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 entrepreneur and most would take 1% of billion). 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’s 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.
[Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya – India]
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, and saying a few Buddhist quotes won’t get you there any sooner either.
[The Bodhgaya 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]
The easiest way to get to Bodhgaya is to get the train to nearby Gaya, which is on the Dehli-Kolkata line.
I stayed in Gaya, which is a bigger city about 15km away. Bodhgaya is a nicer place to stay but I had a train to catch early in the morning and I didn’t want the hassle getting a taxi in the morning.
While Gaya is a small city it has an airport with services to Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, which are mostly seasonal for pilgrimage travel.
More photos in the Bodhgaya photo gallery.