HOLY SITES IN BUDDHISM
The four main holy sites of Buddhism are places associated with the most important events in the life of The Buddha: 1) Lumbini (southern Nepal), the place where The Buddha was born as Siddharta Gautma; 2) Bodh Gaya (160 miles from Varanasi, India), here tradition says Buddha attainted spiritual enlightenment; 3) Sarnath (14 kilometers from Varanasi), where, in 500 B.C. after experiencing enlightenment, Lord Buddha gave his first sermon to five skeptical followers; and 4) Kushinagar, where tradition says The Buddha, lying on a bed under two trees, died between 486-483 B.C. [Source: buddhist-tourism.com, Wikipedia]
1) Sights at Lumbini include Sanctum-Sanctorum of the Birthplace, Maya Devi Temple, Puskarni, The Ashokan Pillar, The Buddhist Temple, The China Temple, and the Japan Peace Stupa. 2) Bodhgaya is in Bihar, India. Sights there include Mahabodhi Temple, Mahabodhi Tree, The Chinese Temple Monastery, The Japanese Monastery,The Tibetan Monastery, Thai Monastery, Buddhist Monastery of Bhutan, Ratnagar and Animeshlochan Chaitya. 3) Sarnath is in Uttar Pradesh, India. The main sights there are Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath Museum, Choukhandi Stupa, Ashoka Pillar and Mulagandha Kuti Vihar. 4) Kushinagar is in Uttar Pradesh, India, : Mahaparinirvana Temple, Nirvana Stupa, Meditation Park, Mathakuar Shrine, Ramabhar Stupa, Japanese Temple, Kushinagar Museum, Japanese Garden, Myanmar Buddha Vihar, Wat Thai Temple, The Wat Thai, The Lin Sun Chinese Temple, Birla Temple, International Buddha Trust.
The other four main Buddhist pilgrimage areas are associated with miraculous events in The Buddha's life. 1) Sravasti (west of Lumbini, in India near the Nepal border) is the Place of the Twin Miracle, where The Buddha emitted flames and water from his body, and a place where Buddha spent the largest amount of time, being a major city in ancient India. The gave some famous sermons in Jetavana Grove. 2) Rajgir (near Bodh Gaya) is the Place of the second turning of the Wheel of Dharma, where The Buddha subdued Nalagiri, the angry elephant. Rajgir was also a major city in ancient India. 3) Sankassa (near Delhi) is the Place where The Buddha descended to earth from Tushita heaven and spending three months with his mother. 4) Vaishali (between Rajgir and Kushinagar) is the place where The Buddha received an offering of honey from a monkey. Vaishali was the capital of the Vajjian Republic of ancient India. The site of ancient Nalanda, the great monastic university, is also visited by pilgrims.
Other Sites associated with The Buddha and his approximate time include Amaravathi, Chandavaram, Devadaha, Gaya, Kapilavastu, Kesaria, Kosambi, Pataliputra, Pava and Varanasi. Later Sites include Ajanta Cavesm Barabar Caves, Bharhut, Ellora Caves, Lalitgiri, Mathura, Pandavleni Caves, Piprahwa Ratnagiri and Sanchi Udayagiri Vikramashila.
Pilgrimages and the Buddhist Circuit
Buddhist pilgrims make pilgrimages to important religious sites such as Buddha's birthplace, major temples and caves, sacred mountains, and stupas with important Buddhist relics inside them. Buddhist pilgrims often carry lotus blossoms, and show reverence by bowing and holding their hands together in a praying position.
According to the BBC: “Four main centers of pilgrimage sprung up within the first couple of hundred years after Buddha's death which marked key locations in the Buddha's life. Since then other centers have emerged in virtually every area where Buddhism has been established, each with its own practices and customs. The purpose of pilgrimage is to foster a spiritual discipline, to fulfil a vow or simply to travel. It is an important Buddhist practice. Pilgrimage also helps to express feelings of devotion and creates a relationship with the historical figures associated with the pilgrimage site." [Source: BBC]
On traveling on the so-called Buddhist Circuit in southern Nepal and northern India, Ralph Frammolino wrote in the New York Times: We “traveled by bus, rickshaw and foot to the four original points of the pilgrimage route, places declared sacred by the Buddha himself: where he was born; where he was enlightened; where he gave his first sermon; and where he died. Over the centuries, the itinerary, which has expanded to include other historical Buddhist sites, has drawn monarchs and monks, relic-hunters and curiosity seekers. Some travelers take a more upscale route, riding on air-conditioned trains and luxury tour buses and staying at full-service hotels. But as Buddhists living on a Peace Corps budget,” we “opted for a more authentic experience. Our goal was to travel to the original four places as the Buddha might, making our own way, leaving room for serendipity, enduring minor hardships and seeking refuge in simple monasteries...
“It is best to travel the Buddhist Circuit in the cooler months from October through February. Most people start in Sarnath, India, near Varanasi....Reservations are not necessary but suggested, especially in Bodhgaya, India, because the season is compressed, Buddhist groups have special gatherings, and monasteries often host large tour groups from their home countries. Bring your own toilet paper and towels.” [Source: Ralph Frammolino, New York Times, May 24, 2009]
“Not into monastic-style traveling? One luxury tour is the Mahaparinirvana Express, an eight-day excursion on Indian Railways (www.irctc.co.in) that includes all four original circuit stops, plus other historic Buddhist places in northern India, before ending at the Taj Mahal. The tour, originating from New Delhi, includes air-conditioned sleeper cars, meals, hotels and English-speaking guides. Tickets range from about $665 a person for a three-tier sleeper to about $1,050 for first class.”
Faxian and Places Associated with Buddha's Daily Life
Between A.D. 399 and 414, the Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-Hsien, Fa Hien) undertook a trip via Central Asia to India to study Buddhism, locate sutras and relics and obtain copies of Buddhist books that were unavailable in China at the time. He traveled from Xian in central China to the west overland on the southern Silk Road into Central Asia and described monasteries, monks and pagodas there. He then crossed over Himalayan passes into India and ventured as far south as Sri Lanka before sailing back to China on a route that took him through present-day Indonesia. His entire journey took 15 years.
Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: "The opening passage of Faxian's A Record of the Buddhist Kingdoms tells us that the procurement of texts related to monastic rules (i.e., Vinaya) was the main purpose of his trip to India. In addition to revealing the intent of his trip, the statement also underscores the need for this crucial Buddhist literature in contemporary China. In the third and fourth centuries, a number of important Buddhist texts, including the “Lotus Sutra”, had been translated into Chinese. Although a few “Vinaya” texts were available to Faxian, the growing Buddhist community in China was aware of the paucity of these texts essential for the establishment and proper functioning of monastic institutions." [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]
On his visits to Buddhist sights in India, Faxian wrote in “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “At the places where Buddha, when he was in the world, cut his hair and nails, stupas are erected; and where the three Buddhas that preceded Sakyamuni Buddha and he himself sat; where they walked, and where images of their persons were made. At all these places stupas were made, and are still existing. At the place where Sakra, Ruler of the Devas, and the king of the Brahma-loka followed Buddha down (from the Trayastrimsas heaven) they have also raised a stupa. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, gutenberg.org/ /]
“At this place the monks and nuns may be a thousand, who all receive their food from the common store, and pursue their studies, some of the mahayana and some of the hinayana. Where they live, there is a white-eared dragon, which acts the part of danapati to the community of these monks, causing abundant harvests in the country, and the enriching rains to come in season, without the occurrence of any calamities, so that the monks enjoy their repose and ease. In gratitude for its kindness, they have made for it a dragon-house, with a carpet for it to sit on, and appointed for it a diet of blessing, which they present for its nourishment. Every day they set apart three of their number to go to its house, and eat there. Whenever the summer retreat is ended, the dragon straightway changes its form, and appears as a small snake, with white spots at the side of its ears. As soon as the monks recognise it, they fill a copper vessel with cream, into which they put the creature, and then carry it round from the one who has the highest seat (at their tables) to him who has the lowest, when it appears as if saluting them. When it has been taken round, immediately it disappeared; and every year it thus comes forth once. The country is very productive, and the people are prosperous, and happy beyond comparison. When people of other countries come to it, they are exceedingly attentive to them all, and supply them with what they need. /
Bodh Gaya (260 kilometers from Varanasi, 115 kilometers south of Patna) is where tradition says Buddha attainted spiritual enlightenment. Commemorating the spot where this important event took place is the vast Mahabodhi temple complex which has been called the "Jerusalem of the Buddhist world." Here Siddhartha Gautama meditated beneath the sacred Bodhi Tree while being tempted by the demon Mara in an episode similar to Jesus's encounter with the devil on the Mount of Temptation. After casting off the demon the prince achieved enlightenment (nirvana) was transformed into Buddha — the enlightened one.
According to UNESCO: Bodh Gaya “has direct associations with the life of the Lord Buddha (566-486 BC) as the place where in 531 BC he attained the supreme and perfect insight while seated under the Bodhi Tree. It provides exceptional records for the events associated with his life and for subsequent worship, particularly since Emperor Asoka made a pilgrimage to this spot around 260 BC and built the first temple at the site of the Bodhi Tree. The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is located in the very heart of the city of Bodh Gaya. The site consists of the main temple and six sacred places within an enclosed area, and a seventh one, the Lotus Pond, just outside the enclosure to the south." [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]
When Buddhism grew and prospered after Buddha's death, great temples and monasteries were built on Bodh Gaya. These were destroyed or fell into ruins when Buddhism died out in India in the Middle Ages and the region was racked by invaders. In the 19th century the holy Buddhist sites were rediscovered by pilgrims from Sri Lanka and Burma and temples and monasteries were rebuilt and pilgrims began returning in large numbers.
Today, Bodh Gaya ebbs and flows with devotees throughout the year, yet it remains suspended in time, as monks in saffron and maroon robes walk around the monuments and temples, their chants and prayers enveloping the surroundings in a cocoon of peace. Monks with shaved heads and tourists with nunlike gowns and white mats can often be seen lighting red candles with gilded foil that amplify the light at the base of the main temple and the enclosure. Bodhgaya also holds a special significance in Hinduism; Gaya is mentioned in the great epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is also said to be the place where Lord Rama, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, came to offer pind dan (an offering to ancestors during Hindu funeral rites) for their father Dashratha. The influx of pilgrims and tourists has brought some affluence to an otherwise very poor area. The roads in and around the town are in fairly good condition. The schools are well-maintained.
Sarnath, Where Buddha Gave His First Sermon
Sarnath (14 kilometers from Varanasi) is where, in 500 B.C. after experiencing enlightenment, Lord Buddha gave his first sermon, sanctified as the Maha Dharma Chakra Pravartan Sutra. to five skeptical followers. In later sermons he revealed the eight-fold path for inner peace and nirvana. Sarnath is the second most important Buddhist site in the world after Bodh Gaya. Pilgrims from Thailand, Japan, Tibet, Europe and all over the world arrive by the busload. They chant in hushed tones and touch the fragment pillars through a low metal fence and visit the half dozen new temples and monasteries built by different Buddhist schools and sects, from Tibet, Southeast Asia and other places. Sarnath is also said to be the birthplace of the 11th Jain tirthankar (saint) and is regarded as a venerable place by the Jain community.
Sarnath was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “There are several monuments at Sarnath which are divided into two groups. Under Group 'A' Chaukhandi Stupa and under Group 'B all other .monuments at the sites i.e. Stupas, monasteries, temples, etc. Chaukhandi Stupa is a lofty brick structure crowned with an octagonal tower. The octagonal tower is a Mughal monument built by Goverdhan, the son of Raja Todarmal in A.D. 1588 to commemorate the visit of Humayun to this place. The second group which contains remains of several stupas, monasteries and Ashokan column are built in brick and stone and datable from the 3rd century B.C. to 12th century A.D., forms the major and important segment of the site. The Ashokan column Dharamrajika stupa, Dhameka stupa, the remains of the temple and a series of monasteries and votive stupas are the most important remains of the site." [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
Monks in burgundy robes at the Tibetan Monastery take care of 18,000 volumes of Buddhist texts, many of them long scrolls that were carried out of Tibet on the backs of refugees after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Many manuscripts were lost during invasion and monks are now using copy machines and other devises to translate the Tibetan-language texts back into the original Sanskrit. The monastery also contains sacred relics and frescoes by the Japanese artist, Kosetsu Nosu. Sarnath is easier to get to than Bodh Gaya. With some haggling you can get an auto-rickshaw to take you from Varanasi to Sarnarth for about $4.
Places in Sarnath
Sarnath has several structures that date back to the centuries after Buddha’s death: namely the Dhamekh Stupa, which marks the spot where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon and the Chaukhandi Stupa, where Lord Buddha met his first five disciples. Dhamek Stupa is a 34-meter-tall domed shrine that looks like a giant hump. Built during the Mauryan period and added to over the centuries, it is covered by elaborate engravings. At the site there is also a deer park, gardens, and the ruins of a monastery that once housed 1,500 monks. Near a statue of Buddha preaching to his first five disciples, people gather to listen to a monk reading Buddha's first sermon.
Dhamekh Stupa is made of bricks in solid and cylindrical shape and has a height of 43.6 meters and a diameter of 28 meters. The stupa was founded by Ashoka in 249 B.C. and rebuilt in the 5th century. It is also known as the Dharma Chakra Stupa. Chaukhandi Stupa lies 13 kilometers from Varanasi and was built like an octagonal tower between the 4th and 6th centuries during the Gupta period.
A number of countries in which Buddhism is major religion have built temples and monasteries in Sarnath in the typical architectural styles of their countries. The Thai temple is among the most popular spiritual sites and has a Buddha statue that can be spotted from Chaukhandi Stupa. One can soak in the spiritual vibes of the temple by resting and meditating in the lush garden located outside the temple. The Tibetan temple is another significant site and has a statue of Shakyamuni, a form of Lord Buddha. Outside the temple, prayer wheels are kept and on rotating them, scrolls of paper containing prayers are released. A major attraction of Sarnath is the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, which is a 100-foot-tall tower temple. It is believed to be the place where Lord Buddha stayed when he visited Sarnath. A Buddha Walk has been made here with blue stone and a small lake. The spiritual tour to Sarnath is not complete without visiting the famous Bodhi tree. It is said to be grown from a cut taken from the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. One can also visit the Sri Lankan monastery located nearby.
Ashoka Pillar of Sarnath
Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath (in its original position in Sarnath) is about 15.25 meters (50 feet) tall and weighs 50 tons and is also known as the Aśoka Column. Raised by Emperor Ashoka around 250 B.C and one of several Ashoka pillars still in existence today, it was carved out of a single block of polished sandstone. The wheel — ‘Ashoka Chakra’ — on its base sits at the center of India’s national flag. The Sarnath Pillar bears one of the edicts of Ashoka, which reads, “No one shall cause division in the order of monks.” Emperor Ashoka was a Buddhist and opposed any type of division within the Buddhist community.
Lion Capital of Ashoka (in the Sarnath Museum) is sculpture of four lions that sat on the Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath. Adopted as the national emblem of India and the greatest treasure of the Archeological Museum of Sarnath, it is 2.15 meters (7 feet) high including the base and is the most elaborate and well-preserved part of any Ashoka Pillar. The four lions sit back to back facing the four directions, symbolizing Ashoka's rule over the four directions,
The capital is carved out of a single block of polished sandstone, and was always a separate piece from the column itself. The four Asiatic Lions are mounted on an abacus with a frieze carrying sculptures in high relief of the elephant, a galloping horse, a bull, and a lion, separated by intervening chariot-wheels with 24 spokes. An inverted bell-shaped lotus forms a platform of the capital. The wheels are the symbols of Ashoka’s enlightened rule and the four animals (elephant, bull, horse, lion) symbolise four adjoining territories of India. The capital was originally crowned by a 'Wheel of Dharma' (known in India as the "Ashoka Chakra"), with 32 spokes, of which a few fragments were found on the site.
Ralph Frammolino wrote in the New York Times: “ Our passage to” Sarnath “came via second-class coach on Indian Railways, topped by a short ride in a tuk-tuk, a motorized three-wheeler. Battling a letdown, I set low expectations for this final stop of the circuit tour. But Sarnath supplied a soft landing from the intensity of Bodhgaya, adding a surprising lightness to the trip. At the Indian Archaeological Service park, groups of smiling monks took pictures of one another while families picnicked on vast manicured lawns just feet from 2,300-year-old monastery ruins. [Source: Ralph Frammolino, New York Times, May 24, 2009]
“Across the street in the Archaeological Museum, tourists listened to guides explain how the artifacts of a religion now marginalized in its birthplace continue to cast a long cultural shadow. The most striking example of enduring Buddhist influence was the pillar King Ashoka planted in Sarnath — he left around 84,000 Buddhist pillars and stupas throughout his kingdom — depicting four snarling lions, standing back-to-back with veins popping from their legs, protecting the dharma, or Buddhist teachings. The lions are now the national emblem of India; the dharmachakra wheel on the capital base is the symbol in the middle of India’s flag.
“But I spied a more interesting human tableau working its way around the Buddhist artifacts. A group of elderly Tibetans in musty clothes, clearly mistaking the galleries for a shrine, touched their heads to exhibition cases and rubbed their prayer beads over light panels and antiquities. One museum guard put up a mild protest, only to let them carry on. Sensing my amused stare, he smiled back. Then he clasped his hands in mock prayer. Message understood: You have to admire the spirit of pilgrims.
“At the Myanmar Buddhist Temple-Dhammachakka Vihara (91-542-259-5199; email@example.com) behind the archaeological park in Sarnath, rooms are available for an unspecified donation; meals are not included. In Sarnath, the Shangri-la Tibetan Restaurant (Dharmapala Road; 91-988-992-8289) serves great thukpa, as well.”
Kushinagar, Where The Buddha Died
Kushinagar (50 kilometers south of the Nepal border, 35 kilometers east of Gorakhpur and 165 kilometers northwest of Patna) is where tradition says The Buddha, lying on a bed under two trees, died between 486-483 B.C. When he died, his body was cremated, as was customary in India. Traditional accounts relate that he died at the age of eighty after ingesting a tainted piece of either mushroom or pork. His remains were distributed among groups of his followers. These holy relics were enshrined in large hemispherical burial mounds, a number of which became important pilgrimage sites. In Kushinagar there is a gilded statue that commemorates the spot where Buddha is said to have died. A brick monument has been built in a field to mark the spot where he was cremated.
Buddhanet.net reports: “In his eightieth year the Buddha and a group of monks arrived in this small place. Ananda described it as 'a wattle and daub town'. Exhausted and sick the Buddha was unable to go on and he laid down to rest between two sal trees. His final hours and the events that filled it are movingly described in the last part of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. which you will find in the Long Discourses. The Nirvana Temple and stupa later built over the site of the parinivana as well as the ruins of several monasteries are set in attractive and well maintained gardens. The tall slender trees on the right of the path as you enter are sal trees. A little further down the road is the ruins of the stupa marking the place where the Buddha's body was cremated. A new museum had recently been built in Kusinara but it has a very modest collection of exhibits.
Where Buddha Renounced the World and He Died
According to Faxian’s “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms”: “East from here four yojanas, there is the place where the heir-apparent sent back Chandaka, with his white horse; and there also a stupa was erected. Four yojanas to the east from this, (the travellers) came to the Charcoal stupa, where there is also a monastery. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, gutenberg.org/ /]
“Going on twelve yojanas, still to the east, they came to the city of Kusanagara (in Nepal near the border of India), on the north of which, between two trees, on the bank of the Nairanjana river, is the place where the World-honoured one, with his head to the north, attained to pari-nirvana (and died). There also are the places where Subhadra, the last (of his converts), attained to Wisdom (and became an Arhat); where in his coffin of gold they made offerings to the World-honoured one for seven days, where the Vajrapani laid aside his golden club, and where the eight kings divided the relics (of the burnt body):—at all these places were built stupas and monasteries, all of which are now existing. /
“In the city the inhabitants are few and far between, comprising only the families belonging to the (different) societies of monks. Going from this to the south-east for twelve yojanas, they came to the place where the Lichchhavis wished to follow Buddha to (the place of) his pari-nirvana, and where, when he would not listen to them and they kept cleaving to him, unwilling to go away, he made to appear a large and deep ditch which they could not cross over, and gave them his alms-bowl, as a pledge of his regard, (thus) sending them back to their families. There a stone pillar was erected with an account of this event engraved upon it." /
Kushinagara was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site as one of the Silk Road Sites in India in 2010 . According to a report submitted to UNESCO:“The Monuments of Kushinagara are situated in three distinct groups: 1) The main site, comprising the Main Stupa and Nirvana temple with the other surrounding monuments, 2) the Shrine called Matha-Kuar to its south-west and 3) the Cremation Stupa (Rambhar). The Main Site comprising the Main Stupa which is a huge mass of brick work inclusive of its pinnacles may once have reached the height of nearly 45.72m. The plinth on which the Stupa and the temple were erected was 2.74 mtr. higher than the ground level. Above it stood the cylindrical neck of the Stupa to a height of 5.49m fringed along its top with the remnants of a row of decorative and miniature pilasters. The Nirvana Temple stands on the same plinth as the stupa behind it. A reclining Nirvana Statue lies inside the temple. The statue measures 6.1m in length and is executed out of one block of sandstone. This statue had originally been installed in the fifth century A.D. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
“The Western Group:- In this group around the Stupa and Nirvana temple are to be seen a number of structures which were raised from time to time as complements to the nucleolus formed by the most sacred monuments. In this area some structures representing monasteries were built earlier than the fourth century to the west in front of the temple is seen a very large block of buildings covering a length of 109.73m of them, the one to the north measures 45.72m square extremely. It represents the largest monastery so far discovered at the place and comprises in fact not one but two monasteries of different periods and structures had been constructed in about the eight century and deserted some time after A.D 900.
“The Southern Group: - The monument in this group represents mostly small sized Stupas raised from time to time by devout pilgrims in token of their pious visits to the holy monuments. All the monuments of this group including two Stupas stand out rather prominently because of the carved brick and ornamental pilasters and cornices of their basements. Further there is an interesting oblong structure to the north of these. The large structure on the eastern portion of this group belongs to the declining days of Buddhism at Kushinagara.
“The Eastern Group: - The most important and interesting of the ruins in the eastern group is the large platform like brick structure a little obliquely oriented towards the main monument what sacred monument is represented by this quint building it is difficult to say but it may have been surmounted by a stupa of an uncommon type. Along the eastern side of the plinth of the main monument are also to be seen a few small sized stupas partly concealed in the plinth.
“The Northern Group: - Monuments of this group may be assigned to the Mauryan Age. In this group are seen a number of small stupas raised by pilgrims as in the southern group. The Matha-Kuar Shrine: - It is located in south-west of the main side. At this site is installed a colossal statue of Buddha locally called Matha-Kuar, made of Blue stone with inscription. In this part of the site same brick structure has been found and one inscription was also noticed by Carlleyle. It has records of the construction of the monastery and the chapel attached to it in the reign of a local chief of the Kalchuri dynasty probably Bhimata II.
“The cremation stupa (Ramabhar):- It is situated at 1.61 km. east of Matha-Kuar site. There is a sheet of water, called Ramabhar Jhil or pond, close to it, which dries up in summer. This large stupa with a huge circular drum 31 m. in diameter rests on a circular plinth, consisting of two or more terraces, and 46 m. in diameter at the base. From the site during excavation so many Buddhist inscribed clay seals have been found. The other excavated ruins near by this represented the usual minor stupas raised by pilgrims from time to time.
Traveling in Kushinagar
Ralph Frammolino wrote in the New York Times: “Going back into India through Gorakhpur, we left Lumbini for Kushinagar, a scruffy town 100 miles east, where the Buddha died in 483 B.C. We checked into the Japanese-Sri Lankan Buddhist Guesthouse, an empty and somewhat spooky building run by a single cheerful monk. Then we wandered over to the Mahaparinirvana temple, a 1956 shrine at a bend of the road leading out of town. The shrine contained one of the biggest attractions on the circuit: a 20-foot sandstone statue from the fifth century A.D. of the dying Buddha, lying vacant-faced on his right side. [Source: Ralph Frammolino, New York Times, May 24, 2009]
“Since it was discovered in a temple ruin in 1876, the iconic figure has drawn thousands of devotees, who leave offerings of fruit, flowers and candy. During our two-day visit, we saw members of a Chinese tour group tearfully touch their heads to the figure’s toes, long ago covered in layers of gold leaf. In one surreal scene, five Indian soldiers slowly circled the figure in their stocking feet, guns slung over their shoulders. Then there was Chimi, 38, who claimed to have done prostrations over the course of 600 miles of mountainous roads in his home country of Bhutan. We found him circling the shrine outside, performing the ritualistic full-body stretches, wearing knee pads and glides for his hands fashioned from roller skates and wooden blocks.
“Affecting as they were, the devotional demonstrations did little to distract from Kushinagar’s dinginess. Peanut vendors, souvenir purveyors and mangy dogs lined the street in front of the shrine. There was even a satellite dish atop the local Tibetan temple. "If you didn’t have television," one resident monk explained, "it would be so boring."
“The Japan-Sri Lanka Buddhist Center (Atago Asshin Kyokai World Buddhist Culture Association; Ramabar Road; 91-5564-2730-42 or 43 or 44; firstname.lastname@example.org) has rooms for a suggested donation of 300 Indian rupees a night (about $6 at 50.6 rupees to the dollar), including breakfast....the Yama Cafe (91-995-611-2749), on Mahaparinirvana Path near the Chinese Temple, is a mandatory stop for ample dishes and a scrumptious thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup; just don’t look in the kitchen.
Vaishali (40 kilometers north of Patna) is site of several legends regarded the Buddha. It is said to have been the place where The Buddha received an offering of honey from a monkey and where the beautiful courtesan Amrapail, gave him a gift of a mango grove. Vaishali was the capital of the Vajjian Republic of ancient India. Vaishali was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site as one of the Silk Road Sites in India in 2010 .
Reputed to be the first democratically elected republic in the world, Vaishali is an archaeological site spanning a thousand years over four periods beginning from 500 B.C., as evidenced by a huge collection of terracotta objects, coins, seals, shrines and stupas. The most important tourist attraction in Vaishali is Kolhua, where you can find a huge iron pillar, believed to have been constructed by emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty. Located right next to a brick stupa, the pillar was raised to commemorate Lord Buddha's sermon here.
There is a ruined a monastery, where, it is said, Lord Buddha used to reside. The Vaishali Museumdisplays a wide range of artefacts that were discovered at various archaeological sites in Vaishali. Right next to the museum, a circular tin shed covers the remains of the stupa, which is believed to have once housed the ashes of Lord Buddha. A major highlight near the museum is the coronation tank of the Licchavi rulers known as Abhishek Pushkarani.
Vaishali was the capital of Licchavi dynasty (400 to 750) and despite Patliputra (Patna) being a Mauryan and Gupta stronghold, commerce and industry flourished more here. Another popular attraction is the Bawan Pokhar Temple, which belongs to the Pala period (8th to 12th centuries). Located on the northern banks of the Bawan Pokhar tank, the temple is adorned with imposing images of various Hindu deities. Complete your trip with a visit to the Vishwa Shanti Stupa or pillar of peace, one of the highest of its kind in the world. It was added much later by the Indian government with the support of the Japanese government.
Vaisali and the Council of Vaisali
Faxian (A.D. 337– 422 ), a Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled on foot to India, wrote in “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms": “East from this city ten yojanas, (the travellers) came to the kingdom of Vaisali (in Bihar, . North of the city so named is a large forest, having in it the double-galleried vihara where Buddha dwelt, and the stupa over half the body of Ananda. Inside the city the woman Ambapali built a vihara in honour of Buddha, which is now standing as it was at first. Three le south of the city, on the west of the road, (is the) garden (which) the same Ambapali presented to Buddha, in which he might reside. When Buddha was about to attain to his pari-nirvana, as he was quitting the city by the west gate, he turned round, and, beholding the city on his right, said to them, "Here I have taken my last walk." Men subsequently built a stupa at this spot. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, gutenberg.org/ /]
“Three le north-west of the city there is a stupa called, "Bows and weapons laid down." The reason why it got that name was this:—The inferior wife of a king, whose country lay along the river Ganges, brought forth from her womb a ball of flesh. The superior wife, jealous of the other, said, "You have brought forth a thing of evil omen," and immediately it was put into a box of wood and thrown into the river. Farther down the stream another king was walking and looking about, when he saw the wooden box (floating) in the water. (He had it brought to him), opened it, and found a thousand little boys, upright and complete, and each one different from the others. He took them and had them brought up. They grew tall and large, and very daring, and strong, crushing all opposition in every expedition which they undertook. By and by they attacked the kingdom of their real father, who became in consequence greatly distressed and sad. His inferior wife asked what it was that made him so, and he replied, "That king has a thousand sons, daring and strong beyond compare, and he wishes with them to attack my kingdom; this is what makes me sad." The wife said, "You need not be sad and sorrowful. Only make a high gallery on the wall of the city on the east; and when the thieves come, I shall be able to make them retire." The king did as she said; and when the enemies came, she said to them from the tower, "You are my sons; why are you acting so unnaturally and rebelliously?" They replied, "If you do not believe me," she said, "look, all of you, towards me, and open your mouths." She then pressed her breasts with her two hands, and each sent forth 500 jets of milk, which fell into the mouths of the thousand sons. The thieves (thus) knew that she was their mother, and laid down their bows and weapons. The two kings, the fathers, thereupon fell into reflection, and both got to be Pratyeka Buddhas. The stupa of the two Pratyeka Buddhas is still existing. /
“In a subsequent age, when the World-honoured one had attained to perfect Wisdom (and become Buddha), he said to is disciples, "This is the place where I in a former age laid down my bow and weapons." It was thus that subsequently men got to know (the fact), and raised the stupa on this spot, which in this way received its name. The thousand little boys were the thousand Buddhas of this Bhadra-kalpa. /
“It was by the side of the "Weapons-laid-down" stupa that Buddha, having given up the idea of living longer, said to Ananda, "In three months from this I will attain to pavi-nirvana;" and king Mara had so fascinated and stupefied Ananda, that he was not able to ask Buddha to remain longer in this world. /
“Three or four le east from this place there is a stupa (commemorating the following occurrence):—A hundred years after the pari-nirvana of Buddha, some Bhikshus of Vaisali went wrong in the matter of the disciplinary rules in ten particulars, and appealed for their justification to what they said were the words of Buddha. Hereupon the Arhats and Bhikshus observant of the rules, to the number in all of 700 monks, examined afresh and collated the collection of disciplinary books. Subsequently men built at this place the stupa (in question), which is still existing.” /
Sights in Vaishali
Kolhua is the main structure in Vaishali. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Excavations conducted by Archaeological Survey of India have unearthed remains of Kutagarshala, Swastika-shaped monastry, a tank, cluster of votive stupas, miniature shrines, main stupa and the Ashokan Pillar. The main components of structure and the antiquity belonged to the period ranging from Maurya ( 3rd Century B.C.) to post Gupta (7th Century A.D.).
“The pillar locally known as "Lat" is 11.00 meters high monolithic polished sand stone column surmounted a seated lion capital. It is probably one of the earliest pillars of Ashoka ( Emperor of Mauryan Empire) and does not bear the usual edict. But a few letters in shell characters of Gupta period are engraved on it. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
“The brick stupa was erected to commemorate the event of offering honey to Buddha by the monkey chief. It was originally built during Mauryan period (323 B.C. to 232 B.C.) and subsequently enlarged in Kushan period (1st - 2nd Century A.D.) by raising the height and providing brick paved circumambulatory path. Further brick encasing took place during Gupta and late Gupta periods. The adjoining tank has been identified as 'Markat-Hrad', supposedly dug by the monkeys for Buddha. This brick lined seven tiered tank measuring approximately 65 x 35 meters in dimension having two bathing ghats (terrace) on southern and western wings.
“Kutagarshala represents the spot where Buddha used to stay during the rainy seasons at Vaishali. Excavations have exposed three phases of its construction. Originally it was a small Chaitya built during Sunga-Kushana period ( 2nd Century B.C. to 3rd Century A.D.). Subsequently it was enlarged to a lofty temple in 2nd phase during Gupta period. And finally in third phase temple was converted into a monastery by providing a number of partition walls during post-Gupta times.
“The other monastery which looks like a swastika («) on plan has twelve rooms, three on each arm attached to common verandah around an open central courtyard with the entrance towards east. The monastery has a toilet chamber attached to its southern wall. It was constructed during Gupta period probably for nuns.
Antiquities like beads of semi precious stone, terracotta figurines, seals and sealing, bricks embedded with semi precious stone, inscribed potsherd and an unique terracotta figure of crowned monkey found during the excavations of the site are kept on display for visitors in the local site museum run by ASI.
The relic stupa has been identified as one among the eight stupas containing the corporeal remains of Buddha. Excavation of this site carried out by K.P.Jayaswal Research Institute in 1957-58 revealed that originally it was a mud stupa in a smaller dimension erected by the Lichhavis over their share of relic of Buddha in circa 5th Century B.C. Ayakas noticed in southern and eastern side are probably the earliest example of its kind. A soap stone casket found in core of the Stupa contained ashy earth, a small conch, two glass beads, a small piece of gold leaf and a copper punch marked coin. In the Mauryan, Sunga and Kushana period the stupa got its enlargement and the diameter of the stupa increased to 17.1 meter.
Kesaria (110 kilometers north of Patna) is an important center for Buddhist heritage, located on the Buddhist Circuit. It is revered because it was the place where Lord Buddha spent one night before he attained Nirvana (enlightenment). It is believed that the Lichhivis, who were asked to return to Vaishali after his death, built this stupa to commemorate the end-life of Lord Buddha. It is estimated to have been built between 200 AD and 750.
Kesariya Stupa is a very large Buddhist stupa located in the Champaran (east) district of Bihar. The first construction of the Stupa is dated to the 3rd century B.C., during the reign of Emperor Ashoka. It is 32 meters (104 feet) tall and has a circumference of almost 120 meters (400 feet). In the past it was larger. Excavated in 1998 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), it is estimated to have originally been 50 meters but has eroded over the years. Built over six floors, the stupa is home to several statues of Lord Buddha in various postures, including the Bhoomi Sparsha Mudra. These are built using soil and pebbles. Several coins, arrow heads, items of terracotta and copper, earthen lamps, decorative bricks have been unearthed here.
The original Kesariya stupa probably dates to the time of Ashoka (around 250 B.C.) as the remains of a capital of a Pillar of Ashoka were discovered here. The stupa mound may even have been inaugurated during the Buddha's time, as it corresponds in many respects to the description of the stupa erected by the Licchavis of Vaishali to house the alms bowl the Buddha has given them. The current stupa dates to the Gupta Dynasty between A.D. 200 to 750, and may have been associated with the 4th century ruler Raja Chakravarti. The local people call this stupa "Devala", meaning "house of god". Before excavation of this, they believed that inside it there is a temple of Shiva built by King Bhema. Despite being a popular tourist attraction, Kesariya is yet to be developed and a large part of the stupa still remained under vegetation.
Sravasti (100 kilometers northeast of Lucknow, west of Lumbini, in India near the Nepal border) is the Place of the Twin Miracle, where The Buddha emitted flames and water from his body, and a place where Buddha spent the largest amount of time, being a major city in ancient India during his time. The Buddha gave some famous sermons in Jetavana Grove.
Sravasti was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site as one of the Silk Road Sites in India in 2010 .According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The ancient city of Sravasti, which is now represented by groups of remains known as Saheth-Maheth together with adjacent sites- Orajhar, Panahiajhar and Kharahuwanjhar is located in the newly created district of Sravasti while a portion of it falls in district Balrampur U.P.
“The earliest references of the city are available in Ramayana and Mahabharata as a prosperous city in the kingdom of Kosala. Panini in his Astadhyayi makes a mention of Kosala while Pali Budhist literature also makes numerous references to Kosala, its history and society. In the Puranas, it is described as the capital of North Kosala. It is said to have derived its name from a legendary king Srvasta of solar race who is stated to have founded the city. In later times, it was also known as 'Chandrikapuri' and 'Champakpuri'. It is referred to as 'Sravasti' by Kalidasa. Anguttara Nikaya mentions Kosala as one of the sixteen great Janapadas. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
“In the 6th century B.C., during the reign of Presenajit, the place rose to fame due to its association with Buddha and Mahavira and became one of the eight holy places of Buddhist pilgrimage. Buddha is said to have spent 24 rainy seasons here after his disciple Anathapindika built a monastery for him at Jetavana. Buddha is also said to have performed here 'Great Miracle' when with a challenge from other sects. Conversion of a robber Angulimala was also one of the stirring episodes of that period. Some of the well-known bhikshunis hailed from this place including Visakha, Sumana, etc.
King Asoka is said to have visited the place and erected two pillars on the eastern gate of Jetavana. Besides, he also built a stupa in the vicinity. During the time of Kushans, the Buddhism became popular religion with royal support. The place was also mentioned by Fa-hien and Hiuen Tsang in their travel accounts. Hardly any reliable information exists regarding Sravasti in the centuries following the visit of Hien Tsang. Jimini-Bharata, a medieval work, mentions a king named Suhridhvaja who is supposed to have fought against Muslim invaders and is credited to have revived Jainism. In the middle of twelfth century, queen Kumardevi contributed to establishment of monasteries here. The ruins of Sravasti remained forgotten until they were brought to light and identified by Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1863.
Orajhar is situated on the left bank of Khajua, a tributary of Rapti in district and tehsil Balrampur, U.P. It may be identified with the celebrated 'Purvarama' or Eastern monastery, built by Vishakha as seen by Fa-hien. Here, excavation has revealed a three-fold cultural sequence, starting from Kushan period (Ist cent.) followed by Gupta and medieval periods. The Kushan period has revealed remains of a monastic complex with the usual plan. The Gupta period is witnessed in form of a plinth of a temple which is enclosed by a wall. The medieval period revealed a star-like structure at the top of the Gupta temple. Very near to Orajhar and south of southern city-wall, there are two small mounds locally know as Penahiajhar and Kharahuwanjhar where excavations were conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India long back. In the former mound, the excavation revealed solid brick structure 16.20 meters in diameter. In its core was a relic-receptacle, yielding pieces of bone, some gold leaves, rock-crystal, circular laminae of silver and a punch-marked silver coin. The second structure was also circular, with a diameter of 31.50 meters, made of three concentric brick walls, the intervening spaces being filled with clay. It did not yield any relic-casket in its core.
Ruins at Saheth (Sravasti area) , which are supposed to represent Jetavana, are spread within an irregular enclosure. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Archaeological excavations conducted at regular intervals since 1863, have brought to light plinths and foundations of numerous Buddhist structures including stupas, monasteries and temples among which Gandha Kuti, Kosamba Kuti and recently exposed stupa-cum-tank complex in the northwestern side are most significant. Most of the earliest structures, at the site date from Ist cent. A.D. i.e. Kushan period, many of them rebuilt or renovated in later times. The latest constructions with intact plan of a monastery are assignable to eleventh- twelfth centuries and attributed to queen Kumardevi of Kannauj. The earliest available relics consist of a few Kushan structures and images; an image of the Mathura workshop was set up on the promenade of Buddha for the teachers of the Sarvastivada sect in Kosamba-kuti by the Bhikshu Bala, who is known to have dedicated another image also at Sarnath in the reign of Kanishka. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
Of the temples, the largest, Temple-2, is believed to stand on the site of the original Gandha-kuti erected by Anathapindika, though its lowest exposed part belongs only to the Gupta period. Located within an oblong enclosure-wall, 34.50m long and 26.70m wide, it consists of a sanctum and mandapa. Another structure around the shrine, probably the plinth of a temple, had a decorated exterior and has been ascribed to the Gupta period.
From the fact that Bala's image, mentioned above, was found near Temple-3 (built on the spot of an earlier temple), it is held to have been built on the site of the original Kosamba-kuti. The temple is now completely ruined, only the shells of the shrine and mandapa having survived. In front of the temple are two solid brick terraces, supposed to mark the site of Buddha's promenade.
Temple-1, situated within the courtyard of a large monastery of about the tenth century A.D., has the same plan of the sanctum and mandapa. Temple-11 and 12 have the unusual plan of three rooms in a row with a narrow verandah in front and a pradakshina-patha around the central chamber. Temple-12, with several projections, however, has a porch.
The monasteries of Jetavana have the normal plan of Buddhist monasteries. They are generally speaking, early mediaeval in date, an exception being monasteries-F and G, contiguous to and contemporaneous with each other, in the former of which was found a hoard of coins of the Kushan kings. Of the other early monasteries, only stray walls are met with below later structures.
Buddha visiting Kapilavastu
2nd or 1st BCMention may be of Temple and Monastery -19, which had its origin in the Gupta period, as testified by a clay tablet with the Buddhist creed in Gupta characters. It was renovated in the tenth century, to which period belong several images, and finally reconstructed in the eleventh-twelfth century. An interesting find of the last period is a copper-plate charter, dated A.D 1130, of the Gahadavala ruler Govinda Chandra recording the grant of villages to the monks of the Jetavana- Mahavihara.
Stupa-17 and 18, adjacent to each other, deserve special mention, as their beginnings seem to go back to the Kushan age, though their original shapes were covered up by later structures. Enshrined in it, at a depth of 3.10 meters, was an earthen pot with a bead of gold, two pieces of thin gold wire and a bead and a bezel, both of crystal.
About 1.52 meters below the top of Stupa-18 was a relic-chamber with an earthen bowl bearing a short dedicatory inscription in Kushan characters and containing fragments of bone, a large number of beads of gold and semi-precious stones and large pearls.
Stupa-5 appears to be originally a stupa built on a terrace which was converted into a shrine and was finally made into a stupa again. Similarly Stupa-H was reconstructed several times. Stupa-8 had two periods of construction, the earlier with a circular plan and the later square having a moulded facing and a shallow projection. Inside the later stupa was found the lower portion of an image of Bodhisattva which had a Kushan inscription, recording its manufacture by a Mathura sculptor and dedication in Jetavana by two brothers. A second inscription- Buddhist creed in characters of the ninth or tenth century A.D. on this very image was added presumably at the time of its deposit inside the later phase. Stupa-9, medieval structure by the side of Stupa-8, yielded an image of Buddha. The inscription on its pedestal in late Kushan characters records its gift by one Sihadeva of Saketa.
Maheth-the Sravasti City
Sravasti City is located on the back of the river Archiravati (Rapti). According to a report submitted to UNESCO: It “had a high earthen rampart with a brick wall on the running along a circuit of 5.23 kilometers and pierced by several gates distinguished by high bastions. Four main gates are known as Imli Darwaza, Rajgarh Darwaza, Naushahra Darwaza & Kand Bhari Darwaza situated respectively at the southwest, northwest, northeast and southeast corners. The remains within the city area include Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jaina structures and a few medieval tombs. The Most significant structures among them are Temple of Shobhnath, Pakki-kuti and Kachchi Kuti. Temple of Shobhnath located just near the entrance from western side, represents the remains of a Jaina temple, the domed edifice on the top being a superimposition in medieval period. The spot is hallowed as the birth-place of Sambhavnath, the third Jaina Tirthankara. Excavation in the nearby area has exposed remains of three temple complexes. The scientific clearance of the place has yielded a few sculptures of Jaina Tirthankaras in standing and seated posture datable to 10th-11th century, besides exposing the lower portions of the Jaina Temple. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
Pakki Kuti is one of the two largest mounds inside the city area. Cunningham has proposed to identify it with the remains of the stupa of Angulimala seen by Chinese pilgrims, although, according to another view, it represents the ruins of the 'hall of the law' built by Presenajit in the honour of Buddha.
Kachchi Kuti, situated a few meters southeast of Pakki Kuti, is the most imposing monuments in the area. Dating from Kushan period, it went through -various renovations in later periods. A group of scholars proposes to identify if with the stupa of Sudatta as seen by Chinese pilgrims, but according to another view, a large collection of T.C. plaques showing in high relief scenes from the Ramayana suggests its identification as Brahmanical temple. Recent excavations in the city area have brought to light town-planning of ancient city as could be studied through the structural remains of early historical period i.e. house- complex, ancient street, temples, etc. Excavation has also exposed original gateway complex of early historical period near Kand bhari village.
Kapilvastu is an important Buddhist pilgrim center. Kapilavastu is said to have been ruled by Lord Buddha's father, Shuddhodan. At the age of 29, Prince Gautama, as Lord Buddha was known then, left the palace only to return 12 years later, after he attained enlightenment. The best time to visit the place is during the month of December when the grand Kapilavastu Buddha Mahotsav is organised here from 29th of the month to the 31st. The most popular attraction is the archaeological site of the main stupa that was discovered during excavations carried out in the 70s. The excavations also revealed some seals and other historically important material. It is said that the stupa was renovated by Kushana ruler, Kanishka, a great patron of Buddhism. Tourists can also visit the ruins of king Shuddhodans palace, which were discovered during excavations. Kapilavastu is located at a distance of 210 kilometers from Ayodhya and makes for a great exploration.
Sanchi: Home of the World's Oldest Stupa
Sanchi (45 kilometers from Bhopal) is a pilgrimage site that attracts worshipers from all over the world who come to see Buddhist art and architecture that dates back to the third century B.C. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989 and regarded as one of the most remarkable archaeological complexes in India, it contains monasteries, an Ashoka Pillar and the world's oldest stupa. According to UNESCO: “On a hill overlooking a plain, the site of Sanchi comprises a group of Buddhist monuments (monolithic pillars, palaces, temples and monasteries) all in different states of conservation most of which date back to the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. It is the oldest Buddhist sanctuary in existence and was a major Buddhist center in India until the 12th century A.D. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website ]
Surrounded by rolling green hills and a prominent site in the Buddhist circuit, Sanchi is a treasure trove of stone edifices and Buddhist monuments, of which the Sanchi Stupa and the Ashoka Pillar are the most famous. The site was selected Emperor Asoka (ruled 274-236 B.C.), the greatest ruler in Indian history and the man who ensured Buddhism’s success as a world religion. After Asoka conquered the kingdom of Kalinga, in one of most important battles in the history of the world he was so appalled by the number of people that were massacred (perhaps 100,000 or more) he converted himself and his kingdom to Buddhism and sent Buddhist missionaries to the four corners of Asia to spread the religion. He ordered the building of stupas to safeguard Buddhist relics and raised pillars to propagate Buddhism.
It is believed that the hill on which the Great Stupa stands might have inspired Ashoka to choose this as the site of the religious center he established. The earliest Buddhist architecture of Sanchi has been dated to the early Mauryan period in 3rd century B.C. and the youngest is attributed to 12th century. Several new edifices were raised during this time and the Great Stupa was decorated with balustrades, a staircase and a harmika. The Andhra-Satavahanas added elaborate gateways to stupa 1 in 1st century B.C. The Gupta period, in turn, saw the construction of many temples and sculptures in their characteristic style. It was also during this time that four statues of Lord Buddha, sitting serenely under canopies were erected in front of the four entrances of the Great Stupa. Sanchi prospered greatly between the 7th and 12th centuries.
Getting There: By Air: The Raja Bhoj Airport in Bhopal is the nearest airport, 55 kilometers away. This airport is well-connected with other domestic airports. By Road: Nearby towns easily accessible by road include Vidisha (10 kilometers), Bhopal (46 kilometers) and Indore (232 kilometers). By Train: Bhopal is the nearest railway station. There is a Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi express that runs every day providing easy access. The Railway station is well connected with other parts of the country through train. Sanchi can be reached through bus or car from the Bhopal railway station.
The ruins of about 50 monuments have been uncovered. The site appears to have been settled in the 3rd century B.C. at the time when Emperor Asoka, the grandson of Chandragupta, founded the Maurya dynasty and converted to Buddhism. Ashoka’s queen Devi was from the neighbouring town of Vidisha and was the daughter of a merchant who lived there. Vidisha. Sanchi was also place where Devi and Ashoka were married. Ashoka founded, or at least embellished, a Buddhist sanctuary located at Sanchi. He also had a stone column more than 12 meters high erected with his edicts carved on it.
Great Stupa of Sanchi
The Great Stupa at Sanchi is one of the oldest stone structures in India, and an important monument of Indian Architecture. Originally commissioned and overseen by Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C., the central chamber of the stupa is a large hemispherical brick dome that is home to relics of Lord Buddha. It was crowned by the chhatri, a parasol-like structure symbolising high rank, which was intended to honour and shelter the relics.
The Sanchi Stupa is a broad, grand brick structure that is 12.8 meters (42 feet) high and is 32.3 meters (106 feet) wide. In addition to housing relics, the stupa also depicts teachings and philosophies through carvings. Sanchi Stupa is surrounded by elaborate toranas, which are free-standing arched gateways used for ceremonial purposes in Indian temple architecture. The stupa can be seen from as far as four kilometers away, surrounded by lush verdant trees and serves as the nucleus around which the other stupas came up eventually. It has been declared as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The intricate carvings on the doorway are inspired by the life events and miracles of Lord Buddha, taken from the Buddhist jataka stories. The original stupa built by emperor Ashoka was a low brick structure, only half the diameter of the present edifice. It was supported by a raised terrace at its base and was enclosed by a wooden railing with a stone umbrella on top. In the 1st century B.C., four elaborately carved toranas (ornamental gateways) and a balustrade encircling the entire structure were added.
Other Stupa in the Sanchi Area
Sonari, about 10 kilometers from Sanchi, contains a group of eight stupas which are home to many relics associated with Buddhism. Another location, Satdhara, which is 11 kilometers west of Sanchi, is home to two more similar stupas. It takes an hour long drive to reach Satdhara from Sanchi. Satdhara is located on a hill of rolling green, overlooking the Halali river. The largest stupa here, called Stupa Number 1, is almost as big as the famous Sanchi Stupa. Other minor attractions nearby include the ancient ruins at Andher and Mural Khurd, almost 17 and 12 kilometers away from Sanchi, respectively.
According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “To the south of Asoka's column and predating it is an early brick stupa about 20 m in diameter and crowned with stone aedicula; a wooden railing encircles it. Now known as Stupa 1, this monument was enlarged under the Sunga and the Andhra dynasties (2nd and 1st centuries BC) and is the principal monument at Sanchi. It consists of a gigantic mound of sandstone surrounded by sumptuous porticoes with stone railings; its hemispherical dome measures 36.6 m in diameter and is 16.46 m high. It is particularly famous for the extraordinarily rich decorative work on the four monumental gateways (torana) that provide access. Positioned almost exactly in line with the four cardinal points, these gateways transpose into stone the structure of the wooden gateways: two pillars and three architraves reproduce the assembly of two posts joined by three rails. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]
“The lush carvings, prodigious creations in bas relief, high relief and in the round, are an iconographic treasure trove. The essential theme represented in the decorative work revolves around the former lives of Buddha. Numerous other themes were taken from legends and history. The fresh, wonderfully charming representations of plants, animals and humans, the narrative quality of the stories and the creativity apparent in the fantastic sculptured capitals and cornices combine to make this an unrivalled masterpiece of early Buddhist art. Sanchi has two other famous stupas dating from the Sunga period (2nd century BC). The torana of Stupa 3, executed in the 1st century, are exceptional works. Many other structures are found on the site: within the ruins of a wall dating from the 11th-12th centuries, Sanchi's final years are represented by monolithic pillars, palaces, temples and monasteries, all in varying states of preservation. Temples 17 and 45 and monastery 51 are among the most impressive structures."
Ashoka Pillar in Sanchi
Ashoka Pillar of Sanchi (near the southern gateway of the Great Sanchi Stupa) is believed to have been erected around 250 B.C. on the orders of Ashoka and is very similar to the pillar at Sarnath. Although the entire structure has not been preserved, one can see the shaft of the pillar from main Torana gateway, and the crown has been displayed in the nearby Sanchi Archaeological Museum.
The crown of the pillar is its most attractive feature. It is adorned by four regal lions facing in four directions, with their backs to each other. The style of architecture has been hailed as Greco-Buddhist. The figure is considered to be an outstanding example of the aesthetic elegance and the exquisite structural balance characteristic of the Mauryan architecture. A representation of this figure containing the four lions has been adopted as the National Emblem of India.The lions of this Ashoka pillar probably supported a Dharmachakra, or the wheel of dharma law, as was the case with the Sarnath pillar.
Made of finely polished sandstone, the pillar has an Ashokan inscription and an inscription in the ornamental Sankha Lipi from the Gupta period. The Ashokan inscription, engraved in early Brahmi characters, unfortunately is badly damaged, but the commands it contains appear to be the same as those recorded in the Sarnath and Kausambi edicts, which together form the three known instances of Ashoka's "Schism Edict". It relates to the penalties for schism in the Buddhist sangha:
... the path is prescribed both for the monks and for the nuns. As long as (my) sons and great-grandsons (shall reign ; and) as long as the Moon and the Sun (shall endure), the monk or nun who shall cause divisions in the Sangha, shall be compelled to put on white robes and to reside apart. For what is my desire? That the Sangha may be united and may long endure. [Source: Edict of Ashoka on the Sanchi pillar]
The pillar, when intact, was about 13 meters (42 feet) in height and consisted of round and slightly tapering monolithic shaft, with bell-shaped capital surmounted by an abacus and a crowning ornament of four lions. The abacus is adorned with four flame palmette designs separated one from the other by pairs of geese, symbolical perhaps of the flock of the Buddha's disciples. The lions are now quite disfigured. The sandstone out of which the pillar is carved came from the quarries of Chunar several hundred miles away, implying that the builders were able to transport a block of stone over forty feet in length and weighing almost as many tons over such a distance. They probably used water transport, using rafts during the rainy season up until the Ganges, Jumna and Betwa rivers. Great Bowl And Buddhist Monasteries and Temples in Sanchi
Great Bowl of Sanchi (Behind Monastery 51, partway down the hill towards Stupa 2) is just what its name suggests. Carved out of a single boulder, it was used to store the food that was meant to be distributed among the Buddhist monks living in the monasteries in the vicinity. It is also known as Grand Gumbha.
Buddhist Vihara in Sanchi is unlike the earlier viharas it that it was not carved out in wood. It was the principal residence of monks and has a central area dedicated for communal activities. The area is surrounded by small chambers wherein the monks can sleep individually. Considered as one of the most important Buddhist centers, it is located a few kilometers from Sanchi. The remains of Satdhara Stupa can also be found here. Inside the vihara lies a glass chest on a platform, which houses many relics. This place is visited by thousands of devotees, who come here to get a glimpse of the Buddhist culture. People visit the Buddhist Vihara first before heading on to see the other viharas.
Gupta Temple dates the A.D. 5th century, during the early Gupta period, regarded as a kind of golden age in India. Its entrance is flanked by massive pillars that represent one of the earliest known examples of temple architecture in India.
Vidisha (9 kilometers away from Sanchi) is located at the confluence of the Betwa and Bes rivers. Once known as Besnagar, it was an important town in kingdom of Emperor Ashoka and was the hometown of his wife Devi who was also called Vedisa-Mahadevi. She was the daughter of a merchant who lived near Vidisha., which is mentioned in the epic Ramayana as well as the Meghdoot and was a trade center during the Mauryan period in the 3rd century B.C. and the well as the Gupta empire in the A.D. 6th century. The main attractions in the town today are the interesting ruins of the massive Bija Mandal Temple and the Gumbaz ka Makbara. One can also head over to Gyaraspur nearby to visit some more ancient sites. A Heliodorus pillar, believed to have been constructed in 110 B.C. and known as Khamba Baba, is another attraction here. Local legend says that the pillar was constructed by Heliodorus after he converted to Hinduism and became a devotee of Lord Vishnu. There is a District Archaeological Museum here, which houses antiquities dating back to the 9th century.
Udaygiri Caves (five kilometers west of Vidisha and 13 kilometers from Sanchi) contain a number of important inscriptions and sculptures from the Gupta period. There are 20 caves in all and one should try to visit as many as possible. The caves were carved out of sandstone hills in the 4th and 5th centuries. Brahmi inscriptions have been found in the caves that have been influential in ascertaining their timeline. The relief sculptures, like the iconographic one of Lord Vishnus varaha or boar incarnation in Cave 5, has been accepted as one of the most accomplished examples of Gupta art. The varaha avatar tells the story of how Lord Vishnu saved Goddess Earth from demon Hiranyaksha, who had abducted and taken her into the deep ocean. The panel measures an impressive 7x4 square meters. The scene has also been hailed as an allegorical statement by the Gupta kings about their might in protecting their land (earth) from all evils. These cave temples have been considered among the best and the earliest examples of religious architecture in India. The shrine holding the lingam (phallic symbol honoring Shiva) is especially interesting as its walls are decorated with intricate mythological carvings.
Udaypur (65 kilometers from Sanchi) is dotted with many elaborate and beautiful temples like the Udayeshwar Mahadeva Temple and the Neelkantheshwar Temple, which are excellent examples of the Parmara style of architecture. The Neelkantheshwar Temple was built in 11th century. The plan of the temple includes a garbha griha, which is a sanctum sanctorum; a sabha mandap, which is a prayer hall; and three pravesha mandaps, which are elaborate entrance porches. The temple is noted for its graceful spire and the intricate medallions which adorn its sides. It is built out of red sandstone and stands on a high platform. It is enclosed by a small compound wall and the main features are a shikhara (spire), three entrance porches, a hall and a shrine.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: India tourism website (incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020