On the Happy Dust of India once Trodden by the Sacred Feet of Buddha: Part 2 of the Buddhist Pilgrimage
A Beyond Here Feature travel story.
Our journey continues through India in the steps of Buddha’s sacred path to the holy sites of Rajgir and Nalanda in Bihar, and Sarnath near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
The road journey from Bodhgaya to Rajgir through rural winding roads between hills, small huts, and villages was a very enjoyable experience. Three historic places are located close together at our first stop in Rajgir – the Sattapanni Guha, King Bimbisara’s (558 – 491 BCE) gold cave, and the hot water spring.
The famous Sattapanni Guha was located at the top of a hill. It was at this guha (cave) where the first Buddhist Council was held in about 482 BCE. The council was hosted by King Ajatashatru (492 – 460 BCE), the son of Bimbisara. Most Venerable Mahakasyapa convened the council after the Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana. The Buddhist scripture Tripitaka took shape at this first council of monks. Venerables Ananda and Upali recited the scripture in front of, and to the agreement of some 500 senior and most learned monks (arhants).
The gold cave was a storehouse of King Bimbisara’s royal treasures. The cave is lined with frescos reflecting the life and customs of people during the king’s reign.
After the cave, we drove to the busy hot water spring, now a Hindu site. The hot water spring was perhaps used by the deliberating monks during the first Buddhist Council. We saw that the outflow from the spring was channeled through different pipelines, and also witnessed many devotees performing bathing rituals with hot water. It is believed that the water has divine healing power.
From there we visited Venuvana Vihara, the bamboo grove park, donated by King Bimbisara to the Buddha Sangha. It is said that the park was one of the Buddha’s favorite places to meditate during rainy seasons. The park has been developed with temples from different countries, a pond where the Buddha used to bathe, and rows and rows of bamboo clusters.
One of the great attractions in Rajgir is the Vulture Peak terrace. Vulture Peak is historically very significant in Buddhism. It is a flat platform just below the hilltop from where the Buddha delivered his famous Lotus Sutra. Different sects of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in east Asia, trace their roots to this sutra. The Buddha’s choice of this peak becomes clear when one sees the beautiful panoramic view of valleys down below and neighboring hills. One cannot help but wonder how the Buddha and his Sangha climbed up the hill during those days – which we can now only climb by using single-seated cable cars.
In the Japanese temple on the top of the hill passed Vulture Peak, a Japanese Buddhist monk chants the Lotus Sutra in rhythmic beats of a drum, and visitors receive dry sweets from the monk. We are told that resident Japanese monks rotate every five years. In addition to chanting the sutra, the monk is responsible for maintaining the pagoda, the beautiful landscape and many small stupas, dedicated to the memory of deceased monks who have worked and sacrificed themselves for the temple grounds.
World Peace Pagoda
Situated on top of the hill where the Japanese temple sits, is the World Peace Pagoda. A little note on peace pagodas around the world: a Japanese Buddhist monk, Nichidatsu Fujii (1885 – 1985) became very horrified and saddened after the World War II atomic bomb devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He started traveling around the world advocating for world peace and met Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948).
It is said that the Mahatma inspired him to build pagodas to convey Buddha’s message of peace to the world. The monk opened a foundation, and the Japanese people and government were very kind to his request – and also largely the people of the world. The legend and influence of Fujii paved the way for a new Buddhist order in Japan – the Nippozan-Myōhōji Buddhist Order.
By 2019, a total of 80 World Peace Pagodas have been built around the world, seven of them in India. Apart from some influence of local architecture and choices of the host country, all pagodas have certain common features: white as a symbol of purity; a hemispherical dome shape tapering to the Wheel of Law at the apex; four arched recesses in four cardinal directions housing the golden Buddha statues in different postures; four separate stairs leading up to the arches; and a wide elevated walkway around the pagoda for devotees to circumambulate.
Next, our journey took us to pay homage to one of the greatest Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage travelers – Xuanzang (602 – 664 CE), also famously remembered in the Indian subcontinent as Hiuen Tsang. His courageous and strenuous travel through the treacherous Silk Road, and return back to China in order to translate the Buddhist scriptures, have given rise to the development of myths and legends on which many popular movies have been based.
It was due to very accurate travel records of this monk that modern archeologists could locate and find many Buddhist ruins – from western China and central west Asia along the Silk Road, to several locations in the Indian subcontinent. King Harsh (606 – 647 CE) acted as his host, paving the way for his studies and introducing him to many famous monks during that time. The People’s Republic of China built a Xuanzang Memorial Hall near historic Nalanda University, to honor his studies.
Many Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India house statues of Hiuen Tsang in the temples to honor him. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Shaanxi, China was built during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) in 652 CE to facilitate the preservation and translation of many Buddhist Sutras (some 600 Mahayana and Theravada texts) brought to China by Xuanzang. The huge pagoda complex, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been developed to attract tourists and Buddhists with spectacular fountains and colorful lights. It was the first pagoda in China, and was also the first multi-storied wooden building in the world.
As part of an Indo-China agreement, India built a Sanchi style Buddhist Stupa in Baima, Luoyang, Henan province near the White Horse Temple. The stupa was built to honor two Buddhist monks, Kasyapa Matanga and Dharmaratna who were the first to bring Buddhism to China in 68 CE during the eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 CE). They worked at the White Horse Temple to translate Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese.
The Sanchi Stupa was initially built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century BCE at the birthplace of his wife Queen Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, India. It has since been repaired and expanded by multiple subsequent Buddhist dynasties. The stupa is very important because it shows the first Indian architectural shape of stupas.
The Magnificent Nalanda
Our next stop was at one of the greatest seats of learning in human history. The historic Nalanda University (427 – 1192 CE) was the second earliest university in the world after Taxila. Based on some early establishments by Emperor Ashoka, the final and formal shape of the university was given by Gupta Dynasty’s King Kumara Gupta (415 – 455 CE) in 427 CE.
Once, some 10,000 students and scholars thronged the university from many countries far and wide. The university curricula included, not only religion and philosophy, but also science and mathematics. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2016.
Apart from Xuanzang, other famous names who studied or taught at the university were: Atisha (982 – 1054 CE); Aryabhata (476 – 550 CE); the Indonesian Shailendra Dynasty prince turned monk, Dharmakirti (6th – 7th century CE); Chandrakirti (600 – 650 CE); Diganaga (480 – 540 CE); and the Pala Dynasty prince and later ruler, Dharmapala (8th century CE).
The Vikramshila and Somapura mahaviharas (universities) located in Bangladesh were built by Dharmapala. The building of two Javanese Indonesian Buddhist architectural masterpieces – the Candi (Temple) Borobudur and Sewu, were inspired by Dharmakirti. Standing out in grandeur and beauty, they were built during the Shailendra Dynasty (7th – 11th century CE).
The names of many other Buddhist scholars are also associated with the Nalanda University. The most notable among them were Nagarjuna (150 – 250 CE) and Aryadeva (200 – 250 CE). Since the lifetime of these two scholars predated the formal institution of Nalanda University by the Guptas, it is likely that they worked in an earlier establishment founded by Emperor Ashoka (268 – 232 BCE). It was a humbling and amazing experience to step into this scholarly establishment – once vibrant with the light of knowledge and wisdom.
The destructive blow to this great seat of learning came during the Turko-Persian Muslim invasion in the 12th century. The Sultanate ruler Bakthtiar Khilji and his troops destroyed the university in 1192 CE. It has been said that the university library was so large that it burned for months. Since this invasion, while most Hindus were spared because of the compromise of Hindu rulers and their cooperation after surrender, Buddhists were forced to convert to Islam. So, it is not surprising that Muslims are a majority population in and around many Buddhist ruins and pilgrimage sites.
In order to glorify the contributions and achievements, the Indian Government, together with the support and patronage of many friendly countries, both in the east and west, have founded a new university close to the historic one. The Nalanda International University is a fully residential university which offers curricula in every field. The view of the new university can be seen from Rajgir hills.
Sarnath is a village where the first turning of the Wheel of Law was pronounced by Siddhārtha Gautama after Buddhahood. Saranath is close to Varanasi – located on the bank of the Ganga River. It is here where Buddha gave his first sermon. The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path were delivered by the Buddha to his five disciples at Deer Park. These disciples left him before enlightenment, complaining that the Buddha abandoned austerity practices.
The Sarnath complex is immense. On the site you will find Deer Park, the Dhamek Stupa, the Dharmarajika Stupa ruin, ruins of other stupas and viharas, and many colorful temples from different countries. Many devotee groups from different countries led by monks as part of a pilgrimage tour were present to pay their respects. A large group of white clothed Sri Lankan devotees gathered around the Dharmarajika Stupa listening to the deliverance of a monk.
During our walk on the ruins, we met a deer watching us from the Deer Park located on one side of the Sarnath protected area, created to replicate the historic Deer Park where Buddha’s first sermon occurred.
The day we arrived in Sarnath, it was in a festive mood, full of tourists and devotees. The Sri Lankan parade was scheduled to be held the next day with a casket of the Buddha relic, sacredly preserved in the Sri Lankan temple.
It happens every year from October to November during the period of the Dana ceremony. These festivities, including a procession of elephants carrying the casket, and people dancing and chanting, is the only event of its kind which happens in India, in addition to the one in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Early the next morning before sunrise, the Sri Lankan temple was suitably decorated for the relic parade where visitors lined up to go inside the temple. The area was crowded with people, jostling to get ahead of the line.
The temple premise has a statue of Anagarika Dharmapala, and statues of the Buddha teaching the five disciples. They were all colorfully decorated for the occasion. The Buddha statue teaching the disciples and a Bodhi Tree are enclosed with prayer wheels. I paid homage to the spot of Buddha’s first turning of the Wheel of Law by performing a three-time clockwise circumambulation while turning the prayer wheels.
Follow us to the next leg of our pilgrimage journey in part three where we visit Vaishali and Kushinagar in India.
– By Dr. Dilip K. Barua
This is part 2 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.
Interested in completing the Buddhist Pilgrimage circuit? Join our tour!
Buddhist Pilgrimage Travel Guides
Buddhist Pilgrimage Part 1: Come along with us as we show you where the Buddhist pilgrimage begins. On the historical site of Bodhgaya stands the Bodhi Tree, the place of enlightenment for the Buddha, a man of wisdom and insight on humanity.
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.