The crucible of Buddhism, Bodhgaya was where Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment beneath a bodhi tree and became Buddha 2600 years ago. In terms of blessedness, this tiny temple town is to Buddhists what Mecca is to Muslims. Unsurprisingly, it attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world every year, who come for prayer, study and meditation.
Bihar’s busy capital sprawls out over the south bank of the Ganges, just east of the river’s confluence with three major tributaries. There’s nothing for the traveller along the river itself, and Patna only has a handful of worthwhile sights. Otherwise, it’s a chaotic, congested city that's used mostly as a transport hub, or as a base for day trips to sights in northern Bihar.
The fascinating surrounds of Rajgir are bounded by five semiarid rocky hills, each lined with ancient stone walls – vestiges of the ancient capital of Magadha. As both Buddha and Mahavira spent some serious time here, Rajgir is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists and Jains.
Set on a plateau at 700m and marginally cooler than the plains, Jharkhand’s capital, Ranchi, was the summer capital of Bihar under the British. Apart from the Jagannath Temple, there’s little of interest here for travellers, but the city acts as a gateway to Betla (Palamau) National Park, and there are numerous waterfalls you can visit in the surrounding countryside.
A quiet, yet significant Buddhist pilgrimage site, Vaishali, 55km northwest of Patna, makes a lovely rural escape from hectic Patna. The small museum is engaging, while the ruins of Kolhua are wonderfully serene. And simply walking around the surrounding villages and farmland is a treat in itself.
Betla (Palamau) National Park
Wild elephants freely roam the virgin forests of this lovely, rarely visited national park, spread over the hilly landscape of picturesque Palamau district, 140km west of Ranchi. Tiger sightings are rare, but a trip to this primeval region of Jharkhand offers a glimpse into the rich tribal heritage of the state.
Founded in the 5th century AD, Nalanda – 15km north of Rajgir – was one of the ancient world’s great universities and an important Buddhist centre of academic excellence. When Chinese scholar and traveller Xuan Zang visited sometime between 685 and 762 AD, about 10,000 monks and students lived here, studying theology, astronomy, metaphysics, medicine and philosophy.
Raxaul is a dusty, congested border town that provides passage into Nepal via a hassle-free border post. It's no place to linger, but if you must spend the night, Hotel Kaveri, on the main road leading to the border (about 1km from the border), has decent AC rooms with modern bathrooms, and very basic non-AC rooms with tap-and-bucket showers, but shared toilets.
Rising high out of the earth from where the dying Buddha donated his begging bowl, the enormous Kesariya Stupa is an enthralling example of how nature can reclaim a deserted monument. Excavated from under a grassy and wooded veil is what is thought to be the world’s tallest (38m) Buddhist stupa dating from the Pala period (200–750 AD).
About 1.5km beyond the Nalanda ruins (bear left, then right, then take the first right turn after Surya Kund pond), you’ll find the striking Nandyavarta Mahal at Kundalpur, believed by the Digambar Jain sect to be the birthplace of Lord Mahavira, the final tirthankar and founder of Jainism.
Worth visiting 30km west of Patna is Chhoti Dargah, an architecturally elegant three-storey mausoleum fronted by a large tank. The venerable Muslim saint Makhdum Shah Daulat was buried here in 1619 under a canopied tomb. As it is auspicious to be buried close to a saint, several cloth-covered graves in front of the mausoleum keep him company.