Newcomers to Buddhism generally embrace the introspective aspect of the religion and truly feel the value of letting go and calming down. Travel - from the planning stages to the return home - can be entirely stressful, so why not put your Buddhist teachings into practice and go on a pilgrimage? Asia is a fascinating continent, and a trip to the Four Holy places may be just the thing to deepen your understanding and reverence for the practice of Buddhism.
Located in Nepal, about 10 hours outside Kathmandu, Lumbini is the site that marks the birthplace of Buddha Gautama. A sacred area of about 12 square kilometers, it is bordered only by monasteries - Theravadin on one side, Mahayana and Vajrayana on the other. Nothing else is permitted in the immediate area - no shops, accommodations or attractions. It is home to the Ashokan pillar, which was placed in 245 BC, and the ruins of ancient monasteries that were alive and bustling (as much as a Buddhist monastery bustles) when the 29-year-old Buddha moved on from this town.
The Mayadevi temple marks his exact place of birth, which is why Lumbini is a UNESCO World Heritage Site - plans are currently being developed to turn the site into a "peaceful tourism" destination, so get there before it gets ruined.
Bodh Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar, is considered to be the most important of the Four Holy Sites because it is where Buddha received enlightenment after three days and nights under a Bodhi Tree. This tree is the grandfather of the one contained within the Mahabodhi Temple about 110 km outside Patna, which was excavated and very carefully restored starting in the late 1800s.
The area around the temple also features temples built by other Buddhist countries including Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Nepal, Taiwan, Tibet, Vietnam and Thailand - each has a direct correlation to the country of design and the aesthetics at the time of building. So Bodh Gaya is not just a Buddhist destination, but also a historical, archaeological and architectural one as well.
Sarnath located in Uttar Pradesh, India, is where Buddha first began to share his teachings. He left Bodh Gaya a short time after his enlightenment to join the Pancavaggiya monks in Isipatana (Sarnath) to teach them what he had learned. The result was the Dhammacakkappavattana, his first sermon, which was given on the Asalha. The monks reached enlightenment through his teachings, and formed the group known as the Sangha.
Isipatana is a major place for the Sangha, as most of the major members lived or visited here during their lives. The site was heavy in commemoration and symbolic architecture until it was sacked in the 12th century and razed for building materials. Several stupas remain, and the Sarnath Archaeological Museum holds pieces recovered from the site.
If you’re visiting Sarnath, you should visit Kushinagar, which is also in Uttar Pradesh. It is the place where Gautama Buddha died. Although his death has been linked to a meal of mushrooms and pork, it’s said that Buddha planned his death and came to Kusinara specifically to die there, in the Upavattana. He was cremated in the shrine of the Mallas.
The site was discovered in the mid-19th century by an officer of the East India Company, and was excavated through to the early 20th century. Today, besides being a pilgrimage site for Buddhists and Hindus alike, Kusinara is also of historical interest due to the construction of the Buddha Ghat in 2012 - the first building to take place on the banks of the river where the Buddha was cremated in over 2,500 years.