Enlightening Odyssey

It was a prediction that set it off. Terrified that his son might one day renounce the world to become a great seer, King Suddhodhana of the Shakyas, a small kingdom in the Terai region of Nepal, shielded the young Prince Siddhartha from the evil of the world by keeping him within the confines of his palace, in the embrace of material comforts and loving care. From his very birth in 623 BC, in a garden at Lumbini close to the Shakya capital of Kapilavastu, portent’s revealed that the young man’s fate was sealed for higher things than dealing with the earthly concerns and the business of a king.

It was chance too that rolled the dice in favour of the spiritual world, and Prince Siddhartha was a willing pawn when he rejected his regal life. It was an amazing journey that would transform the deeply troubled prince into the great Buddha, the Enlightened One, culminating in his release from the endless cycle of rebirths, at Bodhgaya in Bihar. His great quest would become the core of an important religious movement.

Buddhism - Charismatic Formula

For kings and commoners, criminals and courtesans, Buddhism had the power and strength to transform their lives forever. This is beautifully illustrated in the legendary commitment to Buddhism of King Ashoka, after the bloody battle of Kalinga in Orissa. The great king was enthusiastic in spreading the Buddha’s message of peace and enlightenment across the length and breadth of his vast empire, reaching from present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Buddhism was to travel from its home in India’s eastern Gangetic region of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa to encompass Sri Lanka and the countries of South East Asia, then onto the Himalayan countries of Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, even far-flung Central Asia, China and Japan, under the umbrella of royal patronage and the dedication of its vast community of monks, teachers and artists.

The essence of Buddhism is embodied in the concept of the 4 noble truths and the 3 jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) via the 8-fold path to salvation and peace Anticipating his death in his 80th year Buddha urged his followers, especially his chosen disciples, to continue his work after his imminent Mahaparnirvana the attaining of nirvana (enlightenment). As a reminder of his difficult journey and its ultimate goal, he prevailed upon them to visit the four important places that were the cornerstones of his great journey - Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar.

The spread of Buddhism down the centuries was to leave in its wake a wealth of symbolic structures, including sculpted caves, stupas (relic shrines), chaityas (prayer halls) viharas (monasteries), mahaviharas (universities) and numerous art forms and religious literature. The arrival of Guru Padamasambhava, in the 8th century, was a major impetus in the spread of Buddhism in the Himalayan region.

Today, both pilgrims and tourists can enjoy the special appeal of these myriad experiences, in the Buddhist Heartland of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal. From the moment of his birth, his teachings, spiritual struggle, attainment of enlightenment, great meditations, and message of peace and non-violence, are as relevant to our life and times as it was in his day.

Buddhism - Jewels of the Lotus

Almost a hundred years later there emerged various schools of Buddhist thought evolving somewhat from the Buddha’s original precepts. The most prominent amongst these were the Mahayana School, the Theravada School (based on the old Hinayana School) which flourished in Sri Lanka and established itself quite quickly in many South East Asian countries, and the Vajrayana School with its Tantric features, which spread to the Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.

Lumbini, Sarnath, Bodhgaya and Kushinagar are the primary pilgrimage places associated with the life and teachings of the Lord Buddha. There are numerous other sites where the Buddha and the saints that followed travelled during his life after his transformation, which are held in deep veneration. Visitors can travel through this Buddhist Heartland today, to savour the splendid beauty and great appeal of Buddhism.


The greatest impetus to Buddha’s teachings came from the Indian King Ashoka who went on a great pilgrimage visiting the important sites that are directly associated with his life, in the Footsteps of Lord Buddha. Primary amongst these holy places are Lumbini in Nepal, and Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar in India. The international Buddhist community has been active in supporting these important religious centres. There are other places of lesser significance on the Footsteps of Lord Buddha visitor circuit associated closely with Buddha’s life. Amongst these are Buddha’s monsoon retreats of Vaishali, Rajgir and Sravastii in India, and his early home at Tilaurakot in Kapilavastu Nepal.

Primary Patronage

Lumbini. Lumbini in southern Nepal is where Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Prince Siddhartha. It is just a short distance from the Shakya capital of Kapilavastu. Pilgrimages focus on the sacred garden which contains the site of the birth, the Mayadevi temple, the Pashkarni pond and the Ashoka pillar. Designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, the sacred garden of Lumbini is a World Heritage Site with monasteries from many Buddhist nations. It is recognised as a supreme pilgrimage site and symbol of world peace.

Bodhgaya. It was in Bodhgaya in Bihar, India that Prince Siddhartha found Enlightenment (nirvana) under the bodhi tree after meditating for 49 days. No longer a bodhisattva (mentor), he became Lord Buddha, the Enlightened One.

Primary points of homage are the Mahabodhi Temple, the Vajrasan throne donated by King Ashoka, the holy Bodhi Tree, the Animeshlochana chaitya, the Ratnachankramana, the Ratnagaraha, the Ajapala Nigrodha Tree, the Muchhalinda Lake and the Rajyatna Tree. The spiritual home of all Buddhists, devotees from many Buddhist countries have built temples around the complex in their characteristic architectural styles. Bodhgaya today is a vibrant and inspiring tourist attraction.

Sarnath. Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath after achieving enlightenment, about 10 km from the ancient holy city of Varanasi. The sermon, setting in motion the wheel of the teaching (dharamchakrapravartna) revealed to his followers the 4 noble truths, the concept of the 3 jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha via the 8 fold path, for inner peace and enlightenment. It was here that the Buddha established his first disciples (sangha) to promote his new doctrine. The splendid Dhamekha Stupa at Sarnath was originally erected by King Ashoka, as was the famous lion capital pillar, now the proud symbol of India.

Kushinagar. At Kushinagar close to Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, India en route to Kapilavastu, Lord Buddha fell ill and left this world in 543 BC. His mortal remains were preserved in eight commemorative chortens, and then further distributed by King Ashoka into 84,000 stupas across his kingdom and beyond. Important places to see here are the Mukatanabandhana stupa and the Gupta period reclining Buddha statue in red sandstone.

Mobilising Mantras & Sutras

The Buddha preached his last sermon before his death at Vaishali in Bihar, 60 km away from its capital Patna. It was here that he told his disciple Ananda about his imminent demise. The Second Buddhist Council was held in Vaishala about 110 years later.

About 70 km from Bodhgaya, Rajgir was Buddha’s monsoon retreat for 12 years whilst he spread his doctrine. It was at the holy Griddhikuta Hill that he expounded the precepts of his Lotus Sutra and the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. The Saptaparni Caves set on Vaibhar Hill were the venue of the First Buddhist Council, held to compile the teachings of the Buddha in its authentic form, after his death. The world-renowned university of Nalanda is another important landmark site.

About 150 km from the city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Shravasti was Buddha’s favourite rainy season retreat where he Buddha performed his first miracle.

The Ties That Bind

Around Lumbini in Nepal are seven other pilgrimage sites. The first thirty years of Buddha’s life were spent at Tilaurakot in Kapilavastu in his father’s home, 27 km west of Lumbini in Nepal. The well-preserved city foundations are evocative of former times, and the casket recovered from the original stupa is preserved in the nearby museum. About 34 km northeast of Lumbini is Devdaha whose Koliya people are considered to be the maternal tribesmen of the Buddha. The forest of Sagarhawa lies northwest of Niglihawa. Another important site is the stupa at Kudan, 5 km from Tilaurakot, where Buddha’s father King Suddhodhana met him after his enlightenment.


The trans-Himalayan regions of Bhutan, India, and Nepal are strongly rooted in the Buddhist faith. In Dharamsala, in the Kangra Valley, lives his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists. Visitors can enjoy Living Buddhism experiences throughout the region, whether as a student of Buddhism, meditation and yoga, or as a layperson attracted by the vibrant culture, people and festivals.

Eastern Himalayas-The Lotus Blooms Still

Kathmandu Valley is an important Buddhist pilgrimage circuit with 15 major sites. It is a living center of Buddhist learning with many new monasteries and schools that attract funding and visitors from all over the world. The most important Living Buddhism sites are Swayambhunath and Bodhnath stupas, both with strong links to Tibet. Protected as World Heritage Sites, they are the most revered spiritual sites in the country, attracting thousands of pilgrims. Many of the indigenous Newar people of Kathmandu practice a unique form of Buddhism, unrelated to Tibet.

In the northern regions of Nepal, Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism continues to flourish and there are many monasteries and sacred sites. Many of these are in Mustang and Dolpa districts. The important monasteries Thyangboche, Thame, Chiwong and Thupten Choeling are in the Everest region of Solu Khumbu.

In the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, HM the King is considered equal in status to the religious leader, the Jekhenpo. The depth and vibrancy of the Buddhist faith is reflected in everyday life. Devotees revere Guru Padmasambhava as the second Buddha. Bhutan’s monastery fortresses (dzongs) are an integral feature of governance, and the repository of precious treasures of ancient literature, scriptures and art. The great dzongs of Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Wangdi Phodrang, amongst many others, offer a fabulous journey for both pilgrim and tourist to explore Bhutan’s colourful history and spiritual splendour. An added temptation for the visitor is the fabulous repertoire of cultural activities associated with the Kingdom’s renowned festivals (tsechus).

A short distance from Paro is the renovated Taktsang monastery, the venerated location of Guru Rimpoche’s (Padmasambhava) deep meditation before subduing evil demons. Kyichu Lakhang in Paro and Jambay Lakhang in Bhumtang are amongst Bhutan’s most important and oldest Buddhist sites. The famous tsechu festivities are marked by prayers and religious dances, colourful costumes, morality tales, and invocations of protection against evil forces. Dungtse Lakhang is reputed for its fabulous collection of religious paintings .The spectacular Punakha dzong is the winter seat of the monkhood, and houses numerous sacred artifacts and important temples.

Living Buddhism flourishes in northern India, home of the Dalai Lama. Set amongst the splendid heights of the Eastern Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh is the remote Tawang Monastery. Amongst the native inhabitants, the Monpas and the Sherdupkens people keep alive the Buddhist faith from ancient times. This 17th century monastery is the largest of its kind in India and the second largest in Asia. The hill town of Bomdila offers local handicrafts and religious artifacts, and ancient monasteries

Other North East states also have Buddhist attractions. In the shadow of Mt Khangchendzonga, Buddhism flourishes in the sacred landscape of Sikkim which is dotted with 107 monasteries and many sacred stupas. Amongst the most important are Rumtek, the home of the Kagyupa sect, Pemayangtse, Tashding and Enchey. The monastery at Chungtang marks the footprint of Guru Padamasambhava when he rested en route to Tibet. Recently, the world’s tallest statue of Guru Rinpoche has been erected at Namchi. The people celebrate their faith during the chaam (masked) dances at the great festivals.

Surviving Buddhist Enclaves

Bangladesh is now largely Muslim, but the country has important pockets of Buddhist communities that date back to the 7th century, especially in the region of Chittagong, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Cox’s Bazaar, Noakhali and Barisal. There are at least 50 Buddhist settlements surviving from the 8-12th century in the Mainamati-Lalmai range at Tipera, Laksham and Comilla


The great journey of Buddhism throughout its 2,500-year history has manifested itself in a profusion of creative energy in its art, archaeology and architecture. These include beautifully painted holy caves, statues and sculpted heads, bas reliefs, mandalas, thangkas (religious paintings) and frescos, stupas and chortens, fine chaityas, viharas, mahaviharas and temples that offer the traveller cross-border cultural pickings that are as enriching as they are moving.

The earliest form of Buddhism had no iconoclastic roots. Buddha himself was regarded as a teacher not a God. When Buddha attained nirvana he was represented only in the form of symbols such as the lotus, the bo (peepul) tree, and the wheel.

Buddha as an icon emerged through the influence of the Mahayana School of Buddhism, and the mystical and highly symbolic Tantric form of the Vajrayana School. Vajrayana culture flourished at Bodhgaya, Nalanda and Vikramshila around the 8-9 BC. Buddhist Nalanda enjoyed the patronage of several dynasties of kings but was annihilated by the Turks in the 12th century. Tantric ritual and mysticism relied heavily on sutras and tantras - secret practices linked with the mandala (magical diagram). It saw the inclusion of occult concepts woven intricately into the rapidly expanding pantheon of Buddha images of gods and goddesses.

The Dharma and the Kings of old Bengal

Bangladesh enjoyed the fruits of early Buddhist thought and art. Buddhism received enormous support during the Pala, Chandra and Deva rulers, devout Buddhists, who were responsible for erecting a cavalcade of commemorative monuments. Amongst them was the important university of Paharpur, now archaeological remains about 300 km from Dhaka. Along with Nalanda University in Bihar, India it was an important centre of Buddhist teaching. Other important archeological sites in Bangladesh are at Mahastangar, Comila, Mainamati, and Ramu.

Pillars, Sculpted Caves and the Pledge of a King

The earliest form of Buddhist architecture is visible in the sculpted caves, monastic retreats that were in effect temples of great spirituality. The caves at Udaygiri, Ratnagiri and Lalitagiri in Orissa and the Barabar caves in Bihar are an excellent example of how the art form developed. At Dhauli, the site of the great battle of Kalinga fought by King Ashoka, 8 km from Bhubaneswar, stands Ashoka’s rock edict revealing his pledge to become a Buddhist.

Stupas, Chortens, Chaityas, Viharas and Dzongs

The splendour of the stupas at Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Bodhnath, Nalanda and other important Buddhist sites are an evocative message of Buddha’s teachings. The Dhamekha stupa at Sarnath is a cylindrical structure dating to the golden age of the Guptas (320 AD). It features the typical floral design on stone of Gupta workmanship. Nepal’s Swayambhunath features traditional Nepalese architectural design with its tall steeple mounting the dome, representing the 13 Buddhist heavens.

Chortens and viharas, stupas in miniature, were originally meant to preserve the relics of the Buddha or great Buddhist teachers. Excellent examples of the early viharas were those at Vaishali, Rajgir and Shravasti. Some of the most powerful mahaviharas were Nalanda and Vikramshila in Bihar, India and Paharpur in Bangladesh.

In Bhutan the great dzongs were ideal for keeping precious Buddhist treasures and also as monastic retreats thanks to their isolation and invincibility. These imposing structures with their tapering walls, courtyards and galleries have been created with traditional designs handed down verbally from generation to generation, No nails mar their creation.

Buddhist Centres of Learning

With the advent of the Mahayana school, the world-renowned university of Nalanda became an important centre for Buddhist learning, along with Pahapur, attracting scholars from around the known world. Nalanda enjoyed the patronage of several dynasties of kings but was annihilated by the Turks in the 12th century. It's an amazing experience walking across the vast grounds of the ruins with its great stupa and other monastic structures.

Sculptures & Paintings - Messengers of the Buddha

The first images of Buddha were formed at Gandhara and show decidedly Hellinistic features (defined by drapery and hairstyle) due to the trade and cultural links with Mediterranean Europe at the time. With the emergence of the Mathura school, close to Agra, the features of the Buddha became more indigenous, inspired by the traditional yakshis and yakshas sculptural forms. In Bhutan, and Nepal the elements of the highly symbolic Vajrayana Buddhist style of iconography, so popular in the 10th-11th century, were however discontinued around the 14th century in exchange for a less complex range of artistic vision but which still retained its vibrancy and colourful splendour.

The massive Mahasthangarh archeological remains (240 km from Dhaka) throw light on the development of Buddhist art and architectural leanings in Bangladesh. This fortified city of the 3rd century BC, extending over an 8 km radius, is the earliest documented urban civilization of Bangladesh. Within easy reach are the Buddhist ruins of Govind Bhita, Gokul Medh Stupa and the Vasu Vihara monastery. The greatest collection of early Pala sculptures have been found in the Paharpur monastic complex at the central temple of the renowned Somapura Mahavihara.

At the tomb of Saint Shah Sultan Mahi Swar Balkhi, were discovered 40 bronze statues representing Buddhist deities, and terracotta plaques with scenes from the Ramayana. The Mainamati Museum houses an extensive range of finds from these Buddhist sites. The Salban Vihara in the Mainamati-Lalmai hills has a complex of 115 cells around a central courtyard with its cruciform temple facing the gateway complex, resembles the Paharpur monastery. Kotila Mura houses three stupas representing the holy Trinity of Buddhism - the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. From Rupban Mura was recovered an early standing Buddha in abhaya mudra.

The yellow-bronze statuary of Bhutan reflects influences in bronze-casting from the craftsman who settled here from the eastern Tibetan province of Kham, in the 16th century. Bhutanese painters are still sought after to decorate religious buildings all over the region.

The splendid innovation in the use of colour and expressive elements of Buddhist art down the ages is amply recorded in the fabulous thangkas or religious paintings of Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and the trans-Himalayan regions of India. Objects of veneration and an aid to meditation, thangkas are traditional scroll paintings on cotton cloth with vegetable and precious mineral dyes. Buddhas, Boddhisatvas, Taras and numerous estoteric subjects reflect the artist’s vision of his Buddhist world. Embellishments with the lotus motif and themes from the Jataka Tales (lives of the Buddha) are a recurring form of imagery and inspiration for paintings.

The fantastic range of Buddhist art and archaeology in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, carries the visitor on a splendid journey that marks some of the most evocative and dynamic aspects of the Buddhist faith. Time and tide have worked upon the measures of the emerging artistic trends, but at the core of it remain the Buddha’s basic tenets - of self-discipline and balance as a means to the ultimate goal of the human being - the release from the endless cycle of rebirth-pain and suffering and finding the great peace.


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