KUSHINAGAR - THE HOLIEST PILGRIMAGE
When Buddha turned 80, he predicted at Vaishali (now in Bihar) on the day of Magh Purnima that he would achieve Mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar - the capital of Mallas - exactly three months later. All pilgrimage sites in Kushinagar associated with Buddha's life are concentrated in a small hamlet called Kasia. Kushinagar is 53km from Gorakhpur and 35km from Deoria.
Accordingly, Buddha arrived at Kushinagar on the appointed day and delivered his last sermon. Then, he asked his favourite disciple Ananda to prepare his bed between two Saal trees. He lay down on the bed and passed away after a drink of water from Hiranyavati river fetched by Ananda on Vaishak Purnima. The Mahaparinirvana Temple is believed to be the site where Buddha breathed his last in 543 CE. The main stupa containing the holy relics of Buddha stands next to the Mahaparinirvana Temple within the same complex.
CHAR DHAM FOR BUDDHIST PILGRIMS
Before his Mahaparinirvana, Buddha announced the four spots associated with his life which should be considered most sacred for pilgrimage by his disciples and followers according to Mahaparinirva Sutra or 'Mahaparinibbana Sutta' as it was originally called in Pali. These include his birthplace Lumbini; Bodh Gaya - the place where he attained enlightenment; Sarnath - the place where he preached his first sermon, formed his Sanga with five disciples and set the wheel of Dharmachakra in motion; and Kushinagar - where he preached his last sermon, breathed his last, was cremated, his relics were distributed and interred. These, for all practical purposes, constitute the Char Dham Yatra for Buddhist pilgrims.
CREMATION OF BUDDHA
Kushinagar was the capital of Mallas in those days. They carried the mortal remains of Buddha to the most sacred site of Mallas - Mukuta Bandana - where his mortal remains lay in state for six days. Buddha's body was consigned to fire on the seventh day upon the arrival of Maha Kasyapa - the father of the Sanga. The Ramabhar Stupa or Mukuta Bandana Chaitya was the site at which the cremation of Buddha is believed to be have been performed.
The spot from which Ananda fetched water for Buddha from Hiranyavati river for the last time is located near the Ramabhar Stupa. A sacred ghat has been constructed at the site called the 'Buddha Ghat'.
DISTRIBUTION OF RELICS
A dispute broke out among eight groups that staked claims to the relics of Buddha after the cremation. The dispute was settled by a learned Brahmin by the name of Drona who divided the relics into eight portions and distributed them among the eight groups. A small shrine has been raised at the site of distribution of the holy relics of Buddha near the Wat Thai Temple. According to Buddhist traditions, the relics were further divided into 84,000 portions and interred in stupas all over India and abroad by Emperor Ashoka.
TRAVEL ACCOUNTS OF BUDDHIST PILGRIMS
Descriptions of Kushinagar appear on the travel accounts of several Chinese pilgrims who visited India to gather material on Buddhism. Fa-Hien (Faxian) visited Kushinagar between 405 and 411 CE. Between 630 and 645 CE, Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang) visited Kushinagar. And, then, another Chinese pilgrim I-tsing (Yijing) visited Kushinagar between 671 and 695 CE. These travel accounts were useful in identifying many locations and structures that have since crumbled. Apparently, Kushinagar continued to be a living city till the 12th century CE. Following Islamic invasion, the inhabitants of Kushinagar seem to have abandoned the city and Kushinagar drifted into obscurity.