On Buddha’s Trail in India

The 6th International Buddhist Conclave attracted huge worldwide interest

10/12/2018 1:27:43 AM
written By : Parul Trivedi-Shah Print

For those seeking a journey of inner peace, what can be better than tracing the very footsteps of the “Enlightened One” – the Buddha himself who preached “ahimsa” or non-violence as his religion’s basic tenet?

That was what happened recently to a group of lucky guests of India’s Ministry of Tourism when they were invited to the 6th International Buddhist Conclave (IBC) 2018 whose highlight was a five-day trip to the sacred places where the founder of Buddhism lived, preached and attained “nirvana” (enlightenment) from 400 BC to 480 BC. The participants included eminent leaders of various Buddhist sects from around the world, scholars, public leaders, journalists and international and domestic tour operators. This writer from India Se Media was among them.

The conclave began in New Delhi and Ajanta (Maharashtra) followed by a trip to Rajgir, Nalanda and Bodhgaya (Bihar) and Sarnath (Uttar Pradesh), places sacred to Buddhists around the world. With the state governments of Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh collaborating in this multi-destination trip, this writer, and arguably the 200-strong global delegates, came away over-awed by the memorable personalized hospitality, the stunning architecture and history and serene atmosphere. 

From the luxurious chartered flights, to the five-star comforts of the hotels, to the awe-inspiring frescoes and monuments dating back 2,500 years, it was a true marriage of spirituality and the senses.

Addressing a 1000-strong audience at the launch in Delhi, the President of India Ram Nath Kovind said the voyage of Buddhism from India to other parts of Asia and the transcontinental links thus created carried more than just spiritualism. “They carried a rich cargo of knowledge and learning, arts and crafts, meditation techniques and even martial arts. Eventually, the many roads that the monks and nuns carved out became some of the earliest trade routes. In that sense, Buddhism was the basis for an early form of globalisation – and of inter-connectedness in our continent,” he said in a reminder of the times when all of Southeast Asia and South Asia, including Afghanistan, followed Buddhism.

This inter-connectedness was evident among the delegates at the IBC 2018 who were visibly moved by their experience in this heartland of Buddhism. Expressing the significance of the IBC 2018 and the trip, a senior delegate from Malaysia, the Reverend Dharmananda of Brickfields Mahavihara, Kuala Lumpur, noted that Buddhism has a growing and devout following in Southeast Asia and knowledge of Buddhism’s history is imperative for them. “All seekers must visit Bodhgaya to understand the origins of Buddhism,’ he said. “We, the senior monks, must evolve with the times and make ourselves friendly with the young generation so they will listen to the teachings of Buddha.”

Visitors can access details about Buddhist sites in India at indiathelandofbuddha.in. It was launched by President Kovind on  August 24 in the presence of the Minister of State (Independent charge) K.J. Alphons and ministerial-level delegations from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka as well as delegates from 29 countries - Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, UK, USA and Vietnam.

 

Ajanta (Maharashtra) 

In 2013, Maharashtra opened a visitor centre at Ajanta which has five museum halls with replicas of the four main caves (1, 2, 16 and 17). Here the visitor can get detailed information about the heritage site through pictorial displays, models of cave exhibits and through audio-visual media. Located amidst the verdant beauty of the Deccan mountain range near the Waghora river, the horseshoe-shaped Ajanta cave complex is a World Heritage site, filled with architecturally stunning temples carved into the rocks and beautiful frescoes.  In these fascinating caves, legends from the life of the Buddha and Jataka tales come alive through the best mural paintings the world has seen. The Ajanta caves were discovered in 1819 when a group of British soldiers led by Captain John  Smith stumbled upon the mountainside caves in Aurangabad district. It took many decades to document the 29 prayer halls (chaityagrihas) and monasteries (viharas) that were hewn from mountainside rocks in two phases, the first – five prayer halls – between the 1st and 2nd centuries BC and, the second – 24 monasteries, or monks’ lodgings – in the 5th century AD. The later more glorious part was added in 460-500 AD by the Vakataka dynasty emperor Harisena. Visitors are often mesmerized by the rich cave paintings which the ancient artists created by using paints made from minerals such as glauconite, lanolin, red and yellow ochre, gypsum as well as gems like lapis lazuli. Although the walkway along the caves is modern, the terraced structure of the caves makes for a good walk as the delegates discovered while visiting Caves 1, 2, 9, 10, 16, 17, 19 and 26.

 

Rajgir 

Rajgir or Rajgriha used to the capital of the ancient Magadha empire whose core comprised modern-day Bihar. Rajgir is associated with Buddhism and Jainism. King Bimbisara of Magadha and countless others were initiated into Buddhism at Gridhra-kuta (‘Hill of the Vultures’) in Rajgir. Also, Lord Mahavira, the 24th Jain Tirthankara, spent 14 years of his life at Rajgir and Nalanda, spending Chaturmas (four months of the rainy season) at a single place in Rajgir and the rest in the vicinity.

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Sarnath  

Venu Van or Monastery of the Bamboo Grove, is said to have been donated by Magadha’s King Bimbisara to Lord Gautama Buddha for meditation after his return from preaching in Sarnath. Venu Van also had a vihara for the Buddha to reside and he is said to have delivered some of his famous sermons here.

Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh. This is the holy place where Lord Buddha set in motion the “Wheel of Dharma”. The Buddha, after gaining enlightenment, initiated a search for disciples to teach about universal peace. The followers and disciples present at the auspicious place on the day were considered the first to be taught about the path that ends sorrow, leads to inner peace, and ultimately to Nirvana. The Lord Buddha in his first sermon, preached the doctrine of Buddhism along with the four noble truths and eightfold paths here at Sarnath.

 

Nalanda

A short bus ride from Venu Van takes the visitor to Nalanda Mahavihara, the world’s oldest university.  Situated just 80 km from Bodhgaya, its name was derived from one of the names by which Lord Buddha was known - Na-alam-da, or Insatiable in Giving.

The ruins of this monastic university resonate with history and a silence that speaks to you through the walls, corridors and grounds, the bricks now bare and shorn of all the regal paintings that once decorated them. In the 9th century during the reign of Devapala, it had reached the zenith of its glory and scholars from countries as far away as China and the Middle East knocked on its doors to debate with the doorkeeper and seek admission to the magnificent centre of learning the likes of which were unparalleled anywhere. At its height, the faculty consisted of 2,000 teachers or “acharyas” at Nalanda Mahavihara taught 10,000 resident students courses in metaphysics, science, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, as well as Samkhya, Yoga-shastra, the Vedas, and the scriptures of Buddhism. It was also well known for its architectural design and had eight separate compounds and 10 temples. Nalanda’s library was housed in a nine-storey building. Much of what the world knows today about Nalanda is due to the meticulous notes of the Tang Dynasty Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang of Nalanda in the 7th century.

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About the monks and teachers at Nalanda he had written, “The lives of all these virtuous men were naturally governed by habits of the most solemn and strictest kind. Thus in the 700 years of the monastery’s existence no man has ever contravened the rules of the discipline. The king showers it with the signs of his respect and veneration and has assigned the revenue from a hundred cities to pay for the maintenance of the religious.”

It is said that during his sojourn the Buddha often visited Nalanda. 

Yet Nalanda was a centre not only of Buddhist studies, but of Brahmanical practices and scholasticism as well. The art of public speaking and debate taught here had scholars flocking to Nalanda to take part in or witness open disputations or debates. It was a proud day in a scholar’s life when he won his spurs in controversy. It was destroyed in 1193 by a Muslim army led by the Turkish leader Bakhtiyar Khilji. It is believed that Buddhism as a major religion in India had a setback for hundreds of years due to the loss of the religious texts during the attack.

Nalanda might have been the source of the best scholastic and historical archives of ancient India.

 

Mahabodhi

 The Mahabodhi temple complex is one of the holiest Buddhist sites. It includes the sacred Bodhi Tree. It was under this tree that the Buddha (480-400 BC) gained enlightenment and his continued meditation for a week and subsequent contemplation are commemorated by a jewel walk called Chankramanar, a low platform adorned with 19 lotuses parallel to the Mahabodhi temple and a stupa called Animeschalochana. It is believed that the Buddha walked amongst the people of the Gangetic plains for a further 45 years in his life and must have revisited the Mahabodhi complex again. He said “One constantly evolves by looking within, by seeking the truth which is within. Compassion for all around you comes from understanding how everyone is interconnected like separate twigs woven together into one texture. Like streams of water from mountains and plains coming together and forming a mighty river, the force of life is strong and within us.” Not leaving out any member of society, including women and the aged, the downtrodden and people of all castes, he brought peace by saying, “Happiness is not meant to be an island, it is to be for a people.”

The Indian Emperor Ashoka, considered the founder of the Mahabodhi site, is supposed to have visited the site about 250 years after the Buddha’s enlightenment. He is believed to have established a monastery and erected a diamond throne shrine at this spot with a canopy supported by four pillars over a stone representation of the Vajrasana, the Seat of Enlightenment.

Ever since then Bodh Gaya has been an international place of pilgrimage. Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan and Japan have established monasteries and temples within easy walking distance of the Mahabodhi compound, which they visit regularly.

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