Rajgir: Isigili, Sonbhandar Caves

On Friday, 18 December 2009, as I was walking along Fraser Road, Patna from the Internet cafe back to Hotel President after my last posting, I stopped by a small shop to buy razors, batteries and biscuits. While in the shop a 31 year old Indian man asked me about my background and what I am doing etc. After a short conversation, he asked me to teach him meditation so I gave him a quick overview of the Mahasi Sayadaw method of Buddhist vipassana (insight) meditation. He and the shop owner were very happy to meet me and listen to the instructions. I hope they benefit.

The next morning, Saturday, 19 December 2009, I went by cycle rickshaw to the Patna Junction train station and bought a train ticket for the trip to Rajgir. It was unreserved and only cost 38 rupees. I found a seat no problem because the train was originating in Patna. It became quite full along the way with many people crammed onto seats. The other passengers gave me plenty of room and I had interesting conversations with some young men in the same compartment as myself. I counselled one young man aged 23 about his plans for the future involving a girlfriend and his attempts to get ahead financially.

All my interactions with Indian people are teaching me a lot about culture and my own limitations. Many times I wished I could speak Hindi/Urdu.

At the last stage of the 4 hour train journey, some young students advised me that the train was unable to go all the way to Rajgir and had to end the route at Nalanda, about 12 km north of Rajgir. So I got off the train with the students at Nalanda and walked about 500 metres to the road to wait for one of the frequent local buses to Rajgir. The other option was a tonga (single horse driven cart) with many passengers. Several buses stopped and what seemed to be three times the buses capacity, crammed on board. Even the roof rack was full of young men. Eventually, one eager bus conductor grabbed my backpack and stowed it into the boot of his bus and insisted that I push my way through to the front of the bus and sit next to the driver, almost on top of the gear stick. The fare was only 6 rupees. Many more stops later, we arrived at Rajgir. I then rode a cycle rickshaw to Hotel Siddarth, Venuvan park (Veluvana) and the hot springs.

I checked many rooms from 2500 per night and settled on 450 per night for a twin bed room with no AC and no hot water. A room with hot water would have cost 800 or 900 (can’t remember). I imagined I could go over to the hot springs for my evening bath. It turned out to be very crowded at the hot springs even at 8-9pm when it was quite cool walking around and I didn’t go in the water. There were many locals and a lot of Bhutanese and Burmese pilgrims bathing noisily at the hot springs. So I had a cold water bath from a bucket. The hotel wouldn’t give me a bucket of hot water either. The assistant manager was very kind though, he walked with me to the hot springs and encouraged me to bathe even though it was crowded.

On Sunday, 20 December 2009, I had breakfast and then hired a driver, Mr Bhima Chowdrey, with tonga to take me to Sona Hill (previously known as Isigili – Gullet of the Seers). It was relaxing to sit cross legged on the tonga and experience a slower more leisurely pace.

ABOVE: Mr Bhima Chowdrey and his tonga outside the Hotel Siddarth, Rajgir, Bihar, India

From the narrow pass between Udaya Hill (east side) and Sona Hill (west side) we climbed up the base of the hill and walked along the top of a reconstructed wall upwards and westwards.


ABOVE:  We passed many goats grazing beside the wall (looking west-north-west) on Sona Hill, near Rajgir, Bihar, India.

ABOVE: A view looking west along a section of the wall on Sona Hill, near Rajgir, Bihar, India that has not been recently repaired. It is narrower than the recently repaired wall on the lower part of the slope

ABOVE: A view looking east along the wall on Sona Hill, near Rajgir, Bihar, India. The nearer section has not been recently repaired and the further section has been repaired. The view also shows the wall on Udaya Hill 

ABOVE: A view looking north east from Sona Hill, near Rajgir, Bihar, India. The lower slope of Udaya Hill may be seen on the right of the photo. The road from Gaya to Rajgir is also visible. The vehicle in the photo is passing the bridge over the small stream

ABOVE: A close-up view of a part of the recently repaired wall on Sona Hill, near Rajgir, Bihar, India

After walking about 500 metres or more up the slope on top of the wall, to the north I could see into a gully between two more ridges that looked like a desperate sort of place that might be a “gullet of seers”.

ABOVE: A view looking north from Sona Hill, near Rajgir, Bihar, India toward an interesting gully. An old section of wall is just visible on the right side (east) of the gully.

ABOVE: A view looking north from Sona Hill, near Rajgir, Bihar, India toward an interesting gully. An old section of wall is just visible on the right side (east) of the gully.

ABOVE: A view looking west at the lower slope of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. A small red Hindu shrine is visible at the base of the recently repaired wall. 

ABOVE: A view looking north at base of the recently repaired wall on the lower slope of Udaya Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India 

ABOVE: A view looking south west at Sona Hill from the lower slope of Udaya Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. A Hindu shrine is just visible behind the tree on the left side of the photo. The bridge over the stream is outside the frame on the right.

Mr Bhima and I went down to our starting point and then I explored the small stream heading southwards between the Sona Hill and Udaya Hill. There was a car wreck in the middle of the stream and a lot of rubbish and algae.

ABOVE: A view looking west from under the road bridge located between Sona Hill and Udaya Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India

Then I walked westwards along the southern base of Sona Hill towards the mysterious gully I had noticed earlier.

ABOVE: Another view looking west at the lower slope of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. This photo is taken from a location close to the road bridge between Sona Hill and Udaya Hill

ABOVE: Another view looking south west at the lower slope of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. This photo is taken from a location close to the road bridge between Sona Hill and Udaya Hill

ABOVE: A view looking west at the lower slope of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India


ABOVE: A view looking north along a section of wall that has not been recently repaired on a hill north of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. This wall leads northwards on the eastern side of the interesting gully mentioned earlier in this blog

  
ABOVE: A view looking west along a section of wall that has not been recently repaired on a hill north of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. The dry stream that runs along the base of the north side of Sona Hill is visible on the left of the wall

I intended to walk into it much like the more than 500 Paccekkhabuddha (non-teaching Buddha, unlike our Gotama Buddha who was a Samasambuddha) had done in the Isigili Sutta. However, Mr Bhima forbade me to walk into the gully because there were bees or wasps there that would attack us.

ABOVE: A closer view looking north into the interesting gully near a hill north of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India, mentioned earlier in this blog  

Instead I climbed another wall, one that had not been reconstructed or had very little recent repair. I could look into the gully and took a few photos of gully and surrounding landscape. It is a beautiful place. I would really like to visit it again.

ABOVE: A view looking south along the wall located on the eastern side of the interesting gully near a hill north of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India, mentioned earlier in this blog. Mr Chowdrey is visible walking along the wall towards the camera. A dry stream is just visible in the photo at the base of Sona Hill in the background.  

ABOVE: A view looking north along a section of wall (right side of photo) that has not been recently repaired on a hill north of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. The interesting gully is between the rock formations in the centre of the photo

 

ABOVE: Another closer view looking north west from the eastern side hill above the interesting gully near a hill north of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India, mentioned earlier in this blog  

I could not see the famous Kaalasilaa – black rock. Maybe it has been destroyed by nature or removed by humans since the time of Lord Buddha. Maybe I just needed to explore more… As I was about to return to the tonga, 15-20 local women came walking up the hill. Mr Bhima told me they were going to collect sticks. I didn’t take photos of them.

ABOVE: A view looking north west from further north on the eastern side hill toward a different gully near a hill north of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India  

ABOVE: Michael Kalyaano near a section of wall that has not been recently repaired on the eastern side of a hill north of Sona Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India  

After returning to the tonga, we went to the village just south of the narrow pass between Udaya Hill and Sona Hill. Mr Bhima had some chai and a smoke. I didn’t drink the chai because it had a burnt smell.

ABOVE: A view of the road leading toward Rajgir that goes between Sona Hill and Udaya Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. The photo was taken 2m from the road side cafe where Mr Bhima drank chai. There is a village behind the camera view   

ABOVE: A view of the road leading away from Rajgir that goes between Sona Hill and Udaya Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India. There is a village behind the gate in the centre of the photo

Going northwards through the pass, we briefly stopped at a stupa which Mr Bhima told me was an old Buddhist university. It appeared to have rooms for monks and larger rooms for meetings though overall it isn’t very large. There were no official signs on site indicating what the site represented.

ABOVE: A view of a stupa (or ruined building?) north of the valley between Sona Hill and Udaya Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India.There were no signs indicating the significance of this site. The sign in the photo is a warning not to damage the building

We continued northwards back along the route we had taken to get to Sona Hill.  We stopped briefly to look at the ancient chariot tracks in solid rock. One story to explain the tracks is that they were made in ancient times by the frequent passage of carts and chariots through this area. Mr Bhima explained that locals believed the tracks were made by Ajuna’s chariot driven by Krishna and that other dents in the nearby rocks were made by Bhima (also from the Mahabharata) as he fought with an opponent.

ABOVE: A view of ancient chariot tracks in solid rock north of the valley between Sona Hill and Udaya Hill, Rajgir, Bihar, India

We continued further about 2-3km then turned left on the road to Sonbhandar Caves at the base of Vaibhara Hill. In Middle Land Middle Way, Ven. Dhammika wrote that two caves were carved for the use of Jain Ascetics. However, Mr Bhima and the local guide explained that in fact the caves were used by Buddhist ascetics.

ABOVE: A view looking west at the Sonbhandar caves near Rajgir, Bihar, India. The walls and roof of the cave on the right (north) have collapsed

Most of the carvings in the caves appear to be Buddhist.

ABOVE: A Buddhist carving on a wall in one of the Sonbhandar caves near Rajgir, Bihar, India. The Dhamma wheel is visible in the lower centre of the photo. The photo is not very clear

ABOVE: A Buddhist carving on a wall inside the northmost of the Sonbhandar caves near Rajgir, Bihar, India. The Dhamma wheel and lions are visible lower section of the photo
ABOVE: A badly damaged Buddhist carving on a wall inside the northmost of the Sonbhandar caves near Rajgir, Bihar, India. The Dhamma wheel and lions are visible lower section of the photo. Perhaps the tree at the top of the photo represents the Bodhi tree


ABOVE: A badly damaged Buddhist or Jain carving on a wall in one of the Sonbhandar caves near Rajgir, Bihar, India

The local guide was emphatic that the caves were created for the use of Buddhist ascetics. He also claimed that there is an ancient 3 mile tunnel connecting the southern most cave with the Sattapana cave.

He pointed to creases in the rock which formed the shape of a door way. At the very top of this crease, at the apex of the “door”, was an indent. The guide explained that the British had placed a cannon outside the window of the cave and fired at this crease in an attempt to open the door. They could only dent the rock. These stories may or may not be true.

ABOVE: A dent at the top of a “doorway” located on the inside wall of the southern-most Sonbhandar cave near Rajgir, Bihar, India 

ABOVE: Another view of the dent at the top of a “doorway” located on the inside wall of the southern-most Sonbhandar cave near Rajgir, Bihar, India. This image shows more of the door shaped cracks. This crack on the left side is not complete and becomes smooth.

ABOVE: Post holes located outside the Sonbhandar caves near Rajgir, Bihar, India. These holes would have held up a roof and veranda outside the caves. I speculate there was a platform or wooden building above (no other sources to verify)

I asked him some questions about the Sattapana cave being rather small to hold a meeting of 500 monks for the First Buddhist Council. He said that it was much larger in the past but was damaged in an earthquake in 1934 (and possibly many earlier earthquakes?). He repeated his assertion about the tunnel linking Sattapana Cave and the southern Sonbhandar Cave.

I also asked the guide about Sona Hill, Isigili, and he recommended not walking along the wall or around the area because local people might be dangerous. I mentioned that I had already been there this morning and he was surprised. Mr Bhima then spoke with the guide in Hindi.

While taking some photos before leaving a 60 year old well-dressed Indian man escorted by 3 younger men suggested that the carvings were of Jain origin. I pointed to the top-knot, Dhamma wheel and lions which all indicated these were images of Lord Buddha. He then spoke loudly in a kind of monologue about the loss of Indian culture and one day India will be a slave again… I tried to leave gracefully… He told me he was a district judge for Bihar state.

Back on the Tonga and northwards to Rajgir for lunch at the Green Hotel and then into the Rajgir town to the only known Internet cafe. Unfortunately it was not working, either the connection would drop or the computer would freeze up.

I was exhausted from all the climbing and after a bucket bath, I had a 2 hour nap. Then I read more Patisambhidamagga (The Path of Discrimination) translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli. This is an excellent book though possibly only interesting for scholars and Buddhists who have been intensely studying other Theravada Buddhist texts.

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One thought on “Rajgir: Isigili, Sonbhandar Caves

  1. Thank you for your pics of the hills. I visited Rajgir in early 2004. I was fascinated by this place, so serene and meaningful, especially the significance of Isigili Hill. I too wanted to wander off into the hills but my guide warned me of the risk from local people who might not be knid to outsiders. These pics of yours made me content. I was reliving the past as I too was spellbound by the cartwheel tracks. Well done.

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