Bodh Gaya is a journey of the mind and spirit when stories once heard materialise into serene reality and scenes evoke lessons learnt from textbooks
We are on the Buddha Trail and we are on a high. The experience of physically travelling on the path the Buddha and Mahavira trod is extraordinary, indefinable. My trip to Bodh Gaya begins at the Delhi airport, much to my surprise. I am glancing through the books on Bihar at a well known book shop. “Do you have anything on Bodh Gaya?” I ask the shop assistant. “There is a book on the Buddha on the far shelf,” replies a young man beside me. “And you will find books on Bodh Gaya in the town itself.” Is he sure? “I'm from Bodh Gaya,” he replies!
Bodh Gaya on the banks of the Falgu river is not just a much dreamed of physical destination. It is a journey of the mind and spirit when stories once heard materialise into serene reality and scenes evoke lessons learnt from textbooks. Its vibrations reach out to all, irrespective of religion and nationality.
Here, the spirituality is tangible. However materialistic the visitor, he or she cannot help feel the aura here, of the prince who, in the 6th century B.C., renounced his all and set out on an arduous journey in search of the Ultimate Truth. It was Emperor Asoka who, in the 3rd century B.C., set up the sandstone seat, the Vajrasana or diamond throne, to mark the spot where Gautama Buddha gained enlightenment. Beautiful stone railings enclose it, some of which date back to Asoka's time.
“This is the fifth in the line of trees descended from the original peepul tree. The sapling was brought from Sri Lanka, which in turn grew from the sapling Emperor Asoka's daughter Sanghamitra took to the country from Bodh Gaya,” says our companion.
The Maha Bodhi (Mahavihara) temple, which was reclaimed from the oblivion caused by the changing tides of history, grew from the stupa that Asoka set up. The temple is believed to have been completed during the Gupta period and perhaps renovated during the time of the Kushan kings. We enter the distinct, towering gopura seen as images in textbooks and tourist brochures but looking far less weather beaten than expected. Within is the huge, gilded image of the Buddha. The air of calm is pervasive as devotees, quite a few of whom are Buddhists from other countries, sit in meditation.
The stupas facing the tree are numerous and of varied sizes. Many of them we learn were constructed by Asoka. All around in the complex are the seven spots where the Buddha spent a week each after gaining enlightenment, including the spot from where he is said to have gazed unblinkingly at the Tree under which he saw the Light; the path which he paced with stone lotuses carved to mark his footsteps; and the lake where according to legend the king of serpents Muchalinda emerged and spread his hood to shelter the meditating Buddha from the thunder storm.
Special too is the spot facing the temple adorned with an Asoka stupa, where the Brahmin posed the question to the Buddha of what constitutes true Brahmana and got the answer.
A few minutes' walk from the temple is the hall screening the animation show introduced in recent years. Awkward and faltering, animation appears to be in its infancy here. But the main events of the Buddha's life are described through the narration by ‘Sujata', the daughter of the village chief of Uruvela (one of the names by which Bodh Gaya was known in the past). Sujata revived the strength of Siddhartha by offering kheer or sweet rice pudding after the austerities he undertook for six years. The narration includes the story of the dreaded brigand Angulimala's conversion, and of the charging elephant that came to a gentle halt when it neared him. The stupa to honour Sujata added to over the centuries was excavated on the bank of the Niranjana (Falgu) river.
The Bodh Gaya Museum is small. But invaluable are the ancient railings it holds. We peer in admiration at the Asokan railings in sandstone and those erected by the Sunga kings in granite that once stood around the Tree. Some of them look astoundingly new despite the passage of millennia! Bodh Gaya, the fulcrum of Buddhist civilisation for hundreds of years, was plundered and destroyed by the Turks in the 13th Century. The temple which lay buried and forgotten for centuries was later restored to glory. Burma initiated restoration efforts in the first half of the19th Century. British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham along with J.D. Belgar and Rajendralal Mitra undertook the job of excavation and restoration. Pre-restoration photographs of the temple at the museum show us how remarkable their efforts have been .The Maha Bodhi temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
A short drive and we see the 80-ft-tall image of the Buddha designed by the Japanese towering over the landscape. The mandatory photograph, and we hit the road. On either side are monasteries and guest houses built by numerous Asian countries in varying styles of architecture. They strike a note of dissonance in design as well as harmony in thought and belief.
We leave Bodh Gaya suffused with the spirit of the tranquil. And moved by the coincidence. For, exactly two days later is Buddha Purnima, the Day of Enlightenment!