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
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.
FOOTSTEPS OF LORD BUDDHA
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.
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
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
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
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
ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY
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
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
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.