4:15 am. Wide awake. Restlessness, scepticisms and trepidation pervaded every shred of my being. I was on a train for eight days with 100 people I don’t know, travelling through the length and breadth of the country, in search of ‘something more’. Good, bad or ugly, one thing was sure; it would be an adventure of a lifetime. The Mahaparinirvan Express, a special tourist train —would take me to cities that wasn’t on my list of ‘Places-to-see-before-you-die’. Until now.
That is the thing about travel. You never know what’s in store and that is the fun of it. Even after having combed the net and read up on the Buddhist pilgrimage trail, I didn’t find myself fully prepared.
Even though Buddhism has transcended India’s boundaries and taken root in East, South and South East Asia, India is integral to his legacy. The Buddha travelled extensively, all over Northern and Eastern India in search of answers to the questions that troubled him about life and suffering. It was in the small hamlet of Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh that Gautama Buddha attained Parinirvana, freedom from the bondage of life and death after his demise. And here we were, more than 2,500 years later, trying to re-trace his steps from his birthplace Lumbini, to where he gained enlightenment (Bodhgaya) and onwards to the place he first taught the Dharma, (Sarnath) and many more in between.
Lingering at these places, and contemplating the Buddha’s journey were spiritual journeys in themselves. It gave me a sense of a larger purpose in life, one that becomes obscured in the daily fog and clamor of life. At Lumbini, the Mecca for every Buddhist, sheer devotion and reverence is palpable. In Bodh Gaya, you almost feel that you are in the presence of an enlightened being—the atmosphere is vibrant with the sound of prayer with hundreds of monks, diligently chanting the scared mantras. In Sarnath, if you listen carefully, you can still feel the voice of the Buddha reverberating as he gave his sermons. The turning point of the trip was when we found that the Buddhist legacy goes beyond these four popular magnets of pilgrimage (mostly popularised by tour operators who have conveniently left out the other sites of Buddhist significance). In the next couple of days, we were to rediscover the vast treasure of Buddhist historical remnants in Odisha, a place that the Chinese traveller Huien Tsang visited in 639 CE and found more than hundred Buddhist monasteries which he went on to mention in detail in his travelogue.
With that as our point of reference, I set out on a special journey—both within and outside—to understand what we had missed until now. The sacred sites of Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, Lalitgiri, Dhauligiri and Pushpagiri in Odisha had to offer more than we could have ever thought.
The Kalinga War Memorial (Shanti Stupa) at Dhauligiri hills in Bhubaneswar was our first stop. It was here that Emperor Asoka laid down his weapons and accepted a life of ahimsa in the form of Buddhism. Built jointly by the Japan Buddha Sangh and the Kalinga Nippon Buddha Sangh in 1972, it remains one of the hidden treasures of Buddhist significance. Similarly, the Pushpagiri University, or the seat of higher learning of Buddhism in Ancient India (2nd century BC-10th century AD) was spread across three adjoining hills—Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri. Structures excavated here are older than Nalanda and Vikramashila. Even though Buddhist sites lay scattered all over the State, the Ratnagiri-Lalitgiri-Udayagiri complex has the largest concentration of Buddhist relics in Odisha, and constitute the Buddhist Triangle of the region, popularly known as Diamond Triangle of Odisha. Hidden away in the lush picturesque Mahanadi basin, a visit to these forgotten places will take you on an enchanting journey through stupas, temples and monuments—some of which are not in a traveller’s vocabulary.
That’s likely to change soon. It is estimated that 500 million tourists will be headed this way in the next few years. Already, the Bodh Gaya-Rajgir-Nalanda circuit figures among the 45 popular tourist destinations in the country and has helped Bihar leap ahead of Goa and Himachal Pradesh among states getting the most foreign tourists. On February 1, there was a massive international conclave of Buddhist scholars and monks on Buddhist heritage of Odisha at Udayagiri in Jajpur district. The idea behind this conclave, organised by the state tourism department, is to promote Buddhist tourism potential of Odisha in other states.
Presently, because Odisha’s Buddhist potential is yet to be tapped, it does not figure on national and international tourism maps. The state government has decided to promote these sites in foreign countries like Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Japan, Bangkok and Cambodia through road shows.
Even though there are 324 Buddhist sites in Odisha, only 108 sites have remnants of Buddhist stupas, chaityas or monastic complexes. Unfortunately at the moment, most tourists from East Asia, Southeast Asia and Nepal generally head for Bodh Gaya in Bihar because of lack of information about other places of Buddhist significance. Once you know better, you may discover your ‘buddha moment’, just like I did.