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Tibetan Temple (Tara Foundation), Lumbini, 2007

Tibetan Temple (Tara Foundation), Lumbini, 2007

Pilgrimage formed an important part of Buddhist devotional practice from ancient times. The Rg Veda, a Brahmanical text composed in c. 1200 BC, refers to the spiritual benefits that could be acquired by undertaking a pilgrimage to holy sites. In the Mahaparinibbana sutta, another early text, it is stated that the Buddha encouraged all devotees to make pilgrimages to four holy sites to ensure that they would be reborn in a heavenly world.

It was at these four sites - Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kusinagara - that the most significant events of the Buddha's life took place (birth, enlightenment, turning the wheel of the law and death). Four other sites associated with special events and miracles soon also became a focus for pilgrimage. These are Sravasti, Sankasy, Vaisali and Rajgir.

The eight pilgrimage sites are collectively known as the Astamahapratiharya.

Lumbini

Lumbini (25 km E of Kapilavastu, Nepal) is where Queen Maya gave birth to the Buddha. The emperor Ashoka is thought to have visited the site in 250 BC with his teacher, Upagupta. Whilst he was there, a pillar (known as the Rummendei Pillar) and a stone wall were built to commemorate his visit. An inscription on the pillar recorded Ashoka's visit and noted his ruling that since Lumbini was the birthplace of the Buddha, the village would be exempt from paying taxes and would only have to contribute one-eighth of its produce.

Surrounded by monasteries, the site now includes the pillar, a tank where the nagas (spirits of the waters) gave the Buddha his first purifying bath, the Mayadevi temple which stands on the precise birth place of the Buddha and a bodhi tree.

Panel showing the birth of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century, Museum no. IM.109-1927
Panel showing the birth of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century, Museum no. IM.109-1927
Tibetan Temple (Tara Foundation), Lumbini, 2007
Tibetan Temple (Tara Foundation), Lumbini, 2007
Ashoka's pillar at Lumbini, 2006
Ashoka's pillar at Lumbini, 2006
Tank at Lumbini, 2006
Tank at Lumbini, 2006
Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya

Here the Buddha finally gained enlightenment, sitting under a pipal tree, also known as the bodhi tree. As the most important Buddhist site, Bodhgaya has been a key pilgrimage destination for Buddhists throughout Asia. Even today it attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world.

The site has undergone many changes over the centuries. It was first marked by a tree-shrine (bodhighara) which was then enclosed by a two-storey wooden structure together with a stone throne. When Ashoka came to Bodhgaya in 259 BC, a commemorative temple was constructed. The Chinese pilgrim Faxian visited in approximately 400 AD and noted that the bodhi tree was still standing and that a tower shrine had been erected.

Extensively restored during the 19th century, the brick tower of the Mahabodhi temple dominates the site, standing immediately in front of a descendant of the original bodhi tree.

Seated Buddha, Sarnath Museum. ©John Huntington

Seated Buddha, Sarnath Museum. ©John Huntington

Sarnath

After his enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first teaching in a deer park at Sarnath. This is referred to as the first turning of the Wheel of the Law (Dharmachakra). It was here that the Buddha also established the order of monks (sangha).

Because of its great importance as a pilgrimage site, Sarnath has been continuously occupied from the 3rd century BC until the 12th century AD when Buddhism was on the wane in northern India.

Ashoka visited the site and constructed two stupas (Dharmarajika and Dhamekh) and a commemorative pillar. By the 11th century these structures had fallen into disrepair, but excavations in the late 19th century uncovered the pillar together with a marble relic casket and an image of the Buddha delivering his first sermon. The Dhamekh stupa that exists today was built from brick during the 5th-6th centuries and stands on the site of earlier structures.

Kusinagara

Temple at Kusinagara. Photograph courtesy of Firefly Mission, 2007

Temple at Kusinagara. Photograph courtesy of Firefly Mission, 2007

The Buddha chose Kusinagara, capital of the Malla kingdom, for his final extinction (Mahaparinirvana). Records note that the Buddha had visited the city a number of times and many of the Mallas had become his followers.

After his death, the Buddha's body was cremated at the shrine of the Mallas. His remains were divided into eight parts which were subsequently placed under eight stupas in different parts of the country.

Ashoka made a significant contribution to construction at this site. The Mahaparinirvana stupa marks the spot where the Buddha passed away. The temple contains a 6 metre long statue of the Buddha in parinirvana posture (lying on one side).

Temple at Kusinagara
Temple at Kusinagara
Image of Buddha in parinirvana posture, Kusinagara. Photograph B Pilgrim/Wikipedia, 2007
Image of Buddha in parinirvana posture, Kusinagara. Photograph B Pilgrim/Wikipedia, 2007
Panel showing the death of the Buddha, 100-200 AD, Museum no. IM.247-1927
Panel showing the death of the Buddha, 100-200 AD, Museum no. IM.247-1927
Seated Buddha, Sravasti. Photograph by Gaurang Prajapati, 2008

Seated Buddha, Sravasti. Photograph by Gaurang Prajapati, 2008

Sravasti

During the Buddha's lifetime, Sravasti, capital of the powerful Kosala kingdom, provided a retreat during the rainy season for large numbers of the monastic community (sangha).

The Buddha spent much of his monastic life in Sravasti giving discourses and engaging in debates. It was here that six non-believers challenged the Buddha to perform a miracle whereupon he levitated on a thousand-petalled lotus, caused fire to shoot from his shoulders and water to flow from his feet and then multiplied himself.

The monastery known as Jetavana Vihara was built by a rich and pious merchant who became a disciple of the Buddha. Close to the monastery is the Anandabodhi tree, grown from a cutting taken from the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka which itself grew from a cutting taken from the original Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. The monastery is still an important pilgrimage destination.

Panel showing the descent of the Buddha from Trayastrimsa Heaven, Gandhara. Museum no. IS.11-1947

Panel showing the descent of the Buddha from Trayastrimsa Heaven, Gandhara. Museum no. IS.11-1947

Sankasya

Sankasya (now identified with the village of Basantpur in Uttar Pradesh) is where the Buddha, together with Brahma and Indra, descended to earth from the Trayastrimsa heaven after preaching to his deceased mother, Mayadevi.

Three ladders of silver, gold and jewels were provided for the gods and the event was witnessed by a vast crowd of people to whom the Buddha preached the Law.The Chinese pilgrims Faxien and Xuanzang noted that three ladders were to be seen there made from brick and stone. These may have been constructed by Ashoka to commemorate the Buddha's descent.

A shrine marked the spot where the Buddha's foot first touched the ground and Ashoka also erected a pillar with an elephant capital to mark this holy place.
 
 

Pillar and capital erected by Ashoka, Sankasya. Photograph courtesy of Firefly Mission, 2007
Pillar and capital erected by Ashoka, Sankasya. Photograph courtesy of Firefly Mission, 2007
Elephant capital from pillar erected by Ashoka, Sankasya © John Huntington
Elephant capital from pillar erected by Ashoka, Sankasya © John Huntington
Descent of the Buddha from Trayastrimsa Heaven, Kashmir, 8th century. Museum no. IS.8-1978
Descent of the Buddha from Trayastrimsa Heaven, Kashmir, 8th century. Museum no. IS.8-1978

Vaisali

Records indicate that the Buddha made several visits to Vaisali for the purpose of preaching to the monastic community (sangha) and setting down many instructions and rules (suttas).

Lion capital of pillar erected by Ashoka. Photograph © John Huntington
Lion capital of pillar erected by Ashoka. Photograph © John Huntington
Relic stupa at Vaisali. Photograph courtesy of Firefly Mission, 2007
Relic stupa at Vaisali. Photograph courtesy of Firefly Mission, 2007
Monastery at Vaisali with pillar erected by Ashoka. Photograph by B Pilgrim, 2006
Monastery at Vaisali with pillar erected by Ashoka. Photograph by B Pilgrim, 2006
Remains of stupa at Vaisali © John Huntington
Remains of stupa at Vaisali © John Huntington

Rajgir

Relief panel showing the Buddha subduing the elephant Nalagiri, Takht-i-bahi. Museum no. IS.3302-18883

Relief panel showing the Buddha subduing the elephant Nalagiri, Takht-i-bahi. Museum no. IS.3302-18883

The Buddha spent several months meditating and preaching at Rajgir, converting the king of Magadha (present day Bihar) and many others to Buddhism including Jivaka (the king's physician), Sariputta and Mogallana who were to become important and influential disciples. Royal patronage allowed monastic buildings (vihara) to be constructed, providing a retreat for monks during the rainy season.

It was at Rajgir that Devadatta, one of the Buddha's disciples, attempted to kill the Buddha and seize leadership, by setting loose the wild elephant known as Nalagiri. Many texts relate the miraculous story of how the Buddha faced the charging elephant and subdued him.

Ashoka erected a pillar to mark his visit to Rajgir and accounts of the city, monasteries and shrines appear in the journals of the Chinese pilgrims Fazian and Xuanzang.


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