We declined offers of various local guides and went by ourselves, consulting our books along the way. I don't know if you are going with a group or by yourself. For our trip, we searched around online and found a Delhi based agency called GoHeritageIndia, that advertized "the most spiritual and ascetic journey" for Buddhist pilgrimage. They booked us hotel (breakfast included), domestic flight and train tickets, as well as a car with driver. The good thing with planning with a travel agency is they take care of you the whole trip. Wherever we go, the travel manager in Delhi kept in touch with local agencies. During one leg of the trip, we had a driver from Varanasi who stayed with us for 12 days driving us from Sarnath all the way to all the Northern pilgrimage sites including Lumbini. He finally dropped us off at Lucknow train station. He said he had done this many times. This agency is highly imperfect (particularly in coordination between the central office and the city-specific subcontractors), but in general we found them decent -- basically we just used them to reserve rooms, trains, and drivers, and provide water and the breakfast food that came with the hotel. In general, this sidestepped a lot of concerns on our part. Next time, knowing India better, we might do it differently.
The Dhammika book suggests staying at least two days in Rajgir, Sarnath, Savatthi, and 3 days in Bodhgaya. And that's pretty much what we did. The next time, we might spend an extra day -- or even two -- in each of the first 3.) So we had a lot of time in major sites to look around and meditate instead of rushing through. We skipped modern temples during the day and went for the oldest archaeological sites.Most of the places we stayed are in towns away from actual pilgrim sites where various functional temples are situated, otherwise we would like to spend time in the evening in temples for puja and meditation.
In terms of our actual itinerary, we flew to Mumbai to spend the night. The next day, we flew to Varanasi, which is 20 minutes' drive from Sarnath. Since we were then in a large hub of Hinduism, we decided to see evening Ganga aarti and take early morning boat ride along Ganges to see the sunrise and the ghats. We also visited one Hindu temple that is open to foreigners. We declined all other tours of Varanasi and spent 2 days visiting Sarnath. They arranged to have a driver take us there back and forth for two days and the car sat outside of the park all day waiting for us. Next time we would like to book a hotel next to Sarnath, since we saw many along the main road close by.
Our itinerary took us to the following, in this order
- Rajgir and Nalanda: They are about 11km apart and are on a way from Bodhgaya to Patna. Because they are so close (and genuinely quick to travel between), we recommend seeing them within a short period of time. Even though Rajgir is only 65 or 70 km from Bodhgaya, it takes over two hours to get there. Then it gets very hot. We usually see other pilgrims in the morning and late afternoon, much the same as in some other sites.
- Patna: We stayed in Patna for 2 nights. We visited the Kumrahar (site of 80 pillared hall possibly built by Asoka, and quite possibly the site of the 3rd Buddhist Council), the neighboring monasteries (also associated with King Asoka), and Patna Museum (where Buddha's relics and reliquary from Vesali are housed in a special locked room -- to which admission is secured with a special ticket that can be purchased at an official booth on the street outside the museum). We also saw some Buddhist statues in the museum but I remember mostly they are of a later period (e.g. 10-12 centuries AD).
- Lauriya Nandagar: We had originally planned to drive from Patna to visit Lauriya Nandagar (also in Bihar) for a day but the local drivers told us we can barely get there in one day (290km) as road is not good. It has probably the largest stupa in India and has a complete Asokan pilar in its original place. Judging from a map, it might be closer to drive from Kushinagar but we are not sure which road to take.
- Hajipur: We abandoned the original plan to go to Lauriya Nandagar and and went to Hajipur instead. Hajipur is very close to Patna, there we visited the northern Ananda stupa which houses half of Ananda's relics. The form of the stupa is very visible, but there is a Hindu temple to Ram on its top now. A few old Bodhi trees remain. To get to Hajipur we crossed over the Ganges on one of the longest single river bridges in the world.
On the way from Patna to Kushinagar, we visited and Vesali and Kesariya.
Vesali: We saw 3 places in Vesali (Vaishali). The Licchavi's stupa is the site where they found the Buddha's relics, which now housed in Patna museum, but this is now largely cleared away, except for its lower foundations. There is a nicely built museum nearby where we saw one impressive Buddha image. But there are not much other Buddhist artifacts except a few small Buddhist plaques. On display are mostly terracotta figurines of local culture. At a separate site in Vesali [to which we were driven over a long but possibly circuitous route], there is an archaeological park. This park is very nice, with a separate large stupa, an Asokan pillar with single lion capital, and some other old monastery sites.
- Pava (Pajilnagar, Faizalnagar)
Lumbini: Ajaan Geoff said one day is enough to see the place (i.e. the premise of Mahamaya temple). There is an Asoka pillar and part of its capital there. Inside the building, you can see the what is said to mark the exact birthplace of the Buddha. There is a tank which is said to be where Maya washed, and a bodhi tree which is the focus of much attention among the pilgrims. There are quite a few places to sit and meditate.
We stayed in a hotel in Siddharth Nagar in Nepal, 22 km from Lumbini, again too far. There are quite many hotels just outside of Lumbini Park. We even saw a Chinese one. Going through Customs to and from Nepal could be problematic. The border area in Sonali was very chaotic, seemingly with hidden tension. It was good that we were inside a car and had our driver deal with people pounding at the window. He argued with someone and later told us the guy demanded 500 rupee baksheesh for immigration officials. If he didn't give, his car might have difficulty crossing the border.
Our driver took us to a private money exchanger he knew on Indian side, even though we asked to be taken to the government exchanger (our Lonely Planet book said there is one). We didn't like that place at all. Next time I would like to find the government exchanger, and ask for small notes.
A Taiwanese couple who had spent considerable time in Nepal told us not to trust anybody local, especially after crossing border to Nepalese side -- surely an overstatement, but one which reflects some experiences. There is a newer government, and much chaos. You have to be very careful dealing with people. The couple agreed to take a rickshaw for a promised 50 rupees; on arrival, the driver demanded 500. We spent our time in the hotel on Nepalese side and did not venture into the street by ourselves, and thus could not assess things directly. Nate has a student from this area who is very honorable, and it is clearly not all people who are at issue.
One important issue: Large Indian notes (500 and 1000 rupees) are illegal in Nepal over concern regarding counterfeiting, and appear to be legally subject to confiscation by the Nepalese government. Not believing it when we initially heard this rule from the money exchanger, we carefully hid our large Indian bills and ignored the money exchanger's suggestion that we exchange all our large bills into Nepalese notes.
Two of us got by with about 1500 Nepalese rupees (exchanged at the border from 1000 Indian rupees) for a day in Nepal (buying chai and simple snacks only) including 250 rupee per ticket into Mahamaya temple. But this reflects the fact that our car and hotel was already covered by the tour cost.
Passports had to be stamped by both sides, and both upon entry and exit. We gave the Nepalese official 50 Nepalese rupees of baksheesh for giving visa efficiently. One Indian official told me our visa had some problem (Indian multiple entry visa requires that two visits have to be 15 days apart, and our return into idea counted as an "entry", but occurred just 2 or so days after we left. We still do not know now how to resolve that issue ahead of time. If you find out, please let us know), and that he could help me for 500 rupees at our return. Our driver told us some client of his had been asked 3500 rupees. On our return, another Indian official slowly stamped our passport, and didn't ask for money. Because of that, our driver commented that his next client might encounter trouble crossing the border.
Kapilavastu: we stopped by Kapilavastu (aka Piprahwa, on Indian side) leaving Lumbini going to Savatthi (Shravasti). Sakyan's stupa is there. There is a very nice wooded area in the back where Nate sat and meditated. It is notable that there is a disagreement between Nepal and India on the location of Kapilavastu. This now appears to have been rather definitively settled by archaeological evidence (with it being located in India by the town called Piprahwa), but the name "Piprahwa" appeared totally unfamiliar to our driver. In contrast to the other "big 4" sites, I believe that Kapilavastu did not charge entry fees. While the area is beautiful, the lack of entry fees meant that children could very easily come into the park. Perhaps 10-15 started surrounding Nate just after he finished meditating, with a leader requesting money. A kind nearby worker scooted them away, but being surrounded in this way was a bit unsettling; our driver suggested that they were requesting this as a favour (rather than as any sort of intimidation), and even a relatively small amount given to the leader with the specification that it be shared would be very well received); absent this, the leader will lose face and may get a bit angry/frustrated.
Savatthi: As Ajaan Geoff said this is a very nice place to visit; there are so many things to visit, we wish we had spent more time in this location. We spent two nights in town of Balrampur, 25-30km away from Savatthi.
The archaeological park (Jetavana) has a lot of things to see. The two huts of the Buddha are well identified and marked. There are many other named sites (e.g. stupas supposedly for Sariputta, Maha Kassapa, Maha Mogallana, Kutis for Ananda, Sivali and for Angulimala), but both we and Taan Ajaan were skeptical as to the degree of confidence in these identifications. (Perhaps the Ananda kuti is identified via inference by its placement between the two kutis associated with the Buddha himself?) Nate took careful pictures of the elevated path commemorating the Buddha's Cankama path and many other particular sites.
Outside of Jetavana, at some distance, there are two stupas across the road to each other. One is Pakki "kuti" (more of a stupa) commemorating the site where he chanted the Angulimala paritta. The other one, Kachi "kuti" (again, more of a stupa), commemorates the spot where Anathapindika's palace once stood.
There is another huge stupa on the roadside near Savatthi, at Orajhar. The information provided by the Archeological Survey of India says this is Puravan or Eastern Monastery, built by Lady Visakha, and the site of a number of suttas. But seemingly many sources online claim this as the site of Twin Miracle.
We wanted to see the Asokan Pillar in Savatthi mentioned in the book. It was a strange experience. We followed the direction in the book and ended up in a village full of cows, goats and mud huts. We walked through the village as cars are not able to get in. After a bit of walking (placing us pretty close to the eastern gate of old Savatthi), we found this tiny bit high ground, where a stump of broken pillar stood. It is smoothed and fashioned into a Shiva lingam and worshiped as such. Across the ground -- perhaps 10 meters away -- there is a simple modern structure labeled "meditation center". Inside is a shrine and a Buddha image donated by the Thais. We met an Indian monk who apparently lives there. He told us this Asoka Pillar is to commemorate Puravan, i.e., Eastern Monastery (as noted above, it is a bit confusing as to where Puravan actually is.) He also claimed that the pillar was about 80 feet long and had been broken during the muslim invasions.
>From Savatthi we drove to Lucknow and took a train to Delhi. Next time we would like to stop by Lucknow Museum. Supposedly they had a great collection of Buddhist artifacts, including Gandharan artifacts.
National Museum in Delhi: We spent a day in thhe National Museum in Delhi and paid respect to the many (quite large) Buddha relics on display and looked at a lot of great early Buddhist artifacts. If you are interested in early Buddhist artwork, the collections at the Museum are highly recommended.
Ajanta: From Delhi we flew to Aurangabad to see Ajanta cave. Back to Mumbai by train. Went to Prince of Wales Museum and saw very nice Gandharan sculptures and bas reliefs, including vivid depictions of events in the Pali Canon.
Karla and Bhaja Caves: From Mumbai we drove 3 hour to see Karla and Bhaja Caves (8km apart) before returning to Boston. These caves are wonderful.
(We hope to go on our next trip, as well as to Sanchi and to see the reconstructed Bharhut stupa and various artifacts at the Calcutta museum).
It bears emphasis that the relationship between distance and travel time in rural India (such as includes many Buddhist sites) is far different than in the developed world. Average travel speed in rural Bihar can be as low as perhaps 5km/hour, and very easily 10km/hour. The driver originally stuck to itinerary and refused to go any place that was not clearly spelled out (even 1 km away). We asked him to go to a bookstore, he was reluctant to do so, even though we have the car to ourselves for a whole day and was charged as such. He later showed me a petroleum allowance sheet, calculated by mileage, for the entire 12 day trip. Later after we skipped the trip to Lauriya Nandagar, he was more flexible. So if you want to ask the guide to take you to additional places, you may have to work on him and perhaps offer some money. I saw online somewhere that says in large city, you can hire a taxi for 1000 rupees, 80km mileage, for 8 hours, to drive around anywhere in the city. There is a different calculation for long distance fares.
It is good to bring along a few copies of your passport info page. When you exchange money in pilgrim sites, the bank expects you to provide a copy (copy service is available nearby). In large cities like Patna though, major banks have copy machines. Nepalese border official wants a copy as well. Hotels sometimes also require passport photocopies, and typically the number of the passport; if you don't want to and over your passport for copying (or don't want to wait), it may be safer & faster to just provide a photocopy.
We wish we had brought a piece of plastic cloth so we could kneel on when we do puja at various dirt grounds (e.g. outside the stupas which we circumambulated). A friend told us to bring a mat to sit on if we wanted to meditate longer on stony ground, and we did that with two pieces cut from a yoga mat.
There were a lot of mosquitoes in Bodhgaya (in other place, they were not so obvious). While we avoid DEET based mosquito repellents back home, bringing long lasting repellent with DEET was very helpful. Also in Bodhgaya, there was a lot of dirt in the air and our friend suggested to bring a mask. I wish I had heeded her advice.
There are a great number of children begging for money in tourist sites. This appears to be a learned habit, as we did not observe village children outside popular sites doing this to foreigners. We brought some ball pens for this occasion per advice online. Initially I was nervous when surrounded by shouting and grabbing kids. But I learned to give with a smile and it made a difference. I learned not to randomly distribute gifts, instead hold a few pens in hand, survey, and pick the ones I like to give, often to the ones who are less aggressive. Our driver also suggested that we give a small amount of money (10-20 rupees), and let him give to a leader and tell the children to divide the money among themselves.
Our travel agency told us, a tip of 300 rupees for a guide or a driver for a full day's service is enough. Our driver from Varanasi said his basic monthly salary is 2000 rupees. Our Mumbai driver's salary is 6000 rupees but commented that his rent is 3000 rupees. Their cell phone monthly charge is 1000 rupees. Even though they are reluctant to go to a bookstore we quested, some of them kept offering to take us to shops of their choice, saying goods there are cheaper. I went to one place and it is not so. For most such cases, it seems highly likely (in some cases we had verification) that this is a commission involved for the referring driver from the shop). For the long distance 12 day trip, We didn't give tip to the driver until the end after he put us on the train.
I was constantly looking for places to exchange small notes (10 rupees or 1-2 rupee coins) throughout the trip. Outside Bodhgaya temple, there are private exchangers for notes and coins. You need to bargain with them. In Varanasi our travel agent took us to a private exchanger by the street, who has a Hindu deva shrine next to him. I believe these people are more reliable. He charged 7 rupees per thousand exchanged. Smaller hotels tend to be more friendly and are willing to help. I would like to find out if banks offer this service next time.
Be aware that many individuals seeking donations from pilgrims go to the pilgrimage sites -- sometimes even entering the sites that charge fees. It is often not fully clear how legitimate such causes are. While we were at Sujata Stupa, the English teacher of a school situated next to the stupa came out and ask for donation. Days later, our driver, having warmed up to our ways, told us that the short-term guide who took us there (a college student who showed up as the driver's friend) received 50% of the rupees we gave. He also thinks the teacher may take some rupees, even though the pretense was to get uniforms for his students, but we aren't not sure of this. We indeed were given a receipt marked Sakya Sujata Children's Welfare Trust. The same college student also took us to a place where it was claimed Sujata gave rice milk to the Buddha. Sri Lankans arrived by busload, led by guides.
Requests for school donation recurred during our trip. Someone claiming to be a school teacher and a Buddhist would approach us at a pilgrim site, armed with Chinese and English support letter from other donors, and ask for donation for his students. At Sarnath and Bodhgaya, there was a monk's bowl sat in front of the main Buddha statue in addition to donation boxes on the side. A temple attendant encouraged us to put our donation in the bowl instead of the box. On the wall of Bodhgaya temple near the gate, there is a plaque by Bodhgaya chief monk that says any donor who gave money should obtain an official receipt. In some cases, we have no idea whether our generosity would bare intended fruits.
In quite a few some cases, the pilgrim's good-hearted donations appear to be directly taken by the security cars. We saw this happen with our eyes at the Ajanta caves (where an apparently official female would claim to offer pilgrims special opportunities to circumambulate a stupa in a cave, offer donations and then pocket the donations when they left. At the Licchavi's stupa, the guard strongly encouraged an offering in the open, and we suspect that he took it. At Sattapanni cave, Nate made an offering using bills that were directly picked up and studied by one of the guards (who was already up on the hill when he joined Nate on the way to Sattapanni cave). In contrast to the other guard from the Hindu temple (who was much more circumspect), this guard remained after asking for extra baksheesh, and Nate suspects that he may have gone back into the cave to retrieve the offering).
In some cases, the situation may be worse than misappropriate of donations. In that village near Savatti where the wattle and daub meditation temple stood, children told our driver that they were actually afraid of the monk and his assistant/security guard (a young man) because the guard would beat them away and only allow foreigners to the premise. The monk apparently told our driver to bring foreigners to this place and he would give him a commission. Indeed there was a bus full of Western Buddhists who arrived before us led by a guide. They were giving donations and writing enthusiastic comments in the guestbook. The monk told me he was collecting money to build a large meditation center and a research center 50km away from here. Unfortunately, our driver, who is a Hindu, thinks Buddhist monks are often corrupted. We told him we knew some Thai monks who are not corrupted.
Regarding food, trying to minimize need to get food -- such as by observing the 8 precepts -- is encouraged. Throughout our trip, we basically ate a large breakfast at the hotel and lived off tangerine, bananas, energy bars if required later in the day. Water is 15 rupee per liter bottle. Sometimes the driver stopped by a place on the roadside he thinks is good and we drank chai and ate a plate of pakora, i.e. fried paneer fritter. Frying subdues germs. A couple of times for long distance driving, we also asked the hotel we stayed to pack lunch packet for us to go. Our friend said restaurants in large hotels are open to public but we didn't use them this trip.
This is the best I could think of so far. Please let us know if you have other questions. Best of luck!
Xiaoquan and Nate