An oasis of calm

An oasis of calm

Follow in the Buddha’s footsteps to experience enlightenment of the purest kind. Bodh Gaya is for those in search of their souls

The Big Buddha, Bodh Gaya

Reckoned as the cradle of Buddhism and one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists, Bodh Gaya is an archetypal serene village in Bihar. Throughout the year, this place bustles with pilgrims who come to pay their homage in the temple and monasteries. Originally known as Uruvela, Bodh Gaya is located near River Phalgu, also known as River Niranjana, 11 km south of Gaya, the district headquarters, and a major pilgrimage centre for Hindus.

The most sacred Buddhist centre in the world was and is still valuable for its sanctity rather than its materialistic structures. It is valuable for the things its monuments represent. The locale takes you on a fascinating Buddhist trail revealing the glory of ancient monumental legacies.

The sanctity of Bodh Gaya arises from the legend that Prince Gautama came to this place, sat beneath a giant peepal tree to meditate, and ultimately gained enlightenment. Here, Gautama became the Buddha, the enlightened, and the tree came to be known as ‘Bodhi Tree’.

Mahabodhi Temple

The most prominent and sacred monument at Bodh Gaya is Mahabodhi Temple, declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Protected by high walls all around, this temple is located amidst a well-kept garden. Decorative stone arches and pillars adorn the stone steps leading into the temple. The original temple was built by Emperor Ashoka in the third century and the present temple dates back to the fifth and sixth centuries. The magnificent brick temple, as it stands today, is largely a product of the late 19th century restoration and recent efforts by ASI. Alexander Cunningham, founder of ASI, did the early restorations. This is the oldest Buddhist temple in India, from the late Gupta period.

The temple’s shikhara (super-structure) rises 48 metres from the ground in a pyramidal shape. Its base (14x14 metres) rises to a height of 9 metres, creating a large elevated terrace, with small shrines at each of the four corners. Small seated Buddha idols can be found in the niches around the outer walls of the temple.

The 'jewel walk'
The 'jewel walk'

Flanking the decorated stone doorway of the temple are two standing Buddha images. Buddhapad (the Buddha’s footprints on stone) can be seen inside a small shrine on the left side of the entrance to the prayer hall. At the far end of the prayer hall is the sanctum where a large golden idol of the Buddha, about five feet tall, is seated, his right hand touching the earth in bhumisparsha mudra. This hall has beautiful decorations and the scent of burning incense sticks lingers in the air. Soft chanting of Buddhist prayers resonates across the hall, creating a serene and blissful environment.

Outside the temple is a stone-paved circumambulation path lined with pillars adorned with relief sculptures of lotuses, yakshis and yakshas. Nearby is a raised elongated platform known as the ‘jewel walk’ or ratnachankrama. The Buddha is believed to have paced back and forth on this platform. Pilgrims place flowers here and pray.

The tree of enlightenment

On the west side of the temple stands a large and sacred peepal tree, considered to be the fifth incarnation of the original Bodhi tree. Originally, this tree was the main object of veneration. Later, worship shifted to the main Buddha idol inside the shrine. The tree now stands on a platform called vajrasana (diamond throne) constructed by Emperor Ashoka, signifying the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. King Purnavarman of the Sunga dynasty erected the stone railings around the throne and temple in the seventh century. Several Buddhist monks can be seen sitting on the ground below the tree and meditating.

Bodhi Tree
Bodhi Tree

Museum sojourn

Walking along the stone-paved pathway inside the temple complex, you come across a meditation park of sorts — an open area with well-manicured lawns. There are two giant bronze bells hanging in the centre of this park. Further up, you reach a large pond called Muchilinda Lake, named after the Naga King who is believed to have guarded the Buddha when he meditated.

Nearby are two halls on raised platforms where thousands of candles and diyas are kept burning by pilgrims. Bodh Gaya Site Museum is just outside the entrance to the complex. Established by ASI in 1956, it displays several antiques, idols and sculptures collected from the site. The biggest attraction of the museum is the stone railing which once enclosed both Bodhi Tree and Mahabodhi Temple.

A gigantic statue of the Buddha can be seen at the centre of a beautiful garden, a little away from Bodhi Temple. It is 80 feet tall and was built by the Daijokyo sect of Nagoya, Japan, and unveiled by the Dalai Lama in 1989. It is believed that thousands of masons and sculptors took seven years to build it using sandstone blocks and red granite. Seated in meditation on a large lotus base, hands folded in the dhyan mudra, this colossus is an awe-inspiring sight. Flanking the Buddha statue on all sides are life-sized stone figures of his disciples, each one identifiable by labels.

Sujata Stupa

On the eastern bank of River Phalgu, in the nearby Bhaktapur village, is a large brick mound in the shape of a stupa called Sujata Kuti Stupa. This is said to be a memorial to Sujata, the woman who served the Buddha with sweetened rice-milk soon after he broke his long fast prior to his enlightenment. Nearby is Sujata Mandir, the actual site of the banyan tree where Sujata fed the Buddha.

Several modern temples and monasteries have sprung up in Bodh Gaya. These have been established by Buddhists from China, Japan, Myanmar, Tibet, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Each of these represents the architectural styles of their country, each competing with the others in their architectural splendour. The noteworthy are Thai Temple and Royal Bhutan Temple. Some of these monasteries provide food and accommodation for both pilgrims and tourists. It is noteworthy that in spite of the heavy footfalls of tourists, Bodh Gaya adheres to a high standard of cleanliness at all times.

Suffice to say that Bodh Gaya is an oasis of serenity amidst the bustling rush of pilgrims and tourists.