There was a lull in the streets outside Bodh Gaya’s Mahabodhi temple, an unusual scene on a winter morning, when the square would otherwise be abuzz with tourists from all over the world. The serial blasts that rocked the temple premises this July have cast a shadow on tourist inflow this season, although many have returned without a sense of fear.
“I heard about the blasts, but chose to come anyways. Having visited earlier, I find the security much tighter now. The explosions perhaps intended to spread fear, but I am not afraid,” Sabine Voyez, a French tourist said.
The Mahabodhi temple, a place venerated by Buddhists internationally, houses the Bodhi tree, under which Gautam Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment. During the peak season, beginning roughly from mid August and lasting till February, several monasteries in Bodh Gaya see an influx of monks and followers, who attend special prayers and meditation sessions at the Buddhist shrine.
“For old people like us,” said the elderly Thein Su from Myanmar, “coming here is a rare chance. The blasts were a sad event, but they are occurring globally. Although there was a concern while planning the trip, we just wanted to come where the Buddha came.”
There was a rush, almost 4,000 visitors daily on November 15 and 16, when 300 kgs of gold donated by Thailand, was brought for the coating of the temple vault.
“On other days, we have about 300 visitors. The season may pick up in December for special prayers. The crowd is a little less and some impact of the blasts is being felt,” Binay Paswan, a guard of the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee said.
Outside the temple shopkeepers and hawkers were seen twiddling their thumbs. “Business has been hit very badly. My wares [spread on a pavement] would be arranged right up to the road. Now the stall size has shrunk. By this time this road is full of tourists, now you don’t see anybody. Everyone in this town survives on loans, and when business picks up in the tourist season they are able to repay. The impact of the blasts has been very bad. Usually hotel bookings are full in June-July itself, but this time everything is empty,” said Vinod Kumar a hawker of prayer paraphernalia outside the temple.
At the State Tourism department-run Hotel Siddharth Vihar, occupancy levels have dipped. When the hotel would see full occupancy around this time of the year, four of its 13 rooms were unoccupied with bookings yet to pick up, the hotel staff said.
Gaya district magistrate D. Balamurugan said there was no real impact of the blast on tourist traffic. “There were some flight cancellations in August-September when we have a lot of tourists from Sri Lanka. But by and large the situation is fine.”
Tourists welcomed the extra security measures in the aftermath of the blasts. “There is a lot of security – there are cameras, laser screening, so that there’s nothing to fear,” said Chloe France, a tourist.
Tenzin Chiodak, a China-origin French citizen, said, “I feel sorry for those who carried out the blasts. If killing me gives them happiness, let them do it. I am not going to reply. It’s bad karma for them.”
The only drawback of the tight security measures, said Catherine Berthond, is the absence of all the “chai stalls, trinket shops and boutiques that formerly lined the temple premises.”