From one holy city (Varanasi), to another and this time it is Bodh Gaya. An unassuming town that holds the most holy sight for Buddhists in India.
Bodh Gaya (or Buddhagaya)
For such an important location, Bodh Gaya is quite a modest place. It definitely has a small town feel about it, with the touts few and far between, the pace of life a touch more leisurely, and open fields within easy walking distance. After the intensity of Varanasi, it was an interesting shift. We took things at a slower pace, made conversation with people we met and took our time visiting temples. We even met the local goat population’s Casanova.
So Why is it SO Important?
Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born around 2500 years ago. The young man was struck by the way that his wealth and privilege would not bring him happiness. He left his palace and set out into the world to learn how to acquire enlightenment. For six years, he travelled and learnt important meditation techniques. These took him someway to nirvana but never quite achieved it.
It was here, under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, that he reached enlightenment. With his self realisation, he became Buddha. Buddha means “the enlightened one”. He then spent the next seven weeks exploring what he had learnt in the area surrounding the tree. This is where you will find the key spots in the temple grounds.
The Mahabodhi Temple
The heart of the town, and the Buddhist world, is the. Mahabodhi temple. Inside the complex you will find the temple itself, along with a water tank, and the Bhodi tree. There are also many small stupas and mini temples but too many to name!
From afar, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a Hindu temple. The tall pyramidal frontage is very reminiscent of the many Hindu buildings found in India and further afield. Look closer though, and you will see it is more akin to the towers at Angkor War. It was built in around 250BC by the Emperor Asoka but was rebuilt about 260 years later.
The geometric patterns that cover the front are intricate and seem very modern when viewed up close.
Look closer still and faces appear, as well as tiny Buddhas in the lotus position. In 2013, the Thai King donated gold to top the temple. I’m sad we missed it!
To enter the temple you must remove your shoes and if you want to take photos, you need to purchase an additional photo ticket. We didn’t want to forget the interior and so we chose to pay the extra.
The inner sanctum contains a statue of Buddha, in the earth touching position. It’s black stone underneath its golden face paint.
The Bodhi Tree
This is an ancestor of the very tree where Buddha sat. It is in the very same soil and is strung with a fluttering rainbow of prayer flags. This is a nod to the collisions of Buddhist faith from all over the world. These flags are more traditionally seen in countries east of India. Early in the morning, the tree is often surrounded by devotees who come to chant and meditate.
During Buddha’s time in Bodh Gaya, he was visited by the King of Serpents, a naga called Mucalinda. He was said to have come to Buddha and protected him from a large storm as he meditated. He then bowed down to him before disappearing again. The statue of Buddha in the water tank shows this story.
The Giant Buddha (Daibutsu)
Who doesn’t love a giant Buddha!? In Bodh Gaya you will find a Japanese statue that is a whopping 64 foot tall. It sits atop a pedestal and lotus that add another 16 foot, making it a total of 80 foot from the ground.
It is constructed of yellow and pink sandstone. Not as flashy as its golden counterparts in Thailand, it still manages to impress. It took a whole four years to construct, that’s impressive enough! It was unveiled by the Dalai Lama himself in 1989.
Surrounding it you will find ten smaller disciples of Buddha.
There are also several large blocks that are festooned with glitter. (On closer inspection you will find that these are shards of glass embedded in the concrete to stop birds roosting…..brutal but pretty).
The Thai Monastery
This is one of many temples throughout the town. There are representatives here from Thailand, Bhutan, China, Burma, Vietnam and Japan…and that isn’t all. We didn’t go into too many of these, as we knew we would be visiting some of these countries later in our five month trip.
Some of these temples have guesthouses attached for pilgrims who have travelled from there home countries to visit this holy town. This also means, the food here in Bodh Gaya is a little more varied than elsewhere on our trip. A little more authentic any way. It was nice to be surrounded by all these different cultures.
An Afternoon Off
After a hard day’s sightseeing, we went for a wander. A small lad came up to us and we started to talk. He told us all about his lessons at school. Slowly we made our way through fields edged with small ridges. He showed us the houses we passed and we all enjoyed the company in the sunshine.
After around 40 minutes, we came back around into the town and bought a couple of soft drinks. The joy of an ice cold Mirinda, sucked through a straw in the sun cannot be undersold. The cold, the bubbles and the flavour are all shocking, but in a wonderful way. Giving the bottle back to be recycled is just one of those things that we have lost here in the west.
I am really glad we stopped off in this little gem of a town and didn’t just buzz past it on the train. It’s a real treat, and you can feel the faith that surround it whether you are Buddhist or not.