Direction by road from Bhagalpur
Saturday, October 18, 2014
VIKRAMSHILA UNIVERSITY AND BUDDHIST VIHAR – BHAGALPUR, BIHAR.
Between 5th Century AD and Eleventh Century AD Buddhism flourished in Magadha, which in present day is the state of Bihar. Two great seats of Buddhist learning emerged and flourished in Bihar during this period. The first one is obviously the illustrious Nalanda University which was formed sometime during fifth century and patronized by the Gupta rulers and later by Pala Kings.
Sometime in the late 8th Century when Nalanda University somehow started losing it’s sheen, King Dharmapal had set up another site for practise and teaching of Buddhist philosophy and religion. This is known as ‘Vikramshila’ which was a great University in it’s own right as well as a Buddhist Stupa for prayer. Interestingly Vikramshila had earned it’s fame as a centre for learning and practise of ‘Vajrayana’ or Tantric Buddhism. One can find mention of this University in the writings of “Tarantha’, the Tibetan monk historian. Just like Nalanda, this was also a residential learning centre and it is estimated that In it’s heydays Vikramshila University had over one thousand students (Bhikkhus)and over hundred teachers(Acharyas).
Just like Nalanda this great University also fell before Muslim invasion led by Bakhtiyar Khilji during 1200AD. Bakhtiyar Khilji ensured complete destruction of Vikramshila along with Nalanda and obliterated the invaluable treasures, relics and books bringing an end to the flourishing Buddhism.
I had the desire to visit both the places and chance came when my official work took me to Bhagalpur which is the nearest city to Vikramshila. Situated at Antichak village, Vikramshila is about 50KM east to Bhagalpur via Kahalgaon. We hired a car from Bhagalpur and started the journey. The road continues along the bank of Ganges. The road is very scenic and I could see the vast expanse of the river on my left and on my right paddy fields in various shades of green, typical fertile Gangetic plain extended till horizon. We went past Ghogha and soon reached Kahalgaon which is famous for the thermal power plant. From Kahalgaon the road condition worsened and our progress was slow. About 15km journey from Kahalgaon there is a road leading to the left and bear signs of Vikramshila put up by Bihar tourism. We continued through the winding village road and distant hills loomed large as we continued. We had to ask for directions from local people as we could not find direction boards. This is disappointing as this is the least Bihar Tourism can do to help tourists and enthusiasts find their way to this heritage site. Finally our journey ended at the gate of the Vikramshila complex. The first extensive excavation work had stated by Patna University in 1969 and ASI took over and continued excavation and restoration between 1972 and 1982. Now this is under ASI maintenance. We bought tickets for Rs.10/- per head (There is no charge for camera) and entered the complex. This is one huge place spreading across more than 100 acres. The site is now beautifully landscaped by ASI. As we walked in, the huge structure of the monastery with it’s imposing Stupa came into our view. At the backdrop of rolling hills it looked majestic. The place till date exudes peace and perhaps that is why this place was chosen by the monks.
The main structure of the monastery is done in brick and it’s a huge square structure and like a crown the main stupa adorns the centre of this structure. The monastery about 15 meters in height, has two tiers, and accessible through a flight of stairs on the north side , which I presume was the main entrance. The main stupa, has openings on four sides which could have contained statues of Buddha but now I found all four sides sealed with brick and mortar. One can circumvent the stupa by walking on the 2nd level terrace of the monastery. The two storied main monastery, or residence for the Buddhist monks, measure about 330 metres having a series of 208 cells, 52 on each of the four sides opening into a common verandah. Both levels are in perfect geometric formation with extended terraces. This was made to accommodate the resident student monks. We could not get inside to have a closer look of the chambers meant for stay and meditation.
The walls of the monastery are decorated with terracotta plaques all around. Though the terracotta plaques had borne the brunt of time, still I could make out that they depicted various avatars of Buddha and other deities. This indicates that terracotta art also flourished during the Pala dynasty.
There are other ruins around the main monastery and stupa which probably were used as classrooms and library. There is a elaborate gateway and I could see a huge cluster of votive stupas. These are basically miniature stupas erected by the devotees for gratitude or fulfillment of his/her desire.
A large number of antiquities of different materials, unearthed from this place in the course of excavation, are displayed in the site museum but unfortunately we reached on Friday which is the day of weekly off and could not see this. Hence visitors should avoid Friday.
HOW TO REACH: Vikramshila is situated in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar and nearest rail station is Kahalgaon. One can also get down at Bhagalpur which is a bigger city and has better staying options. The nearest airport is at Patna. To see the Vikramshila site you have to hire a car from Bhagalpur as public transport is non-existent. You can also hire a car from Kahalgaon but you might not always get them. From Bhagalpur it is about 50 Kms but the road condition of last 20-25 Kms is really bad. You should have about three hours in hand to reach from Bhagalpur (Often there is nasty traffic jam at Kahalgaon bazar). It is advised you hire a big car / SUV to tackle the bad roads. Along with Vikramshila you can also visit ‘Bateshwer Sthan” which is a famous Shiva Temple nearby on the bank of Ganges. The scenery is beautiful all along with the road running along the river Ganges. You can see the brick kilns and lot of activity of the river as huge barges are bringing in stone chips from the stone quarries from nearby Rajmahal hills. The visit to Vikramshila should take about a day for a general visitor. If you are a student of history or archaeology you will go back again and again. Photographers should target morning time for best results (though you can enter only after 10AM). I reached around midday and the harsh sun was casting strong shadow on the structures, which is a photographer’s nightmare. But one word of caution DO NOT stay there after dark. The law and order situation is not at all good here and this is a totally deserted place and in the event of any untoward incident you won’t even get help. So get out before it’s dark.
Direction by road from Bhagalpur
Direction by road from Bhagalpur
WHERE TO STAY: Vikramshila site has no place to stay. You can stay at Kahalgaon which is some 15 kms away but best option will be to stay at Bhagalpur city which has better hotel options. There are hotels for all budgets and it’s best to
explore in a day trip. Kahalgaon has small hotels but my advice will be against staying at Kahalgaon.