India

Visiting the Four Most Important Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites

There are four hallowed sites in Buddhism that many pilgrims try to visit. These are the places where Buddha was born, where he gained Enlightenment, where he preached his first sermon and where he died.

Our journey on this pilgrimage route began last year when, in March 2016, Ollie and I visited Lumbini in Nepal, where Buddha was born. Then, during March this year, we visited the other three sites in India, as it happened, in the right order.

Lumbini

Lumbini is located in the hot Terai region of Nepal, very close to the Indian border at Sunauli. We made the journey here from Pokhara. Lumbini feels very much like an Indian town in Uttar Pradesh; the landscape is flat, brown and dusty and the food is very much an Indian affair.

This otherwise non-descript town has a very special place in history; it was here in around the year 563BC that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born. Lumbini is a World Heritage Site and attracts Buddhist pilgrims from across the globe.

The spiritual heart of Lumbini is the Maya Devi Temple, which marks the spot where Queen Maya Devi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama. The sacred pond beside the temple is believed to be where the queen bathed before giving birth to the Buddha.

The temple is surrounded by a sacred garden, which contains the Pillar of Ashoka, stupa ruins and many maroon and saffron-robed monks. The monks congregate under a sprawling Bodhi tree decorated with prayer flags.

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The Maya Devi Temple, Lumbini

Maya Devi Temple sits in the middle of the Lumbini Development Zone, a large park area that contains numerous monasteries, constructed by Buddhist communities from around the world. This theme is repeated at each of the four sites. If you have never been to Thailand and seen a Thai wat or to Myanmar and been amazed by the Burmese monasteries and glittering pagodas, then these four sites are your chance!

Ollie and I very much enjoyed cycling around Lumbini; seeing all the different styles of Buddhist temple in one place was fascinating. It was especially good to see temples from countries that we haven’t yet been to, such as Korea and Japan.

Also in Lumbini is one of the gleaming white World Peace Pagodas, which were constructed by Japanese Buddhists at locations across the world. In Lumbini the golden statue depicts Buddha in the posture he assumed when he was born, standing on a lotus leaf.

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At the World Peace Pagoda, Lumbini

Bodhgaya

From the state of Odisha, our journey took us back up to Kolkata and then to Bodhgaya, the site where Buddha attained Enlightenment beneath a Bodhi tree over 2500 years ago. In terms of spiritual significance, Bodhgaya is to Buddhists what Mecca is to Muslims.

Unsurprisingly, Bodhgaya is a busy place, teeming with pilgrims from every nearby Buddhist country. Some journey here for month-long courses whilst others come just to see the Mahabodhi Temple and to pray and experience the magical energy of such a special place.

The spiritual heart of Bodhgaya is the Mahabodhi Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that marks the hallowed ground where Buddha attained Enlightenment and conceived his philosophy of life. The complex is a wonderful, peaceful place with fathomable spiritual energy.

As we walked around the temple grounds, in an auspicious clockwise direction, we watched a sea of pilgrims dip and rise as they performed endless prostrations on specially designed prayer boards. It’s amazing to see the fervour in which they perform these ablutions.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya is a very beautiful place, set amid the Bihar countryside. When we visited at the beginning of March, the landscape was lush and green and a joy to discover. We loved exploring all the different monasteries and temples from the different Buddhist nations, whose contributions have been built in the relevant national style.

There is more than one Thai temple; two more were, in fact, under construction at the time of our visit. Also in Bodhgaya is the Great Buddha Statue, which at 25m high, is very impressive. The monument was unveiled by the Dalai Lama in 1989 and is surrounded by 10 smaller sculptures of Buddha’s disciples.

We spent three days in Bodhgaya, seeing the sights, soaking up the atmosphere and exploring the surrounding area. We also did a day trip to Rajgir and Nalanda, two more Buddhist pilgrimage destinations in Bihar state.

The Great Buddha Statue, Bodhgaya

Sarnath

Sarnath, located just outside of Varanasi, was where Buddha came to preach his message of the ‘Middle Way’ and where he gave his first famous sermon. Sarnath and Kushinagar are much smaller and quieter than Lumbini and Bodhgaya, receiving far fewer visitors.

The main sight in Sarnath are the ruins of Dhamekh Stupa and Monastery; the 34m-high stupa marks the spot where Buddha preached his first sermon. The stupa is set in a peaceful park of monastery ruins, along with the 3rd Century BC Ashoka Pillar.

Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath

As well as the various monasteries and temples from different Buddhist countries and organisations, there is also the Chaukhandi Stupa. This large ruined stupa dates back to the 5th Century AD and marks the spot where Buddha met his first disciples. Sarnath is a peaceful village that feels a world away from bustling Varanasi.

Chaukhandi Stupa, Sarnath

Kushinagar

The final place on the famous Buddhist circuit is Kushinagar, which sits not far from the Nepali border at Sunauli. To get here you will likely pass through Gorakhpur, whose railway station holds the world’s longest platform, fun fact of the day! Because of its out-of-the-way location, Kushinagar is a very quiet, untouristed town with very few accommodation options.

Few foreign tourists make it this far, except of course for Buddhist pilgrims, who often stay at their respected country’s monastery. Kushinagar is the place where Buddha died.

The Mahaparinirvana Temple contains a 6m-long 5th Century reclining Buddha that depicts Buddha on his ancient death bed. It is said to be one of the world’s most moving Buddhist icons, and we could understand why. The atmosphere beside this Buddha is more than just sombre; it felt as though we were at his funeral after his very recent passing.

The extensive grounds at this temple are beautiful, full of excavated ruins, an ancient 19m-tall stupa and a large bell that was erected by the Dalai Lama. The other sight in Kushinagar of special significance is Ramabhar Stupa, which is where Buddha’s body is said to have been cremated.

There are temples and monasteries from the various neighbouring Buddhist countries, though far fewer than at Lumbini, Bodhgaya and Sarnath. The Thai temple complex is especially beautiful, with an ornate wat, lovely manicured gardens and a monastery.

Ramabhar Stupa, Kushinagar

A pilgrimage to these four hallowed sites of Buddhism makes for a wonderful trip, no matter your religion or background. The undeniable spiritual energy at Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar is really something that must be experienced to be believed.

Furthermore, to witness the religious fervour of prostrating or praying monks leaves you in no doubt that harmony and peace do exit in the world. At these four sites peace most definitely does prevail.

Whilst you’re in Northern India, don’t miss visiting Varanasi: India’s Holiest City and Kolkata: India’s Cultural Capital!

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