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Buddhist Pilgrimage (On the Footsteps of Lord Buddha)

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Lord Buddha the gentle colossus who founded the first universal religion of the world, worked and lived much of his life in Bihar though he was born in Kapilavastu, now in Nepal. Most of the major events of his life, like enlightenment and last sermon happened in Bihar. Significantly, the state’s name originated from ‘Vihara” meaning Buddhist and Jain monasteries which abounded in Bihar. (a hundred-year period in the seventh and sixth centuries Before Christ gave the Indian sub-continent two great religious teachers - the Mahavira and the Buddha.)

Though the Buddha was born as a Sakya prince in the Terai foothills of the Himalayas, Buddhism as a religion was really born in Bihar and evolved here through his preaching and the example of his gentle lifestyle of great simplicity, renunciation and empathy for everything living. The Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, under the Bodhi tree, 10 km. from Gaya, the ancient Hindu pilgrimage centre. The tree from the original sapling still stands in the temple premises. It is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage centre as Buddhism was born here.

Several centuries after the Buddha’s passing away, the Maurya emperor Ashoka (234-198 BC) contributed tremendously towards the revival, consolidation and spread of the original religion. It is the monasteries Ashoka built for the Buddhist monks and the pillars erected to commemorate innumerable historical sites associated with the Buddha’s life, mostly intact to this day, that helped scholars and pilgrims alike trace the life events and preachings of a truly extraordinary man.

The landscape now varies in great degree from that existing in the times of the Great Teacher. Forests have been replaced by fields, villages and towns; even relics have turned into ruins. But enough remains for a pilgrim to make his journey of homage worthwhile.

16 kms. south of Gaya is Bodh Gaya - where a prince became a seer. Twenty-five centuries ago, a prince of a tiny kingdom on the Indo-Nepal border, was dissatisfied with life. He wandered for many years then came to a spot in a forest where he sat under a fig tree. There, in a burst of illumination, he discovered the meaning of existence and became Lord Buddha. The place is Bodh Gaya. The Buddha’s gentle, reasonable creed was carried to other lands by Indian missionaries. So, when the many streams of Buddhism returned to Bodh Gaya, and built temples of their own, this religious town took on an eclectic international character.

Today, it is a town of temples and monasteries from all the major Buddhist areas of the world. The most important shrine, quite naturally, is the one built around the tree which, according to devotees, marks the spot where the great sage received his illumination. It is estimated to be at least 1,500 years old.

Visit the 3-storied Mahabodhi Temple and the Museum. It is perhaps still the same temple Hiuen Tsang visited in 7th century AD. The temple architecture is of the Gupta period and later ages. It has inscriptions describing visits of pilgrims from Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China between the 7th and 10th century AD. Nearest airport is Patna (181 km. away) Nearest rail station is Gaya, 11 km. away

Vaishali is very special to a Buddhist. The Buddha delivered his last sermon here at Kolhua and announced his impending “nirvana’. Some of the great incidents in his life also occurred here, like the courtesan Amrapali offering him a mango orchard and impressed by his teachings became a Bhikshu or nun. The Buddha is supposed to have visited Vaishali three times. Centuries later Fa-Hien and Hien Tsang followed the footsteps of the great Buddha. One hundred years after the Buddha’s “parinirvana’ 700 monks from all over north India assembled here to discuss the 10 points of ‘Vinaya’, the rule of conduct under dispute. Today, Vaishali is best known for this second Buddhist Council. At the excavated archaeological site of Raja Vishal Ka Garh is an ancient parliament house, which indicates that this republic flourished in the 6th century BC. The excavations have brought to light Buddha Stupa I (4th century BC) and II, built in brick with a casket containing part of the ashes of Buddha.

Other sites of historical importance include Chaumukhi Mahadeva, a lingam carved with four faces of Lord Shiva; the Bhavan Pakhar Temple, where a large number of Hindu deities are enshrined at one place and are worshipped together; Coronation Tank where the Lichhavi Kings were anointed before being crowned and the Vaishali Museum which has a small collection of regional handicrafts.

Patna (65 km. away) is the nearest airport and rail station. Can be reached from Hajipur (37 km) and Muzaffarpur (35 km) by road.

Rajgir, in Patna district was the ancient capital of the Magadha kings. The Buddha often came here to retreat at the Jivkamaravana monastery in a beautiful orchard. One of his most devoted and prosperous devotees, surgeon Jivaka also lived here. The rich merchant community here soon became the Buddha’s followers and built many structures of typical Buddhist architecture. The Buddha converted the Magadh king Bimbisara, one of his most celebrated followers at the Girdhakuta Hill, where he delivered many of his sermons as well. The Japanese have built a stupa on top of Ratnagiri hill, linked by a ropeway. After the Buddha reached “parinirvana” his followers met at the Saptaparni cave in Rajagriha, the first Buddhist Council ever held. It was here that the teachings of the Buddha were penned down for the first time. Rajgir isalso an important pilgrimage place for Hindus and Jains. Other places to be visited are Bimbisara ka jail, Jarasandha ka akhra, Venuvana, Karand tank, Maniyar math, Swamabhandar cave, Pippala cave, Viswa Shanti stupa, the famous hot water springs and ruins of an old fort.

Nearest airport Patna, 102 km. away. Connected by rail with Bakhtiarpur on the main line of the eastern railway.

Nalanda, 90 kms. from Patna, is the site of a famous Buddhist University which flourished from the 5th to the 12th century AD. In this first residential international university of the world, 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students from many eastern countries lived and studied here. Its library was said to contain over 9 million volumes. Excavations have unearthed ruins of several of the original buildings. Though the Buddha visited Nalanda several times during his lifetime, this famous centre of Buddhist learning shot to fame much later, during the 5th to the12th centuries. Hiuen Tsang stayed here in the 7th century. He had left ecstatic accounts of both the ambience and architecture of this unique university of ancient times. Harshvardhan donated a 26 mtr. High copper image of Buddha and Emperor Kumar Gupta built a college of fine arts. In 1951, an International Centre for Buddhist Studies was established in Nalanda. Nava Nalanda Vihar, 2 kms. from here is a similar insitution.

Nagarjunakonda - the ruins of a lost city

Nagarjunasagar, 150 kms. from Hyderabad, is named after the Buddhist saint Acharya Nagarjuna, one of the outstanding Buddhist teachers in the Andhra kingdom. The relics of Buddhist civilisation dating back to the 3rd century AD, that were excavated here, are carefully preserved on a picturesque island called Nagarjunakonda, situated in the centre of a man-made lake. Other excavations have unearthed the remains of an old university where scholars came from all over southern Asia, the viharas with their advanced drainage systems, the Mahachaitya, where the Buddha’s relics are believed to have once been kept, and an Aswamedha sacrificial altar as well as prehistoric finds in the form of tools from Palaeolithic and Neolithic times., superb stone carvings, old Roman coins and antiquities crafted from iron and from terracotta.

Sarnath - 10 kms. from Varanasi - The Buddha preached his first sermon to five disciples at the Deer Park here, enshrining the principals of his teaching into laws. The Dhamek Stupa marks the location of a once resplendent monastery. A large complex of ruined monasteries cover the area north of the stupas. Some of the buildings belong to the Kushan and Gupta period. The first monk communities probably settled here in the 3rd century BC. Near the Dhamek Stupa is a new monastery built by the Buddhist Mahabodhi Society. The major events of Buddha’s life are depicted here in wall paintings by a Japanese artist. Sarnath has an interesting archaeological museum which has preserved the famous Sarnath pillar whose capital forms India’s national emblem.

Amaravati, located 50 km. from Vijaywada (Andhra Pradesh) is an important Buddhist site. It was one of the four important places of Buddhist worship in the country. Over two thousand years ago, on the south bank of the river Krishna at this point stood the mahastupa, the largest stupa in the country, 36.5 m. across, and girdled by a 4.2 m. path. Built of kiln-burnt bricks and faced with marble slabs, the Mahastupa is richly adorned with carvings portraying scenes from the life of Buddha along its dome and the outer and inner sides of the railing. This stupa is known locally as `Deepaladinne’ or `Hillock of lamps’. Amravati is considered the most sacred pilgrim centre for Buddhists in South India.

Sravasti –134 kms. from Lucknow and 29 kms. from Balrampur, Sravasti, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala has the honour for sheltering Buddha for 24 rainy seasons in the Jetvana Gardens. It is where, according to legend, the Buddha confounded his critics by making them witness a miraculous million-fold self-manifestation seated on a thousand -pettaled lotus, as fire and water emanated from his body. The prophet of peace spent time here, teaching people the essence of his gentle creed. Sravasti is one of the eight most important pilgrimages of Buddhists. Excavations have also revealed two pillars raised here by Emperor Ashoka, the great Indian king who was largely responsible for spreading the word of Buddhism. The pillars which lie at the eastern gate of Jetavana, mark Ashoka’s pilgrimage to the city. This holy place also has the famous Anand Bodhi tree, an offspring of the one, said to have been planted by Buddha’s main disciple, Anand.

Kapilavastu

110 kms. from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, Kapilavastu (Piprahwa) on the Gorakhpur Gonda loop-line with Naugarh (35 kms) is the nearest railway station.

The capital city of the Sakya clan, and one of the earliest republics, it was in Kapilavastu’s opulent environs, that the holy soul of prince Siddharth (Gautam Buddha) spent his childhood. He saw sorrow and pain, disease and death. Then, finally when he saw a radiant Sadhu who had conquered all these, he decided to renounce all worldy riches and pleasures to seek truth and embark on the path of salvation. The place holds significant value for Buddhist pilgrims and has several Stupas. The archaeological ezcavations have revealed stone caskets containing relics believed to be that of Buddha’s.

Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya in the state of Bihar, reckoned as the most important Buddhist pilgrimage centre, is the place where Lord Sakyamuni (Gautam Buddha) entered into meditation after being moved by the sufferings of mankind. The giant Bodhi Tree (Peepal) that we see today is believed to have grown from the original Bodhi Tree under which, sitting on the raised platform, Prince Siddharth meditated and finally attained Nirvana. Then there is Chaukramana, the Jewel Walk, where it is believed that the Buddha strolled while in deep thought.

The magnificent Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya is an architectural amalgamation of many cultures. The temple bears the stamp of the architecture of the Gupta dynasty and subsequent ages. On the walls of the temple, one sees Buddha carved in different aspects, and in the sanctum sanctorum, a colossal Buddha, is seen touching the ground, which has mythological significance in the Buddhist lores. The temple carries inscriptions recording the visits of pilgrims from Sri Lanka, China and Myanmar in the 7th and 10th centuries A.D. Hieun Tsang, the Chinese traveller, also visited the temple in the 7th century.

Adjacent to the Mahabodhi temple is the Shaivite Monastery that has a cluster of four temples. Surrounded by enchanting greenery and marked by arcitectural marvels, these temples have several samadhis (commemorative stones) in their vicinity. Just across are a number of cells, meant for residential purposes of monks.

Not far from the Shaivite Monastery is the Jagannath Temple which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has the statue of the deity, carved in glistening black stone.

Finally, a visit to the Bodhgaya Archaeological Museum is a must for a religious art lover as it initiates one into the age of Buddha’s cenntered art forms. The Buddhist sculpture collection from 1st century B.C. to 11th century A.D. is housed here at one place. Reflected through several art forms, it is more like a treasure house of artistic expressions. Bodhgaya is 245 kms. from Varanasi and 178 kms. from Patna via Rajgir and Nalanda.

Gaya

A place of religious sanctity for Hindus, Gaya lies 12 kms. from Bodhgaya between Pretshila and Ramshila Hills and is washed by the shores of river Phalgu. Gaya has a large number of Buddhist temples also. While Buddha was doing severe penance, he became weak, tired and hungry. He rested under a tree where, he was offered food by a condemned village woman named Sujata. To everybody’s surprise Buddha accepted her offerings. Legend has it that after having consumed the food, Buddha’s countenance assumed a divine glow and he realised the supreme glow and he realised the Supreme Truth; that neither extreme self indulgence nor self mortification is ever required. What is needed is to follow the Middle Path. Sujata Sthan or Durgeswari Temple stands as a symbol commemorating this event.

In the vicinity of Bodhgaya there are several other places of tourist interest such as the Surya Temple at Deo, 20 kms. from Gaya; the Sun God Temple at Umya; the Konchiswar Maha Deva temple at Konch; Barabar Caves just 40 kms. away, the Buddhist rock-cut caves of the 3rd century B.C. at Sasaram – 123 kms. away.

Kaushambi

Kaushambi, 54 kms. from Allahabad, was visited by Buddha in the 6th and 9th years after his enlightenment. He delivered several sermons here, elevating it to a centre of learning for Buddhists. Today one can see the ruins of an Ashokan Pillar, an old fort and the Ghositaram Monastery.

The archaeological excavations here have yielded a large number of sculptures and figurines, coins, punch-marked and cast coins and terracotta sculptures which show the reverence the city was held in by the devout, in times gone by.

All these religious funds of historical and archaeological importance can be viewed at the Allahabad Museum.

Khushinagar

Kushinagar (Kushinara of Yore) is a revered place for Buddhist pilgrims, 55 kms. away from Gorakhpur. It was here that the Tathagata, the reciter of truth, breathed his last with the last words, “Behold now brethren, I exhort you, saying, decay is inherent in all component things ! Work out your salvation with diligence !” A temple dedicated to the event – the Mahaparinirvana temple today stands amidst a serene ‘sal’ grove….as if still reminiscing the great demise.

The huge statue of the Reclining Buddha, excavated in 1876 at the temple, is one of the most momentous of all sights for the devout. It was brought from Mathura by a devout monk, Haribala, during the reign of King Kumara Gupta in the 5th century AD.

The whole of Kushinagar, since the Mahaparinirvana of Gautam Buddha, was turned into a memorial site with stupas including the relic-stupa-Mukutbandhana and Gupta period Chaitayas and Viharas, built by the devout kings. The Chinese travellers Fa Hien, Hieun Tsang and T. Ising visited Kushinagar during diferent centuries and recorded a graphic account of the place which later fell to bad times due to lack of patronage. These recordings provided the vital clues for excavations done centuries later by Sir Alexander Cunningham.

The visiting sites of Kushinagar fall in three categories:

The Mahaparinirvana Temple, commemorating the place of the great decease with a reclining statue of Lord Buddha; Mata Kunwar Shrine contains a 10th century blue schist image of Buddha and Rambhar Stupa, which is supposedly the spot where Lord Buddha was cremated and his relics divided into eight equal parts.

Apart from this, a Chinese Temple, a Buddhist Temple, a Tibetan Temple and the Indo-Japan-Srilanka Buddhist Centre hold significant religious value for pilgrims.

Sanchi

Consecrated by the Kushan rulers, Sanchi occupied a unique position in the history of Buddhism. Sanchi is a serene hill crowned by a group of stupas, temples and pillars. Its expressive monuments stretch from the 3rd century to the 12th century AD and are embellished with the forms and symbols of Buddhist teachings.

Visit the Great Stupa, the oldest stone structure in India. Begun by Emperor Ashoka, the stupa was completed by his successors in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. The toranas (gateways) that surround the stupa are carved with scenes from the Buddha’s life and one of them depicts the seven incarnations of Buddha.




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