Ara, the present headquarters of the district derives its name from the Sanskrit word ‘Aranya’, which means forest. The name also appears to have come from the Prakrit word ‘arraha’, meaning ‘the saints’. Jain literature declares this place as a strong centre of ‘Jain Arhats’. Even today, it is a strong centre of Jainism in Bihar.
According to local traditions the town had various names in ancient times such as Chakrapura, Ekachakra and Aramanagara. Ekachakra is mentioned in the Mahavamsa as one of the capital cities of India during the time of Buddha. Xuangzang, while travelling through this area, refers to the inhabitants as ‘demons of the desert’ who were converted by the Buddha. From this, Cunninggham had proposed to identify the place with the site of the stupa and lion pillar erected by Ashoka. The name Aramanagara is mentioned in a recent Jain inscription from Masarh.
A Hindu legend associates the place with the demon Bakasura of the Mahabharata, who was killed by Bhima at the spot 1.5 miles west of Arrah, represented by the modern village Bakri.
Another local derivation of the name Arrah is from ‘Ara’ or saw with which, it is said in a legend, a pious local king was cut into two pieces to fulfill the promise of a gift by the king.
Muslims derive the name from the numerous ‘sawers’ seen by them residing in the town. After his victory over the Afghans, Babar camped here at a spot which was, till recently, called Shahabad in commemoration of the event.
Aranya Devi Temple
Aranya Devi Temple is dedicated to Goddess Aranya, i.e. the presiding deity of the forests or deserts. The worship of a forest deity is quite unusual. In about 1812, Buchanan visited Ara and was told by the local Pundits that the name of the town was derived from Aranya,, i.e. a waste land or ‘forest’. It suggests that the entire area around modern Ara was once heavily forested.
Believed to be the oldest Hindu temple of the town situated just on the border of new Ara and old Ara, this monument perhaps indicates the etymological origin of Ara.
Legend has it that the five Pandavas, during their period of exile, lived with a Brahmin family at the present site of Bhaluhipur in Ara for some time. Bhim is reported to have saved the people of the area from the demon Bakasur.
Raja Mayurddhwaja of Puranic Age underwent his religious test by offering the sacrifice of his son at this temple with an aari or saw, and so according to some, Ara derived its name.
It is said that Lord Mahavira, the last Jain Tirthankar took rest for some time at this place during his wanderings. Hence, this place is called Bisram or rest. The Jains from every part of the country visit this place throughout the year. The temple contains an idol of Lord Mahavira. There are about 45 Jain temples at Ara.
Shree Jain Bala Vishram
This first Jain institution for promotion of female education in India was founded in 1921 by Pandita Chanda Baiji, aunt of late Sri Nirma Kumar Jain, at Dhanupura, 2 miles east of the town. Its teaching is based on religion and the ideals of Indian womanhood.
Situated in a compound amidst natural surroundings, the institution is in the lap of nature and has won appreciation from one and all. It has quite a few units within its campus, and they include Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, Girl’s High School, Girl’s Middle School and School of Arts and Crafts.
A 24-feet-high Manasthambha was also built by Pandita Chanda Baiji on the campus. Its pran-pratishtha, or deification function was attended by the then governor of Bihar, R R Dewakar. The Manasthambha has been dedicated to the first Jain Tirthankar, Lord Rishabha or Bhagwan Aadishwar. The foundation of this pillar temple treasures a copper plate.
Shree Bahubali Jain Mandir
This temple stands in the compound of Jain Bala Vishram. The statue is 15 feet high in a single white Jaipur marble stone. It stands over an artificial mountain amidst beautiful natural surroundings. It is a replica of the famous 57-feet-high ancient image of Bahubli Swami, the illustrious son of the first Jain Tirthankar Lord Rishabha, which is installed at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka.
Pataleshwar Mahadeva Temple
In course of digging the ground to lay the foundation of a house on his plot in Ara’s Mahajan Toli No 1, one Lakhpat Das Jain stumbled upon three idols of Lord Shiva. As they could not be removed from their position, a temple was built by him on the spot.
The idols are believed to be very old. They were probably among the many idols installed by legendary demon Banasur, once a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva.
Parshwanath Temple, Masarh
There’s a temple of Lord Parshwanath, 23rd Jain Tirthankar, at Masarh, 14km west of Ara, which is said to have been built in the 9th century. Masarh is said to be a historical place and famous for a legendary demon, Banasur, who was killed by Lord Krishna’s son, Pradyumna.
Siddhnath or Siddheshwarnath Mahadeva Temple
This is one of the oldest temples of Lord Shiva established by one Shyamgiri Baba who lived here in a hut on the bank of the Ganga.
According to the Shiva Mahapurana, Lord Rama had also offered prayers here on his way to Janakpur. Many sages, including Vishwamitra, had their ashrams in the vicinity. This was a great seat of learning and meditation. There still exists the Peepal tree where Vishwamitra is said to have performed many yagyas.
Just in front of the Siddhnath Mahadeva temple stands the Kamaleshwar Mahadeva Temple. It is believed that when Shyamgiri Baba was taking a dip in the holy Ganga beside the temple, he saw a shining living stone on a lotus petal floating on the water. He picked up the stone and installed it in the temple.
It is said that the stone started growing day by day, but Shyamgiri Baba blocked its growth with his power and covered it with metal. It is believed that in the stone, one could get a glimpse of a girl in the morning a young woman in the noon and an old person in the evening.
There are also ancient idols of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Parvati and a bell made of ashtadhatu hanging at the entrance of the temple.
It is said that there were a number of bawalis or small ponds around the temple to supply water to the people of the area and divert flood water of the River Ganga.
Newly-wed couples visit this temple to offer prayers. They also perform rituals on the bank of the lone existing pond.