Pilgrimage to India was always on top of my bucket list. Earlier, I have visited Trichy and Bangalore. But I always wanted to visit Buddhist religious places. Lord Buddha had mentioned that Buddhists should visit four places where special events of birth of Prince Siddharth, the enlightenment of the Bodhisathwa, preaching of first Dhamma sermon (Dam sak pawatum sutra) and Parinirvana of Lord Budhdha.
After my retirement from government service, I joined a tour group to go on pilgrimage. At the end of October, our group arrived at Katunayaka BMI airport to take a direct flight to Varanasi by a Mihin Lanka flight. After about three-hour flight, the plane touched the ground at Varanasi airport in Uttara Pradesh. Flight attendants bid us farewell saying “Ayubowan”. The sky was blue, climate was mild and a bus hired by tour guides was waiting outside to take us to the hotel.
After refreshing, we continued our tour by bus to visit Saranath (Isipathana). The country side was like ours. First, we visited Sammuka sthupa built to mark the place where Lord Buddha met first disciples (Pas waga thawusan). Sammuka sthupa had been partly destroyed by Mogul kings many centuries ago from today. We visited ruins of Dhamma rajika sthupa in Isipathana, Migadaya. Pillars of Ashoka about 45ft in height with grand carvings can be seen in these ruins. In Migadaya we saw a herd of few deer. Ruins of Isipathanaramaya are scattered around.
We worshipped Mulagandha kuti temple built by King Dharmashoka. Now it consists of only a stone seat and four stone pillars. New Mulagandha kuti temple built by Rev. Anagarika Dhammapala, (whose effort helped to preserve Buddagaya temple) was adjacent to the old temple.
In the evening, we went to Mahabodhi temple to participate in chanting of Dam Sak Pawathum Sutra by Sri Lankan Bhikkus. All devotees were chanting and the feeling of serenity was in every mind and every face. Outside the temple, we could see statues of Pas waga thapaswin. The garden had some flowers and a little pond. We returned to hotel at night as the next day we had to go to Buddhagaya in Gaya district in Bihar Pradesh.
Buddhagaya (Bodh Gaya)
Next day early morning we got in to our bus. Our guide asked us to observe ‘pan sil’ and he narrated Dhamma sutra. This was the first thing of the daily routine through-out the tour. We went to Buddhagaya and stayed at a hotel. In the evening, we were shopping but could not find quality goods as it was a small town in an underprivileged area. At dawn, milk rice was prepared by Sri Lankan cooks in our group, with the help of devotees to offer at Jaya Sri Maha Bodhiya.
In the morning, we dressed in white ‘sil’ clothes and went in a procession to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi temple carrying milk rice pots and lotus flowers. We offered these at the statue of Lord Buddha inside the temple. This majestic temple situated by the bank of river Neranjana, built in classical style of Indian temple architecture is about 170 ft high. The Buddha statue on Wajrasanaya is undoubtedly charismatic, filling our minds with devotion.
Behind the temple, there is sacred Sri Maha Bodhi tree surrounded by a golden fence. We offered flowers at the ‘mal asana’ there. We observed ‘Atasil’ sitting under the cool shade of Sri Maha Bodhi tree. As green leaves of Bodhi were swaying in the gentle breeze, the tranquillity of the place soothed our minds.
We listened to a Dhamma deshana and meditated for a while. Tibet monks were there chanting and worshipping. We went around the temple and Sri Maha Bodhiya while chanting. Many devotees from Buddhist countries were there. This temple is a must visit for all the Buddhists.
At noon, we attended alms giving at Maha Bodhi temple. We visited places of ‘sath sathi’ located around there. At east-south side, is a pond with a majestic statue of Lord Buddha wrapped by a replica of Muchalindha naga raja, a wonderful sight. Moreover, pillar of Ashoka pillar, marking the place of Ajapal nuga tree can be seen. Next day we went about 15 km by jeeps to Senani grama, where Lady Sujatha offered milk rice and Sottiya brahmana offered grass to Bodhisathva near Neranjana river.
Afterwards we went to Durgeswari hill where Bodhisathva spent an ascetic life by deprivation of worldly goods, including food, practising self-mortification for 6 years (dushkara kriya). We had to walk along a steep narrow road winding through the hill. My companion – Chandra sought the help of palanquin bearers to climb. There is a small cave on top, with a mystic appearance and surrounded by lush greenery. Inside the cave is a statue of Siduhath Bodhisathva, showing a lean body with ribs visible under skin. It was a sad sight. We felt exhausted, but got refreshed by a herbal drink given by monks of Tibet temple near that cave.
Next day, we travelled to Rajagaha nagar about 200 km away by bus. There we saw marks of wheels of a cart on a flat stone and ruins of prison of King Bimbisara. To visit Gijja kuta hill we had to climb steps leading up, along ‘Bimbisara’ road. We saw the rock pushed by Devadatta thero, to hurt Lord Bhudda and the large rock that blocked its path. On the top of the hill, situated the ruins of the chamber of Lord Bhudda. I had an amazing view from the hill top as I could see villages and woods below, a scene with natural beauty. There, devotees can take a ride by cable cars to visit Sama sthupa on a nearby hill.
Saptha parni cave
In Rajagaha nagar we visited Walasangata sthupa that had protected Buddha’s relics and Saptha parni cave, the site where the very first Dhamma sangayana was held. Following day, we had to travel about 500 km to reach Kusinara nagar. Our bus travelled along the 7km long Patna bridge over Ganga river.
On the way, we visited charred ruins of Nalandawa, the site of the first ever Buddhist university, destroyed by Muslim kings killing about 10,000 monks and lay students. The guide described the tragedy of Nalandawa so vividly, that we were very sad to witness the end of a great institution.
As the bus went through green woods, there were lesser houses, lesser people, on the road. The pilgrims in the bus shared sweets, chattering. I was lucky to have made such great new friends during the journey who are in touch with me even at present.
At Kushinagar we visited Parinirwana temple. Inside there is a statue of Lord Buddha in reclining position, with a calm face and swollen ‘Siri pathul’ (sacred feet). I worshipped the statue depicting ‘parinirvana manhakaya’ with tears in my eyes. Near that temple, we saw ruins of Parinirvana sthupa, Adahana stupha and the pond from which the Lord Buddha had his last sip of water.
Lumbini in Nepal
Our next destination was India – Nepal border, and visa were issued at the border. We crossed the border to visit Lumbini garden, place of birth of Prince Siddhartha. We rode to the Lumbini garden by bicycle-rickshows, and enjoyed the ride. Inside the garden, there is a temple and we entered the temple with devotion. There we saw a wooden carving depicting the birth of Prince Siddhartha. In this garden, archaeologists have found roots of ancient sal trees (Shorea robusta) about 2600 years old. Outside the we saw an Ashoka pillar and the pond where Queen Maha Maya had a bath and a Bodhi tree with flags.
We stayed at a hotel and the Nepal staff was friendly. They helped us carry our bags.
Next morning, we left Nepal and returned to India. After about 90 km drive, we reached Kapilawasthu pura. We saw ruins of Nigrodharamaya, Palace of King Suddhdhodana and three palaces of Prince Siduhath- Ramya, Suramya, Subha, showing the grandeur of bygone era. Then we travelled to Sravasthi pura (Savath nuwara) 57km away, where Jethawanaramaya is located. On our way, we visited the palace of Count Anepindu and Angulimala sthupa.
Jethawanaramaya, the abode of Lord Buddha for nineteen years, built by Count Anepindu, is located inside a garden blessed with a calm and lovely scenery. We were happy to finally witness the site mentioned in many sutra. We could see ruins of meeting places, chamber of Lord Budhdha, chambers of Sariuth thero, Mugalan thero and Ananda thero. A well and a pond used by monks and Ananda bodhiya is there. This place is maintained by Archaeological department of India.
We observed ata-sil sitting under the shade of Ananda Bodhi tree. We attended some alms giving held at Srilankaramaya in front of Jethawanaramaya.
When walking along the paths around Jethawanaramaya, I was happy to think that I was walking on the soil touched by the sacred feet of Lord Buddha. I think that feeling must be what people refer as ‘Buddhalambana prithiya’.
When twilight came, offering of rose flowers, lightning of 7000 wax lamps and ‘Sath budu pooja’ were held with chanting of gatha. It was a grand sight as whole area was illuminated. The fragrance of flowers mixed with the scent of joss sticks was spread around by the cool breeze.
Next day, we visited a Sri Lankan temple at Sankassa nuwara, and then Vishala nuwara where ruin of sthupa built by Lichchavi clan of kings and an Ashoka pillar are present.
On our returning journey, we had to travel to Delhi to board our flight to Sri Lanka. We went across the beautiful Lucknow city famous for its music academy, to reach Delhi. There we had a glimpse of the Red fort, India Gate and the majestic Taj Mahal located near the border of Yamuna river.
After bidding farewell to the driver and helper of the bus we entered Delhi airport. We boarded plane for our return journey and I was delighted and feeling blessed to have visited and worshipped those sacred places.