While the world transpires to comprehend the power of mind, preached solemnly by Buddha, perhaps the quest to realise Buddhism culminates here under the Mahabodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya.
Siddhartha to Shakyamuni and lastly to the Buddha, the Enlightened One – an amazing chronicle of transformation of a prince to a liberal and progressive teacher, who strolled the face of earth over 2500 years ago. Witnessing sorrow, misery, pain and death, in the prime of his youth, prince Siddharth (born in Lumbini, Nepal) decided to find out their root causes and discover an apt remedy to these perpetual agonies. Revoking common joys and deserting home and family, He set out on an eternal journey to attain moksha (enlightenment) by altered reflection under the Bodhi Tree. He then preached reality, and advised His pupils to take after the eight-fold Path for the suspension of the interminable cycle of birth and re-birth. It all started at Bodh Gaya.
The Mahabodhi Temple
The 1,500 year old Mahabodhi temple is considered a lifetime destination for millions of Buddhists across the world. Bodh Gaya, in the eastern state of Bihar, revered as the most vital Buddhist journey focus, is the spot where Lord Shakyamuni (Gautam Budhha) went into contemplation in the wake of being moved by the anguish of humanity. The monstrous Bodhi Tree (peepal) that we see today is accepted to have developed from the first Bodhi Tree under which, sitting on a raised stage, Prince Siddharth reflected wisdom and achieved Nirvana. There also is the Chaukramana, the Jewel Walk, where it is trusted that the Buddha walked while in profound thought.
Speaking to one of the monks in the temple who was carrying a mango drink and a chocolate as a prayer offering to Buddha, it was quite evident that this place has more for story-seekers than customary tourists. “I am here since I was seven; I never thought of going back home to Nepal, this is the place where I find peace and utmost freedom from all the worldly nuisances,” the smiling face narrated while walking to the Bodhi tree. As you look at the 55 metre tall ‘Temple of Great Awakening’, originally built in the 5-6th century AD, a fine paradigm of Indian brick work transcends your imagination showcasing the intricacies of Dravidian architecture (a unique style originated in Southern India with temples built in the form of pyramid shaped towers and constructed of sandstone, soapstone or granite).
One might find it quite intriguing to observe how Buddhists from around the world have a high esteem for this tree. At any given point of time in a day, a number of monks and devotees can be seen performing prostrations before it. It is a matter of discipline for them and some monks even perform 100,000 prostrations at a time!
Walking towards the gardens, the young vicar explained how discipline was an integral part of their initial training, if training can be deemed the right term at all. “We were obliged to feel that a disciplined mind leads to happiness and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering, and in fact it is said that bringing about discipline within one’s mind is the essence of Buddha’s teachings. I read it in a book written by Dalai Lama XIV,” he said as we reached the gardens.
The Temple and the adjoining gardens are definitely a sight to behold even if you are not a pilgrim. Restored in the late 19th century, this temple is one of the World Heritage Sites in eastern India and popularly known as the Mahabodhi sanctuary in Bodh Gaya. It remains an architectural amalgamation of numerous societies. The wise monk told us how this sanctuary bears the resemblance with the designs popularly found during the Gupta Dynasty and the contemporary era. On the dividers of the sanctuary, he showed us the carvings of Budhha in various perspectives, and in the sanctum sanctorum, a colossal Buddha is seen touching the ground, which has mythological significance in Buddhist legends. The sanctuary has engravings, recording the visits of pilgrims from Sri Lanka, China and Myanmar in the seventh and tenth Centuries AD. “Even, Hieun Tsang, the Chinese explorer, likewise went to the sanctuary in the seventh Century,” he said before leaving us for his regular prayers.
Outskirts of the temple
If you have been to Lumbini in Nepal, you will find a lot of resemblance in terms of numerous temples and monasteries built by different nations all around Bodh Gaya. The ones that stand out are the Indosan Nipponji Japanese Temple and the Thai Monastery. The Thai monastery is quite unique, flamboyant and most importantly visually spectacular. Just adjacent to the Mahabodhi sanctuary is the Shaivite Monastery, a gathering of four sanctuaries. Encompassed by captivating greenery and set apart by building wonders, these sanctuaries have a few samadhis (memorial stones) as well. Not a long way from the Shaivite Monastery is the Jagannath Temple, which is a Hindu temple and was built in 1691.
Ultimately, a visit to the Bodh Gaya Archaeological Museum is an absolute must for anyone wanting to peek into the age of Buddha’s focused artistic expressions. The Buddhist artefacts gathering from the first Century BC to the eleventh Century AD is housed here at one spot. Bodh Gaya is 245 kilometres from Varanasi and 178 kilometres from Patna, and is accessible by rail, road and air.
Like any other monastery established by the Buddhist countries of the south and southeast Asia, the Sujata Temple has its own unique account. While all the other monasteries are located within one km radius of the Mahabodhi temple and offer visitors an insight into the nuances of various schools of Buddhism, the Sujata Temple, two km west of Bodh Gaya, is a spot that offers a different glimpse of Buddha’s life.The legend of this temple, according to a British tourist, James Knight, travelling across the lands in search of stories related to Buddha, is quite an engaging one to say the least. “It was here that an emaciated Siddhartha, still in search of enlightenment, learnt that extreme austerity was as harmful as extreme indulgence. He was not taking food, but when He realised this, He accepted the offering of ‘Kheer’, an Indian sweet dish, offered to Him by a local tribal woman named Sujata,” James narrated.
For those explorers at heart, there is still a lot to see in the vicinity of Bodh Gaya. Several other places of touristic interest include the Surya Temple at Deo, 20 kms from Gaya; the Sun God Temple at Umya; the Konchishwar Maha Deva temple at Konch; Barabar Caves just 40 kms away; the Budhhist Rock-Cut Caves of 3rd Century BC at Sasaram, 123 kms away. These places attract regional as well as global travellers throughout the year.
While the world seeks an ultimate refuge in peace and harmony, Buddha noted that there are two kinds of suffering: the kind that leads to more suffering and the kind that brings an end to suffering. The journey to Bihar, infamous for its notorious dwellers might not be the exact definition of the suffering that Buddha mentioned in His preaching, however, the end of suffering should be at a handshaking distance for those who connect to spirituality. Bodh Gaya as a destination is by far the epitome of everything Buddhism stands for, best explained in experience and not in a figure of speech.