Seek, and ye shall find… Following in Lord Buddha’s footsteps, P Ritu embarks on a soulful journey across Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India and Nepal
A week after his Enlightenment, Gautam Buddha embarked on a journey from under the shade of the Bodhi tree. This, perhaps, continued for the rest of his life as he went about spreading the truth. Not in a hurry to arrive anywhere, he just kept walking…
Today, over 2,000 years later, scores of pilgrims seeking salvation retrace Lord Buddha’s steps, as ordained in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. One cold January afternoon, I found myself among one such group, some among us visitors from China, at the quaint Safdarjung railway station in New Delhi, waiting to board the Mahaparinirvan Express train, which travels across most Buddhist landmarks in India.
Our first stop was Gaya, and I was excited about visiting Bodhgaya – approximately 15 km away – at a time when the Dalai Lama was present for the 34th Kalachakra Initiations. The first Kalachakra Initiation was given by Lord Buddha himself to his disciples thousands of years ago.
With the Kalachakra Initiations on, the town was a mishmash of vibrant colours and tourists from across the globe, as the air reverberated with rhythmic Buddhist chanting. Our first stop was the famous Mahabodhi (Bodhi) tree, under which prince Siddhartha (Lord Buddha) had attained Enlightenment. The Mahabodhi Temple, an architectural marvel, stands east of the Bodhi Tree.
The next morning, we travelled to neighbouring Rajgir. Buddha not only spent many years in this scenic town but also delivered sermons here and proselytised emperor Bimbisar at the Griddhakoota hill.
Approximately 13 km from Rajgir lie the ruins of the famed Nalanda University, the great seat of learning in ancient India. Though Lord Buddha visited Nalanda several times, this centre of Buddhist learning shot to fame during the 5th to 12th centuries. It was the first residential international university in the world: 2,000 teachers and 10,000 monk students lived and studied here. Today, the ruins of the university hark back to a long-lost era, and just 14 hectare of the total area have been excavated. Nearby, the Nalanda Archaeological Museum exhibits sculptures and archaeological finds from these ruins.
Approximately 10 km away from Varanasi, Sarnath is where the Buddha is believed to have delivered his first sermon, sanctified as Maha Dharm Chakra Parivartan. It is a small, touristy town with tree-lined roads winding through ruins of magnificent stupas and monasteries. Here, peaceful saffron-clad monks capture the beauty of the busy streets, and their surroundings, with modern-day gadgets. The glistening Ashoka Pillar is a must-visit here. Established by emperor Ashoka in 273-232 BC, it marks the foundation of the Buddhist Sangha, and the Lion Capital atop it is now India’s National Emblem.
Alighting in Gorakhpur, we drove to Sonauli on the Indo-Nepal border. Lumbini, the site of Lord Buddha’s birth, is a short distance away from the border. After visa procedures, we entered Nepal. The newborn prince Siddhartha is believed to have taken seven steps and uttered a timeless message in the beautiful Sal grove, which is now the focal point of the Lumbini Garden area. It is believed that Maya Devi, the queen of Shakya king Suddhodhana of Kapilvastu, gave birth to the prince while passing through the Lumbini Garden in 623 BC. I ran into Basanta Bidari, the retired chief archaeologist, Lumbini Development Trust, who, in 1996, had discovered a marker stone placed by emperor Ashoka, citing the spot of the Buddha’s birth, inside the Maya Devi temple.
The next morning, we made our way to Kushinagar, where the Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana. A spectacular statue of the reclining Buddha, excavated in 1876, is enshrined in the uniquely-designed Mahaparinirvana Temple.
Sravasti, 15 km from Bahraich, was our next stop. Lord Buddha is said to have spent 27 years here. Today, the town boasts excellently-preserved ruins, an ancient Bodhi Vriksh (tree) and a World Peace Bell, established with help from Japan. The capital of the ancient Khosla kingdom, Sravasti has been identified with the remains at Saheth- Maheth, situated on the banks of River Rapti. On the last leg of our trip, we did a quick round of the Taj Mahal in Agra, a must on any tourist itinerary in India. On our return, as we sat chatting over tea and pakoras, I realised that I had nearly finished reading my second book of the journey.
My bookmark, with a picture of the Buddha, read: Take my hand… As I walk. I only walk. Peacefully. Happily. I walk. Without arriving anywhere. I walk for myself. I walk for everyone. I walk…
The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in the article are her own