Temples of Buddhism in Ancient India

The Mahabodhi Temple is revered as the site of the Buddha's enlightenment.
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Of the many Buddhist temples and holy sites that stretch across India, four places are honored as the most sacred for Buddhists. These are the areas where the Buddha lived, taught, attained spiritual enlightenment and died. All four were either built or embellished by Emperor Asoka, a devout Buddhist and one of India’s most renowned emperors.

1 Mahabodhi Temple

The Mahabodhi Temple is the most revered site for Buddhists, as it is directly connected to the life of the Buddha. Built in the classical style of Indian architecture, the present temple dates back to the fifth century A.D., while the first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the third century B.C. It was built to honor the site where the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Every year thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from around the world pay homage to the Buddha and the Buddhist tradition while on a pilgrimage to the sacred temple in Bodh Gaya.

2 Dhamekh Stupa

The Dhamekh Stupa, also commissioned by Emperor Asoka, was built to honor the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon. Buddhists refer to this event, which took place in the town of Sarnath, as the first turning of the wheel of the dharma. The base of the cylindrical stupa is covered in carefully carved geometric and floral designs, while the upper section is layered with brickwork. Buddhist pilgrims from different countries generally visit this site while on a pilgrimage to India.

3 Parinirvana Temple

The Parinirvana Temple in Kushinara is marked as the site where the Buddha breathed his last breath. His last days are detailed in a Buddhist Pali text called the Great Parinirvana Sutra, “parinirvana” meaning “completed enlightenment.” The text details the Budhha’s last words spoken at this revered site: “Listen, Bhikkhus, I say this: all conditioned things are subject to decay, strive with diligence for your liberation." Although the ancient temple that originally marked this site is no longer there, the Indian government built a new temple in 1956 in commemoration of the 2,500th year of the Buddhist era. The Parinirvana Temple is the third holiest site visited by Buddhists while on pilgrimage.

4 Mayadevi Temple

The Mayadevi Temple, located in present-day Nepal, marks the birthplace of the Buddha. It has been a major Buddhist pilgrimage center since the third century B.C. The temple complex is named after Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, who gave birth to him under a sal tree in 642 B.C. It was there in Lumbini that the young prince lived in decadence until giving up his material life in early adulthood in search of spiritual attainment.

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.