A Discussion of Buddhist Pilgrimage - Five Popular Sites to Visit in India

India is a country that will overwhelm you with its cultural brilliance, religious dynamism, and traditional beauty.

Throughout India's history, religion has played an essential role. From the rich Vedic traditions of ancient India to the vibrant Muslim and Sikh communities that developed throughout history, India is filled with profound and dynamic religions. In particular, four great religions were born here: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.  And it is the mixture of these traditions that gives India its religious identity.

As the birthplace of Buddhism, the country is filled with sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites.  Each one holds a vital  place in  Buddhist history both within India and across the globe. As a testament to this, there are thousands of travellers who visit these sites each year.

Since originating in  India, Buddhism spread throughout southeast, east, and central Asia, including the countries of: Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, China, Tibet, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka. Today, over 9% of world’s population self-identifies as  Buddhist, making it one of the largest religions in the world.

While these Asian countries have the highest density of Buddhists, the core principles and/or practices of Buddhism are also spreading quickly throughout the West as is apparent in the popularity of mediation in schools, hospitals and businesses, as well as the numerous neuroscientific studies focusing on the effects of Buddhist meditation techniques.  Regardless of where Buddhism migrated, people have ventured to its birthplace to garner a deeper understanding.

For an introduction to Buddhism, its beliefs, and teachings, the following are the four sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. Each of these sites commemorates a major occurrence in the Buddha’s life and have been visited by pilgrims for over two thousand years. They include: Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Sravasti. Visiting these sacred sites provides an experiential understanding of where Buddhism came from, as well as its core teachings and practices.


The birthplace of the historical  Buddha, Lumbini is located in the Southern region of present-day Nepal, sharing its borders with the northern-Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Born in 623 BCE, Siddhartha (post-enlightenment) Gautama (pre-enlightenment) was the son of the ruler of the Sakya clan. It is said that Gautama spent most of his early life in luxury.  This changed, however, when he saw the realities of old-age, sickness and death, leading him to renounce these worldly pleasures and embark on a journey to find truth. Today, some of the most important places to visit in Lumbini are Ashokan Pillar, the Maya Devi Temple, Kapilvastu, and the various ethnic-Buddhist temples housed within the protected UNESCO World Heritage area.  


From a religious standpoint, Bodhgaya is where it all began. As Gautama contemplated the world and his place in it, he came to a profound understanding of the impermanent and interconnected nature of reality. Situated on the banks of the Niranjana river, Bodhgaya is home to the sacred Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha reached ultimate enlightenment. As the story goes, Gautama took a seat beneath the tree and vowed not to move until enlightenment was achieved. Since this profound night, thousands of pilgrims have visited this sacred site in hopes of realizing the same truth the Buddha did. Along with the Bodhi tree, the Mahabodhi temple, which was reconstructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society, commemorates the Buddha’s achievement.
Next to Bodhgaya, Sarnath is perhaps the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in India. Located in Uttar Pradesh, the Deer Park at Sarnath is the location where the Buddha met his first five disciples and delivered his first sermon. This teaching offered forth the Buddha’s most basic understanding of reality: the four noble truths. These teachings highlighted that, first, sentient beings perpetually experience dissatisfaction in the world, leading to tremendous suffering. Second, the Buddha described how this suffering is predicated on a misunderstanding and subsequent grasping to a reality that is unstable and ever changing. Third, the key to liberating oneself from this state of dissatisfaction and suffering is severing its root: ignorance. And, fourth, this process is accomplished through the path, which the Buddha laid forth in the years that followed.  The Dhamekha Stupa, the Ashokan Pillar, the Mulagandhi Kuti Vihara, and the Deer Park are the four most important places that people visit while  in Sarnath.
Located in modern-day Uttar Pradesh, Kushinagar is a sleepy village just south of the Nepali border. This is the place where the Buddha passed away into Paranirvana.  In 1956, the Indian government rebuilt the the Mahaparinirvana Temple to commemorate 2,500 years since the Buddha’s passing and, today, thousands of Buddhist followers visit this temple and its surroundings, reflecting on the magnitude of the Buddha’s life. Housed in the main temples is a  majestic lying-Buddha statue that is over twenty feet long. 
These are just a few of the various Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India that are worth visiting. It is one thing to have an intellectual understanding of the Buddhist path, but it is something completely different to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha.