In the Footsteps of the Buddha
A 14-day journey to the holy sites of Buddhism
Buddhist pilgrimage sites and sanctuaries – Varanasi – insights into the culture of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism
Siddhartha Gautama Buddha lived and worked in North India more than 2500 years ago. Three of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites can be found here, and it was from here that Buddhism made its way into the world. This journey through the heartland of early Buddhism offers an experience of the living traditions of Buddhism in the spiritual atmosphere of its places of origin. It offers an experience of meditation in places of particular power. The 14-day tour takes you to impressive places of pilgrimage and outstanding cultural sites. Visit the places where the Buddha attained enlightenment, where he announced the Four Noble Truths and where he entered Nirvana at the end of a fulfilled life. Stand in front of the rock on which he sat and meditated, and sit under the sacred Bodhi tree together with pilgrims from all over the world. Admire the imposing ruins of a once famous Buddhist University and the majestic Lion Capital (sometimes called the Asoka Column) of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who contributed significantly to the global spread of Buddhism over 2000 years ago. The journey begins in the Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi, where you immerse yourself at the banks of the holy Ganges in the eternal cycle of life and death, of growth and decay, which is nowhere more intensely experienced than in India. A journey that also provides inner fulfillment and gives you many inspiring memories to take home with you!
The proposed itinerary is flexible and can be tailored to your needs in terms of content and schedule.
Varanasi – Sarnath – Bodhgaya & Gaya – Rajgir – Nalanda – Vaishali – Kushinagar – Gorakpur
Day 1: Arrival in Varanasi – Transfer to your hotel – First experiences in the Holy City
The holy city of Varanasi is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, right on the banks of the Ganges River, about 800 kilometers east of the Indian capital Delhi. With its vast number of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sanctuaries, it is an ideal place to gain a deep insight into the millennia-old cultural traditions of India. Upon arrival at the airport or train station, you will be driven to your hotel, where you can enjoy your arrival in a peaceful manner. In the afternoon or early evening, you will have the opportunity to explore the city and get a first taste of life in India.
Day 2 and 3: Early morning boat ride on the Ganges River – Visit to the ghats & the city
Varanasi is regarded by Hindus as the place of Lord Shiva, who is worshiped in many temples and shrines here under the name Vishvanath. Since the 6th century BC, the city forms the center of the Hindu faith and is a center of Hindu culture and science. From time immemorial, its special atmosphere has attracted and captivated pilgrims, spiritual seekers, sannyasins and saints, including many spiritual greats such as Buddha, Mahavira (the founder of Jainism) and Shankaracharya. With its large array of temples, villas and palaces, rising in several tiers from the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is one of the most picturesque cities in India. Particularly noteworthy are the Ghats, which are high and wide flights of stairs, stretching for miles, leading from the buildings down to the river bank. Life and death go hand in hand at the Ganges. While the pilgrims take their ritual bath in the river, which is to rid them of their sins, the eternal cycle of life and death unfolds on the cremation grounds only meters away. The famous atmosphere at dawn is best experienced from a rowboat. The colors of the city’s spectacular backdrop are softened by the first rays of sunlight, while flower garlands and flickering oil lamps in clay bowls float on the water, the river resounding with devotional sounds emanating from the temples and pilgrims cupping the water from the Ganges in their clasped hands.
Day 4: Day trip to Sarnath – The place where the Buddha started turning the Dharmachakra, or wheel of life
The pilgrimage town of Sarnath, located ten kilometers north of Varanasi (in the state of Uttar Pradesh), is one of the four holy places intrinsically connected to the life of the Buddha. After attaining enlightenment, Buddha taught the Dharma here and founded Buddhism. The five companions with whom Buddha had sought enlightenment during years of asceticism were ordained as monks on this occasion, signifying the formation of the Sangha. Today, Sarnath is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over the world. Cultural-historical treasures dating from the Ashoka period up to the 12th century include remains of stupas, monasteries and Ashoka pillars, and bear witness to the former greatness of the place, which – until its destruction in the 12th century – was a flourishing center of Buddhist art and teaching.
Day 5 – 7: Transfer to Bodhgaya – Where the Buddha attained enlightenment – Visits to Bodhgaya and Gaya
Bodhgaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located 13 km south of Gaya in Bihar. It is another one of the four holy places connected to the life of the Buddha, and the most important Buddhist center in India. The focal point here is the Mahabodhi Temple with its 50 meter high pyramid-like structure. Behind this temple stands the famous Bodhi tree, under which Buddha attained enlightenment in 534 BC. The formidable tree is considered a direct descendant of the original specimen. A red sandstone rock forms the Vajrasan, the diamond throne, on which the Buddha sat and meditated. The Mahabodhi Temple, which houses a gilded representation of the meditating Buddha, was extensively renovated in the 19th century. Many of the nations that have a high proportion of Buddhists within their population are represented in Bodhgaya with a noteworthy temple or monastery. Buddhists from all over the world make pilgrimages to Bodhgaya, with many among them coming to meditate and wanting to familiarize themselves with Buddhist teachings.
The magnificent Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage center of Gaya is located 92 km southwest of Patna, the capital of Bihar. According to tradition, it was here that the Hindu God Vishnu conferred upon the demon Gaya the power to give absolution to sinners. With its footprint of Vishnu in basalt, the popular Vishnupad Temple is regarded as the place where Lord Vishnu subdued the demon. The Hindu death rituals take place under the sacred Akshayavat Banyan tree, which is regarded as immortal. For Buddhists, who perceive Buddha’s footprint in that of Vishnu, the place is also of particular significance because the Buddha preached the Adittapariyaya Sutra here.
Day 8 and 9: Transfer to Rajgir – Visit to Rajgir and Nalanda – The site of the first Buddhist conference – Ruins of the largest center of learning in the ancient world
Rajgir is located 15 km from Nalanda and is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists and Jains. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, lived here for 14 years. Buddha spent many rainy seasons in this place and delivered important discourses here. According to tradition, Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of all compassion, revealed the famous Heart Sutra at Vulture Peak, which constitutes the essence of Buddhism for many Japanese Buddhists. Particularly worth seeing is the Japanese peace stupa on the summit of Vulture Peak and the Saptaparani cave where the first Buddhist conference was held to record the Buddha’s teaching following his death. In addition to the Buddhist highlights, the site also has several interesting Jain and Hindu temples. Another local attraction that draws many visitors is its hot springs, reminiscent of a Roman bath, where Buddha is said to have bathed.
95 km away from Bodhgaya is the historic town of Nalanda which, in the 5th century, housed one of the largest universities in the world. The Buddhist college was a thriving educational center with more than 10,000 students and professors, until it was completely destroyed by the Afghans at the end of the 12th century. The remains of the complex extend over an area of 14 hectares. Although the place is in ruins today, its sheer size testifies to the former greatness of Buddhist culture in India. Objects of interest are stupas, temples and eleven monasteries, built from red brick and aligned on the north-south axis. In the nearby Surya Mandir Temple, dedicated to the sun god, one can admire sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities.
Day 10: Transfer to Vaishali – Visit to Vaishali and Kolhua – Lion pillar of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka – Birthplace of Mahavira
The small pilgrimage town of Vaishali is located 40 km northwest of Patna. It was an important town in the 5th century BC under the Licchavis dynasty, with multi-storey houses, sacred groves and a variety of lotus ponds. Buddha often stayed in Vaishali during his lifetime, where the courtesan Ambapali gave him a Vihara (a Buddhist monastery). Among the attractions in Kolhua, 2 km further north, is an 18-meter-high stone column of polished red sandstone with a sitting lion perched on top. The column was erected by the Maurya Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, on the spot where Buddha gave his last sermon before entering Nirvana. Jains from the Svetambara sect built a place of worship right at Kolhua as well, as Vaishali is regarded as the birthplace of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.
Day 11 and 12: Transfer to Kushinagar – Visit to Kushinagar – The place where the Buddha entered Nirvana
Kushinagar (55 km east of Gorakpur in Uttar Pradesh) is another one of the four main pilgrimage sites of Buddhism, since the Buddha entered nirvana here. The small town, once a center of the Malla kingdom and a metropolis of the Mauryan dynasty, was rediscovered in the 19th century and repopulated. Noteworthy are several Buddha temples from different eras and exquisite Buddha sculptures in sitting or reclined positions. The Ramabharstupa is the place where the Buddha was cremated and where his ashes were divided into eight equal parts.
Day 13: Transfer to Gorakpur – Visit to the Lord Buddha Museum
Gorakpur is located 200 km north of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The city is a major transportation hub within the region, has a long history and is a center for Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. A special attraction is the Buddha Museum, established in 1987, with over 3,500 exhibits from different eras in four galleries, providing insight into the history of Buddhism in India. The exhibits include, among other things, documents, thankas, utensils, miniature paintings and exquisite sculptures in metal, stone and terracotta.
Day 14: Transfer to Gorakpur airport – Return home or travel onwards