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Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, Bihar, IndiaIndia, the birthplace of Buddhism has a number of important pilgrimage sites belonging to the religion. Though the percentage of Buddhists in India's population is substantially less, all the pilgrimage destinations are well kept and widely visited. Buddhists from foreign countries also visit these places in large numbers. Most of the pilgrimage destinations are located in Bihar, a place of great historical significance. In many of these destinations, Lord Buddha himself had spent considerable period of his life. Some later rulers like Emperor Ashoka are largely credited for building these destinations in a big way. Buddhists from other countries have also contributed in building many shrines of Buddhism in India.

The important pilgrimage destinations of India are mentioned below.

Pilgrimage sites in Bihar
Bodhgaya : Bodhgaya is one of the four holiest places of Buddhism. On the banks of river Falgu, a tributary of river Ganga, Bodhgaya is at a distance of 113 kms from Bihar's capital city of Patna. It is in Bodhgaya that Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment. Buddhists from all parts of the world visit Bodhgaya in large numbers to pay obeisance to Lord Buddha. Devotees also come to Bodhgaya to engage in Buddhist studies and enroll for courses on Buddhist meditation.

The Mahabodhi temple of the place believed to have been constructed by Emperor Ashoka is the chief attraction of Bodhgaya. Within the compound of this pyramid shaped huge temple is the Bodhi tree where Buddha had sat for enlightenment. The original Bodhi tree had died and the present one is regarded as the fifth descendant of the original tree. It is further believed that the red sandstone slab kept under the Bodhi tree is the same throne on which Buddha sat for meditation.

Bodhgaya has a number of Buddhist monasteries built and managed by Buddhists belonging to Japan, Myanmar, China, Sri Lanka, Korea and Nepal.
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Rajgir : Situated in Bihar, Rajgir is another important Buddhist pilgrimage centre. Infact, there is mention of Rajgir in Mahabharata and Buddhist texts. Lord Buddha lived in Rajgir during the sixth century BC and delivered some of his famous sermons at this place.

At the top of Ratnagiri hills in Rajgir, Lord Buddha had delivered a number of sermons. A peace pagoda has been built at the place by the Buddha Sangh of Japan.

Vaishali : Vaishali is sacred both to the followers of Buddhism and Jainism. Located in Bihar at a distance of 55 kms from Patna, it is at Vaishali that Lord Buddha had delivered his last sermons and announced his Mahaprayan. 100 years after the death of Lord Buddha, the second great Buddhist Council was also held at the place. Vaishali is also the birth place of Lord Mahavira.

Nalanda : Nalanda used to be the most important seat of Buddhist learning during the ancient period. Founded in the fifth century AD as a seat of learning, the historically important Nalanda University was located in the place. It was the first residential international university of the world accommodating 2000 teachers and 10,000 students from all over the Buddhist world. Although the ancient educational institutes and monasteries of Nalanda could not stand the tests of time, their ruins could still be seen. Lord Buddha had also visited Nalanda many times during his lifetime.

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Pilgrimage sites in Uttar Pradesh
Dhamekh Stupa Sarnath : Sarnath is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage destination in Uttar Pradesh. At Sarnath, Lord Buddha had delivered his first sermon to his five disciples where he had preached the middle path for attaining 'Nirvana'. Later on, in the 3rd century B.C., Emperor Ashoka built some of the finest Buddhist monuments at the place.

The most notable structures of Sarnath are Dhamekh stupa and Dharmarajika stupa. The stupas are cylindrical in shape and rise to great heights from the ground. Another stupa, Choukhandi was built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in the year 1555 A.D. The great Ashokan pillar at Sarnath adorned by four lions is now housed in Sarnath museum.

Another important shrine in Sarnath is Mulgandha Kuti Vihara built in the year 1930. The Vihara has many antique pieces including a golden lifesize statue of the Buddha. The Bodhi tree growing within the campus of the Vihara is believed to be the offspring of one under which Buddha had attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya.

Pilgrimage sites in Himachal Pradesh
Dharamshala : Dharamshala, located in picturesque environs in Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh is now the abode of Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual head. Dalai Lama chose Dharamshala after his exile from Tibet. Buddhists from all over the world come in large numbers to Dharamshala to meet the spiritual head and visit sacred places of Buddhism. Dalai Lama resides in Mcleod Ganj.

Namghyal Monastery of Dharamshala is an important centre for Buddhist studies and research.'Tsuglagkhang', opposite the Dalai Lama's residence contains large gilded bronzes of the Buddha. Norbulingka Institute is another major centre of Buddhist learning in Dharamshala.

Lahaul & Spiti : Lahaul & Spiti in Himachal Pradesh also holds great significance for Buddhists. This place is also an important seat of Buddhist learning inhabited by Lamas in large numbers. The revered shrines of Buddhism in the place are Guru Ghantal Monastery, Kardang Monastery, Shashpur Monastery and Tayul Gompa. In the month of July, a large Buddhist festival is held here where Lamas dance, enjoy and bless devotees.

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Pilgrimage sites in Jammu & Kashmir
Buddha sculpted on Shanti StupaLeh & Ladakh : Leh & Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir are important centres of Tibeto-Buddhist culture and studies since ages. The people of the place are entirely Buddhists and follow the tenets of Buddhism very sincerely. Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, built in the year 1430, contains a three-story high Buddha image. There are also many ancient Buddhist manuscripts preserved here. Sankar Gompa belonging to the Gelukpa order has an impressive impression of the Buddhist deity Avalokiteshwara Padmahari or Chenresig. Shanti Stupa of the place was built by the Japanese order and inauguration was done by Dalai Lama in 1985.

Pilgrimage sites in North Eastern states
Gangtok : The capital of Sikkim is a place of significance for Buddhists. The monasteries of Gangtok have a large collection of Buddhist manuscripts. Dud-Dul Chorten has a set of holy books, mantras and other religious objects. It is a Stupa built by Trulshi Rimpoche, head of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism in 1945.

Rumtek monastery of Gangtok is the largest monastery in eastern Himalayas built by Gyalwa Karmapa. An important institute here is the Namgayal Institute of Tibetology . The institute concentrates on Mahayana Buddhism and the language and tradition of Tibet. The institute has some rare collection of Tibetan, Sanskrit and Lepcha manuscripts, statues, Thankas ( tapestry used in Buddhist liturgy) as well as more than 200 Buddhist icons.

Tawang : Perched in the lap of Himalayan mountain ranges in Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang has one of the biggest monasteries in India visited by large number of Buddhists. The monastery of Tawang is known as Galden Namgyal Lhatse. The main feature here is an 18 feet high gilded statue of Lord Buddha. The monastery was founded by Mera Lama in the mid-17th century. A treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist culture, the monastery also houses a library having an impressive collection of rare Buddhist manuscripts and thanka paintings.

Darjeeling : Another place of North Eastern region holding importance for Buddhists is Darjeeling. The Ghoom monastery is the most prominent shrine of Buddhism here. The monastery has an imposing 4.5-metre tall image of the Maitreya Buddha. Some rare handwritten Buddhist manuscripts are also preserved in the monastery. Bhutia Busti is another important shrine having an impressive collection of Buddhist texts in its library. There is also a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in its library. The Gompa is a branch of the Nyingmapa sect's Phodang Monastery in Sikkim

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