Bodh Gaya: Where Knowledge Began The serenity of mind that characterises Buddhism and its followers is reflected in the very air of Bodh Gaya. One of Buddhism’s most sacred pilgrimage sites, the small village in the Indian state of Bihar is visited by people seeking spiritual solace from all over the world. Its surroundings are no less impressive: Bodh Gaya is the gateway to some of Eastern India’s most ancient heritage sites, as it is situated close to the historic Nalanda University, as well as Sarnath, another one of Buddhism’s four most important sites. Here’s why Bodh Gaya is the ideal getaway for a period of soul-soothing rendezvous with the divine. History of Bodh Gaya: To understand the significance of this little town, one must know the story behind its legendary status. The man who would go on to found Buddhism, the Gautama Buddha, was born Prince Siddhartha in the kingdom of Lumbini, now in Nepal. It is said that at the age of 29, the prince left his palace to tour his kingdom, and for the first time in his life, encountered the three undeniable truths of human life: old age, sickness and death. This confrontation disturbed him so deeply that he left his royal life and set out to live the one of an ascetic, seeking to defeat these failings of human life. However, his search led him to an entirely different solution: that it is in acceptance, and not denial, that the secret to life well-lived hides, and it was one that he received as a moment of revelation, referred to as the Enlightenment, under the sacred Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya. How to Get to Bodh Gaya: Bodh Gaya By Air: The nearest airport for Bodh Gaya is situated in the very same district. Gaya Airport is connected not only to most major cities in India, such as Kolkata and Patna, but internationally as well. Thai Airlines and Druk Air both have flights connected to Bodh Gaya, the former daily. It is also possible to take a flight to Patna airport and then travel by bus or taxi to the village. Bodh Gaya By Road: Car journeys are generally not advised unless undertaken with local cab drivers, as the roads are quite narrow and perilous. However, the Bihar State Tourist Development Corporation runs seasonal deluxe bus services from Patna, the most recent being a service called Wonder on Wheel. Private buses are another option, albeit less recommended. Bodh Gaya By Rail: Gaya is the nearest railway station. Trains are available from Patna and Kolkata and are usually the best mode of travel. Express and non-express trains of various fares, starting from INR 25, are available, and the fastest can undertake the journey in two and a half hours from Patna. Travel from Kolkata and Delhi can take up to 8 and 15 hours respectively. Within Gaya, three-wheeled taxis called auto-rickshaws are a convenient, though rather expensive way of getting around. Tourist cars are available locally. However, the very loquacious Indian habit of bargaining and negotiation comes in quite handy! Perhaps the best way of exploring Bodh Gaya is on foot. At the height of the tourist season, the roads are bustling with people from all over the world and since all the major sites are within a kilometre or two of each other, walking around is an excellent way to soak in the colourful vibrancy of the local culture. However, safety must always remain paramount and walking alone at night, especially with expensive tourist gear such as cameras, and money, is highly inadvisable. Where to Stay at Bodh Gaya: Monasteries at Bodh Gaya When staying in Bodh Gaya, the cheaper option is to stay in the simple but clean, well-maintained and safe guest houses run by monasteries. Many of them are situated next to the Maha Bodhi Temple complex, and a few more near Kalachakra Maidan. In accordance with the calmness and discipline in the life of the monasteries, guests are expected to abide by the house rules. Interestingly, these guesthouses do not charge any money for their services, but accept donations at the end of the patrons’ stay. One can enquire about the usual rates from the other guests. The monasteries usually have restaurants on their ground floors, but food service may not be available unless specifically requested. The Bhutan Monastery, the Sakya Monastery Guesthouse situated next to it and the Burmese Vihara are three such cheap accommodations. They are pleasant and simple; the Burmese Vihara offers services mostly to Burmese pilgrims but guest rooms are also available, while food is not served unless requested by an entire group. The Siddartha Vihara in the Bihar Tourist Complex is also a comfortable option. If on a budget, some other cost-friendly options include: Kundan Bazar Guest House: Located near the Old Vietnam Temple, the guesthouse provides single rooms as well as apartments, a self-service kitchen and a daily laundry facility. It even provides for bike rentals. An internet cafe with a fast WiFi connection is situated within the guesthouse itself, while a souvenir shop that sells books, gifts, and clothing shop is also available. The guest house also arranges tour packages on request, and even has a snooker bar! Rahul Guesthouse: It is situated in Kalachakra Maidan. Clean rooms, both single and double, with common balconies are available. The rates start from INR200. The Maha Bodhi Society: It provides both private rooms and dorms. More expensive options include: Hotel Sujata: It is located on Buddha Marg, and provides rooms from INR5000 to INR7200 per night. The rooms are clean, comfortable and private while the restaurant is very good. Royal Residency: located centrally on Domuhan Road, it provides comfortable rooms from INR 6000 to 8500. The dining options are good and service quality is commendable. The hotel also provides a hot-tub facility for guests. Where to Dine at Bodh Gaya: Bodh Gaya has numerous cafes that serve as great hang-out joints to unwind in. Some are: Be Happy Cafe: Located behind Namgyal Monastery, the small cafe specializes in homemade granola for early breakfasts, thin crust pizzas, pasta, sandwiches, freshly baked cakes and a startling variety of coffee brews. It is an excellent place for a meal and a catch-up session at the end of a day of sight-seeing. Cafe Om: This cafe provides delectable fare, including some rather brilliant pastries. A popular place to meet with one’s friends, the cafe allows one to Skype and upload photos to networking sites. Bowl of Compassion Cafe: This cafe is situated opposite the Bodh Gaya police station. It serves Indian as well as International cuisine. Uniquely, its name originates from its ties to the Bowl of Compassion organization that helps the poor. Diners can choose “Compassion Meals” at special rates, in which the extra money is donated for the latter cause. Fujia Green and Lotus Restaurant: Located next to each other to the south of the sports oval, the restaurants provide Japanese and Indian fare between them. Both are quite budget-friendly. Hari Om Cafe: along with excellent Chinese, Thai, Japanese and continental food, the cafe also offers free Wi-Fi! Mahamaya Restaurant: Situated inside Hotel Mahamaya, the restaurant, located very close to the temple complex, offers excellent food. Samim Thai Restaurant: The eatery is located very close to the temple complex and offers affordable Thai food of excellent quality. Bodh Gaya is a "dry" town and liquor sales in private shops are not allowed. However certain government liquor stores, opened with special permission, do sell wine, rum, whiskey, beer and other spirits. In keeping with the culture of the town, perhaps it is advisable not to partake of any at all! The Sites to see at Bodh Gaya: Bodh Gaya houses some of the most holy centres of Buddhism in the world. Some of these are within the actual village, and some can be reached easily from it. Here are some of the must-visit spots of the historic site: Within Bodh Gaya: The Mahabodhi Temple Complex: This complex is home to the Mahabodhi Temple, also known as the Maha Bodhi Maha Vihara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Initially built in 250 BCE by the powerful Magadha ruler and ardent Buddhist, Emperor Ashoka, the temple’s rich and complex history is as fascinating as its exquisite architecture that rises dominantly over the skyline. Motifs of the lotus, an important symbol of the Buddha and of regeneration in Buddhism, appear repeatedly in the carvings on the walls and railings of the temple that mostly represents Mahayana Buddhism. Carvings of Hindu deities too frequently recur, bearing witness to the intermingling that took place between the two cultures in ancient India. The current structure dates from the 5th century BCE, and was largely restored by the British during the 1880s, following in the path of similar attempts by patrons as diverse as the Indian Pala dynasty of kings during the 11th century and Burmese monks in the 13th century. The top of the temple is now covered in gold as a generous gift from the King of Thailand, and a vast idol of the Buddha, bathed in golden light, stands within the temple. To the west of the temple stands the Bodhi Tree in all its vast sprawling magnificence, situated at the exact spot the Buddha is believed to have gained Enlightenment. According to legend, the Bodhi Tree, actually a variety of the peepal tree of India, sprung up there on the day the Buddha was born, anticipating his arrival and ascendance. The current one is supposedly part of the family tree- sorry, couldn’t resist- of that very sapling. The Bodhi manda, or the roots of the tree, are so sacred that according to Buddhist mythology, when the Judgement Day of sorts comes at the end of each period or kalpa, and the world is destroyed, the Bodhi manda is the last to disappear, and the first to reappear in the new age. The Animeshlocha Stupa is a site directly opposite the tree, and marks the spot where the Buddha, during the second week he spent at Gaya, stood gazing unblinkingly at the tree as a part of his meditative state; the Ratnachakrama, or the Jewel Path, lying between the stupa and the tree and lined with stone lotuses, indicates the path traced by the Buddha as, in his third week of reflective unrest, he walked back and forth between the two spots. At the stupa stands a statue that demonstrates the Buddha’s calm yet piercing gaze beautifully. A place of silence, holiness and prayer, the gentle presence of the Bodhi Tree purifies the very air it breathes out. Surrounding the Bodhi Tree are the other important points in the complex: the Ratnaghar Chaitya, the Ajapala Nigrodh Pillar, the Lotus Pond and the Rajyatana Tree. Each represents a point where the Buddha spent the seven weeks of his stay in Gaya, meditating or advising his disciples. The Great Buddha Statue: This colossal 82-feet tall Buddha statue was erected in 1989 by the Daijokyo Buddhist Temple. It depicts the Buddha in the yogic posture of meditation, called the dhyana mudra, on a lotus and was built out of enormous slabs of red granite and sandstone. The construction of the statue took nearly 7 years and involved at least 12,000 masons- a figure rivalling the Taj Mahal, which was built over two decades with the help of 20,000 workers! The statue, after completion, was dedicated to the mission of creating awareness for the Buddha’s message, and praying for world peace. Blessed by the 14th Dalai Lama in that same year, the statue is a major tourist attraction as well as pilgrimage centre in the town. The Japanese Temple Built in 1972 with the funding and support of the Japanese government, the Indosan Nippon Japanese Temple in Bodh Gaya is located close to the Great Buddha Statue and is renowned for its beautifully laid out gardens, typically Japanese architecture and the sheer intricacy of the wood panelling designs on its body. The temple preserves the unique aspects of the confluence of Japanese-Buddhist culture, maintaining a collection of beautiful Japanese paintings that show details of the Shakyamuni’s life. Visitors may light incense and spin prayer wheels in the richly yet simply and elegantly decorated interiors of the temple. The calm atmosphere and beauty of the tranquil surroundings of this temple has made it a favourite for tourists seeking rest, peace and the quality of time and space required for meditation. The Taiwanese Temple, called the World Chongwa Buddhist Sangha, is a similarly calm place of worship and meditation. It is located very close to the Mahabodhi Temple complex, and features some excellent examples of Chinese architecture. The Archaeological Museum Established in the year 1956, the Archaeological Museum houses two galleries, an open courtyard and two balconies, all of which exhibit a treasure trove of excavated artefacts. Bronze and stone Buddhist sculptures from various periods of Indian history, and paintings, murals and other artwork depicting the Buddhist mythology and pantheon, are just some of the spectacular specimens on display. A massive image of a standing Buddha in abhayamudra is preserved within the museum as well. This, along with the Bodh Gaya multimedia Museum, is worth a visit for every history enthusiast. The Root Institute is another educational organization: it offers exhaustive courses that can last from a few days to a few weeks, on Mahayana Buddhism. The institute is also involved in extensive charity work with volunteer-based organizations, so if an ethical holiday and a desire to help people are on your mind, it is the very place for you. Monasteries It is perhaps inevitable that a site renowned for pilgrimage will be the location for multiple monasteries, all preserving their own unique ways of life. The Thai Monastery, Tergar Monastery, Karma Dhargya Chokhorling Monastery and the Gandhen Phelgye Ling Monastery are only some of them. Invariably set in quiet spots where the very stillness of the air seems to breathe spirituality, the open and friendly atmosphere within the complexes allow one to observe the rhythms of daily life, prayer and discipline as they go on. Colourful architecture, picturesque surroundings and the warmth of the monks’ welcome make every visit enjoyable. Around Bodh Gaya: Nalanda The ancient Nalanda University, said by some to be the oldest University in the world, now exists only in ruins, but from 5th century CE to 13th century CE, was a thriving centre of academics and learning. The historic university was a Mahavihara, a Buddhist monastery, and attracted students for higher learning from all over South-East Asia, including Japan, China and Tibet. The teachings of the university had a vast impact on Tibetan Buddhism, and were noted for allowing peaceful confluence of the various strands of Mahayana Buddhism to exist within its walls. Shared jeeps now ply to the Nalanda ruins daily. The option of staying there is also available, as there is a guesthouse very close to the gate. Rajgir Rajgir is where Gridhakuta, the location of the Buddha’s earliest sermons, and Venuvana, the first Buddhist monastery in history, are situated. Rajgir is also renowned for its hot springs, which are open to the public and are said to have curative properties. A cheap option for reaching Rajgir is to avail the daily bus services available from the Bodh Gaya. Sarnath Sarnath, the site where Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon, is another of the four main pilgrimage sites in Buddhism. Situated near the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, it can be conveniently reached from Bodh Gaya. Festivals: Festivals in the holy city are held according to the Buddhist, and sometimes specifically Tibetan calendar. Prayer festivals such as Kagyu Monlam Chenmo and Nyingma Monlam Chenmo, held in winter, offer a unique opportunity to visitors to observe Buddhist customs and traditions as they have been conserved in modern life. A Word of Caution: Bodh Gaya is essentially a pilgrimage centre. As such, certain cultural norms ought to be observed. One must take one’s shoes off at each of the temples. Within the Maha Bodhi complex, the stupa and other sacred locations ought to be walked around in a clockwise direction, according to Buddhist tradition. Furthermore, and perhaps giving ammunition to those who persist in perpetuating stereotypes about India, cows are a sacred animal within the city and must not be offended or harmed in any way, especially when driving around in vehicles. The local poor may approach you for money and be insistent in their demands; while we acknowledge this to be irritating, we remind you to treat them with the respect they deserve as your fellows. Losing one’s temper is inadvisable under these circumstances, especially in a holy city like Bodh Gaya. The local dressing customs should be followed. What are you waiting for, then? The purity and serenity palpable in the air of Bodh Gaya contains within itself whispers of the ancient history of Buddhism, its rich diversity and the enormous impact it has had on world culture. The doctrine of the Buddha, with its message of non-violence, peace, love for your fellow beings and the Middle Path, inspired world leaders, from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Junior, and led millions down the path of Enlightenment and Truth. Come to see Bodh Gaya, the place where it all began. Come to shake off the fetters and worries of the material world, and seek transcendence. Perhaps you will see the image a young man, meditating under a tree, with the purity of knowledge illuminating his face... perhaps you too will find the immeasurable treasure that he did.