The retracing of the Buddha’s life through the places he lived in, and visiting the sites of Buddhist art, is an unbelievably enlightening experience.
It is one of the most compelling life stories in human history. A young prince, groomed since birth to shoulder the responsibilities of his kingdom and its subjects, instead feels propelled irresistibly towards another destiny a far greater one that encompasses millions of the world’s population. Prince Siddhartha’s great journey of spiritual enlightenment, in itself among the great milestones of mankind’s history, culminated in the establishment of one of ancient India’s most significant and powerful religious movements. Subsequently, under the devoted and painstaking patronage of one of the greatest rulers of those times, Emperor Ashoka of Magadha, the religion that the prince founded travelled from the country of his birth to distant lands and drew a multitude of converts spread over a host of countries. With the Buddha’s earthly demise (mahaparinirvana), the places his life touched became revered as pilgrimage spots for devotees from around the world.
Lumbini in Nepal, his birthplace, as well as Sarnath, Bodhgaya and Kushinagar in India, which are intricately linked to the Buddha’s life, are the cornerstones of the great Buddhist pilgrimage trail but there are many other places that are in turn linked to these primary centres and have become integral to this passage of devotion. It is not just these places and the threads of their historical links with the Buddha that are deeply moving.
In addition, owing to its profound beginnings, ancient Buddhism was also a deeply inspirational fountain- head for art and architecture. It created a rich legacy of artistic and architectural work of which a percentage has fortunately survived to this day. These remnants are now carefully preserved, and can still be sampled in our times in charmingly sculpted caves, stupas, chaityas, viharas, and mahaviharas, besides a cornucopia of religious literature, sculpture and painting.
The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya in Bihar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site today, is one of the most revered pilgrimage spots for Buddhists. It is here, under the Bodhi Tree, that Prince Siddhartha was enlightened. The present tree, surrounded by small votive stupas and chaityas, is the fifth-generation descendant of the original one. Alongside (by the western pediment) stands a gilded statue of the Buddha, seated in the cross-legged, earth- touching (bhumisparsha mudra) pose; it dates from about the 10th century CE.
Facing east, the temple, which was built by Emperor Ashoka, retains the ancient railings that surrounded the shrine. The inner walls feature friezes depicting the Buddha’s life. The passage along which he meditated is known as the Chankramana Chaitya (Jewel Path). A later addition to the temple was the 57-metre tower surrounded by four shorter towers. Pilgrims pay obeisance at the Bodhi Tree, Vajrasan throne, the nimeshlocana Chaitya, the Ratnachankramana, the Ratnaghara Chaitya, the Rajayatna Tree, the Ajapala Nigrodha Tree and the Muchalinda Lake.
The temple site has spawned a host of new temples and monasteries established by devotees from Buddhist nations such as Thailand, Japan, Myanmar and Bhutan. The temple becomes a hub of festivity during the annual Buddha Jayanti celebrations in April/May and the 10-day Kalchakra ceremony presided over by the Dalai Lama.
The verdant setting of Griddhakuta Hill near Rajgir, about 70 km from Bodhgaya, was favoured by the Buddha as his monsoon retreat for 12 years. This was where he would retire with his disciples and reveal to them the precepts of his Lotus Sutra and Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (prajnaparamita). The nearby Saptaparni caves were the setting for the First Buddhist Council (after his mahaparnirvana) which was held to codify all his teachings for the first time.
The Vishwa Shanti Stupa, built by the Japanese, is accessed by a ropeway. Other points of interest include the Maradakukshi Vihara, Jivakamravna Vihara and Bimbisara’s jail ruins, the Venuvan Vihara and the ruins of the Ajatshatru Fort on the Nalanda Road.
It was at Vaishali that the Buddha preached his last sermon. Located about 60 km from Patna, it was also the venue of the Second Buddhist Council organised by devotees 110 years after the Buddha’s mahaparnirvana. It was also where, for the first time, women were ordained in the sangha. The Relic Stupa 1 here contains remains of the Buddha, enshrined by the Lichhavi princes.
The fabled residential university of Nalanda, sacked by the Turkish raider, Bakhtiyar Khalji, in 1193, was a magnet for scholars, teachers and travelers in the ancient world. The Buddha visited several times and Guru Padmasambhava, Nagarjuna, Aryadeva and Santarakshita studied here.
Set amidst the quiet enclave of the present- day village of Baragaon, 90 km from Rajgir, this monastic university has been one of the most important archaeological finds in India.
It was established in the 5th century CE and reached its zenith under Devpala in the early 9th century. Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang, who visited in the 6th and 7th centuries CE, has left glowing accounts of it. A World Heritage Site today, it covers 14 hectares (only a tenth of it has been excavated) and is home to the ruins of 11 monasteries and five temples. Standing centre stage in this great sprawl is Sariputra’s stupa.
Just 10 km from Varanasi lies the tiny Buddhist enclave of Sarnath, home to the beautiful Dhamekha Stupa, established by Emperor Ashoka along with the Ashoka Pillar with its lion finial, found here in 1904. The site marks the spot where the Buddha, after his enlightenment, gave his first sermon to his disciples. This was when he first revealed to them the core tenets of his teachings of the Dharamachakraparvartana (Turning of the Wheel of Law), powered by the four noble truths, the three jewels of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, through the eight fold passage, to attain enlightenment and inner peace.
It was at Sarnath that the Buddha founded his first sangha (disciples), comprising his five companions of earlier years, to spread the new doctrine of his dharma. Sarnath was a favored retreat to meditate—the site is marked by the Mulgandhakuti Vihara.
The Buddha’s earthly life came to a close in 543 BC at Kushinagar, near Gorakhpur. The Mahaparinirvana Temple, with its statue of the Buddha, over¬looks a placid waterbody while the Rambhar Stupa enshrines part of his mortal remains.
A favoured monsoon retreat of the Buddha for 25 years, Sravasti lies 150 km from Lucknow. It was also the venue for his only miracle. The serene Jetvana Park here is also home to the Anandabodhi Tree. Ruins of the Anandakutti and Gandhakuti mark the place where the Buddha resided. Several temples and monasteries have been established by Buddhist nations.
The most important and pro-active patron of Buddhism was Emperor Ashoka, who became a penitent convert after the bloody battle of the kingdom of Kalinga in 261 BCE. From the blood-stained plains of Dhauli to the thrilling archaeological digs of Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, Lalitgiri and Langudi, Odisha’s Buddhist past engages us. Just eight km from Bhubaneswar, Dhauli is the site of Ashoka’s rock edicts.
About 100 km away lies the sprawl of Ratnagiri-Udayagiri-Lalitgiri and the more recent archaeological sprawl of Langudi. The state government has linked these antique sites under the umbrella of the Diamond Buddhist Triangle.
This large cluster of a Buddhist settlement of yesteryear’s features two large monasteries, a great stupa, and scores of shrines, sculptures and votive stupas. Ratnagiri was a primary Buddhist learning centre from the early 6th century CE when the Gupta king, Narasimha Gupta Baladitya, reigned, till the 12th century CE. Look around and see the lavish use of kalchakra imagery set upon its votive stupas, plaques and artifacts.
According to the Tibetan treatise Pag Sam Jon Zang, Ratnagiri in the 10th century was a hub for the development of the Kalachakratantra. Scholars and archaeologists have also identified Ratnagiri as the site of Pushpagiri, the ancient Buddhist University which Hiuen Tsang (639 CE) mentions in his travelogue.
Just 90 km from Bhubaneswar, the Lalitgiri Buddhist monastic complex is a collection of ruins of a brick monastery and a great stupa. Inscriptions dating to the 2nd century CE reveal the site’s ties with the Mathura School of Kushan Buddhist Art.
The site yielded caskets with silver and gold and relics ascribed to the Buddha. A special treasure found here was a great image of the Buddha.
Another ruin of great Buddhist import is the monastic site of Udayagiri, just five km from Ratnagiri. The spread of brick ruins has revealed it as the Madhavapura Mahavihara. The complex features brick monasteries (active between the 7th and 12th centuries CE), a brick stupa, rock-cut sculptures and a step well.
Langudi hill, close by, is proving to be one of the most exciting Buddhist digs in recent times. The 34 rock-cut Buddhist stupas, two images of the Buddha and Panchadhyani Buddha, and the great rock- cut stupa with its astonishing workmanship dating to the 2nd to 3rd century CE are major finds. This Ashoka stupa is believed to be the first of its kind at a Buddhist site in the state; the site has also revealed probably the first known inscription referring to Emperor Ashoka. It is likely that it is linked to the ancient Pushpagiri University. The only two known inscribed images of Emperor Ashoka have been unearthed here.
The Buddhist site of Sanchi which had flourished till the 14th century was discovered by General Tyler only in 1818. The Great Stupa 1 that Ashoka built at Sanchi (283 BC) is the second largest in the country; the one at Amravati is the biggest. The discoveries at Sanchi are said to authenticate in the fullest manner the narrative of the most interesting portions of Ashoka’s reign.
Also uncovered at the site was the legendary Ashokan column surmounted by a finial of four sculpted lions. Several early and late Ashoka-era stupas, shrines, monasteries, decorative gateways, sculptures and bas reliefs, relic boxes and columns were part of the rich haul yielded by the Sanchi dig. Today, Sanchi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The museum here is excellent.
Located in Satna district, the great stupa at Bharhut, dating to the late Ashoka period, used to be an important pilgrimage. The stupa is noted for its splendid gateways and railing. From the site has also been recovered Ashoka-era to Sunga-period sculptures and inscriptions. Look for depictions of scenes from the Jatakas. Most of the findings at the site were transferred for their safety to the National Museum in Kolkata.
AJANTA & ELLORA
The importance of these Buddhist cave sites earned them the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Ajanta Caves, dating from 2 BCE to 460¬478 CE, were a chance discovery in the early 19th century. The 30-odd Buddhist monastic caves are a rich repository of painterly renditions of the life and times of Lord Buddha by the monks who resided here at a time when Buddhism was in its ascendancy in these parts. Ellora’s cluster of 34 caves overwhelms visitors with their cavalcade of Buddhist chaityas and viharas and superb renderings of the Buddha and his various avatars, Bodhisattvas and traditional motifs. Teen Thal or the three-storied Cave 12 is the biggest monastic enclosure at Ellora.
PITHALKHORA, BHAJA AND KARLA CAVES
Travellers are moving out to study the 1st BC to the 5th century CE rock-cut Hinayana Buddhist caves of Pithalkhora (pre-dating but a later discovery than Ajanta), about 40-odd km from Ellora. Though the provenance of the cave site is Hinayana, the paintings are inspired by Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddhist rock- cut caves of Karla and Bhaja, in the hills of Lonavla, are a primary example of early Buddhist temple art in India. At Karla cave, visitors encounter the largest Early Buddhist shrine in India, dating to 80 BCE, if not earlier. At the Bhaja site are 18 caves and 14 stupas with the earliest going back to around 200 BCE.
When the Nagarjuna Dam was built, an island by the reservoir was set aside to house some of the most important valuables of this Buddhist enclave. The isle is named after Nagarjuna (150 and 250 CE), a highly learned Buddhist monk responsible for establishing a centre of Buddhist learning in the Krishna valley. The island is a living open-air museum with stupas, viharas, chaityas and paintings, sculptures and holy relics.
The 2nd century BCE stupa here was discovered by the archaeologist, Colonel Colin Mackenzie, in 1797. Also known as Amareshwar, it was an important pilgrimage hub. It has the 95 ft Mahachaitya Stupa, the highest in India.
Dating to the 8th century, this historical site (accessed from Raipur) has yielded the remains of 100 Buddhist viharas. The monastic site, which was established by Mahashivgupt Balarjun and rose to become an important Buddhist hub between the 6th and 10th centuries, continues to throw up new finds.
Buddhism had a considerable presence in Karnataka at least two centuries before the advent of Maurya and Satvahana rule. Aihole, in Bijapur district, has, on Meguti Hill, a 5th century Mahayana Buddhist 25-ft rock-cut shrine— believed to be the oldest such surviving structure in Karnataka. The double-storied chaitya features three Buddha sculptures, with the best preserved being 61cm high.
In nearby Badami, the capital of the Chalukyas, is a 6th century Buddhist cave shrine which houses a statue of the Padmapani Buddha.
This site, along the banks of the Bhima in Gulbarga district, dates to between the first and third centuries. For some, the Amravati-like stupa found here is larger and richer in terms of artistic finesse than that at Sanchi. The site has yielded two stupas, three mounds, one fortification and many ruins from the Satvahana period also. It also features many sculptures and ruins of Buddhist origin. Bramhi inscriptions from the site point to those who gave grants for the sangharama, stupas and viharas. Four rock edicts dating to the Mauryan period are also highlights.
The archaeological dig of the monastic site at Kanaganahalli, a short distance from Sannathi, has thrown up important remnants of the Buddhist culture it represents from the first century BC to the third century. Along with the 50-odd inscriptions discovered here, there is a sculpture of Ashoka and a stone sculptured slab featuring the name, raya Ashoka. Excavations have also yielded a first century BC stupa, brick chaityas, votive stupas, Buddhapadas and sculptured panels of Jataka stories and the Buddha’s life.