The Middle Path: India’s Buddhist Circuit

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On the occasion of Buddha Purnima, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY join the dots of India’s vast Buddhist circuit as they trace the footsteps of the Buddha across the Gangetic plains on an Eco Pad Yatra  

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We had walked with kanwariyas during Shravan Mela, danced with Bauls at Kenduli’s Poush Mela and witnessed the march of naga sadhus at the Maha Kumbh, so an invitation to an 800-km Eco Pad Yatra from Sarnath to Lumbini was just up our street. His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa, spiritual head of the 800-year-old Drukpa lineage was on a Swachh Bharat Padyatra to promote cleanliness and environment preservation. In a unique initiative, His Holiness and 900 volunteers were collecting garbage and plastic waste along the way. This was his 7th Eco Padyatra since 2006; after Darjeeling to Sikkim, Lahaul to Ladakh and Mumbai to Sanchi earlier.

The walk would link the holiest sites of Buddhism – starting from Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon, Bodhgaya where he attained enlightenment, Rajgir where the first Buddhist council was held, Vaishali the site of his last sermon, Kushinagar where he attained Mahaparinirvana, ending in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal. Having visited the two ends Sarnath and Lumbini earlier, we were keen to do the intermediate leg. It was our chance to walk the proverbial Middle Path in the footsteps of the Buddha… a journey across the dusty Gangetic plains to join the dots of a vast Buddhist circuit.

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The time taken to fly from Bangalore to Patna was what it took to drive to Gahlor, a tiny village between Gaya and Wazirganj. We caught up with the monks resting after lunch, their unmistakable maroon and ochre robes striking against the stark rocky hillocks. A few bhikunnis (female monks) practiced a sacred dance. After registering our names, we walked along a boulder-ridden tract to reach the campsite before dark. Tents were pegged and all assembled tiredly for evening prayers. In the shadow of a tall mountain, the temperature dropped swiftly, yet, the monks were unmindful of the cold as they enveloped us with the low drone of chants, twirling prayer wheels and rattle drums meditatively. His Holiness addressed the masses as we tuned in to the radio for a translation of his talk by Daniel Boschero, better known as Lama Namgyal.

Over the next few days we slept in tents, rested in groves, walked in groups of 15, plodded10-12 km a day as monks cleared out other people’s trash. Locals were sheepish, ashamed and bewildered. Speaking to some overseas participants (300 from 30 countries), we learnt how life changing an experience it was. Many undertook this journey voluntarily every year because it gave them a chance to discover themselves. Chantelle from France said, “We take so much for granted. This trip helps us come close with what is most basic in us.” Lynn aka Deepam, an organizer from Malaysia, confided “These feet are not Made in India or meant for mountains”. Jo from Australia summed it in one word – ‘challenging’.

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Panting through ghats and forests towards Rajgir, we couldn’t help imagine the superhuman feat of Chinese pilgrims Fa Hein and Hieun Tsang, who walked from China to India in search of Buddha’s original teachings. What an adventure nearly one and a half millennia ago – across the Great Wall into Kyrgyztan and Balkh (Afghanistan) to Taxila, Bamyan, Gandhara (Kandahar), Purushapura (Peshawar), Adinapur (Jalalabad) and into the plains of North India… It was dusk when we set up camp in a park outside Rajgir.

Listening to the monks chant, our thoughts drifted to Lumbini. We were there a few years ago on Buddha Jayanti…It was in a grove of sal at Lumbini that Shakya queen Maya Devi stopped to rest as she journeyed from Kapilavastu to Devdaha, her maternal home. Struck by sudden labour pangs she clutched a drooping sal branch and gave birth to Siddhartha. After a dip in the Pushkarni (sacred tank) she bathed the newborn. The child immediately took his first seven steps, sprouting lotus blooms at every step. We remembered Sinhalese bhikkus seated in prayer and Korean monks circumambulating the Pushkarni with lamps in their hand.

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A prayer service near the Ashoka Pillar drew us to the column built by Emperor Ashoka when he visited Lumbini in 249 BC. The Pali inscription on it affirmed the spot as Buddha’s birthplace and, a reduction of Lumbini’s tax liability to one eighth. It is the first epigraphic evidence related to Buddha’s life. Crowds filed in to see a moss-covered stone slab excavated in 1996, enshrined amidst the brick ruins of the Maya Devi Temple. It marked the exact spot of Lord Buddha’s birth. The International Monastic Zone had a sprawling Sacred Garden, an Eternal Peace Flame and World Peace Bell, besides monasteries of various countries – notably the Vietnamese Phat Quoc Tu temple, the Chinese Zhong Hua temple and the colourful Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa of Germany.

Kapilavastu, the ancient capital of Shakya king Shuddhodhana (Lord Buddha’s father) was where Gautama spent his first 29 years as a prince. Confined to the pleasures of his father’s palace, he discovered misery for the first time on a ride with his charioteer Channa. The Four Sights – old age, sickness, death and asceticism – had such a profound impact that Gautama renounced the material world to find a solution to human suffering. Abandoning his wife Yasodhara and son Rahula, he left from the Mahabhinishkramana Dwara, tied his horse to a tree and continued on foot. At present-day Tilaurakot, we saw village children scamper amid among the excavated ruins of the palace complex, defense walls and the historic eastern gateway. At Nigrodharma (Banyan Grove), Shudhodhana built a monastery to welcome his son’s return and his mother’s sister Prajapati presented a Kashaya Vastra. Later, Buddha’s son Rahula became a monk here.

IMG_6529-Rajgir ropeway Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

It is said Gautama recognized desire as the root of all suffering and wandered along the Gangetic plains for six years in meditation and austerity. At Rajgir he met King Bimbisara for the first time and promised to return after he found his answers. Buddha continued to the forested banks of the Falgu River near Gaya where on the brink of death, he received a bowl of milk from Sujata and realized that the Middle Path lay between a sensory life and severe asceticism.

He meditated under a sacred peepul tree vowing not to arise till he learnt the truth. After 49 days, at the age of 35 he attained enlightenment on a full moon day in 623 BC. The tree was called Bodhi tree and the place Uruvela was renamed as Bodhgaya. In 260 BC Emperor Ashoka built a Vajrasana or Diamond Throne, a spot worshipped as Bodhi Pallanka (The Place of Enlightenment). The present temple, built in 6th century AD, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Buddha spent seven succeeding weeks at seven spots in the vicinity in quiet reflection. The first week was under the Bodhi tree; the second at a spot from where he stared uninterrupted at the tree. The Animeshlochana or ‘unblinking eyes’ Stupa commemorates this spot. In week three, he walked back and forth between the Bodhi tree and this spot, causing lotus flowers to bloom along the route, called Ratnachakarma (Jewel walk).

He spent the fourth week near Ratnagar Chaitya and the fifth week answering queries of Brahmins under Ajapala Nigodh tree, marked by a pillar. The sixth week he sat by Muccalinda Lake, where the legendary serpent king Muccalinda sheltered Buddha under his hood when demon Mara raised a storm. The last week was under a Rajyatna tree.

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Buddhist Jatakas consider Bodhgaya as the navel of the earth as no other place could bear the weight of Buddha’s enlightenment. It is believed a ficus tree emerged here the day Buddha was born in Lumbini. The original tree was cut down by Ashoka’s envious wife Tissarakkha and later, by King Pushyamitra Sunga in 2nd century BC and King Shashanka in 600 AD. Each time the tree was destroyed, a new one was planted. In a befitting story of reincarnation, the bodhi sapling taken by Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra to Anuradhapura to spread the dhamma (religion) in Ceylon was used to plant a sapling in Bodhgaya. In Buddhist belief, when the world is destroyed at the end of a kalpa, this will be the last spot to go, and, the first to appear when the world is reborn.

The devout sat content meditating under the shade of the Bodhi tree as excited tourists attempting a blind walk towards an idol in the temple wall in the hope that that their wish is granted. Outside, vendors waved pressed ‘sacred bodhi leaf’ as mementos. The 2nd century BC stone railing built around the tree by the Shunga dynasty was the prized exhibit at Bodhgaya Museum. In a maze of Japanese-run lodges, people dashed around Bodhgaya’s various monasteries from Bhutan, China, Tibet, Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan. Daibutsu, the 64 ft high Great Buddha statue erected by the Daijokyo Buddhist sect from Nagoya in Japan, depicted Buddha in dhyana mudra seated on a lotus.

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Buddha left Bodhgaya and preached his first sermon at Mrigdava, the ‘deer park’ in Sarnath near Varanasi, marked by Dhamek Stupa and Mulagandhakuti Vihara. Though he delivered many sermons at Kaushambi, Shravasti was his favourite monsoon retreat where he gave the most discourses. It was his longest halt with twenty-five rainy seasons spent at the Jetavana and Pubbarama monasteries. Jetavana’s Anandabodhi tree and Gandhakuti (Buddha’s hut) were venerated spots. At Shravasti, Buddha encountered Angulimala, a highway brigand who chopped off people’s fingers and wore a grisly garland of digits to keep count. While looking for his thousandth victim to fulfill a promise of guru dakshina, he met Buddha who reformed him.

We bade goodbye to the monks at Rajgir, the old Magadhan capital of Bimbisara before his son Ajatashatru shifted it to Pataliputra (Patna). It was a short walk from our camp to the base of Griddhakuta Hill or Vulture’s Peak. We took Rajgir’s famous aerial ropeway (featured in Johnny Mera Naam) to the World Peace Pagoda at the summit. Pilgrims prefer the 600 odd steps to Buddha’s favourite meditation spot. We left the monks in prayer on the hill to discover Rajgir…

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In ancient times, Rajgir was Rajgriha (Royal Abode) and Girivraj, the ‘area surrounded by mountains’. It was the capital of Jarasandha in the Mahabharata and Jains revered its five hills as Panch Pahari celebrating Mahavira’s miracles. We bumped into an alliterative tonga guy ‘Ramesh Prasad’ manning his tonga ‘Rajkamal’ and his horse ‘Raja Babu’. Though Bimbisara originally followed Jainism, in Ramesh’s opinion, he became ‘boudhh-minded’. The king’s first offering to Buddha was the royal garden of Venu Van (Bamboo Grove) to stay. Buddha would bathe at Karandak Kanivapa, a tank in the park and climb Griddhakuta Hill to preach his sermon.

Jeevak Aamravan was the residence of Jivaka Kaumarbhritya (525-450 BC), a renowned physician in Bimbisara’s court. He treated the king and saint and donated his mango orchard to the sangha for a monastery. Buddha spent many chaturmasa or ‘four months’ (July to October) at Rajgir in meditation and discourses, a practice followed by monks to this day. The main reason behind ascetics staying in a fixed monsoon retreat is to avoid trampling on insects, which are abundant in the rainy season.

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We saw the remains of Bimbisara’s jail where Ajatashatru imprisoned his own father. It is said Bimbisara chose the spot so he could see Buddha’s daily ascent to Griddhakuta. A pair of iron manacles was found in one of the cells. Buddha passed away in the eighth year of Ajatashatru’s reign, who built a stupa at Rajgir on his ashes. The first Buddhist council was held during his rule, where the Buddhist doctrines, Sutpatika and Vinyapatika were compiled.

Around 15 km north of Rajgir is the famous university of Nalanda. In 5-6 Century BC, it served as a great monastic and educational institute for monks across the Buddhist world. The ruins, first excavated between 1915-37, reveal extensive remains of six brick temples and eleven monasteries separated by a 30 m wide passage in a 1 sq km layout. The lofty, impressive Temple No.3 to the south was built in seven phases and surrounded by votive stupas. It is named after Sariputra, one of Buddha’s famous disciples who lived and died here.

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We headed to Vaishali, ancient capital of Raja Vishal and venue for Buddha’s last sermon and Second Buddhist Council. It was also the birthplace of 24th Jain tirthankara Mahavira. Green boards proclaiming Vaishali as India’s oldest republic contrasted with the surrounding squalour. In better times, it was the capital of the Licchavis, one of the atthakula (eight clans) that formed the Vajji ganaparishad (confederacy).

At Kolhua, Ashoka erected a lion pillar and the Ananda Stupa. Ironically, British archaeologists discovered Vaishali’s ruins on the basis of Hiuen Tsang’s accounts. Buddha’s residence Kutagarashala, a swastika shaped monastery and a tank called Markatakrada, literally ‘dug by monkeys’ are worth seeing. The miracle of a monkey chief offering honey to Buddha occurred here. It was at Vaishali that Buddha converted Amrapali from a courtesan to a nun and allowed women into the Sangha for the first time. Not only did Buddha spend several varshavas (annual stays), he also announced his impending death here.

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By the time Buddha reached the Malla village of Kusinara (Kushinagar) on the far side of the Hiranyawati River, he was 80 years old! Realizing his end was near, he instructed Ananda to prepare a bed between two sal trees with his head turned north. Ananda, who served him for 20 years, was distraught. Buddha consoled him with the lines ‘Just as a worn out cart can only with much additional care be made to move along, so too the body of the Buddha can be kept going with much additional care.’ His last words were ‘All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence (for your own liberation)’.

The Mukutbandhan Chaitya on the banks of the Ramabhar stream marked the spot where Buddha’s last rites were conducted. The Ramabhar stupa was one of the few sites in India where we noticed a sign in Braille! Not many know that after Buddha’s cremation various kingdoms squabbled over ownership of the relics. After a great debate under a banyan tree at Aniruddhawa village, a Brahmin named Drona (Doha) resolved the dispute. The relics were distributed into eight portions among King Ajatashatru of Magadha, Lichhavis of Vaishali, Sakyas of Kapilavastu, Bulis of Allakappa, Kollyas of Ramagram, Brahmins of Vethadwipa, Mallas of Pava and Mallas of Kusinagar. For seven days those assembled at the ceremony held a festival in honour of the relics.

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We paid our respects at the reclining Buddha statue at the Parinirvana Stupa, before continuing to the Burmese Temple and Matha Kuar complex enshrining a 3.05 m high Buddha statue in bhoomisparsha mudra or ‘earth-touching pose’. When some of Buddha’s relics were discovered at Piprahwa on the Indo-Nepal border in 1898, they were gifted to King Rama V of Thailand, the sole Buddhist monarch at the time. In 2001, King Bhumidol Adulyadej built the stunning Wat Thai shrine around the relics, making it the only royal chaitya ever built outside Thailand.

It was a divine culmination of the journey that we shared a flight and some words with Gyalwang Drukpa from Gorakhpur to Delhi. What was the highlight of the trip, we asked – was it the goat Kamo (Tibetan for white) who tagged along from Varanasi or retracing Lord Buddha’s holy footsteps? He explained, “It wasn’t a religious quest, but a spiritual pilgrimage. And spirituality is nothing but raising one’s awareness about a friendly way of living. You must be friendly to everybody and everything – plants, animals, mountains, air, water… rivers like Ganga, Yamuna, Niranjana (Phalgu) and others we pollute before they carry our toxic waste into the sea. So, it is important to reconnect with nature. Wherever we went local villagers joined in for short stretches to clean up, excited kids tagged along, others hid their garbage! It all starts with consciousness,” he smiled as we said goodbye. India had a long way to go indeed, but the journey of a thousand miles had begun with more than a few footsteps…

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FACT FILE

How to go
Start the Buddhist circuit from Patna, Varanasi or Lucknow. For a linear route, fly into Lucknow and drive 164km to Shravasti. Continue across the Nepal border to Kapilavastu and Lumbini, 130km away. Drive 147km to Kushinagar. Fly or drive 235km from Gorakhpur to Patna. Continue 70km to Nalanda, 15km to Rajgir and 81km to Bodhgaya. Drive 250km to Sarnath and fly out from Varanasi 13km away. IRCTC and India Tourism run the ‘Mahaparinirvan Express’ that covers the Buddhist circuit in a week. Starting from New Delhi, it covers Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Nalanda, Kushinagar and Lumbini.

When to go
The international Buddhist season lasts from December to March when weather is favourable. Buddha Jayanti or Buddha Purnima, celebrated in May, is an auspicious time with prayer ceremonies.

To participate in the Eco Pad Yatra in 2015, visit http://www.padyatra.org http://www.drukpa.org

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 3 May 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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