Bodh Gaya is like the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. The site of the enlightenment of the Buddha, Bodh Gaya has today become the most important place of Buddhist pilgrimage, drawing people from all corners of the globe. The chirping of the birds and the soft chants of Buddham Sharanam Gachchami will soothe your spirit as you walk on this hallowed land. Nuns, monks and laypersons of varied ethnic groups sit in meditation in the Mahabodhi Temple complex, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002. They have made their way here, to tread, even if momentarily, on the path shown to them by Prince Siddhartha, who became The Enlightened One here.

Orientation
On the road from the Gaya Railway Station to Bodh Gaya, one immediately knows when the congested streets of Gaya are left behind: when a scenic countryside spreads on either side of the road, with the Phalgu River on the left. This town in rural Bihar has received considerable funding from abroad, especially from the Japanese government, one of the reasons why it is surprisingly well-developed in terms of infrastructure. The main road is the Bodh Gaya Road, which is the one leading from Gaya into the town itself. All the main sites are located around this and almost everything is within easy walking distance from the main temple complex, the hub of the town. Cars are available on hire (₹500). The other modes of transport here are battery rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and autorickshaws; the maximum fare to any of the sites should not exceed ₹350. Bicycles are also available for hire in many guesthouses.

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The Mahabodhi Temple Complex, an important site for Buddhist
The Mahabodhi Temple Complex, an important site for Buddhist

Things to See & Do
It takes a maximum of two days to cover all of Bodh Gaya’s sites. Even a day is enough, with a night halt in one of the hotels. As elsewhere, night journeys are not recommended to be on the safer side. There are several prayer meetings, but perhaps what remains etched in memory is how beautiful the temple complex looks after it is lit up with thousands of candles. Bodh Gaya is also home to the Magadh University campus, near which lies the Cantonment area as well as the small and sparsely used airport.

Also known as the Main Temple, the present structure is said to be similar to the stupa originally built by Emperor Ashoka. The temple enshrines a huge Buddha statue, seated in the cross-legged, earth-touching pose, over the spot where the Buddha is believed to have gained Nirvana. The shrine is surrounded by richly carved stone railings – the oldest remains of Bodh Gaya. There is also a beautifully landscaped park for meditation in the south-eastern corner of the complex, but permission is required from the main temple office to enter it.

The temple complex also marks the seven different places where the Buddha spent a week each after his Enlightenment. There are abundant references to the Bodhi Tree in the Jataka Tales. It was under this huge pipal tree, just behind the main shrine, that the Buddha spent his first week after attaining Enlightenment. The present tree is the fifth-generation tree of the original Bodhi Tree. The temple complex is very serene in the morning hours.

Adjacent to the wall behind the main temple, flags of different hues and gold-plated engravings adorn the 7-ft-high red sandstone Vajrasana, the Diamond Throne, or the Seat of Enlightenment, made by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century CE, and said to be the navel of the earth. Small metallic lamps make the pedestal glow. In front of the railing that encloses the Vajrasana are the footprints of the Buddha, gigantic footmarks engraved in blackish-grey stone, with the wheel of each foot signifying the Dhammachakra Pravartana (turning the wheel of dhamma).

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The Buddha’s footprints
The Buddha’s footprints

To the north of the main temple is Cankamana, the place where the Buddha spent the third week of his Enlightenment, walking up and down along a stretch, in meditation. The spots where the Buddha stepped now feature black stone lotuses and they are considered as sacred as the image of the Buddha.

To the north-west of the main temple is the roofless shrine called Ratnaghara, where the Buddha spent the fourth week of his meditation. According to legend, while he remained here in deep contemplation, a multi-hued ray of light emanated from his body. These colours are used in the prayer flags of all countries embracing Buddhism.

It is believed that Lord Buddha spent the fifth week of meditation under the Ajapala Nigrodha Tree, which is a little away from the eastern gate. The Buddha spent the sixth week at a spot to the right of the main temple, near the Muchalinda Lake, which is encircled by a tree-lined path. The statue of the Buddha in the middle of the lake, with a huge serpent protecting him, reminds one of the legend for this setting, in which the Buddha was so lost in prayer that he did not even notice a storm lashing at him. When the lord of serpents, Muchalinda, saw the Buddha getting drenched, he came out of his abode and gave him shelter.

To the southeast of the temple complex is the Rajayatna Tree, under which the Buddha spent the last, that is the seventh, week in meditation. Here, by sheer chance, Lord Buddha met two merchants from Burma (present-day Myanmar). They took refuge in him. And thus the famous hymn came into vogue: Buddham Sharanam Gachchami (I submit myself to Lord Buddha). Demarcated by a stone plaque, it is the last stop for the devotee as he leaves the complex.

Timings 5.00am–9.00pm Photography ₹100; Video ₹300

Tip Footwear may be handed over at the designated place before entering the complex

Location The first major building seen to the left as one enters Bodh Gaya, in the centre of the town

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The striking edifice of the Thai Monastery at Bodh Gaya
The striking edifice of the Thai Monastery at Bodh Gaya

Other Pagodas & Shrines
Several Buddhist countries have built their own pagodas and temples in Bodh Gaya. All the shrines below are open from 9.00am–noon and 2.00–5.00pm.

Built in 1934, the Tibetan Monastery (a 5-minute walk to the west of the Mahabodhi complex) is the biggest and oldest monastery in Bodh Gaya. The Burmese Vihara (by the banks of River Niranjana on Gaya-Bodh Gaya Road), built in 1936, has two prayer halls and a large statue of Lord Buddha. Close by is the Thai Monastery (1km west of the Mahabodhi complex), which has golden rooftops that also give it the name Golden Monastery. It was built in 1957 by the Royal Kingdom of Thailand to commemorate 2,500 years of Buddhism. The Indosan Nippon Japanese Temple (1km southwest of the Mahabodhi complex), built in 1972– 73, is designed along the lines of an ancient Japanese wooden temple, and features paintings related to the important events in the Buddha’s life. Renovated in 1997, the Chinese Temple (5-minute walk to the west of the Mahabodhi complex) was originally built in 1945 and has three golden statues of the Buddha. To the north of the Japanese Temple is the Royal Bhutan Monastery, which unusually has clay carvings on its inner walls. The Vietnamese Temple (5-minute-walk north of the Mahabodhi Temple) was most recently built, in 2002, and has a serene statue of Avalokiteswara, the peaceful avatar of Buddha.

While in Bodh Gaya
The Archaeological Society of India Museum (entry ₹5; 9.00am–5.00pm, closed Fridays), 1km NE of the Mahabodhi Temple, is quiet, small and methodically curated. It houses priceless objects found in excavations in the Mahabodhi Temple complex, and is a must-visit.

Most of the monasteries in Bodh Gaya offer meditation courses for a nominal donation. Courses in Vipassana meditation are also run by the International Meditation Centre (Tel: 0631-2200707) throughout the year. The routine is a bit hectic but a great experience and one can attend as many days as one wants for a fee of  ₹300 per day.

Where to Stay & Eat
The All India Bhikhu Sangha (Cell: 09934611480; Tariff: ₹300) offers comfortable rooms with attached baths. Hotel Tathagat International (Tel: 0631-2200106-07; Tariff: ₹3,500–5,500), with a travel desk and multi-cuisine restaurant, is one of the best among the mid-range options. Hotel Mahamaya (Tel: 2200121/ 221, Cell: 09204791699; Tariff: ₹3,500–6,000) offers clean and good accommodation. You could also try Hotel Sujata (Tel: 2200481; Tariff: ₹5,500–6,500) for its ofru, the Japanese community bath facility. In the high-end bracket, The Royal Residency (Tel: 2201156-57; Tariff: ₹3,360–9,000), located on Domuhan Road, has a bar, restaurant and also arranges sightseeing. The Lotus Nikko Hotel (Tel: 2200700/ 89; Tariff: ₹6,000–10,000), near the Mahabodhi Temple, has a restaurant. Budget options include Bihar Tourism’s Siddhartha Vihar (Tel: 2200445/ 127; Tariff: ₹800–1,800) with 13 rooms. Hotel Sujata Vihar (Tel: 2200445; Tariff: ₹750) has 9 dorms with 45 beds, a restaurant but a common toilet. Hotel Embassy (Tel: 2200711; Tariff: ₹1,200–3,000), is opposite the Thai Temple.

Om, opposite the Jayaprakash Narayan Park entrance, is famed for its breakfast menu. Fujia Green, near the Tibetan refugee market, serves great Tibetan and Chinese, while Shiva Hotel, near the temple entrance, serves Indian, Chinese and Continental. There are also restaurants in high-end hotels that pander to foreign palates. However, the best food options are offered by the makeshift tents that come up near the complex in December–February. They specialise in Japanese and Tibetan cuisine, besides a variety of snacks, veg and tofu dishes. The momos, thukpa and Chinese fast food dishes served here are simply unmissable.

Fast Facts

When to go On Buddha Jayanti (April– May) the temple complex is lit up with thousands of candles. From December– January, the Dalai Lama presides over the Kalachakra Festival

Tourist offices

Tourist Information Centre, Bihar Tourism, Bodh Gaya, Tel: 0631-2200672, Cell: 09471006726

Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee,  Tel: 2200735

STD code 0631       

Getting There

Air Gaya (14km/ 20mins). Taxi fare ₹600

Rail Gaya Junction

Bus Regular bus services are available from Gaya, Patna, Nalanda, Rajgir, Varanasi