Around two and a half thousand years ago a young prince took a life-changing decision. He left his kingdom and family and embarked on a journey which took him form the foothills of Himalayas to the plains of modern day Bihar. There he remained, and started a meditation in which he focused single-pointedly on the ultimate nature of all phenomena. He was none other than Prince Siddhartha – Lord Budhha – founder of the Buddhist religion.
After meditating for six years he realised that he was very close to attaining full enlightenment, and so he walked to Bodh Gaya, where, on the full moon day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, he seated himself beneath the Bodhi Tree in the meditation posture and vowed not to rise from meditation until he attained perfect enlightenment, after which he became Buddha 2600 years ago. Today, Bodh Gaya is an international pilgrimage spot for Buddhists across the world, one of the most famous being actor Richard Gere. This tiny temple town is the holiest of holies, and is to Buddhists what Mecca is to Muslims. In Bodh Gaya, almost every nation with a Buddhist following has its own monasteries – Bhutan, China, Japan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, etc. Besides, there are monasteries belonging to the lesser known sects of Indian Buddhism. All these are within easy walking distance of the Mahabodhi temple. Each temple has its own architectural style. The Mahabodhi temple complex and The Great Buddha statue draw millions from across the world. Mahabodhi temple is an architectural delight and depicted on the walls of the temple are scenes from Buddha’s life. It is also home to the Bodhi tree under which Buddha meditated for years and attained enlightenment and formulated his philosophy of life. Ashoka, the mighty Indian emperor who ruled most of the subcontinent from 269 to 232 BC, visited the original tree a hundred years after Buddha’s enlightenment, soon after he converted to Buddhism and renounced war, and he is considered the founder of the original Mahabodhi temple. On it was later erected the magnificent Unesco World Heritage–listed Mahabodhi Temple, built in the 6th century AD atop the same site built on by Ashoka 800 years earlier. It was razed by foreign invaders in the 11th century, and subsequently underwent several major restorations.
Ashoka, as well as establishing a monastery, erected a diamond throne and canopy supported by 4 pillars over a stone, as a shrine to the meditating Buddha.
Topped by a 50m pyramidal spire, the inner sanctum of the ornate structure houses a 10th-century, 2m-high gilded image of a seated Buddha. Amazingly, four of the original sculpted stone
railings surrounding the temple, dating from the Sunga period (184-72 BC), have survived amid the replicas. Others are now housed inside the archaeological museum.
The most hallowed spot in town, the Bodhi tree which flourishes inside the Mahabodhi Temple complex at its western end amid a beautiful garden setting, its roots embedded in the same soil as its holy ancestor, is at the centre of the pilgrims’ universe. Undoubtedly the most sacred fig tree ever to grace the earth is this Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya, under which Prince Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, sought enlightenment. Buddha was said to have stared unblinkingly at the tree in an awed gesture of gratitude and wonder after his enlightenment. Today, tourists flock here from around the world and attempt to copy him, and the tree is considered the most important of Buddhism’s four holiest sites. Known as Sri Maha Bodhi, the original tree was paid special attention by Emperor Ashoka.His wife, Tissarakkha, wasn’t such a fan of the tree and in a fit of jealousy and rage, caused the original Bodhi Tree’s death by poisonous thorns shortly after becoming queen. Thankfully, before its death, one of the tree’s saplings was carried off to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta (Ashoka’s daughter), where it continues to flourish. A cutting was later carried back to Bodhgaya and planted where the original once stood. The red sandstone slab between the tree and the adjacent Mahabodhi Temple was placed by Ashoka to mark the spot of Buddha’s enlightenment. To the knots of faithful who come to chant or meditate beneath it, this arboreal sprawl symbolises the potential for each human being to realise ‘the Buddha within’ by living a life of moderation. Visitors from all walks of life and religions come to worship or just soak up the atmosphere of this sacred place. There’s a well-manicured Meditation Park for those seeking extra solitude in the temple grounds. An enthralling way to start or finish the day is to stroll around the inside of the perimeter of the temple compound (in an auspicious clockwise pattern) and watch a sea of maroon and yellow dip and rise as monks perform endless prostrations on their prayer mats. The temple has a large tank full of lotus plants and the Buddha is believed to have spent a week at this site.
The principal points of interest in the temple complex are the Bodhi tree; the Vajrasana, the Diamond Throne or the Seat of Stability, the red sandstone platform at the spot where the Buddha meditated; the Mahabodhi temple, the towering ornate structure to the east of the Bodhi tree, which houses a large, gilded, black stone image of the Buddha in the bhumisparsamudra (earth-touching posture); the carved, sculpted stone railing around the temple and stupas, and structures that commemorate events during the seven weeks that the Buddha spent here in a state of bliss after his Enlightenment, before he set out for Sarnath to proclaim to the world the liberating truths he had realised. A museum in the vicinity has gold, bronze and stone images of the Buddha. A 25m-high Great Buddha statue towers above a pleasant garden at the end of Temple Street. This impressive monument was unveiled by the Dalai Lama in 1989 and is surrounded by 10 smaller sculptures of Buddha’s disciples. The statue is partially hollow and is said to contain some 20,000 bronze Buddhas. The archaeological museum in Bodh Gaya contains a number of stone Buddhist sculptures dating from the 8th to 12th centuries, but the highlight is the collection of original granite and sandstone railings and pillars rescued from the original Mahabodhi Temple, some of which predate the temple by 700 years.
The collection of monasteries and temples that dot the bucolic landscape, built in their national style by foreign Buddhist communities, is one of Bodhgaya’s great joys. Each offers visitors a unique opportunity to peek into different Buddhist cultures and compare architectural styles. The Indosan Nipponji Temple is an exercise in quiet Japanese understatement compared to the richly presented Bhutanese Monastery nearby, which houses some wonderfully colourful and intricate frescoes. The most impressive of all the modern monasteries is the Tergar Monastery of the Karmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a glory of Tibetan decorative arts that will leave you slack-jawed as you enter. A none-too-distant runner-up is the impressive Thai Temple, a brightly coloured wat with gold leaf shimmering from its arched rooftop and manicured gardens. Meditation sessions are held here mornings and evenings. The Tibetan Karma Temple, with double-dragon brass door knockers, and Namgyal Monastery, contain large prayer wheels. Monasteries are open sunrise to sunset. Other places to visit are the Shaivaite monastery surrounded by enchanting greenery and marked by architectural marvels and the Jagannath temple which has Shiva’s statue carved out of black stone.
Bodh Gaya attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world every year, who come for prayer, study and meditation. They spend weeks, even months here, practising meditation techniques or enrolling for introductory courses in Buddhist teachings or learning to read Pali, the language of the ancient commoners and of the Buddha. Some good places to imbibe knowledge are Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, International Meditation Centre, Bodh Gaya Vipassana Meditation centre, and Tergar Monastery, to name a few. You can stay at the very peaceful Root Institute for Wisdom Culture even if you’re not attending any of their courses.After a gruelling meditation session, you can enjoy authentic Thai massage in a massage clinic at the Thai Hospital, within the grounds of the Thai Temple, or go shopping at the Tibetan market.