Mapping the Buddhist Holy Land

Kuśinagar: Death Place of the Buddha


A Buddhist temple at Sarnath
On the fifteenth day of the second month of the year 483 BCE, the final sermon of the 80-year-old Buddha was imparted to his followers that surrounded him what is now the district of Kuśinagar.[1] It was in Kuśinagar, between two śāla trees, that the Buddha attained parinirvāṇa, the resting state of those who die after attaining nirvāṇa, upon his death. Kuśinagar also marks the location where his body was prepared and cremated,and his relics collected and distributed.[2] Kuśinagar, which lies in East Uttar Pradesh, India, has since become a valued site for Buddhist pilgrimage, following cycles of forgotten significance and regained importance.[3] The ancient district has been known by a number of names throughout its history, beginning with the name Kushavati prior to the time of the Buddha. During the life of the Buddha, the area became known as Kusinārā, and it is by this name that the death place of the Buddha is referred in the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta, the ancient sutta that details the Buddha’s death and his last few months on earth.[4] After years of flourishing, the city was lost in the 12th century, its history only reopened in 1861 by Sir Alexander Cunningham who was the first to find evidence to suggest that Kuśinagar was, in fact, the location of the death of the Buddha. This took place over two years’ worth of archaeological excavations that included the discovery of the Ramabhar Stūpa, the place where the Buddha was cremated. Excavations of Kuśinagar continued in C.L Carlleyle who uncovered the Nirvana Stūpa and Temple, as well as the famous Parinirvāṇa Buddha statue, a reclining gold Buddha statue that is over six meters long. After a series of more excavations by J.P. Vogel, Hirananda Sastri, and others, all of the data uncovered in each excavation since Cunningham’s was analyzed and in 1912, Kuśinagar was confirmed as the site of the Buddha’s death and cremation.[5] It took nearly a century for these discoveries to evoke development in the city of Kuśinagar, which was added to Uttar Pradesh and began to undergo major development in 1994.[6] As one of the four most important holy sites in Buddhism, including the place of the Buddha’s birth in Lumbini, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya, and the place of the Buddha’s first sermon in Sārnāth, Kuśinagar as the site of the Buddha’s death has become a prominent and important place for Buddhist pilgrimage.[7]

The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra

ruins

The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra most commonly refers to an ancient text written originally in Pali that recounts the Buddha’s final months on earth, the last sermons of the Buddha, the death of the Buddha,and the Buddha’s cremation.[1] Both known by the same title, the name Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra can actually refer to two different texts. The first of these is the collection of original Palitexts, the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta, which is found in the Dīgha Nikāyaknown in English as The Long Discourses of the Buddha.[2] The second of these is the Mahayana text that is are formulation of the Pali text, with additional ideas added. The Mahayana Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra is known in the English-speaking parts of the world as the Nirvāṇa Sūtra.[3]

The Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta, which is the canonical account of the Buddha’s final times, his death, and the events thereafter, is traditionally said the be the documentation of the events after the Buddha’s death by his disciples. This is contested by scholars on the subject who say that, though the disciples may have met after his death, it is nearly impossible that the discussion held at the time.....Read More 

Relics

Fill in photo for the moment

The Relics of the Buddha have become an extraordinarily pertinent aspect of the spread of Buddhism to lands where it had not previously existed, because the presence of the Buddha’s relics, as the presence of the Buddha in an area during his life, make that place significant because of the physical presence of his body and his remains. [1] Many Buddhists throughout history have embarked on pilgrimage to the sites of stupas in which the Buddha’s relics are said to be enshrined for the worship of these relics, seeking a transformative experience from the close contact with the Buddha’s remains. Though the Buddha’s relics are traditionally understood as the physical remains of his body, including bones, teeth, and ash, after his cremation, any physical object identified with the Buddha, from clothing items he wore to trees he sat beneath, are used to add significance to a Buddhist site. [2] Though the relics of the Buddha are now spread vastly and untraceably across the Buddhist world and have been taken far from their original placements, the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta provides a description of how the relics of the Buddha traditionally came about after his death and cremation, as well as the discord that took place among those who believed they were worthy of a share of the relics. After detailing the Buddha’s death and cremation, after which only ash and bones remained and a storm doused the flames of the incineration, the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta describes the original discord over the relics of the Buddha as follows: King Ajātasattu Vedehiputta of Magadha heard that the Buddha had died, and sent a message to the Mallas, saying “The Lord was a Khattiya and I am a Khattiya. I am worthy to receive a share of the Lord’s remains. I will make a great stupa for them.” In addition to this king, many lay people who had been in contact with the Buddha throughout his life, such as the Licchavis of Vesālī, the Sakyas of Kapilavatthu, the Bulayas of Allakappa, and the Koliyas of Rāmagāma, all declared their worthiness of the Buddha’s remains and their intent to make a great stupa. The Mallas, those who lived in the region of Kusinārā said “The Lord passed away in our parish. We will not give away any share of the Lord’s remains.’ The dispute was settled by the Brahmin Dona, a well-respected priest, who addressed the crowd, saying....Read More

Chinese Pilgrims in Kuśinagar


Fill in photo for the moment
"And Ananda, the faithful monks and nuns, male and female lay-followers will visit these places. And any who die while making a pilgrimage to these shrines with a devout heart will, at the breaking up of the body after death, be reborn in a heavenly world.” Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra

The Chinese were the earliest to make pilgrimage to India. The first known was Faxian, who walked from China to India across the Takla Makan Desert and over Indian mountain ranges. His journey from China to India to Sri Lanka took fifteen years to complete, from 399-414 C.E. It was noted in his records that the main purpose of this pilgrimage was to locate ancient documents of Buddhism that outlined monastic  practices, such as the Vanaya. However, Faxian made notes about the practices and behaviors of those who inhabited the Buddhist holy sites. Of Kushinagar he writes, "In the city, inhabitants are few and far between, comprising only the families belonging to the (different) societies of monks." Faxian describes the important locations of Kushinagar in quite short detail. It includes that the deathplace of the Buddha is here, along with the site where he was cremated and then celebrated for seven days, as well as where his relics were divided into eight equal parts. The cremation site of Buddha is....Read More 
  

Archaeology of Kuśinagar

Fill in photo for the moment

The archaeological record of Kushinagar began its formation seven days after the Buddha’s death, which typically dated between the years 483 and 487 BCE.[1] During the time of the Buddha, Kushinagar, then called Kusinārā, dwelt in the Malla republic of India, and those who lived in this region were referred to as Mallas. At the time of the Buddha’s death, the Mallas ordered their men to bring perfume and wreaths, and to gather all of the musicians of the city together. They then honored, paid respects, worshipped and adored the Buddha’s body. They decided that it was too late in the day to cremate the body by the time they had finished worshipping, and continued to mourn and celebrate the body for the next six days in the same way. [2] The Mallas then carried the body in a golden casket throughout the entire city of Kusinārā, to a shrine called Makuṭa-Bandhana, where they laid the body. They asked Ānanda, the Buddha’s first cousin and one of his principal disciples, how they should deal with the body, and they were told to wrap it in teased cotton-wool. They then cremated the body. Only ash and bones remained, and these remains are referred to as....Read More

Sublocations of Kushinagar

Fill in photo for the moment

Rhamabhar Stūpa

 The Rhamabhar Stūpa is believed to be the location of Buddha’s cremation. In Buddhist text it is often referred to as ‘Mukut-Bandhan Vihar’. It was discovered as a part of the excavations done by Alexander Cunningham during the 19th century, and is considered to be one of the first eight stupas, since it is where the Buddha’s relics were first divided into eight equal parts. It is believed that the name Ramabhar originates from a lake that was located nearby, potentially in order to draw away from its meaning in the Buddhist religion. Cunningham later discovered that it was the site of Buddha’s cremation due to archaeological evidence and accounts from Chinese pilgrims. Early pilgrims, such as Faxian, identified it as the Charcoal Stūpa.......Read More

Jātaka Tales

Fill in photo for the moment

Kuśinagar is seen only in passing in the Jataka Tales. There no stories take place specifically in Kuśinagar, aside from the one discussed here, even when paying attention to its variable other names. It is understood mostly that Kuśinagar’s name is derived from the abundance of Kuṣa grass in the area. However, another belief is the city was named after King Kuṣa, who has one tale dedicated specifically to his life’s beginning and a plight of his middle years. The story is appropriately named “Kuṣa-Jataka.” It begins by stating that the king, Okkāka, is in need of a son to take over the throne once he is no longer fit to rule, so that a stranger does not come and ruin the city. The king is unable to have a boy after several attempts with many women, so he then decides to present the queen, Sīlavatī*, to the public to be impregnated with a son. Sakka, a king of the gods, felt the need to grant a son and retrieved two Bodhisattvas from the “angel-world” who were worthy to be the son of the queen. He disguised himself as an old man, was able to win the favor of the queen, and performed a ritual to allow her to conceive the Bodhisattva. Prior to....Read More