Some time between the sixth and the fourth century BCE, Gautama Buddha, a young prince from a family with minor royal lineage, made it his goal in life to find answers to the problem of ending universal suffering. Leaving the security of his family home and adopting the life of an ascetic, he headed to the forested area that is now Bodhgaya and began meditating under a species of fig, known today as the Bodhi Tree. For three days and nights he meditated until he became enlightened and found the answers he was seeking. For the next seven weeks he meditated and reflected on his experience at different locations in the vicinity. Afterwards he set off for Sarnath near Varanasi to proclaim to the world the things he had learned.
Around 250 years after the Buddha’s enlightenment, it is thought that Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor of the day and a recent convert to Buddhism, erected a temple at the site of the original Bodhi tree. It was designed to commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment and the foundation and promotion of the Buddhist movement. Ashoka’s temple was later replaced and the current Mahabodhi Temple, which sits in the same location, has existed from at least the 7th century CE, but possibly earlier. Since then it has undergone various refurbishments and restorations and in 2002 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Mahabodhi Temple complex is dominated by a large straight-sided shikara tower, around 55 metres tall. The word shikara means ‘mountain peak’ in Sanskrit and the tower with its layers of niches, motifs and engravings resembles something of the rocky surface of a mountain. The shikara style is a common architectural form in northern India and is still used in Hindu and Jain temples even today.
After arriving in Bodhgaya, Clare and I had settled into one of the guest houses, and spent some time wandering around part of the town, mainly in search of some good places to eat. Like most visitors to Bodhgaya though, our main purpose for being there was to visit the Mahabodhi Temple, the holiest site in Buddhism.
The approach to the temple complex was a busy confluence of pilgrims, beggars, touts, tourists, rickshaws, food carts and souvenir stands. Religious sites like Mahabodhi tend to attract large numbers of beggars. Every day they are there, sitting for hours on the pavement holding out their hand or a tin plate. Those with missing or contorted legs drag themselves across the dirt, hoping to attract the attention of passers-by. Some families look as if they’ve spent their entire lives camped right there on the side of the road. Everywhere in India there is the constant reminder of how the other half live. In addition, there is the ever-present visual of the effect that a combination of over-population and poverty has on the environment. Over time, it would begin to dawn on me that this was the norm for significantly more than half of the world’s population. This was how most people in the world lived, even after significant improvement to global living standards over the course of the last century.
Entering the site meant passing through two security check points where visitors are patted down and bags are sent through scanning machines. One of the positive outcomes of the heightened security is that mobile phones are banned within the temple grounds, meaning that the annoyingly common and unattractive visual of tourists taking ‘selfies’, is completely absent.
Once inside the temple grounds, the most striking thing about the interior, apart from the towering form of the temple itself, is the huge presence of monks, from all over the world. Some wearing maroon, others saffron, they were dressed in different coloured robes according to their traditions or countries of origin. All had shaved heads and lay people, Buddhists who don’t engage in a monastic existence, usually wore white.
My first visit to the site was in the morning just before sunrise. The site was teeming with monks performing rituals and morning prayers. There was a series of slow clockwise progressions of pilgrims around walkways offset at different levels from the temple structure itself. The most outer walkway was lined with prayer wheels. A steady stream of pilgrims queued at the entrance to the only room inside the temple, ready to make their offerings to the golden statue of the Buddha contained within. Around the site, groups of monks would gather in their respective schools, some chanting, others engaged in quiet meditation.
On special door-sized planks of wood, laid flat on the ground, monks in training would be performing prostrations – a type of repetitive exercise meant to purify the mind and engender discipline. The act of performing their prostrations at a holy site like Mahabodhi apparently provides additional merit to the ritual.
The Bodhi Tree, with its large branches emanating outwards from the trunk, was an impressive site. It stood on the western edge of the temple wall, its base surrounded by a heavy railing. A crowd of pilgrims had gathered around, heads bowed, to offer prayers and offerings. Nearby, monks filled butter lamps, and organised them into concentric patterns around circular platforms.
The air was heady with incense and the burning of juniper. Swathes of pink lotus flowers and yellow and orange marigolds adorned statues of the Buddha and numerous small shrines. The silence and stillness of the morning reverberated with the monotonous low-frequency drone of Buddhist chanting that emanated from a loudspeaker and from various groups of monks chanting in unison.
On the northern edge of the complex along one of the paths that circumnavigate the temple was a large sculptural mural consisting of 21 scenes depicting the life of the Buddha from his conception up to his enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree. Outside the temple, along the entrance promenade, was another mural depicting scenes from the Jataka Tales – stories about the Buddha’s past lives in both human and animal form. Together they formed an impressive visual account of the richness of Buddhist philosophy; based on ancient stories but embedded with universal meaning. In addition there were numerous plaques dotted around the site, each inscribed with a core Buddhist principle from either the Noble Eightfold Path or the Four Noble Truths.
As pilgrims made their way around the outer walkway they spun the prayer wheels that lined the perimeter, quietly murmuring prayers as they went. The high concentration of monks and nuns, deep in ritual or meditation, allowed a general sense of contemplation and thoughtfulness to pervade the entire temple grounds. It was a fascinating place and during what was nearly a week in Bodhgaya, we would each make several trips to the area.
At night, the town was surprisingly lively, almost to the extent that I began wondering if any of the locals actually get any sleep. Indian dance music thumped its way into the night and at 5:00 am the sounds of religious chanting broke the early morning silence. During the night our sleep would be interrupted by packs of wild dogs barking and howling their way through endless fights over territory in the streets.
Bodhgaya has since early times been an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Since 1953, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan and Japan have all built monasteries and temples in and around Bodhgaya in an architectural style resembling that of their respective countries. They provide places of refuge, prayer and learning for visiting monks and nuns and over several days we enjoyed visiting each of their temples. They were all impressive buildings with ornate and highly decorative interiors surrounded by grounds that exuded the essence of calm and retreat. In a way, the Buddhist temples and monasteries were similar to the concept of an embassy in a foreign capital.
Another fairly recent addition to the landscape of Bodhgaya was a large statue known as the Giant Buddha. Made of sandstone and red granite, and nearly 20 metres high, its striking form depicted the Buddha seated on a lotus flower in a meditative pose. It took seven years to build, was consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1989 and is thought to be the largest Buddha statue in India.
I found Bodhgaya a fascinating but somewhat confronting place to be. I had expected the town to be more developed considering the masses of pilgrims that visit each year. The predominant Indianness of the town made it all the more evident that although Buddhism had once enjoyed a golden age in India, it now represented only a very small minority within the country. The Mahabodhi Temple complex, the various Buddhist temples and monasteries dotted around the town and the Giant Buddha statue sat like small islands of Buddhism in what was otherwise an Indian sea, populated by a Hindu majority and a significant Muslim minority.
It had been a relief in many ways to spend time on these ‘islands’. The austerity and relative calm of the Buddhist tradition was a welcome break from the often overwhelming and, at times, distressing atmosphere of the surrounding ‘sea’.