When a young prince of the Sakya tribe, raised amid luxury, was faced with the realities of life – sorrow, sickness and death – he decided he wouldn’t look away. Instead, Siddhartha Gautama (571 – 485 BCE) set off on a quest, determined to answer the questions: What was the true meaning of life, and how could one escape suffering and the bonds of karma?
It wasn’t a mission most would have chosen for themselves. In order to fulfill it, he had to step away from his family, its riches, and the little mountain kingdom he would have inherited from his father, Suddhodhana, King of Kapilavastu. In the course of his quest, the erstwhile prince achieved enlightenment under a peepal tree and became the Buddha, or Enlightened One, founder of Buddhism, one of the world’s great faiths.
The path he preached was one of introspection, simplicity, balance, compassion and love. It was a unique idea, especially at the time, based on the principle that we are all equal, with an equal ability to seek enlightenment ourselves. The idea spread like wildfire, finding tens of thousands of takers across the Indian sub-continent and through South Asia, from Assam to Afghanistan and Kashmir to Sri Lanka, then beyond, to China, Korea, Japan, Central Asia and Mongolia.
Travelling from his birthplace in Lumbini, in present-day Nepal, through northern India – the peepal tree is in Bodh Gaya, Bihar; his first sermon was preached in Sarnath, just outside present-day Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh (UP) – the Buddha preached and lived his teachings. He was 80 when he passed away, achieving parinirvana or the ultimate state of nirvana, while in Kushinagar, UP.
At the time, his attendant and disciple, Ananda, asked how the Buddha’s disciples might best pay him their respects following his death. The Buddha is said to have responded, “There are four places, Ananda, that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence.” They were Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar.
As we follow in the footsteps of the Buddha, take a look at how all four sites have been revered for thousands of years, visited by sages, pilgrims and emperors; and how many were also lost for centuries, and recently rediscovered.
Lumbini: Birthplace of the Buddha
It is believed that Siddhartha Gautama’s mother, Maya Devi or Maha Maya, gave birth to him under a tree in the vana or garden of Lumbini, while on her way from the kingdom of Kapilavastu to her parents’ kingdom of Devadaha.
The site is now in the Rupandehi district of Nepal, about 125 km from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.
The oldest remaining monument here is a pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE), who famously converted to Buddhism, sickened by the carnage he was responsible for in the Battle of Kalinga in 261 BCE. Several centuries later, Chinese travellers, many of them Buddhist monks, visited too and left behind records describing the spot where the Buddha was born. Chief among these were Hiuen Tsang and Fa-Hien.
A series of excavations at Lumbini has revealed the remains of many stupas, monasteries and temples, dating back several centuries. There is also a shrine here, called the Maya Devi Temple, named after the Buddha’s mother. Lumbini remains one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage centres in the world.
Discover Lumbini and all that it has to offer.
Bodh Gaya: Seat of Enlightenment
For seven weeks, Siddhartha Gautama meditated under a tree in what was then the town of Gaya in Bihar. It is where he is believed to attained enlightenment, his knowledge of the meaning of life and the path to nirvana.
Gaya became Bodh Gaya – and the tree became known as the Bodhi tree. The Mahabodhi Temple stands here, a testament to that history. Around the temple and within the complex are other sacred spots where the Buddha meditated after attaining enlightenment.
Bodh Gaya now houses Buddhist temples and monasteries representing all the major schools of the religion, and representatives from all the nations where Buddhism is followed.
Read about Bodh Gaya and the interesting tale of its rediscovery.
Sarnath: Where the Buddha First Preached
Near the confluence of the Ganga and Varuna Rivers in Uttar Pradesh is Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment.
Buddhist texts tell us that the five men who accompanied the Buddha on his journey of asceticism had abandoned him by this point, and had settled in Sarnath. Upon gaining enlightenment, the Buddha felt they should be the first to know what he had learned. So he travelled to Sarnath and gave his first sermon, known as the Dharmacakrapravartana Sutra, or the ‘turning of the wheel of law’.
According to Buddhist literature, the Buddha also laid the foundation of his sangha or order of monks at Sarnath. Many historians believe the Buddha chose Sarnath due to its proximity to Varanasi, which was already a centre of great learning at the time.
Today the site also houses the Ashoka Pillar with lion capital and crowning Dharmachakra that is now India’s national emblem.
Find out more about the ancient city of Sarnath.
Kushinagar and the Buddha’s Mahaparinirvana
“Everything decays, strive for your goal with diligence.” These are believed to have been the Buddha’s last words, said to his disciple Ananda, at Kushinagar in UP. At the time of the Buddha’s death, the place was called Kushavati. It was the capital of the tribal kingdom of the Mallas and had also been one of the capitals of the ancient kingdom of Kosala in epic literature.
According to Buddhist scripture, the Buddha had been ailing for a few days after a hearty meal that had disagreed with him seriously. Having entrusted his last words and instructions to the disciple Ananda, he lay down on his right side, placed his right hand under his head and passed silently from this world.
The site of Kushavati / Kushinagar was rediscovered by Sir Alexander Cunningham, the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, during his surveys of Uttar Pradesh. Today, a massive brick stupa stands at the site in Kushinagar where the Buddha was cremated, and adjacent to it are the remains of the famous and the Parinarvana Temple dating to the Gupta Era (4th to 6th century CE).
Read more about the place where the Buddha breathed his last.
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