Kushinagar: The place where Buddha died

Bharath Murthy
Grist Media
The sleeping Buddha, inside the Kushinagar stupa. Illustration by Bharath Murthy.

It was my first time traveling to Kushinagar, a town in a district of the same name in Uttar Pradesh, where the Buddha is said to have died. I went there not as a tourist but as a person of faith. I intended to go on a journey, not just through the places where the Buddha is historically known to have visited and lived, but on a personal quest as a lay convert to Buddhism. I also intended to write a comic based on the trip, although I didn’t know at the time what form it would take – whether I would turn it into a short piece or a comic strip (it eventually formed the basis of my book, The Vanished Path). But after my visit to Kushinagar, I was able to strengthen my conviction in the Buddha's teachings.

Kushinagar is located 52 km east to Gorakhpur city. We went there in September 2010, when it was off-season. To get there, Alka (my wife and companion on the trip) and I took a jeep cab from Sarnath packed with people. It was suggested to us that we pay for three seats instead of two, so that we’d be more comfortable. Of course, once Alka and I did pay for the extra seat, they ended up taking an additional passenger, and we settled in, resigned, for the three-hour ride to Kushinagar.

When we got there, the whole area looked like a ramshackle old town – you got the feeling that everything was makeshift. Kushinagar is underdeveloped, with ruins in its midst and agricultural land all around. Of all the places we visited, Bodh Gaya and Lumbini – which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites – were better organized.

I had no expectations when I arrived in Kushinagar. I didn’t want to keep checking the Internet all the time on my phone. I was interested in the place – being the spot where the Buddha died, it was of great significance, while managing to remain relatively unknown. For a place of religious interest, we came to realize Kushinagar didn’t hold the same gravity for locals that it did for us – for youngsters, Kushinagar’s park maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India has become what you’d call a make-out spot. We also heard that there were liquor joints around the area, and that many came there from nearby Kasia to drink. We found it wasn’t as peaceful as the other places we’d visited on the trip, such as Sarnath and Lumbini. Boys from nearby villages would hang around, sometimes harassing tourists..

When we asked for a room at a Chinese guesthouse, we were refused – the guy there told us that they don’t give rooms to Indians because “they come here to do bad things,” and that the police had caught a few people only the previous day. I suspect he was referring to prostitution, although he never actually used the word. Instead, he pointed us to Pathik Niwas, which he said was run by the government.

Interestingly, there has been an increase in the number of Chinese pilgrims and tourists here in recent years. Buddhism’s visual manifestations were suppressed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but a new generation in the last couple of decades has shown a resurgence of interest, particularly in the affluent classes. There is also a group – The Maitreya Project – that for some time has wanted to build a Maitreya Buddha statue as tall as the Statue of Liberty, in the midst of Kushinagar’s rural poverty.

The stupa at Kushinagar once held some of the Buddha’s remains. Before going there, I had imagined what the death spot of Buddha would look like – in my head, it wasn’t a large structure. Now it was right there in front of me, connecting me to a history of almost 2,400 years. Inside the rebuilt stupa is a massive monolithic stone statue of the dying Buddha carved out of red sandstone in the 5th century, and it left such an impression on me that I used it as the cover image for the book of our journey. Its size alone has a very strong aesthetic impact, of course, but it especially makes an impression from the fact that the Buddha’s posture at the time of his death is emphasized – it is the posture of a man dying and you are able to relate to the Buddha as a human being. It reminds you strongly of your own mortality.

I’d gone to the Kushinagar stupa in a faithful state of mind. Alka and I sat there for a while in silence. There are no priests, and you are not required to do anything as a follower. Around us, there were a few monks meditating, or placing flowers at the stupa, and some burning incense, but otherwise, the place was empty. It was a peaceable experience.

* * *

One of Kushinagar’s oddities, tucked between a number of small shops, is the Yama Café, which is one of the more visible eateries of the area. It’s run by a Bengali man, TK Roy, and his Nepali wife, who have been in Kushinagar since the mid-90s. It has the air of a house converted into a café, with old tables and chairs, like something straight out of the 1980s. Although the menu was a large one, very few of the items on it were actually available and the Roys seemed to be running all over the place. Roy himself would make the tea when the cook was not around. Alka and I were the only Indian couple at the café, which also sold Buddhist souvenirs, trinkets, and candles in a little corner. When we visited, it was never very full. 

I did wonder why a café situated at the place of Buddha’s death was named the Yama Café, after the god of death. I suppose they thought it was cool or quirky. A few of our encounters with guests at the café brought home to me some of the problems with the way Buddhism tends to be practiced in India. It is often mixed up with sundry other popular spiritual cults, and the Buddha's actual teachings get lost in the process.

When TK Roy learned that I was working on a comic travelogue about Buddhist sites, he introduced me to Nandratna Bhikku, a monk from Mainpuri district in UP, whom we had seen in the café before. It was the first time on the trip that we encountered an Indian monk, which made it interesting for us. He was involved in the Dalit Buddhist movement, and used to work for the Mayawati government. He told us that he quit because there was too much politics. When we met him at Kushinagar, he was the editor of Buddha Jyoti, a newspaper that printed news related to the Dalit movement and the problems that they face on a day-to-day basis. It also printed Buddhism-related stories, including activities, history and general knowledge.

At the café we also met Suresh Ramachandran, a Tamil-speaking man who was born in Singapore and had migrated to Australia. In Suresh, I saw a fellow convert, but like Roy (and many other converts to Buddhism whom we encountered on our journey) he was motivated by a crisis of faith, which had brought him to a place where he was now trying out different things to resolve it. It felt to me like many of the Indians who came there had come with similar motivations – they were all looking for something to alleviate their suffering.

What I also noticed in Suresh and others was that they had their own ideas of what Buddhism was, without having studied the original teachings of the Buddha (which are easily accessible). In conversation, they rely on secondhand contemporary accounts of his teachings. Roy even said that Gorakhnath (the 10th-11th century Nath yogi connected to Shaivism) preached the same things that the Buddha did, through yoga, and that today we also have Satya Sai Baba and others doing the same things. I perceived, watching them and others, that there is a general idea that Buddhism can be incorporated into their belief systems, which are most often Hindu, without them having to give up core Hindu beliefs.

The specter of caste cast a dark shadow that seemed to refuse to leave us. At Yama Café, abruptly and out of any context, Roy’s wife made it a point to mention that she was an ‘upper’-caste woman and that her husband was a Brahmin. Later, at a hotel in Lumbini (the place of Buddha’s birth), the staff there kept trying to figure out Alka’s caste. When her name and surname didn’t help them much, they gave up and flatly asked her, “What is your caste?” Though Buddhist teaching is implicitly anti-caste, and though many Buddhist works directly criticize and mock the caste system, caste in society continued even during the height of Buddhist dominance in India.

On one hand, Kushinagar had a great impact on me in terms of my personal journey. The Mahaparinirvanasutta, the longest sutta (Buddhist text) in the Pali canon, chronicles the last days of the Buddha’s life in a very moving account. The announcement of his impending death, his last discourse and his last meal, recorded in the sutta, all took place in and around Kushinagar, and it meant a great deal to me to see the place for myself.

On the other hand, the reality of Kushinagar’s present, and its contrast with the historical site, deflated that feeling. In spite of the best efforts of monks and monastic institutions to try and make the place relevant once again, much still needs to be done to restore the place’s importance.

As a follower of Buddhism, I try to connect with monastic institutions. It is important to be a part of – and feel like one is a part of – a bigger community. Back in Kushinagar, I was still exploring everything I found, but now I feel part of that community, even if it feels like an imagined one, particularly in the urban milieu, where there are hardly any monasteries.  Buddhist culture is restricted to the odd event when the Dalai Lama visits, and some university departments of Buddhist studies. As a lay Buddhist, you need monastic institutions.

Apart from this cultural side of my Buddhist practice, spiritually it is important to gradually transform my way of thinking through repeated reflection. On this journey, by encountering the actual places where all these events in Buddha’s life took place, including the place of his death, I was able to slowly overcome doubts in my faith.

As told to Zenisha Gonsalves.

Bharath Murthy writes comics and makes films. He is currently teaching film direction at FTII, Pune. The Vanished Path (HarperCollins) is his debut graphic novel.