The city of Pataliputra is well-known. It was the capital of the kingdom of Magadha that later evolved into the Empire of the Mauryas, but between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, all roads led to the great city of Rajgir, around 100 kms away. The original capital of Magadha, Rajgir, also known as ‘Girivraj’ in ancient times played a pivotal role in Indian history. Go to this town and you will be walking on hallowed ground. It was here that Gautama Buddha lived, enjoying the view of the hills from the cave that he lived in. It was also here that Vardhaman Mahavir, the 24th Jain Tirthankara lived and preached.
Enveloped within an ancient and historic cyclopean wall, 4 meters wide and 40 kms long, built by the Mauryans, Rajgir is truly one of India’s most historic towns where you can literally feel the past.
The origins of Rajgir or ‘Rajagriha’ (Abode of the King) are unknown, but it emerged as a great urban settlement during the time of the Mahajanapadas, or city states in 6th century BCE. It was King Bimbisara (543-491 BCE) of the Haranyaka Dynasty which ruled Magadha, who made Rajgir his capital.
The reason why Rajgir was chosen as the capital is not hard to guess. Located between two parallel ridges of hills, around 300 meters high, the site was naturally well protected. Also found here, were abundant hot water springs with therapeutic properties. Moreover, it was located on two of the greatest trade routes of ancient India, the Uttarapatha or the East-West route and the Dakshinapatha or the North-South route.
Rajgir was originally known as ‘Girivraj’ and it finds mention in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts of the time. It was considered to be the greatest city in the Gangetic plains with a population of around 36,000 inhabitants. Pali texts speak of how the great city had 32 large gates and 64 minor ones along the cyclopean wall which extended 40 kms around the city.
Originally, Rajgir was said to be a center for Naga and Yaksha worship but later it emerged as an important Buddhist center. A place called ‘Maniyar Math’ contained a great Chaityagriha or prayer hall. It was originally the temple dedicated to ‘Mani Naga’, the guardian deity of the city. Few terracotta Naga images have been found in Rajgir which point to the active Naga worship which took place here, before the advent of Buddhism and Jainism in the region.
King Bimbisara was a friend and patron of Lord Buddha and is said to have converted to Buddhism. There are numerous records of the Buddha’s frequent visits to Rajgir, where he gave several important sermons. While the Buddha travelled extensively, his favourite retreat was ‘Gridhakuta’ or ‘Vulture’s Peak’, one of the hills surrounding Rajgir.
Buddha is said to have been very fond of the city and its surroundings. In fact in the Digha Nikaya, a Pali text, Buddha himself is said to have remarked –
It is amazing but a number of sites described by the Buddha himself can still be seen today. The Venuvan was a royal park gifted to the Buddha by King Bimbisara, and Jivaka’s mango grove is where Buddha survived an assassination attempt by his cousin Devadutta.
There is a place in Rajgir known as ‘Bimbisara’s Jail’ where he is said to have been kept as a prisoner by his son Ajatashatru who usurped the kingdom of Magadha. The legend goes that the ageing King Bimbisara requested that he be imprisoned at a place from where he could see the Buddha meditating on the Gridhakuta. King Bimbisara died in 491 CE.
Bimbisara’s successor King Ajatashatru is said to have become repentant after his father’s death. He too converted to Buddhism. According to Pali texts, after Buddha’s demise in 483 CE, his relics were divided into eight equal shares between Ajatashatru, Mallas of Kushinagar, Sakyas of Kapilavastu, Bulies of Attakapa, Koliyas of Ramagrama and a resident of Vethadipa. King Ajatashatru is said to have enshrined his share of relics in a stupa at Rajgir.
After the Buddha’s death, it was also Ajatashatru who is said to have convened the first Buddhist Council meeting at Rajgir. The objective of this grand Buddhist Council was to preserve the teachings of Buddha and the monastic code he set up. This famous council is said to have been convened at the Saptaparni caves, which some historians identify with Sonbhandar caves on Vaibhavagiri hill surrounding Rajgir.
Rajgir is an important site, not only in the Buddhist tradition but also in Jainism. Mahavir, the 24th Tirthankara of the Jains delivered his first sermon here on the Vipula hill. He is also said to have spent 14 monsoons in Rajgir. The 20th Tirthankara, Munisuvrata, is also believed to have been born here. The hill of Vaibhavagiri around Rajgir has numerous Jain temples. The Sonbhandar caves also have Jain inscriptions on them. King Bimbisara appears in Jain chronicles as King Shrenik who accepted Jainism.
Rajgir is even connected with Hindu mythology. There is a reference to Girivraj, the capital of Magadha in the Mahabharata. The Pandava, Bhim is said to have killed its ruler, the infamous Jarasandha, in a wrestling match. A large enclosure known as ‘Jarasandha ka Akhara’ in Rajgir is where, according to folklore, the wrestling match actually took place.
Rajgir, began to fade in importance as a political center after King Ajatashatru’s son Udayin shifted his capital to Pataliputra (Patna) around 460 BCE. But it still thrived as a Buddhist center. Fa-Hien who visited Magadha in 406 CE writes in his book Foguoji that the ‘five hills form a girdle like the walls of a town’ referring to the multiple hills encircling the city that provided natural defence, with two passes serving as gates. He however also commented that the city was desolate and without inhabitants. The city probably went into decline during the post-Gupta period, though the reasons for this are not known.
It was only in the 19th century that Rajgir was noticed and its rich past, given recognition. In 1811, Francis Buchanan, the noted 19th century Scottish geographer, botanist and zoologist engaged to survey monuments and antiquities in parts of present day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh published a report of his interesting finds in the region. A major breakthrough came for the area in 1861 CE when Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, started his tour to Bodh Gaya and Rajgir. In 1950, the well-known Indian archaeologist, Amalananda Ghosh carried out a small-scale excavation here.
Today, Rajgir is a part of the international Buddhist circuit as well as the Jain religious circuit and attracts visitors and pilgrims from around the world.
Cover Image: Gridhakuta or Vulture’s Peak/ Wikimedia Commons
– Did You Know?
When BR Ambedkar settled in Mumbai in the 1930s, he named his house Rajgriha, after the ancient Buddhist site of Rajgir.
– LHI Travel Guide
By road - Rajgir is well connected by road to Patna, Nalanda, Gaya, Pawapuri, and Bihar Sharif. Regular bus services are available from all these locations.
By air – The nearest airports are the JPN International Airport in Patna and the Gaya International Airport
By rail – Rajgir railway station is well connected to Patna, Kolkata and New Delhi via daily trains.