On the Happy Dust of India Once Trodden by the Sacred Feet of Buddha: Part 1 of the Buddhist Pilgrimage
A Beyond Here Feature travel story.
The title refers to a poem by one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895 – 1986), called My Immortal Friend – a tribute to Lord Buddha—The Tathagata. The happy dust of India during the Buddha’s time included the whole Indian subcontinent, from Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east, and from Nepal in the north to Sri Lanka in the south. It is Siddhārtha Gautama, the prince who became The Buddha (or, the enlightened one). The Buddha’s journey towards enlightenment tread through the northern region of this subcontinent. Nowadays, many devotees follow this pilgrimage to pay their respects to Buddha.
“…there are more than 100 Buddhist temples and monasteries in Bodhgaya”.
Our journey started in Chattogram, Bangladesh (erstwhile known as Chittagong) where we visited family and paid our respects to Buddha. In Bangladesh, many Buddhist archaeological sites have been discovered, and more excavations continue to be undertaken. Notable among them are the 7 famous Buddhist Vihara ruins. They are: the Somapura Mahavihara in Paharpur, Rajshahi (declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985); the Halud Vihara, about 15 km from Paharpur; the Shalbana Vihara at Mainamati, Comilla (there are many more Viharas on the Mainamati Range); the Mahasthangarh Pundranagar in Bogra; the Bhasu Vihara, about 10 km from Mahasthangarh; the Pandit Vihara in Anwara, Chattogram; and Bikrampur near Dhaka, the birthplace of famous Atisha Dipankara (982 – 1054 CE), the abbot of the Vikramshila Mahavihara in Bihar India, who took a sect of Mahayana Buddhism to Tibet. Many Mahaviharas were places of learning, and some of the earliest universities in human history.
Some Buddhist ruins were known locally as Rahuli Vita or Rahuli Mura. The nickname Rahuli refers to orange robed Buddhist monks developed during the declining periods of Buddhism when the monks lost patrons and lay Buddhists. Vita or Mura refers to a mound. The last Buddhist Dynasty to rule greater India was the Pala (750 – 1174 CE). Buddhism started to decline in the Indian Subcontinent from then on, starting from the Sena Dynasty and from subsequent Muslim invasion.
The records of Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage travelers (notable among them is Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang, 602 – 664 CE) indicate that Buddha once visited Chattogram in Bangladesh, which used to be known as Samatata during the 5th to 7th century CE. Buddhist historians say that the name Chattogram is derived from Chattya-gram, which means a village of Buddhist stupas and temples. Perhaps the most remarkable mention in the Chinese travel records of the ruins in Chattogram is the Buragosai Mandir at Chakrashala. This is significant because it remains relatively active among Barua Buddhists. A large Buddhist festival occurs each year at the Mandir to commemorate the Buddha’s steps into the soil of Chakrashala.
From Chattogram, my daughter Dipa and I started our pilgrimage by first arriving in Kolkata during the pleasant month of post-monsoon, November. Kolkata is the capital of Pacchimbanga, previously known as West Bengal. The city is full of history from the 200 year (1757 – 1947) rule of India by the British. The Victoria Memorial, Writers Building and the Howrah Bridge on the Hooghly River are some of the British legacies in Kolkata. We also visited two of the British India Buddhist establishments – the Dharmankur Vihara and the Mahabodhi Society temple, where my parents had visited years ago. In fact, they have also completed the Buddhist pilgrimage in India a long time ago.
While in Kolkata, we took a day trip to Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, to see the Diamond Triangle.
Odisha is famous in Buddhist history not only for the bloody war of Kalinga which led the Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka (268 – 232 BCE) to convert to Buddhism, but also for the Diamond Triangle (~ 6th century CE). This Triangle is a trio of historic Mahayana Buddhist temples discovered by the Archeological Survey of India – Lalitgiri, Udayagiri and Ratnagiri.
All three temples are located on separate hill tops surrounded by idyllic rice field valleys. We only visited Lalitgiri, and I felt great happiness completing a clockwise circumambulation of the highest stupa six times. Buddhists usually perform clockwise circumambulations as an aspiration for stability and unity. Six times represent the six Pursuits to Perfection. Eight times represent the Noble Eightfold Path. Often, devotees also circumambulate three times (Triratna) or four times (the Four Noble Truths).
Arriving in Bodhgaya
Although we visited other Buddhist sites beforehand, our pilgrimage officially started in Bodhgaya. Bodhgaya is considered to be the Navel of the Earth by Buddhists. It is the place where Buddha became enlightened on a full moon day in the month of Vaisakha (roughly the month of May) about 2.5 millennia ago. Patna, the capital of Bihar which lies on the bank of the Ganga River, was the capital for Emperor Ashoka and used to be known as Patliputra during the time. The Bihar government built the Patliputra Karuna Stupa in the middle of the Patna business district to house Buddhist relics donated by many Buddhist-majority countries.
The stupa also contains a beautiful museum and a bamboo grove. A fact on stupas: the architecture of stupas originally started as an inverted lotus flower to show that the open lotus representing the Buddha does not exist anymore. Instead his teachings and relics are preserved at the lotus core to guide humans to the future. This ancient stupa concept metamorphosed in time to domes, multi-storied pagodas, bell-shaped pagodas, and inspired the birth of the architecture of domes, arch-doors and windows all around the world.
“I felt great happiness completing a clockwise circumambulation of the highest stupa six times”.
Our family and friends in Bangladesh had arranged for us to be picked up at the Patna airport. The drive from Patna to Bodhgaya reminded us of the poor conditions of Indian roads – it took us nearly five hours for a distance of about 130 km! However, when our driver took us to the Bangladesh Buddhist Monastery, we forgot all about our tired minds. I am proud that my father, as part of his charitable legacy, donated a large sum at the initial development of the monastery project. The land of the monastery was a gift from Indira Gandhi (1917 – 1984), the second longest serving Indian Prime Minister, to the Buddhists of Bangladesh.
The monastery was in a festive mood when we arrived because the Buddhist sacred ceremony of the robe offering, Dana, was to be held the next day. I had never seen congregations of so many Barua Buddhists from all over India and Bangladesh before. Thanks to SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), easy tourism and pilgrimage travels have begun to develop among the South Asian nations. At the monastery we met the novice Bengali monk, Ronal, who would accompany us as a guide during the rest of the pilgrimage.
In the Bangladesh Monastery, we also met the most venerable Shuddhananda Mahathero – the Mahashanganayak from Bangladesh. He is a family friend and it was a great pleasure to see him again.
The resident head monk of the Bangladeshi monastery proudly said that all Bangladeshis, whether a Hindu, Christian, Muslim or a Buddhist, are accommodated and offered food as visiting guests in the temple hostel.
The next day was a very busy day for us. In addition to the Mahabodhi temple, there are more than 100 Buddhist temples and monasteries in Bodhgaya. All of them reflect the beautiful architectural styles and colorful traditions of many Buddhist majority countries, and they all have hostels and accommodations for visiting monks/nuns and devotees. During the tourist season, from October to June, all commercial hotels and temple accommodations become full. The largest congregations with colourful and multiple programs take place during Buddha Day or Vesak in the month of May.
Here are some images of the Buddhist temples found in Bodhgaya representing the unique styles and architecture of different countries.
The Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree on the bank of Niranjan River, now known as Phalgu River which is a tributary of the Ganga River, faced east at the time of his enlightenment posture. The Buddha faced east because he wanted to pay homage to his parents as the harbinger of light to life. When we crossed the Phalgu River it was dry. On the other side of the river are the archaeological ruins of a house once lived by Sujata. Buddhists pay respect to this village girl because her milk-rice offering made the Buddha strong enough to concentrate on meditation. The night after the meal, on a full-moon night in the month of Vaisakha, the Buddha attained enlightenment.
History of the Mahabodhi Temple
The Mahabodhi temple was built beside the Bodhi tree where the Buddha (Gautama Buddha, 563 – 483 BCE) became enlightened. The 55 metre high Mahabodhi Temple, surrounded by many large and small stupas is a symbol of symmetry and stability. It is a four-face symmetrical stupa tapering to the Wheel of Law at the top apex. This solid gold apex was donated by Thailand. Each face of the temple has five bands which represent the Panchsila, with the middle band enhanced. We saw many devotees from all over the world meditating around the temple, including prostration by Tibetan devotees. We also met a large group of Nepali devotees lined up to enter the temple.
The foundation and initial works of the temple were laid by Emperor Ashoka by erecting a royal pillar marking the Buddha’s spot of enlightenment and the Bodhi Tree. Since then, the temple has been repaired and renovated by multiple Indian dynasties. They include, the Kushans (30 – 230 CE), the Guptas (240 – 550 CE), the Harshas (606 – 647 CE), and the Palas (750 – 1174 CE). The 12th century Islamic invaders damaged and buried the Mahabodhi Temple, the Vajrasana and other peripheral votive Stupas under a thick layer of mud. In about 6 centuries later, an initiative taken by Alexander Cunningham (1814 – 1893), a British Army Officer working in the Archaeological Survey of India, brought to light the buried monuments. Cunningham managed to unearth the buried treasures following the 7th century Xuanzang descriptions. The Archaeological Survey excavation effort took about a period of five years, from 1880 to 1884.
Historians and archaeologists believe that the present architectural patterns derive from the Gupta period of art. Later on during the 11th century, the Burmese Government undertook major repair works of the temple.
One great Sri Lankan man, Anagarika Dharmapala (1864 – 1934) devoted his whole life to revive Buddhism in India. It is said that when he first saw the Mahabodhi Temple he wept, seeing its dilapidated shape. Dharmapala became known worldwide for his lecture at the first conference of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. He founded the Mahabodhi Society, which has now branches and temples all over the world. He used his fame and international friends of Buddhism, including Edwin Arnold (1832 – 1904, the famous British author of the The Light of Asia), to lobby the British Indian Government to take necessary measures to restore historical Buddhist sites.
Also remarkable were the contributions made by an Indian Buddhist (a convert from Hinduism), Rahul Sankrityayan (1893 – 1963), a master orator, debater and Indian independence movement hero. The Burmese statesman and diplomat, U Thant (1909 – 1974), as the Secretary General of the United Nations (1961 – 1971), played a great role in mobilizing resources to develop the Mahabodhi complex. The present magnificence of the temple is due to dedications from many individuals, and contributions by various countries.
The Mahabodhi Temple was declared a World Heritage Site in 2002 by UNESCO. The temple complex is now managed by the Government of Bihar with representatives from local Buddhists and Hindus. All Buddhist majority countries represent the management committee as members of its advisory council. The 4.86 hectare temple complex now includes the Mahabodhi Temple; the Vajrasana (Diamond Throne) at the foot of the Bodhi Tree (believed to be the original) where the Buddha sat during his enlightenment posture; a museum; an open-air meditation area; a large open-air gathering area; the Ashoka Pillar; and the Mucalinda Lake. It is believed that the Naga King, Mucalinda, protected the meditating Buddha from a storm by flattening and expanding his hood.
It gave me great pleasure and gratification to pay homage to the Buddha and his Noble Eightfold Path by circumambulating the temple and the Bodhi Tree eight times clockwise.
— by Dr. Dilip K. Barua
This is part 1 of a 4-part series detailing the Buddhist Pilgrimage through India.
Copyright © Dr. Dilip K. Barua 2019
About the Author:
Dr. Barua is a coastal, marine and ocean engineering professional with more than 30 years of research and versatile work experience. As a researcher, his work has been published in many academic journals, including his website Wide Canvas where he discusses nature, social interactions, and science & technology.
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Buddhist Pilgrimage Travel Guides
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 2: The journey continues through Rajgir, the site of the first Buddhist Council; Nalanda, one of the earliest universities in the world; and Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon. Read along to find out details of each site for your next visit.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 3: As we traverse through northern India, we encounter historic Buddhist sites such as Vaishali, Kesaria to see stupa ruins, and Kushinagar, where the dying Buddha lay. Here is what you need to know for your visit.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 4: On the final leg of our journey we visit the Buddha’s birth place, Lumbini, Nepal. Inside the Mayadevi Temple is the once-home of Siddharta. Nearby is the Pushkirini Pond where his mother bathed. Read our guide detailing the renowned site.
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