Friday, 6 April 2018
G for Girivraja
The mythical connection
Girivraja was an ancient city with its origins clearly defined in Indian mythology. In the Valmiki Ramayan, Bal-khand, Sargas 2 and 31 to 33, while roaming in exile, Lord Ram asks Rishi Vishwamitra about the place where they were presently visiting. Rishi Vishwamitra replies that they were at a city called Girivraja, near the banks of the Son River, and goes on to relate how the city came into existence.
In the Somavansha (Lunar dynasty) line of kings, even much before the Ramayana period, in Aryavarta there lived a popular king called Kusa, who directed his four sons, Kushamba, Kushanabha, Asurtaraja and Vasu each to build a city in his kingdom and govern. Kushamba built the city Kaushambi which was named after him, Kushanabha built Mahodaya and Asurtaraja built Dharmaranya while the youngest son Vasu built Girivraja near the Son River. As the location of the city was surrounded by hills and was a verdant landscape, he called it ‘Girivraja’ - the place of the hills.
Girivraja flourished under Vasu’s descendant Brihadratha and was the capital of his kingdom Magadha. Girivraja again finds mention in the Mahabharata as the resplendent imperial city of the King of Magadha, Jarasandha. In fact, during the time of the Mahabharata, Magadh is often referred to as the most powerful kingdom in Aryavarta, even stronger than the territories ruled over by the Kurus and the Panchals. The enmity between Krishna and Jarasandha is almost a folk-lore and it is said that Jarasandha of Magadh had attacked Krishna’s city Mathura eighteen times, until finally the Yadavas decided to migrate from there and set up their new kingdom in Dwarka.
Jarasandha allied with Duryodhana and supported his claim to the Hastinapur throne. As per popular folk-lore, Krishna, Arjuna and Bhima are said to have entered Jarasandha’s capital Girivraja in disguise and in an ensuing wrestling combat Bhima killed Jarasandha in an unfair contest. Later the Pandava brothers placed Jarasandha’s son on the throne of Girivraja and he died fighting for the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war.
Girivraja during the time of Lord Buddha
During the time of the Buddha (450 BC), Magadha was a flourishing kingdom under King Bimbisara, who ruled from Girivraja. However, by that time, the name of the city had been changed from Girivraja to Rajagriha (meaning ‘house of the royals’). Rajagriha was a decorated city and the grandeur was one to behold. Gautama Siddhartha, the heir prince of the Lichchavi kingdom (north of Magadh and modern day Nepal) came wandering to Magadh, having visited many other kingdoms. It was in the kingdom of Magadh, at a site near Gaya that Siddhartha attained enlightenment (the site famously known as Bodh Gaya) and became the Buddha. King Bimbisara was among the countless who were influenced by the Buddha and started propagating the new religion.
However, Bimbisara’s son Ajatashatru turned out to be a cruel and ruthless monarch. He usurped the throne from his father and imprisoned him, keeping him in captivity in Rajagriha till the end of his life. In a significant development, Ajatashatru moved the capital of Magadh from Rajagriha to the newly found city of Pataliputra (modern day Patna). It was destined for Pataliputra to rise and shine for generations ahead to be the imperial and glorious capital of, first, the Magadh kingdom and then the Mauryan Empire, while Rajagriha continued to play the second fiddle.
A religious and cultural learning centre
Rajagriha may have had lost the race in imperial glory with the capital being shifted to Pataliputra, but the city soon became an important and popular seat of religious-cultural learning under the Mauryas. In the 5th Century BC, the Nalanda Mahavihara (university) was established in its vicinity and its flourish saw the advent of new methods of learning. Religious discourses across classical Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism prevailed in the university and the medium of language was primarily Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit. Emperor Ashoka was one of its principal patrons.
With the waning of the erstwhile Takshashila mahavihara in the North-western part of India at that time, Nalanda continued to attract scholars from all over Aryavarta and also from other countries. Later Vikramshila and Tamralipta mahaviharas were set up on the same model. After the Mauryas, Nalanda mahavihara flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Kings in the 5th and 6th Centuries AD and later under King Harsha of Kannauj. We get excellent references and information about Rajagriha and Nalanda from the accounts of the Chinese monks Hieuen Tsang and Fa Hien, both of whom had stayed and studied there.
The Nalanda mahavihara continued to function till about 1200 AD, when it was completely destroyed in the attacks by the invading Muslim armies of the Slave Dynasty of Qutbuddin Aibak, during the invasion of Bengal led by a Turkic general Bakhtiyar Khilji. Rajagriha and Nalanda were both ransacked, looted and damaged to a large extent during the battles raged by Khilji in the region. While Nalanda was abandoned and deserted soon after the annexation of the region by the Delhi Sultanate, Rajagriha lived on as a town but was relegated into insignificance.
It was sometime during the rule of the different Turkic and Islamic rulers after 1300 AD, that the name of the city was adapted to the more colloquial Rajgir, from the erstwhile Rajagriha. Even during the British Raj, Rajgir was an important city of the Bihar-Bengal province and was well populated.
Today, Rajgir stands as an important centre on the religious circuit for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike and is also a popular tourist destination in Bihar. The Nalanda mahavihara ruins have also been excavated by the Archaeological Society of India and are preserved as testimony to its once glorious heritage.
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