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Buddhism in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh can be traced back to the spread of Buddhism in the early 8th century. Over the centuries Buddhism has become deepely rooted, particularly in the Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur valleys of Himachal Pradesh.
Siddhartha Gautama was the historical founder of Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama was born as a Kshatriya prince in ancient India. (ca. 563-483 B.C.). After asceticism and meditation, Siddhartha Gautama discovered the Buddhist Middle Way—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment sitting under a pipal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. Thus began Buddhism, one of the world’s great religions and pilgrimage traditions.
There are four sacred Buddhist pilgrimage centers, first of these is the birthplace of Buddha at Lumbinivana, east of Kapilavastu. The second most sacred place of pilgrimage is Bodh Gaya where he attained enlightenment. The third most sacred pilgrimage center for Buddhists is Sarnath or Isipatan where Buddha delivered his first sermon, and the fourth is Kushinara or Khushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, where he finally gave up his mortal self.
In most Buddhist traditions, two early councils on doctrine and practice, the first, which most modern scholars do not accept as historical, was reputedly held at Rajagrha (modern Rajgir), India, during the first rainy season after the Buddha’s death, to compile his remembered words, including the sutras and monastic rules. The second, which is accepted as historical, met more than a century later at Vaisali, India, to resolve disputes within the monastic community. Theravada Buddhism recognizes subsequent councils: a third, called by Ashoka AD 247, at which the doctrinal disputes were resolved in its favor, and others continuing up to the mid-20th century. Other Buddhist traditions recognize other important councils at which their respective canons were established or edited.
Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites in India:
There are between four and sixteen principal Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India.
LUMBINI: One of the most important place of Buddhist pilgrimage is Lumbini, located near the Nepal-India border. This is where Gautam Buddha was born. Although largely destroyed now, these remain important marks of the Buddha’s birthplace.
BODHGAYA: The Buddha attained enlightenment at the age of 29 in the town of Bodhgaya in India. After settling under a tree, the Buddha made the resolve not to move until he had achieved enlightenment. After three days and nights of profound meditation this goal was realised. The bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat has been destroyed both intentionally and naturally many times since this time of enlightenment. It has continued to re sprout and is visible today.
The Mahabodhi Temple marks Bodhgaya. The origins of the Temple are unclear. Some claim the Temple could have been built as early as the third century by Ashoka, others claim the Temple was built between the fifth and seventh centuries. A thriving Monastic Order continues in the area today, with three monasteries catering for locals and foreigners alike.
SARNATH: At Sarnath in the Ganges Valley of India, the Buddha proclaimed the law of faith. It was here that he taught the keys aspects of Buddhism: the four noble truths, the eightfold path and the middle way philosophy. The Buddha encouraged followers to avoid extremes of austerity or pleasure. The remains of monasteries dating from the third century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. indicate a thriving monastic community.
SHRAVASTI: Another of the most commonly visited places of Buddhist pilgrimage, it is here that the Buddha is said to have performed great miracles. One story tells of how on throwing down the seed of a mango, a great mango tree instantly arose. Another story tells of how the Buddha stood in the air, the lower part of his body engulfed in flames, with five hundred jets of water streaming from the top of his body.
SANKASHAYA: In Sankashaya the Buddha descended from the Tushita Heaven. It is said that during the forty-first year of the Buddha’s life, he went to the Tushita Heaven to teach Dharma to his mother, who had died shortly after the Buddha’s death. Ashoka later built a Temple on the site. Today, little of the site’s glory remains. This is the only important place of Buddhist pilgrimage where no temples, or monasteries exist today.
Nalanda University BiharNALANDA: Nalanda is important both because it was blessed with the presence of the Buddha, and because of the famous monastic university developed there. This university also named Nalanda (meaning ‘insatiable in giving’) played a central role in the development of Buddhism in India.
RAJGIR: Rajgir is another place in the Ganges Valley where the Buddha walked and preached. Perhaps the most important event of the Buddha’s visits to Rajgir was the conversion of two future disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana. While Sariputra was credited with greater intelligence, Maudgalyayana wielded a greater power for miracles.
OTHER PLACES: Other commemorative monuments to the spread in Buddhism in India include Sanchi, Bharhut, Amaravati, and Nagarjunakonda where great Buddhist stupas and Buddhist university sites remain. India also boosts the famous Buddhist Cave Temples, Ajanta, Ellora, Kanheri and Karli located in western India.
The places of birth and enlightenment are perhaps the two most important sites of pilgrimage for Buddhists in the world today. These are accompanied by a number of other sites marking the spread of Buddhism throughout the Indian sub-continent.
TaboTabo is located at a height of 3050 metres in the magnificently isolated Spiti Velly of Himachal Pradesh. Founded in 96 AD by the great scholar, Richen Zangpo, as an institution for advanced learning, Tabo is seasonally accessible by road via Manali and Shimla.
Tabo is another important tourist place in the Buddhist pilgrimage list, situated in Himachal Pradsesh. The place is more famous for the ancient monastery, believed to be built before the Alchi monastery, which has considerable similarity in terms of Kashmiri Art paintings, which might be due to their originality, and being routed to Tibetan Buddhism principles. The monastery is also important for being an interesting place to study the growth and flourish of Tibetan art during the 11th to 20th century.
Himachal Pradesh, in itself, is a very attractive and soothing experience, adding to the goodwill of this monastery. The monastery preserves some of the most ancient murals that are worth a close examination for any archaeologist.
Tabo, situated at an altitude of 3050 m, proudly spreads it charms in the Spiti valley, in the Lahauyl and Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh.
Dhankar – Erstwhile the Capital of Spiti Kingdom, this village has an ancient fort on the hilltop. There is a famous monastery, inhabited by more than 100 lamas. The statue of Buddha, in Dhyana mudra, four figures sitting back to back, is really interesting to note for the sculpture and architecture.
Kungri Gompa – This Gompa, though unexplored, serves to provide good examples of being an ancient Buddhist centre of learning, with some highly motivating natural scenarios that is particular about the Spiti valley, turns even the most rude into a religious devotee.
How to reach
Air – Kullu Manali is the nearest airport, connected to major cities of India, at a distance of 250 km from Tabo.
Rail – Shimla and Pathankot are the nearest rail stoppages for Tabo.
Road – Tabo could be reached by Road through three gateways.
1. From Shimla via the spiti valley
2. From Manali via the Rohtang pass
3. From Ladakh via the Sing -O-la passes.
Buddhist Monasteries in Himachal Pradesh
Kye Monastery is situated 12 kms. north of Kaza in Lahaul and Spiti district and serves the western population of Spiti. It is the oldest and biggest monastery of the valley and located above Kye village. It houses beautiful scriptures and paintings of Buddha and other goddesses. Lamas practice dance, sing and play on pipes and horns. Relegious training to Lama’s is imparted here. It has murals and books of high value.
Rewalsar is the most sacred spot for Buddhists in Himachal Pradesh, about 20 km south west of Mandi. According to legend, Guru Padmasambhava departed for Tibet from this beautiful spot, to spread the ‘dharma’. A pagoda-style monastery stands along the edge of the lake.
Guru Ghantal Monastery
Guru Ghantal Monastery is situated on the right bank of Chandra river about 4 kms. above Tandi and is believed to be the oldest Gompa of Lahaul having wooden structure with pyramidal roofs, wood carving, preserving the idols of Padmasambhava and Brajeshwari Devi. On the full moon night in mid-June a festival called “GHANTAL” is celebrated by Lamas and Thakurs together.
Khardong Monastery is about 5 kms. from Keylong across Bhaga river. It is believed to be built in 12th century. This monastery has a large library of Kangyur and Tangyur volumes of Buddhist scriptures in Bhoti.
Shashur Monastery is situated on a hill about 3 kms from Keylong in Lahaul and Spiti district towards north. During June/ July this monastery attracts a large number of visitors when Lamas perform the devil dance. It was founded in the 17th century AD. It belongs to red hat sect and is located among the blue pines. The paintings represent the history of 84 Buddhas.
Tayul Gompa is 6 kms. from Keylong in the Lahaul and Spiti district and is one of the oldest monasteries of the valley having a huge statue of Guru Padmasamhava about 5 m high and houses library of Kangyur having 101 volumes. In Tibetan language Ta-Yul means the chosen place.
Thang Yug Gompa
Thang Yug Gompa is located 13 kms. above Kaza in Lahaul and Spiti serving western part of central Spiti. Situated in a secluded place in the narrow gauge of Kaza Nallah, it generally has a Lama from Tibet. Above this there is a long plateau which leads to Shilla peak.
Kungri Gompa is situated in the Pin valley about 10 kms. from Attargo where Spiti river has to be crossed to enter Pin valley. It serves the population of Pin valley.
Dhankar Monastery is situated about 25 kms. east of Kaza and serves eastern part of central Spiti. Dhankar is a big village and erstwhile capital of Spiti King. On top of a hill there is a fort which used to be a prison in olden times. The Monastery has about 100 Lamas and is in position of Buddhist scriptures in Bhoti language. Principal figure is a Statue of “Vairochana” (Dhayan Buddha) consisting of 4 complete figures seated back to back. It has relics in the shape of paintings and sculptures.
The legendary footprints of the Guru Padamsambhava are enshrined at the Lotsabaage Monastery at Nako. This high altitude village in Kinnaur is located near a limpid lake.
Tashigang Gompa can be visited by taking diversion from Khab to Namgya and then trekking to the Gompa.
Tilasangh Monastery is 12 km. short of Yangthang, about 1 km. trek from Ka.
Major Buddhist Destination(s)
McLeodganj : Also known as the Little Lhasa, McLeodganj, which is at an altitude of 1770 meter, is the residence (The Tsuglagkhang Complex) of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist head. There are larger than life images of the Buddha, Padmasambhava and Avalokteshwara in McLeodganj, which at once attracts the onlookers. With prayer wheels off the sidewalk, McLeodganj is also known as Little Lhasa, thereby spreading the message of peace and harmony everywhere.
Namgyal Monastery : Namgyal Monastery, which was founded by the third Dalai Lama in the late sixteenth century CE to assist him in carrying out his religious activities, even today helps His Holi Highness, the present Dalai Lama in his religious activities. The uniqueness of the Namgyal monastery lies in its diverse practices – The Namgyal monks perform prayers and rituals of all the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Situated next to the Central cathedral, the monastery hosts more than 180 monks, who follow the practices related to the Vajrayana Buddhism.
Tsuglag Khang or the Central Cathedral : Situated in front of the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tsuglag Khang is known better known as the main temple among the Indian devotees.The central cathedral houses three images – Sakyamuni Buddha, Padmasambhava and Avalokitesvara. The image of Sakyamuni Buddha is considered as the main image, build of gilded bronze with a height of three meters. The central cathedral owns the entire set of the Buddhist canons – Kagyur(Direct teachings of the Buddha) and
Tengyur(collection of later commentaries on Kagyur by Indian Buddhist scholars). The Central Cathedral also conducts the public prayers, sermons and certain religious festivities, such as monastic dances.
Monasteries : There are several Tibetan monasteries in and around Dharamsala, particularly around McLeodganj such as Dip-Tse-Chokling monastery, Nechung monastery and Gadong monastery, which not only clears the picture of Tibetan culture, but also presents close insight of the Tibetan Buddhism.
Namgyalma Stupa : Surrounded by prayer wheels, the Namgyalma Buddhist stupa, has been erected as a memorial to those Tibetans who lost their lives fighting for a free Tibet. Located at the centre of McLeod Gunj, Namgyalma Stupa stands as a monument to the determination of a suppressed people to preserve their distinctive way of life against overwhelming odds. For 24 hours, the devotees turn prayer wheels as they recite mantras.
Tushita Retreat Centre : Situated just above McLeodGunj, Tushita retreat centre is an ideal place for meditation and spiritual retreats. A residential centre, Tushita retreat centre provides frequent courses on several aspects of the Tibetan Buddhism.