Varanasi – Places to Visit

bodhgaya1Bodhgaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located 13 km south of Gaya in Bihar. It is another one of the four holy places directly 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. It is considered a replica of a building that was erected in the 7th century on the site of the original sanctuary built in the 3rd century by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. Many nations that have a high proportion of Buddhists among their population are represented in Bodhgaya with a noteworthy temple or monastery. These architecturally impressive structures are well worth a visit. Buddhists from all over the world make pilgrimages to Bodhgaya, with many among them coming to meditate and 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. Gaya occupies an important place in Hinduism, with Hindu rituals for the dead taking place under its Akshayavat Banyan tree, which is regarded as immortal. For Buddhists, who perceive Buddha’s footprint in that of Vishnu, the place is of particular significance because the Buddha preached the Adittapariyaya Sutra before a group of ascetics here. 50 km from Gaya are the Barabar Caves, which are the oldest stone-carved Buddhist shrines in India.

Kushinagar (55 km east of Gorakpur in Uttar Pradesh) is another one of the four main pilgrimage sites of Buddhism since, according to tradition, 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.

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.

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.

sarnathThe 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. Sarnath is a popular destination for a day trip from Varanasi.

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.

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