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"Kushinagar" by Shantum Seth

10 March 2010

Kushinagar is the place that the Buddha chose for his Mahaparinirvana, or final exit from earth. Kushinagar, or Kushinara as it was then known, was the capital of the Malla republic, one of the republican states of northern India during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Kushinagar is identified close to the modern village of Kasia, 30 miles east of the city of Gorakhpur, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

During his lifetime the Master traversed the fertile plains of the Ganges valley, subsisting on whatever he collected as alms, and pausing to rest only during the rainy season. In 483 BC on the full moon night of Magh (January-February), the Master lectured to the Sangha at the village, Beluva, near Vaishali, on the impermanence of all living things, and said that his own life on earth was soon to end.

According to the Maha Parinirvana sutra, from Vaishali the Buddha visited a number of centres and villages such as Ambagama, Jambugama and Bhoganagara and then went on to Pava, where a humble metal-smith, Chunda, invited the Sangha for a meal. Having tasted the special dish of ‘sukhara mandava’, the Master immediately realized that there was something wrong with it and asked Chunda to bury the rest so that others would not be harmed by it. Chunda was overcome with grief and guilt when he realized that his offering was the cause of the Master’s fatal illness. The Buddha knowing this, mentioned to his attendant Ananda to tell the metal-smith that the one who donates the Buddha’s last meal acquires great merit, equivalent to the one who offered him food before his nirvana.

As the Buddha lay between twin Saal (Shorea robusta) trees, near the banks of the Hiranyavati river in Kushinagar, comfortable with his impending death, the Master asked the Sangha, whether anyone had any queries and there was silence, meaning his teachings were well understood. The Buddha then uttered his last words,

All conditioned reality is of the nature to decay--strive on diligently.

Many people from all walks of life, from far and near, flocked to pay obeisance to the earthly remains of the Buddha for the next six days. On the seventh day his body was decked with garlands and taken in a procession, to the accompaniment of the music. The senior most monk at the time, Mahakashyapa, lit the funeral pyre at the Mukutabandha cremation ground in Kushinagar. Today not much remains of this, except a large brick stupa mound rising to a height of almost 15 meters set within a well kept park.

Barely had the pyre cooled, that envoys from different kingdoms, came to claim the holy relics. A compromise was found by a local Brahmin, and the sacred relics were divided into eight parts and encased in eight stupas in different locations.

In 7th Century AD, the Chinese traveler Xuan Zang lamented on the desolation of this sacred site. However he mentions the Mahaparinirvana Stupa. Thereafter Kushinagar sank into near oblivion, almost forgotten by the world until early in the last century.

The Mahaprinirvana Temple enshrines a 18 feet long statue of the Buddha in the reclining posture. Carved from a single block of red sandstone, the statue now looks metallic gold because of the application of the gold leaves by the pilgrims.

The best time to visit this temple is in the early hours of the evening, when the mellow light from the candles and the chanting of mantras render a sacred aura to the temple.

About 350 yards from the Mahaparinirvana Temple is the small Mathakuar shrine, built on the spot where the image of the Buddha in the earth touching pose has been enshrined.

There are several new monasteries and temples. The Sri Lanka-Japan-India monastery has an Ashta Dhatu (eight metals) statue of the Buddha flanked by Japanese-style portraits of his ten principal monks. The new Thai monastery is impressive and the oldest monastery in Kushinagar is the large Burmese Dharamsala which is next to the ChineseTemple with its marble images of the Buddha and the Kuan Yin from Vietnam. Next to the meditation centre of the Sri Lanka-Japan-India monastery is the Kushinagar museum.

Adapted by Shantum Seth from the book Walking with the Buddha, co-authored by Shantum, who has lead acclaimed pilgrimages to traditional Buddhist sites--'In the Footsteps of the Buddha'--since 1988. Visit www.buddhapath.com to learn more.


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.