Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train was memorable

  • Author had a memorable travel experience, in and outside train. Know about it day wise. Part 2 has cultural significance of places visited, associated with Buddha, in Bihar/UP and Nepal. Recommend.

Earlier this month, I had free time and no company for travel, so I was exploring options for solo travel. That’s when the IRCTC webpage of The Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train popped up on my screen (runs from October to March, one departure a month. It has different rates for Indians and foreigners). It covered all those destinations where the Buddha had once walked. I had been to none. Two places I wished to do for very long were Varanasi and Lumbini, this trip had both. The only other familiar name on the itinerary was Bodh Gaya.

I sought more information on the package and called up on the number advertised. And I must tell you that I was more than pleasantly surprised that the phone got picked in an instant and the person on the other hand was very forthcoming with all details. The officer went out of his way to help me book the trip. Not something that you would expect from a government employee in India. So, that was a great start!

The Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train travel gives two great experiences.

One is that you get to walk the same earth where Gautam Buddha once lived. Second is that you don’t have to worry how to cover places spread out in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. It is a 7 day trip.


Travel experiences day-wise. To deep dive, Part 2 has Importance of each place.

We were a group of 35 travelers in a train that has a capacity of around 200 people, so were pampered! The train stops at each destination, and an AC bus, with a very accomplished guide, takes you to places on the day’s itinerary.

The day began with morning tea at 6 am followed by a heavy breakfast at 7 am before setting out at 8 am. In some locations, we needed to check-in into a hotel as sightseeing continues to the next day.

Most of the luggage can be left in one’s compartment on the train and only a backpack with a change of clothes and toiletries need to be carried. On the days there’s no overnight stay, short duration check-ins give one the comfort of a wash-up or relaxing time. 

Lunch/high tea is served at the restaurants in these hotels. On the day of longish bus travel, a snack box, in addition, is served too. A lot of sumptuous food daily!

We boarded the train at Safdarjung railway station in the afternoon and alighted at Gaya the next morning. From there a bus directly took us to Bodh Gaya where we checked-in into the Maha Bodhi hotel for an overnight stay. Did a few temple visits that evening and some the next morning.

The train offers you end-to-end comfort and ultimate ease of travel. The coaches are plush and the whole experience is very luxurious. You are well taken care of, from the start to end of journey.  

There’s a choice of different coaches-First and Second AC. The bio-vacuum toilets greatly reduce the requirement of water. A separate shower cubicle with an option of hot and cold water is available in each coach. There’s a fully-equipped pantry and kitchen aboard with an elaborate spread of menu for each meal, which is served in two restaurants with great ambience. There are well-equipped book shelves and foot massagers available too.

Everything is spotlessly clean throughout the journey as there’s dedicated support staff available 24*7 for each coach.

Dining car.

From Bodh Gaya we did a day trip to Rajgir and Nalanda by bus and returned to our train that was parked at Gaya station. Dinner was aboard the train and we moved on to Varanasi station where we de-boarded the next morning after breakfast. A bus was waiting to take us to Sarnath and later to the evening Ganga Aarti. In between, we checked-in into a hotel for a wash up and lunch. Also a bit of shopping time was thrown-in.


Back on the train we left for Lumbini which is in Nepal. We alighted at Nautanwa the next morning, which is the last railway station on the Indian side. We hopped on to our bus which crossed the border at Sonauli in U.P. It is a simple security and immigration process. However, it can take some time depending upon how many vehicles are ahead of you. No visa is required for Indians, just an ID check (only the passport and the voter ID work). For the rest it is visa on arrival at $30. It was just under an hour’s journey.

After checking-in into a hotel, we visited the Mayadevi temple.

The next morning we drove down to Kushinagar which took around four hrs. There’s a lot to be explored in the town, so after lunch, we spent the rest of the day visiting different temples and stupas before we boarded the train at Gorakhpur.

Our next stop was Balrampur. This was where we de-boarded for Shravasti, which was only a short drive from the station. At Shravasti we checked-in into a hotel for a wash up and lunch before proceeding for a tour of the town.


We left from Balrampur for Agra that evening. It was a longish overnight journey that got us to Agra (Tundla station) by late morning. A leisurely visit to the Taj and a good meal at a restaurant followed.


After a relaxed tea and dinner on board, we reached Delhi on a quieter train, full of thoughts, reminiscing the brilliant week that had just gone by!


The hotels booked in all the cities were amongst the best the place had to offer. Smooth check-ins, great food and very comfortable rooms.


During the trip, don’t forget to pick up some mouth-watering Tilkut in Gaya and Khaja from Rajgir!


Part 2  Cultural Significance and History of each place given day wise

The present-day Bihar, UP and Nepal is where Gautam Buddha lived for eighty years. I am blessed to have been able to undertake this journey and returned richer knowing how Siddhartha transformed into the Buddha.


I have tried to jot down how the trip unfolded for me and hope this piece helps those who would wish to embark on a similar journey.


The write-up is not in the chronology of different events in the life of Gautam Buddha but in the sequence of how the IRCTC planned our itinerary.


Day 1 Bodh Gaya (Bihar)

Bodh Gaya Temple. 

The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya lies 16 km from city of Gaya, on the banks of River Niranjana which later joins River Mohana to form River Falgu that flows through Gaya. It is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and is the place where the Buddha attained Enlightenment.


Emperor Ashoka built a stupa which lasted 2nd century a.d. The original structure was completed in the 7th century a.d. during the reign of the Gupta kings. Turkish invaders destroyed the structure in 1205. A very thorough renovation was started in 1874, completed by 1884.


Ashoka was the most ardent follower of Buddha and it is he who built temples and stupas in almost every place of significance that Buddha is connected with. The inscriptions in Pali on the Pillars erected by him at different places have formed an important part of the documented history that we read to day. Chinese travelers like Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang have recorded their observations in detail during their visits to these places.

One of the first temples to be built in burnt brick and covered with stucco, it is a mix of North and South Indian styles of architecture. A Kalash made of gold sits on top of the temple Shikhar. The temple complex consists of the main shrine, the Vajrasana or the Diamond Platform, the sacred Bodhi Tree and six other sacred sites related to Buddha’s early days of Enlightenment.

Close up of Kalash. 

Buddha attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, the direct descendant of which stands at that place now. The Vajrasana is at the exact spot under the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha would meditate. It was built by Ashoka, and along with the Bodhi Tree, this spot is the holiest of all. Buddha spent his First Week after Enlightenment under this tree.

Bodhi Tree.

Close to the main shrine is Animeshlochan Chaitya where Buddha is believed to have spent the Second Week gazing uninterrupted at the Bodhi tree.

Chankramana marks the spot where Buddha performed meditative perambulations in the Third Week after his enlightenment. It is believed that wherever Buddha stepped, a lotus bloomed. A raised structure with lotus flowers carved out of stone known as the Jewel Promenade shrine, has been built here.

Ratanaghar Chaityaalso called the Jewel House, is the place where Buddha spent the Fourth Week in meditation. A ray of six colours is said to have emerged from his body during this time and Buddhists have designed their flag in these colours.

Ajapala Nigrodha is where Buddha spent the Fifth Week of meditation. A stone pillar standing at the spot marks the banyan tree.

Muchalinda Sarovar is where Buddha spent the Sixth Week after his enlightenment. It is believed that once during meditation, a severe thunderstorm broke out and Buddha got badly drenched. The serpent king called Muchalinda, spread his hood over Buddha to protect him. A statue of Buddha with the hood of a snake above his head stands here.

Muchalinda Sarovar.

The Seventh Week was spent under the Rajyatana tree and Buddha answered the queries of passersby here.

The temple has beautiful stone carvings of flowers, geese and images of  Buddha. In the sanctum, is a gilded statue of the seated Buddha touching the earth in Bhumisparsh Mudra. Near the main temple is a small shrine with a standing Buddha at the back with his footprints or Padas carved in black stone, dating from the 3rd century BC.

Inside temple.

The complex has dozens of different types of stupas. One can sit and pray at any of these places especially near the Bodhi Tree where pilgrims meditate or chant mantras. One experiences complete bliss and divinity all around.

Bodh Gaya has several beautiful temples and monasteries built by different Buddhist nations across Asia for e.g. Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka.

Tibetan temple. 

Great Buddha. 

Day 2 Rajgir (Bihar)

Rajgir was the first capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha State that eventually evolved into the Mauryan empire. It finds mention in India’s epic, the Mahabharata, through its king Jarasandha. Although the town’s date of origin is unknown, however, ceramic artifacts from around about 1000 BC have been found here. A huge 2,500-year-old Cyclopean wall still exists here which has been made just by interlocking stones.

Son Bhadra Cave was for Jain Sages. There is supposed to be a king Bimbisara treasure inside which the British tried to obtain, failed.

Bimbisara (558–491 BC) was the king of Rajgir and a contemporary of Buddha. His son Ajatshatru later kept him in captivity and announced himself as king. It is said that Bimbisara chose his place of captivity as from that place where he could see Buddha go up and down the Griddhakuta hill where he meditated. You can still see the Bimbisara jail ruins.

Gautama Buddha spent several months meditating and preaching at Griddhakuta or the Vulture Peak. The peak is called so because the rock is in the shape of a vulture. One can sense very positive energy in the place, which is surrounded by hills. Buddha delivered some of his famous sermons like the Lotus Sermon here. He also initiated Bimbisara etc. to Buddhism at Rajgir.

Vulture Peak

Sariputta’s cave.

On the same hill, as you climb up, you first see the Ananda cave on your right and a little further is Sariputta’s cave. Both were Buddha’s disciples and meditated here. The Vulture Peak is further up from Sariputta’s cave.


On one of the hills called Songiri is the Saptaparini Cave where the First Buddhist Council was held under the monk Mahakassapa.

The Anand Cave. 

Nalanda Mahavihara

Main Stupa.

Board at Nalanda.

Nalanda was one of ancient India’s greatest cultural institutions. It flourished between 5th-12th centuries CE. The campus had many temples, stupas and monasteries where thousands of students lived and pursued various courses. Ruins of these structures can be seen even now as they have been properly preserved. It functioned as a prominent place of learning and was known for the sizeable number of monks who studied and taught there.


The Monastery no. 3 deserves a special mention. Although there is no strong evidence but many Buddhist religious narratives attribute the founding of this monastery to Ashoka. It is believed that it began as a modest monastery and it is only in the 5th century CE that King Kumaragupta established the university.

Monks quarters.

The future dynasties continued developing it further until the Afghan military commander Bakhtiyar Khilji ransacked the university in 1193 CE. Do not miss the Nalanda Museum which is definitely worth a visit.

Day 3 Sarnath (Varanasi-Uttar Pradesh)

Sarnath Stupa. 

Sarnath is located 10 kms from Varanasi near the confluence of the Asi and the Varuna rivers.


Sarnath is also known as Rishipatana, “the place where sages descend.” It is here in Mrigadava or the Deer Park where the Shakyamuni, sage of the Shakya clan, gave his first sermon. In 528 BCE Gautam Buddha, at age 35 and post attaining enlightenment, delivered the sermon to his five companions (later followers)-Kaundinya, Assaji, Bhaddiya, Vappa and Mahanama. It is also where the Buddhist Sangha first came into existence.

One can see the Mulagandha Kuti – the quarters where the Buddha spent his days in Sarnath. The hut is called Mulagandha because a fragrant, flower-like smell always emanated from it. Hereafter, whichever hut he lived in, it always smelled fragrant and was called Gandhakuti!


In this deer park, Ashoka built the 141 ft tall Dhamek Stupa in 249 BCE at the spot where the Buddha delivered his First Sermon of Dharma Chakra or Wheel Of Law to his five disciples.

The Chaukhandi Stupa in Sarnath (not within the Deer Park) was built as a terraced temple in the 7th or 8th century CE to commemorate the meeting of the Buddha with his five followers when he reached from Gaya to Sarnath. This stupa was later modified by Govardhan, the son of Todar Mal, by giving it an octagonal tower, to mark Humayun’s visit to Sarnath.

The park also houses the Ashoka Pillar (in three broken parts). The exquisitely carved and highly polished Lion Capital made out of a single block of sandstone, once stood attached to the top of this pillar. It is now showcased in the museum outside the park. The Dharamchakra or the Wheel of Law with its 32 spokes is also on display in the museum.

The national emblem of India is adopted from the Lion Capital of Ashoka at Sarnath. It features four Asiatic lions standing back to back, mounted on an abacus with a frieze carrying sculptures in high relief of an elephant, a galloping horse, a bull and a lion separated by intervening wheels over a bell-shaped lotus. At the bottom is a horse and a bull with the Dharma Chakra at the centre.

A visit to the museum is a must. It has some of the most stunning sculptures of Buddha, Hindu Gods and other excavated artifacts.

Three main type of stupas are seen in all Buddhist sites, including this one — Uddeshika or Commemorative Stupa (in the memory of an event related to Buddha), Sariraka or Relic Stupa (containing the ashes of the Buddha), Paribhogika or Object Stupa (containing an object belonging to the Buddha).

Although Ganga Aarti isn’t a part of the Buddhist track but when in Varanasi, one cannot miss praying to the Goddess, therefore, it is a part of the itinerary.

Day 4 Lumbini (Nepal)

Lumbini is in the Rupandehi district in Nepal. This is where Queen Maya gave birth to Siddhartha around 566 BCE. His mother passed away seven days later and thereafter his aunt Gautami raised him, so he was known as Gautam as well.

Mayadevi Mandir.

Lumbini has a number of old temples, the Mayadevi temple being the most significant one. It is in the middle of a huge park, which was once a Sal forest. Buddha’s mother, Mayadevi, was on her way from her home in Kapilavastu to her parents’ place in Devdaha, when she suffered labour pains. She stopped under a Sal tree, where she then took the ritual bath in a lotus pond next to it. Soon thereafter Siddhartha was born under this Sal tree. He too was given his first bath in the same pond.

The temple still has this sacred lotus pond (Pushkarini) next to it and a sacred garden full of different trees around it.


The temple houses the birth-marker stone (in the shape of a human foot) and the nativity sculpture signifying Siddhartha’s birth at that spot. When Ashoka went to Lumbini around 249 BCE, he got a temple built of burnt bricks to safeguard the marker stone and the nativity sculpture. He also got an Ashoka Pillar erected at the back of the temple with an inscription in Pali of all the details recorded on it.

Day 5 Kushinagar (U.P.)

The ancient town of Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh is named after Kush- the son of Lord Ram who founded and ruled the city. The archeological findings from the town go back to Ashoka’s time in 3rd century BCE.

Resting Buddha. 

Kushinagar today is where Gautama Buddha attained the Mahaparinirvana. After 45 years of preaching Buddha Vyakya, the Buddha got severely sick with dysentery. He asked his disciple Ananda to lay him down on a couch under two Sal trees, where he passed at the age of 80.

The Mahaparinirvana Temple houses an eighteen-foot long statue of reclining Buddha, positioned exactly as he lay when he passed, with his head to the north, on top of a couch. The statue dates back 1500 years to the Gupta period, and was sculpted from a red sandstone monolith, now gilted and wrapped in a saffron robe. On the stone couch, are carved three images of Buddha’s close followers who were probably at his side at the time of his passing. They are Vishakha, Ananda and Subhadra.

The temple and the statue were excavated by Alexander Cunningham. The statue was found broken into numerous fragments, which were put together carefully to create the original image.


Seven days after his Parinirvana, the mortal remains of the Buddha were cremated at the Rambhar Stupa. The place is also known as Mukutbandhan Chaitya.


Mathakaur Shrine in Kushinagar is where Lord Buddha gave his last sermon before he died. The temple houses a 3m tall stunning statue of Buddha, belonging to period 10th-11th century CE, carved from a single block of bluestone brought from the Gaya region. The statue is in the Bhumisparsh Mudra which depicts the last few moments of his life just before he attained Nirvana.

Day 6 Shravasti (U.P.)

Kachi Kuti (made from sun-dried bricks) or Anantpindika Stupa.

The Buddha first came to Shravasti at the request of Sudatta (Anantapindika), a rich merchant. A beautiful grove was bought by Sudatta from Jeta, son of King Prasenjit of Shravasti. He paid as many gold coins to Jeta as it took him to cover the park. The park came to be known as Jetavana Vihar.

Shravasti is where the Buddha gave most of his sermons. He spent twenty five Varsha Vaas or rainy seasons in this region preaching.


The ruins in Shravasti have several temples and monasteries. It has the quarters where the Buddha lived and those of his closest followers for e.g. Ananda, Sariputta, Moggallena and Angulimaal.


Angulimaal deserves a special mention here. He was a blood thirsty bandit who would wear a string of chopped fingers of his victims around his neck, and after meeting the Buddha, he became one of his closest followers. Later, by his divine powers he helped a helpless woman deliver a baby safely and is considered by many Buddhists as the patron saint of fertility.


At Jetavana one can see the Anandbodhi tree. This tree is an original descendant of the Mahabodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. It was planted by Ananda for those followers of the Buddha who would get disappointed when they could not see Buddha at Jetavana during his time away from there. They then sought his blessings by praying under the tree. Many pilgrims still meditate under the tree.


Shravasti has many outstanding temples built by many Asian countries, the oldest being the one made by Myanmar. This monastery has beautiful paintings on its walls that depict important events from the Buddha’s life.


It also houses his precious relics and we were fortunate to have got a glimpse of it and seek his divine blessings.

Day 7 Agra

Although Agra is not connected with Buddhism a visit to the Taj Mahal is a part of the itinerary, probably thrown in to “add value” for the foreign tourist. The Buddhist Circuit is highly popular amongst Buddhists globally.

I would recommend this divine experience to all. The overall experience was outstanding. Indian Railways do a very good job.

To read all articles by author

Also see albums

1. Nalanda University

2. Rajgir

3. Bodh Gaya Temple 1

4. Bodh Gaya Temple 2

5. Bodh Gaya Temple 3

6. Great Buddha Statue

7. New Nalanda University

8. Buddhist Caves Ellora

9. Sarnath

10. Sukhothai National Park, Thailand

11. Ayutthaya Thailand

12. Kandy, Sri Lanka  

13. Read about Gupta Empire


To read article with all pictures on author blog Part 1 and Part 2  Article is copyright author. All pictures are copyright author and unless mentioned copyright www.esamskriti.com 


Receive Site Updates