Namaste To All. As and whenever we enter the New Year, we all have new travel plans. There is an excitement to cut off items from our bucket list. New times and new adventures are what a traveller wants and it couldn’t have been a better start than taking a long train journey in one of the Special Tourist Trains of India – The Mahaparinirvan Express. Yup, I got an opportunity to take the ‘Buddhist Circuit Tour’ by IRCTC (Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation) to experience the vibes of Buddhism. The Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train was launched by IRCTC and started running from March 28, 2007. The special tourist train runs from the October to March on a fixed date every month. Since I love train travel more than the air travel I couldn’t have said a no when I was offered this trip by IRCTC. I knew this was the perfect learning opportunity to experience Buddhism in a new way by crossing the cultural boundaries. The excitement that I had before the start of the journey is something unexplainable.
The Mahaparinirvan Express Train
This special train departs from the Safdarjung Railway Station in Delhi. The special train was supposed to have special services and it seemed the same and lived up to the expectations. Unlike the other ordinary trains, this train got a high five from me once I entered it. Though not the luxurious of the trains in India like the Maharaja Express or Rajdhanis, it was enough to and more than what one could expect from a pilgrimage tour.
The train is fully air-conditioned and also centrally heated for winters. The train has a capacity of 164 seats comprising of 72 berths in first AC and 92 berths in second AC. The room cabins and berths were very clean and the bedding was comfortable enough for a good sleep. The interiors of all the carriages were very well suited to make the journey comfortable and relaxing for all.
The Dining Coach
The train had a dining car as well or rather I would call it a moving dining hall on wheels. The interiors gave it a very classic, luxurious yet subtle look. Eating the delicious food served while watching the world moving in opposite direction through the windows enriched the flavours to a great extent. The tables and chairs were well chosen to mix with the interiors of the dining area. I spent the most of my time on the train sitting in the dining carriage.
As the train’s speed was fluctuating from being super fast, fast to slow, miles and miles of terrain was being left behind. My eyes were just cherishing the sights outside form the squared window panes. The same picture ran from the first window pane to the last one in the coach as if like a movie reel. It was magical to see the views pass by through the window.
Buddhist Circuit Tour (7 nights/ 8 days)
The Buddhist Circuit Train Tour is of 7 nights/ 8 days and covers the most prominent places related to the life of Lord Buddha. The important pilgrimage sites covered in the tour are Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Sarnath, Varanasi, Lumbini, Kushinagar and Sravasti. Apart from these 8 places, tourists get to visit Agra as well to see Taj Mahal. The tour includes both train and bus travel to connect to the religious sites.
Day 1: Fun on the Train
And as I entered the platform, I was greeted with a garland and tikka (which is the India Traditional way of welcoming the guests.) The sweet music of table, shahnai and harmonium added warmth to the air at the station.
The other tourists were all being greeted and made to feel comfortable with the warm hospitality by the IRCTC people. I saw a Chinese group of around 40 people and a few Indian couples who were all ready and eager to board the train that was waiting for us on the tracks.
The first day and night were spent on the train relaxing and just getting the feel of being on a train journey. It was a perfect time to gel along with other travellers from India and Abroad. After settling on the train, having evening tea and dinner, a good sleep was required so as to be active for exploring the places from the next day onwards.
On all my train travels, I have observed that till the train is moving fast, I get a good sleep and as it stops I automatically wake up. That’s strange and maybe movement keeps my mind more relaxed and hence I think I can’t sit and work at one place. Nonetheless, on the first night, my sleep kept on fluctuating with the train’s speed. Can’t help it. Maybe I should do some meditation and yoga. 🙂
Day 2: Time for Enlightenment
The train a reached Bodhgaya late in the afternoon a few hours more than its scheduled time because of heavy winter fog in the night and early morning. After checking in at our hotel and a quick lunch, we all were eager to explore Bodhgaya, one of the most sacred and important places related to Buddhism. As per the itinerary, we went to see the Maha Bodhi Temple and especially the sacred Bodhi Tree where Buddha attained Enlightenment while meditating there. The temple complex was large and this was the first time that I saw thousands of monks together worshipping and performing their rituals and prayers.
The chanting could be heard all around the temple premises and it softly made its way from my ears to my soul. It was an amazing and soothing sound with a deep vibrating and echoing voice that came out of the speakers. Most of the time I was observing the rituals, the way the people were worshipping and meditating to bring peace of mind to gain the spiritual knowledge. And let me tell you I completely fell in love with the place. As it was something new to me and my interest in observing and getting to know different cultures and practices further made me more curious to find more about it. But sadly, we had a few hours here as per the schedule.
After praying at the temple and visiting few other monasteries and sites around it, we came back to our hotel for overnight stay.
Day 3: Meditating Vibes and a Dive into The History
The next day we were supposed to depart early morning from Bodhgaya to Rajgir that was a 4-hour ride by bus. Rajgir is a popular Buddhist Pilgrimage Site and has a few monasteries and caves. It is believed that Lord Buddha spent many years of his life here meditating and gave some sermons as well. Rajgir means ‘Abode of The Kings’ and is surrounded by five Holy Hills. The most famous point and the one that I loved the most here was the Vulture’s Peak which is at the top of a hill where Buddha preached two of his most famous sermons.
We had to hike 3-4 kms to the peak which was very easy. On the way to the top, we saw the two rock-cut caves which also have immense significance amongst the Buddhists. The view from the top of the Vulture’s Peak was very serene and peaceful making it perfect for meditation. And I think hence, Buddha chose this place to meditate for sometime when he left his kingdom in search of the Ultimate Truth.
After having a short and sweet visit to Rajgir and having lunch at a hotel, we went to Nalanda (14 kms from Rajgir) to see the Oldest University in the world – Nalanda University. This university was a Buddhist centre of learning from 427 to 1200 BC. It is believed this university was visited by Buddha during his lifetime and hence has deep connections with Buddhism. Many teachings of Buddhism stemmed from this university. The teachings and way of functioning of this university were way ahead of time during those days and better than many universities of modern day world. Now there are only ruins of this university vastly spread over a few kilometres of area.
A local guide was there for us to explain the different sections and parts of the university. It was great to learn about the historical significance of this place. Vebu Van was another site that we visited which is said to be the place for the first Buddhist Monastery. Though, now only a water reservoir/ pond is what is left from that times. A stroll around this park certainly was very peaceful and I got to breathe some really very fresh air.
Having done the sightseeing, we moved back to our train for an overnight journey to our next destination Sarnath.
Day 4: Traditions, Rituals and Teachings
The next day the ‘Mahaparinirav Express’ arrived in Varanasi and from there a bus took us to Sarnath. Sarnath is one of the four most important Holy Buddhist Sites. It is believed that after gaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya this is the place where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon as ‘Maha Dharm Chakra Parivartan’. The two famous stupas that we got to visit here were the Dhamekh Stupa and Chaukhandi Stupa (the place where Lord Buddha met his first five disciples on his first visit to this place).
The stupas stand as a witness of the good old times related to Buddhism and stunned me with its design and structure. The third site that we visited here was the Sarnath Archaeological Museum which houses the collections and findings while excavating the ancient city of Sarnath. The main highlight of the museum apart from all the pottery and other artefacts was the original Ashoka Pillar. The Ashoka Chakra represents 24 spokes and is a portrayal of the Buddhist Dharmachakra and can be seen in the National Flag of India. The most significant part of the Pillar is the four lions joined together which has been adopted as the National Emblem of India.
In the evening, we went to see the famous Ganga Aarti on the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat of Varanasi. A boat took us for a 10 min ride on the waters of ‘The Ganges’ to the ghat. I was privileged to see the world famous aarti and rituals being performed from a distance to get the best view of the entire area. The entire area near the bank and the steps of the ghat were very well and colourfully lighted.
More than 10 dozen boats and thousands of people witnessed the Aarti being performed by the Priests which happens every evening.
A smooth boat ride brought us back to the deboarding point and we proceeded towards our special train (at the Varanasi Railway Station) for dinner and overnight journey to Gorakhpur.
Day 5: The Birthplace of the Holy Thoughts
An overnight journey by train brought us to Gorakhpur Station in Uttar Pradesh State. From here we boarded our buses and headed towards the Birth Place of King Siddhartha (later to become Buddha) ‘Lumbini’ in Nepal. Yes, we were supposed to spend a night in Nepal as well. So I was more excited as this was my first visit outside the boundaries of India. One of the most peaceful places on this whole tour was the area around the Mayadevi Temple (named after King Siddhartha’s Mother ‘Queen Mayadevi’ who gave birth to him in 563 BC and later on he became Buddha after achieving enlightenment).
The greenery, the calmness and the beautiful monastery with bright colours made me fall in love with it. I was just wishing had their been sunshine instead of cloud cover, it would have been more amazing. Nonetheless, it was delightful to see this place full of divinity. We stayed in a very pretty resort in Lumbini and had a great dinner before getting a good sleep in a hotel for the second time after all the overnight train journeys.
Day 6: The State of Complete Awakening (Mahaparinirvana)
Kushinagar was our next stop which is a significant Buddhist Site. This is the place where Buddha is said to have attained Parinirvana (Complete Enlightenment/ or free from the cycle of birth and death) after leaving his body. A temple named after it (Mahaparinirvan Temple) is built here which has an idol of Lord Buddha lying in a resting position.
Many Buddhist followers and monks were praying inside the temple and offering flowers and other stuff as a mark of respect. The 2 other sites that we visited in Kushinagar were the Rambhar stupa and Matakutir Temple.
After our lunch and evening tea at the hotel arranged for the group we moved to our train for an overnight journey to Gonda Railway Station.
Day 7: Stupas, Ruins, Monasteries and Peace
From Gonda Station, our bus took us to our last Buddhist site in this tour ‘Sravasti’. Sravasti’s Jeetvana Monastery is the place where Lord Buddha is said to have spent 24 years, the place where he had spent most of his lifetime. In the Jetavana park, we saw the ruins of the monastery where he used to worship. Inside the Jetavana Vihara, Anandabodhi tree is a must see, which is a sapling of the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya.
We also visited the ruins of Anandakuti and Gandhakuti, where the Buddha used to stay and are considered as sacred spots. The Jetavana Park is spread over a vast area and still some sites are left for excavation and the archaeologists are doing a great job to dig out the history. I also did some meditation here with the other Chinese travellers and it was a soothing experience with a pin drop silence in the park.
More than a dozen of monasteries of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Myanmar, China and Korea could be seen all around this tiny city along the main road. All the monasteries and other religious spots revealed the deep association of this place with Lord Buddha.
After spending the whole day in Sravasti, we went to the Gonda Railway Station to depart for New Delhi.
Day 8: Ending of a Blissfull Tour
On returning back to Delhi, the train was scheduled to stop at Agra as per the itinerary and we visited One of the 7 Wonders of the World ‘Taj Mahal’ for a quick visit.
Overall, it was tremendous, blissful, enlightened, and a lifetime experience that I will never forget and would like to visit some of these places again with more time in hand to actually sync into that place and enjoy it more.
6 reasons to take the Buddhist Circuit Tour
- To feel the vibe of Buddhism, its thoughts and its rich taste of spirituality
- To see the Indian Connection with the life of Lord Buddha
- For Experiencing the Warmth Hospitality of IRCTC
- To enjoy travelling in India in one of the special trains
- To enlighten your mind with the teachings of Lord Buddha, meditate and know yourself too
- For making cross-cultural friends on an epic tour through the northern part of India
Train Features/ Positives of the Trip:
- Well organized and managed by IRCTC
- Full points of security and safety (Each coach of the train has a special security guard to protect you and your belongings even while you are not in train)
- Hospitality keeping in mind the international standards and better than what is believed from an Indian Train Experience
- Clean and tidy berths and bedding in the train
- Delicious Indian and Western Cuisine served on train
- Good Deluxe Coaches/ Buses from commuting in the cities
- Nice and decent 3 and 4-Star Hotels with good food and rooms
- Very helpful and courteous staff (all throughout the tour)
- A local English speaking guide all throughout the tour
Buddhist Circuit Tour Cost:
AC First Class – 165 US$
AC 2 Tier – 135 US$
AC First Coupe – 165 US$
Note: The Prices are per person per night on twin sharing basis. For AC Coupe Class additional 150$ is charged per person.
The prices are subject to change as per IRCTC’s Official Website. For offers and special discounts visit their official website.
Important Note: Some of the short trips by bus to the pilgrimage sites were a bit tiring and could exhaust you if you are not used to travelling much keeping in mind the road conditions as well. But that’s what a long tour is about and in the end, you won’t regret going on it. Some
Another thing to note before taking this Buddhist Circuit Tour is that all the old people above 70 years of age should avoid taking this tour (unless ready to take the hardships that might come) as it involves a lot of travelling (around 40% of the total time) by different means.
More Information: For detailed Buddhist circuit tour itinerary, visas assistance for Nepal and bookings/ reservations you can visit the IRCTC’s Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train Official Website.
The first trip of 2018 was spent listening to the whistling of the engines, chugging of trains, crackling sound of the tracks and gaining a lot of spiritual knowledge. I would recommend this tour to everyone. You must board the ‘Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train’ for once whenever you are in India to have an enlightening experience in the footsteps of ‘Lord Buddha’. The ‘Mahaparinirvan Express’ is indeed one of the best tourist trains in India.
On the whole, I feel overwhelmed and privileged to have gone on the Buddhist Circuit Tour. Special thanks to IRCTC for inviting me to this FAM Trip.
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