Of the many cultural gifts India has given to the world, very few have had as lasting and as widespread an impact as that of Buddhism. The beliefs and spiritual practices based on the teachings of Gautam Buddha have given rise to the fourth-largest religion in the world, with over 500 million followers. There is much to learn from the Buddha’s life and wisdom even for non-Buddhists or the irreligious. Little wonder then that, despite the relatively low numbers of Buddhists in India, visitors from across the country and abroad make a pilgrimage every year to the many sites related to Buddha’s life and to the religion that seeks inspiration from him. And seeking inspiration from these devotees, we set out on a similar pilgrimage – following in the footsteps of Gautam Buddha.
Photo by Sameet9806975293
The only site in our journey that is not in India, Lumbini is still an essential part of the Buddha trail. According to legend, this small town in Nepal’s Rupandehi district was the place Siddhartha Gautam was born in 563 BCE. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the town is filled with beautiful temples (including the Mayadevi Temple, named after the Buddha’s mother) and monasteries.
Lumbini is a 1-hour drive away from the Indian border town of Sonauli in Uttar Pradesh, and 4 hours away from Gorakhpur railway station.
Photo by lylevincent
Bodh Gaya, Bihar
The most well known of all ancient sites related to the Buddha, this still thriving city in the southern part of Bihar is home to the breathtaking Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi Tree where Siddhartha Gautam became the Buddha after attaining enlightenment. The Bodhi Tree seen at present in the temple complex is one generation removed from the original Bodhi Tree – a sapling from the latter was used to grow the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree of Sri Lanka, from where a sapling was brought back to Bodh Gaya. The town is replete with beautiful temples and monasteries, both ancient and relatively modern, including ones built by followers from Bhutan, China, Japan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Bodh Gaya is about 12 km from the modern city of Gaya, which is a major railway station and has also got an international airport. The site is also well connected by road with Patna, which is about 130 km away.
Photo by Aleksandr Zykov
Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh
Located 13 km north-east of Varanasi, the deer park at Sarnath is the location of the first Dharma sermon by the Buddha. Known as Isipatana in Pali, the town today houses several stupas, including the impressive 128 feet high Dhamek Stupa. The Sarnath Archaeological Museum and the Bodhi Tree planted by Angarika Dharmapala are other notable places to visit. The Ashoka Pillar, which has given the national emblem of India, would be of particular interest to many Indian visitors.
The nearest railway station, Varanasi Cantt, is 6 km away, while the closest airport is the Varanasi Airport, which is 24 km from Sarnath. Regular bus and taxi services from Varanasi also ply to this major pilgrimage centre.
Photo by Bpilgrim
Shravasti, Uttar Pradesh
Shravasti was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala, and one of the largest cities around the time of Gautam Buddha, who is believed to have spent a large part of his monastic life here. The site of this ancient city lies in the Shravasti district, about 180 km from Lucknow. The walls of the old city can still be seen here. Visitors would be interested in the Angulimal stupa, Anathapindika stupa, and the Jetavana monastery near the city. New monasteries from other countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China are also worth visiting.
The closest railway stations are the small one at Balrampur (100 km) and the larger one at Gonda (124 km). Lucknow is the closest international airport, and connected by a good road.
Photo by Bpilgrim
Located about 63 km north of Patna across the mighty Ganga, Vaishali is a major historical site. Gautam Buddha is believed to have given his last sermon here before travelling to Kushinagar where he passed away. Notable Buddhist sites at this ancient metropolis include the Relic stupa, which was built by the Lichhavis to house the Buddha’s ashes; the Kutagarasala Vihara, where the Buddha used to stay most often during his many visits to Vaishali; the Coronation Tank; and the World Peace Pagoda, built by a Japanese Buddhist sect. The Archaeological Survey of India Museum is also worth visiting for the many relics of the city’s rich history housed here.
The nearest railway stations are at Hajipur (35 km) and Muzaffarpur (40 km), while the closest airport is at Patna. Bus and taxi services connect the site to all major cities close by.
Photo by Bpilgrim
Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh
Also known as Kusinara, this is the location where Gautam Buddha attained his Parinirvana. The site is located about 52 km east of Gorakhpur, and is mainly known for Parinirvana Stupa built by Ashok and expanded by the Gupta dynasty kings. The stupa houses a magnificent 6.1 m long reclining statue of the Buddha, made of red sandstone. Another colossal statue of the Buddha here is at the Matha Kuar shrine, carved out of one block of stone and representing the Bhumi Sparsh Mudra or earth touching posture. Several other stupas, ruins, temples, museums and meditation parks dot the entire town.
Regular buses and taxis ply from Gorakhpur, which is 1 hour away by road, and also the closest major railway station. Gorakhpur airport is 50 km away, but has intermittent service, while Varanasi airport is 180 km from here.
Apart from these six holy sites, the eastern Uttar Pradesh – Bihar belt is filled with locations, like Rajgir, that are important to the Buddhist religion, and offer a lot to travellers seeking some enlightenment of their own.
Featured Photo (Giant Buddha Statue at Bodh Gaya) by Andrew Moore