Prior to the Buddha’s passing away into final nirvana (pari-nirvana), his beloved attendant, Venerable Ananda, expressed concern as to how the Buddha’s disciples would pay respect to him following his death. The Buddha responded:
There are four places, Ananda, that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. What are the four? ‘Here the Tathagata [the one who has gone beyond all transitory phenomena] was born.’ ‘Here the Tathagata became fully enlightened.’ ‘Here the Tathagata set in motion the wheel of the dhamma.’ ‘Here the Tathagata passed away into the state of nibbana in which no element of clinging remains!’ And the monk, the nun, the layman or laywoman who has faith should visit these places. And whoever, Ananda, should die on such a pilgrimage with his heart established in faith, at the breaking up of the body after death will be reborn in a realm of heavenly happiness. (Digha Nikaya 16.5)
These words have inspired multitudes throughout the centuries to visit the sites of the Buddha’s life. For practitioners, devotion (saddha) that develops from a deep understanding of the dharma and a heartfelt appreciation of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha is not blind faith but rather a key factor in the “balance of faculties” necessary for final liberation. For many, especially practitioners in Buddhist Asia, pilgrimage to the four sacred sites in India and Nepal represents the realization of a lifelong dream to honor the triple gem of Buddha, dharma, and sangha.
Almost all the important sites related to the Buddha’s life are in the ancient Middle Land (Majjhimadesa), which the Buddha crossed on foot many times during his 45-year teaching career. Nowadays, this area constitutes the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as well as southern Nepal. (The name “Bihar” is derived from the Pali word vihara, which refers to the Buddhist monasteries that once dotted the region.)
About two hundred years after the Buddha’s passing, the Indian Mauryan emperor Ashoka (Pali, Asoka) expended great effort to preserve the Buddha’s teachings as well as the pilgrimage sites, erecting identifying pillars at the sites that have helped subsequent generations of pilgrims. Beginning around 12 C.E., however, the Buddhist sites in India ceased to be active as the dharma disappeared from its land of origin. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, in consequence of the interest and dedication of a few British Orientalists (foremost among them the archaeologist Alexander Cunningham), that the sites were “rediscovered” and reopened. Subsequently, the Sri Lankan Buddhist activist Anagarika Dharmapala, together with many Sri Lankan and Burmese monks and laypeople, helped restore and revive Bodhgaya and Sarnath as well as other complexes, making it possible for people to visit them again. Thousands of pilgrims now flock to the Buddhist sacred sites every year between December and March.
Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini, in present-day southern Nepal. What is considered the exact location of the birth is identified by a stone slab in the inner sanctum of the Maya Devi Temple, named after Siddhartha’s mother. Above the stone slab is a damaged sculpture of Queen Maya Devi holding the branch of a sala tree after giving birth to Prince Siddhartha, who stands erect on a lotus pedestal. The oldest monument at Lumbini is the Ashoka Pillar, which marks it as the birthplace of the Buddha. A little south of the pillar is the spring-fed rectangular Puskarni pond, where Maya Devi is believed to have bathed before giving birth. The Sacred Garden, developed in recent years, lies beyond the Maya Devi compound and hosts some 40 monasteries from Asian Buddhist nations. At the end of a beautiful canal- and tree-lined avenue is the majestic World Peace Pagoda (Vishwa Shanti Stupa), built by the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order. Today, the Lumbini Sacred Garden is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a symbol of world peace.
Bodhgaya, the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site, is where Siddhartha Gautama attained full enlightenment after sitting and meditating under the Bodhi tree (ficus religiosa) for 49 days. The primary points of homage here are the Bodhi tree (the current tree is a descendant of the original tree); the Vajrasana, or “diamond seat,” under the tree; and the Mahabodhi Temple, whose 52-meter spire rises up to the skies. The diamond seat, the oldest monument at Bodhgaya, is believed to have been erected by Ashoka to mark the spot where the Buddha gained ultimate liberation. The Mahabodhi Temple Compound includes a number of other shrines where the Buddha spent seven weeks immediately following his experience of nirvana.
Bodhgaya, now a World Heritage Site and a thriving tourist center, draws devotees from all over the world, who meditate, chant, offer flowers and incense, do prostrations, and engage in their respective rituals with great devotion and concentration. For many, sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, where the Buddha himself sat, is a profound spiritual experience.
Here the Buddha delivered his first discourse, the Dhammacakka Pavattana Sutta (Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion), which explains the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path. It was also in Sarnath that the Buddha appointed his first group of disciples (sangha) to propagate his new teaching. Among the most notable monuments at Sarnath are the Dhamek Stupa, originally built by Ashoka, and the Ashoka Pillar, whose inscription points out the necessity of unity within the sangha. The ruins of various stupas and monasteries at Sarnath bear witness to of the monastic tradition that flourished here for over 1,500 years; among the new temples is the Mulaghandhakuti Vihara, built in 1922 by Anagarika Dharmapala. Today, hundreds of pilgrims visit the Vihara every evening to chant the Dhammacakka Pavattana Sutta, acknowledging with their voices the wisdom and compassion that began to emanate from Sarnath with the Buddha’s first sermon.
The Buddha passed away at the age of 80 in Kushinagar in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The important sites in Kushinagar are the Mahapari-nibbana Temple, home to a superb 1,500-year-old red sandstone statue of the reclining Buddha, and the imposing Mahaparinibbana Stupa, which was built over the spot where the Buddha is said to have passed away under twin sal trees. The Buddha’s last words at Kushinagar were these: “All compounded things are subject to decay: strive with diligence” (Vaya dhamma sankhara; appamadena sampadetha). Pilgrims to Kushinagar walk in silence around the massive reclining statue of the Buddha to pay homage to the truth of anicca (impermanence) and cultivate a deep sense of gratitude for the Buddha and his teaching.
The Buddhist sites in India and Nepal are seemingly thriving, and yet they are continually under threat from various forces. In July 2013, an explosion of ten bombs, attributed to the Indian Mujahideen, injured five people including two Buddhist monks, and damaged new structures in the Mahabodhi Temple complex in Bodhgaya. Neither India nor Nepal are Buddhist nations today, and there is not sufficient citizen support for the protection and preservation of the sites of the Buddha’s life. In contrast to the Buddhist-majority countries of Asia, many important Buddhist sites in India and Nepal (and also Indonesia) remain largely unexcavated or unrestored; some are mere mounds of earth and piles of stone and brick. Much of the Nepalese Kapilavastu, where the Buddha spent the first 29 years of his life, for instance, has not been excavated. These concerns and the protection of the sites of the Buddha’s life in India and Nepal need greater attention and support from the growing international Buddhist community.
Other Sacred Sites
Tilaurakot, in Nepal, is commonly identified as Kapilavastu, where Prince Siddhartha spent the first 29 years of his life. However, some archaeologists believe that Piprahwa, in India’s Uttar Pradesh, ten miles south of the Nepali border, is the true location of Kapilavastu.
Vaishali (Pali, Vesali) is a city of great importance in Buddhist history. Among other significant events, the Buddha admitted women into the monastic order at the Kutagarasala Vihara and delivered the famous Jewel Discourse (Ratana Sutta) to purge the city when faced with a devastating drought, famine, and plague.
The Buddha spent 25 rain retreats at Shravasti (Pali, Savatthi). Three-fourths of the Buddha’s discourses, including the well-known Lovingkindness Discourse (Karaniya Metta Sutta), were given at Jetavana Vihara here, donated by the Buddha’s great lay disciple Anathapindika.
Rajgir was the largest city in Majjhimadesa during the Buddha’s time. Among the many notable places in the area are the tranquil Vulture’s Peak (Gijjhakuta), where the Buddha meditated, and the Sattapanni Cave, where the First Council was organized after the Buddha’s passing.
The Buddha spent time in Nalanda, and his two chief disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, also came from its vicinity. Later, the acclaimed Buddhist monastic university thrived here until its destruction by invaders at the end of the 12th century. Today there is a new Nava Nalanda university as well as a beautiful memorial honoring the 7th-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), whose work was indispensable for preserving India’s Buddhist heritage.