (delusion). By gaining enlightenment, you enter Nirvana and the final stage is Parinirvana or supreme enlightenment.
At this place, the Buddha was abandoned by the five men who had been his companions of earlier austerities. All they saw in him was an ordinary man and they mocked his well-nourished appearance. “Here comes the mendicant Gautama,” they said, “who has turned away from asceticism (spiritual goals). He is certainly not worth our respect.” When they reminded him of his former vows, the Buddha replied, “Austerities only confuse the mind. In the exhaustion and mental stupor to which they lead, one can no longer understand the ordinary things of life, still less the truth that lies beyond the senses. I have given up extremes of either luxury or asceticism. I have discovered the Middle Way. This is the path which is neither easy (as a rich prince) nor hard (living in austere conditions practicing self-denial). Golden words, truly.
Hearing this, the five ascetics became the Buddha’s first disciples in Deer Park, Sarnath which is 13 km from Benares. Read my post Benares, to discover the real Benares. The disciples of Gautama Siddhartha began to visit the place during the full moon in the month of Vaisakh (April–May), as per the Hindu calendar. Over time, the place became known as Bodh Gaya, the day of enlightenment as Buddha Purnima, and the tree as the Bodhi Tree. The main monastery of Bodh Gaya used to be called the Bodhimanda-vihara during Pali dynasty. Now it is called the Mahabodhi Temple. Let’s go in and look around.
Several Buddhist temples and monasteries have been built by the people of Bhutan, China, Japan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sikkim, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Tibet and Vietnam in a wide area around the Mahabodhi Temple. These buildings reflect the architectural style, exterior and interior decoration of their respective countries. The statue of Buddha in the Chinese temple is 200 years old and was brought from China. Japan’s Nippon temple is shaped like a pagoda. The Myanmar (Burmese) temple is also pagoda shaped. The Thai temple has a typical sloping, curved roof covered with golden tiles. Inside, the temple holds a massive bronze statue of Buddha. Next to the Thai temple is 25-meter statue of Buddha located within a garden which has existed there for over 100 years. Let’s go around and see some of these temples. The rest I wish to leave for you to experience in person when you visit Bodh Gaya.
Among the many monastery in Bodh Gaya, one of the oldest and most popular one is the Thai Monastery. The only Thai temple in India, it was built by a Monarch of Thailand in 1956. Sloping and curved roof of the edifice is covered with golden tiles is an insignia of Thai architecture. As you step inside, a precisely sculpted 25-meter-high statue of Lord Buddha with his hair tied in a bun catches the eye. Corners are decorated with images and carvings of Buddha in different forms. The aura is very serene and you can find many meditation centers near the monastery.
Every year in the month of January retreats are arranged. Maximum capacity of the retreats is 135 people who indulge in meditation, teachings on awakening and Vipassana Yoga. Interactive sessions on daily life issues and liberation are also attended during this span but sinful deeds such as smoking is strictly banned for people taking part in the activities.
Royal Bhutan Monastery is one of the most popular monasteries of Bodh Gaya. It was built by the King of Bhutan as a tribute to Lord Buddha. The monastery showcases some of the most important instances from the life of Lord Buddha. These depictions of the life of Lord Buddha attract Buddhist followers from all across the globe. The monastery features a unique traditional architecture, which allures tourists from all over the world. One can find clay carvings in the monastery, which speak much about the different aspects of Buddhism.
There is also a temple inside the monastery. The temple has a 7-feet high statue of Lord Buddha. The walls of the temple are beautifully carved with Buddhist sculptures. A number of tasks are performed all day at the monastery. The monks keep discussing about Lord Buddha and his teachings. They also guide individuals, organize group meditation and peace prayers at the temple.
Very close to Bodh Gaya across the Phalgu river is the Sujata Stupa, in the village of Bakraur. The Stupa was dedicated to the milkmaid Sujata, who is said to have fed Gautama Buddha milk and rice as he was sitting under a Banyan tree, ending his seven years of fasting and asceticism and allowing him to attain illumination through the Middle Way. The Stupa was built in the 2nd century BCE as confirmed by finds of black polished wares and punch-marked coins in the attending monastery.
Bodh Gaya had changed from the time we were kids. There were only handful of monasteries then, fewer shops, no hotels, not crowded and one of the attractions for us during the winter months was the arrival of pilgrims from Bhutan, whom we used to call Bhutiyas, setting up roadside stalls and selling winter garments. Sweaters and jackets which were cheap but very attractive and cool.
The day passed away without our knowing, more so because of the nostalgic element attached to this whole trip of mine. And soon we were back to our nest, the hotel, already preparing for a happening day tomorrow.
Got up early today, very early and the first thing I did was to go down to have some roadside tea and look for Gopal, our newspaper vendor for years, when we were kids. It was here, almost next to our hotel that he had hugged me and given me the news of my passing of my higher secondary exams with good marks. Had heard that he still was around. But everything that we desire is not always available. And so was he. Came to know from the person now occupying his space that he was well. His two sons, one is a computer scientist lives in Calcutta and the other a chartered accountant lives in Delhi. Felt happy and his face, lips all red with pan (betel leaves) and that amazing smile flashed across my mind.
The plan for today was already chalked out. And the first thing in our itinerary was a visit to Vishnupad Mandir to offer our prayers and offerings.
Vishnupada Mandir is an ancient temple in Gaya. It is a Hindu temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
This temple is located along the Falgu River, marked by a footprint of Lord Vishnu known as Dharmasila, incised into a block of basalt. The construction date of temple is unknown and it is believed that Rama along with Sita had visited this place. The present day structure was rebuilt by Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar, the ruler of Indore in 1787, on the banks of the Falgu River. A flight of 1000 stone steps leads to the top of the Brahmajuni hill, 1 km southwest of the Vishnupada Mandir.
Once a demon known as Gayasura, did a heavy penance and sought a boon that whoever see him should attain salvation. Since salvation is achieved through being righteous in one’s lifetime, people started obtaining it easily. To prevent immoral people from attaining salvation Lord Vishnu asked Gayasura to go beneath the earth and did so by placing his right foot on asura’s head. After pushing Gayasura below the surface of earth, Lord Vishnu’s foot print remained on the surface that we see even today. The footprint consists of nine different symbols including Shankam, Chakram and Gadham. These are believed to be weapons of the Lord. Gayasura when pushed into earth pleaded for food. Lord Vishnu gave him a boon that every day, someone will offer him food. Whoever does so, their souls will reach heaven. The day Gayasura doesn’t get food, it is believed that he will come out. Every day, one or the other from different parts of India pray for welfare of their departed and offer food, feeding Gayasura.Several legendary saints as Ramanujacharya, Madhavacharya, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Sri Ramakrishna have visited this shrine.
Inside the Vishnupad Mandir, the 40 cm long footprint of Lord Vishnu is imprinted in solid rock and surrounded by a silver plated basin. The height of this temple is 30 meters and it a has 8 rows of beautifully carved pillars which support the pavilion. The temple is built of large gray granite blocks jointed with iron clamps. The octagonal shrine faces east. Its pyramidal tower rises up a 100 feet. The tower has sloping sides with alternately indented and plain sections. The sections are set at an angle to create a series of peaks joined at the top. Within the temple stands the immortal banyan tree Akshayabat where the final rituals for the dead takes place. On top of the temple is a gold flag weighing approximately 51 kg. Inside the temple is a “Garv ghiri” a silver coated hexagon railing.
Surya Kund, located on the west side of the Vishnupad temple, is one of the most prominent tourist attractions of Gaya. It is a pond and according to a popular belief, it is said that a holy dip in this pond sets a person free from all the sins committed.
The destination is flocked by tourists during the time of festivals that are organised at this place twice a year. The first festival is celebrated in the month of March and April, while the second festival is held in the month of September and October. In addition, the place is visited by thousands of devotees on Chhath. During this time, the Sun God is worshiped and devotees from nearby places come to take a dip in the holy water of Surya Kund.
I am not too much of a religious person and respect all religions equally. But when you experience and discover your own, it always has a very special meaning. So we were off to discover some more of these pleasures. We were now heading towards Pretshila Hills, a little climb up. , Pretshila Hill or Hill of Ghost is of prime importance. The place is known for its Yama Temple (God of Death), which is built on top of the hill. The site is highly pious among Hindus where several devotees pay homage/Pinda Daan to their ancestors in order to free their soul and give them final relaxation
We stroll down and now it’s time to explore something different. The Caves of Gaya. A drive about 12 km towards northeast of Gaya takes you to the ancient Dungeshwari Cave Temples, also known as Mahakala Caves.
Gautama Siddhartha is believed to have piously meditated at this place for six years before he went to Bodhgaya for the final realization. Two small shrines are built to commemorate this phase of Buddha. A golden emaciated Buddha sculpture is enshrined in one of the cave temples and a large (about 6’ tall) Buddha’s statue in the other. A Hindu goddess deity Dungeshwari is also placed inside the cave temple.
Our next stop, Barabar Caves. One of the oldest rock-cut caves in India, Barabar Caves dates back to the Mauryan period. The caves are set on the Barabar Hills. The caves are believed to have inscriptions which date back to the Ashoka period. One can find a number of Hindu and Jain sculptures in the caves which are believed to have been carved out of huge rocks which date back to 273 BC to 232 BC.
There are four caves which form the Barabar caves, namely Vishwa Zopri, Lomas Rishi, Karan Cahupar and Sudama. Of all the caves, Lomas Rishi caves are the most beautiful and alluring caves. The caves have been cut out from a huge granite rock. They have been cut out in such a manner that they look like wooden huts in which Buddhist monks lived. Lomas Rishi and Sudama are considered the oldest examples of rock-cut architecture in the country which feature architectural designs of the Mauryan period.
Similar to the Barabar Caves are caves in the Nagarjuni Hills, which are located around two km away. These caves are considered a part of the Barabar Caves. However, the wild location of Nagarjuni caves made us skip it.
The day was hectic but it was enjoyable and relaxing too. After all, that is what a holiday is all about. Back to our hotel we decided to sleep early, because tomorrow was another early get up day.
A trip to Gaya is not complete till you have visited the next few places that I am going to take you to. We decided to do it all in one day knowing well that it would be very hectic. But you should ideally do it in two days which would give you some time to relax too. We started from Gaya at 6 AM and our destination, Rajgir.
Rajgir, meaning the abode of Kings has been mentioned fist in the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata as the capital of Magadh, ruled by the mighty King Jarasandha. Although the exact time of the origin of this city has not been established, it is estimated by scholars that it must be around 3,000 years old. Rajgir was known by various names such as Vasumati, Barhdrathpura, Girivraja, Kusagrapura, and Rajgriha. The great Hindu epic Ramayana says that the mythical king Vasu, a son of Lord Brahma, founded this town and named it Vasumati. The last name Rajgriha is the one from which the present name Rajgir has been derived.
It was also the center of great religious and intellectual activity. The Buddha made several visits to this town and stayed here for a considerable time to propagate his doctrine. Jain texts, on the other hand, say that their last apostle, Mahavira, passed 14 rainy seasons in Rajgir and Nalanda. It was also the birthplace of Muni Suvrata, a predecessor of Lord Mahavira and the center of the Ajivika sect.
Rajgir, though small area wise, is an important pilgrimage center for three of the great religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. There are pilgrimage sites of each of these religions in the town. On the Vaibhava hill are the Saptkarni caves where the first Buddhist Council was held. The Saptkarni cave is also the source of the Rajgir hot Sulphur springs that have curative properties and are scared to the Hindu’s. From the foot of the Vaibhava Hill, a staircase leads up to the various temples. Separate bathing places have been organized for men and women and the water comes out from spouts through the Saptadhara or seven streams believed to find their source behind the Saptkarni Caves up in the hills. The hottest of the springs is the Brahmakund with a temperature of 45°C.
On the Griddhakuta or Vulture Peak, the Buddha set in motion his second Wheel of Law and for three months every year during the rainy season preached his disciples about it. The Buddha Sangh of Japan has constructed a massive modern Stupa, the Shanti (peace) stupa at the top of the hill. One can climb up to the top along a bridle path but the aerial chairlift is far more exciting.
Ajatshatru’s Fort, built in sixth century BC, is situated around six km from the Rajgir railway station. Bimbisara’s jail was also situated here where according to the legends, he was imprisoned by Ajatshatru, his son. From his prison cell, Bimbisara could see Buddha meditating on the Vulture peak. Nothing remains though, except the ruins.
Many fairs and festivals take place in Rajgir. The Rajgir Mahotsav is held every year in October. Classical dance, folk dance, music, and art performances are organized during this festival. The Malamasa Mela is celebrated in Rajgir every three years and a large fair is held here. According to the Indian solar calendar, every third year has 13 months, which is called Malamasa. Another festival specific to Rajgir is the Makar Sankranti Mela, held on the last day of the lunar calendar month of Paus, in mid-January. Devotees offer flowers to the deities of the temples at the hot springs and bathe in the holy water.
Next up is Nalanda which is one of the greatest centers of learning in the ancient times. and around 12 kms grom Rajgir. Founded in the fifth century AD, today this ancient university lies in ruins. The place not only has the remains of the great university but also many monasteries, temples, and viharas built by different kings.
Though the Buddha visited Nalanda several times during his lifetime, this famous center of Buddhist learning shot to fame much later, during 5th-12th centuries AD. In this first residential international university of the world, 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students from all over the Buddhist world lived and studied.
And now move on towards our last destination for the day. Pawapuri.
Pawapuri or Pawa is a holy site for Jains in Nalanda district and 26 kms from Nalanda town. During the reign of Ajatshatru, Hastipal was the King of Pawapuri. When Lord Mahavira came to Pawapuri he stayed in King Hastipal’s “Rajikshala” or palace.
Around 5th century BCE, Mahavira, the last of the twenty four Tirthankara attained Nirvana or moksha(liberation). Jains celebrate Diwali to commemorate this event. He was cremated at Pawapuri, also known as Apapuri (the sinless town). There was a great rush to collect his ashes, with the result that so much soil was removed from the place of his cremation that a pond was created.
Now, an exquisite marble temple in the middle of a lotus pond, the Jal Mandir, stands magnificently on a rectangular island. This magnificent and beautiful temple stands on an island amidst the holy pond, connected to the mainland by a sandstone causeway.
Another Jain temple, called Samosaran is located here, where the Lord Mahavira delivered his last teaching. This temple marks the site where Lord Mahavira gave his last sermon.Now a beautiful Jain Temple marks the site.
As we proceeded towards our hired taxi and started our journey back towards Gaya, it felt so nostalgic. The last time I had ventured to these three places was when I was a kid and it brought back my memories of that trip and of all my friends who had accompanied me during that group tour. But today too, I was happy. Because I had a very special person by my side. My friend and partner for life, my wife.
Gaya is easy accessible from all major cities. There are direct flights from Delhi. Trains though are the best option from Kolkata, which is an overnight journey. And if you are heading here from Benares, it is just four hours away.
Gaya. The land of Vishnu, the land of Buddha, the land of Mahavira. The land which was an integral part of Magadha empire.
Come, visit Gaya. Experience, India Beautiful 🇮🇳