The world’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site, BODHGAYA, 13km south of Gaya, 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. 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 committee, 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
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 considered 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.
Nalanda and around
Nalanda and around
Founded in the fifth century AD by the Guptas, the great monastic Buddhist university of NALANDA attracted thousands of international students and teachers until it was sacked by the Afghan invader Bhaktiar Khilji in the twelfth century. Courses included philosophy, logic, theology, grammar, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. Education was provided free, supported by the revenue from surrounding villages and benefactors such as the eighth-century king of Sumatra.
Excavations have revealed nine levels of occupation on the site, dating back to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira in the sixth century BC. Most of it is now in ruins, but the orderliness and scale of what remains is staggering evidence of the strength of Buddhist civilization in its prime. The site is strewn with the remains of stupas, temples and eleven monasteries, their thick walls impressively intact. Nalanda is now part of the modern Buddhist pilgrimage circuit, but even the casual tourist will appreciate taking the time to walk through the extensive site, or climb its massive 31-metre stupa for commanding views. Informative booklets available at the ticket booth render the numerous guides unnecessary. A small alfresco bar inside the grounds serves tea, coffee and soft drinks without the hassle of the touts and beggars at the entrance.
Nalanda Museum houses antiquities found here and at Rajgir, including Buddhist and Hindu bronzes and a number of undamaged statues of the Buddha. Nava Nalanda Mahavihara, the Pali postgraduate research institute, houses many rare Buddhist manuscripts, and is devoted to study and research in Pali literature and Buddhism.