Buddhist Temples in India

  History of Buddhism in India


Golden Buddha Statue

Buddhism had its beginnings in ancient India, from Siddhartha Gautama, who was the Buddha. This title means “enlightened” or “awakened”. Gautama was “thought to have been born, in the fifth century BCE” (Stein 1998: 67). He was a prince of his Sakya clan. Gautama rejected his royal heritage, and duty of ruling over the family’s Himalayan community. He ran away to search for truths to share with his people, and those from the Koshala and Magadha kingdoms. Gautama journeyed through forests, wondering why the world suffers from extensive sorrow. Near Gaya, a town in Magadha, the prince sat “under a pipal tree…for forty-nine days” (Stein 1998: 67). Gautama reached enlightenment when he meditated, and realized that desire caused people’s sorrow and disappointment. Seven weeks later, he journeyed from the Tree of Wisdom to Kashi, and taught his beliefs in the Deer Park of Sarnath. Pupils were introduced to the ‘Sermon of the Turning Wheel’, ‘Four Noble Truths’, and ‘Noble Eightfold Path’. His life and teachings lead to Buddhism’s development into a religion.

Buddhism spread from northern India, through the rest of the nation in the third century BCE. During this time, the disciples of the Buddha had a schism that led to a separation of two religious schools, which were the Mahayana and the Hinayana. Hinayana was given to the “more conservative of the schools by its critics and rivals of the ‘Great Vehicle'” (Faure 2011: 7). This schism was between “Elders”, partisans with a strict apprehension of Buddhist teachings, and the “Great Assembly”, who attempted to depend on its spirit instead of its letter. The term “‘vehicle’…means ‘a way of going towards salvation'” (Faure 2011: 8). The schism was the beginning of establishing different Buddhist groups.

Sacred Spaces and Original Purpose of Buddhist Stupas

39 Stupas at Night, at the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

39 Stupas at Night, at the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

Early Buddhist temples were stupas. The “oldest surviving Buddhist stupas belong to the third century B.C.” (Singh 1996: 2-3). The Sanchi Stupa was an example of the stupas’ impressive structures, which dominates the Sanchi hilltop and includes carvings on the gateways. Asoka, a Mauryan emperor, spread parts of Buddha’s remains to all of India’s significant towns, and ordered the construction of stupas over the remains. The Sanchi Stupa was a religious pilgrimage location. The Mahaparinibbana-sutta documents record the “Buddha as stating that pilgrimage confers merit upon the pilgrim” (Fogelin 2003: 138). He also stated that pilgrims would reach nirvana, if they died during their journey to or from a pilgrimage place. There are also physical evidences of this religious purpose. The Sanchi Stupa is large, providing a lot of space for Buddhists to worship. No “doors block access to either the circumambulatory path or the…stupa…as a whole” (Fogelin 2003: 139). Path entrances were designed to let people have free movement, while keeping distinct worship areas separate. This stupa also includes donation inscriptions, which list a diversity of social groups. Most of these groups included the clergy and lower class people. The Sanchi Stupa was one of many important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists.

Pandulena Caves

Pandulena Caves

Sacred Spaces: Caves

Caves were also used as Buddhist temples in ancient India. A well known religious place was the Pandulena Caves at Nasik, India. The “earliest excavations here are datable to second century B.C.” (Archaeological Survey of India 2011). Throughout time, more caves were added and some older ones were remodeled. This religious place includes a “group of 24 cave excavations” (Archaeological Survey of India 2011). These structures were built in a variety of purposes and decorations. Cave 23, for instance, has the largest amount of reliefs of Buddha. One of the oldest monasteries is located in Cave 19, and was formed during King Krishna’s rule during the Satavahana period. Two common features of Buddhist cave temples were prayer halls and monasteries, which provided housing for monks. The “square central hall was approached through a […] portico, and doorways led into cells for members of the brotherhood” (Ghosh 2014). Other features are three large halls and a chapel. The Pandulena Caves, are one of many religiously significant places for Buddhists to worship or temporarily stay in.

Modern Purpose of Buddhist Temples

In the contemporary era, some Indian Buddhist temples are considered nationally sacred. This classification attracts many tourists, both international and domestic, to these places.  Enlisted “as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989, Sanchi has been rendered into a thriving national and international tourist destination” (Guha-Thakurta 2013). This stupa helps the state of Madhya Pradesh increase its profile, and improve its tourism. Sanchi became a popular tourist site for its location in India’s rich art and architectural area. The religious place is also rich in the nation’s ancient history. Some Buddhist architecture, such as stupas, are considered national symbols in a secular fashion. In this context, the “archetypal flat hemispherical mound of the Sanchi stupa-with its berm, winding balustrade railing, and crowning harmika and pinnacle-becoming a favoured ‘classical architectural form across official and non-official public buildings” (Guha-Thakurta 2013). This shows that Indians are recognizing the cultural significance of stupas.

The Sanchi Stupa Gate

The Sanchi Stupa

Indian cave temples, such as the Pandulena Caves, have become popular tourist attractions. Tourists are attracted to the exposed ancient history. Cave sites “bear the testimony of […] great culture and civilization in the form of art, architecture, religion and above all glimpses of human settlement” (Patnaik 2009: 2). India uses these examples of archaeological wealth as a resource to develop tourism. A way for tourists to reach the Pandavleni Caves is to walk a “flight of steps from the bottom of the hill” (WebIndia123 2000). Some caves are connected to each other by stone-cut ladders. People find “Caves 3,10, 18, and 20 […] fascinating […] for their magnificent sculptures” (WebIndia123 2000). These caves include carved Buddha figures, cisterns, shrines, and inscriptions. Tourists also enjoy a great organization for water, with water tanks carved into the rocks. This is an example of Indians using archaeological features to attract more tourists to their nation.

Pandulena Buddha Statue

Pandulena Buddha Statue









-Elizabeth Sikora


“Pandulena, Nasik – Ticketed Monument – Archaeological Survey of India.” Pandulena, Nasik – Ticketed Monument – Archaeological Survey of India. 2011. http://asi.nic.in/asi_monu_tktd_maha_pandulenacaves.asp.

Faure, Bernard. Unmasking Buddhism. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Featured Image (Banner):By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0
Featured Video: By Various Director: Standard YouTube License


Fogelin, Lars. “Ritual and presentation in early Buddhist religious architecture.”asian perspectives 42, no. 1 (2003): 129-154.

Ghosh, Baivab. “Cave and Rock-Cut Architecture Found in India.” History Discussion Discuss Anything About History. January 24, 2014.


Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. “The Production and Reproduction of a Monument: The Many Lives of the Sanchi Stupa.” South Asian Studies 29, no. 1 (2013): 77-109.

Patnaik, Sunil Kumar. “Archaeological Heritage and Tourism.” Orissa Review (2009): 1-5

Singh, Upinder. “Sanchi: The history of the patronage of an ancient Buddhist establishment.” Indian Economic & Social History Review 33, no. 1 (1996): 1-35.

Stein, Burton. “Ancient Days.” In A History of India. Oxford [England: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

“Pandavleni Caves/Pandu Lena Caves.” WebIndia123. 2000.
















Skip to toolbar