Mahabodhi Temple : Tracing the roots of Buddhism

Bodh Gaya

Buddhism, one of the prominent religions of Asia traces its origins to Bodh Gaya. The place where Prince Siddhartha became Lord Buddha. The place that preached the world about virtues of peace and nonviolence; about benevolence and the subtle art of dharma. Situated in Bihar, a state much despised for being unruly and rowdy, Bodh Gaya seems like an oasis in the desert. Bodh Gaya dotted with numerous monasteries has a tranquil, spiritual environment much in contrast to some other places in the state. Prince Siddhartha, attained enlightenment by meditating under a peepal tree (known as the Bodhi tree). Post enlightenment he became Gautam Buddha and preached the principles of Buddhism to the world. Today for Buddhists all over the world, Bodh Gaya is a place of pilgrimage.

4:20 AM, I got off at the Gaya railway station, dragged my luggage across the platform and reached the exit gate. It was not long before I experienced the first slice of the uncouth face of Bihar. I must clarify, I have no complains as it is all a part of the local cultural experience which I carve for during my travels.. Just outside the railway station, there were autorickshaws queued up. I decided to travel as a share passenger and got into one of them. The auto rickshaw which is originally designed to carry 4 passengers already had 5 in it (excluding me). At 4:30 AM, huge speakers placed in the rear end, screamed Bhojpuri songs at maximum volume. Same was the case with all the other auto-rickshaws as well. Lipstick was smeared on the rearview mirror in shape of lips; maybe to provide the driver with some delight as he looked into it. Cutouts of Bollywood actresses were pasted on the glass and roof. As I waited patiently inside the auto despite torturing my ears with the loud music, the driver called out for more passengers. 2 more came and accompanied me in the front seat making taking the total to 7. We waited for another 15 minutes as I wondered how many more would be squeezed into that vehicle. Strangely the other passengers seemed unmoved, perhaps they were used to it. After 10 more minutes. 3 more passengers came. 2 of them perched themselves on top of the two speakers at the rear end while 1 hung himself to the roof. Now including the driver, we were 11 in a vehicle designed to seat 4. Finally, the driver got in and started the trip. On his way, he was still calling out and looking for more passengers. After travelling about 20-30 minutes from the Gaya station we reached at Bodh Gaya. Errrrrrrrrrr..!!!!!!! Finally, I got out of that vehicle and now I was on the unknown roads of Bodh Gaya..

Bodh Gaya is different from the rest of Bihar. There were beautiful monasteries and monks in their maroon and orange robes were strolling on the streets even at such an early hour. I had to do some searching early in the morning to reach my pre booked accommodation. It was an average hotel very near to the Mahabodhi temple. After taking bath, I rested for a while and then went to the Mahabodhi temple.

The first glimpse

At the entrance, visitors have to submit their mobile phones. Still cameras and video equipment are allowed inside but one has to pay some extra charges for it (Rs. 100 for still camera). Then the visitors have to pass through a security screening before entering the temple complex. Once you enter the complex, it is a different world. There is absolute tranquility and a divine bliss immediately engulfs you.

Mahabodhi temple is believed to have been initially constructed by Asoka in the 3rd century BCE (some recent findings suggest an even earlier construction). It was built in its present form during the Gupta dynasty and is among the earliest surviving brick structures. Much restoration work has been carried out at Maha Bodhi temple by various authorities including contributions from Sri Lankan and Burmese leaders as well. It was accredited UNESCO World Heritage status in 2002 and has over time developed into a global spiritual destination.

I descended the steps of the Maha Bodhi temple and reached the main entrance of the temple. Here I took off my shoes and went into the inner sanctum. In the inner sanctum, there is a golden statue of Lord Buddha wrapped in yellow robes in his customary meditation posture with ajar eyes.

Behind the Mahabodhi temple is the Bodhi tree. Lord Buddha attained enlightenment under this peepal tree after meditating uninterrupted for a week. The present tree is the fourth generation of the original Bodhi tree.  Vajrasana, the stone slab on which Lord Buddha sat while meditating is still present under the tree. Monks sit around the Bodhi tree and recite Buddhist hymns and perform chanting at dawn and dusk.

Bodhi Tree
My memento from Bodh Gaya

A leaf from the Bodhi tree is considered a token of blessing and a prized asset that all visitors aspire to take home from Bodh Gaya. Plucking leaves from the Bodhi tree is strictly prohibited and there are guards to ensure the same. However, one may collect the leaves that fall off from the tree. On my visit, I was extremely lucky to obtain a leaf for myself which fell in front of me. I humbly accepted it as my gift and blessing from Lord Buddha.

To the left side of the temple, there are 21 brass lotuses. Lord Buddha spent his 4th week of meditation walking to and fro at this place. The 21 lotuses represent the spots where Lord Buddha`s feet touched the ground and lotuses erupted by the divine power obtained through deep meditation. There is a placard mentioning this fact. The original stone lotuses are also present there.

There is a raised spot in front of the temple, marked by the Animeshlocha Stupa where Lord Buddha spent his second week of mediation by staring at the Bodhi tree for a week without blinking his eyes. In front of the main temple, there is a pillar representing the Ajapala Nigodh tree where Lord Buddha revealed (during the 5th week of meditation) that one becomes a Brahmin not by the virtue of one’s birth but by one’s deeds.

I spent about 1.5 hours in the temple. After visiting the Mahabodhi temple, I went to the 80 feet Buddha statue visiting many monasteries en route. There were many monasteries constructed by the various sects of Buddhism. There are individual monasteries and temples built by the countries where Buddhism is practiced; each with a distinct architecture typical to that country. Although there are temples built by over 12 countries, the ones built by Bhutan, Thailand and Mongolia are particularly beautiful and stands out among the rest. I have written a separate post on the monasteries and temples of the various sects and countries. Please read it here:

Photostory : The international temples at Bodh Gaya

The beautiful Thai Temple

In the end, I reached the 80 ft Buddha statue. The statue was built by the Japanese and unveiled in presence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. It is an elegantly carved statue of Lord Buddha in meditation posture perched on a lotus. Statues of Buddha’s ten prime disciples flank the main statue. The statue is one of the prime attractions of Bodh Gaya and must not be missed while visiting Bodh Gaya. Visitors can reach the statue by electric rickshaws as well which ply from the Mahabodhi temple. However, one may also choose to walk to the site, as I did. It has an advantage – you can visit many monasteries en route. After visiting the 80 feet statue and the colourful monasteries, I returned to my hotel, had lunch and had a long sleep which was due after the previous night’s travel.

The 80 feet Buddha statueAs dusk set in, I went to the Mahabodhi temple again to experience the spiritual bliss of the evening prayers. Inside the temple complex, there was absolute tranquility accentuated by the calmness of the evening. Chanting reverberating around the temple created miasma of divinity. There were many devotees/monks who squatted around the Bodhi tree; Chanting the mantras. These chanting are absolutely soothing to the ears. Some were busy doing rounds of their beads while some were deep in meditation. I found an isolated spot for myself near the Bodhi tree and meditated for about 30 mins. The experience of meditating under the very tree where once Lord Buddha meditated at achieved enlightenment will remain the most cherished part of my Bodh Gaya experience.

Later I visited the Muchalinda Lake. Legends have it that on the 6th week of meditation while Lord Buddha was deep in meditation, a violent storm accompanied by heavy rain lashed the area. To shield Lord Buddha from the atrocities, Muchalinda, the snake king, emerged from the ground and sheltered Lord Budhha under his hood. Next, there are the butter lamp houses where hundreds of diyas are lit by the monks in the evening. Those tiny lamps lit in a dark room were ethereal to watch. I spent another 1 hour in the temple, soaking within myself the divinity and positivity the place exuded.

I had dinner and returned to my hotel late in the evening. Thus ended a day of absolute divine bliss.. Next day I went to the ruins of the legendary Nalanda University, one of the earliest centres of excellence in the world founded in the fifth century. I hope you liked this post. There is no better place to understand Buddhism than the Bodh Gaya – the very place where it originated. It is the only popular tourist destination is Bihar and will definitely not disappoint you. Try visiting it someday and share your experiences below.

Keep Travelling & spread Love…

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[…] Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment under the Mahabodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. Sarnath is 10 km away from Varanasi and can be easily reached via shared autorickshaws from the […]