Settlement in Early Historic Ganga Plain

by Chirantani Das | 143,447 words

This page relates “The Nodal Centre on the Emergence” as it appears in the case study regarding the settlements in the Early Historic Ganga Plain made by Chirantani Das. The study examines this process in relation to Rajagriha and Varanasi (important nodal centres of the respective Mahajanapadas named Magadha and Kashi).

Part 8 - Rājagṛha: The Nodal Centre on the Emergence

Presently located at Nalanda district, Bihar, Rajgir is connected to Patna via Bakhtiyarpur both by rail and road. NH 30A links Rajgir to Patna via Bakhtiyarpur and NH 31 joins the site to Bihar Sharif. Rajgir may also be approached from Bihar sharif by Bakhtiyarpur-Bihar Light Railway. The hill girt valley, located at the end of the railway represents the ancient site of Rājagṛha, the first Magadhan capital. Its political position may be traced back from the prehistoric times. The name Rājagṛha, meaning the royal abode was the capital of the kings of Magadha described in the Viṣṇupurāṇa.[1] The Purāṇas furnished a long list of Puranic kings ruling from Rājagṛha. Vasu Uparicara was the first king, followed by Bṛhadratha, Kuśagra, Ṛṣabha, Puṣpavan, Satyahita, Jahu, Jarāsandha and Somapi.[2] According to this tradition Vasu was the founder of the city and hence it was known as Vasumatī. Of them, Jarāsandha was the most powerful and his legend was more emphatically described in Mahābhārata. For being the royal abode under these puranic kings it earns the name Rājagṛha.

The main reason for its selection as a capital site was perhaps the natural security that the valley derives from the surrounding hills. The Pali texts call it Giribajja because it is a well-guarded city encircled by five hills.[3] The Pali name Giribajja completely justifies the location of the site of Rajagriha since it is enclosed by hills on all the sides. It naturally reminds us of the Kautilyan “giridurga” or mountain fort among the naturally defended forts. It is a fort consisting of rocks and cave and it is a fort for the protectors of the country.[4] Mountain fort is of three types, namely built on the top of the mountain, at the foot of it and the one surrounded by hills.[5] Rājagṛha certainly is the last type mentioned in the text. This kind of forts was not unknown to ancient India.

The location of Rājagṛha certainly put it in a strategically advantageous position in respect to its rival. Jarāsandha subjugated many north Indian kings and kept eighty six kings captive in the valley.[6] So the valley offered this advantage whereby enemies can be hidden and captivated without evoking much resistance in response, because the site was impregnable or at least well guarded by hills. Coming down to the historical times, we see on the occasion of a Magadha-Kośala struggle, how Kośalan king posted garrisons in between two hill forts right away in the hills to block the passage and captured Ajātaśatru after the latter defeated him repeatedly. Such hill forts play a very crucial role in war and defence is proved by this real example.[7] These references showed that in the early phase of Magadhan history defence of the royal capital was the prime concern behind its selection as a capital site. The phase, when Magadha still did not embark upon a diehard imperialist campaign, rather taking preparations for such a policy, consciously chose the hill girt valley as the capital site that could defend an outside attack.

Location and identification of hills:

M. S. Pandey in his “The Historical Geography and Topography of Bihar” made a detailed survey of the five hills around Rājagṛha and other hills in the neighbourhood of the old Mgadhan capital. He tries to bring together the different names given by various texts to these five hills and to match them with their modern names. To begin with, in the Mahabharata t we find two sets of names for these same hills. Once they were called Vaibhara, Varāha, Vṛṣabha, Ṛṣigiri, and Śubhacaityaka.[8] In the same chapter they were called Pandara, Vipula, Verahaka, Caityaka and Mātaṅga–the rocky elevation (Śilocchaya)[9] In the Jaina texts too we come across almost identical names of these hills. The Jain texts too calls Rājagṛha by the name of “Giribajja” and mentions Vaihara (Vehara), Vipula (Vepulla), Isigili, Pandava and Gijjhakuta.[10] Isigili here probably stands for Ṛṣigiri as mentioned by the Mahābhārata.

Modern names of the hills are Vaibhara, Vipula, Chhata, Śaila, Udaya and Sona. It is difficult to match the hills with their ancient names. M. S. Pandey has tried to solve the problem. After considering their location and descriptions found in different sources he concluded Ṛṣigiri, Isigili and Mātaṅga are the same. He identified Pandura with Pandava. His theory is basically based on the view of D.N. Sen who identified Pandura or Pandara either with modern Vaibhara or Rathagiri. B.C. Law identifies Isigili with modern Sonagiri.[11] M.S. Pandey is sure that Śubhacaityaka and Caityaka are the same. He identifies it With Gijjhakuta of Pali literature.[12] He does not agree with Law who matches it with Udayagiri. Whatever may be their names, in ancient or modern periods what is more important is the fact that these five hills encircled the site of Rājagṛha and were collectively called the Rājagṛha hills.

Apart from the hills so far discussed in the neighbourhood of Gayā several other hills of prominence may be found, making the entire region hilly. The Purāṇas and the Pali Buddhist literature often mention the Gaya hills Some of them are Brahmayoni, Pretaśīla, Ramaśīla etc. The most important of them is however the Barabar hills.[13] There are actually two hills 16 miles to the north of Gaya, locally known as the Barabar and Nagarjuni hills. The Barabar hill is pious to the Buddhists, Jainas and Ᾱjīvikas alike, especially to the last. The Rajagriha hills and those nearby the site played a vital role in the defence and shaping the history of the place.[14]

The hills covering the area around Rājagṛha rendered an undulating contour to the region that made it impenetrable to some degree. This may also be supported by historical facts. Khāravela of Kaliṅga attacked Gorathagiri (the name is also found in the Mahabharata) has been identified as the Barabar hills lying five or six miles west from Rājagṛha. He first occupied Gorathagiri and then terrorized Rājagṛha.[15] The Barabar hill may have been used as a cantonment and a garrison might have been stationed to check any invasion from south. There are traces of fortification to substantiate the view. So Khāravela might have decided to destroy the base at Barabar first and then to move to Rājagṛha. In that case Barabar stood as a shield to face an attack and gave an extra dose of safety to the city.[16]

Other hills and caves:

Indraśaila guha or Giriyak: Fa–Hien mentions “a small solitary rocky hill, at the head or end of which there was an apartment of stone facing the south–the place where the Buddha sat, when Śakra–the ruler of the Devas, brought the Deva–musician.”Śakra asked the Buddha 42 questions.[17] This story is found in the Dīgha Nikāya and perhaps taken it from the same. It says to the east of of Rājagṛha there is a Brahmin village named Ambasanda to the north of the mount Vediya in the Indaśala cave.[18]

Identification of this hill remains a problem. Cunningham identified this with Giriyak which is to the south east of Rajagriha.[19] Cunningham’s identification is largely based on Hiuen Tsang and Fa–Hien’s accounts. Considering distances, direction and descriptions furnished by Hiuen Tsang he concluded Giriyak and Indraśailaguha are the same. Now M. S. Pandey is not satisfied with Cunningham since he depended too much on Chinese pilgrims’ accounts. They did not have modern apparatus to measure distances accurately. Secondly they wrote their accounts after returning to their own countries. There is a high probability of incorrect data in the accounts. Hence it is not wise to depend on them largely. However M. S. Pandey does not rule out the probability that Indrashailaguha and Giriyak are the same.[20] Whether Indrashailaguha is Giriyak or not, it is certain that Giriyak is a continuation of the Rājagṛha hills. Nowadays it is known as Khirikiya hills.[21] Broadley located the hill at Bihar Sharif.[22] B.C. Law on the other hand thinks that the Vipula mountain ends up at the village Giriyak on the Bihar Sharif-Nawada road.[23]

Francis Buchanan makes a close survey of the Giriyak. Zigzag structures along the hill were taken by him as roads which link Giriyak to Rājagṛha. The same route ascends to the west end where Rājagṛha is located and in the east there is Giriyak. The whole area consists of rugged hills. A road runs through the hills and a narrow passage is located between the two ridges. The topography of the whole area is very strong and well-fitted for a capital city. Adverse physical feature also inspires veneration for pilgrimage. This explains why Rājagṛha was always a favourite spot of all the religious groups.[24]

Saptaparṇī cave:

Another well-known cave at the vicinity of Rājagṛha is Saptaparṇī. It is on a side of the Vebhara mountain which derived its name from Saptaparna or Saptaparṇī creeper which stood beside it, making it out. This is the historical site where the First Buddhist Council was held.

Footnotes and references:


Manmatha Nath Dutt, Vishnupuranam, Based on Professor H.H. Wilson’s translation, Calcutta, Society for the Resuscitation of Indian Literature, 1912, p.301


Ganesh Vasudeo Tagare translated and annotated, The Bhagavata Purāṇa, chapter 22, part III, Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass, 1887, p. 1237


Friedrich Maxmüller ed. & translated from Pali by T.W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenberg, Mahavagga, First Khandaka. XXIV, Vinaya Text, Part l, Sacred Book of the East, Vol. 13, Oxford, 1881, p. 150.


R. P. Kangle,The Kauṭīlya Arthaśāstra, Vol. II An English Translation with Critical and Explanatory Notes, New Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1997, 2.3.3, p.61.


Translated from original Sanskrit by Prasanna Kumar Acharya, Architecture of the Mānasāra, Mānasāra Series IV, New Delhi, Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1980, The towns and forts, X.92-93, pp.93-98.


Dr. Ishwar Chandra Sharma and Dr. O. N. Bimali ed. and M.N. Dutt translated The Mahabharata, Vol.I, Sanskrit text with English translation, Delhi, Parimal publications, 2001, Sabha Parva, ch. 15.24, Delhi 2001, p.678


E. B. Cowell ed & translated from Pali by W. H. D. Rouse, The Jātaka or Stories of The Buddha’s Former Births, vol. ll, Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1990, no.283, Vaḍḍaki-Sukara Jātaka, p.275.


The Mahabharata, op. cit., Sabhaparva, 21.2, p.688


Ibid, p.688.


J.C. Jain, Life in Ancient India as depicted in the Jaina Canons and Commentaries, Delhi, Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1984, p. 408.


B.C.Law, Rajagriha in Ancient Literature, Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India,no.58, Delhi,Manager of Publications, 1938, p.29.


M.S. Pandey, The Historical Geography and Topography of Bihar, Motilal Banarasidass Pvt. Ltd., 1963,p.34.


Ibid, pp.40-41.


Ibid,pp. 42-46.


Hathigumpha Inscription in D.C. Sircar, Select Inscriptions Bearing on Indian History and Civilization, Calcutta, University of Calcutta, p.208


M.S. Pandey, op.cit. p.46


James Legge, A Record of Buddhistic kingdoms, Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hien of His Travels in India and Ceylon, Translated and annotated by James Legge, Oxford, 1886, pp. 80-81.


Maurice Walshe, The Long Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya, Boston, Wisdom Publications, 1995, Sakkapanha Sutta, p.321.


Aleander Cunningham, Report for the Year 1871-72, Archaeological Survey of India, Vol. lll, Delhi, 2000, originally published in 1873,pp.145-49.


Pandey, op.cit. pp.38-39.


Ibid, pp.38-40.


Jounal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol.14, issue. 1., 1948, pp.492-501, cited by M. S. Pandey op.cit., p.39.


B.C.Law, op.cit. 1938. p.3


Journal of Francis Buchanan kept during the survey of the districts Patna and Gaya in 1811-12, Patna, published by the Superintendent, Government of printing, Bihar and Orissa, 1925. p.137

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