I can hear the sacred Buddhist chants wafting softly as I walk up to the temple gates. It adds to the air of peace.
I enter the gates and stop short. Nothing has really prepared me for this. A long flight of steps leads down to a marble courtyard. There rises the Mahabodhi Temple, 170 feet high, in all its ancient glory. It is a soaring pyramidal tower, intricately sculptured, with a stupa on top. This World Heritage Site is one of the earliest and most imposing structures built entirely in brick from the late Gupta period. I slowly walk down the stairs. Spread over an area of 48 sq.ft., the courtyard is dotted with a number of old stupas, some 2,500 years old. I run my hands over the rough surface of one of the older ones and feel like I am touching a piece of history. The courtyard is all ablaze with fiery marigolds. A festival is going on.
A small hall leads to the sanctum sanctorum, where a beautiful golden statue of the Lord Buddha smiles down benevolently. It is all aglow in soft light. His right hand touches the earth, depicting the posture in which Buddha attained nirvana. The fragrance of handmade incense sticks pervades the air.
Behind the temple is the Bodhi Pallanka, or Place of Enlightenment, where Prince Siddharta attained nirvana under a pipal tree on the Baisakha full moon in 623 B.C. A monk tells me that the present tree is probably the fifth descendant of the original tree. The Vajrasan, or the Diamond Throne, between the Bodhi tree and the temple marks the actual spot where Buddha sat in meditation. Emperor Ashoka set up this throne in polished sandstone to commemorate the place. I see a group of Sri Lankan Buddhists offering incense sticks and flowers, and pasting a fine foil of pure gold on the lower reaches of the tree trunk.
On the north of the temple is the Cankamana, or Cloister Walk. Lord Buddha spent the third week after enlightenment here, walking up and down in meditation. On a high stone platform, carved lotuses indicate the places where his feet rested while walking. It is beautifully decorated with orchids and bowls full of bright marigolds, dipped in water. To the south and west are richly carved 2nd-century B.C. balustrades, built in the Sunga period. These sandstone railings, the oldest remains in Gaya, have medallions depicting the lotus, flowers, birds, and animals. I can almost imagine those artisans from a bygone era, chipping away on the sandstone blocks under the sweltering sun. Would they have imagined that centuries later people would admire their sculptural finesse?
I walk up the flight of steps from the courtyard to the Animeshlochan Chaitya, a small temple within the Mahabodhi complex. After Buddha attained enlightenment, he sat here as he gazed upon the tree. Another sacred spot within the premises is a lotus tank, where he spent a week before he attained nirvana.
Thousands of devotees visit this temple everyday, yet a sense of peace pervades the air. Hundreds of monks in maroon robes—some venerable, some young—sit quietly on their prayer mats, clicking their rosary beads or reading the Holy Scriptures in Pali. There is none of the hullabaloo that we associate with big Hindu temples.
To honor the sanctity of the site, several Buddhist countries have built their own temples and monasteries here, each reflecting its native architectural style.
The Thai temple is a beautiful white structure with red multi-layered sloping roofs coming down like flat upturned steps. The windows, doors, pillars, and roofs are all edged with beautiful gold lacquer, which catches the sunlight. Two magnificent dragon forms guard the entrance. Inside is a huge brass statue of Buddha, which was cast in Bangkok on a full-moon night in 1966. It was flown to Bodh Gaya a year later. A small framed photograph of the King of Thailand rests beside the statue.
The Tibetan monastery, which was set up in 1952, has a narrow flight of steps leading up to the temple. A beautiful golden statue of Buddha wearing an elaborate crown presides over the hall. There are a thousand small Buddha statues placed in tiers on both sides. They catch the afternoon sun as it slants through the rafters, and dazzle with their golden glory. The walls are completely covered with intricate frescoes in an intense green background, telling stories of the life of Buddha. I see a beautiful rangoli depicting the Wheel of Life, on a glass-protected platform. What amazes me is the number of colors used, and the perfect shading from light tones to dark, as if in a painting. A monk sitting there tells me it is made from stone powder, which has been dyed. It took them a week to make it.
This monastery has a giant Wheel of Law, which weighs more than 200 quintals. The Buddhists believe that turning the wheel from left to right will benefit humanity and wash away our sins. I try my hand at it; the well-greased wheel starts slowly and picks up speed as a fellow pilgrim lends me a hand.
At the entrance of this monastery is a Tibetan medical and astro institute, Men-Tsee-Khang. The Tibetan doctors seem to be quite popular, judging from the long line of patients waiting. An old man who is sitting by the gate, taking care of the pilgrims’ shoes, has started his own small enterprise. He has an assortment of coins from different countries that he has received as tips from foreign visitors. They are all neatly lined up for sale. I buy a Sri Lankan rupee for eight Indian rupees.
At a distance, I see an enormous statue of Buddha, which towers over the trees. Built by the Dai-jo-kyo sect of Japan, it shows Buddha in the dhyana mudra, or the meditation pose on a lotus. The statue is a patchwork of pink sandstone blocks. The lotus is made of yellow chunar sandstone and is set on a granite pedestal. Smaller statues of the 10 chief disciples stand on both sides of this statue. The Dalai Lama unveiled this grand work in 1989. Next to this statue is the Dai-jo-kyo temple of Japan.
The Bhutanese temple lies in a beautifully landscaped garden. The beautiful frescoes on the wall capture my attention. Fierce dragons stand in fleecy clouds; benevolent Buddhas look down from the wall. A lot of gold has been used in the paintings, giving the temple a very ornate look.
The Burmese temple looks like a pagoda. The Chinese temple is a blend of traditional Chinese and Indian styles.
When it’s time for lunch, I find my way to one of the Tibetan cafes that dot the town. They are serving hot momos, steamed vegetable dumplings spiced up with chilly garlic sauce, which melt in my mouth. The shy Tibetan girl offers me some more, but I’m stuffed. Regretfully, I refuse.
I decide to spend the afternoon shopping. The Tibetan market looks inviting. The Phowa Course is a narrow lane running by the boundary wall of the Mahabodhi temple. An assortment of stalls lines this makeshift shopping mall. Lots of imported toys, electronics, clothes, and small knick-knacks—all from China—can be bought for a bargain. Other goodies in the market are wonderfully warm woolies—socks, caps, gloves—hand-knitted in bright colors. I buy myself a rainbow-colored cap and matching socks, some color to cheer me up on dreary winter afternoons. Souvenirs include lovely metal bells, chimes, and statues. I also pick up some handmade incense sticks that came from Dharamshala, the Dalai Lama’s capital in exile.
As I drive away in the evening, I turn back for a last look. A maroon-clad tonsured monk walks through the green fields, a lonely figure against the setting sun. It could be another century; it could be another time.
Payal Khurana writes from Amritsar, India.