India has three of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world, with the fourth being in Nepal. That is an impressive heritage for a country that counts less than one percent of its population as Buddhist (though ask any business man and most would take 1% of billion any time). Out of those four sites, Bodhgaya is the most important. This is the place where Buddha attained Enlightenment.
The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya marks the place where Siddhārtha Gautama sat under a Bodhi tree for 49 days of meditation. Not content with having just attained enlightenment, the Buddha then spent a week in front of the tree, gazing with unblinking eyes in gratitude.
Behind the main temple is Bodhi tree where Buddha sat. Actually it is not the original tree but a descendent of. The original was cut down, but not before a seed was taken to Sri Lanka, which was then able to later supply a replacement tree.
For some reason I had visions of an open garden and the tree just there for all to enjoy. I envisaged that I was going to give the tree a big hug and have some of that nirvana rub off upon me. Of course the reality was different, and the tree is behind a high enclosure. Fair enough. With approximately 350 million Buddhists worldwide, imagine if they all came and gave the tree a hug – it would be worn out in no time.
And don’t even think of trying to take a leaf as a souvenir. All the branches are well above reaching/jumping level . While I didn’t count, I’m sure there was less than 350 million leaves on the tree (though there were some hawkers out the front who will try and sell you a leaf from a Bodhi tree, perhaps the original one ). Anyway, there is no such thing as instant enlightenment. I knew that.
[Bodhi Tree at Mahabodhi Temple]
It is pretty impressive to stand by this tree and think of the history. Over 2500 years ago a man sat under this tree as a Prince, and left as the Supreme Buddha.
Bodhgaya is a small city of around 30000 people. Around the city there are Buddhist temples and monasteries representing all the major Buddhist countries of the world. I was happy to see the unmistakable architectural style of a Thai Buddhist Wat.
[Thai Monastery - Bodhgaya]
While Bodhgaya is a small city, it has an airport with services to Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, which are mostly seasonal for pilgrimage travel. The easiest way to get there is to get the train to the nearby Gaya, which is on the Dehli to Kolkata line.