Bodh Gaya – Revered Place for Buddhists
Bodh Gaya is probably the best-known place in Bihar as far as the international tourists are concerned. It is the only world heritage site in the state, the most revered place for Buddhist as the Buddha got his enlightenment here under the famous Bodhi tree. This happened sometime in 6th century BCE, making this a continued place of worship for 2700 years or so. The town of Bodh Gaya more or less exists around the Mahabodhi temple. The Buddhist communities of predominantly Buddhist countries have set up their own footprints around the main temple. And the town wears a very international look, in contrast to the very rustic look that the rest of the state wears.
Mahabodhi Temple – World Heritage Site
The Mahabodhi Temple stands tall in the town and you can see it more or less from anywhere. It is a tall structure with many smaller structures surrounding it. As you step inside the temple, you would see a bookshop and many shops selling artifacts. You enter the temple through the security scanner. As you step inside you see the temple standing tall in front of you. The tall shikhara in grey is flanked by smaller pink ones and many others wrapped in golden yellow. The main shrine is at a lower level. The serene image of Buddha will greet you and do not miss a well-carved piece of wood on top of the Buddha image. The upper story of the main temple is now closed to visitors but was apparently open till a few years back.
Stupas at Mahabodhi Temple
Outside the main temple, you would see thousands of stupas in every shape and size mostly made out of stone. We were told that people who came back to the Mahabodhi with a wish fulfilled have erected these stupas. But my hunch is that some of them may have been excavated from the site. And have been planted more or less where they were, as they look quite old. Every stupa is surrounded by hundreds of small plastic cups filled with water and a floating marigold. The walls of the temple adorn the small idols of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Most of the Buddha images are in Bhumi Sparsha mudra, the mudra that he has at the time enlightenment. In the temple complex, there are many spots that are associated with the process of enlightenment of Buddha.
The Balustrade or railing that surrounds the temple today is a very poor copy of the original that is in the local museum. Mahabodhi temple is illuminated with laser lights at night that make it look very beautiful.
Absolutely behind the temple, adjacent to its back wall is the Bodhi tree under which Buddha got his enlightenment. And the Vajrasan, the place where he sat and meditated. The present tree is the fifth generation of the original tree that was brought back to Bodhgaya from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. Just sit back and observe the devotees praying with devotion and bowing before the tree. You will feel divinity through their actions and emotions.
The Vajrasan though is so well protected that you hardly get a full view of it. The tree is too close to the wall of the temple is worrisome. With the temple wall on one side and protective covers on another side, I am not sure how the tree is breathing. Around the Balustrade, we could see a lot of artwork made with Yak butter. I wish I could see some of them being made. Around the tree and on the steps and just about anywhere were devotees. Some chanting with the rosary in their hands, some singing, some meditating and some reading manuscripts.
Legends of Bodh Gaya
The first point when you go down the steps is Ajpal Nigrodh Vriksh where Budhha had spent one week after enlightenment. Where he is supposed to have said that a human being is a Brahmin by Karma and not by birth. Animesh Lochan Chaitya is on the right as you enter the temple. Is built at the place where Buddha spent one week looking at the Bodhi tree without batting his eyelid. To express his gratitude to the tree for giving him shelter and knowledge. Besides the right wall of the temple is Cankramana where the lotus has come up when Buddha put his feet there. Today the symbolic lotus have been put there. This is a place where devotees like to pray by putting as many flowers as possible.
Muchalinda Lake is where Buddha spent the sixth week after meditation and was protected by a snake from a thunderstorm. Between the lake and the temple is a partially broken Ashoka pillar, without any inscription and about 20ft in height. The myth is that if you can put a coin on top of this pillar you wish would be fulfilled. I am not sure about the wish-fulfillment, but it was great fun to try and put coins on it. Only once my coin touched the top and then it fell back. I am trying to interpret it as one wish (visiting Bodhgaya) fulfilled and try the next one. Wishful thinking at least!
There is a meditation park that has been built just beside the temple, within its complex where devotees for a small fee can sit and meditate. Surprisingly there are more people meditating during the night than during the day. A huge engraved bell mounted on well-sculpted wooden panels is something that would catch your eye in the park. There are fountains and gazebos that lend a nice character to the park. Given the number of people who use this park, you have to appreciate that the park is very well maintained.
Giant Statue of Buddha in Dhyan Mudra
A gigantic 80 ft statue of Buddha in Dhyan Mudra or the meditative pose built by the Japanese organization Daijokyo a few years back is one of the must-see places in Bodh Gaya now. Built by joining pink Chunar sandstone slabs, this statue has been designed by the famous Ganapathi Stapathi. The 6 ft high lotus on which Buddha sits is made of yellow stone. The statue is flanked on three sides by statues of 10 of Buddha’s most famous disciples who stand in various yogic mudras. The sheer scale of the statue will overwhelm you.
Monasteries at Bodh Gaya
There are temples or monasteries built by Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Tibet, Vietnam, Bhutan, Japan, Thailand, and China. Each of them carries the characteristics of the architecture of their homeland. There is a new temple built by India as well, a huge temple that is the residence of Karmapa and the one that of Dalai Lama. Karmapa’s residence has some of the most elaborate paintings on its walls. The well-coordinated bright colors make the place serene and vibrant at the same time. Most of these places are very tastefully done, have colorful and cheerful exteriors and elaborately painted interiors. Most paintings depict the life events of Buddha or the journey of the spread of Buddhism in their respective countries. I wish I had more time to sit and understand the individual stories.
The Thai monastery, which is locally known as Naulakha as 9 lakhs were spent on building it when it was made. It is quite an impressive one with elaborate paintings in its walls and window doors. All the temples and monasteries are extremely well maintained despite the huge crowds that visit them. An interesting feature is plants that have been brought from the native places and are blooming here in these monasteries.
Sujatagarh is the Stupa built on top of the place where Sujata offered Kheer to Buddha after his enlightenment. Now it is a huge mound like stupa built with small bricks. It has an intriguing shape, which is not completely round and has signs of plaster that has worn off. This stupa was built in multiple phases from Gupta to Pala period. Many antiquities from this excavated site are now displayed in ASI museum. This stupa stands in the midst of a living village almost as a part of its daily life. Though there are boundary walls that separate it from the village.
Like any other pilgrim place in India, the market outside bustle with small-time vendors. Selling items that can be offered at the temple, especially the colorful scarves, candles, and Diyas. They sell handicrafts, brass artifacts mostly made in Nepal like images of Buddha and Tara and singing bells or rotating drums. There is the jewelry of all kinds, bags, and western clothes in Indian fabrics along with sacred threads and other usual artifacts. A lone stone carver was carving out small plates in stone.
Eateries at Market
Eateries serve international cuisine and most of them cater to the backpackers and the devotees. Availability of good food is rather limited in Bodh Gaya. Ironically you get more international cuisine than local cuisine. There is a huge scope for simple, authentic local food served in a neat hygienic manner.
At one shop we could find a locally woven cotton cloth, which the shopkeeper told us, is very popular. Besides shops, you would see the ubiquitous monks in their trademark red all over the place.
There are many organizations that have programs going on that you can attend. When we were there, the Buddha relics from Anuradhapura were on display for the public. You can also attend meditation courses and join the ritualistic ceremonies if you stay there for some time.
There are not too many vehicles moving around on the roads except the tourist buses making it easier to walk around the place and mingle with the people. We saw a lot of school children in their bright uniforms going through various monasteries. At night there are small candles that you can light for a small fee and the candles put together look beautiful.
The authorities are developing a new huge park along a lake. This has a decent-sized open-air theatre in the park and the lake will have boating facilities.
ASI museum here is small but has a beautiful collection of stone sculptures. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted in the museum. At this point in time, the museum was also undergoing a bit of renovation. There is a multi-media museum where you can sit comfortably and go through a multi-media presentation on the history of the place. You can see the old pictures, hear the authentic information and dive deep into the philosophy if you have time and inclination.
Everything in this town of Buddha’s enlightenment has the imprint of him. It is a place that you have to feel more than see.
Recommend you to read following Tourist Places in Bihar. They are also historical places to visit in the state.