On the eve of Lord Buddha’s Birth Anniversary, I remember my trip to Bodhgaya where he was enlightened. He was born in Lumbini on a full moon day in the month of April-May and years later enlightened in Bodhgaya on the same day. His birth is celebrated worldwide as Buddha Jayanti or Vesak. He left his palace in Kapilvastu just before he turned 30 and after 6 years of seeking he was finally enlightened in Bodhgaya on the banks of river Phalgu (earlier known as Nairanjana). Bodhgaya is the spiritual land for Buddhists attracting thousands of pilgrims from across the world every year.
We reached sometime late afternoon and headed to the Mahabodhi Temple Complex. The road leading to the complex is lined with shops on either side, selling miniature souvenirs, prayer beads, books, bags , pictures etc. Some also have audio and video discs related to the life of the Buddha. There are neatly maintained counters near the gate where tourists and devotees can leave their footwear. In the adjacent counter, a ticket permitting photography can be obtained along with the entrance ticket. The main temple is open through the day and evening for the devotees. The gateway to the Temple or Mahavihara is exquisitely sculptured in granite. The temple is right in the centre of the courtyard adorned by a pointed spire on the top. The sunken courtyard can be reached after climbing down a few steps. There were monks and lay men sitting to the side of the passageway leading to the main temple making repetitive offerings of stones, rice and other material to miniature stupas accompanied by chants to still their mind. The brick and stone temple is elegant with ornate sculptures on the walls. Inside, in the main chamber, the Golden Buddha, in Bhumisparsh mudra (one finger touching the earth) atop the diamond throne in the temple radiates bliss and calm that instantly soothes the mind.
The temple complex is clean and orderly inspite of the innumerable people moving around, there is a silence about this place. Rhythmic Pali Chants float around and while often it sounds like Sanskrit, it has its own distinct feel. The Buddhapada or the Buddha’s footsteps is enshrined in a small temple to the left. While walking further left towards the Mahabodhi Tree, there are a series of sculptures of the Buddha on the wall. They are beautiful to say the least and are often worshipped with bright marigold flowers and incense.
The centuries old Bodhi Tree stands tall and all that glitters around it, is indeed gold foil,very lovingly offered by pilgrims across the globe. The branches of this tree have been planted in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka by Sanghmitra, King Ashoka’s daughter and Anathapindika in Shravasti. However, the present tree grew from a sapling brought from Anuradhpura ,Srilanka when the older one showed signs of decay. I sat there for a while, in silence and contemplation, observing brown robed nuns, monks and ordinary lay men bow down in reverence. Waiting to be blessed with a fallen leaf, I ended up conversing with a young nun Simi. After a while, I walked around in the open space next to the tree, where many were performing penance through prostrations while others were lost in meditation. The evening butter lamp ceremony is a treat for the eyes and soul, celebrating the master’s message of compassion, love, selflessness and the synchronized chants of “Buddham Saranam Gacchami” transported me into a divine trance.
This small town has monasteries representing nearly 54 countries within a 3 km radius, each one a distinct representation of the architectural flavour and marvel of the country. It appears to be an image of an alternate universe where the world has converged. I am sure it would be a great experience to explore them all and see the life size images of the Buddha in different moods and mudras. I spent a little more than a day there and did not have much time to go around all of them except The Maitreya Buddha decorated with Tanghkhas and scriptures in the Tibetan Monastery. The huge Wheel of Law is a gentle reminder of his path. I also visited the huge Daijyoko Buddha Statue which was inaugurated by HH Dalai Lama in 1989.
While travelling to Vaishali from Bodhgaya we made a brief stop at Sujata Garh named after the village maiden Sujata who had offered the last meal to the master. She had seen Lord Buddha in deep contemplation under the tree and mistook him for god since he had a illuminated halo around his head. He had gladly accepted the milk and rice. He then took a bath in the river Niranjana and threw the bowl in the middle of the river asking the bowl to float upstream if he were to succeed as a Buddha. The bowl did as the master directed and for the next 7 weeks he went without food, water and bath seeking the ultimate truth
While pilgrims visit Bodhgaya round the year, October to March would be pleasant weather. It is very crowded during the Kalchakra Festival in December-January and during the Lord Buddha’s birthday on a full moon night in April-May. The local airport has limited connections so it is best to fly to Patna (120 kms) and then drive down to Bodhgaya. The closest railway station is about 30 minutes away and is well connected to the rest of the country. The best mode of transport for travelling within Bodhgaya is to walk since the sites are not to far away. If it is inconvenient to do so, hire a cycle drawn rickshaw and if willing a horse drawn tonga.
Being a pilgrim town, there are hotels, monasteries and other shelters to suit every budget. Lotus Nikko and Royal Residency are in the deluxe category close to the Mahabodhi Complex. If you are keen to experiment with local food, try Litti Chokha and for soul food join a meditation class in one of the local centres.