Nothing is permanent; Everything is subject to change. Being is always becoming-Buddha“. The precepts of Buddha have always inspired me, as it relates to your actions. The chapter on Buddhism in my history book is still crystal clear in my judgement, and since then, I aspired to sit under the Bodhi tree. At the same, I am not a big fan of meditation, as been trying to learn from long but not succeeded yet. But one time, I want to experience the real meditative feeling that Lord Buddha felt. I might not see the halo of enlightenment, but peace of creative thinker at least I expect. Hence, I got all ready to visit another UNESCO heritage site the Maha Bodhi temple in Bodh Gaya.
Since I was holidaying at, my hometown Dhanbad, planing this trip was comfortable. We chose the rail route, as it’s convenient & economical. The first train from Dhanbad to Gaya is at 06:00 am, the Dhanbad-Gaya Intercity Express, which arrives Gaya at 10.05 am. It is comfortable rail travel for 4hrs 5min, and the same train departs from Gaya at 5.35 pm, & arrives in Dhanbad at 9.45 pm. On reaching Gaya, you can hire taxis that are readily available outside the station or hail the Bihar state buses to your desired destination of the area. We reserved a cab as we had a stay in Bodh Gaya.
On a December crispy cold, in a mist ridden foggy morning, we drove towards Bodh Gaya from the railway station. It was 30 min drive(26 Km), along the way can only hear the rustling of leaves against the cold draught of wind. As usual, I booked the Tourism Lodging accommodation Hotel Heritage under BSDTC. It is one of the most preferred affordable luxury hotels in the city, located close to Bodhi Temple. The rooms were spacious, with all comforts. Bodh Gaya pulls pilgrims, backpackers and tourists from all over the world, hence all types of accommodation are available from luxury to budget or lodges. The tariff starts as cheap as Rs 500/night and proceeds up to Rs 3500/night. Upon reaching, we checked in, took a quick shower & ate our complimentary breakfast.
I wished to visit the Maha Bodhi temple early morning, hence postponed it for the following day. Well, if we talk about monastery here, the total number is over 60, out of which more than 55 are foreign Buddhist monasteries. Hell! That’s a considerable number, thankfully my trip was approximately for 3 days. As I found myself lost in a place, amongst different cultures, following other routines, I realized to understand, explore, and feel the spirituality and the innate peace that Bodhgaya brings a couple of days is required. Though Bodhgaya is an all-year destination, winters are incredibly busy, when the temple complex is adorned with thousands of marigolds, and the visiting monks in their trademark orange and maroon robes make the town a riot of colour. Even Dalai Lama visits the spot to attend the Nyingma Monlam Chenmo festival for world peace between Dec-Jan.
I set off my tour with Vein Giac Instituteiac( Trung Tam Vien Giac), Vietnam Temple, located close to the Mahabodhi Temple. The architecture reflects the Vietnamese culture and traditions, built-in 2002. The synagogue houses a statue of Avalokiteswara (in a simple form), a prayer hall and a library. It was so calm that it reminded me of a Buddha teaching” peace comes from within, do not seek it without”.
My Next destination was Burmese Vihar located less than a Km away from the Mahabodhi Temple. It was made in 1936 and was established by the Venerable Nandamala. A beautiful Burmese architect, with golden rooftops, lush green garden, two prayer halls, a meditation hall and a guest house for the convenience of pilgrims. The tranquil environment will ask you “Let the past makes you better, not bitter”-Buddha.
Further ahead, I went to Ngagyur Palyul Thupten Monastery, it’s really close to the Buddha statue. It’s a large monastery with colourful Gompa & Stupa, over 1000 of the small golden Buddha statues are kept inside the temple. This monastery preaches instruction in Kama teachings, also teaches Buddhist courses, leads retreats, giving instruction on Tibetian yoga and Chi practices.
I called for a break from monasteries, as there were a couple more to see, so I walked towards the great Buddha statue. An 80 feet tall statue, where the sculpture been chiselled to perfection to depict the calmness in the facial expression of Lord Buddha. An expansive tree-lined path leads to this stunning Lord Buddha statue sitting in a Padmaaasan and surrounded by his 10 disciples statues. This statue of Buddha was commissioned and built by Japanese Buddhists, and Dalai Lama inaugurated it in 1989. My photographer in me kicked alive, to snap a few pictures. The craftsmanship is awe-inspiring.
Well, it was past 12 pm, lunchtime; hence I got hold of a battery-powered e-rickshaws to search for a restaurant. Besides, most of the monastery close here by 12 pm, so the next round of monastery trip starts post-lunch. Eventually, I found Be happy cafe -a vegan cafe; lovely ambience relaxing & laid back. I chose the outdoor seating so as I can enjoy the sun. I put in for pasta, carrot cake & coffee. Though a little expensive, the food was good. After relaxing an hour or so, I set out with my unfinished tour.
I walked towards the oldest Monastery in Bodhgaya -the Tenzing Tibetan Temple, also known as Chinese monastery. The monastery has three, elegantly carved, Buddha statues in three contrasting patterns built-in 1945. The architect is a traditional Chinese flair, it was renovated in the year 1997. It also holds a large stupa on one side of the temple.
I skipped the Bangladesh Monastery and moved to the Royal Bhutanese Monastery. It’s a beautiful, colourful temple, with tons of colour called the colour of Happiness along with intricate frescoes. The belief in the Buddha teaching -” The Happiness of life depends on the quality of your thoughts” came alive here. The simplicity of monks & serenity of the place simply amused me.
I walked further down the road to Indosan Nipponji Japanese Temple. A simple wooden architecture, but a lovely Zen temple that runs a free school for local kids where it provides complimentary food and medical services. There is a well-kept garden, and at its one corner is a giant bell which is rung a day thrice to call people for Zen meditation. There is an aroma of the disciple as you go into the temple, I could hear teaching lessons going on in the classroom. Here it’s very evident that monks follow Buddha teachings to the core, so “the person who masters himself through self-control & disciple is truly undefeatable”- Buddha.
I walked down the road further to the Tibetan Karma Temple, next to is the second Japanese temple – the Daijokyo Buddhist Temple. A little walk ahead is the Cambodian monastery, but I just clicked picture from outside.
I walked to my last Monastry of the day Wat Thai. Sited along the main road is this classic specimen of Thai architecture. One of the most beautiful monasteries in Bodh Gaya. It has a large ‘Ashtadhatu’ statue of Buddha inside the Temple. The Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited the Royal Government of Thailand to build a monastery in Bodh Gaya in 1957. This was to mark the 2500 years of Buddhism and strengthen Indo-Thai friendship. The temple also houses a guest house for the convenience of pilgrims. Also conducts meditation classes in the morning and evening.
By the time I wrapped my monastery tour it was 6pm and a chilly and windy winter evening. It was time for coffee and some relaxation to my hurting foot. Looking around, I saw a small eating house, preferably a coffee-cum-souvenir shop with free WiFi on the premises of Wat Thai. Visitors are welcome to a complimentary cup of coffee, at the self-service counter. The best piece was the lady at the cafe & the guy operating the souvenir counter can only speak Thai. That’s Lovely, isn’t it, and we have to communicate in sign language. The coffee was delectable, and the ambience is excellent, everything clean & tidy.
Seating at the cafe, looking at the retreating crowd, my notion of Bodh Gaya being similar to Mcleodganj was disregarded. Here it’s not merely about a bunch of Buddhist monks rotating a prayer wheel while chanting their favourite mantra and representing an extended lost community, it is beyond that. There is one fundamental belief of Buddhism, which is often referred to as reincarnation -the concept that people are reborn after death. This one aspect is searched, followed & lived in Bodh Gaya. I walked back to my hotel, had quick dinner in my room & headed to bed. Set my alarm for 5.30 am, as I lay on my bed the exhaustion took over me & I was snoring to glory under my blankets.
After multiple snoozing of my alarm, at long last, I woke up at 6 am. It was freezing cold, somehow I managed to pluck out of bed & get into the shower. It was 7 am by the time I stepped out of my room, and suddenly the essence of brewing coffee filled me with rapture. I walked towards the hotel restaurant- Saffron for a hot steaming cup of coffee & some cookies. Immediately I was all set to explore the Maha Bodhi temple. It was misty & windy morning, I quickly crossed roads and walked towards the temple.
At the entry of the temple premises, there’s a cloakroom, a shoe stands since you need to leave them outside the temple and locker to keep mobile phones as it’s not allowed inside the complex. However, cameras are allowed inside for a fee of 100 rupees for hand camera and 300 rupees for video cameras. I purchased my ticket and enter the sprawling complex. Being an international holy site, security arrangements were in place with check posts to screen visitors. The morning at the temple greeted me with fragrant of marigolds, roses and lotuses, along with uncountable ochre and red-robed shaven-headed Buddhist monks and nuns prostrate in prayer in and around the grounds as well the main temple. Besides, a smattering of tourists quietly joins the circumambulations around the main temple—what a mesmerizing sight.
“BUDDHAM SARANAM GACCHÃMI, DHARMMAM SARANAM GACCHÃMI, SANGG̣HAM SARANAM GACCHÃMI” –was the only chant in the breeze, the mantra accentuated with the crescendo beats of rattle drums, not even one voice out of sync. And it was no special day just like another day of wintertime. However, I was being part of an extraordinary experience, witnessing Buddhists from all corners of the world visiting the temple to pay homage where Buddha received enlightenment. I first walked towards the Bodhi tree, the air here was saturated with the smells of burning butter lamps, incense sticks and fragrances emanating from the physical structures of the devotees seated or passing by.
Lost in my ruminations, I forgot to move aside as I was blocking the way for other people. I realize that their attention is concentrated on a tree, also known as Pippala tree (Botanical name: Ficus religious or sacred fig) or Peepal tree. The original tree died or was destroyed, and present Bodhi Tree said to be a descendent of the original one- well you can call this as a grandchild, which was planted at the time of restoration work carried out by the British in the 19th century. However, Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta took a sapling of it to Sri Lanka, and this tree is from a sapling of the sapling. What grabbed my attention was many Buddhist sitting crosses legged right under the tree, deep in meditation in this cold December morning. A blanket would have been nice, was the thought that passed over my mind. Anyway, I too acquired a seat in front of them and stared amusedly at the tree like a kid. At last, I sit under the tree where Lord Buddha spent his first Week & had his enlightenment. Its the same tree where a young ascetic seated himself cross-legged 2,600 years ago, determined to find the Truth. Quite Interesting!
I saw a podium attached to the main temple adjacent to the Bodhi Tree. It’s made of polished sandstone known as Vajrasana(the Diamond Throne), initially installed by Emperor Asoka in 3rd BC to mark the spot as Buddha sat and thought over here. He achieved enlightenment at this very place on a full moon night in 527 BC. Also, this site under the Bodhi Tree was once encircled by a sandstone balustrade, now a few original pillars of the barrier are intact; they contain carvings of sculpted human faces, creatures, and decorative details.
Looking around further up towards the main temple is a small shrine with a standing Buddha, along with its footprints (Padas) carved in black rock. Emperor Asoka declared Buddhism to be the religion of the country in the 3rd century BC, thousands of such footprint stones were installed all over his kingdom.
On the other side is a raised area, which is the Animeshlochan Chaitya (prayer hall) where Buddha is thought to have spent the Second Week, from there he gazed unblinkingly at the Bodhi tree in awe and gratitude. The Third Week Buddha spent walking eighteen paces by the temple’s north wall, between the Bodhi tree and Animeshlochana Chaityain called Ratnachakrama (the Jewelled Ambulatory). It is said lotus flowers sprang up where his feet met the ground. There are raised stone where lotuses are carved on a platform to mark his steps.
The Fourth Week is spent in Ratnaghar Chaitya, located to the temple’s north-east when Buddha was contemplating on the Truth. Blue, yellow, scarlet, and white rays are believed to have emanated from him as he meditated. These colours now make up the Buddhist flag. Towards the main path there is a column which marks the site of the Ajapala Nigrodh Tree, Buddha meditated during his Fifth Week, answering the queries of Brahmans.
Lord Buddha spent his sixth Week next to the Lotus Pond just outside the temple complex enclosure. King Muchhalinda, the serpent King, protected him from a severe storm here. And the Seventh Week he spent under the Rajyatana Tree, to the south-east of the main temple, currently marked by a tree- where two merchants Tapussa and Bhallika—who offered Buddha rice cake and honey. The very first to hear his doctrines.
As I walked towards the gateway of the temple, its a central route, initially built by Emperor Ashoka, but was later rebuilt. There is building towards the main temple that houses several statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Towards the south of the pathway is a cluster of votive stupas built by kings, princes, noblemen and laypeople. At this place are seven locations marked by simple markers scattered across the complex. It is said Buddha spent a week at each post after his enlightenment. Even with a guidebook or a guide in person, it’s challenging to locate these places. Each location just falls in place as you walk around. After spending enough amount of time around the Bodhi tree & rest area, I moved towards the main temple.
The Bodhi temple is one of the four holy sites related to the lifetime of Lord Buddha. The temple was initially constructed in the 3rd century by Emperor Ashoka; however, the current temple dates from the 5th-6th century. Being an early Buddhist temple, hence was built in brick entirely, which is yet standing tall from the Gupta period. The building has its significant influence on the development of brick architecture over centuries.
Over 900 years from the time it served as a centre of Buddhism, the Sinhalese (Sri Lankans) had maintained the temple. Though the Burmese attempted to carry over this role after the temple between the 13th and 19th centuries. Even the last Burmese King did send a missionary work to repair the temple and build a monastery in 1877. But by then, the temple was widely known for its enormous history and architectural significance. On the other hand, the British colonial government provided advice to the Burmese mission on the restoration work, and the famous British archaeologist, Sir Alexander Cunningham was part of it. But since the Anglo-Burmese war broke out, the mission had to depart, resulting in the Britishers to stop the work themselves. Also, the restored structure did not match the original temple architecture. Furthermore, some of the choicest Buddha statues, stupas and other antiquities were shipped away to museums abroad.
Later the Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Mahabodhi Society in 1891. And a campaign was started where the temple control was asked to be returned to Buddhists. Finally, in 2002, UNESCO declared Bodh Gaya a World Heritage Site. The Grand temple is 50m high with intricate carving all over till the crest. The entry to the temple is from the east, where the lower basement is decorated with mouldings of honeysuckle and geese design. A series of niches above the basement contains Buddha images. Above these are Chaitya niches, with curvilinear Shikhara surmounted by amalaka and Kalasha (architectural features in the tradition of Indian temples). The four parapets of the temple have four statues of the Buddha in small shrine chambers. The beauty will leave you awestruck.
As I preceded to the temple, on the left, I saw a large bronze bell. The bell was cast by King Mindon Min of Burma, which was inscribed on it. It was brought to Bodh Gaya by the mission he sent in 1877 for the temple’s restoration work. And here I remained firm in front of the most sacred temple in the Buddhist world- The Mahabodhi.
A doorway leads into a small vestibule, beyond which lies the sanctum, which contains a gilded statue of the seated Buddha holding earth as witness to his achieved enlightenment. To begin with, a smaller shrine was discovered dated to 160 AD and was made up of gold, precious and semi-precious stones. But they found another shrine, made of sandstone, which was believed as the original seat, and part of the temple originally built by Ashoka in the 2nd century BC. These were found during the renovation work done by the British.
The original statue placed on the seat was called the Mahabodhi Image, and being the most famous statue in the ancient universe. Even in the 7th C, when a prominent Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, visited this temple, gave a detailed description of the figure. Merely in the 11th century, the Muslim invaders carried away the statue. The present statue was set up in one of the ancient buildings near the temple complex. It was placed here by British archaeologist Joseph Beglar (who supervised the restoration work), at the request of Sir Alexander Cunnigham.
Well, the gems of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex are not flagrant. Much like Buddha’s Truth, they lie hidden, but once revealed, add a whole new meaning to the place, and liveliness. This seat has an intangible treasure which takes one’s breath away. It took away mine, for certain. The cumulative energy of people bound in a belief of selflessness and compassion, with focussed meditations and prostrations is unbelievable. I saw an undivided devotion to a teacher, for what the Lord Buddha was known, as he never claimed to be God. It reminded me of a Buddha saying-” The mind is everything; what you think you become.”
I wished to spend some more time, had to leave for Rajgir and Nalanda. Leaving the temple what I realized it is difficult to attain the enlightenment. As in this state, one is entirely free from lust (raga), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha), but not impossible to attain it. Its a quest to understand the causes of human suffering and how to free oneself of them, and this quest makes a human disciplined and humble.
How to Reach:
The nearest airport is Gaya Airport, 17Km away from Bodhgaya. Patna is another airport approximately 135 kilometres away from Bodhgaya. A cab can be hired outside the airport.
Gaya Junction is the nearest railhead, which is 13 kilometres away from Bodh Gaya. A taxi can be hired outside the station, or even local buses can opt.
The roads are well connected with Bodh Gaya. Bus(standard as well as deluxe buses) of Bihar State Tourism Corporation ply twice daily from Patna to Bodh Gaya. Buses also ply from Nalanda, Rajgir, Varanasi and Kathmandu. Even a new line of luxury air-conditioned Volvo buses have been introduced that connect Bodh Gaya with nearby towns and cities. You can self-drive or take cab services from the various operator. But few drives as the road connecting to Gaya is quite rough uncomfortable to drive on the rocky path.