Religion may, in the Marxist reckoning, be the opium of the masses, but in Bihar today, the selfsame masses evidently feel a compelling need for alternative forms of psychotropy. In the land of the Buddha, from where the Light of Asia spread across this vast continent, the entire Indo-Gangetic countryside resonates with the familiar clapclap of chunam-mixed khaini (chewing tobacco) being patted in the palm of the left hand in preparation for oral ingestion. “So, you’re going to Buddha Gaya,” sputtered the cycle-rickshaw man from Patna, tucking a dollop-sized dose of the heady reed behind his lower lip. “Make sure you get there well before sundown: Rasta bahut khatarnak hai (The road is dangerous).”

This khatarnak rasta takes the traveller through Jehanabad District, a bastion of armed Marxist-Leninist groups. Dacoits of indeterminate ideological persuasion too abound. I learnt that only a day earlier, three Japanese monks returning from Bodh Gaya had been assaulted and robbed. To travel in these parts is, clearly, a stern test of one’s faith.

As it is today, so it was 25 centuries ago. When Siddhartha, who had renounced the pleasures of cocooned aristocracy in Kapilavastu for a life of asceticism, arrived in Uruvela town (present-day Bodh Gaya), his faith too was on test. For years, he had wandered in search of the knowledge of “the sources whence flows the suffering of the world, and of the path that leads to the extinction of this suffering”. The path of spiritual inquiry shown by teachers led him no nearer to enlightenment. Disenchanted, he left them, and subjected himself to more years of excessively severe deprivation and austere meditation. But that effort too proved fruitless.

Emaciated and on the brink of death, Siddhartha realised that abusing one’s frame through extreme denial was just as improper as overindulgence. Accepting a life-restoring offering of kheer from Sujata, a local tribeswoman in Uruvela, he settled himself in the famed lotus posture on a mat of kusha grass beneath a peepul tree (ficus religiosa), facing east, and resolved not to rise until he attained the state of supreme awareness. Meditating thus, he underwent successively purer stages of abstraction of consciousness until, finally, at dawn on a full-moon day, he attained the long-sought state of awakening.

In that epiphanic moment when Siddhartha became the Buddha — the Enlightened One — was born a philosophy that would spread to large parts of Asia and the West without resorting to militant crusades. The quiet force of its profound teachings has, over the centuries, turned war-victorious emperors into pacifists, with a heightened sensitivity for all life-forms. It has inspired some of the most spectacular art forms, iconography and literature down the ages. And even today, 25 centuries after it was founded, Buddhism is a living, vibrant order with a significant percentage of the world’s population following some aspect of this many-faceted religious philosophy. And the Bodhi Tree, or ‘the Tree of Knowledge’, in Bodh Gaya is the most revered spot for Buddhists the world over. This is where it all began.

Thing to See & Do

The Bodhi Tree draws the faithful from all over the world. Bodh Gaya is, in that sense, a world city. At any time, groups of pilgrims — many in their distinctive national garb — can be seen in the Mahabodhi Mahavihara Temple complex, built over centuries around the Tree of Knowledge. Apart from this, Bodh Gaya has monasteries established by the Buddhist countries of South and South-East Asia.

The Great Buddha statue erected by Japanese Buddhists at Bodh Gaya
The Great Buddha statue erected by Japanese Buddhists at Bodh Gaya

A touristy round-trip in a rickshaw (up to 300) won’t take more than half a day; alternatively, you could hire bicycles (50-60 a day). That apart, there’s the 80-foot alfresco statue of the Buddha in the gyanamudra, built with Japanese funds and unveiled by the Dalai Lama in 1989. In short, Bodh Gaya can be done in a day, but prolonged stays will let you savour it at other levels. Some Western travellers spend weeks, even months, practising meditation techniques or enrolling for introductory courses in Buddhist teachings or learning to read Pali, once the language of commoners and of the Buddha.

The World Heritage Site of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex is the preeminent place of pilgrimage for Buddhists. The principal points of interest here are the Bodhi Tree; the Vajrasana (‘The Adamantine Seat’), also called the Thunderbolt Throne—a red sandstone platform which marks the spot where the Buddha meditated; the Mahabodhi Temple, a towering structure to the east of the Bodhi Tree that houses a large, gilded, 10th century black stone image of the Buddha in the bhumisparshamudra (‘earth-touching posture’); the carved, sculpted stone railing around the temple, believed to have been built around the 1st century BCE; and stupas and temples that commemorate events during the seven weeks that the Buddha spent here in a state of bliss after his enlightenment.

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The imposing Mahabodhi Temple, to the east of the Bodhi Tree
The imposing Mahabodhi Temple, to the east of the Bodhi Tree

A traveller may spend many serene hours wandering around the temple complex, gazing at the magnificent architectural edifice and the thousands of Buddha images carved on the votive stupas. Or she may sit in quiet contemplation beneath the sprawling Bodhi Tree. At any time, a handful of monks and devotees can be seen performing countless prostrations to the tree. It’s a highly rigorous purificatory ritual: some monks are known to do up to 1,00,000 prostrations at one time.

In September 2003, the temple management introduced an electronic tourist guidance system, under which transmitters installed at 17 locations in the complex provide recorded commentary heard via headphones, which you can hire at the complex. The service is available in English, Hindi, Japanese and Korean. Entry Free Guide Up to 150 per hour Headphones 20 per hour Cameras Still 20, video 300 Timings 5 am to 9 pm.

Close to the western end of the complex is the ‘centre of the Buddhist universe’, The Bodhi Tree. To the knots of the faithful who come to meditate beneath it, this arboreal sprawl symbolises the potential for each human being to realise ‘the Buddha within’ by living a life of moderation. The tree you see today is less than 130 years old and is believed to be the fifth descendant of the original Bodhi Tree. The 25 centuries old history of the tree and its offshoots makes for an interesting botanical biography.

Three centuries after the Buddha’s mahaparinirvana, or passing, the venerated tree became the object of Emperor Ashoka’s chief queen Tisyaraksita’s jealousy; she had a spell cast upon it. Chinese scholar Fa Hien, who recorded his impressions of his wanderings in India in the 5th century CE, said that Tisyaraksita, incensed by Ashoka’s excessive interest in the tree, tried to destroy it. The emperor’s daughter Sanghamitra had earlier carried a sapling from this tree to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, and a cutting from that tree was brought back to Bodh Gaya when the mother tree died.

In the 7th century CE, the Bodhi Tree was felled by the sword of Hindu revivalism, which responded to the growing appeal of Buddhism with naked aggression. Shashanka, the Hindu supremacist ruler of Bengal, undertook a crusade to Bodh Gaya and chopped down the Bodhi Tree. Again, a sapling from the felled tree was replanted here a few years later. The Chinese scholar Hieun Tsang noted in his memoirs that “devotees worship the tree with curd, milk, perfumes, sandalwood and camphor.”

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Monks praying before the Bodhi Tree
Monks praying before the Bodhi Tree

The rise of aggressive Hinduism and Afghan and Turk invasions in the 12th and 13th centuries forced the decline of Buddhism in the land of its birth, and both the tree and the temple complex fell into neglect for centuries. They were ‘rediscovered’ in 1861 by Alexander Cunningham, then director of the ASI. Today, the Bodhi Tree stands as a vibrant symbol of an ancient religion that is taking root in newer regions and reaching out to ever larger numbers.

Most countries with a large Buddhist population — including Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan — have built temples and monasteries in Bodh Gaya with their very own distinctive architectural styles and forms of worship. These are, principally, centres of worship, learning and meditation for monks and researchers and visitors from their native lands. For the traveller, they also provide interesting insights into the nuances of various schools of Buddhism. Almost all the monasteries are located within a 1-km radius of the Mahabodhi Temple. Timings 8 am to noon, 2 to 5 pm

About 2 km to the west of Bodh Gaya flows the River Phalgu. A short walk away is a small shrine dedicated to Sujata, the Uruvela tribeswoman who offered kheer to the starving Siddhartha. The idol there depicts a skin-and-bones Siddhartha, his visage a virtual death’s head, accepting Sujata’s offering. A rickshaw ride (80-100 return trip) across the Phalgu to this folksy, unostentatious shrine makes for a pleasant early-morning diversion.

Shopping

Bodh Gaya comes alive from October to March (the cooler months), but the peak season is December-January, when the Dalai Lama presides over the Kalachakra Festival. The festival centres around an initiation traditionally conferred by the Dalai Lama on throngs of people who gather from all over the world. This is when Tibetan pilgrims as well as trinket-sellers come down from Dharamsala and give Bodh Gaya a certain lively buzz. The entire promenade to the north of the Mahabodhi Temple complex is filled with roadside stalls selling thangkas, Buddhist icons and trinkets.

The seasonal Tibetan refugee market, which comes up about 1 km west of the temple complex, is good for purchasing woollens. Throughout the year, the government-authorised handicrafts stores, which are located to the north of the temple complex, sell thangkas, dried peepul leaves, peepul-bead rosaries for meditation and lotus-bead malas from Mongolia. The bookshop at the entrance to the temple complex has low-priced editions of some rare translations of Buddhist texts.

Where to Stay

Like the accommodative religious order that was born here, Bodh Gaya has room for all. Accommodation is plentiful and, as a consequence, even a traveller who is bashful about driving a hard bargain can invariably land a good deal.

Ever since the temple complex was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in June 2002, restrictions have been imposed on construction activity in its proximity. But enterprising hoteliers have shown that where there’s a rule, there are ways of getting around it. On roads that have been earmarked only for temples and monasteries, a string of ‘temple guest houses’ have come up. By the expedient of putting up a small shrine near the entrance, these establishments pass off as ‘temples’, though in practice they are guest houses with rooms for rent. Quite a few of them offer good, clean accommodation at attractive rates — although officially these are recorded as ‘voluntary donations’ and are in most cases open to negotiation.

Sikkim Guest House (Tel: 0631-2200735), near the 80-foot Buddha statue, has 16 double bedrooms for a ‘voluntary donation’ of 500 each, plus two dorms. Food is served in the mess. The All Indian Bhikkhu Sangha (Mob: 09934611480) offers comfortable rooms with attached baths. The BSTDC Tourist Complex (Tel: 2200445; Tariff: 550-900) is another budget option, with somewhat musty rooms that come with attached loos, TV and room service.

Hotel Tathagat International (Tel: 2200106; Tariff: 2,500-3,000), near the Mahabodhi Temple complex, with a travel desk and multi-cuisine restaurant, is one of the best among the mid-range options. Owned by a Japanese national, Hotel Mahamaya (Tel: 2200121; Tariff: 2,000-5,000), also situated near the Mahabodhi Temple complex, offers clean and good accommodation. The restaurant is fabulous, serving dishes from Japan, Korea and Thailand. The Mahayana Guest House (Tel: 2200756/ 675; Tariff: 500-2,500), located next to the Shenchen Monastery, offers 56 rooms and has its own restaurant. You could also try Hotel Sujata (Tel: 2200481; Tariff: 4,600-5,800) for its ofru, the Japanese community bath facility. In the high-end bracket, The Royal Residency (Tel: 2201156-57; Tariff: 6,000), located on Dumuhan Road, has a bar, restaurant and also arranges sightseeing. The Lotus Nikko Hotel (Tel: 2200700/ 89; Tariff: 4,500), near the Mahabodhi Temple, has 48 rooms and a restaurant. Budget options include Bihar Tourism’s Siddhartha Vihar (Tel: 2200445; Mob: 09431487531; Tariff: 500-1,500). Hotel Sujata Vihar (Tel: 2200445/ 127; Tariff: 150) has 9 dorms with 45 beds, a restaurant but a common toilet. Hotel Embassy (Tel: 2200711; Tariff: 1,000-1,200), opposite the Rai Temple, has 62 rooms. In the lean season, most hotels offer up to 50 per cent discounts.

Where to Eat

The congregation of pilgrims from all over the world has an interesting culinary consequence. In peak season, the town comes alive with roadside restaurants that serve everything from Chinese to Japanese to Korean to Tibetan to Italian to that ultimate symbol of America, apple pie. Most hotel-restaurants offer mishmash by way of a menu.

But the best food options are offered by the nameless, makeshift tents that come up near the temple complex from December to February. Of the established restaurants, Om Restaurant, opposite the Jayaprakash Narayan Park entrance, is famed for its breakfast menu. It also offers kheer (which Sujata offered Siddhartha), now extolled as ‘Sujata rice pudding’. Fujia Green, near the Tibetan refugee market, serves great Tibetan and Chinese. Shiva Hotel (near the temple entrance) serves Indian, Chinese and Continental.

High-end hotels pander to foreign palates — the Japanese okaiyo, a bland breakfast broth; the Thai masala omelette; the Korean kimchi salad; and the satvik no-onion, no-garlic Taiwanese dishes. The Lotus Nikko Hotel (in Bodh Gaya), and the Indo-Hokke and Rajgir Residency (in Rajgir) source their speciality ingredients from faraway INA Market in New Delhi. On occasion, they are known to import sushi and spices for discerning travellers.