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To the land of the Buddha

Priyanka Banerjee

Sarvesh and Priyanka Banerjee visit Bodhgaya, the serene village in Bihar, where Prince Siddhartha became the Enlightened One or the Buddha.

A huge statue of the Buddha in Bodhgaya.

Not commercially well-developed, Bodhgaya, 13 km from Gaya, is one of the many tourist spots in the country, where tourism has been restricted due to lack of infrastructure and other amenities. Here, serenity and tranquillity reign supreme, thus making a stay here quite the contrary to the fast-paced city life.

This is the place where Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha or the Enlightened One — where the quest of Siddhartha was fulfilled after six years of seeking truth. Thus was born Buddhism, one of the great religions of the world under the peepal (banyan) tree. The bodhi tree that you see today is believed to be the direct descendant of the original tree, under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment.

Bodhgaya, the tiny and serene village, is situated on the banks of river Niranjana. Apart from the religious importance of this place, Bodhgaya is also famous for its ancient architecture. A must-see in Bodhgaya is the Mahabodhi temple, considered to be the holiest among the Buddhist shrines. The temple, 170 ft high, is situated to the east of the Bodhi tree. The basement of the temple is 48 square ft and a 50-metre high pyramidal spire crowns the temple. The temple has many stupas, built over a period of 3,500 years.

This sacred edifice epitomises the efforts of the Buddha to end all sufferings and to attain transcendental peace through wisdom, good conduct and a disciplined life. The sanctum sanctorum contains a colossal image of the Buddha in a sitting posture with his right hand touching the earth. The temple, located on the very sacred site that Bodhisattva attained Sambodhi during the sixth century B.C, is believed to be standing on the site of a shrine, erected by Emperor Ashoka during the third century B.C.

Sculptures and wall inscriptions depict the life of the Buddha, including a facet of his previous birth. The ancient railings, surrounding the temple, are believed to be dating back to the first century B.C. All the sites that are situated near the temple maintain a harmony with the temple, thus creating an essence of continuity.

Our next visit was to Chankaranmana, where the Buddha is believed to have spent a week during his meditative perambulations after his enlightenment. Ratangarh, another sacred place, is where the Buddha is believed to have emitted five colours from his body. The red sandstone under the bodhi tree, called the Vajrasana or the diamond throne, is where the Buddha is said to have sat on. The platform under the tree has a stone carving of his footsteps, where the devout offer flowers. Another noteworthy place for the pilgrims is the Muchilind, the holy tank where, according to legends, Muchalinda, the multi-hooded snake king, had given protection to Lord Buddha during a disastrous storm created by the demons to disturb his meditation.

Bodhgaya is so renowned that several international Buddhist communities from countries such as Burma, Tibet, Japan, China and Thailand have established monastries here in their national architectural styles. The Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, the Magadh University and some monastries offer meditation courses, which attract many students from India and abroad.

A bridge across the celestial divide

The town of Gaya has an interesting story connected to it. Legend has it that a `gentle' demon called Gaya, appalled by the sorrow caused by death, complained to Lord Vishnu and as a protest died for the world. Impressed by his resolve, the Lord is said to have blessed Gaya with the power to absolve people off their sins, on a visit to the town. Thus Gaya is also believed to be a `tirthi' or a bridge across the celestial divide.

The Mahabodhi temple.

The Vishnupad temple, located in the central part of the old town, is believed to have been built over the footprints of Lord Vishnu. It is a massive temple, which has the 40-centimetre long footprint on a solid rock. This shikara-style temple was constructed in 1787 by Queen Ahilya Bai of Indore on the banks of river Falgu. A flight of about 1,000 steps leads the visitor to the top of the Brahmajuni Hill, situated south west of the temple, which offers a splendid view of the temple. The Akshayabat is the immortal banyan tree that stands in the temple's courtyard. A temple, dedicated to the Sun God, stands 20 km to the north of this temple at Deo. It attracts large crowds in November, when the Chhath Puja is performed.

The Archaeological Museum situated here has a good collection of sculptures, paintings, terracotta figurines and manuscripts.

Other attractions around Bodhgaya

  • Rajgir: Rajgir, 80 km from Bodhgaya, is believed to be one of the most ancient capitals of the world. This town also finds a mention in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

  • Pragbodhi Caves: These caves are located one km to the southwest of Gaya. It was here that Prince Siddhartha practised several austerities.

  • Barabar Caves: These caves, 35 km north of Gaya, are set amidst wild environs. Two of the caves, dating back to 200 B.C., are believed to contain inscriptions by Emperor Ashoka. The Nagarjuna Museum near the Barabar Hills displays artistic traditions of the third century B.C.

  • Dungeshwari: Situated 12 km from the main town of Bodhgaya, this place is famous for the caves where the Buddha had meditated for some time. It was in these caves that he concluded that the ultimate knowledge couldn't be attained through mortification of the flesh.

    Important festivals

    There are many festivals, which attract tourists to Bodhgaya. The most important festival is the Vaisaka Purnima that is celebrated during May. It was on this day that the Buddha attained supreme enlightenment. Another important day on the Buddhist calendar is the Ashdi Purnima, which falls in July. It was on this day that Prince Siddhartha renounced his kingdom and family in search of enlightenment and also the preaching of his first sermon at Saranath. Madhu Purnima, in the month of September, is celebrated by offering honey to Buddhist monks. Kathina, in the month of October, which marks the end of the rainy season, also holds significance in the Buddhist calendar.

    Pictures by Sarvesh

    Fact file

    How to get there

    By air: The nearest airport is Patna, 125 km away.

    By rail: Gaya is on the rail route between Delhi and Kolkata. There are direct trains from here to Delhi, Kolkata, Varanasi, Puri and Patna.

    By road: Bihar State Transport Corporation buses operate services from Patna to Gaya and other places such as Rajgir, Ranchi and Hazaribagh. There are private buses that ply from Gaya to Kolkata.

    How to get around: Shared auto-rickshaws are available between Gaya and Bodhgaya.

    Where to stay: Accommodation is available at the Sri Lanka Guest House, run by the Mahabodhi Society and the ITDC Hotel Bodhgaya Ashok.

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