Before his death, the Buddha enjoined his followers to make pilgrimages to four sites [ SEE LINK ]: Lumbini, where he was born; Uruvela (modern Bodh Gaya), the site of his enlightenment; Sarnath, the place of his first sermon; and Kushinara, where he died. Each of these sites may be visited today, and Bodh Gaya remains the most sacred of the four.
After the decline of Indian Buddhism in the 12th century, most Buddhist sites were destroyed or fell into disrepair. In 1891 the Sri Lankan Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Mahabodhi Society, which set out to reclaim Bodh Gaya for Buddhism; this was achieved in 1949. Bodh Gaya today is a busy centre of pilgrimage with monasteries and meditation centres run by Tibetan, Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese communities. Visitors will see a remote descendant of the bodhi tree, the magnificent but greatly restored 7th-century Mahabodhi temple, the Buddha’s stone seat (vajra-asana) and a museum of Buddhist and Hindu materials.
The Deer Park at Sarnath just north of Varanasi was the site of the Buddha’s first discourse and today contains some of the most impressive Buddhist monuments in India. The beautiful park is dominated by the 5th-century Dhamekh stupa: one of two stupas marking the spot where the Buddha is said to have first taught the Dharma. The remains of smaller stupas, shrines, five monasteries and the lower half of an inscribed Ashokan column are among other monuments to have been excavated since the 19th century.
Sarnath’s archeological museum contains the Ashokan column’s famous lion capital (emblem of the modern Indian state) and many other important works in stone, including a sublime figure of the teaching Buddha from the Gupta period (5th century). Like Bodh Gaya, Sarnath has a thriving international Buddhist community.
Perhaps the finest and most complete Buddhist monument in India is Sanchi’s great stupa with its four magnificent free standing gates (toranas). The vast brick stupa itself dates from around the 3rd century BC, but its carved gates and railings were probably executed two centuries later during the Satavahana dynasty. Sanchi was excavated in the early 19th century, and the restoration of the site by British and French archeologists was initiated in 1912.
Visitors today, like traditional Buddhist worshippers, can circumambulate the stupa in a clockwise direction and contemplate the teeming sculptural forms that fill the gate posts and their lofty architraves. Jataka narratives, hieratic elephants and royal lions, Hindu-Buddhist deities and exquisite female nature spirits crowd every part of the four toranas. The small archeological museum houses excavated sculptures; other important Sanchi pieces are in museums in Delhi, London and Los Angeles.
The wild, crescent-shaped ravine pierced with more than twenty Buddhist cave temples makes this one of India’s most spectacular sites. Many genres of early medieval sacred art, from elaborately carved monastic halls, to sculptures and wall paintings, are represented here, and prominent among Ajanta’s glories are murals painted in glowing reds, blues and greens. Unique to Indian Buddhist tradition, the paintings, in high Gupta style, furnish a vision of Mahayana generosity: a mingling of human, divine and natural forms in a suspension of warm and life-enhancing interplay.
Most sublime in grace, compassion and serenity is the incomparable figure of Padmapani, the lotus carrying aspect of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (cave 1). Scenes from Jataka narratives adorn the walls of several other monasteries in the complex.
Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, was born at Lumbini near the Shakyan capital of Kapilavastu in the southern region of Nepal known as the terai. The 5th-century Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien described Kapilavastu as a “great scene of empty desolation”, populated by a few monks, a score or two of families and dangerous animals such as lions and white elephants. Fa-hsien none the less visited well-known sites, including the Shakyan palace, the place where the child bodhisattva’s identifying marks were discovered, and, east of the city, the garden of Lumbini where the future Buddha’s mother bathed and gave birth. Mounds, stupas and other ruins testified to previous Buddhist institutional prosperity. Buddhist tradition tells that the emperor Ashoka visited Nepal in the 3rd century BC and erected a stupa and an inscribed column at Lumbini. Recent excavations have uncovered evidence of stupas, monastic dwellings and the well-preserved structure of the bathing-pool. The Ashokan column -rediscovered in 1896 but snapped in half by a lightning bolt – may also be seen at Lumbini. Theravada and Tibetan monasteries have been built in the past two decades near Lumbini, re-establishing the site as an important, although geographically remote, devotional centre.
To commemorate his missionary visit, the emperor Ashoka is said to have built innumerable stupas in Nepal. Two surviving examples, much restored, may derive from the Ashokan period. These are the remarkable Svayambhunath and Bodhnath stupas in Kathmandu. Both stupas share unique Nepalese architectural features. Surmounting the conventional dome is a “steeple” raised on thirteen diminishing tiers to symbolize the thirteen Buddhist heavens. Yet more striking is the design of the square base (harmika) from which the tiers rise. The harmika is gilded, and a face gazes with immense eyes of inlaid metal and ivory from each side. One explanation for this unique Nepalese iconography is that the eyes suggest a solar cult expressed on some Hindu temples by “sun-faces”. A second idea is that the temple represents the “Primal man” (mahapurusha) of early Hinduism. Buddhist theory would suggest that the eyes are a sign of the “all-seeing” Buddha. Visitors are certainly struck by the way in which the eyes follow them as they move round the stupa precincts.
Today’s Anuradhapura is a huge park containing the ruins of the Great Monastery (Mahavihara) established 250 B.C.E. on the outskirts of the ancient Singhalese capital. Anuradhapura is connected by an eight-mile (1 3km) pilgrim’s path to Mihintale where the missionary Mahinda first preached and where an excavated stupa can be visited. Disinterred earlier this century from the jungle growth of more than a millennium, Anuradhapura’s stupas, monastic ruins, sculptures, reservoirs, and a descendant of the original bodhi tree, provide an intense experience of ancient Buddhism. Dominating the site are two vast stupas with characteristic Singhalese “bubble domes”. The Thuparama, although much restored, is probably the oldest monument in either India or Sri Lanka. The Ruwanweli Dagoba, is also heavily restored, and is clad in the undecorated white plaster which differentiates Singhalese stupa architecture from the more ornate Indian style.
At Anuradhapura a wonderful convergence of the modern and the archaic may be experienced. On May and June full moon days, the festivals of Wesak and Poson celebrate, respectively, the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinirvana, and the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. At such festivals, Anuradhapura is enlivened by hundreds of thousands of devotees. For the modern day visitor, one of the great pleasures is touring Anuradhapura on a rented bicycle.
While Anuradhapura evokes the austerity of early Singhalese Buddhism, the later site of Polonnaruwa, wonderfully situated on Lake Topawewa, offers an unparalleled view of medieval Buddhist sculpture and architecture. There the visitor may see the immense recumbent parinirvana Buddha and the 25-foot (7.5m) rock-cut figure of Ananda standing by the head of the Master. There too is the colossal meditating Buddha, and the famous sculptured portrait of the sage-king Parakramabahu overlooking the lake and in contemplation of a manuscript.
Equally dazzling are the early 13th-century monuments situated on the “Great Quadrangle”. These include the classically proportioned pyramidal brick stupa (Sat Mahal Pasada), the carved stonework of the “temple of the tooth relic” (not to be confused with the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy) and the waving lotus-stem-shaped columns of the Nissanka Lata Mandapaya.
Just as Anuradhapura was abandoned by the 8th century, Polonnaruwa was finally conquered by the Tamils in the 15th century. The art of Polonnaruwa represents the final flowering of Singhalese Buddhist art, still matchlessly preserved in land-locked jungle.
Much important early and medieval Thai architecture was ruined in southeast Asian wars, but impressive 19th and 20th century Buddhist temples abound in Thailand, and in many parts of the country there are lovely archeological sites. In Bangkok, the Wat Phra Kaeo temple, built by King Rama 1 (1782-1809) in the precincts of his Grand Palace, is a spectacular monument to the Theravada Buddhist revival initiated in the 19th century. This temple is a centre of Thailand’s religious life, symbolizing the close bond between the sangha (religious community) and state, and houses the “Emerald Buddha”, a figurine of national importance to modern Thai people.
The southern Thai Ayutthaya period of the 14th to 18th centuries brought an influx of new architectural ideas from Sri Lanka. Perhaps the most beautifully preserved of Thailand’s medieval monuments are at the Ayutthaya historical park, north of Bangkok. Of special interest are stupas with characteristic Thai “lotus bud” domes, and temple towers showing the influence both of medieval Khmer design and of “honeycombed” south Indian shikhara towers.
After a horrifying period of war, the Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat and the Buddhist Angkor Thom are again accessible. Angkor Thom was the creation of the Khmer “god-king” Jayavarman VII (1181-1219), who converted to Mahayana following the destruction of Angkor by the Cham (Vietnamese) during his father’s reign. Jayavarman’s Buddhism seems to have been a revised version of the Brahmanical religion which previous Khmer kings had exploited to deify their own persons. The central deity in Jayavarman’s religion was Lokeshvara, “Lord of the Worlds”, and rebuilding Angkor Thom on a stupendously grand scale, the king created a “Buddhist” city as a monument to Lokeshvara, who was an aspect of Jayavarman’s divine self. This convergence of king and deity is still visible in the portrait masks of Jayavarman carved on the four faces of the Bayon temple towers of Angkor Thorn.
Like Borobudur and many other southeast Asian temples, Angkor Thom was conceived as a model of the Buddhist universe. At the centre of an immense complex of shrines is the great Bayon temple with its cluster of five towers, the tallest of which represents Mount Meru, the cosmic axis. The whole of Angkor was moated with 100 yards (90m) of water and criss-crossed by a brilliantly engineered system of canals: the water motif symbolizing the cosmic ocean and the world’s four sacred rivers and – not least – acting as an irrigation system. Much of the power of Angkor Thom emanates from a profusion of hybridized
Hindu-Buddhist iconography, carved in a wild, sweet style on the gates and terraces of Jayavarman’s temple-mountain. The god-king’s portrait gazing across his shattered domain adds sinister pathos.
The Borobudur Temple complex is one of the greatest monuments in the world. It is of uncertain age, but thought to have been built between the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth century A.D. For about a century and a half it was the spiritual centre of Buddhism in Java, then it was lost until its rediscovery in the eighteenth century. The structure, composed of 55,000 square metres of lava-rock is erected on a hill in the form of a stepped-pyramid of six rectangular storeys, three circular terraces and a central stupa forming the summit. The whole structure is in the form of a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddha.
Besides being the highest symbol of Buddhism, the Borobudur stupa is also a replica of the universe. It symbolises the micro-cosmos, which is divided into three levels, in which man’s world of desire is influenced by negative impulses; the middle level, the world in which man has control of his negative impulses and uses his positive impulses; the highest level, in which the world of man is no longer bounded by physical and worldly desire. It is ancient devotional practice to circumambulate around the galleries and terraces always turning to the left and keeping the edifice to the right while either chanting or meditating. In total, Borobudur represents the ten levels of a Bodhisattva’s life which a person must develop to become a Buddha or an awakened one.
Visitors may currently enter Tibet from mainland China, Hong Kong or Nepal, if they have a visa for China; the Chinese authorities maintain “closed” areas, but most of the country is accessible. In the holy city of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace, like many Tibetan monasteries, is now a state museum. Unlike countless shrines and monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, both the structure and contents of the Potala are preserved. Symbol of the protection of Avalokiteshvara and of the greater Tibetan Buddhist community, the Potala still towers imposingly over Lhasa, and contains countless treasures from the 17th century, including murals, thankas, mandalas, altars, and the famous statue in sandalwood of Padmapani.
The Jokhang monastery, southeast of the Potala, is the most sacred of all Tibetan pilgrimage sites. Somehow surviving the barbarities of the Cultural Revolution, the Jokhang retains its famous gilded roof, and the “Four Deities Radiating Light” may still be seen in their shrine. The Jokhang remains a living monastery; but it may also be visited, like other sacred sites, as a “museum”.
Yung-kang is one of the most remarkable Buddhist sites for the massive simplicity of its immense rock-carved Buddhas and the delicate ornamentation of its narrative reliefs. Work on the cave shrines was started by the emperor of the first Wei dynasty in AD 460, in response to persecution of Buddhists over the previous twenty years. In the next decades, in the limestone river cliffs at Lung-men (5th-6th centuries), Wei dynasty monumental carving achieved a spiritual and aesthetic perfection never repeated. The giant Buddhas at Yung-kang recall Indian prototypes; at Lung-men early Buddhist and Mahayana motifs converge in a graceful, serene and authentically Chinese idiom.
Nara, the Japanese imperial capital in the 8th century, remains one of the great centres of East Asian Buddhist history. In and around Nara’s historic park are pagodas, early Buddhist and Shinto shrines, formal gardens, the important Nara National Museum, and not least the Todai-ji temple with its immense bronze Buddha statue.
The beauty of old Kyoto lies in its numerous Zen temples dating from the Hieian period, and the famous gardens – “hill gardens” featuring water, and dry gardens featuring rock and sand – of temples such as Tenryuji and Ryoan-ji. Zen is a living tradition and Western students are accepted at some temples in Kyoto as well as in many of the more remote monasteries in the north of the island.