Gaya Pilgrimage

BODHGAYA: As the place of the Buddha's Enlightenment, Bodhgaya is the spiritual home of Buhddhists. It attracts tens of thousands of believers from all over the world. Bodhgaya situated near the river Niranjana, is one of the holiest Buddhist pilgrimage centres since it was here that Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.

The population of this town is 22,000 and is situated at an altitude of 113 m. Maximum temperature in summer rises to 45-47 degree Celsius and minimum is 27 degree, while in winter maximum is 28 degree and minimum is 4 degree. It receives an annual rainfall of 1,860 mm. Most countries with vast Buddhist population have a temple or monastery here.The 25 m Great Buddha Statue in the Japanese Kamakura style was unveiled by his holiness Dalai Lama in 1989.

Places of Interest :

Mahabodhi Temple
The Mahabodhi temple is an imposing brick structure that is enclosed on three sides by an ancient stone railing. The temple celebrates the birth of Buddhism, for it is under a tree adjacent to this temple, that Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha by attaining enlightenment.

The Mahabodhi temple has a giant pyramidal structure (sikhara) which rises to a height of 54 m. It has a quadrangular base and four spires at the corners. It can be seen for miles around and distinguishes Bodhgaya from other Buddhist centres. Inside it you will find a gilded image of the Buddha. The bricks in the oldest part of the temple have been fitted together without the use of cement. It stands at the site of a shrine built by King Ashoka, who ruled over Magadha during the 3rd century BC. The present structure was most recently renovated in the 1880s, but is believed to have been rebuilt and restored during the 6 and 7th centuries and again in the 11th Century.

Buddhists from other parts of the world have been closely linked to this temple. During the 4th century, the Sri Lankan King, Sri Meghavanna built a monastery in Bodhgaya. Another Sri Lankan monk Mahanama visited the place in 588 AD and built a shrine with a statue of the Buddha. The remains of this can still be seen near the northern staircase leading to the temple. The monastery was still there in the 7th century when Xuan Zhang travelled to India and it was also recorded by Dharmasvamin, another traveller and a monk from Sri Lanka, who visited the place in the 13th century.

Buddhists of Burma have had a long, close relationship with Bodhgaya. Since the 11th century, they have donated large sums of money and several Burmese kings have sent missions to Bodhgaya to carry out repairs at the temple. Details of the first of these missions can still be found in inscriptions at the Shway Sandaw Pagoda in Prome, Burma.

In the 19th century, the British Lt Governor of Bengal, Sir Ashley Eden appointed Sir Alexander Cunningham and J D Beglar to excavate and restore the temple. This four-year project began in 1880, and cost Rs 2,00,000, money raised mostly from overseas Buddhists. The restoration by Beglar was based on a miniature model found during excavation. There was a hue and cry about Beglar's lack of understanding of Indian architecture and some believe that his attempt actually damaged the ruins. In 1956 the temple was renovated with the help of large international grants. Today the restored temple looks majestic. However, in spite of its historical significance, the temple has not yet been declared a protected monument.

Stone railing
A stone railing that dates to 100 BC, built during the reign of the Sunga dynasty, surrounds the Mahabodhi temple on three sides. It is the oldest of the excavated evidence in Bodhgaya but only part of the original structure is still in place. You can find the rest in museums in Calcutta and London. This carved stone railing is two metres high and has been restored over the years. Inscriptions on the railings indicate that it was built after the original temple and was gifted by women of royal patronage from the court of Indragnimitra and Brahmamitra.

Bodhi Tree
The Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) which lies behind the main temple was planted in the nineteenth century and is believed to be a descendent of the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. It is also called the Bo, peepul or tree of knowledge.

Pilgrims tie prayer flags to its branches and meditate under it. Cemented railingsh ave recently been erected around the tree. Monks and devotees sit around the tree in the early hours of the morning (beginning at 4.30 am) to meditate and chant. You will be imbued with the sense of peace and serenity that is in the air, even if you are not meditating.

Vajrasana (Diamond throne or thunder seat)
Vajrasana is the large rectangular slab of polished chunnar (red sandstone), covered with a gold canopy, that you will see under the Bodhi tree. This is the spot, it is popularly believed, where Buddha was sitting when he attained enlightenment. The top is decorated with an unusual geometric design that has faded considerably. Visiting monks decorate the place with flowers and place an urn on it to collect donations or offerings.


Animeshlochana Chaitya (temple)
This whitewashed temple stands slightly off the walk to the Mahabodhi temple. It is a miniature of the Mahabodhi temple and is said to mark the spot where the Buddha spent a week gazing at the Bodhi tree in gratitude after attaining enlightenment. He is supposed to have stood here unblinking (animesh). Hindu pilgrims also frequent this spot since they worship Buddha as the ninth incarnation of Vishnu.

Cankamana (Promenade or Lotus walk)
This is a raised platform to the north of the Mahabodhi temple and is part of the temple complex. This is called the Jewel Promenade Shrine. The structure marks the place where the Buddha paced to and fro in meditation. Legend has it that wherever he stepped, a lotus flower (a symbol of knowledge) sprang up and this is depicted through the 18 lotus flowers carved on the platform.

Ratanaghara Chaitya
A marble plank marks this site within the temple premises. Some believe that the Buddha emitted dazzling colourful lights while in deep meditation here.

Mucalinda Tank
About a mile south of the Mahabodhi Temple, is a dry pond called Mucalinda tank where the Buddha is supposed to have spent his sixth week after enlightenment. It is not the large pond filled with lotuses, next to the Ashokan Pillar, to the south of the temple. The Mucalinda Tank is dry.


Stupas
The Mahabodhi temple complex is dotted with an abundance of stupas. A majority of them date back to the Pala period (8th to 12th century) though there are older ones too. These stupas were built by pilgrims who came from Buddhist countries like Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, and Tibet. You can easily identify the colourfully painted Tibetan stupas.

Ashoka's Pillar
At the south-east corner of the temple stands a part of the Ashokan pillar. Originally erected at Bodhgaya, this pillar was found near Gaya and was moved here in 1956.

Hindu Temples
Also within the premises of the Mahabodhi temple, is a row of Hindu shrines. These temples probably came up during the period of struggle between Brahmanical and Buddhist sects. The first of these shrines has an interesting collection of Buddha statues that are now confusingly dressed up to look like Hindu deities. Brahman priests here, who look distinctly different from the Buddhist monks, will probably ask you for a donation.


Rajbejatan
The Rajayatana Tree is believed to be the spot where the Buddha spent time preaching to two seekers of the Truth. While the actual site has not been identified yet, a marble inscription stands as a dummy.


Niranjana or Falgu River

This river is a natural landmark that attracts tourists who like to wade in the water to cool off, especially in the summer. The river is wide, sandy and shallow even in the rainy season. It's a great picnic spot for tourists who want to sit around on the banks under shady trees.



Sujata's Stupa

According to legend, when Prince Siddhartha was ailing after practising severe penance, a woman named Sujata offered him some kheer (rice pudding) which helped him recover miraculously. This stupa is supposed to mark the spot where she found him. However, there are some doubts about the authenticity of the location. You can reach the stupa after crossing the bridge across the river and walking along a trail across paddy fields for 15 minutes. The local caretaker of this abandoned site has made it his business to maintain a record of visitors after which you will be asked to make a donation. On the way to this location, you will pass villages, the heartland of rural India.


Archaeological Museum

Near the ITDC Ashok hotel and a short walk from the temple, is a museum with a large, interesting collection of relics (Buddhist and Hindu) along with terracotta seals, scriptures and railings/pillars from the Sunga period (1 BC to 1 AD). You can admire the ancient statues of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, one of which has an inscription that dates back to 383 AD. Also on display, is a carved stone model of the original temple, found during excavation. As you enter the garden, a life-size statue of Buddha in black stone welcomes you. Unfortunately the statue's head is missing. Entry to the museum costs Rs 5. It is open from 10 am to 5 pm and closed on Friday. Some publications and books on Bodhgaya and Buddhist art and architecture are for sale at the ticket counter. Photography is prohibited inside the museum. If you happen to visit the museum during the off-season period, insist on the hall lights being switched on.


Modern monasteries

Buddhists of different countries have, over the years, built temples in their own particular architectural styles in Bodhgaya. Some of them are worth a visit:A Tibetan temple of the Gelgupa (yellow cap) sect with a huge prayer wheel, has its walls painted in traditional Tibetan style with scenes from the Buddha's life. It stands right next to the Mahabodhi guesthouse.The Chinese temple near it is a simpler structure, a more sober expression of faith.Wat Bodhgaya, the Thai temple is one of the more impressive monasteries in Bodhgaya. It was built in 1956 by the Thai King and the Indian Prime Minister as an initiative to strengthen relations between the two countries. The temple stands facing the main road, next to the tourist bungalow.A new, brightly painted Bhutanese temple can be found at the corner of the main road.There is a small Tibetan temple built by the Kagyu sect that stands close to the Bhutanese temple.Two Japanese temples (the Daijokyo and Indosan Nipponji) have a simple design with neat gardens. Nearby is the Giant Buddha statue, which is 24 m tall and has the Buddha seated in the Dhyan Mudra position.

Climate

Although the pilgrimage season starts in September, the best time to visit Bodhgaya is between November and February. This is when the daytime temperature is normally a pleasant 14° to 18°C; in the night it drops to 4°C. In April, when the Buddha Jayanti is celebrated, a large number of devotees flock to Bodhgaya from the world over, but it is terribly hot. June is the hottest month and is certainly avoidable as the temperature can soar to a searing 47°C; in the night it drops to a still warm, 28°C. June-end to September is the monsoon. If you intend to meditate under the Bodhi tree, you will have to bear with either heat, rain or crowds of devotees.

Bodhgaya History

Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Saakya tribe came here in 528 BC, in search of the truth. He had renounced life as a prince, broken family ties, practised severe penance and trained under several teachers for six years before he came to Bodhgaya (then called Uruvela). It was while meditating under a peepul tree here that he gained spiritual enlightenment or Bodh.

Much of the town's history is known from inscriptions on the stone railing of the Mahabodhi Temple and the accounts of travellers and pilgrims. Excavations carried out since the 19th century have revealed interesting examples of art and architecture. Of particular importance is a model of the original temple that was found during excavation.

During the 4th century, Sri Lankan Buddhists gained control of the Mahabodhi temple as a result of the efforts of the Sri Lankan King Meghavanna. The king later built a monastery in Bodhgaya. During the Gupta period (4th to 6th century) the temple and its surrounding area went through many changes. Quite a few small shrines were constructed, but only the remains of their foundations can be seen today.

One of the most prosperous periods for the temple was during the reign of the Pala kings of Bengal (8th to 12th century). The temple received lavish donations and gifts from the Pala rulers and other Buddhists of Bengal. During this time it was also an important centre for learning. The famous Bengali scholar Atista, who is credited with playing an important role in the resurgence of Buddhism in Tibet, was ordained here.

With the decline of Buddhism in India in the 12th and 13th centuries, Bodhgaya became less frequented and almost all its temples and shrines fell to ruin. Four centuries later, attempts to restore the art and architecture, and revive the place as a centre for pilgrimage began once again. Today, Bodhgaya is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage centre in the world. It is a fairly quiet, small town that explodes into a colourful, tented Buddhist pilgrimage centre every winter.

How to get there:
Bodhgaya is 12 km from Gaya, 140 km from Patna, 66 km from Rajgir and 482 km from Calcutta.

Air: Patna is the nearest airport with regular flights to Delhi, Ranchi, Lucknow, Calcutta, Chennai, Mumbai. Calcutta, 482 km, has an international airport.

Rail: Gaya is the nearest railway station. Several superfast as well as express trains are available from Gaya. Gaya is on the main Delhi to Calcutta line and there are direct trains to Delhi, Calcutta, Varanasi, Puri and Patna.

Road: Bihar State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC) has bus services to Gaya, Patna, Nalanda and Rajgir. The main bus stand is opposite the Mahabodhi Temple. Private buses and taxis are also easily available.