In the Footsteps of the Buddha in India

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April and May are important months for Buddhists as this is when Buddha Poornima and Vesak or Buddha day are celebrated. This year Vesak falls on May 21/22 and here is a look at some of the most important Buddhist sites in India where Buddha lived 2500 plus years ago as well as those that have been unearthed after his life. Buddha – the word itself exudes a Zen like calmness and naturally a trail that will take you through his life and times as well as much after when his teachings are practiced is fascinating. We decode it all for you to take you on a virtual, spiritual sojourn of Buddhism and all things Buddha.

The life of Buddha

Gautam Buddha was born in Lumbini, located near the Nepal-India border to a royal family in 556 B.C.E. After a completely sheltered upbringing, Siddhartha (as he was then called) accidentally discovered everything about illness and death which convinced him to give up on world pleasures. After Buddha started meditating, he attained enlightenment when he was 29 under a Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in Bihar. Said to be one the holiest Buddhism pilgrimage sites, Bodh Gaya is home to the Maha Bodhi Temple or Vishal Buddha Mandir that has a mammoth statue of the Buddha in deep meditation. King Ashoka built the first temple near Bodhi tree in the 3rd century BC and has been rebuilt over the centuries. In fact this is the place where Siddhartha, the restless became Buddha, the enlightened and hence it is most revered. Located about 100 km away from Bihar’s capital Patna, Bodhgaya has several monasteries built by foreign Buddhist centres and the Bodhi or peepal tree on a big platform is believed to be an off shoot of the actual tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. The Bodhi Sarovar here is believed to be the pond where Buddha bathed before he began meditating for enlightenment. It is also said that the Durgeshwari Cave Temples located about 12 km away is the place where Buddha meditated for a long time during his enlightenment period. The Chaukramama or the Jewel Walk here is the place where Buddha used to come walking. The Barabar Caves, a collection of four caves, Karan Chaupar, Lomas Rishi, Sudama and Visva Zopri are the oldest rock cut caves in India built in the 3rd century B.C. 24 km from Bodh Gaya and has inscriptions and elaborate sculptures.

Sarnath, about 12 km from Varanasi is another important site in Buddha’s life as this is the place where he gave his first sermon to five of his disciples, post his enlightenment. Taking center stage here is the magnificent stupa built by King Ashoka in the 3rd century BC.  The Chaukhandi Stupa was also constructed during Ashoka’s reign and the Dhamek Stupa, a conical structure which is the place where Buddha delivered his Four Noble Truths, Mulagandha Kuti Vihar and Sarnath Museum are other must see attractions here. In fact when you walk along the ruins of Sarnath, it will surely take you back to another era. Nalanda and Rajgir are home to renowned a monastic university and is also believed to be the place where Buddha preached. In fact this is the location where Buddha’s chief disciples, Sariputra (known for his greater intelligence) and Maudgalyayana (known for the power of miracles) were converted to Buddhism.

Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh is the city where Buddha lived for the longest period of time and preached for close to 24 years. It has several ancient stupas and temples that dot the town and the major Buddhist attraction here is Sahet where Budhha is believed to have stayed. Sravasti is a revered site because it is believed to be the place where Buddha performed several miracles. Legend has it that when Buddha threw the seed of a mango, a great mango tree instantly arose from the same spot and another story is when Buddha stood in the air with his lower body in flames, there were hundreds of jets of water streaming from his upper body. Sankasia located 47 kms from Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh is the place when Buddha descended from Tushita Heaven. It is believed that when Buddha was 41, he went to Tushita Heaven to teach Dharma to his mother and to date this is the only Buddhist pilgrimage where there are no temples or monasteries but you can still see the ruins. The other important site is at Kushinagar, in Uttar Pradesh, the place where Buddha attained Parinirvana or the highest stage of salvation after he passed away. The Parinirvana Stupa here has a 6.1-meter-long, monolith red sandstone reclining statue of Buddha that represents the dying Buddha and the Ramabhar Stupa here is said to be the place where Buddha was cremated.

After the Buddha

After the life and times of Buddha (he lived till he was 80), Buddhism spread throughout the country. Many of his relics have been unearthed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) across the country and monasteries propagating his teachings have also been built. These sites are spread across Andhra Pradesh, North East, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana.

The rock cut temples that have been cut into the cliff at Ajanta near Aurangabad in Maharashtra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Said to have been built between the 2nd and 6th century BC, the paintings and sculptures are an ode to Buddhist religious At Ellora, 100 km away from Ajanta the first 12 caves are all Buddhist caves and are monasteries with prayer halls. The caves are large and have living and sleeping rooms, kitchens and other rooms and many have statues of the Buddha. Caves 11 and 12 here are the Mahayana monastery caves belonging to the Vajrayana school of Buddhism. Other notable Buddhist sites in Maharashtra are the Aurangabad Caves, Bedse Caves near Pune, Bhaja Caves near Lonavala, Pitalkhora Caves near the Satamala hills of the Western Ghats, the  Ghorawadi or Ghorawdeshwar Caves near Pune, Jogeshwari Caves off the Western Express Highway, a fine examples of Mahayana Buddhist, Kanheri Caves within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, Karla Caves  near Lonavala, Mahakali Caves in Andheri, Mumbai and the Pandavleni Caves near Nashik an example of the Hinayana Buddhist architecture.

Likewise in Andhra Pradesh there are several Buddhist monuments and history especially around Vijayawada and Vishakapatnam. Amaravati is home to the Great Buddhist Stupa one of the largest in India and has Buddhist settlement relics. About 99 low mounds with remnants of Buddhist Stupas at Gudiwada near Vijaywada and Chandavaram in Guntur district is also an ancient Buddhist heritage site here. Bhattiprolu also in Guntur district is known for its ancient Buddha stupa called as Chinna Lanja Dibba or Vikramarka Kota Dibba. Excavations have unearthed the Mahachaitya Stupa and a crystal relic casket apart from Buddha’s images. Ghantasala town in Krishna district has Buddhist monastic establishments and Adurru near Ghantasala is home to a Mahastupa. Near Vishakhapatnam, Sankaram has ancient relics of rock stupas and Bojjannakonda has rock carvings on the façade of the caves. Another Buddhist heritage site Bavikonda Hill has seen excavations that have unearthed structures that show that the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana branches of Buddhism flourished here. Bojjannakonda near Vishakhapatnam is another 2000 year old Buddhist site that has a rock cut Buddha statue. Located on the top of the Mangamaripeta Hill, Thotlakonda nearby has a Hinayana monastery, Mahastupa, votive stupas, Brahmi inscriptions, sculpted panels and a serene statue of  Buddha in a meditative pose. Buddhist excavations at Salihundam near Srikakulam have revealed a large number of Buddhist stupas and a huge monastery complex. Nagarjunakonda also known as Sriparvata is a restored Buddhist site 145 km from Guntur and is home to a stunning monolithic statue of Buddha. Nelakondapalle in Khammam district, Phanigiri village and Lingalametta are other Buddhist sites.

Orrisa which was part of Kalinga when King Ashoka decided to convert to Buddhism has the Shanti Stupa at Dhauli Hills a testament to this important decision. Incidentally, the Buddhist text Anguttara Nikaya says that Lord Buddha’s first disciples, Tapusa and Bhallika were from Ukkala, Kalinga. The Padmasambhava Mahavihara monastery at Chandragiri in Orissa is home to the largest Buddhist monastery in South Asia. Ratnagiri located 100 km from Bhubaneswar has unearthed Buddhist shrines, votive stupas, large monasteries and a big stupa and also has an ASI Museum. Udayagiri located close by is has a bell-shaped stupa an indication that the Vajrajana sect of Buddhism was followed here. 12 km from Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri has one of the earliest Buddhist complexes from the 1st century AD and has a huge brick monastery and the excavated images show various forms of Buddhist art. Orrisa also has the a prominent Buddhist seat of learning at Langudi hill where the ruins of a brick stupa and monastery still exist.

Buddhism in Himachal Pradesh is centered at Mcleodganj, Dharamsala that has earned thw sobriquet ‘Little Lhasa’ due to the large population of Tibetans and the monastery here is Dalai Lama’s home in India. The Tabo Monastery in Tabo village of Spiti Valley also has a monastery dating back to the 10th century. The Key Monastery in Lahaul, Guru Ghantal Monastery in Lahaul, Dhankar Monastery 25 km from Kaza Namgyal Monastery in Dharamshala and Kardang Gompain Kardang village in Lahaul Valley are other places of Buddhist significance. Buddhism influence is also seen in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir and the stunningly beautiful monasteries here are Shey, Hemis, Spituk, Alchi, Phyang, Thiksey Monastery, Diskit Monastery, Lamayuru, and Rangdum. Incidentally Ladakh is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism that follows the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools and the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in Ladakh is the premier institute to study Buddhism in Ladakh. The Hemis Monastery in Ladakh, is known for the copper statue of Buddha and has sacred thangkas, gold and silver stupas, murals and many artefacts. The annual Hemis festival in honour of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche who was instrumental to bring Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century happens here in early June.

In North East India, The Rumtek Buddhist Monastery is the largest one in Sikkim and the monks here follow the Karma Kagyu lineage. Sikkim is a popular Buddhist destination and has close to 200 monasteries that belong to the Nyingma and Kagyu order. Among the popular monasteries here are Pemayangtse, Sanga Chelling Enchey, Labrang, Tashiding, Phensang, Phodang, Pal Zurmang Kagyud, Tsuk-La-Khang, Ralong and Dubdi. The Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, the largest monastery in India built in the 17th century is also called as Galden Namgey Lhatse that translates to ‘celestial paradise in a clear night’. The Buddha Temple at Polo Ground in Shillong is also among the oldest Buddha shrines here.

Buddhism Now

In a bid to promote Buddhism and the sites associated with the Buddha, the Government’s tourism ministry is in talks for billions of dollars of funding with the Japanese government as well as the World Bank to develop and promote the Buddhist Circuit and trails in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Incidentally, the Buddhist Circuit is a key pilgrimage destination for 450 million practicing Buddhists and the ministry will also move towards promoting other Buddhist sites in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The Indian Railways also has a special tourist train, The Mahaparinirvan Express that takes passengers through the Buddhist pilgrimage sites of Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Varanasi, Sarnath, Lumbini, Kushinagar and Sravasti in an 8 Night/9 Days tour that starts at Delhi. So if you want to heed the call of the Buddha, simply hop on to the train and tread on the path the Buddha did 2500 years ago on the Buddhist trail. Well, if you thought you had your fill of Buddhism, there is more to discover and as Buddha himself said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.”

Stupa Story

There are several Buddhist stupa’s in India which are hemispherical structures that are places of meditation and house Buddhist relics, India has several of these at:

  • Sanchi Stupa, Madhya Pradesh
  • Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath
  • Chaukhandi Stupa, Sarnath
  • Amaravati Stupa, Andhra Pradesh
  • Shanti Stupa, Leh

Save the Date

The Buddhist calendar has many important dates that mainly mark the monthly full moon or Poornima. The Buddhist New Year is celebrated from the first full moon day in April for three days. Vesak or Buddha Day celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha and is usually on the first full moon day in May. Magha Puja Day happens on the full moon day of March and commemorates an important event that occurred early in the Buddha’s teaching life when four of his chief disciples assembled to meet him. The Asalha Puja Day or Dhamma Day that happen son the full moon day in July marks Buddha’s first teaching and the the turning of the wheel of the Dhamma. Uposatha or Observance Day happens  four times a month on the new moon, full moon and quarter moon days. Abhidhamma Day marks the day when the Buddha went to Tushita Heaven and is celebrated on the full moon day in October.

Upcoming Buddhist Holidays

  • May 29, 2018 Vesak – Buddha Day
  • Jul 13, 2018 – Obon
  • Jul 27, 2018 Asala – Dharma Day
  • Dec 08, 2018 Bodhi Day

This story appeared in the May 2018 issue of Discover India here: Buddhist Circuits

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