The Sacred Buddhist Village
in the state of Bihar, North India
About 160 miles east of the holy Hindu city of Varanasi
(aka Benares) -- though by automobile today it seems
infinitely farther -- lies the town of Bodh Gaya (aka
Buddhagaya) . As the site of Siddhartha Gautama's
enlightenment, Bodh Gaya is one of the most sacred,
if not the most sacred, of many treasured locations
for Buddhists of every school and sect. Today, it is the
site of the famous Mahabodhi Temple, which is a
pilgrimage destination for Buddhists from
all over the world.
any image will yield a larger version of it.)
The front of the Mahabodhi Temple, as seen from
the main entrance early in the morning.
As one approaches the temple, there stands an
ancient arch that resembles a Shinto torii (gate).
It was reportedly placed there (along with many
other things) by the great emperor and Buddhist
missionary, Ashoka, in the third century BCE.
To the left is one of several sets of footprints of
the Buddha on the temple grounds, which many
believers regard as authentic impressions left by the
sage, rather than as mere symbols. To the right
stands one of many stupas (symbolic reliquaries)
that surround the temple.
As the visitor draws closer to the temple, its great
spire looms large.
On either side of the main entrance are images
of the Buddha, with his hands in different positions
(mudras) in each. The one of the left suggests
reassurance, while the one on the right points
to the earth as a witness to his enlightenment.
Inside the temple, the focal point is an eighteen-foot
golden image of Siddhartha Gautama. During seasons
of pilgrimage (during the winter), the small chamber that
houses it will be jammed with devotees.
Around the temple is a marble walkway, which is used for
what is perhaps the most common act of devotion here:
circumambulation. Though employing various styles (and
speeds) of walking meditation, Buddhists of various schools
and different cultures ritually traverse the circumference of
the temple -- some once, others seven times, and still others
one-hundred-eight times. Just above eye level all around the
temple are niches, in each of which sits a golden image of the
Buddha in his teaching pose.
At the rear of the temple and behind a concrete enclosure
(which the tour books had told us would be closed to the
public) stand the famous Bo (or Bodhi) Tree, under which
Siddhartha sat and attained enlightenment. Though the
original tree, a pipal or ficus religiosus, died long ago, it has
been replaced several times by saplings of tree that
themselves had been grown from offshoots of the original
and sent to other locations.
wife, Randy, stands at one corner of the
enclosure as, in the distance, a devotee circumambulates
the temple, oblivious to the strangely Western acts of photo-
piety that we are performing nearby. To Randy's left are two
glass cases containing yet more footprints of the Buddha.
A few feet more to her left (camera right) is the entrance,
which is (to our surprise) open to visitors.
The base of
the tree is wrapped with large plastic ribbons.
On the right, between the tree and the temple, and beneath a
colorful awning, is a golden platform supposedly built by
Emperor (Maharajah) Ashoka to mark the very spot where
the Buddha sat in his pursuit of enlightenment. The sign
at the base of the tree, written in Hindi, has an English
counterpart on the opposite side of the tree (where the
second photo of the platform was taken). Both signs
give instructions for the proper treatment of the tree.
The (fractured) English version reads as follows:
DO NOT PLUCK LEAVES FROM THE BODHI-TREE
2. DO NOT TAKE SOIL FROM BODHI-TREE GROUND
3. KINDLY SAVE THE SACRED BODHI-TREE
4. PLEASE DO NOT UP ON BODHI-TREE GROUND.
BUDDHA GAYA TEMPLE"
(We were very careful to abide by all of these rules. As far as
we can recall, neither of us upped on the ground there. Thanks
to our guide, however, we did manage to walk away and return
home with a piece of bark that had fallen from the tree.)
The temple spire as seen through the branches
of the Bo tree.
immediately surrounding the temple
are crowded with all kind of structures, including two
other walkways (each at a higher level than the one
around the base of the temple), and many stupas,
statues, arches, and even a small temple or two.
Most of the statues, not surprisingly, are of the
Buddha himself, though the photo at the far right
shows Mahakashyapa, the Buddh'a greatest
disciple and hand-picked successor.
being located in religiously eclectic India,
one is not terribly surprised to see Hindu deities
honored at this sacred Buddhist site, in the case,
Lord Shiva and his family -- including his elephant-
headed son, Ganesha, appearing at the far right.
From the highest of the walkways, one can see at a lower
level some inscriptions in the Tibetan language. The one
enlarged at the right is the famous Vajrayana mantra
OM MANI PADME HUM.
Adjacent to the main temple complex -- behind a locked gate
casually "guarded" by (what luck!) a friend of our guide
who might be persuaded to open it to special guests
(aka foreigners with a few rupees to spare) -- lies a
peace park conceived, built, and dedicated a decade or
so ago by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Also adjacent to the main temple complex is an
artificial body of water, Muclalinda Lake, named after
and honoring the large cobra that according to tradition
shielded the meditating Buddha from a raging storm
with his huge hood. Floating on the lake are lotuses,
only a few of which (unfortunately) were yet in bloom.
notices that most of the people at this temple
are also foreigners -- though most are Asians: mostly Thai,
Burmese, and Tibetan, but a Vietnamese and Korean or two.
That is because Buddhism as a separate religion has all but
died out in India in the past thousand years. More specifically,
Hindus have simply come to regard Lord Buddha as the ninth
incarnation (avatar) of the god Vishnu, and thus Buddhism
as just another sect (among many) of their own faith.
of piety observable here, even on an
off-season day, is remarkable. A Burmese Theravada
monk sits in silent meditation. A laywoman prostrates
herself in prayer in the Tibetan style. A Tibetan layman
quietly (but audibly) chants Sutras (scriptures) to himself.
But the main act of piety remains circumambulation.
stroll, pausing here and there
to bow in reverence or prayer.
the Burmese monk below, take a few quick
steps, raise prayerful hands, kneel, bow, rise, and then
repeat this routine -- for the entire circumference of (in
this case) the highest, outermost and therefore longest
walkway around the temple.
Most impressive of all, however, is a young red-robed
Tibetan monk, first spotted walking on the marble pavement
at the far corner of the temple. He is walking incredibly
-- almost imperceptibly -- slowly. (Another circumabulator,
moving at his own faster pace on the burlap carpet, quickly
overtakes and passes him, as if he were -- well -- standing
still . . . which he almost is.) With perfect balance, he lifts
and moves each foot, one after the other, moving at most
a few feet per minute. His concentration is intense at the
same time that it seems perfectly natural -- at least for him.
(Notice from the position of the shade line how little distance
he has covered in the time that I have walked the full length
of the temple, pausing to take pictures of other things along
At one point, wife Randy worries that my picture-taking
will disturb or distract him. "Not if he's doing it right,"
I reply -- and it is clear to me that he is, and that I am
bothering him no more than a fly landing on his nose.
As I am
to depart the temple grounds, my guide
introduces me to a "priest," a "very holy man," I am told.
He first uncovers a standing Buddha in a little grotto for
me to photograph -- a gracious act for which he (not
surprisingly) expects a tip. He then rushes ahead to untie
a decorative scarf from around a sacred pillar that, according
to the sign, was erected by Ashoka to mark one of the many
spots on these grounds where the Buddha meditated during
his seven weeks here. The "priest" shows me the scarf,
then touches it again to the pillar and generously hands it to
me as a gift. I bow deeply, thank him, and start to walk away.
"More tip?" he asks. "Sure," I respond. After all, it's a living...
and this is a very poor country...and a little to me is a lot to
him. (But I silently wonder what my guide's cut is...and try,
in good Buddhist fashion, not to care whether he thinks
that he has duped yet another gullible tourist.)
Temple -- picturesque from any angle
and in any light.
A few kilometers away are the moutains and
valleys that were, according to tradition, the haunts
of Siddhartha Gautama during his six-year period of
ascetic search that eventually failed him and led him
to sit resolutely under the Bo tree until he should
This eighty-foot statue was erected by Japanese Buddhists
not far from the Mahabodhi Temple a decade or so ago
in honor of the Buddha. Notice how much it resembles
in style the bronze Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at Kamakura,
pictured below it.
(hand positions) are different, however,
because the Japanese Daibutsu is an image of the
Amida Buddha, not Siddhartha Gautama.
of warning to would-be pilgrims to Bodh Gaya.
This town is not on any standard tourist route, and for good
reason. Although on the map, the mere 150 miles or so from
Varanasi (Benares) makes Bodh Gaya look like a simple add-
on, the interstate road is at best what would be called a country
road in the U.S., and in many spots it would be considered
impassible by Western standards. It is, moreover, typically
clogged to a standstill with (literally) thousands of trucks, buses,
and other severely overloaded vehicles in various states of
disrepair. The trip -- for us, eight-and-a-half hours without
a stop, except to add water to an over-heating and therefore
un-air-conditioned "luxury" car -- was, in a word, harrowing...
except for the parts that were merely terrifying.
(On top of
everything else, there were warnings as of early
2000 -- which the India tourism industry do not bother to
inform their clients about -- that the state of Bihar has been
known to have roaming packs of robbers who prey on tourists.)
Also, one needs to know that there are no luxury
accommodations in Bodh Gaya, at least by Western
standards. The best hotel -- the Bodh Gaya Ashok -- is
expensive by Indian standards (and overpriced on any scale),
but it is quite run-down and downright seedy in many ways,
the electricity is very unreliable and unpredictable, and the
service rather inattentive to detail. (Do you mind having to
search for someone to serve you in the restaurant at posted
meal times or finding mold on your toast at breakfast? For
that matter, do you relish the idea of staying in a hotel
whose emergency fire equipment is four red buckets of
sand marked "Fire" on a rack by the entrance?)
would be to go to Bodh Gaya only if it is a
matter of spiritual or professional necessity; and, if you do,
to avoid doing so by car or bus. There is a train that runs
from Varanasi to the city of Gaya, which lies just to the north
of Bodh Gaya. There is also a small airport in Bodh Gaya itself.
I would tell my travel agency to arrange for either a train ticket
from Varanasi to Gaya and driver to Bodh Gaya from there,
or a private plane from Varanasi to Bodh Gaya, again with a
driver to meet you there. A professional guide in Bodh Gaya
is helpful and inexpensive, but not absolutely essential. Allow
two to five hours to explore the temple grounds and observe
the pilgrims and regulars there; then catch your plane or train
back to Varanasi or north to Patna (which is closer) in order to
make connections to other destinations (e.g., Delhi, Agra, or
Kathmandu). Any Indian tour company will be able to help with
these arrangements, once you make clear that an automobile
or bus ride to or from Bodh Gaya is not an acceptable option.
Back to the India-Nepal Photo Journal Index Page
Back to Paul Alan Laughlin's Home Page