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Rajgir (once known as Rajagriha, ‘House of Kings’) is nestled in a lush valley between the Ratnagiri Mountains. During the Buddha’s time, it was capital of the kingdom of Magadh, whose rulers built grandly – the faintest outlines of their palaces and the great 40km wall they constructed around their city, destroyed by Muslim marauders in the 13th century, lie in the middle of a well-trodden tourist path. Because Rajgir figured prominently in Buddha’s life, Buddhist pilgrims from Asia flock here during the winter months. You’ll see them taking the chairlift to Gridharkuta, or “Vulture’s Peak,” a secluded mountain retreat where the Buddha gathered his disciples to unfold the Four Noble Truths. The first Buddhist Council took place at Rajgir, and the extensive nearby ruins of the university at Nalanda convey a sense of the success and scale of Buddhist learning that thrived here for nearly a thousand years.

Jain influence in Rajgir was also strong, and Jain temples dot the low hills around the city center, commemorating the 14 seasons that Mahavira spent in this tranquil valley. Hindus are omnipresent, and they celebrate the Magh Mas every 33rd month. For 30 days the entire Hindu pantheon of 330 million gods purportedly makes merry in the streets. They are certainly not as rowdy as the flocks of peasants from outlying villages, who leave the place a complete wreck.

Sights

The sights on and around Mt. Ratnagiri constitute the main draw at Rajgir. Running along the side of the mountain, the access road reaches Gridhrakuta, once the Buddha’s retreat. Above two natural caves recognized as sites of the Buddha’s sermons are the remains of a monastery from the Gupta period. Backtracking a bit, a path leads up to the new Japanese golden stupa, Viswa Shanti, which sits atop a colossal sandstone dome and is dedicated to world peace. Around the dome are four images of the Buddha, representing his birth, enlightenment, teaching, and death. To avoid the climb, take the chairlift to the stupa and catch Gridharkuta on the way down.

Just outside of town on the Vaibhara Hill is the Saptaparni Cave, where the first Buddhist Council was held after the Buddha’s death, when 500 monks gathered to compile in written form the Buddha’s teachings. Nearby, Pippala Cave, a natural rectangular rock once used as a watch tower, remains a revered abode of hermits.

At the foot of Vaibhara Hill, the Buddha and his disciples once cavorted in the half dozen hot springs that were later incorporated into the design of a Hindu temple, known as Lakshmi Narim. Today, locals crowd the baths to perform ablutions – or just have a warm wash. Although it’s part of a temple, non-Hindus are welcome to cavort and cleanse. Be on guard for priests looking for contributions. Mornings are busiest, the hour before dusk is less of a mob scene. Some of the springs, directed thought the innards of temple sculptures, gush from the mouths of lions and Garudas (Vishnu’s eagle mount). Others simply gather in pools. Co-ed rules apply at the lower springs.

Map of Rajgir

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