The world’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site, BODHGAYA, is wonderfully relaxed, with an array of monasteries, temples and retreats. Its focal point is the Mahabodhi Temple, where Buddha attained enlightenment.
The temple dates from the seventh century AD and flourished up to the sixteenth century, when it fell into the hands of Hindu priests, who professed to be baffled by its origins. In the early nineteenth century, British archeologists rediscovered its significance, and Bodhgaya has since been rejuvenated by overseas Buddhists, who have built monasteries, temples and shrines on the site. From November to February, Bodhgaya is home to an animated community of exiled Tibetans, often including the Dalai Lama, as well as a stream of international Tibetophiles. Meditation courses attract others, while large monasteries from places like Darjeeling bring their followers to attend ceremonies and lectures. From mid-March to mid-October, the region becomes oppressively hot and Bodhgaya returns to its quiet ways.
The Mahabodhi Temple is also sacred to Hindus, who regard Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, and dominate the management, despite protests from the Buddhist world. The dispute is exacerbated by the contrasting forms of worship: Buddhists have a solitary inward approach; Hindus prefer spectacle and noisy ceremony.Read More
Mahabodhi TempleThe elegant single spire of the Mahabodhi Temple rises to a lofty height of 55m, and is visible throughout the surrounding countryside. Within the temple complex, which is liberally sprinkled with small stupas and shrines, the main brick temple stands in a hollow encircled by a stone railing dating from the second century BC. Unlike most popular temples in India, this UNESCO World Heritage Site exudes an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Extensively renovated during the nineteenth century, it is supposed to be a replica of a seventh-century structure that in turn stood on the site of Ashoka’s original third-century BC shrine. Inside the temple, a single chamber holds a large gilded image of the Buddha, while upstairs is a balcony and a small, plain meditation chamber.
At the rear of the temple to the west, the large Bodhi Tree grows out of an expansive base, attracting scholars and meditators, but it’s only an off-shoot of the one under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Many legends surround the destruction of the original, but it is generally thought that Ashoka, when he sent his daughter Sangamitra to Sri Lanka as an emissary of Buddhism, had sent a cutting with her. This was planted at Anuradhapuram, and a cutting from that was later brought back to Bodhgaya and replanted. Pilgrims tie coloured thread to its branches and Tibetans accompany their rituals with long lines of butter lamps. A sandstone slab with carved sides next to the tree is believed to be the Vajrasana, or “thunder-seat”, upon which Buddha sat facing east.
In remote, almost desert-like surroundings on the far side of the Falgu River, 12km northeast of Bodhgaya, sit the Mahakala (or Dungeshwari) Caves, where Buddha did the severe penance that resulted in the familiar image of him as a skeletal, emaciated figure. After years of extreme self-denial at Mahakala, he realized its futility and walked down to Bodhgaya, where he achieved nirvana. A short climb from the base of the impressive cliff leads to a Tibetan monastery and the small caves. A Buddhist shrine inside the main cave is run by Tibetans, although a Hindu priest has set up in competition.
Eighty kilometres northeast of Bodhgaya, the small market town of RAJGIR nestles in rocky hills that witnessed the meditations and teachings of both the Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. The capital of the Magadha kingdom before Pataliputra (Patna), Rajgir was also where King Bimbisara converted to Buddhism. Rajgir is also regarded as a health resort because of its hot springs, which can get unpleasantly crowded.
A Japanese shrine at Venuvana Vihara marks the spot where a monastery was built for Buddha to live in, while at Griddhakuta (Vulture’s Peak), on Ratnagiri Hill, 3km from the town centre, Buddha set in motion his second “Wheel of Law”. The massive modern Peace Pagoda, built by the Japanese, dominates Ratnagiri Hill and can be reached by a rickety chairlift. Griddhakuta is actually halfway down the hill, so you may prefer to wander down from here rather than climb back up to take the chair lift. Look out for the 26 Jain shrines on top of these hills, reached by a challenging trek attempted almost solely by Jain devotees. On an adjacent hill, in the Saptaparni cave, the first Buddhist council met to record the teachings of the Buddha after his death.