Saturday, July 5, 2008

Travel: India's Buddhist Circuit

Some Journeys are made for sensual gratification, others purely for internal peace. Negotiating "the Buddhist Circuit" falls in the latter category. A journey through the austere stupas and the ancient monasteries reverberating with the mystical chants of sacred Buddhist mantras, will instantly transport you to a time 2,500 years back in history, when a prince renounced all worldly pleasures to turn into an ascetic, five centuries before the birth of Christ.

The story is so old that every point on the Buddhist Circuit has a history steeped in myth and meaning; every monument stands testimony to faith fused into reality, as centuries passed and people lost bits of their oral heritage. In Sanskrit the word "Bodh" means knowledge, Buddha thus means "One who has attained all knowledge," or one in whom their is no conflict, no suffering--in short, one who has mastered himself. The Japanese might call him a Zen master. If you are looking for the same "Buddha" in you, the main sites of interest would be:
  • Lumbini : (present day Nepal) the birthplace of Lord Buddha.
  • Bodh Gaya : (neighboring state, Bihar) Where he attained enlightenment.
  • Sarnath : Where he held his first public discourse.
  • Kushinagar : Where he attained mahaparinirvana (final nirvana).
  • Kapilavastu : Where Prince Siddhartha grew up as a child.
  • Kosambi : Where Buddha delivered many important sermons.
  • Sankisa : Where he descended after addressing his mother in Tavatimsa Heaven.
  • Shravasti : His favorite monsoon resort.
Lumbini (Nepal)
Immensely overwhelmed by the roadmap of Lord Buddha's life, the believers have an undying urge for pilgrimage to the birthplace of Lord Buddha, i.e. Lumbini. Being just 27 km. away and conveniently connected by road from Sonauli-in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India is obviously "The Gateway to Lumbini."
On the full-moon day of May, the year 623 B.C. at the Lumbini Park, near Kapilavastu, a noble Prince was born. He was named Siddhartha Gautam, meaning "wish fulfilled." An Ashokan Pillar, built in 249 B.C., marks the exact spot where Buddha was born and right next to it stands the pool in which he performed ablutions.
Fa-Hien mentioned this site several hundred years later in his travelogues but was unfortunately not able to locate it. Faded from public memory, the original site got lost somewhere in the deep forest. It was located again in 1980, almost 1,500 years after Fa-Hien's visit and traced to a small village in Nepal. Rudiments of a broken Ashokan Pillar, an old monastery, statues of Buddha's mother maya Devi, etc. all helped in establishing the true identity of Lumbini.On the south of this temple lies the bathing pool, Puskarni, where the Queen is believed to have taken a bath before the delivery. A nepalese Buddhist temple was built sometime in 1956, followed by a Tibetan monastery of the Sakya order in 1975, which has a beautiful shrine, adorned with the traditional Buddhist Murals. One can spot young monks studying Buddha's teachings at this Shrine in their attempt to preserve some vestiges of the lost Tibetan traditions.
Having Pilgrimaged to Lumbini. the birthplace of Lord Buddha, the devotees reach nearby Kapilavastu (93 km.) only to get lost in a world altogether different. Once the capital city of the mightly Sakya clan, it was in Kapilavastu's opulent environs that prince Siddharth (later Lord Buddha) spent most of his early childhood. Kapilavastu was the seat of kind Suddhodhana, the father of the Enlightened One. The site has been excavated betwen 1971 and 1977 and identified with the present day township of Piprahwa. One and a half kilometer away from Piprahwa lie the two excavated mounds. The bigger one, with a thick walled structure was supposedly Suddhodhana's palace. The Second is identified as the ruins of Piprahwa Stupa, erected by Sakya rulers. While excavating this site an inscribed seal was discovered, which read "Om Devaputra Vihare Kapilavastu Bhikkhu Sanghas" (this is the Devaputra Monastery of the Kapilavastu Monastic Communities). There also lies a small Sri Lankan monastery, the Mahindra Mahavihara in the vicinity of these ruins. Meandering their way through Kapilavastu, the devotes feel transferred thousands of years back to an era when young Prince Siddharth having sen the pains of life, renounced all worldly riches and pleasures in search of the path which leads to cessation of suffering and salvation for which he proceeded to Bodhgaya, now in Bihar.
Bodhgaya (Bihar)
Set on the banks of river Niranjana, Bodhgaya is held as one of the most sacred places for the Buddhists. Here, under the Bodhi (Peepal) Tree (Tree of Awakening) prince Siddharth attained supreme knowledge and became Buddha, or the "Enlightened One" on the full moon day of Vaisakha, 623 B.C. A Peepal (aka Bodhi) tree still stands there, marked by a raised platform, although this one is believed to be the offspring of the original tree under which the Buddha meditated. The River Niranjana in which the Buddha bathed after attaining enlightenment, flows quietly besides the tiny hamlet. Then there is Chaukramana, or the Jewel Walk, where Buddha is believed to go for strolls and the magnificent Maha Bodhi Temple, which is an architectural amalgamation of many cultures. The temple houses a mammoth statue of Buddha.
After his edification Lord Buddha himself chose Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh, for deliverance of his first historic sermon. He choose Sarnath, then known as "Rishipattan," due to its immediacy to the world renowned city of Kashi or Varanasi, the then hub of scholarly and cultural activities. Being about 240 km. from Bodhgaya and there being no means of transportation in those days, did not deter Buddha from proceeding to Sarnath.About 10 km. from the holy city of Varanasi, Sarnath is the place where more than 2,500 years ago Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. The five disciples who followed him there were surprised to see the mesmerising, glowing countenance of Buddha, who was now ready to address his disciples. This moment in history is known as Dharamachakra Pravartan, which set the Sangha tradition. An imposing conical structure, 34 meters in height, called Dhamekh stupa signifies the "seat of the holy Buddha." There are also the ruins of Dharmarajika Stupa, besides the original Mulgandhakuti Temple, which according to Hieun Tsang was about 61 mtr. high. That's the place where Buddha rested and meditated in Sarnath. After converting to Buddhism, Emperor Ashoka visited Sarnath in 273-232 B.C. and erected a smooth glistening stone pillar here, to mark the foundation of the Buddhist Sangha. The Lion Capital on top of this pillar is now India's National Emblem. Then there is the Chaukhandi Stupa, which was a terraced temple during the Gupta period (4th to 6th century) but later in 1588 A.D., Govardhan, the son of Raja Todarmal, built an octagonal tower to commemorate the visit of Humayaun, the Mughal emperor. His descendant Akbar, finally raised the present stupa in 1555 A.D. All three stupas-- Dharmarajika, Chaukhandi, and Dhamek--are outstanding in their architectural features. A journey to Sarnath would be incomplete without a visit to the library at Mula Gandha Kuti Vihara, which houses some amazing frescoes done by Koset Nosu. The Sarnath Museum, not far from the site, also houses some of the finest specimens of Buddhist sculpture.
After attaining Enlightenment Lord Buddha was constantly mobile spreading his message of humanity, Universal brotherhood and salvation amongst the different segments of the society. This service to humanity would stop for a brief period in the monsoons. This period too, however, would be used by Lord Buddha to meditate and preach, on choosing an ambient place. It was during this process that Lord Buddha turned towards Shravasti, 134km. from Lucknow. During Buddha's time, Shravasti was one of the big towns in the entire Indo-gangetic plan and the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala. The town played host to Lord Buddha for 27 years and was his annual rainy season retreat. Believed to be founded by the mythological king Sravast (hence names after him), the site holds ruins of many ancient Stupas, majestic monasteries and beautiful temples. This place also has an Ananda Bodhi tree, an offspring of the original bodhi tree, planted by Buddha's main disciple Ananda.
This site of Mahet is spread over an area of 400 acres. The two main attractions here are the Pakki Kuti and the Kachchi Kuti while Sahet, spread over an area of 32 acres and a little distance away from Mahet, it was here that Anathpindak, a wealthy merchant, constructed the Jetavana Vihar. The remants of several temples, Stupas and Viharas have been found here. Like wise the huge World Peace Bell is another attraction, which was established with the help of the Japanese. The motive was to convey the message of humanity of Lord Buddha through the bell's toll. There are also the Thai-Sri Lankan-Myanmar-Chinese-Korean Buddhist Temples, the Shobhnath Temple, Swarna Gandha Kuti, the Ananda Bodhi Tree and the Angulimal Cave here.
Sankisa is identified with the present village of Basantpur in Farrukhabad district of Uttar Pradesh. Situated on the banks of river Kali, Sankisa is most easily accessible from agra which is 175 km away on the Agra-Mainpuri road. The nearest railhead is pakhna which is 11.5 km away. Sankisa is the place where the Buddha descended from heaven along with Lord Brahma and Devraj Indra after giving a discourse to his mother, Mayadevi. Emperor Ashoka erected a pillar here with an elephant capital to mark this holy spot.
In his bid to spread his message Lord Buddha also visited Kaushambi, 60km. frin Allahabad, counted one amongst the most prosperous cities of those times. It was the Capital city of the then Vatsa Janpada, with Udayan as the king. This place is believed to have ben visited by Lord Buddha in the 6th and 9th year after attaining enlightenment. He delivered several sermons here, elevating it to a centre of higher learning for the Buddhists. Excavations have revealed ruins of an Ashokan Pillar, an old fort and the Ghositaram Monastery, besides a huge number of sculptures and figurines, cast coins and terracotta, objects.
A small, dusty hamlet in eastern U.P., the Buddha is believed to have breathed his last amidst the pastoral surrounding of Kushinagar. Earlier known as Kusinara, Kushinagar lies 53 km west of Gorakhpur. The place is venerated as the site of the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana (his death) under a sal tree at the age of 80, on a full moon day. The exact spot is marked by the cremation Stupa-the Rambhar Stupa. Legend has it that after cremation, Buddha's ashes were divided into eight equal parts and distributed among his eight disciples who later built these stupas in his memory. This is also the place, where Tathagata, or "the speaker of truth" breathed his 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 this event-the Mahaparinirvana temple, stands amidst a serene grove of sal trees. The huge statue of the reclining Buddha, excavated in 1876 at the temple site, presents one of the most stunning sights for the devout. It is believed to have ben installed here by a monk, Haribala, who ferried it from Mathura, during the reign of King Kumar Gupta in 5th Century A.D.
There are stupas all over Kushinagar, including the relic stupa-Mukutbandhana and the Chaitayas and Viharas built by royal patrons in the Gupta period. It was several years later that Chinese travellers Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang and I. Tsing visited Kushinagar and gave a graphic account of the place, which by the had fallen to bad times. The existing historical sites at Kushinagar can be divided into three Categories:the Mahaparinirvana Temple, which houses the statue of the reclining Buddha, the Mata Kunwar Shrine, which houses a 10th Century blue schist image of Buddha, and the Rambhar Stupa, which is supposed to be the spot where Lord Buddha was cremated. For a long time Kushinagar remained lost in the jungles till the British rediscovered it in 1880. Most of the religious structures were constructed between 3rd century BC and the 5th century AD. Extensive excavations have revealed the presence of a large community of monks living in Kushinagar as late as 11th Century A.D., While it was an important centre of learning during the reign of the mauryan Emperor Ashoka.
A small temple built on the Buddha's last resting place, in front of a sal grove, which too has now ben restored. The best feature of Khushinagar is that it's ben a meeting point of various nationalities and culture. On one side stands a former Chinese temple, which has been converted into an international meditation centre. Next to it stands a large Burmese temple. Then there is a small Tibetan monastery with stupas constructed in distinct Tibetan style. Blessed with a tropical climate, much tourist flock to Kushinagar during Buddha Purnima to celebrate the birthday of Lord Buddha.
It goes without saying that Uttar Pradesh is a virtual theatre where different aspects of Lord Buddha's life are elaborated for the fortunate to see and experience. So it is clear that what a devout can perceive of the entire life of Lord Buddha in Uttar Pradesh, cannot be replicated anywhere else. The fragrance of the Lord still lingers in Uttar Pradesh. It's only a question of visit to experience it.

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