Rays of light bounced off sandstone walls, casting delicate shadows on the intricately designed bas-relief.
It was New Year’s eve and there I was at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with a friend.
We climbed up steps hewn in the massive sandstone structure till we reached the top. There, we sat and waited for the sun to set. As glorious golden light flooded the temple complex, a group of Buddhist monks in saffron-coloured robes walked past.
Not only is Angkor Wat the largest religious monument in the world and a popular site for international tourists, it is also a place that Buddhists go to for pilgrimage.
In fact, as I discovered on the Internet, there are several places where Buddhists go to on pilgrimage. These are associated with the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
The earliest places were where he was born, received enlightenment (bodhi in the Pali language), taught, and died. Later, other places of pilgrimage were added. This was because after Buddha’s death, his body was collected from the funeral pyre and divided into eight parts. The relics were distributed to different locations, and stupas were erected there. For both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists, the practice of pilgrimage might have started with visits to these sites, as it was believed to be advantageous in purifying themselves of bad karma, attaining rebirth, and also honouring their master.
Although there may be many places for Buddhists to go on pilgrimage, here are eight of them since this is a significant number in Buddhism, in view of the eight-fold path (of right view or understanding, right thought or attitude, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort or diligence, right mindfulness, and right contemplation); Buddha’s birthday being celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month in the lunar calendar; Bodhi Day being celebrated on the eighth day of the 12th month in the lunar calendar; and on Dec 8 in Japan.
1. Lumbini, Nepal
Lumbini, a revered pilgrimage site in Nepal, is said to be the birthplace of Buddha. Here, Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama in 563 BCE. Lumbini attained Unesco World Heritage status in 1997. There are a number of temples here, including the Maya Devi Temple; monuments, monastries and a museum (Lumbini International Research Institute); the Puskarini or Holy Pond where Buddha’s mother took the ritual dip before his birth, and where he too had his first bath.
2. Bodh Gaya, India
Bodh Gaya is a pilgrimage site associated with the Mahabodhi Temple in India. It is the place where Buddha is said to have obtained Enlightenment, under what became known as the Bodhi tree. To Buddhists, this is the most important of the main four pilgrimage sites related to the life of Buddha. In 2002, Mahabodhi Temple became a Unesco World Heritage Site.
3. Potala Palace, Tibet
The Potala Palace in Tibet is a symbol of Tibetan Buddhism and its role in the traditional administration of Tibet. Built on Red Mountain in the middle of Lhasa Valley, it was the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come yearly to pay homage here. It became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1994.
4. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Anuradhapura, 205km north of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, was the centre of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries. The Atamasthana (eight sacred places which Buddha visited during his three visits to Sri Lanka) are located in the ancient kingdom. Today, it is surrounded by 40sqkm of monasteries. It became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982.
5. Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda, also known as the Great Dagon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda, is a gilded stupa located in Yangon, Myanmar. Located on Singuttara Hill, it is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the aeon.
6. Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, which means Royal Buddha Image, is a city of 58 villages, with 33 belonging to the collective that earned Unesco World Heritage status in 1995. The town is famous for its many Buddhist temples and monasteries. Each morning, hundreds of monks walk through the streets to collect alms. A major landmark is the Wat Chom Si which sits atop a steep hill.
7. Doi Suthep, Thailand
Located 15km from Chiang Mai is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a Theravada temple and sacred site for the Thai people. Often referred to as Doi Suthep after the mountain where it’s located, visitors can either climb over 300 steps or take a tram to reach the pagodas. The most holy part of the temple grounds is the original copper-plated stupa. Within the area are pagodas, statues, bells, shrines and a museum. The monastery is said to have been established in 1383 by King Keu Naone to enshrine a piece of bone taken from Buddha’s shoulder.
8. Mount Yen Tu, Vietnam
There is a Vietnamese saying that goes: “You may be charitable and lead a religious life for a hundred years, but if you haven’t made it to Yen Tu, you haven’t reached the highest religious bliss.” Yen Tu, the Buddhist capital of Vietnam, is well known for its beautiful landscapes, historical relics and ancient pagodas. For pilgrims taking the stairs up Yen Tu Mountain to the Dong Pagoda at its peak, the climb has been likened to a stairway to the heavens. After abdicating his throne, King Tran Nhan Tong, the third emperor of the Tran Dynasty, came here to start his new life as a Buddhist monk.