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Bodh Gaya, Bihar Sarnath, Varanasi
Kushinagar, UP - Buddhist Holy Sites in India
456    Dibyendu Banerjee    14/01/2024

Kushinagar, located about 50 km east of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, where Gautama Buddha is believed to attain Mahaparinirvana, is one of the holiest places in India for the Buddhists and an international tourist place which attracts especially the Buddhist devotees from across the world. According to Buddhist tradition, Chaiytas or place of prayer and Stupas or funeral monuments are holy places like the temples. Among several ruins, Kushinagara contains the Mahaparinirvana Stupa, said to be the place where Gautam Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana, the ultimate state of Nirvana and passed into eternity and the circular Ramabhar Stupa, which is believed to be one of the eight Stupas, built on the ashes of Buddha.

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It is believed that, long after the Mahaparinirvana of Buddha in 487 BC, the Maurya Emperor Ashoka visited Kushinagar in 260 BC and built several Chaityas and Stupas to honour the Buddha's place of Nirvana. Although Buddhist sites in Kushinagar steadily expanded during the days of the Kushan Empire, it witnessed its golden age during the Gupta Empire, when the Mahaparinirvana Stupa was largely expanded. However, the present Mahaparinievana Temple was built in 1956 by the Government of India, as part of the commemoration of the 2500th anniversary of Buddha Jayanti.

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Major General Sir Alexander Cunningham, a British Army engineer, who later took an interest in the history and archaeology of India, excavated the main Stupa that stands next to the Mahanirvana Temple in 1876 AD and noted the existence of a huge vaulted chamber which he dated no later than 637 AD. During the process of excavation, it was found that the original temple on the site consisted of an oblong hall and an antechamber with its entrance facing the west. A large number of bricks with carved surfaces, hidden among the rubbish, indicated that unlike the subsequent temples, the original temple on the site had a barrel-vaulted roof. Further excavations under his supervision in March 1877 yielded the remains of the main Mahanirvana Stupa and the statue of the famous reclining Buddha.

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The main Stupa measuring around 65 feet (19.81m) in height is raised on a circular base and crowned with a dome on the top. The Stupa, as well as the shrine in front, was built on a single platform, measuring around 9 feet (2.74 m) in height. The 20 feet (6.1 m) long statue of the reclining Buddha, a monolithic sculpture, carved out of a single block of sandstone, was also recovered from the site. The statue depicts the reclining Buddha resting on his right side with his face towards the west, while the right hand was placed under his head, possibly as a cushion.

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The image was mounted on a pedestal with three human figures embedded on the western side of the pedestal, while an inscription recovered from the site ascribes the statue as a religious gift. Unfortunately, the colossal statue was found broken and scattered into numberless fragments, which was subsequently reconstructed by the Archaeological Survey of India and enshrined in the newly built Mahanirvana Temple.

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The present Mahaparinirvana Temple, built by the Indian Government in 1956, is enshrined with the famous colossal image of the Reclining Buddha, lying on its right side with the head to the north, resting on a stone couch. The front of the stone couch contains a sculpture of three figures, believed to represent the three main disciples of Buddha, Ananda near the feet of the Reclining Buddha, Subhadda at the middle and Dabba Malla at the corner. An inscription of the 5th century AD, located at the centre indicates that the huge statue of Buddha was a gift of the monk Haribala of the Mahavihara and was carved by the master craftsman Dinna.

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The Ramabhar Stupa

Apart from the Mahaparinirvana Stupa and Temple, Kushinagar contains several ruins, which include the circular Ramabhar Stupa, located 1.5 km east of the Mahaparinirvana Temple. Constructed by the Malla Kings and referred to as Mukutbandhana Chaitya or Muktabandhana Vihara in ancient Buddhist texts, the Stupa is believed to be one of the eight Stupas, built on the ashes of Buddha. The half-ruined Stupa, around 50 feet (15 m) high, with a diameter of 154 feet (47.24 m) at the base and 112 feet (34.14 m) at the top, is little more than a dome-shaped clump of red bricks, but reckoned as one of the holy pilgrimage for the Buddhists.

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Located at a distance of 1 km from Mahaparinirvana Stupa, the Kushinagar Museum, also known as the Buddhist Museum, houses invaluable archaeological exhibits related to the rich history and culture of Kushinagar, which primarily include the terracotta items, especially the icons of Buddha, sculptures, bronze statues, banner paintings or Thangkas, clay seals, coins, bricks and a wide variety of different antiquities.

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The idol of Lord Buddha, depicted in meditation posture and created according to the Gandhara School of Art, is an added attraction of the museum.

Bodh Gaya, Bihar Sarnath, Varanasi
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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