When I arrived at Bodh Gaya yesterday it was already the time of sunset. I regret not having visited the Mahabodhi Temple. It would have had a completely different feel to it under lights. I was too tired to venture out for the evening. I unpacked, had a bath, washed clothes and rested in my room. When the bell was rung for dinner at 8 pm, I headed down to the dining hall.
I am staying at the International Meditation Center run by Buddhists from Bangladesh. Firstly, given that Bangladesh is a Muslim country, I didn’t even know that Buddhists exist there. Secondly, Bodh Gaya is a place where international presence is everywhere. Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, Thai, Srilankans, Koreans, Tibetans and a few more have all setup monasteries or rest houses for pilgrims.
Along the main road, the Bangladesh Buddhist monks run a dormitory type sevice. Actually people sleep in the prayer hall. The same is true at the International Meditation Center. I have taken a room instead for only Rs. 100. Meals cost an additional Rs. 30 and it covers dinner, breakfast and lunch. Those seeking to learn meditation can approach the head monk for instruction. I am not into meditation at the moment. I am looking outwards and perhaps it may be many more years before I am ready to look inwards. Perhaps I will never be ready and I just have to put my mind to it.
My room is a small one. The toilet and bathroom is common but there is hardly anyone else staying here. There is a geyser for hot water. There is a mosquito net over the clean bed. So in this place, Buddha’s Middle Way includes a hot bath, a warm blanket and a mosquito net. This is the first time in nearly two weeks I am having access to hot water. It is almost a privilege. I am beginning to like the Middle Way.
Food here is delightfully tasty and moderately spiced. This is so much better than the basic stuff of the monasteries of the Spiti Valley.
Place of Enlightenment
After a wonderful breakfast of tasty rice porridge, cooked vegetables, two biscuits, a piece of cake and a cup of tea, I walk towards the Mahabodhi Temple, the focus of all pilgrims to Bodh Gaya. This is a place that opens at 4 am way before sunrise. Though I arrive at the temple before 7 am the place is already busy with pilgrims. Vendors are just beginning to setup their wares along the walkway leading to the temple entrance. Beggars are just starting to arrive. It won’t be long before they appeal to the Buddha and the Dhamma for offerings.
In Amaravati all I saw was the ruined stupa with very little left of the dome. Sanchi presented the art of Buddhism but as a religion it was as good as dead. In Orissa, while I was at Ratnagiri, Udayagiri and Lalitgiri, everything was either lost, housed in a museum or standing as ruins among the green hills. Buddhism has been like this for me all across India. In Bodh Gaya, Buddhism feels alive. It is not a mere relic of the past. Though there are some curious tourists, pilgrims arrive in much greater numbers.
The main temple has a pyramidal shikara with unique moulding. It is flanked by smaller ones on each of the four corners. The main temple wall contains niches filled with images of the Buddha. Votive stupas surround the temple on all sides. These are colourfully decorated with flowers. In the sanctum, the image of the seated Buddha is gilded in gold. More than the architecture it is the feel of the place that really impresses me.
The temple complex is filled with pilgrims from all over the world. It may be said that through the Buddha they come to Bodh Gaya as seekers of truth, not as Japanese, American, Indian, Tibetan, Thai, Korean or French. Their identities do not mean much here. Differences give way to a common purpose that they share. Some pilgrims have setup wooden platforms within the temple complex. It appears that many of them spend many hours at the temple each day in an effort to experience at a personal level the teachings of the Buddha. They do a physical routine of folded palms, stretching and prostration in a manner similar to Surya Namaskar that is practiced in yoga. They do this routine not for minutes but for hours with short breaks in between.
Behind the temple is the sacred Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Pilgrims pray under the shade of this tree. A lotus medallion in stone is covered with gold leaves offered by pilgrims. Whenever there is a light breeze people look up hopefully. When a leaf falls to the ground, pilgrims scramble to take home a piece of history. Truth as I know it is this – the original Bodhi tree was lost and this is a graft from the tree at Sri Lanka which in turn is a graft from the original tree. I have at home a leaf from the tree at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
Within the temple complex are many other sites of historic value – where lotuses bloomed wherever the Buddha walked, where Buddha meditated each subsequent week after gaining enlightenment. As I walk I see a monk blowing away an ant from the walkway. He tries to do this as gently as possible without even touching the ant. Last night I must have swatted successfully more than a dozen mosquitoes. Non-violence at the level of this monk is a little difficult for the common man.
A Buddhist monk later catches me admiring an idol. He makes me sit down with him.
‘What is the meaning of Sri Ganesh karna?’ he asks.
‘It is to begin any good thing or work,’ I reply.
‘I will now prove to you that Sri Ganesh karna actually is to begin a bad thing,’ he challenges. He then gives me a full one hour discourse on the fallacies of Hinduism. The crux of his argument was that Hinduism is full of stories and legends that make no logical sense and therefore they couldn’t have possibly happened. They cannot lead a person to the Ultimate Reality.
‘You may be an engineer but I will give you zero out of ten,’ he finally concludes. Meanwhile a security guard has been listening on the sidelines with interest. I leave the two of them to continue the argument.
The first disappointment here is that the building is undergoing some maintenance. As a result all the stone railings are covered in black plastics. I have to be contented with 9-10 century AD sculptures from the Pala period. There are some excellent sculptures with fine details of Avalokiteshwara, Manjusri and one depicting the temptation of Mara.
A photographic gallery here gave me an idea of what else to visit in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Buddha may not have survived had he not been given a bowl of kheer by a woman named Sujata. Buddha was undergoing a phase of severe austerity and bodily torture. He has not eaten for weeks. Apparently Sujata had told him that all his efforts would be in vain if he died in this manner. Buddha accepted the kheer, abandoned the austerities and adopted a different method which would later become the Middle Way.
Apparently the place where is event took place is on the other side of the river, near the river bank where today the remains of a later stupa stands.
‘How far is it to Sujata Ghat?’ I ask a villager. He is carrying a gunny sack balanced on his shoulder. He is returning from the market. We are on the bridge walking across the river.
‘Bas aa gaye (we are there),’ he replies. Villagers have no knowledge of distance or bad estimators of it. Most probably, they don’t think its important enough to be accurate. Any kind of coarse approximation will do. If a guy says ‘thodi hi door’ it may be a kilometer away. If he says ‘das kadam aage’ it may be half a kilometer. If he says ‘aa gaye’ it may be at least 200 m. It is just like announcements of Indian Railways. In one case it is about space; in the other case it is about time.
This villager then starts to chat with me. ‘I don’t know how they can pay ten times its worth,’ he complains. He is referring to land sold by government to foreigners who build in Bodh Gaya their monasteries and temples.
I finally reach the stupa that marks the spot. The village scenes around are typical. Rice fields surround the stupa. Many farm workers are working next to many stacks of harvested rice paddy. The old way of manual threshing is gone. They now have machines that do the threshing quickly. It is semi-automated. One Sri Lankan pilgrim has a go at the threshing machine.
This temple is in Gaya and built by Queen Ahilya Bai of Indore. The shikara is beautiful. Projections from the sides make the shikara an interesting view from many angles. The effect is something like that of the maqbara at Junagadh. The sanctum houses a single footprint in stone from which the temple derives its name. A metal umbrella crowns this stone and its underside is nicely moulded with Vishnu’s avatars.
I am being followed around in the temple by a priest. It annoys me. He is obviously after some money. I instead have an argument with him about Hinduism. Finally I give him something.
The mandapa here is very interesting. Above ground level there is a mezzanine level. Pillars are composite with four pillars of simple motifs. The pillars are not exquisite as in Tharamangalam or Lepakshi but beautiful in their own way.
Ramshila generally refers to the hill. At the foot is a temple and across the road is a small unimpressive tank. Within the temple is a beautiful sculpture of Ganesha in red stone. There is a linga in white stone that almost looks like ice. The temple itself is in the style of the Holkars of Indore with sharp reliefs on pillars and pilasters, cusped arches and decorated spandrels.
All through my walks in Gaya I have been disgusted by the city’s filth. Tourism here is big but the city does not seem to have benefitted at all from tourist money.
‘Why is Bodh Gaya so dirty?’ I ask the priest at the temple at Ramshila.
‘Cleaning is happening slowly. After all it is 1500 years of garbage. It will take time,’ he replies in defence. I have no idea where he gets this number of 1500 but it is clear that most of the garbage is more recent. If anything, Gaya will be like this for the next 1500 years. Gaya would be one place I would not like to visit again;but Bodh Gaya is something else.