There are four places in the world that followers of the Buddha’s teachings consider significant: Lumbini in Nepal is the birthplace of the son of a king who became Gautama Buddha; Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India, is where the Buddha attained enlightenment, sitting under a sheltering tree; Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, India, is where he delivered his first teaching; and Kushinagar, also in Uttar Pradesh, is where he died and attained Parinirvana (ie, though he had attained enlightenment earlier, at this stage, he achieved freedom from physical existence).
Benoy K. Behl has not only photographed these four places but also most other sites in the world touched by Buddhism. Delhi-born and based Behl, 61, is a filmmaker, art historian and photographer who has held exhibitions in Malaysia previously.
The prolific photographer is the only person in the world to document the Buddhist heritage of 19 regions in 17 countries. He has made 140 documentary films on Indian art and cultural history. In fact, he’s in the Limca Book Of Records (India’s Guinness Book Of Records equivalent) for being the most travelled photographer: he has covered 834,894km (from April 2001 to June 2017) to document Buddhist and Hindu heritage around the world.
In celebration of Wesak Day on May 29, he shares images of his top 10 Buddhist temples and sites in the world.
Kushinagar, gilded statue of the Parinirvana, Uttar Pradesh, India
The present Parinirvana Temple was built by the Indian Government in 1956 as part of the commemoration of the 2,500th year of the parinirvana, when the Buddha attained freedom from his physical form. Inside the temple is a huge, 6.1m-long reclining Buddha statue. Kushinagara is the place where the Buddha achieved parinirvana at the age of 80. (In Buddhism, parinirvana refers to leaving the mortal body and attaining freedom from the cycle of physical birth and rebirth.) The temple and its statue rose to become an important place of pilgrimage and, over time, the area was covered with shrines and monasteries built by Emperor Ashoka and others.
Bagan, Buddhist temples and stupas, Myanmar
The enchantment of many centuries of devotion comes alive at sunrise in one of the great sacred sites of the world. As far as eye can see, the landscape of Bagan is covered with stupas and temples that speak of the piety of the people of Myanmar. The paintings inside the 12th century temples of Bagan are the oldest and the finest surviving paintings of Myanmar.
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya (Lion Rock in Singhala) is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale district near the town of Dambulla, in the Central province of Sri Lanka. The site of Sigiriya is one of the great ancient sites of the Asian continent. The many rock shelters and caves here were occupied by Buddhist monks from the 3rd century BCE onwards. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa, this site was selected by King Kasyapa in the late 5th century CE for his capital. A beautiful royal palace was built here, atop the towering Sigiriya rock, about 198m high. The site was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century. The paintings of the 5th century CE which survive on the walls of a cave in the Sigiriya rock face, have the most gentle and tender expressions. These rank amongst the finest art of the world. Sigiriya is in the Unesco World Heritage List.
Java, Borobudur Stupa, Indonesia
The Borobudur Stupa, built by the Sailendra kings, is one of the world’s most magnificent Buddhist monuments. The thousands of feet of very fine relief carved around the stupa, at different levels, clearly illustrate the ascent to enlightenment, according to Buddhist philosophy. It is the tallest stupa standing in the world today and is on the Unesco World Heritage List.
Dunhuang, Mogao Cave No. 45, Gansu province, China
Buddhist cave art, which originated in India in the 3rd century BCE, travelled to Bamiyan, Kucha-Kizil, Turfan and Dunhuang in China. Caves were excavated for meditation and as retreats for monks. The Mogao Caves (also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas) form a system of 492 temples south-east of the centre of Dunhuang in Gansu province. The caves are repositories of the artistic traditions of ancient and medieval China. About 25,000sq m of wall paintings and more than 3,000 painted sculptures make this one of the most extensive and valuable sites of Buddhist art. Mogao Caves are on the Unesco World Heritage List.
Nara, Birushana-butsu (Vairocana Buddha), or Big Buddha, Todai-ji, Japan
The Todai-ji (Eastern Great Temple) at Nara is one of the oldest and most revered temples in Japan. The 14.6m high Vairochana is the largest bronze statue in the world; it is known in Japanese as “daibutsu” and also – famously – as the “Big Buddha”. This temple complex was once one of the powerful Seven Great Temples in Nara. It is also the place that received the first Indian teacher of Buddhism, Bodhisena, in Japan. He was invited by Emperor Shomu to conduct the “eye-opening” ceremony of the great Buddha statue in the year 752. With this illustrious guru came some of the country’s earliest direct Indian influences, apart from the sutras (scripture) and art that had come earlier through China. The historic monuments of ancient Nara are also on the Unesco World Heritage List.
Sukhothai, seated Buddha, Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai Historical Park, Thailand
Sukhothai was one of the great Buddhist centres of the world. Some of the most graceful Buddhist art was created here, in a style that is famous till today. This is the oldest and most important Buddhist site in Thailand, and is on the Unesco World Heritage List. Wat Mahathat (temple of the great relic) in Sukhothai Historical Park was built somewhere in between 1292 and 1347. Many Thai cities have a Wat Mahathat, where relics of the Buddha are kept.
Lumbini, Ashoka Pillar, Nepal
Lumbini is near the border of Uttar Pradesh in India. The highly-polished sandstone pillar at the site commemorates the visit of the Emperor Ashoka to Lumbini.
Sarnath, Dhamek Stupa, Uttar Pradesh, India
This stupa (also spelt Dhamekh and Dhamekha) marks the spot where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon to five disciples after attaining enlightenment. The original stupa is believed to have been built in 249 BCE during the reign of King Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty. Over time, this massive structure went through several expansions and additions. The present solid cylindrical stupa is much larger than the original one. Made of red bricks and stone and standing 43.6m high with a diameter of 28m, it was probably built in the middle of the first millennium CE.
Bodhgaya, Mahabodhi Temple, Bihar, India
The Mahabodhi Temple (also known as the Great Awakening Temple) is built in the location where the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment, near Gaya in Bihar, India. The present structure dates back to the mid-5th century. The temple complex has two straight-sided shikhara towers, the largest over 55m high. This is one of the four most holy places for Buddhists and is in the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage List of Monuments.