Journeying The Sacred Sites Of Bihar With Ancient Chinese Monks

Explore the holy sites in Bihar by following the footsteps of Chinese monks from centuries ago
Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya
Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya

Home to two of the world's oldest civilisations, India and China once shared a surprisingly cordial relationship deeply steeped in history, although the frostiness of the modern times would suggest otherwise. The two Asian giants, buffered by the vastness of Tibet, were extensive trade partners. India's influence on its powerful neighbour, though, isn't limited to just that. Buddhism, which flourished in India during the Mauryan Empire, profoundly changed Chinese culture after arriving in the first century AD. 

The Siddhartha-Gautama-founded-faith saw a surge in its followers when Ashoka took to the throne of the Mauryan Dynasty. However, Chinese monks made trips to India well before Buddhism even hit its peak in the subcontinent nation. Fa-Hsien (Faxian) was the first of the lot to make this tiresome journey, following the Silk Route into India in search of sacred Buddhist text to bring back to his homeland. At the ripe age of 65, he took on his foot from Central China travelling through Shenshen, Dunhuang, crossing the Himalayas into Gandhara. Renowned for his visit to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, Fa-Hsien witnessed the ruins of Pataliputra, modern-day Patna. The six-year endeavour came to an end as he carried back with him Buddhist texts, later writing a book on the Magadha Empire and the prospering of Buddhism through the state. 

His voyage would go on to become a blueprint for many Chinese monks whose desire to learn more about their faith would bring them to the Buddha's homeland. Centuries after Fa-Hsien, Xuanzang and a set of Chinese monks took it upon themselves to complete the set of incomplete Buddhist texts that were doing rounds in China. Having crossed the Himayalas, the monks would travel eastwards crossing Varanasi and Sarnath and into Vaishali. Closely associated with the Buddha, Vaishali is believed to be the city where the Buddha received his spiritual training. The Kutagarasala Vihara, a monastery where the Buddha frequently visited, is a popular site for followers of Buddhism today. The Relic Stupa, known as the Ananda Stupa, contains one of the eight portions of the Master's Relics, objects of Buddha leftover after his cremation. 

Xuanzhang and the rest of his group traversed across to Pataliputra, modern-day Patna, where the legendary Magadha and Mauryan Empires ruled from. The ruins of the once prosperous city lie in Kumhrar, a location within Patna. The site includes structures dating back to the 600 BCE, while others were from a thousand years later. The monuments reflect the architecture and the transformation of faith during the reigns Ajatshatru, Chandragupta, and Ashoka.  

The Chinese native would next travel to one of the most sacred Buddhist locations in the world, Bodh Gaya. A holy destination for Hindus and Jains as well, the Vishnupad Temple is a popular spot. However, it is the Mahabodhi Temple, containing the bodhi tree and the Vajrasana, which is flooded by Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. Bodh Gaya is also believed to be the city where Buddha himself attained enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree. Xuanzhang and Fa-Hsien speak with high regards of the city in their diaries recording their journeys. The Sujata Stupa, a tribute to the milkmaid Sujata who is said to have fed Lord Buddha milk and rice while he sat under the tree meditating ending his 6-year long fast in the process. 

By far the most critical pit-stop on Xuanzhang and Fa-Hsien's pilgrimage was Nalanda. A bustling city at the time when Buddhism flourished across the face of India, Nalanda was the site of one of the greatest ancient universities in the world. Xuanzhang would spend at least the next two years here learning under the guidance of Shilabhadra and bestowed upon his Chinese student the name Mokshadeva. Sadly though, the university which was once brimming with students lies in ruins with plans to restore it in the process. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nalanda is fascinating and flooded with monasteries and temples. Xuanzhang notes in his travel the specific focus on the Mahayana brand of Buddhism at the ancient education institution. The influences of Nalanda were as far-reaching as Indonesia, as evidenced by a monastery standing in the confines built by the King of the Shailendra Dynasty ruling over the island nation.

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