Places connected to the life of the Buddha are sacred to Buddhists across the world. The most important of these are his birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal, and in India — Bodh Gaya where he attained Nirvana or enlightenment, Sarnath where the first sermon by the Buddha was preached, and Kushinagar where he passed away.
Many religions stress the importance of going on pilgrimages or journeys to holy places. In Buddhism, these places are where the Buddha lived and taught, with four places considered the holiest. One is in Nepal and the other three are in India. It is thought the Buddha was born in Nepal in an area called Lumbini, situated in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The Indian pilgrimage sites include Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment; Sarnath (sometimes called Deer Park), where the Buddha first taught after being enlightened and Kusinara, the town where the Buddha died. All of these places now have many monks and landmarks to help cater to the weary pilgrims. Kunisara now has a handsome temple that houses a reclining golden Buddha.
- In Polonnaruwa (Sri Lanka) is a huge reclining figure of the dying Buddha, and beside him stands a 7.5 meter tall stone statue of his disciple, Ananda.
- In Kandy (Sri Lanka), a temple is said to house a tooth of the Buddha. Legend has it that the tooth was removed while the Buddha lay on his funeral pyre. Princess Hemamali smuggled it into Sri Lanka in 313 AD, hiding the tooth in her hair.
- The famous “Emerald Buddha” is in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo temple. This tiny icon is carved from jade, and many wars have been waged for its possession. No one except the Thai king is allowed near it. The king conducts rituals at the temple housing the Emerald Buddha throughout the year. The tiny green statue remains a tangible symbol of the Thai nation, and it is feared that removal of the image from Bangkok will signify the end of the present ruling dynasty, the Chakri dynasty.
- The Borobudur Temple complex in Indonesia is constructed from lava rock. Its many terraced levels are inspired by the lotus flower, and it represents the Buddhist concept of the universe.
- In Lhasa, Tibet is the famous Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama spent his childhood years. Today this magnificent, striking building is a state museum housing countless 17th-century Buddhist artifacts such as thankas, murals, mandalas, and altars.
- The world’s tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha is on Lan Tau Island near Hong Kong.
- The largest Buddha statue in India is in the middle of a lake in Hyderabad, India. It is 18 meters tall and weighs 350 tons.
- The world’s tallest Buddha statue carved out of a mountain is in Pattaya, Thailand. It is 130 meters high and 70 meters wide.
- The second largest carved statue of the Buddha (71 meters high) is in Sichuan, China. It is carved out of the Lingyun Mountain. The statue is so big that a hundred people can sit in a row between its feet.
Nepal is proud of its link to the Buddha. Even the airport in the town of Bhairahawa near Lumbini is known as Gautam Buddha Airport. You’ll find the exact location of the Buddha’s birth in the inner shrine of the Maya Devi Temple. The temple is dedicated to Mahamaya, the mother of Lord Buddha. Until 1886 the Buddha’s birthplace was a mystery. Then along came Dr. Alois A Fuhrer, a German archaeologist who discovered the stone pillar erected by King Ashoka the Great. The inscription on the pillar mentioned Lumbini as the birthplace of the Buddha.
To Buddhists, perhaps Bodh Gaya (eastern India) is the most important pilgrimage destination. It was here that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha (The Awakened One). The descendant of the Bodhi (fig) tree beneath which he meditated and attained enlightenment still stands today on the premises of the Mahabodhi Temple. You’ll see green, red and white prayer flags fluttering from the branches and seven shrines that represent the Buddha’s seven weeks in this small town. The Buddha preached his famous dramatic Fire Sermon in Bodh Gaya. Interestingly, T.S.Elliot included part of this sermon in his poem, ‘The Wasteland’.
While in Bodh Gaya, don’t forget to visit other places linked to the Buddha. There’s Rajgir where the First Buddhist Council was held three months after the Buddha’s death. Visit the serene cave on Vulture Peak where the Buddha meditated and the bamboo grove where he spent cool afternoons in the heat of summer.
Nalanda which is close by became famous for the world’s first international Buddhist University. A visit to the ruins of Nalanda University is a must. Today there is still an international center for Buddhist studies here and 40% of the students come from overseas.
Five weeks after his enlightenment, the Buddha traveled to this deer park to preach his first sermon. On the very spot where he preached, stands the enormous Dharmekh Stupa in tranquil green surroundings. It was built by Emperor Ashoka and is said to house a relic of the Buddha.
There are many monasteries around Sarnath, home to monks from all over the world.
A large number of Buddhists come to Kushinagar every day. The Buddha died here at the age of eighty after eating a dish of poisonous mushrooms offered by a well-meaning devotee. Inside the Mahaparinirvana Temple, you can see the Nirvana statue which is among the most famous images of the Buddha in the world. This 5th-century sandstone statue of the dying Buddha is covered with gold and shrouded in silk. The stupa next to the temple is said to mark the place of the Buddha’s cremation.
Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are eight main places of worship here, with the Sri Maha Bodhi temple considered the holiest. This temple boasts of the world’s oldest recorded tree – the descendant of the original bodhi tree in India beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Polonnaruwa has wonderful statues of the Buddha in Gal Vihare, including one which is 46 feet tall. The 11th-century Atadage (House of Eight Relics) here is said to be the first temple built to house tooth relics belonging to the Buddha.
Kandy is famous for its Temple of the Tooth (it houses a tooth of the Buddha).
At Dambulla, the rock caves with huge images of the Buddha are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Buddhism is a minor religion in Indonesia, but the country possesses the largest Buddhist monument in the world – the stupa of Borobudur on the island of Java. The massive 9th-century stupa carved from volcanic stone is embellished with 1460 reliefs and 1212 decorative panels.
Bangkok, the capital of Thailand today has numerous Buddhist temples worth seeing. Among these, the most interesting are Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho, and Arun. In Ayutthaya in Thailand, you can find well preserved medieval monuments such as stupas (dome-shaped shrines) with typical Thai “lotus bud” domes in the Ayutthaya Historical Park.
The Buddhist Experience at The Grand Palace
Arriving in Bangkok after a 14-hour flight can make one weary. Thailand’s oppressive heat can also slow down an excited tourist. But there is one thing that can energize even the sleepiest of travelers: The Grand Palace.
The Grand Palace, or Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang, is a series of buildings in the heart of Bangkok meant for both royal functions and for Buddhist worship. Built in the late 18th century, many Thai kings have lived here.
If you are non-Buddhist visiting a holy Buddhist temple there are many questions that arise and new experiences to be had. But for everyone – Buddhist and non-Buddhist – the sparkling gold domes and the reverence of those worshipping is inspiring. At The Grand Palace, everyone is welcome as long as a few rules are followed.
Here are a few things you should know before visiting The Grand Palace or any other Buddhist temple.
- Men and women have equal status within the Buddhist tradition so everyone is welcome in all areas of the temple (unless there are signs that say you can’t, of course)Knees and shoulders must be covered.
- When entering a temple structure remove your shoes. Also, sit down on the floor quickly and be sure there is room around you for other visitors. It is okay for a non-Buddhist to light incense, which is an offering. Only do so in designated areas and offer a small donation in exchange for the incense sticks.
- If you wish not to donate money (Thai Bhat), you can also offer food. You may notice that Buddhist monks and nuns collect food for their own eating.
- During prayer, a Buddhist may touch his or her forehead to the ground one or more times. You are not required to do this if you don’t feel comfortable. However, do sit quietly and focus your energies on the positive.
- Do not take pictures of a nun or monk praying. It’s also rude to touch a monk or nun or ask to have a photo taken together.
While the rules are important, it is more important to enjoy the Buddhist experience by relaxing and observing. At The Grand Palace, it’s easy to do just that.
The Longmen Caves are a series of grottoes filled with Buddhist sculptures, close to Luoyang city in Hénan, China. The grottoes extend for a kilometer along two limestone mountains, Xiangshan and Longmenshan, with the River Yishui flowing between them, a place of great natural beauty. The grottoes consist of a stretch of more than 2,100 caves, over 100,000 statues and innumerable pagodas. This vast collection of Chinese sculpture came into existence during the late Northern Wei and Tang dynasties (316-907). Work on the grottoes began in CE 493.
The caves have been frequently vandalized during their long history. During the early 1900s, Western collectors made off with many artifacts. Mao’s Cultural Revolution witnessed several statues being decapitated. The Longmen Caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in November 2000. The panorama of sculptures in several styles, larger-than-life statues of the Buddha, various bodhisattvas and others are a testament to the Chinese stone carving skills of those times.