The twelve months ending in May, 1957 are counted as the 2500th year of the Buddhist Era, and they have been a holy occasion for the millions of Buddhists in Asia. The big moment was last year at the May full moon, a time that is always celebrated as the triple anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and departure from this world. Preparations for that day began in many places as early as 1955, and in February of ’56—being in New Delhi—I decided to learn more about them by visiting the Ganges Plain of North India, which can be called the Holy Land of Buddhism, as of Hinduism. The main Buddhist shrines in that region are Lumbini, where the Buddha is said to have been born 2580 years ago; Buddhagaya, where He became enlightened at the age of 35; Sarnath, where He preached His first sermon right afterward; and Kusinara, where He passed from this life, or entered Nirvana, at the age of 80. The places I visited were Sarnath and Buddhagaya, which are near main railways and hence easy to get to—not only for myself but for the many Buddhist pilgrims who visit India yearly and help to build the shrines up.
I began with Sarnath, which, as the scene of the first sermon (preached to five Indian ascetics in a deer park), is looked on as the birthplace of the Buddhist religion. Sarnath is four miles outside of Benares, the holy city of the Hindus, and the conjunction of the two places is held, by many, to enhance the holiness of both. Sarnath itself is in quiet country—open fields with small villages dotted among them—and the land extends flat to the horizon in all directions there. The road out from Benares is lined nearly all the way with green mango trees; there must be thousands of them. It is narrow road, but I found that it was being widened for the big year—a good thing, I would say, as there was then room for little more than a single auto on the pavement, and the other traffic there—pedestrians, bullock-carts, bicycles etc.—kept being elbowed into the ditch. At several places along the way I saw workmen putting down a foundation layer of bricks for the new road, and getting ready to lay dirt, ballast and macadam on top of this. The work didn’t seem very far along, but there were hundreds of men on the job, and I didn’t doubt that thousands more could be added if need be—manpower is rarely a problem in India.