On the Buddhist pilgrimage in India

Land of the Buddha

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India is Buddha's land. The important places in the life of Siddhartha Gautama are in Northern India and Nepal. Join the Buddhist pilgrimage.

Big Buddha in Bodhgaya

"I'm off" in India!

For Christians it is the Way of St. James , for Buddhists the Buddha Trail in India.

More than 2,500 years ago, the historical Buddha lived and worked in today's Nepal and northern India .

Surprisingly, Buddhism is almost extinct today in its native India .

For this, all Buddhist countries have built beautiful temples in India in recent decades.

In the 4 main pilgrimage places you are always surrounded by pilgrims, whether from Thailand, Sri Lanka or Japan .

Come on a Buddhist pilgrimage .

Tibetan woman, Thais and Indians in Bodhgaya

The Buddha Trail in North India

Every Buddhist pilgrim visits at least 4 important places in the life of Buddha:

  1. Lumbini: Birthplace of the Buddha
  2. Bodhgaya: place of enlightenment
  3. Sarnath: First Sermon of the Enlightened One
  4. Kushinagar: Death of the Buddha

There are also seven other pilgrimage sites in northern India, which are also visited by many pilgrims.

In addition, you have a large selection of worth seeing Buddhist monuments. They come from the first centuries to the Buddha and are located in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Buddha Trail and Buddhist monuments - in BIG

Buddhism for beginners

I am not a Buddhist but an Asian and temple fanatic. For spiritual advice you have to look elsewhere. This is about interesting places on the Buddha Trail.

However, you should bring a bit of interest in Buddhism or India's history. Otherwise you probably will not care about the Buddha Trail.

If you just want to get a taste of Buddhism, visit Sarnath as a day trip from Varanasi. Of the remaining places Bodhgaya is worth the most.

You do not care about Buddhism? Ellora and Ajanta are two Buddhist-Hindu monuments for every India traveler. The Kailash Temple in Ellora is more impressive than the Taj Mahal.

Here you can find more information about the pilgrimage on the Buddha Trail. Because it is worth seeing, every place gets a temple rating by country.

Tibetan monk with prayer drum in Bodhgaya

Types of pilgrims on the Buddha Trail

When traveling and pilgrimage especially the encounters are interesting. Almost all pilgrims come from Buddhist countries in Asia. As a Western tourist you are an exception and will face many questions.

Most pilgrims are Theravada Buddhists. They come in large groups, especially from Thailand and Sri Lanka, each with a few monks. Theravada is the analytic oldest denomination of Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhists from China, Vietnam or Japan tend to be isolated or in pairs. Mahayana is the applied and everyday faith of Buddhism. There is no such monastic structure in the Mahayana.

The most striking are the Tibetan Buddhists. Vajrayana is the most ritual confession in Buddhism. You see all sorts of prayer drums, prayer beads, and on-the-ground items.

Tibetan-born Buddhists are mostly exiled Tibetans living in India. India is their home and they stay longer. Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists often only visit for a short time.

Occasionally you even meet Indian "Neo-Buddhists" from Mumbai and Maharashtra. Ghandi wanted to reform the Hindu caste system, but Ambedkar wanted to get rid of it. In addition he and hundreds of thousands of untouchables converted quite pragmatically to Buddhism.

Ambedkar's Navayana Buddhism gets by without monks. The 7 million Navayana Buddhists are allergic to "superstitions" such as rebirth, karma and nirvana. Navayana is the secular Buddhist denomination.

Theravada mass meditation under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya

Ceremony of Chinese Mahayana monks in Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya: Where the Buddha became enlightened

Bodhgaya is the main place on the Buddha Trail. Here Buddha found his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

An offshoot of the tree was exported to Sri Lanka and reimported. Today he stands under the main temple and donates the meditator shadow.

You can spend a whole day on the large temple grounds. It is fascinating to observe the pilgrims from different countries and denominations.

In the winter months, many Tibetans and Bhutanese come from the mountains to spend the winter in Bodhgaya. There is then a Tibetan market and many Tibetan tent restaurants. Tashi Delek!

Most of the time is in January for Kalachakra. Some years even the Dalai Lama comes. Also in December, I experienced a large and several smaller Buddhist gatherings in just one week.

Many pilgrims take a trip to Dungeshwari Cave, where the Buddha almost fasted to death. Can you do that if you have a lot of time in Bodhgaya, but you do not have to.

Japanese big Buddha in Bodhgaya

Thai temple Metta Buddharam in Bodhgaya

  • 5 Thailand [Theravada]
  • 4 Japan [Mahayana]
    4 Bhutan [Vajrayana]
    4 Tibet [Vajrayana]
  • 3 Vietnam [Mahayana]
    3 Myanmar [Theravada]
  • 2 Mongolia [Vajrayana]
    2 Laos [Theravada]
    2 Sri Lanka [Theravada]
    2 China [Mahayana]
  • 1 Taiwan [Mahayana]
    1 Korea [Mahayana]
    1 Cambodia [Theravada]
    1 Nepal [Vajrayana]
    1 Bangladesh [Mahayana]
    1 Sikkim [Vajrayana]

(5: Must See - 1: omitted)

Thailand is very religious and the richest country of Theravada Buddhism. Especially blatant you see that in Bodhgaya. There are 5 large Thai temples with architectural styles from different regions of Thailand. Especially successful is the Metta Buddharam temple. He is reminiscent of the silver Wat Sri Suphan in Chiang Mai. It is one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, temple in Bodhgaya.

Japan has built a giant Buddha between its 2 temples. The statue has become a landmark for Bodhgaya and is rightly "the landmark".

The Bhutanese temple in the city has the most beautiful interior with dioramas on the wall. The large Bhutanese monastery outside is very popular with Indian visitors - no idea why.

Tibet has 7 temples in Bodhgaya, one of them right in front of Dungeshwari Cave. None of the Tibetan temples is exceedingly beautiful, the 4 points are for quantity;)

Vietnam has a pretty temple, but it is not open to visitors. 2 other older temples are located on the river and near the Tibetan tent city. Myanmar has 4 temples, the newest being at Dungeshwari Cave.

Canal boat in Lumbini

Birthday stamp in Lumbini

Lumbini: Where the Buddha was born

Lumbini is considered the birthplace of Buddha. The small village of Lumbini Bazaar is located just a few kilometers from the Indian border in central Nepal. Culturally you are already in India.

The Peace Park was created especially for pilgrims, a huge area of ​​5 km x 1.6 km. Between isolated temples, nature predominates. This is perfect for a bike ride.

It is a lot quieter than in Bodhgaya. Of course, people are also better distributed. Only around the Temple of Birth and Lake Vajrayana do you encounter groups of people.

The temples of Buddhist denominations are strictly sorted. To the east are the Theravada countries, to the southwest the Mahayana countries and to the northwest to a lake the Vajrayana countries.

The schizophrenic Nepal has a Theravada, a Mahayana and two Vajrayana Temple. There are surprisingly few Tibetans.

In the far south lies the temple of birth and in the north sits the Japanese peace stupa. Between south and north, a passenger boat rides on a canal. You can also rent bikes or take a rickshaw.

German temple in Lumbini

Thai temple and baby Buddha in Lumbini

  • 5 Germany [Vajrayana]
  • 4 Nepal [Vajrayana]
    4 Cambodia [Theravada]
  • 3 Japan [Mahayana]
    3 Thailand [Theravada]
  • 2 Myanmar [Theravada]
    2 Vietnam [Mahayana]
    2 Korea [Mahayana]
    2 Sri Lanka [Theravada]
    2 China [Mahayana]
  • 1 France [Vajrayana]
    1 Austria [Vajrayana]
    1 Canada [Vajrayana]
    1 Singapore [Vajrayana]
    1 Tibet [Vajrayana]

(5: Must See - 1: omitted)

The most beautiful temple in Lumbini is - hold on - the German! The Drikung sect of Vajrayana Buddhism seems to be popular in Germany . They built a lotus stupa on a temple roof in Lumbini. The murals in the interior and the sculptures in the exterior let you circle the temple several times.

Nepal trumps in their own country. The World Center for Peace and Unity at Lake Vajrayana with a Nepalese stupa on the roof has succeeded. Even nicer is the new temple in Newari style diagonally opposite. He offers a good sample of Bhaktapur or Patan.

Cambodia has the most unimaginative temples in all other places, but not in Lumbini. The Cambodian temple is still being built. But the future beauty can already be guessed.

The Japanese sect Nipponzan-Myohoji has been building peace pacts around the world since World War II. There are more than 80 already. Maybe you know those in Munich or in Vienna. A big peace pagoda is also in Lumbini.

The Thai temple in Lumbini is the most unspectacular of the 4 main places. The large, completely white building is reminiscent of Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai. The accent is set by the golden baby Buddha in front of it. Thailand has also donated the larger Baby Buddha to the eternal flame of peace.

Garden of Spiritual Wisdom in Sarnath

Church-shaped main temple in Sarnath

Sarnath: Where Buddha delivered his first sermon

In Sarnath Buddha gave his first speech to 4 disciples after enlightenment. He proclaimed the four noble truths and the eightfold path. Life is suffering.

Sarnath is the only one of the four pilgrimage places where you can see tourists as well as pilgrims. You can visit Sarnath as a trip from Varanasi, 10 kilometers away (and vice versa).

In addition to the lodge temples you can see in Sarnath 2 antique stupas from the time of King Ashoka. In the other places, if any, only foundations of antique stupas are left.

Next to the Chaukhandi Stupa is almost unnoticed the beautiful Garden of Spiritual Wisdom . Make the short introduction to Buddhism or recover from the tourist groups.

Vietnamese Giant Buddha in Sarnath

Thai Giant Buddha in Sarnath

  • 4 Thailand [Theravada]
    4 Vietnam [Mahayana]
    4 Tibet [Vajrayana]
  • 3 Sri Lanka [Theravada]
  • 2 Japan [Mahayana]
    2 Cambodia [Theravada]
    2 Myanmar [Theravada]
  • 1 China [Mahayana]
    1 Korea [Mahayana]

(5: Must See - 1: omitted)

Thailand usually relies on grace and simplicity. But in Sarnath they have put up a huge standing Buddha. No matter, it works and the Thai temple is the most popular.

No trace is discreet Vietnam with a sitting Giant Buddha. While the Thai temple is overrun, you have the Vietnamese temple for yourself. It is located just outside of the north.

Tibet does not have a giant Buddha, but a big temple. Vajra Vidya is the Central Institute for Tibetan Studies. The golden temple could also be in the Himalayas. Other Tibetan temples are spread over Sarnath.

Sri Lanka has an ancient temple and an offshoot of the Bodhi tree in Sarnath. The tree is surrounded by prayer wheels next to the church-shaped main temple.

Sleeping Buddha at the place of death in Kushinagar

Mahayana monks before Theravada group from Sri Lanka in Kushinagar

Kushinagar: Where Buddha died

In Kushinagar the Buddha is said to have passed into Parinirvana at the age of 80. That means he died and could prevent his reincarnation as an enlightened one. That's the goal of every Buddhist.

The small village Kushinagar looks much poorer than the other 3 pilgrim places. Think of the temples and you are in the middle of rural India. There are horse carts and you can see how a family of five together fits on a bicycle.

Kushinagar is the least important of the 4 main pilgrimage sites. You notice that in the number of temples and pilgrims. You can see all the temples in half a day and if you do not you will miss nothing.

It is interesting that the death of the founder of the religion plays such an important role in Christianity. The cross even became a symbol of religion.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is the most important event. The Buddhist symbol is the wheel of life. That started with the first sermon in Sarnath.

Burmese pagoda in Kushinagar

Temple of Vietnam and China in Kushinagar

  • 4 Vietnam-China [Mahayana]
  • 3 Myanmar [Theravada]
    3 Thailand [Theravada]
  • 2 Japan [Mahayana]
  • 1 Tibet [Vajrayana]
    1 Korea [Mahayana]
    1 Sri Lanka [Theravada]
    1 Cambodia [Theravada]

(5: Must See - 1: omitted)

Vietnam has teamed up with China and set up a modern temple. The two-story main building could also be in China or Vietnam. Worth seeing are the replicas of main temples from the other pilgrimage places.

Myanmar has Sri Lanka's oldest temples. The one in Lumbini is still impressive with a nice copy of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangon. It's also available in Lumbini, but here it is freestanding on the main road and looks better.

As always, Thailand has a large temple with a large garden. The main building is reminiscent of Wat Kaew in Krabi Town. One of the outbuildings, with golden bells, recalls Wat Tri Thotsathep in Bangkok.

Thai groups also make a pilgrimage to Nalanda

Cableway to Peace Stupa in Rajgir

Rajgir / Nalanda: Where the first council was

Shortly after Buddha's death in Rajgir about 400 BC. high-ranking Buddhist monks to the 1st Buddhist Council together. Here the three essential Buddhist writings of the Tripitaka were collected.

Nalanda was 500 AD. the first university in the world and the largest of the ancient world. More than 1,000 Buddhist professors taught in front of more than 10,000 students. The library in one of the nine-storey buildings was considered legendary.

Rajgir and Nalanda are not one of the 4 main places, but are also visited by pilgrims. Especially Thais come here. This is certainly due to the easy accessibility of Bodhgaya.

Nalanda is still an awesome place today. You walk through the ruins of the oldest university campus and imagine the student life at that time.

In Rajgir not much more than foundations of the city wall are left of the former size. In the hills to the south, there are caves of Buddha's time, including those in which the Buddhist Council took place.

More interesting are the temples of Jain on the peaks above a hot spring. It's a taste of the Jain city of the Thousand Palitana in Gujarat. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, was a contemporary of Buddha. Also check out the Veerayatan Jain Museum.

Chinese monument for Xuanzuang in Nalanda

Peace Pagoda above Vulture's Peak in Rajgir

  • 3 Japan [Mahayana]
    3 China [Mahayana]
    3 Thailand [Theravada]
  • 2 Myanmar [Theravada]
  • 1 Cambodia [Theravada]
    1 Tibet [Vajrayana]
    1 West Bengal [Mahayana]

(5: Must See - 1: omitted)

Please do not expect anything great from the temples in Rajgir and Nalanda. The two Nebenort are but overall worth seeing as the main town Kushinagar.

The Japanese temple by the hot springs is the most interesting in Rajgir. Of course, there is also a Japanese peace pagoda. It is beautifully situated, comparable to the one in Pokhara. A cable car sweetens the climb.

China has built a beautiful large temple in Nalanda as a memorial to the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang. The Chinese monk made a pilgrimage through India around 650 AD and studied in Nalanda for 2 years.

Thailand exaggerates it again with a temple in Nalanda and a half-finished temple in Rajgir. Both temples are nothing special. The "Wat Thai" are simply a pleasant refuge.

Stupa in the modern buddha park in Patna

7 secondary pilgrimage sites

In addition to Rajgir and Nalanda, there are 5 additional pilgrimage sites for lovers:

  • Patna
    Pataliputra became the capital of Maurya after Rajgir. Here was the seat of Emperor Ashoka, who profiled Buddhism in India and Sri Lanka. Later, the 3rd Buddhist Council took place here. Today, Patna is an ugly 2 million city with a modern Buddha Park.
  • Shravasti
    Shravasti was Buddha's adopted home. Here he spent the rainy season in a monastery. There are ruins of it and many other sites of the Buddha's time. There are some country temples, including Thailand, Korea, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
  • Vaishali
    Buddha often came to Vaishali and supposedly delivered his last sermon before death. Later, the second Buddhist Council took place here. There are some foundations of stupas and a monastery left over. The Japanese built a peace pagoda and the Thais built a temple.
  • Kesariya stupa
    Here Buddha gave his alms bowl before his death. The remains of the stupa are similar in shape and size to Borobodur in Indonesia. The Kesariya stupa is much less known - and much worse preserved. There is of course a Thai temple.
  • Kapilavastu
    Before Siddharta became an ascetic and then a Buddha he was prince of the Shakyas in Kapilavastu for 29 years. The exact location of Kapilavastu is not very clear. A possible place is in Nepal. There are a few ruins and a Thai temple to see.

Mahayana pilgrims in Bodhgaya

Practical Tips for the Buddha Trail

The Buddha Trail is very easy to travel on your own. But you are already off the normal India tourist rounds. Only in Sarnath / Varanasi there are really tourists and occasionally in Lumbini and Bodhgaya. In the untouristic places you can find Wifi after all in the Thai temple;)

In each place you will find many guesthouses, even without booking. You can also sleep in some of the temples for a small donation. I spent the night in Sarnath in the Chinese and in Kushinagar in the Vietnamese temple. I did not get a seat in Bodhgaya. Pilgrim accommodations are pretty rustic. A mosquito net you should definitely take.

Best make an electronic visa for India . You can use it once and leave again. Go over the land border in Sonauli to Lumbini in Nepal and back to Gorakhpur. In Nepal you get a visa on arrival for 15 or 30 days.

The temples in the more touristy places also offer tourist programs. So the Thai temple in Sarnath has a multi-day basic course for Vipassana meditation. Of course you can find that everywhere in Thailand.

More practical information is available on Wikivoyage .

Burmese monks in Bodhgaya

Transport on the Buddha Trail

I would not walk like on the Way of St. James. In India, even the local buses are hardcore enough for a karma plus.

I flew in from Kolkata to Gorakhpur with Spicejet for Kushinagar and Lumbini. Then Sarnath, Bodhgaya, and Rajgir / Nalanda followed over land. Vaishali and Kesariya go as a tour of Patna. In the end I flew out of Patna to Kolkata with Indigo. It's the same with Delhi instead of Kolkata.

From Gorakhpur (Kushinagar / Lumbini) to Varanasi (Sarnath) and on to Gaya (Bodhgaya) the railway travels. The smaller towns can be reached by local buses. Just ask, in India one speaks a lot of English.

If you really want to and everything is perfectly planned, you can demolish the Buddha Trail in 10 days. But I would take at least 2 weeks, like this:

  • 2 days Lumbini
  • 1 day Kushinagar
  • 1 day Sarnath
  • 3 days bodhgaya
  • 1 day Rajgir and Nalanda
  • 1 day Vaishali and Kesariya

There are also transit days. In addition, allow some time for one of the most fascinating places in the world: Varanasi . This time I was stuck there for a week and that was my 3rd visit;)

Emperor Ashoka on the right and his lion's column in Sarnath

Ashoka and the historic Buddha Trail

As a pilgrim on the Buddha Trail, you have a long tradition. Millions of Buddhist pilgrims have moved through northern India before you.

The most famous early pilgrim was Emperor Ashoka. After a particularly bloody battle with hundreds of thousands dead, the emperor confessed 263 BC. to Buddhism.

He then sought the important places in the life of the Buddha. There he built thousands of stupas and his pillars. The four stylized lions on one of the pillars are today symbol of India.

No less interesting is the story of the Chinese pilgrims. Buddhism spread across the Silk Road to China and took its foot around Christ's birth.

399 AD The Chinese monk Faxian (Fa-Hien) set off on foot to India to read the Buddhist original texts. For 13 years he was traveling along the Silk Road, North India and Indonesia. He kept an exact travel journal.

629 AD the monk Xuanzang (Hiuen-Tsang) left China. He traveled 17 years through Central Asia and throughout India. He often stopped to study, alone in Nalanda for two years. He also kept an exact travel journal.

Buddhism was already in decline in India in the 7th century. The differences between thriving cities and huge monasteries at Faxian and partially abandoned places at Xuanzang are remarkable.

For a more in-depth introduction, I recommend the free eBook Buddhist Pilgrimage by Chan Khoon San. It is very entertaining and also touches upon the Chinese pilgrims and the history of Buddhism.

The reclining lying Buddha in Ajanta

Buddhist monuments in South Asia

There are many Buddhist monuments in South Asia beyond the Buddha Trail. Here is my personal ranking:

  • 5 Ellora Caves
  • 4 Ajanta Caves
    4 Boudhanath (Nepal)
    4 Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka)
    4 Polonnaruwa (Sri Lanka)
  • 3 Mihintals (Sri Lanka)
    3 Swayambhunath (Nepal)
  • 2 Sanchi
    2 Nagarjunakonda
    2 Dambulla Caves (Sri Lanka)
  • 1 Lalitagiri
    1 Udayagiri
    1 Ratnagiri
    1 Pandavleni Caves
    1 Barabar Caves

(5: Must See - 1: omitted)

The easiest way to connect the Nepalese monuments with the Buddha Trail. Boudhanath and Swayambunath are just the tip of the iceberg. The Kathmandu Valley is culturally unique and full of history.

Fly to Kathmandu instead of Gorakhpur. From Kathmandu it is a long and bumpy bus ride to Lumbini.

Boudhanath: Kathmandu wants you!

Did you feel like going on the Buddha Trail or do you already know him?

  1. Hello, many thanks for this post! I am currently struggling, whether I can do the Buddha Trail alone as a woman (early 30) or if it could be too dangerous. Do you have any experience with it? Do women travel through this region alone? In the . Media you can find some horror scenarios ... Sometimes, however, the media tend to exaggeration and maybe I get from you firsthand a valid statement about it

    Thanks and Regards,
    Ann

    • Hi Anna,

      In tourist places like Bodhgaya, Lumpini and Varanasi / Sarnath I see absolutely no problems. I met women traveling alone in Bodhgaya and Varanasi. Most pilgrims are traveling in huge groups.

      Kushinagar and other small cages in local buses etc.? No idea! Unfortunately I can not judge as a single traveler man. Maybe it would be worthwhile to hire a driver for this section of the route.

      In general, individual cases of violence against female travelers in India tend to be overrated. But the danger is by no means invented and caution is required.

      Grüssle,
      Florian

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