Uttar Pradesh, often described as the ‘Cradle of Buddhism’ draws Buddhists from all over the world to Sarnath – where Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon – and Kushinagar, where he breathed his last. Another important site is Shravasti where Buddha stayed for 24 monsoons.
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Sarnath is where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after receiving enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. Only 10km from Varanasi, the satellite town is dotted with erstwhile monasteries and living quarters dating back to the 3rd century BC. Emperor Ashoka constructed magnificent stupas, monasteries and an engraved pillar here. These relics are sprinkled across town and deserve at least a day of submersion.
Buddha Purnima is when the Buddha’s life, death and enlightenment are marked with a procession and prayers. A piece of his bone, which lies in a silver box behind the altar of the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, is taken out for darshan. The highlights of the place are Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, Dhamek Stupa & Complex of Ruins, Archaeological Museum, Sridigambar Jain Temple, Japanese Temple, Sarangnath Temple, Wat Thai, Chinese Temple and Chaukhandi Stupa.
The story of Sarnath
The erstwhile names of Sarnath – Mrigadava, Migadaya, Rishipattana and Isipatana – still survive in the names of shops and hotels. The words ‘rishi’ and ‘mriga’ feature in the old names of Sarnath due to the presence of deer (mriga) and saints (rishis) in the area. It is said that Gautama Buddha was considered the leader of deer in his previous birth, thus adding another layer to the theme. Sarnath is drawn from the name, Saranganath, which stands for Lord of Deer. In Hinduism, Saranganath is also the name given to Lord Shiva’s brother-in-law. Sarnath’s history dates back to the time when Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), to his five disciples at Bodhgaya. Around 3 BC, a newly converted Emperor Ashoka expressed his devotion by building monuments here. When Chinese traveller Xuan Zang dropped by in AD 640, Sarnath boasted a 100m-high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries. However, soon after, Buddhism went into decline and when Muslim invaders sacked the city in the late 12th century, Sarnath disappeared altogether. It was ‘rediscovered’ by British archaeologists in 1835.
Kushinagar holds a sombre significance in the Buddhist circuit – this low-key town is where the Buddha left his mortal body at the age of 80. This event is known as ‘mahaparinirvana’ or freedom from the cycle of birth and death. The Mahaparinirvana Stupa, where he was finally laid to rest is the main draw for spiritual seekers. Though the main stupa is a simple structure, there is plenty of pomp in the proliferation of temples set up here by different countries. Other major sights are Matha Kaur Shrine, Ramabhar Stupa (Mukutbandhan Chaitya), Buddha Ghat and Buddha Museum.
Declared by the Buddha himself as one of the four holiest sites for Buddhists, Kushinagar was developed to a large extent under the Maurya and Gupta dynasties. In fact, Chinese travellers Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang also mentioned Kushinagar in their writings. What remain now are the few structural remains of the monasteries and living quarters built for monks. Extensive excavations done by the British archaeologist CL Carlleyle in 1876 led to the discovery of the main stupa and reclining Buddha. A number of relics were retrieved, dating from the 3rd century BC to the 10th century AD.
The last major stop on the Uttar Pradesh Buddhist circuit, Shravasti is where the Buddha spent 25 vassa (rain retreats). The sprawling red brick ruins of monasteries and temples juxtaposed against bright green rice and sugarcane fields make for a delightful visual and spiritual ambience. In the distance, off Sahet Road, you can glimpse a towering golden yellow stupa, which is the most defining structure of the landscape.
Don’t miss to visit Jetavana Mahavihara (Sahet), Shobhnath Jain Temple and Mahet when in Shravasti.
The twin miracle of Buddha
During his stay in Shravasti, Lord Buddha promised to perform a miracle under a mango tree on a full moon day. To prevent him, his detractors uprooted all the trees. Undeterred, Buddha went to the king’s garden, ate a mango and planted the seed, from which sprouted a tree. Lord Buddha then created a walkway beside the tree and stood on it to perform the Twin Miracle, known as Yamaka Patihariya. Flames emanated from his upper body and water from the lower. The miracle lasted for 16 days, during which he preached to his awe-struck audience.