They also visited
other Buddhist pilgrim sites like Bodh Gaya, the birthplace
of Buddhism, to participate in the Maha Nirvan, or death anniversary
It's a story that started an age ago.
Buddhism began with the life of Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563-483
B.C.),a prince from the small Shakya kingdom located in the
foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal.
Brought up in luxury, the prince abandoned his home and wandered
forth as a religious beggar, searching for the meaning of
existence. The stories of his search presuppose the Jain tradition
- the religion of 'ahimsa' or non- violence started by Lord
Mahavira - as Gautama was for a time a practitioner of intense
austerity, at one point starving himself almost to death.
He decided, however, that self-torture weakened his mind
while failing to advance him to enlightenment and therefore
turned to a milder style of renunciation and concentrated
on advanced meditation techniques -the famous middle path
Eventually, under a tree in the forests of Gaya (in modern
Bihar), he resolved to stir no farther until he had solved
the mystery of existence.
Breaking through the final barriers, he achieved the knowledge
that he later expressed as the Four Noble Truths: all of life
is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the end of
desire leads to the end of suffering; and the means to end
desire is a path of discipline and meditation.
Gautama was now the Buddha, or the awakened one, and he spent
the remainder of his life travelling about northeast India,
converting large numbers of disciples.
At the age of 80, the Buddha achieved his final passing away
(parinirvana) and died, leaving a thriving monastic order
and a dedicated lay community to continue his work.
By the third century B.C., the still-young religion based
on the Buddha's teachings was being spread throughout South
Asia through the agency of the Mauryan Empire (ca. 326-184
B.C). By the seventh century A.D., having spread throughout
East Asia and Southeast Asia, Buddhism probably had the largest
religious following in the world.
Indian King Ashoka (273-232 BC), the grandson of the founder
of the Mauryan dynasty, demonstrated his conversion to Buddhism
by vigorously promulgating the religion across India. His
edicts were carved on pillars of stone and wood, from Bengal
to Afghanistan and into the south to Sri Lanka.
For centuries, Indian royalty and merchants patronised Buddhist
monasteries and raised beautiful, hemispherical stone structures
called stupas over the relics of the Buddha in reverence to
Since the 1840s, archaeology has revealed the huge impact
of Buddhist art, iconography, and architecture in India. The
monastery complex at Nalanda in Bihar was a world centre for
Buddhist philosophy and religion until the thirteenth century.
But by the thirteenth century, when invaders destroyed the
remaining monasteries on the plains, Buddhism as an organised
religion had practically disappeared from India.
It survived only in Bhutan and now northeast Indian state
of Sikkim, both of which were then independent Himalayan kingdoms,
among tribal groups in the mountains of northeast India and
in Sri Lanka.
The reasons for this disappearance are unclear, and they
are many --shifts in royal patronage from Buddhist to Hindu
religious institutions; a constant intellectual struggle with
dynamic Hindu intellectual schools, which eventually triumphed;
and slow adoption of popular religious forms by Buddhists
while Hindu monastic communities grew up with the same style
of discipline as the Buddhists, leading to the slow but steady
amalgamation of ideas and trends in the two religions.
Buddhism began a steady and dramatic comeback in India during
the early twentieth century, spurred on originally by a combination
of European antiquarian and philosophical interest and the
dedicated activities of a few Indian devotees.
The foundation of the Mahabodhi Society (Society of Great
Enlightenment) in 1891, originally as a force to wrest control
of the Buddhist shrine at Gaya from the hands of Hindu managers,
gave a large stimulus to the popularisation of Buddhist philosophy
and the importance of the religion in India's past.
A major breakthrough occurred in 1956 after some 30 years
of the Untouchable, or Dalit, agitation when Bhimrao Ramji
Ambedkar, leader of the untouchable wing within the Congress
party, announced that he was converting to Buddhism as a way
to escape from the impediments of the Hindu caste system.
He brought with him masses of untouchables -- also known
as Harijans or Dalits -- and members of Scheduled Castes,
who mostly came from western state of Maharashtra and from
the Agra area in Uttar Pradesh.
Buddhist sites in India are a prime attraction for tourists
across the world. There are between four and 16 principal
Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, with the most important
located primarily in India's Ganges valley.
Lumbini, for instance, is one of the most important places
of Buddhist pilgrimage located near the Nepal-India border.
This is where Buddha was born to a royal family.
Another must visit site for pilgrims and tourists is Bodh
Gaya where Buddha attained enlightenment at the age of 29.
The Mahabodhi Temple marks Bodhgaya. A thriving Monastic Order
continues in the area today.
Sarnath is another place in the valley where Buddha proclaimed
the law of faith while Nalanda is important both because it
was blessed with the presence of the Buddha and because of
the famous monastic university that developed there.
Other commemorative monuments to the spread in Buddhism in
India include Sanchi, Bharhut, Amaravati, and Nagarjunakonda
where great Buddhist stupas and Buddhist university sites
remain. Famous Buddhist cave temples, Ajanta, Ellora, Kanheri
and Karli in western India are also major attractions as living
symbols of a religion that has more meaning now than perhaps