The birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini is a Unesco World Heritage Site near the Indo-Nepal border. He was supposed to have been born as Prince Siddhartha of the Shakya clan sometime in the middle of the 6th century BCE. Today, the main attractions of Lumbini includes centuries-old ruins and the Maya Devi Temple (ticketed entry) that marks the site where the prince was born. The temple is located within the Lumbini Development Zone, which also contains an Ashokan Pillar, landscaped gardens and lakes, monasteries belonging to various Buddhist communities from around the world, a museum and the World Peace Pagoda.
Getting There: Daily 40-minute flights operate between Kathmandu and Bhairawa, the main transport hub near Lumbini. One can also reach Lumbini from India. The Nepal border at Sonauli is a three-hour-drive from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. Local buses ply between Lumbini and Bhairawa and Lumbini and Sonauli.
Where to Stay: There are plenty of hotels in Lumbini. The budget hotels are mostly located in Buddhnagar or the market area. Some of the upmarket hotels are Buddha Maya Garden Hotel, the Lumbini Hokke Hotel, Hotel Stupa, Mirage Inn and Hotel Ananda Inn. Uttar Pradesh Tourism runs the Rahi Tourist Bungalow (05522-238201; [email protected]).
Getting Around: Walking around the sprawling Lumbini Development Zone can be strenuous, so you can take a rickshaw or hire a bicycle.
More on Outlook Traveller: Read about our journey in the footsteps of the Buddha here.
BODH GAYA (Bihar)
The village of Uruvela is where Prince Siddhartha finally received his enlightenment while meditating under a Peepul tree and became the Buddha, or the enlightened one. Henceforth, the village of became known as Bodh Gaya, and the tree (now said to be in its fourth or fifth generation) came to be venerated the world over as the Bodhi Tree. In fact, the full-moon day that the Shakyamuni received enlightenment is today celebrated as as Buddha Purnima. The Mahabodhi Temple complex (camera charges apply; mobile phones not allowed) contains several sites from different points in the two thousand-year career of Buddhism in India. Apart from the Bodhi Temple, on which work began in the 1st century CE and the Bodhi tree, there’s also the Animeshalochana Temple, the Cankamana or the Cloister Walk, the Ajapala Nigrodha tree, the Rajayatana tree, the Vajrasana (another old name for Bodh Gaya), etc. The temple complex is open from early morning to around 9pm. Bodh Gaya became a major international cultural hub from the mid-1st millenium CE, especially under the Pala kings of Bengal and Bihar. You can find that same international flavour today with monasteries representing Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism from Thailand, Myanmar, China, Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and India. An 80-feet high Buddha statue sits within a garden near the Thai temple.
Apart from the spiritual and historical attractions, Bodh Gaya is quite great for eating out. From restaurants to roadside eateries, every joint serves a smattering of pan-Asian cuisine that cater to visiting pilgrims.
Getting There: Gaya, 12km away, is the most convenient entry point. The airport that services both Gaya and Bodhgaya is about seven km away. Avoid travelling to and from Bodh Gaya at night.
Where to Stay: Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation (BTDC) runs two lodges here, the Siddharth Vihar (tel: 0631-2200445, 2200127) and Buddha Vihar (only dorms; tel: 0631-2200445, 2200127). There are other options as well, including Hotel Sujata (from Rs5,500; sujatahotel.com), Hotel Tokyo Vihar (from Rs 4,000; hoteltokyovihar.com) and Charity Backpackers (from Rs 250 doubles; bowlofcompassion.org)
Getting Around: The Mahabodhi Temple complex has to be covered on foot. To see the various monasteries and other attractions, a local rickshaw is a comfortable option. Most visitors to Bodhgaya, also visit Rajgir, Nalanda and Pawapuri on a day’s round trip.
More on Outlook Traveller: Read about the how the echoes of the Buddha’s message still flutters around Bodh Gaya here.
SARNATH (Uttar Pradesh)
Sarnath was the next major stop in the Buddha’s career. The city was then an important education centre, about 10km from Benaras. It was here that he preached his first sermon, an act that is revered as the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma. It was also in Sarnath that the first Buddhist Sangha was founded with 60 disciples. The Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple (it has some fine frescoes by the Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu) with its golden Buddha idol, the monumental Dhamek Stupa from the Gupta era, the Chaukhandi Stupa and many other fascinating archaeological ruins, including the Ashokan Pillar, are the major attractions. The ASI museum is a treasure-trove of India’s Buddhist art-historical heritage. Apart from these, there are the Buddhist monasteries established by followers from Japan, China, Myanmar and Tibet.
Getting There: Sarnath is 10 km from Benaras and you can get autorickshaws or private taxis from the railway station.
Where to Stay: Benaras has plenty of options. But if you want to enjoy the quiet ambience of Sarnath, you can stay at Uttar Pradesh Tourism’s Rahi Tourist Bungalow (0542-2595965; [email protected]).
Getting Around: A bit of walking required to visit the famous stupas. Otherwise, you can take a rickshaw for a round of the main attractions. The state tourism’s Modern Reception Centre has an attached restaurant.
More on Outlook Traveller: Read about the journey of the Maha Parinirvan Express here.
Once the capital of the Magadhan Empire, Rajagriha was a favourite monsoon retreat of Lord Buddha. The Buddha would reside in the Griddhakuta Hill of the Ratnagiri hill range and meet his disciples and deliver sermons. At the other end of the same hill range was the Saptaparni Cave where the first Buddhist Council was held after Buddha’s death to write down his teachings. To mark the 2,500 years of the event, the Japanese Buddhist Association has built a splendid stupa atop the cave. Known as the Viswa Shanti Stupa, the white stupa with its golden Buddha images can be reached by a short trek or an aerial chairlift. Other attractions of Rajgir include sites related to the Mahabharata, a therapeutic sulphur hot spring (very crowded with local pilgrims) and the nearby Venuvan, a grove that used to be frequented by the Buddha.
Getting There: Patna, the nearest airport is a little over 100km away. The nearest railway stations are Gaya (66km) and Bakhtiyarpur (55km).
Where to Stay: Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation (BTDC) runs two tourist lodges here, the Ajatshatru Vihar (06112-255027) and the Tathagat Vihar (06112-255176). It also runs the Gautam Vihar Tourist Lodge (06112-255273) in Nalanda, about 19km away. There are also budget and luxury hotels in Rajgir.
Getting Around: You can hire a private taxi to take you to the Viswa Shanti Stupa and other sites.
SRAVASTI (Uttar Pradesh)
Buddha spent 24 consecutive monsoons at the ancient town of Saheth-Maheth, known today as Sravasti. One of the lesser known spots on the Buddhist circuit, there are archaeological ruins, old stupas, a huge World Peace Bell erected by the Japanese and other attractions.
Getting There: Best visited on a trip to Lumbini if you are travelling via Gorakhpur, which is nearly 180km away by road. Nearest transport hub is Balarampur, 20km away.
Where to Stay: Limited accommodation. UP Tourism runs a Rahi Tourist Bungalow (05252-265302; [email protected]) here.
Getting Around: Hire a rickshaw to take in the main sights here.
KUSHINAGAR (Uttar Pradesh)
Kushinagar, where the Buddha breathed his last and attained mahaparinirvana at the age of 80, is about three km south-west of Kasia town. According to local belief, after the Buddha’s death, the local Malla kings divided his ashes into eight portions among themselves and enshrined the ashes in eight stupas, which began the tradition of the veneration of stupas, thus starting a new form of memorial architecture, now typically associated with Buddhism. Today, the main attraction is the Burmese Temple built in 1927, which houses a 5th century CE statue of a reclining Buddha. The monuments here are clustered in three groups—the Nirvana site, the central Stupa and the surrounding monasteries of Mathakura Kot and Ramabhar Stupa. There are also monasteries belonging to Japan, China and other countries, as well as an ASI museum.
Getting There: Gorakhpur, the most convenient gateway, is a little over 50km from Kasia. There is a small air-strip at Kasia. The nearest airport is Lucknow.
Where to Stay: UP Tourism runs the Rahi Pathik Niwas (05564-273045; [email protected]).
Getting Around: Hire a rickshaw to take in the main sights here.
Important: Since Buddha Purnima is on May 21, expect very hot weather at all the above places. Carry sun-protection gear and water. Also, it is mandatory to walk barefoot in most places and monuments built of stone can get very hot during the day. On the day of Buddha Purnima, many monasteries hold special programmes, including processions by monks, which also offer excellent photo opportunities.