Xuanzang’s footsteps in Bihar, Xuanzang Memorial

Nalanda was an acclaimed Mahavihara, a large Buddhist monastery in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar) in India. At its peak, the school attracted scholars and students from near and far with some travelling all the way from Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia. Archaeological evidence also notes contact with the Shailendra dynasty of Indonesia, one of whose kings built a monastery in the complex.

Much of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of pilgrim monks from East Asia such as Xuanzang and Yijing who travelled to the Mahavihara in the 7th century. Vincent Smith remarked that “a detailed history of Nalanda would be a history of Mahayanist Buddhism”. Many of the names listed by Xuanzang in his travelogue as products of Nalanda are the names of those who developed the philosophy of Mahayana. All students at Nalanda studied Mahayana as well as the texts of the eighteen (Hinayana) sects of Buddhism. Their curriculum also included other subjects such as the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine and Samkhya.

In quest of the Truth, Prince Siddhārtha (6th BCE) left Kapilvasthu in the middle of the night and reached Rājagṛiha, the capital of Magadha empire at that time. After a brief stay at Rājagṛiha, he promised king Bimbisāra before he left that he would return once he realized the Truth. Seeking places of solitude in which to practice spirituality, Siddhārtha moved to the vicinity of the village Bakrour, formerly the village of Senānigāma, a part of Uruvelā, at that time. Siddhārtha practiced austerities for 6 years in this vicinity.

Xuanzang found the Gayā city occupied by around one thousand Brāhmaṇ family, descendent of some great ṛshi (Saint), who were not subject to the king. Xuanzang further mentions that the Brāhmiṇ-s of Gayā were highly respected everywhere.
Gaya since the ancient times is an important Hindu pilgrimage centre. During the period of Pitrapaksha (fortnight of ancestors, waning lunar period of September) Hindus from all over the world visit Gayā to perform Śraddhā (obeisance to ancestors).

Early in the morning on Veshākha Pūrṇimā, seeing the emaciated Siddhārtha (the Buddha) sitting under the banyan tree, Sujātā offered Siddhārtha kheer (rice-gruel) in a golden bowl all the while thinking that he was a tree spirit who had granted her wish to bear a son. Experiencing the extreme penance not worthy of spiritual attainment, Siddhārtha accepted the bowl and consequently resolved to follow the Middle Path. The act of Sujātā offering kheer to Siddhārtha is considered to be a turning point in his journey to enlightenment.

Xuanzang paid pilgrimage to an image of the Emaciated Buddha at the place where Siddhārtha took austerities for 6 years. Xuanzang mentioned people, rich or poor, suffering from diseases would come to anoint the emaciated Buddha’s image with scented earth in order to be cured from their afflictions.

Six years of austerities lead Siddhārtha to the realization of taking the Middle Path. Siddhārtha embarked again upon the meditative path in order to achieve enlightenment. He left the immediate vicinity of Senānigāma, the village of Sujātā, in search of a new place to make a fresh beginning. In this way, he arrived at a hill which is now called Dungeswari Hill. Xuanzang mentioned this hill as Prāgbodhi Mountain, meaning the mountain leading to perfect enlightenment. When Siddhārtha climbed to the top of this hill, the earth shook, warning Siddhārtha that this is not the right place to find the Truth.

Siddhārtha, while descending from the hill, found a cave and as he sat down cross-legged, there was another earthquake. Deva (divine being) urged him to go further west to the Pīpala tree, perfect for Vajra Samādhi (admantine absorption). As Siddhārtha prepared to leave, the dragon of the cave urged him to remain. Siddhārtha, to appease the dragon, left his shadow in the cave and departed.

Xuanzang mentions that king Ashoka indicated each spot up and down this mountain that Siddhārtha had walked by erecting distinguished posts and stūpas. Xuanzang stated how on the day of breaking up the season of vassā (a rainy season retreat), religious laymen from different countries ascended this mountain, made offerings, stayed for one night and then returned.

Leaving his shadow in the cave, Siddhārtha then left the eastern bank of Niraňjanā. When Siddhārtha was hundred steps away from the Pīpala tree (ficus religiosa), he received eight handfuls of kusha grass (desmostachya bipinnata ) from a grass-cutter, Sottiya, in order to make a seat for meditation.

Bodhisattva Siddhārtha took a seat under the Pīpala tree facing east with a solemn vow: he would not arise from this spot until he attained perfect Enlightenment. Tradition says that as Siddhārtha sat in deep meditation, māra, lord of Illusion, perceiving that his power was about to be broken, rushed to distract Siddhārtha from his purpose. Finally shouted māra, ‘even if you find out the truth, who do you think will ever believe you? What right do you have to claim the throne of Enlightenment?’
Siddhārtha touched the ground with his hand and replied, ‘The earth will bear witness, to all my past action of purity.’
At the break of dawn Siddhārtha, the Bodhisattava attained Perfect Enlightenment and became the Buddha.

Bodhi means enlightenment, awakening, wisdom, knowledge, revelation and Buddha means the one who has awakened, comprehended, perceived and known the Truth. Siddhārtha attained Perfect Enlightenment and became the Buddha under the pīpala tree which henceforth came to be known as the Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree thus is considered sacred by the followers of the teachings of the Buddha.

Vajrāsana (the Diamond Throne) located between the Mahābodhi temple and the Bodhi tree is where the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and attained Enlightenment. For the devouts of the teachings of the Buddha this is the fountainhead of the faith. In the words of Xuanzang; it is very central point of the universe…In using the word Diamond we mean that it is firm and indestructible, and able to resist all things. If it were not for it support the earth could not remain; if the seat were not as strong as diamond, then no part of the world could support one who has entered Samādhi of perfect fixedness (Vajra Samādhi).

In the sanctum of the Mahābodhi temple, the great gilded statue of the Buddha (height 5ft., 5 in.) from medieval period is in the earth-touching posture (Bhūmisparśa Mudrā). This portrays the Buddha calling the earth to witness the conquest of māra (witness that he has solved the problem of the cessation of suffering).

The Mahābodhi temple faces the east, the direction in which Siddhārtha faced as he sat and meditated under the Pīpala tree (Bodhi tree).

Xuanzang noted that the first temple at the site was built by king Ashoka. The shrine built by King Ashoka at the place of Enlightenment found mention in the bas-relief of the Bharhut stūpa. In a later century, a Brāhmiṇ reconstructed the temple on a large scale. Xuanzang saw temple was 160-170 feet high, made up of blue bricks covered with Chuṅam (lime plaster).

After centuries of neglect post 13th CE, the temple fell into ruins. The restoration of the Mahābodhi temple based on Xuanzang’s description was carried out by Sir Alexander Cunningham and J. D. Beglar in 1880.

Two months after his enlightenment, on the full-moon day of āsālha (June-July), the Buddha preached the Dharmacakraparatana Sūtra (the First Turning of the Wheel) at Sārnātha and after that returned to Uruvelā with the objective of transforming Uruvelā kaśyapa. Following the transformation of kaśyapa brothers, the Buddha and the newly ordained jatila-s (matted-hair) left Uruvelā and reached Gayāsīsa hill (Brahmayoni). Since Jatila-s were fire worshipers, the Buddha used a metaphor of fire in his sermon so that the Dharma (Dhamma) reached his audience more easily. Buddha’s sermons came to be preserved as the Āditta-Pariyāya Sūtra (Fire Sermon). After the Buddha delivered the Fire Sermon, thousands of jatila-s joined Buddha at Gayāsīsa hill to practice meditation. They became arahat-s (one who is worthy). To commemorate this event, King Ashoka built a 100ft stupa at the top of the Hill.

About twenty years after the assembly of the first council, Mahākaśyapa entrusted his duties to Ānanda, and handed over the Buddha’s alms-bowl to him as a symbol of continuing the faithful preservation of the Dharma. Then Mahākaśyapa went to the Buddha’s stūpa to pay homage and make offerings. He returned to Rājagṛiha to pay his last respects to King Ajātśatru, but the guards told him that the king was sleeping and could not be disturbed. Mahākaśyapa went on his way and arrived at Kukkuṭapādagiri. Kukkuṭapāda Mountain is shaped like the three toes of a cock’s foot as it is topped by three small mountains. When Mahākaśyapa arrived at this mountain, the three mountains split and formed a seat to receive him. Mahākaśyapa covered it with grass and sat down. He decided, ‘I will preserve my body with my miraculous power and cover it with my rag-robes.’ Then the three mountains enclosed his body. King Ajātśatru was deeply grieved by the news of Mahākaśyapa’s departure. He went to Kukkuṭapāda Mountain with Ānanda. Arriving there, the three mountains opened and they saw Mahākaśyapa sitting up straight and meditating. Some Buddhist texts mention that Ajātśatru built a stūpa on the top of the Hill. Xuanzang mention that, kāśyapa did not attain parinirvāṇa; he dwells in the Kukkuṭapādagiri Mountain, wrapt in samādhi (a state of meditative consciousness), awaiting the arrival of Matriyea Buddha.

The Kukkuṭapāda Mountain is also referred as Gurupāda in Buddhist literature, meaning the place where the Guru (teacher) put his footprints. An imprint of Mahākaśyapa foot at Kukkuṭapāda Mountain is a reminder of the deep association of this place with Mahākaśyapa.


After the decline of Buddhism in India, to keep the faith of lay followers alive, kings and eminent monks in far-off Buddhist lands tried replicate the places of pilgrimage existing in Bihār. Research suggests that Jīzú Shān (Chicken Foot Mountain) in Yunnan province (China) is a replication of Kukkutapāda Giri (Cockfoot’s Mountain) in Bihār.

Before leaving Rājagṛiha in search of the truth, Siddhārtha promised King Bimbisāra to share his experience once he attained enlightenment. Keeping his promise the Buddha, along with the Saṅgha, left Gayāsīsa (Brahmayoni) for Rājagṛiha. Walking 25 miles north-east along the hills they reached a beautiful bamboo forest, Laṭṭhivana ( Yaṣṭhivana, Jeṭhian).

According to Xuanzang, once a man attempted to measure the height of the Buddha with a bamboo stick (Laṭṭhi), but he failed to do so and threw the bamboo stick on the ground. The stick took root and grew into a large bamboo grove (Laṭṭhivana or Yaṣṭhivana). The Buddha, and later the followers of the Dharma, found the bamboo grove a serene setting for practising Dharma. Xuanzang stayed in the valley for two years at the Yaṣṭhivana monastery.

King Bimbisāra gathered news of the Buddha’s presence at Laṭṭhivana. King Bimbisāra along with his retinue of ministers and a myriad of followers from the town of Rājagṛiha came to greet this enlightened one at Laṭṭhivana, about 7 miles west, along the Rājagṛiha hills. The Buddha and the Saṅgha, escorted by King Bimbisāra and myriads of people from Rājagṛiha then took this route through Jeṭhian-Rājgir Valley to reach Rājagṛiha, where the King Bimbisāra offered the Buddha and the Saṅgha his favorite pleasure garden, the Veḷuvana (bamboo grove).

In order to revive the Jeṭhian-Rājgir Buddha trail and to generate awareness amongst the devout Buddhists and the locals, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University) and Light of Buddha Dharma Foundation International (LBDFI) are organizing a ‘Jeṭhian-Rājgir Heritage Walk’ each year on 13th December with the objective to provide opportunity to the followers of the teachings of the Buddha who would like to take this spiritual journey and earn immense merits by traveling on the Buddha trail.

More than 2000 venerable monk, nuns and laity participated in the 2nd Jeṭhian-Rājgir Dhamma Walk held on 13th December, 2015.

Xuanzang wrote about a wide road constructed by King Bimbisāra leading to Asura Cave where the Buddha once dwelled and preached Dharma for three months. Xuanzang has also described how King Bimbisāra cut out a passage through the rock, opened up the valleys, leveled the precipices and built up a wall of stones to reach the place where the Buddha was present.

Xuanzang in his dairy has mentioned about a stūpa before the cross-ridge of the mountain to mark the place where Buddha preached for three months. King Bimbisāra created a road 20 paces wide and 3-4 Li long (approximately 1.5 km).

While making cārikā (sublime wandering) through this beautiful Jeṭhian valley, a rock shelter in the middle of the mountain (later called Buddhavana mountain) was where the Buddha chose to take shelter for a night as mentioned by Xuanzang. The sacred cave amid earthly surroundings is not only a tangible reminder of the Buddha but also a place to reflect on the sublime wandering of the Buddha ‘for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, and out of compassion for the world.’

Xuanzang mentions that during the Buddha’s stay at the rock shelter, Lord Śakra and Lord Brahma descended from the heavens to visit the Buddha one night. Out of great respect for the Buddha, they ground ox-head sandal-wood on a big stone by the Buddha’s rock shelter and anointed the Buddha with it. A 50m climb from the sacred rock shelter is the remains of an ancient Buddhist temple and an ancient man-made platform, probably a place for meditation for the residing monks.

Xuanzang took a sacred journey to the two hot water streams of Tapovana that were formed and blessed by the Buddha. The Buddha, according to Xuanzang, bathed here and thereafter, people from all around flocked here to bathe and get rid of chronic disease. Even now, one can see people from far off places gather here to take a holy dip in these sacred springs.

Xuanzang mentions about a ‘remarkable rock’ on the western peak of Barābar Hill where the Buddha spent a whole night sitting in samādhi, deep meditation. Deva-s constructed a 10 ft stūpa composed of gold, silver and precious stones on this ‘remarkable rock’ to mark the event. Over time, theses precious metals and stones became stone according to Xuanzang. On the top of the hill one can still this extraordinary stupa. And to the East of this (Barki Barābar) was the mountain (Barābar hill, Mahādeo temple) where the Buddha stood to obtain a view of Magadha. A stūpa was later constructed at the spot.

Two centuries after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha, King Ashoka and his descendents created seven rock-cut cave temples in the Barābar group of hills.

An inscription on one of the cave temple mentions that Ashoka in 12th regnal year offered the Nigŏha-kubhā (banyan tree cave) to Ājivikas (an ascetic sect that emerged in about the same time as Buddhism).

The rock-cut cave temples has vaulted roof. The walls and the ceiling are polished that has a shine unique to Mauryan period (3rd BCE). These rock-cut cave temples are beautiful specimen of Mauryan art.

Stūpa remains spread over the Dharāwat hills and the ancient remains of the Dharāwat village fits the Xuanzang’s description of Guṇamati Monastery. Xuanzang says that the Monastery was built in the honour of Guṇamati Bodhisattva.

Ancient Buddhist remains of Kuri Sarai fits the Xuanzang’s description of Śīlabhadra Monastery, built by Master Śhilabhadra. Xuanzang says ‘taking advantage of its steep peak to a stūpa, Śīlabhadra had deposited in the peak Buddha –relics.’

CYCLOPEAN WALL Rājagṛiha (Rājgir) was for centuries the capital of the Magadha Empire. As per the ancient Indian scriptures Purāṇa, more than 35 kings ruled from here before king Bimbisāra in the 6th century BCE. This valley of kings is surrounded by a 40 to 48 kilometer long Cyclopean Wall an ancient fortification of dressed stones running over the crest of all the hills. Xuanzang mentions this wall were the external walls of the town.

The Buddhist literature states that the tradition of vassā (a rainy season retreat) was instituted at Veḷuvana by the Buddha. The three-month rainy season was used as a retreat period, during which the monks would stay in one location and avoid any travel.

On his maiden visit to Rājagṛiha after his enlightenment, King Bimbisāra welcomed the whole Saṅgha (monastic order) with generous donations of alms and asked the Buddha to accept for the Saṅgha his favorite pleasure garden the Veḷuvana (bamboo grove). This was the very first piece of land accepted by the Buddha for refuge. It is said that it was the first and only monastery where earth expressed its gratitude to be serving under the Buddha’s feet as it trembled during the dedication ceremony.

Mahākaśyapa, first head of the Saṅgha after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha, found Rājagṛiha to be a most appropriate place to compile the teachings of the Buddha. As per Xuanzang, six months after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha the first Buddhist Council was held here. Several arhat-s for months recited and compiled the words of the Buddha which is now popularly known as Tripitaka (three baskets of Buddhist scriptures). The logistical support for the First Buddhist Council was provided by King Ajātshatru under the guidance of Mahākaśyapa.

At the time of the Buddha, these hot water springs and beautiful surroundings were included in the monastic site of Tapodārāma (hot water monastery). Xuanzang saw foundation of stūpas to mark the presence of the Buddha at this place. Having medicinal value, these hot water springs as Buddhist sources describe helped heal the Buddha. Once when the Buddha was sick, Jīvaka the royal physician who also took care of the Buddha told the Buddha it was necessary to bathe in this warm spring water to completely rid the body of disease. The Buddha followed the advice of Jīvaka and bathed in these warm springs.

During his visits to Rājagṛiha, Buddha used to stay at Veḷuvana and after having his only meal for the day, he would pace the path up to Gṛiddhakūṭa (Vulture’s Peak). Buddha was drawn to the solitude of Gṛiddhakūṭa. It is mentioned that despite māra’s attempts to frighten Buddha, he visited Gṛiddhakūṭa on several occasions, sometimes even in the dark or during rains. King Bimbisāra was very fond of the Buddha and enjoyed his company. He frequently visited Griddhakūṭa for the Buddha’s teachings and to discuss matters related to fair governance. His counsel built a wide road from the bottom of the hill to the summit and the present concrete pathway is paved over the old ‘Bimbisāra Path.’ This path has two stūpas, one to mark the place where King Bimbisāra dismounted from his horse and another for the spot where he used to order his ministers and body guards to stay back as he continued alone to the peak of this solitary hill.

The most important event associated with Griddhakūṭa Hill is when the Buddha after his Enlightenment set forth the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. The Prajñāpāramitā hṛdaya Sūtra (The Heart of the Perfection of Understanding) and the Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka Sūtra (Lotus Sūtra), are considered second turning teachings delivered here. Xuanzang offered prayer at a stūpa in Gṛiddhakūṭa that marked the place where the Buddha delivered the Heart Sūtra for the first time.

As mentioned in the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra; the Buddha began his final footsteps to attain Mahāparinirvāṇa at kuśīnagara from Griddhakūṭa. In his last sermon to the Saṅgha of Rājagṛiha and its surroundings, the Buddha urged monks to follow the Dharma. The last teachings of the Buddha delivered here at Griddhakūṭa are preserved in the Bhikkhu-aparihāniya Sutta (Conditions for no decline among the Monks).

The secluded hill provided a tranquil get away from the main city and was an ideal meditation place for the Buddha. Hidden among the hill’s many caves and rock shelters, history has witnessed many meditating arhat-s including the Buddha’s prominent disciples Sāriputra, Mahāmaudgalyāyana, Mahākaśyapa and Ānanda. Identification of meditating cells of Sāriputra and Ānanda were made on the basis of Xuanzang’s description.

This large dressed stone structure looks like a watch tower of ancient Rājgṛiha. This huge structure predates the Buddha by centuries and the caves in it were one of the favourite meditating places of the Buddha and his prominent disciple, Mahākaśyapa. Buddhist sources mention the Buddha visiting Mahākaśyapa who once took ill while residing here.

Xuanzang mentions that this stūpa was built by King Ashoka. Xuanzang also mentions how the king erected a pillar with an elephant capital east of this stūpa. The pillar as Xuanzang mentions was inscribed describing the sanctity of the place. The pillar is now missing without any trace. In 1905-06, Archeologist Sir John Marshall was the first investigator to have excavated this site. The excavation suggested that the stūpa’s antiquity went as far back as the Mauryan period, which gave further credence to the popular belief of it being built by King Ashoka.

Xuanzang mentions that this stūpa on the hill north of Vulture’s peak is to mark the place from where the Buddha blessed Magadha Empire.

During the time of the Buddha, the base of this isolated hill was covered with a forest belt, a beautiful jewel railing (manivedikā), and hence it was called Vediya Parwat (Vediya Hill). In Buddhist literature, the vast surroundings of this hill, with its extensive lush green rice fields, was collectively called Magadhakhetta (agricultural fields of Magadha). Making his alms rounds in this vicinity, the Buddha, inspired by the intersecting contour pattern of the rice fields, asked Ānanda to design a robe of the same pattern. Ever since then, robes with patches similar to the rice fields have been adopted as the robes of members of the Order. To the south of Pārwati Hill, the Brāhmiṇ village Ambasandā (Apsaḍh) and its villagers heartedly welcomed the Buddha’s stay in this area during his cārikā (sublime wandering).

The sacred cave on the south side of the Hill is mentioned as Indraśailaguhā (Indasālaguhā) in Buddhist literature. The Buddha often meditated in this cave. Once when the Buddha was staying here, Lord Sakka (Indra) visited him and asked him questions. Xuanzang told how Lord Sakka (Indra) asked the Buddha about matters relating to the forty-two doubts he had and how Lord Sakka recorded this in stone. The dialogue between the Buddha and Lord Sakka is now preserved as the Sakkapañha Sutta (the questions of Sakka).

According to Xuanzang, Buddha led the life of Bodhisattva in one of his previous births, and reigned as king of Nālandā. Out of compassion and pity for the people, he would always relieve them from their sufferings. Hence, the place Nālandā came to acquire its name, which meant ‘Insatiable in Offering.’ The site of the ancient Nālandā University was originally an Āmra garden (mango grove). Xuanzang mentioned that five hundred merchants had bought the site and offered it to the Buddha. The Buddha used to stay there during his sojourn to Nālandā.

Xuanzang’s description of Nālandā University generated much curiosity among 19th century explorers and scholars. In 1861, A. Cunningham, reached Bargaon and searched for the ancient Nālandā University on the basis of Xuanzang’s description. At the outset of the excavations, terracotta seals bearing the inscription Śrī-Nālandā-mahāvihāriya-ārya-Bhikṣu-Saṅghasya meaning ‘Venerable Community of Monks of the Great Vihāra of Honoured Nālandā’ were unearthed, confirming the discovery of the ancient Nālandā University

In 1915, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began excavating the site of the ancient Nālandā University systematically. Xuanzang and Hwui Lun (7th CE Korean monk-scholar) both write that the Gupta king, Śri-Śakrāditya (5th CE), laid the foundation of the Nālandā University. This statement is corroborated by archaeological findings. The efforts of Śri-Śakrāditya were sustained by successor kings, Buddhagupta, Tathāgatagupta, Bālāditya and Vajra. They carried out a planned expansion of the Nālandā University. To house monks and scholars, a row of monasteries was constructed, and parallel to it, a row of cetiya-s (temples) was built containing sacred traces of the Buddha for monks to offer prayers.

Despite the ruined condition of the structures excavated at Nālandā, it was possible to identify the remains as the ancient Nālandā University because they could be easily matched with Xuanzang’s descriptions. However, there was speculation about the 80 feet tall image of the Buddha, which Xuanzang described as towering over the tops of all the temples in Nālandā. According to Xuanzang, the image was commissioned by King Pūrṇavarman and was covered by a pavilion in six stages. An excavation in 1974-82 revealed the feet of a statute of the Buddha on a lotus pedestal. The size of the feet of the statue suggested that the sculpture must be about 80 feet tall.

Discovery of numerous clay seals, bronze, stucco and stone images suggests that foundries and workshops of Nālandā catered the needs of the Buddhist, Hindu and Jaina devotees and other secular institutions and rural bodies. This is further substantiated by the discovery of a brick-built smelting-furnace with burnt metal pieces and other similar objects to the north of Site 13 suggesting metal casting was carried out at Nālandā. Study suggests Nālandā functioned as a source of iconographic and stylistic influences throughout the Nepal, Burma, Chittagong, Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, etc and it had such an bearing on the development of Buddhist art in other regions that it might well be termed as an international style.

The excavated Temple No-3 is the focal point of the Ancient Nālandā Remains as it stands today. Descriptions from Hwui-Lun (7th CE Korean monk-scholar) and Xuanzang suggest that the Temple Number 3 is the site of the Mūlgandhakuṭī, the place where the Buddha spent his Vassā (a rainy season retreat). The archeological evidence suggests it to be one of the earliest structures in the campus containing seven layers of reconstruction. A brick inscription recording Pratītya Samutpadā Sūtra (dependent origination) from 516-517 CE was discovered from the fifth layer (fifth reconstruction).

More than 20 small and big water tanks surround remains of ancient Nālandā University from three sides. These ponds were created while the mud was dug out of them for making bricks to be utilized in the construction of monasteries, stūpas and temples at the University campus in more than 700 years (5th to 12th CE). Even by conservative estimate there is about 250 acres of water surface in the surrounding ponds. If we take an average depth of 8ft when they were created and divide the volume of earth removed by an average ancient brick and that would result into more than 150 million.

In the 11th century, the Turks began invading the Gangetic plain repeatedly plunging the entire region into fear and chaos. The new political climate of north India eventually brought about the demise of Buddhism in the region of Nālandā, Bodhgayā and its surroundings. Tibetan monk-scholar Dharmaswāmin risked his life to reach Nālandā in 1235-36 CE; he saw Nālandā largely deserted and damaged… it had already witnessed a series of off and on onslaughts by the Turkusha army who had established military headquarters at Odantapuri (Bihār Sharif). He maintains that the Nālandā University was attacked by the Turkusha (Turk invaders) army but still it had survived and no one to look after them, or to make offerings.

Dharmaswāmin gives detailed accounts of how monks hid in forests to escape Turkish onslaught. During his stay in Nālandā Mahāvihāra, Dharmaswāmin witnessed communities in Nālandā and around helping monks and scholars to flee from the Turks. This turbulent period continued for nearly hundred years, at the end of which, the majority of monasteries were wiped out.

With the fleeing of monks, the glorious Buddhist legacy of Nālandā and around was reduced to clusters of abandoned monasteries. The people from the surrounding villages came to populate the monasteries – consuming woods, reprocessing metallic items and using up all other resources they found within the monasteries. Monasteries soon fell into ruin and in time, all that was left of them was bricks and stones. A few temples with images of Buddhist and Hindu deities continued to be used for worship, but over the next few centuries, due to a lack of resources and patronage, these also fell into ruin and many sculptures were simply left in the open. All the oral and written traditions of the Buddha got corrupted or lost. Images of Buddha and Buddhist deities assumed new names, like the image of Buddha at Rukmanisthān is being worshiped as a local diety ‘Rukmani maiya.’

Mahā Maudgalyāyana was the second Chief Disciple of the Buddha. Like Sāriputra, he too was born into a Brāhmin family, in the village of Kolitagāma. His mother’s name was Moggalī. Xuanzang paid pilgrimage to the Ashokan stūpa marking the birth and death of Mahāmaudgalyāyana at the village Kūlika which, according to him, was a part of Nālandā University and was 8-9 Li southwest of Nālandā and 7 yojan-s from the Bodhi tree.

In 2007, based on the description provided by Xuanzang and other research studies, the Archaeological Survey of India conducted an excavation of the 10 m high mound measuring 105 x 100 m. The excavation revealed the mound to be a stūpa site from the time of the Buddha with successive reconstructions in later periods.

Among the rich antiquities unearthed in the course of excavation was a broken disc bearing two brāhmī (ancient Indian script) letters ‘MUGA’. All the findings suggest that this stūpa, located at Juafardīh, is the stūpa marking the birth and death of Mahāmaudgalyāyana as mentioned by Xuanzang.

The Buddhist tradition is full of references of many disciples and lay followers from Magadha who contributed to the Dharma and the Saṅgha. But the tradition speaks highly about the two disciples of the Buddha who because of their superior understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, were declared his Chief Disciples. One of them was Upatissa, the eldest son of a village head, a Brāhmiṇ named Vanganta. Upatissa is better remembered as Sāriputra, son of Sāri, because his mother’s name was Rūpasāri. One thousand years after Sāriputra’s parinirvāṇa, Xuanzang visited Sāriputra’s parinirvāṇa stūpa at the village Kālapinaka where he mentions paying offerings to the Ashokan stūpa marking the parinirvāṇa of Sāriputra.

Identification of Sāriputra’s village based on Faxian and Xuanzang’s descriptions has led to village Naṇand and Chaṇdimau, both in the proximity of Giriyak Hill. Our effort is to promote the whole area consisting of Chaṇdimau, Naṇand and Giriyak as Sāriputra Parinirvāṇa Zone.

Tilaḍaka monastery was built by last descendant of king Bimbisāra (6th BCE) in honor of the Buddha’s teaching and continuing them further. Xuanzang studied here under imminent scholar Pragñabhadra for two months. At the time 1000 monks studied here as the institution was an attraction for scholars from various countries.
Add new panel

The present village of Telhādā is settled over the ancient remains of Tilaḍaka monastery. Excavations of a Bulandi mound in the south west corner of the village in 2009-2014 have revealed remains of Buddhist Monastery from Kushana period (1st CE) to medieval period (11th CE).

Excavation of the Bulandi Mound, Telhādā has yielded many antiquities from 3rd BCE to 11th CE. There is an evidence of three-storied structural remains as mentioned by Xuanzang. Many stone and bronze sculptures of Buddha and Buddhist deities from Gupta period (4th to 6th CE) and medieval period (8th -11th CE) have been discovered. Among many important find is a rare discovery of a 4ft blue basalt image of Buddha in Abhayamudrā (gesture of fearlessness).

A unique find from Telhada excavation is discovery of a few sun dried clay ‘Dhwaja’ from Gupta period (4th to 6th CE). Approximately 2ft in height these clay ‘Dhwaja’ were used during prayers. The ‘Dhwaja’ depicts the Buddha with his two prominent disciple Śāriputra and Mahāmaudgalyāyana.

Approximately 2ft in height these clay ‘Dhwaja’ were used during prayers. The ‘Dhwaja’ depicts the Buddha with his two prominent disciple Śāriputra and Mahāmaudgalyāyana.

Along his last journey to attain Mahāparinirvāṇa at Kuśinagara, the Buddha made a brief stay at Pāṭaligāma, where he witnessed and blessed the transition of Pāṭaligāma into Pāṭaliputra. He told Ānanda that one day Pāṭaligāma would become the capital city of a great empire and would be named Pāṭaliputra. Xuanzang saw the Buddha’s footprint marked on a stone as he left Pāṭaliputra for the last time. At the centre of the Buddha Smṛti Udyān, Pāṭaliputra Karuṇā Stūpa built in 2010 commemorates the association of the Buddha with this historic city.

Throughout the Indian subcontinent, Xuanzang encountered many legends of Dharma intervention by King Ashoka. Ashoka facilitated the growth of Buddhist pilgrimage in every possible way and himself also went on pilgrimages to places associated with the Buddha. All Buddhist traditions mention that in the first part of his life Ashoka was a cruel king called Chanḍashoka (Ashoka, the Evil). But after coming under the influence of Buddhism, he reformed himself and became a good king called Dharmashoka (Ashoka, the Virtous). In Pāṭaliputra, the capital of Magadha under Ashoka, Xuanzang visited all the places associated with the early life and spiritual transformation of Ashoka. He also noted about Ashoka’s notorious ‘Hell Prison’ where prisoners were held and tortured.

Along his Mahāparinirvāṇa journey the Buddha made a brief stay at Pāṭaligāma. During his stay the Buddha witnessed and blessed the transition of Pāṭaligāma into Pāṭaliputra (Patnā). With his divine eye the Buddha observed that the gods themselves were taking up residence at Pāṭaligāma. He told Ānanda that someday the small village of Pāṭaligāma would become the capital city of a great empire and its name would be Pāṭaliputra.

Xuanzang mentioned the tangible connection of Pāṭaliputra with the historic, sacred Mahāparinirvāṇa journey of the Buddha. In his words,

‘When the Buddha was leaving Magadha, for the last time on his way north to Kushinagara, he stood on this stone and turned round to take a farewell look at Magadha. He left his footprint on it.’

Following his brief stay at Pāṭaligāma (Pāṭaliputra, Patnā), the Buddha crossed the Ganges the next morning to continue his Mahāparinirvāṇa journey to Kuśīnāra (Kuśīnagara). The gate by which the Buddha left Pāṭaligāma was called Gotamadvāra, and the ferry at which he crossed the river, Gotamatittha.

ASHOKAN PILLAR, KOLHUĀ A band of monkeys dug a tank at Vaiśālī, Markaṭa Hṛada (monkey-tank), for the Buddha’s use, the remains of which were revealed by excavations. One of the four miracles of the Buddha was the miracle of the monkey offering honey to the Buddha, which is associated with this place. As the story goes, a monkey took the alms-bowl from the Buddha and then climbed up a tree to gather honey. Once the bowl was filled with the sweet nectar, the monkey then offered the honey to the Buddha. As mentioned by Xuanzang, King Ashoka marked the place by erecting a pillar with lion capital.

The Licchavis built a relic stūpa over their share of the Droṇa relics (body relics of the Buddha) obtained at Kuśīnāra (Kuśīnagara) when the division was made after the Mahāparinirvāṇa of the Buddha. Xuanzang, who visited this place pointed out how King Ashoka removed nine-tenths of all of the relics previously divided among the kings and enshrined them in 84,000 stūpas across the land. Based on Xuanzang’s description, the place was excavated to discover a relic casket which contained ashes, one punch-marked coin, two glass beads, one conch and one thin small piece of gold.

Based on Xuanzang description an excavation was carried out by K.P. Jayaswal Research Institute, Patnā under Dr. A. S. Alteker during 1958-62. The place was excavated to discover a soapstone relic casket with the Buddha body relics. The excavation also revealed that the Relic Stūpa was enlarged four times, last being in 2nd CE. The soapstone relic casket contained ashes, one punch-marked coin, two glass beads, one conch and one thin small piece of gold. The sacred Śarīra (body relics) of the Buddha are currently kept at the Patnā museum for devotees to pay homage.

At the time of the Buddha, Vaiśālī was the capital of Licchavis, a part of the Vajjī Republic. Vajjī was one of the 16 Māhajanapadas (great realm) that existed at the time, the importance of which was that this was the first time the world saw a republic instead of a sovereign state. The inhabitants appeared to have consisted of several confederate clans of whom the Licchavī and the Videha were dominant. The affairs of the state were managed by groups of representatives and many times even the Buddha praised their political responsibility. Xuanzang described royal precincts, around 2000 meters in circumference in the heart of the ancient Licchavis capital. Rājā Bishāl-Kā Gaḍh (remains of palace of king Bishāl) was identified by Sir Alexander Cunningham as being the royal precinct based on Xuanzang’s description.

As per the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and mentioned in Xuanzang’s travelogue, the Buddha left Vaiśālī for Kuśinagara, where he would attain his Mahāparinirvāṇa. On his last journey, the Buddha was followed by a large group of Licchavī-sons. When his followers did not honour his request for them to return home, the Buddha created a river with steep banks and a turbulent current to prevent the Licchavī-sons from continuing to follow him. Having been stopped, the Buddha took pity on the distress of the Licchavīs and gave them his alms-bowl as a memento. Subsequently, a stūpa was constructed at this site to mark this event.

Kesariyā stūpa, a huge mound by the highway, aroused much curiosity among the people. Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1861 was told by the local people that in ancient times King Bena along with his family burned himself inside the mound after his wife drowned in the nearby tank. Therefore, the Kesariyā mound was locally called ‘Rajā Bena ke deorā.’ Cunningham did a systematic survey in 1861-62 and calculated the height of this stūpa mound to be approximately 150 ft above the level of its surroundings. An earthquake in 1934 brought significant damage to the stūpa resulting in a part of the pinnacle falling down.

Kesariyā stūpa consists of eight terraces, symbolizing the Noble Eight Fold Path, the essence of the Buddhist spiritual path taught by the Buddha. Each terrace had beautiful stucco images of the Buddha in different postures. Presently, only six of the eight terraces with the pinnacle are visible. The two lowermost terraces and the Padakkṣiṇa patha (circumambulatory path) are still buried below the present surface level. The exposed part of the stūpa (six terraces and pinnacle) stands 104 ft tall and is among the tallest ancient Buddhist stūpas in the world.

The stūpa has connection with Jātaka where the Buddha in a previous life lived as a Bodhisattava named Mahādeva who was a Chakarvartīn king. Xuanzang mentions that during one of his stays here, the Buddha for sake of a large assembly of Bodhisattava, Deva-s and men recited an explanatory Jātaka of himself. In the Jātaka the Buddha explains how in one of his previous life, practicing as a Bodhisattava, he was a Chakravartin King named Mahādeva who ruled from here. Observing mark of decay hence impermanency in him Bodhisattava king Mahādeva resolved to leave/abdicate the throne and became a hermit.

The polygonal, star shaped in plan stūpa as it stands now is 80ft high, 500ft diameter across the centre and has five terraces. The terraces are raised one above the other and at the three of terraces there is a passage for circumambulation constructed not later than 2nd BCE. The lowermost circumambulation path is 32ft wide and the one above is 14ft wide.

Xuanzang has mentioned that this city (Nandangaṛh) is very old and deserted, is also supported with lots of ancient remains unique to this place reported from Nandangaṛh. A cluster of more than 25 ‘earthen barrows’ of varying size ranging from 15ft to 55ft were reported in the Nandangaṛh. Excavation suggests that these earthen structures has something to with Vedic customs, are pre-mauryan (3rd BCE) and were built by some powerful people because the vast amount earth used for making these barrows were brought from river bed of Gaṇḍak 15 miles west. Based on many Buddhist votive tablets found at one of the barrows indicated it was visited by Buddhist pilgrims till as late as 7th century CE.

Two Ashokan pillars and two mounds near the village of Rampurwā were reported in 1877. The north pillar and the south pillar were 850 ft apart, fallen, broken and buried. Both the pillars and capitals exhibit a remarkable mirror-like polish that has survived despite centuries of exposure to the elements. Both the pillars were removed from their original places and placed over one of the two stūpa mounds at the site. The lion capital is now kept at the Calcutta Museum and the bull capital adorns the Rashtrapati Bhawan, New Delhi. The north pillar has Edicts I-VI, issued by King Ashoka in his 26th regnal year. In these Edicts King Ashoka promulgated the main ethical teachings of the Buddha, expressed in what King Ashoka referred to as the Dhamma. Unfortunately the southern pillar when discovered was defaced exactly at the place where one may find inscription.

It’s not a coincidence that King Ashoka installed two huge pillars adorned with lion and bull capitals in this tract of land. Xuanzang took an arduous journey through a tract of dense forest in an eastern direction from Lumbīnī (birth place of the Buddha) to Kuśīnagara, the place where the Buddha finally attained Mahāparinirvāṇa. He paid visit to Ramāgāma relic stūpa and a couple of other places associated with the Buddha before reaching Kuśīnagara. What is striking is that the distance and direction mentioned by Xuanzang takes us to Rampurwā. At Kuśīnagara, Xuanzang saw two Ashokan Pillars in close proximity and many small and big stūpas to mark the last events associated with the Mahāparinirvāṇa. Discovery of two big ‘stūpas’ and two Ashokan Pillars (separated by 300 m) in this idyllic place needs to be carefully investigated. Excavation has also revealed that the brick floor surface of both the Pillars is more than 7 ft below the present surface buried under layers of sand and earth.

After Mahākaśyapa took Samādhi (a state of meditative consciousness) at Gurūpada, the mantle of the Saṅgha came to be placed in the hands of Ānanda. As mentioned in the Tibetan literature Ānanda miraculously created a vast island in the middle of the River Ganges to practice and spend his last days. Xuanzang mention that the King of Magadha and the King of Vaiśālī both wanted for Ānanda to attain parinirvāṇa in their territory. To persuade him, both kings with their retinue arrived simultaneously on the banks of River Ganges. Ānanda, not wishing to incur the displeasure of either party, entered into the state of parinirvāṇa in the middle of the river and his body went up in flames. The descriptions by Xuanzang indicate that the place of the parinirvāṇa of Ānanda is the river island opposite Chechar. Fatehpur village on the river island of Rāghopur opposite Chechar has some very ancient bricks discovered in recent times suggesting it to be the probable place of Ānanda’s parinirvāṇa.

Xuanzang visited the stūpa on the northern bank built by the king of Vaiśālī. An 80ft mound at Madurāpur (near Chechar) spreads across more than two acres of land and is situated very close to the northern bank of the Ganges. In all probability, this mound is the stūpa built by the King of Vaiśālī to mark the miraculous parinirvāṇa of Ānanda.

Xuanzang saw 10 monasteries in Champā kingdom. He mentions a very interesting story about the origin of the Champā city. In the beginning of Kalpa, when men were homeless savages, a goddess came down from heaven, and after bathing in Ganges became pregnant. She bore four sons, who divided the world among them, and built cities, and the first city built was Champā.
In 8th CE, King Dharmapāla established the Vikramśilā University here which became a very important seat of Tantraism. Atiśa Dipankara a distinguished monk-scholar from Vikramśilā in 11th CE went to Tibet and preached the teachings of the Buddha.

The landscape of Bihār is dotted with places associated with important events in Buddha’s life and those of his disciples. For more than fifteen hundred years, devotees from China, Japan, Korea, South East and Central Asia travelled for up to thousand miles to reach the exact places where Buddha had set foot. Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University), Nālandā is working to revive the ancient walking trails and sacred places with the help of information from Buddhist literature and accounts of Xuanzang, so that devotees can once again undertake pilgrimages on these routes and offer homage at the sacred sites.