We come to hotel lobby exactly at 6:30 AM, as suggested by our tour operator Jackie, to visit the Mahabodhi temple. No cars are allowed near the Mahabodhi temple. You also cannot carry with you, your mobile phones or any other baggage inside the temple premises. These precautionary conditions are in force as, on 7 July 2013 a series of ten bombs had exploded in and around the Mahabodhi Temple complex. Five people, including two Buddhist monks, were injured by the blasts. Three other devices were defused by bomb-disposal squads at a number of locations in Gaya.
Jackie suggests that we leave our mobiles phones and other stuff with the hotel reception, take our cameras and start for the temple on foot. While we are just outside the hotel, an ‘e-Rickshaw’ (Tuk-Tuk) silently approaches. Jackie tells us that these battery powered electric rickshaws are a recent addition and have completely replaced the cycle rickshaws. We decide to take the ride and board. A few minutes later, we alight in the chowk, up to which ‘e-Rickshaws’ are allowed to ply. We find the ride smooth, silent and pollution free. From this chowk onwards we would need to walk. We hand over our shoes to a service shop, which specializes in safe-keeping the shoes and start walking. The weather is not very cold yet the flooring on which we walk has already turned colder. Temple management seems to be aware of this and have provided a green plastic foam carpet for people, who want to walk towards the temple. We soon reach the temple entrance. There is another security check. Our cameras are checked for any hidden stuff and we have a body check to see that we are not carrying any non-allowed things. Another few steps and we are standing at Gate no. 2 to east of the temple.
Pillar in front of Eastern entrance
Entire temple complex except for the three sacred sites of Buddha's enlightenment, stands on a low ground, at least 10 to 15 feet below the adjacent ground on which entrance gate stands. The present Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya comprises the 50 m high grand Temple, the Vajrasana, sacred Bodhi Tree and other sacred sites of Buddha's enlightenment, surrounded by numerous ancient Votive stupas, well maintained and protected by inner, middle and outer circular boundaries. A seventh sacred place, the Lotus Pond, is located outside the enclosure to the south. Both the temple area and the Lotus Pond are surrounded by circulating passages at two or three levels and the area of the ensemble is 5 m below the level of the surrounding land.
Buddha image in the sanctum of Mahabodhi temple
Mahabodhi temple complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO’s web site describes the temple complex in these words. “The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th or 6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, from the late Gupta period. The Main Temple wall has an average height of 11 m and it is built in the classical style of Indian temple architecture. It has entrances from the east and from the north and has a low basement with mouldings decorated with honeysuckle and geese design. Above this is a series of niches containing images of the Buddha. Further above there are mouldings and chaitya niches, and then the curvilinear shikhara or tower of the temple surmounted by amalaka and kalasha (architectural features in the tradition of Indian temples). At the four corners of the parapet of the temple are four statues of the Buddha in small shrine chambers. A small tower is built above each of these shrines. The temple faces east and consists of a small forecourt in the east with niches on either side containing statues of the Buddha.”
We go down the steps leading to the main temple, the temple has a statue of Buddha in the sanctum, worshipped by Buddhists. We see many of them, coming in groups. Jackie tells me that these Buddhist groups come from all Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Japan. After having a look at the main temple, we climb a flight of steps to come to the spot, where we find a sandstone pillar, believed to be erected by Emperor Ashoka. Further to the south is a small lake known as “Muchlind” lake, where Buddha is supposed to have sat in the sixth week after he attained enlightenment. Jackie tells me that this is probably not the real “Muchlind” lake and this one has been built for convenience of the pious pilgrims. Real “Muchlind” lake is located far beyond the boundaries of the temple in a nearby village. From “Muchlind” lake we again go down to the temple wall and walk across it. The temple has at the top a pinnacle (Kalasa) made from gold, Jackie tells me that it weighs 298 Kilograms and it has been presented by Thai Buddhists. We walk along the southern face of the temple. This wall has series of niches in which images of Buddha have been placed. Above the niches, I can see a frieze band running continuously along the wall. This frieze has a series of gargoyle faces projecting out. Above the frieze there are niches again with Buddha figures. Above that, all along the southern face of temple tower to the top are niches in row after row. Most of them are empty. Only a few show lotus flower motifs carved in them. At the top I can see the golden pinnacle.
We turn right and come to the western face of the temple. In front of us is the Bodhi tree. The tree trunk is now enclosed in a sandstone railing. On the inner side of the sandstone railing there is an enclosure made from round steel bars painted with golden colour. For additional protection there is a thick and transparent acrylic sheet fixed on inside of steel enclosure, on all three sides. (On fourth side stands the western face of Mahabodhi temple.) In the space between the tree and the western temple face, I can see a stone platform with carvings on top and edges. This carved stone, known as “Vajrasana” has been dated to first few centuries of our era. It is believed that this is the exact spot where Buddha sat, when he had attained enlightenment. Gates made from round steel bars, painted with golden colour, are seen fixed to north and south faces of the sandstone railing. These must have been provided for temple staff to enter the area adjoining Bodhi tree for cleaning up as well as for temple monks to carry out daily Buddhist rituals. While standing next to the sandstone railing, I can see people meditating on all three sides of the Bodhi tree. They include Buddhist monks and some foreigners. The environment is whisper quiet. I feel much enchanted.
We climb the steps on the northern side of Mahabodhi temple and come to a small shrine with Buddha’s image in it. This is called “Ratanaghara”. It is believed that Buddha meditated here in fourth week after his enlightenment. We walk towards the northeast, where another small shrine stands. This is known as “Animesh Lochana”. It is believed that Budha spent second week after his enlightenment at this spot gazing unwinking at the Bodhi tree. We walk along and come to the eastern gate again. IN the southeast corner, there is a beautiful garden with a giant bell in it. This has been gifted by an American lady known by name Mrs. Wango Dixit.
Bell donated by Mrs. Wango Dixit.
We come out of the eastern gate and walk back to the chowk, where we were earlier dropped by the “e-Rickshaw”. Another “e-rickshaw” ride and we are back at the hotel. After break-fast, we are ready for day’s sightseeing. Our first halt is “Bodhgaya Archaeological Museum”.
The greatest attraction of the museum is the “Sanchi” type, stone railing, which once enclosed the Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi temple. Made of sandstone and granite, these pillars belong to the “Sunga” (1st or 2nd century BCE) and early medieval (6th-7th century CE) periods respectively. The pillars have sculptured panels and medallions at both faces representing themes from Jataka, events of Buddha’s life, zodiac signs, folk scenes etc. Some of the pillars also bear inscriptions, Hinayana motifs like a Bodhi tree or Dhammachakra. Only very few coping pieces and horizontal beams are on display, though number of pillars is large. To hold the horizontal beams in place, Pillars have blind slots carved out in them. Coping members have animal figures carved on them in repetitive fashion. Museum also displays sculptures of Padmapani, Tara, Buddha in different attitudes (Mudra), maitreya, Manjushri and Jambhala. Also displayed are the images associated with Hindu Vedic religion such as Vishnu, Surya, Uma-Maheshwara, Ganesha and Kamdeva. A special attraction of the museum is the display of antiquities unearthed during excavations conducted by ASI at Bakraur village situated on the opposite bank of “Niranjana” River. The museum also displays a large number of old photographs showing, how Mahabodhi temple looked at the time of excavation in year 1880 and afterwards at the time of restoration in 1899.
After visiting the museum, we move on to visit rest of the places in Bodhgaya. The first site to visit is the 80 feet Buddha statue. This has been gifted by Japanese Buddhists. The unveiling and consecration of this Great Buddha Statue, took place on November 18, 1989. Japanese spent seven years on construction of this statue and had employed 120,000 masons in total. The next items on our itinerary are the Buddhist monasteries built by Buddhists from foreign countries such as Thailand, Bhutan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar and also Tergar Monastery, where 14th Dalai Lama stays when he visits Bodhgaya.
We now drive on and cross Niranjana Ricer bed. There is hardly any water left in the river. All we can see is the sand filled bed of this river. On the other bank of the river, in the Bakraur village, are the ruins of “Sujata Garh” stupa built in memory of Sujata, a maiden, who had offered sweetened milk-rice to Buddha before his enlightenment. Chinese traveler Xuan Zang, who visited Bodhgaya in 7th century, makes a mention in his travelogue of this Stupa in following words. “To the east of the Bodhi tree, crossing the Niranjana River, in the middle of a wood, is a Stupa. To the north of this is a pool”.
ASI made excavations here in 1973-74 and 2001-06. A plaque found in the excavation has an inscription from the 8th-9th century CE that reads "Devapala Rajasya Sujata Griha", Devapala is believed to be the 9th century Pala dynasty king. The legend therefore can be translated as "Sujata House, of King Devapala". This probably means that the last phase of construction of the stupa was completed sometime in the 9th century CE, to commemorate the house where Sujata lived. The Stupa is circular and had double terraces, There were four pillar platforms (Ayakas) extending in all cardinal directions. The Stupa was constructed in three phases from Gupta to Pala period. There was a wooden railing around the “Pradakshina Patha” at the ground level. Entire structure was originally plastered with lime. As mentioned above, the antiquities found here have been displayed in Bodhgaya Archaeological museum visited by us today.
From Sujata Garh, we drive on to reach a garishly painted Sujata temple. It is believed that after 6 years of practicing meditation, kheer (Milk-rice) given by Sujata was the first mouthful of food, Buddha ate. This temple, situated close to the Niranjana River, is thus dedicated to this tribal woman. The temple is surrounded by huts of very poor people. Jackie tells me that these people are so poor that they can eat even rats and mouse to satisfy their hunger. I wonder, why Bihar Government is not doing something to uplift these poor. Begging appears to be their only occupation. Actually Sujata temple is located on a large earthen mound. It is quite possible that a large stupa might be hidden underneath it. We see another similar mound nearby, which again could have a stupa hidden underneath.
We decide to have lunch in a nearby restaurant and after lunch immediately leave for Rajgir. Our day’s site seeing is not yet over. We have to still visit two or three more sites. The first on the agenda is a visit to “Pragbodhi” Hill. After Prince Siddhartha renounced the world he practiced austerities for six years. One of the places he stayed during this period was a mountain that later came to be called Pragbodhi. It is also now known as Dungeswari. It is believed that Prince Siddhartha sheltered in the small cave half way up this mountain.
From Bodhgaya, we retrace our path to Gaya and then turn into northeast direction. Dungeshwari Hill is about 13.5 Kilometers from Gaya town. Initially we pass through rich paddy fields but as our destination nears the landscape changes to a rocky kind of country with plenty of rocks lying around in a shrub forest. Soon a solitary hill appears in view. The car stops near the foot of this hill. I can see a long, steeply climbing path going up towards hill. As we view the landscape, our car is suddenly surrounded by seven or eight motor cyclists, a scary experience. Jackie explains that these people have come to see if we are interested in hiring a ride up the mountain on their motor cycles. Before we could get out of the car, it starts to rain heavily. We wait patiently. Surprisingly motor cyclists also wait surrounding the car. After 10 minutes, the rain stops and we get down and start climbing up. After realizing that we are not going to hire a ride, motor cyclists disappear, probably cursing us for having wasted their time. After climbing up a little distance, we have a good view of the Hill. Half way up, I can see a group of three buildings and up above the mountain top faint outlines of three or four Stupas. The cave is near the temple on the left. Jackie tells me that the small temple near the cave is run by some Tibetan monks and the Stupas on top of mountain are very ancient.
View of forest from Pragbodhi hill
We return to the car and continue in northeast direction. After travelling some distance, I notice that we have now reached a hilly country with hills of medium height flanking us on one side. We soon reach village of Jethian. Fa Xian, the Chinese traveler, who travelled to India in 4th century, mentions Jethian as “Yashtivana” (Bamboo Grove) in his travelogue. Xuan Zang, travelling three centuries later also mentions “Yashtivana”. Buddha is believed to have delivered a few sermons here. Japanese have now erected a small Buddha temple here. We visit the temple and are on our way again.
Yashtivana Temple at Jethian
The road now passes through a picturesque valley. On one side we have hills and the other side forestland. We cross quite a few tribal villages on way. I do not see any brick structures in the villages. There are only huts with straw walls and thatched roofs. Jackie points out to a narrow pass near Gehlour village. This is the pass that has been cut single handedly by Dasharath Manjhi, a villager. He did an unbelievable task of carving a path 110 m long (360 ft.), 9.1 m (30 ft.) wide and 7.6 m (25 ft.) deep through a hillock using only a hammer and chisel. He took 22 years to complete this job.
Mountain pass chiseled by Dashath Manjhi
The hills on one side of the road are getting taller now and there is vegetation too. Soon we see a narrow pass opening out in the line of hills. A signboard says that we are about to reach Rajgir town. We pass through a stone wall that extends to both sides. Jackie tells me that this wall, known as Cyclopean wall, was a four meter high and 40 Kms long wall, made up of stone blocks, encircling the Rajgir city. It is believed that this wall was constructed by King Ajatshatru of Haryanka Dynasty, more than 2500 years ago. Obviously, the wall is now in the ruinous condition. On the other side of the pass, the environment changes suddenly, almost in a magical fashion. Gone is the shrub forest. There are tall hills on both sides with dense vegetation everywhere. We soon come out of the hilly tract and enter Rajgir town located on a flat surface. Hills now remain behind to distant south. We soon enter our hotel, Anand International. It is time now to relax in the comfort of the hotel.
(To be continued)
(For anyone interested, our tour operator Jackie’s e-mail address is email@example.com)