The Eight Holy Sites of Lord Buddha
The most important places of pilgrimage in Buddhism are located in the Gangetic plains of Northern India and Southern Nepal, in the area between New Delhi and Rajgir. This is the area where Lord Buddha lived and taught, and the main sites connected to his life are now important places of pilgrimage for both Buddhists and Hindus.
Since the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, these four holy sites of Buddhism have become the focal points for pious disciples to rally around and seek inspiration. By the time of King Ashoka, four more places, namely: Shravasti, Sankasya, Rajgir and Vaishali, that were closely associated with the Buddha and scenes of his principal miracles, were added to the pilgrimage itinerary. Together they make the Eight Great Places of pilgrimage.
Four Main Pilgrimage Sites
Lord Buddha is said to have identified four sites most worthy of pilgrimage for his followers, saying that they would produce a feeling of spiritual urgency. These are:
LUMBINI: birthplace (in Nepal). Lumbini, where the Buddha lived until the age of 29, has a number of temples, including the Mayadevi temple, and others under construction. Also located here is the Puskarini or Holy Pond where the Buddha’s mother took the ritual dip prior to his birth and where he, too, had his first bath, as well as the remains of Kapilavastu palace. At other sites near Lumbini, earlier Buddhas were, according to tradition, born, achieved ultimate awakening and finally relinquished earthly form.
BODH GAYA: the place of his enlightenment (in the current Mahabodhi Temple). Historically known as Uruvela, Sambodhi, Vajrasana or Mahabodhi, Bodh Gaya is the most hallowed place on earth to Buddhists the world over. Situated by the bank of river Neranjana the place was then known as Uruwela. King Ashoka was the first to build a temple here.
SARNATH: (formally Isipathana) where he delivered his first teaching. After his enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first teaching in a deer park at Sarnath. This is referred to as the first turning of the Wheel of the Law (Dharmachakra). It was here that the Buddha also established the order of monks (Sangha). Because of its great importance as a pilgrimage site, Sarnath has been continuously occupied from the 3rd century BCE until the 12th century CE when Buddhism was on the wane in northern India. King Ashoka visited the site and constructed two stupas (Dharmarajika and Dhamekh) and a commemorative pillar. By the 11th century these structures had fallen into disrepair, but excavations in the late 19th century uncovered the pillar together with a marble relic casket and an image of the Buddha delivering his first sermon. The Dhamekh stupa that exists today was built from brick during the 5th-6th centuries and stands on the site of earlier structures. The holy Ganges River is also located here.
KUSHINAGAR: where he passed away. The Buddha chose Kushinagar, capital of the Malla kingdom, for his Mahaparinirvana. Records note that the Buddha had visited the city a number of times and many of the Mallas had become his followers. After his death, the Buddha’s body was cremated at the shrine of the Mallas. His remains were divided into eight parts which were subsequently placed under eight stupas in different parts of the country. King Ashoka made a significant contribution to construction at this site. The Mahaparinirvana stupa marks the spot where the Buddha passed away. The temple contains a six meter long statue of the Buddha in parinirvana posture (lying on one side).
The Eight Great Places
The above four and the following four additional sites:
SHRAVASTI: Place of the Buddha performing Twin Miracle, called so because of its simultaneous production of apparently contradictory phenomena; in this case, fire and water. The Buddha produced flames from the upper part of his body and streams of water from the lower part of his body, alternating this, and did similarly between the left and right sides of his body. Afterwards, the Buddha took three giant steps, arriving in Trayastrimsha heaven. There, he preached the Abhidharma to his mother who had been reborn there as a Deva named Santussita. Shravasti is also the place where Buddha spent the largest amount of time, being a major city in ancient India.
The monastery known as Jetavana Vihara was built by Anathapindika, an extremely wealthy and pious merchant who became one of the chief disciples of the Buddha. Close to the monastery is the Anandabodhi tree, grown from a cutting taken from the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka which itself grew from a cutting taken from the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. The monastery is still an important pilgrimage destination. Located just outside the old city of Savatthi, Jetavana was one of the most famous of the Buddhist monasteries in India. It was the second monastery donated to the Buddha, after the Veluvana in Rajgir. Jetavana was the place where the Buddha gave the majority of his teachings and discourses.
RAJGIR: Place of the Buddha subduing Nalagiri, the angry elephant, through loving kindness. Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin, who was extremely jealous of Buddha, after scheming against the Buddha to no avail, Devadatta set loose an elephant, known as Nalagiri to kill the Buddha. As this elephant had been intoxicated into a crazed state by his keepers, ran through the town towards the Buddha, a frightened woman accidentally dropped her baby at the Buddha’s feet. Just as the elephant was about to trample the child, the Buddha calmly reached up and touched the elephant on the forehead. The elephant became calm and quiet, then knelt down before the Buddha.
Rajgir was another major city of ancient India. The remains of King Ajatasatru’s palace can still be seen today close to the Burmese Dharamsala. The hill where the hot spring is located was known as the Bipula peak and is one of the five peaks surrounding Rajgir. Close by the hot springs is the cave where Mahakashyapa, one of the Buddha’s most illustrious disciples, and 500 Arhats held the First Buddhist Council, sponsored by King Ajatasatru in the summer following the Buddha’s passing into Mahaparinirvana, to recount and record the Buddha’s teachings into the Three Pitakas. On this occasion, the Buddha’s close attendant, Ananda, recited the collection of the teachings (Sutra) and Upali recited the collection of precepts (Vinaya). North of the hot springs is a mound, site of the Bamboo Grove, a park offered by King Bimbisara to the Buddha. The first community of Sangha was established here. North of Rajgir is Gridhrakuta Hill, or Vulture Peak, where the Buddha taught Prajna Paramita and started teaching the Mahayana path.
SANKASYA: Place of the Buddha, together with Brahma and Indra, descending to earth from Trayastrimsha heaven, after a stay of three months teaching his mother the Abhidharma. Three ladders of silver, gold and jewels were provided for the gods and the event was witnessed by a vast crowd of people to whom the Buddha preached the Dharma. The Chinese pilgrims Faxien and Xuanzang noted that three ladders were to be seen there made from brick and stone. These may have been constructed by Ashoka to commemorate the Buddha’s descent. A shrine marked the spot where the Buddha’s foot first touched the ground and Ashoka also erected a pillar with an elephant capital to mark this holy place.
VAISHALI: Place of the Buddha receiving an offering of honey from a monkey. Vaishali was the capital of the Vajjian Republic of ancient India. Watching an elephant attending the Buddha by bringing him water and fruit, a monkey decided that he too wanted to honor the Buddha by offering a gift. While in the forest, the monkey saw a honey comb, free of flies, and decided that it would be an appropriate gift for the teacher. The monkey gave the honey to the Buddha, but was surprised when the teacher did not eat it. The monkey then realized that even though the honey was free of flies, there were insects’ eggs in the honeycomb, which would be destroyed had the Buddha eaten the honey. The monkey then removed the eggs and once again offered it to the Buddha who, this time, accepted it and ate the honey. The monkey, delighted that his gift was accepted, rejoiced by dancing and leaping from one branch of a tree to another. While he rejoiced, the monkey fell and was killed. However, the Buddha impressed with the monkey’s devotion, predicted that he would be reborn in Trayastrimsha heaven. The Buddhological significance of this story is two-fold. First, the prediction of the monkey’s rebirth in a heaven world illustrates the universal nature of Buddhism, in which release is available to all sentient beings. Second, the death of the monkey made the Buddha realize his own forthcoming death for which he then prepared.
The Buddha made several visits to Vaishali for the purpose of preaching to the monastic community (Sangha) and setting down many instructions and rules (Vinaya). After leaving his kingdom in Kapilavastu for renunciation, the Buddha came to Vaishali first and had his spiritual training from Ramaputra Udraka and Alara Kalama. After enlightenment the Buddha frequently visited Vaishali. He organized his Bhikshu Sangha on the pattern of Vaishalian democracy. It was here that he established the Bhikshuni Sangha, initiating his maternal aunt Maha Prajavati Gautami into the order. His last Varshavasa (rainy season resort) was here and he announced his approaching Mahaparinirvana (the final departure from the world) just three months in advance. Before leaving for Kushinagar, where he laid his mortal coil, he left his alms-bowl (Bhiksha-Patra) here with the people of Vaishali.