Understanding Buddhism in India
History of Buddhism
Buddhism is one the major world religions which arose in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (now in Bihar, India). The religion follows a path based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who was deemed as ‘Buddha’ (“Awakened One”). With the Mauryan Empire playing an integral role, Buddhism had spread throughout South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. As Buddhism became one of the most followed religions in the world, it caused a division into sub-sects which led to the formation of two major branches: the Theravada and the Mahayana.
Buddha preached the religion his entire life and also welcomed a community of monks and nuns that spread his teachings after his time. Buddhism was highly patronized by Indian royalty and contributed to the construction of a number of monasteries in their regions.
Buddhism lost its position as a distinct and organised religion with the end of the Gupta reign after Turkish invasions.
Buddhism was revived in India by a number of devotees and due to the major outbreak against caste system. Today, the Himalayan region in India holds the highest number of Buddhist followers. Apart from this region, Buddhism is also followed in parts of Maharashtra and other Indian states.
Places of Buddhist interest in India
The fundamental principle lies in following the middle path. It aims at leading a life of simplicity and purity without causing harm to none. These places in India radiates this energy and takes you on a divine tour.
1. Bodh Gaya
Located in Bihar, this is the most important Buddhist holy place in India. The Bodhi tree here is said to be the one under which Gautama Buddha attained ‘enlightenment’. The site is now the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, constructed to mark this site. The place is also one of the four main pilgrim sites associated with the life of Buddha, the three others being Kushinagar,
Lumbini and Sarnath. The complex also holds an 80 feet tall statue of Buddha and three monasteries that preach the philosophies of Buddhism even today. The Bodhi tree stands tall even today, one can also see devotees and disciples gathered around the tree on their visit.
Kushinagar is a pilgrim town located in Uttar Pradesh. It is believed to be the place where Lord Buddha attained the highest stage of salvation. The town also has a number of Buddhist sites including The Rhambar stupa that holds a 50 ft tall statue of Buddha situated where he was cremated.
Situated at the Indo-Nepal border, this town in Uttar Pradesh is believed to be the birth place of Gautama Buddha. The place has a number of Buddhist Stupa, some of which is even said to hold the relics of Buddha. The main attraction of this historic town is the Palace site, that is said to be the remains of Buddha’s birth palace.
At a deer park in Sarnath is where Buddha first started preaching after enlightenment.Located near Varanasi, near the confluence of river Ganga and varuna, this serene location also has two Stupas of historical importance: the Dhamekh Stupa and the Chaukandhi Stupa.
(Stupa: A Stupa is a mound-like or hemispherical structure that is a Buddhist commemorative monument, usually containing sacred relics associated with Buddha or other saints.)
1. The Great Stupa at Sanchi
The Stupa was originally commissioned to be built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3 rd century B.C. This stupa is the oldest stone structure in India, the core of which is a hemispherical structure of brick built over the relics of Buddha. The gateways or toranas to the stupa showcase some intricately carved details that depict scenes from life of Buddha and the Jataka tales.
2. Ajanta caves, Maharashtra
These ancient rock-cut temples were built in two phases of Buddhism; the Hinayana and the Mahayana. Home to approximately 29 caves, these temples narrate stories of the lifestyle and beliefs through architecture. The temples hold the remains of a number of stupas, chaitya or prayer halls and cells of the monks. The caves also include paintings and sculptures marked by the Archaeological Survey of India as ‘the finest surviving examples of Indian Art’.
3. University of Nalanda, Bihar
A large Buddhist monastery, Nalanda flourished during the rule of the Gupta’s and was a Centre of Learning.
4. Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim
This monastery is the largest amongst the 200 monasteries in Sikkim. It is known for its bright colours and vibrant environment and the mask dances that is held during May- June and the Tibetan new year. It is also home to a community of monks and a centre of Buddhist worship.
5. Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
This is the largest monastery in India. It is three-storeys high and spreads over an area of over 140 sq.m. The site also comprises of 65 residential buildings and 10 other structures.With mesmerising views of Tawan, the Monastery rightfully has the name ‘celestial paradise in a clear night’.
6. Hemis Monastery, Ladakh
Said to be the wealthiest monastery in India, this monastery is famous for the annual Hemis festival held in June. This monastery is also known for its rich collection of ancient artefacts like the copper statue of Buddha, gold and silver stupas, murals and various other objects of historic importance.
7. Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh
This monastery is home to the Dalai Lama in India. This little city is known as the “Little Lhasa” due to its large Tibetan population. The city is the perfect destination for Buddhist way of living and pilgrim sites.
India is home to many more monasteries, stupas and remains of the Buddhist heritage.Each of these sites offer a different aura, but one thing that is common to all lies in the Buddhist belief of peace. A journey to any of these sites is sure to be the starting point of a journey of self-discovery.