Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, was born at Lumbini near the Shakyan capital of Kapilavastu in the southern region of Nepal known as the terai. Mounds, stupas and other ruins testified to previous Buddhist institutional prosperity. Buddhist tradition tells that the emperor Ashoka visited Nepal in the 3rd century BC and erected a stupa and an inscribed column at Lumbini. Theravada and Tibetan monasteries have been built in the past two decades near Lumbini, re-establishing the site as an important, although geographically remote, devotional centre.
To commemorate his missionary visit, the emperor Ashoka is said to have built innumerable stupas in Nepal. Two surviving examples, much restored, may derive from the Ashokan period.
Anuradhapura's stupas, monastic ruins, sculptures, reservoirs, and a descendant of the original bodhi tree, provide an intense experience of ancient Buddhism. Dominating the site are two vast stupas with characteristic Singhalese "bubble domes". The Thuparama, although much restored, is probably the oldest monument in either India or Sri Lanka. The Ruwanweli Dagoba, is also heavily restored, and is clad in the undecorated white plaster which differentiates Singhalese stupa architecture from the more ornate Indian style. At Anuradhapura the festivals of Wesak and Poson celebrate, respectively, the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and parinirvana, and the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka. At such festivals, Anuradhapura is enlivened by hundreds of thousands of devotees.
Like Borobudur and many other southeast Asian temples, Angkor Thom was conceived as a model of the Buddhist universe. At the centre of an immense complex of shrines is the great Bayon temple with its cluster of five towers, the tallest of which represents Mount Meru, the cosmic axis. The whole of Angkor was mooted with 100 yards (90m) of water and criss-crossed by a brilliantly engineered system of canals: the water motif symbolizing the cosmic ocean and the world's four sacred rivers and - not least - acting as an irrigation system. Much of the power of Angkor Thom derive from a plethora of hybridized Hindu-Buddhist iconography, carved in a wild, sweet style on the gates and terraces of Jayavarman's temple-mountain.
The Borobudur Temple complex is one of the greatest monuments in the world. The structure, composed of 55,000 square metres of lava-rock is erected on a hill in the form of a stepped-pyramid of six rectangular storeys, three circular terraces and a central stupa forming the summit. The whole structure is in the form of a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddha.
Besides being the highest symbol of Buddhism, the Borobudur stupa is also a replica of the universe.. It is ancient devotional practice to circumambulate around the galleries and terraces always turning to the left and keeping the edifice to the right while either chanting or meditating.
In the holy city of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace, like many Tibetan monasteries, is now a state museum. Unlike countless shrines and monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, both the structure and contents of the Potala are preserved. Symbol of the protection of Avalokiteshvara and of the greater Tibetan Buddhist community, the Potala still towers imposingly over Lhasa, and contains countless treasures from the 17th century, including murals, thankas, mandalas, altars, and the famous statue in sandalwood of Padmapani. Jokhang retains its famous gilded roof, and the "Four Deities Radiating Light" may still be seen in their shrine. It remains a living monastery; but it may also be visited, like other sacred sites, as a "museum".
Yung-kang is one of the most remarkable Buddhist sites for the massive simplicity of its immense rock-carved Buddhas and the delicate ornamentation of its narrative reliefs. Work on the cave shrines was started by the emperor of the first Wei dynasty in AD 460, in response to persecution of Buddhists over the previous twenty years. In the next decades, in the limestone river cliffs at Lung-men (5th-6th centuries), Wei dynasty monumental carving achieved a spiritual and aesthetic perfection never repeated.
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