Places of Buddhist Pilgrimage
by Jeremy Russell
- Where the Blessed One descended from Tushita Heaven
- "Four places are always determined in advance:
where the Buddhas shall attain Buddhahood;
where they shall begin to preach;
where they shall expound the law and refute heretics;
and where they shall descend from the Tushita Heaven after having preached to their
Other places are chosen according to circumstances."
- (Fa Hien)
The most westward and perhaps most obscure of the eight places of pilgrimage is
Sankashya, whose name may derive from a stupa built there by Kashyapa Buddha's father and
dedicated to his son. This is the last of the four places common to the buddhas of this
Some say that during his forty-first year Shakyamuni went up from Shravasti to the
Tushita Heaven and passed the rainy season retreat teaching Abhidharma to his mother,
Queen Mayadevi, who had died seven days after Buddha's birth and been reborn as a male god
in Tushita. The same happens to the mothers of all the buddhas, and they too later go to
teach them, afterwards descending to Sankashya.
Seven days before his descent the Buddha set aside his invisibility. Anuruddha
perceived him by his divine sight and urged Maudgalyayana to go and greet him. The great
disciple did so, telling the Buddha that the Order longed to see him. This was the time
Prasenajit's statue was made. Shakyamuni replied that in seven days he would return to the
world. A great assembly of the kings and people of the eight kingdoms gathered. As the
Buddha descended, a flight of gold stairs appeared, down which he came. He was accompanied
on the right by Brahma, who, holding a white chowny, descended on a crystal staircase,
while to the left Indra came down a flight of silver stairs, holding a jewelled umbrella.
A great host of gods followed.
The Buddha bathed immediately after his descent, and later a bathing house and stupa
were built to mark the site. Stupas were also raised at the spot where he cut his hair and
nails, and where he entered samadhi. The Chinese pilgrims describe further stupas and a
chankramana where Shakyamuni and the previous buddhas had walked and sat in meditation.
The three flights of stairs disappeared into the ground, but for seven steps of each,
which remained above. When Ashoka came here later he had men dig into the earth around the
protrusions in order to discover their depth. Although they reached the level of water,
they could not find the stairs' end. With increased faith, Ashoka then built a temple over
them with a standing image of the Buddha above the middle flight. Behind this temple he
erected a great pillar surmounted by an elephant capital. Because the tail and trunk had
been destroyed, both Chinese pilgrims mistook this for a lion.
Hsuan Chwang tells that the original stairs had existed until a few centuries before
his visit, when they disappeared. Various kings built replicas of ornamented brick and
stone, with a temple containing images of Shakyamuni, Brahma and Indra above them. These
were within the walls of a monastery, which he describes as excellently ornamented and
having many fine images. He further says that some hundreds of monks dwelt there and that
the community had lay followers. Two centuries earlier Fa Hien found roughly 1,000 monks
and nuns living here pursuing their studies, some hinayana and some mahayana. Both
pilgrims tell stories of a white-eared dragon who lived close to the monastery, caring for
it and the surrounding area. Fa Hien especially remarks on the abundant produce of the
land and the prosperity and happiness of the people.
Little seems to be known about Sankashya after the Chinese accounts. In 1862 General
Cunningham identified the spot as being located outside an obscure village west of
Farruhabad, above Kanpur, on the Ganges. Not much of the ancient glory of the place
remains today. Within a deserted, fenced area stands a large mound topped by the crumbling
ruins of a Hindu shrine, in which the former image has been replaced by a small
representation of the Buddha. The elephant capital of Ashoka's pillar has been remounted
on a ten-foot high pillar beneath a stone canopy. Another small shrine nearby contains a
statue of Buddha. The surrounding grounds appear as if they might contain the ruined
foundations of former buildings, but if any excavation has ever been done it is buried
once more. This is the only one of the eight places of pilgrimage where today there is no
temple, monastery or even a solitary monk. Perhaps the wildness of the area is the cause.
With or without a dragon's aid, it may be hoped that this will change.