The story of Buddhism has succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of spiritualists all across the world as the transformation of Siddhartha to Sage Sakyamuni to Buddha shows an incredible journey of faith and knowledge. The whole life story of Gautam Buddha took place in India which is why a lot of international pilgrim traffic is drawn here. Buddha renounced the grandeur of his palace about 2500 years ago and travelled to many places seeking enlightenment. The 8 fold path to escape the cycle of birth and death is considered to be one of the most important spiritual doctrines in the world. There are many Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India and here is a guide on the best of the lot.
Bodhgaya is the place where Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment. Both Buddhists and non Buddhists flock to Bodhgaya to learn meditation and understand the essence of religion. Once a small tranquil place Bodhgaya has now become a typical tourist town. There are a lot of attractions in Bodhgaya which are very relevant to Buddhism.
When to Go: Best time to visit is November to February when Lamas from Dharamshala come down to Bodhgaya for their yearly visit. If you are lucky you might even catch a glimpse of Dalai Lama who spends December in bodhgaya.
1- Mahabodhi Temple
Arguably the most important Buddhist tourist attraction in the world the temple stands right next to where the Bodhi tree once stood. The glorious temple was erected emperor Asoka in the 3rd BC and subsequently underwent restorations in 11th century and 1882. The stone railing around the temple is remnant of Sunga period between 184-170 BC.
Gaya which is situated right next to Bodh Gaya has an intense spiritual connection to Buddhism. Gautam Buddha delivered the extremely important third discourse (Brahmayoni) over here in a site which is called Gayasisa. The Fire Sermon which is filled with imagery and drama was also spoken by Lord Buddha at Bodh Gaya. Near Gaya is a place called Tankitmancha and it is now known as Sujikund.
3- Barabar Caves
Barabar caves are made out of two chambers that are made of granite with high intensity granite which is capable of producing an echo effect. The book Passage to India contains a vivid description of those caves.
4- Barabar Hills
The caves of Barabar are situated just 19 km from Gaya and represent some of the oldest and finest specimens of Buddhism imagery and art. 4 caves are placed in the twin hills of Barabar and 3 caves are situated in Nagarjuni. These caves date back to the 3rd century BC or the Maurya period. The caves were used by sages of the Ajivika sect and contain beautiful examples of Buddhist imagery.
5- Mahabodhi Tree
The huge Peepal tree (sacred fig) was believed to have originated from sapling planted by Emperor Asoka’s daughter; Sanghamitra. This is a huge tree now and considered sacred by Buddhists all across the world.
Burmese, Thai, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Bhutanese, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Korean, Bangladeshi and Tibetan Monasteries are found in Bodh Gaya. All monasteries represent the culture and architectural style of the country which they represent.
7- Archaeological Museum
Brilliant collection of Buddhism artifacts and a 25 m high Buddha statue makes this place worth visiting. Currently 1000 m high Buddha statue is being built here.
How to Reach– Bodh Gaya is in Bihar and is adjacent to the bustling town of Gaya. The place is well connected by roads and rail to all major cities of India
Shopping– The milk sweets of Gaya are very famous and you can get a lot of spiritual texts and Buddhism artifacts here.
Festival– Buddha Jayanti or Bodh Gaya festival is held in April/ May on a full moon night. Several hundreds of pilgrims visit Bodh Gaya and perform meditation, chants, songs and spiritual discourses.
Sarnath gained its relevance when Buddha came here to preach the message of Nirvana that he achieved after gaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. Magnificent monasteries and Stupa dot Sarnath and it came into prominence when the Chinese traveler Fahsien visited the site in the 5th Century AD. Major excavations have taken place at Sarnath and important religious artifacts have been obtained.
The Pillar of Asoka, the Dhamek Stupa and the Vihara of Mulagandhakuti are three of the major attractions in Sarnath. Sarnath museum is an important spot to visit if you are interested in the intricacies of Indo Buddhist art. The Burmese, Japanese, Nepalese, Tibetan and Chinese temples in Sarnath are also very beautiful.
Shopping– Sarnath sells some interesting Buddhist artifacts but the main shopping hub is Varanasi (just 15 km away) that is famous for its Banarasi silk Sarees.
Festivals– Buddha Purnima is celebrated with a lot of pomp and show in the month of May/ April.
How to Reach– Take a bus/ cab from Varanasi that is just 15 km away from Sarnath. Varanasi is connected to most major cities of India.
When to Visit- The best time to visit is November to February when the weather is pleasant and comfortable. The month of May is also a good time because of the Buddha Purnima festival that is held there.
Rajgir was the place where Gautam Buddha spent 12 years discoursing on the complexities of religion. Rajgir was the capital of the kingdom Magadh until Ajatsatru moved base to Pataliputra in the 5th Century. Rajgir is mentioned in the Mahabharata several times and is extremely popular amongst Jains as well as Buddhists. The location is scenic as it is set in a green valley surrounded by hills
How to Reach- Rajgir is connected to Patna through Bakhtiarpur via rail and highway. You can drive down using NH 30 and NH 31. Shramjeevi Express connects Rajgir to Delhi.
Bimbisara Jail, Jain Temples and Vishwa Shanti Stupa (one of the 80 global peace pagodas) are some of the primary attractions of Rajgir. The Venu Vana is an artificially created forest where one can sit and meditate. Brahma Kund or the hot water springs of Rajgir are very famous and so are the Sonabhandara Caves that are situated on the hills.
Rajgir Heritage museum is another place of tourist interest.
Best Time to Visit– Rajgir is best visited between August to October though it is pleasant all the year round as it is blessed with cool temperate climate.
Festivals– Rajgir Dance Festival is held every year in October between 24th to 26th. This is organized by the Bihar State Tourism Department and it showcases dance, music and major art performances by leading artistes. Malamasa mela is also celebrated in Rajgir every 13 years.
Shopping– Rajgir sells interesting Ayurvedic medicine (sourced from hot water springs) and in Nalanda you can buy archeological models and Buddhist artifacts.
This is the place where Gautam Buddha spent 25 monsoons and delivered some of his most important sermons. Sravasti was one of the 6 most important cities in ancient India and was originally the capital of Kingdom of Kosala. A total of 871 Sutras were said to be preached in Sravasti
How to Reach– Sravasti can be reached via road from Lucknow through a car or a bus though the former is preferable.
Excavation has unearthed many important Buddhism artifacts in Sravasthi and most of these are kept in museums in Lucknow. Three important buildings can still be visited and they are Jain Tirthankara temple, Stupa of Angulimala and Stupa of Anathapindika. The Stupa where the twin miracles of Buddhism took places is also present here. Tourists also visit the site of Jetavana Monastery which is an important seat of meditation and chanting. There are monasteries from Thailand, South Korea, Tibet and China that have been constructed here.
Sankassya is the place where Gautam Buddha preached a discourse to the spirit of his deceased mother at Tusita heaven. Later he descended from Tusita Heaven to Sankassya. The main attraction of Sankassya is the huge pillar which Emperor Ashoka had erected. Sankassya is remote but can easily be reached from Shravasti.
Best Time to Visit– Summers are hot here so avoid the same while planning a trip to Shravasti and Sankassya
Shopping– These are small areas of spiritual significance and not of much commercial potential. However those interested in theology can look for rare religious texts here.
Vaishali was the capital city of Licchavi and was famous for being the first Republic state. Jain Tirthankara was also born here in 539 BC which is why this is an important pilgrimage site for Jains. Gautam Buddha preached his last sermon in Vaishali in 483 BCE and the second Buddhist council was held here. The Bhikshuni Sangha (purely female monastic order) was held at Vaishali. At Vaishali the Mahaparinirvana or the last departure from the world was announced.
The Coronation Tank and the Relic Stupa is the place where Licchavis encased 8 portions of the relics of the master. The Kutagarasala Vihara is one monastery which is situated just 5 km from the relic Stupa and on the ground of this monastery the Ananda Stupa with a magnificent lion on it is found. Coronation tank is also called the Abhishek Pushkarini and it holds the sacred water of Buddhism.
World Peace Pagoda stands next to the Japanese temple and is built by the famous Japanese Nipponzan Myohoji.
How to Reach- Vishali is surrounded by luscious banana and mango groves and green paddy fields. The nearest airport is Patna Airport that is 70 km away and the Hajipur and Muzaffarpur railway stations are the nearest railway stations.
Shopping– There are local wooden and bead handicrafts, gorgeous Madhubani paintings and intricate stone sculptures that you can buy from Vaishali. The sweets of Vaishali especially the Pedas are very delicious. Home-made toys and Sikki made of grass blades are made in the surrounding villages and they are delightful to collect. Another interesting collectible here is Lac Bangles which come here from Muzaffarpur.
Dharamshala is fondly called the exile home of the Dalai Lama who is the Tibetan religious leader and it is situated in the upper stretches of the Kangra Valley at a total altitude of 2000 meters. Now Dharamshala is the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile since the year 1960. Over the last 60 years the Tibetan community has established over 250 monasteries and nunneries containing more than 20500 monks and nuns. Dharamshala is responsible for reviving the interest in Buddhism.
McLeod Ganj or Upper Dharamshala is well known for spreading the message of love and peace globally and it is also the current residence of the Dalai Lama and the purpose is to help the Tibetan Buddhism head in his activities. The whole place is filled with towering images of Buddha, Avalokiteshvara and Padmasambhava.
Sightseeing Around Dharamshala
There are several lovely spots near Dharamshala and one of the best places is Bhagsunag Falls which is only 11 km away from the town. There are a number of beautiful trekking routes around this place which leads to Triund.
The Church of Saint John is also 11 km away from Dharamshala and is situated between the dense forest that lies between Mcleod Ganj and Forsyth Ganj. There is a monument here dedicated to Lord Elgin who was the ex viceroy of India. The Church has beautiful stained glass windows that reflect light in seven colours.
Dharamkot is another scenic and beautiful place near the town of Dharamshala and one can get a bird’s eye view of the Kangra Valley. The Gaddi tribes here sell exquisite handicrafts and beautiful paintings.
Kunal Pathari temple near the Kotwali Bazaar, Kareri Lake, Dal Lake and Naddi Village are some of the other beautiful spots near Dharamshala.
How to Reach– The closest airport to Dharamshala is Gaggal Airport and it is 15 km away. The other airports are Jammu airport and Amritsar Airport. The closest broad based rail head is Pathankot that is 95 km away. There is also a narrow gauge line that connects Kangra to Dharamshala. The Himachal Road Transport Corporation runs a fleet of buses that transverse the whole state and takes care of tourist transport needs.
Shopping– Dharamsala is a shopper’s paradise and you can shop for beautiful Kangra miniature paintings, woolen clothes, Tibetan jewelry and artifacts here.
Famous Monasteries of Himachal Pradesh can be accessed in holistic monastery tours which will take you to the lovely climes of the upper reaches of Kinnaur Valley and Lahaul Siti Valley. Going on a monastery tour will expose you to the interesting facets of Tibetan Buddhism
This is the capital city of the Sakya Clan and the place where Prince Siddhartha spent his childhood years. Kapilavastu was the place where the Buddha saw sorrow, pain, death and disease in their most extreme forms. A lot of archeological excavations have taken place in Kapilavastu and stone caskets believed to have been used by Buddha himself have been excavated.
This is the site of Sakyamuni Buddha’s death and is one of the 4 major sites of Buddhism in India. This was the capital of ancient Malla Kingdom and it is at this picturesque location that Gautam Buddha attained Parinirvana and was subsequently cremated. Most of the beautiful relics and Stupas of Kushinagar are dated back to the 3rd Century and the 5th Century AD and Ashoka had contributed a lot to the beautification of Kushinagar.
Must See Buddhist Monasteries
1- Monasteries in District Spiti
Key (Ki) Monastery is one of the most famous monasteries of Himachal. There are priceless thangkas here that have immense spiritual value. Religious mysticism of Ki springs from the fact that it was once a fort in ancient age and was used to protect the hill folks from the evil eye. Instruments like drums, cymbals and trumpets are put on display inside the Monastery. Kibber and Gele villages near Key monastery are two of the highest altitude villages of Asia.
Location– Key Monastery is located in the fringes of Ki Village in Spiti.
Festivals– The Ki Chaam Festival is held every year in the month of July and it is the ideal time to visit this region.
2- Yang Yud Gompa
This is a Tibetan monastery which also teaches Calligraphy and art and religion to Buddhist kids. Sakyamuni Buddha is thought to have blessed this monastery himself. There are massive paintings of white Tara that surround this Gompa and the extreme high altitude makes the Gompa a photographer’s paradise.
Location– The Yang Yud Gompa is situated near the narrow gorge surrounding the Kaza Nullah and it is at an altitude of 1300 feet. This is in Western Spiti region.
3- Tabo Monastery
Arguably the most beautiful monastery of Himachal Pradesh Tabo was built in 996 CE in the year of Fire Ape under supervision of Rinchen Zangpo who was the king of West Himalayas. Tabo is one of the oldest enclaves in Himalayas. This Monastery is also called the Ajanta of Himachal as it has exquisitely beautiful thangkas and frescoes inside it.
Festivals– The most famous festival held here is Chakhar festival held in October every three years. Lots of dance and musical performances mark this event and it is celebrated by all.
Location– The Monastery is situated about 47 km from Kaza along the Spiti River.
4- Dhankar Monastery
Dhankar Monastery is situated in Eastern zone of Central Spiti. Dhankar is a huge village and it is the earlier capital of Monarch of Spiti. The Dhankar Monastery was earlier in use as a fort to host criminals and offenders. There are multiple statues of Dhyan Buddha which are installed in order to guide prisoners back to the correct path of life. The Monastery has about 100 Mamas and it exerts a quiet and tranquil effect on the mind. This monastery is one of the most 100 endangered sites in the world as described by the World Monument Fund.
Festivals– The Dhaam Festival is celebrated with a lot of pomp and show in the month of July in Dhankar Monastery.
Location– There are airports of Kullu and Shimla which are near the Spiti Valley. Kaza which is the base of Dhankar Monastery is reachable from Shimla and Manali by road. Personal cars and vehicles can be hired to reach the Dhankar Monastery which is at a higher altitude.
5- Kardang Monastery
The Monastery of Kardang is located in the village that is facing the town of Keylong and is at a stunning altitude of 3500 meters. This ancient monastery lies on the banks of the Bhaga River and is built using principles of architecture that allows maximum intake of sunshine during winter. The building is white and is decorated with multiple prayer flags. There are ancient weapons and old scriptures inside the monastery that date back to the 12th Century.
Location– Kardang is well joined to Keylong and Kaza via the bridge of Tandi that is about 14 km away from Keylong. The best option is to take a cab/ private vehicle from Manali/ Shimla to reach Kaza.
6- Palpung Sherabling Monastic Seat
The Palpung Sherabling Monastic Seat is extensively spread over a luscious pine forest in the Kangra Valley of Himachal. The monastery has beautiful mountains in its background and is built according to modern monastic styles yet using traditional Buddhist materials. The specialty of this monastery is the art school which teaches Thangka making, metal craft, wood work and
Location– The Palpung Sherabling Monastic Seat is extensively spread over a luscious pine forest in the Kangra Valley of Himachal other art work forms to the Buddhist students who reside here.
7- Gyuto Monastery
The nearest airport is the Gaggal Airport which is near Dharamshala. The Kangra Valley sees the peak of its tourist season between March to May and this is the best time to visit this Monastery. The monastery is 3 hours drive from Dharamshala.
8- Tayul Gompa
The Tayul Gompa lies 6 km away from Keylong and is just above the Satingiri Village. This Monastery is deemed to be a blessed site and the imagery and the artifacts inside are beautiful and very valuable the walls are decorated with murals and stucco images and the Narthang edition of the Kangyur is added from Tibet to Gompa. Several Monastery houses are situated nearby and they can be covered in one trip.
Location– The Tayul Monastery is situated in the district of Bhaga in Lahaul Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. The place is 6 km from the Keylong town above the Satingiri Village.
9- Hemis Monastery
The Hemis Monastery is positioned in Ladakh at a mere 44 km from the capital city of Leh. The monarch of Ladakh Sengge Namgyal got this monastery constructed in the year 1672. This is one of the richest monasteries in Ladakh and the roots are entwined with Naropa who has attained enlightenment in this monastery. The Hemis monastery contains many precious artifacts and beautiful thangkas that are invaluable for their artistic and spiritual value.
Location– The best way to visit the Hemis Monastery is to hire a cab from the Leh airport. Leh is the capital of Ladakh and direct flights to Leh are available from Delhi and other major Indian cities.
Festivals– The Hemis Festival that is colorful and popular happens every year in July and this is the best time to visit Hemis Monastery. The festival contains the famous Mask Dance which is one of the most famous forms of Tibetan religious dances.
10- Thiksey Monastery
The Thiksey Monastery is one of the most beautiful monasteries of Ladakh and it is built in an architectural style that has gained praise globally. This is also one of the largest monasteries containing about 12 storeys and many complexes. The Monastery has its own education center, art school, kitchen, recreation center etc and is actually like a small self contained town. The construction of the Monastery was done under the guidance of Palden Sangpo in the 15th Century. The principal attraction of the Thiksey Monastery is the 49 feet Maitreya Buddha that stands there.
Location– The Thiksey Monastery is a mere 20 km from Leh and it is advisable to take a cab from Leh airport and cover Thiksey and Hemis Monastery in one day.
11- Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery
The Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery is located in the Southern region of India and it is deemed to be one of the biggest teaching centers for the religion Buddhism. Each year thousands of Lamas, nuns and other religious leaders visit this monastery to gain enlightenment and spiritual knowledge. The monastic seat was established by Namdroling Nyingmapa and till date is considered to be one of the best places for learning the religion. Many prominent figures of Buddhism received education and training from this monastery.
Location– The Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery is located in Bylakuppe that is an off route place in Mysore district. The best way to reach it is to take a cab from Mysore airport or Railway Station.
Festivals– The best time to visit Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery is February to March as this is the time for Tibetan New Year. The celebrations last for many weeks during which dance, processions and chanting are organized.
12- Ghoom Monastery
The Ghoom Monastery was built in the year 1850 by the Lama Sharap Gyatso and it is perched at a height of 7470 feet above the sea level. Lots of ancient scriptures and books are present in the Monastery and it serves as an important seat for learning Buddhism. This Monastery is under the Yellow Hat Sect and is maintained by 60 monks. There is a 20 feet high statue fashioned out of pure gold and adorned with jewels that graces the Monastery.
Location– One can easily walk down to the Monastery from Ghoom station (in West Bengal). Ghoom is a mere 20 km from Darjeeling one of the prettiest hill stations of West Bengal.