What do you associate Bihar with?
For most people the first thing that probably comes to mind is backwardness, poverty, crime and of course Laloo Prasad Yadav. However what a lot of people don’t realize is that Bihar is also the cradle of Buddhism and home to a number of important Buddhist sites. It is in Kesariya that the Buddha gave away his begging bowl and Vaishali, where a group of monkeys built a tank for the Buddha and fed him honey. But Bihar is also the place where it all began, in Bodhgaya, the home of the holy Bodhi Tree under which Siddhartha gained enlightenment and the Buddha was born.
Today at the site of that original Bodhi Tree stands the grand Mahabodhi Tree and Temple, one of the most important pilgrimage spots for Buddhist the world over and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The first time we were in Bodhgaya was at the end of spring 2016, after a month long journey across Uttar Pradesh. Temperatures were soaring and the place was nearly empty. It was not a pleasant experience largely due to the heat. Yet such was its impact that we decided to return the following year in the winter when the town is inundated with monks in their traditional maroon robes, the sky is that special shade of blue and the temple is adorned with thousands of yellow and orange marigolds.
Our first sight of the UNESCO recognised Mahabodhi Temple all dressed up in yellow, orange and gold. The temple is built on the site of the Bodhi tree and whilst a temple in some form has existed here for over 2000 years, the current structure is more recent with extensive renovations undertaken in the early 19th century. In the winter, when the weather in Bihar turns pleasant, the temple is visited by monks from Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and all over South Asia and the western world, making the universal appeal of this ancient faith apparent even today. At the center of it all is the Bodhi tree. While the temple is brick and stone, the tree is a living breathing symbol of faith that transcends religion, and the reason thousands flock here every year. The beautiful tree that grows in the temple today is said to be the 5th generation of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. The original tree was destroyed by raiders sometime between the 12th and the 14th century, however cuttings of the tree were salvaged by Sri Lankan monks and a Bodhi tree from the original was nurtured on the island. The current Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya is said to be a descendant of the tree from Sri Lanka. The line of concentric circle are adorned with lotus carvings and represent the footsteps of the Buddha. Here a pilgrim seeks the blessings of the lord by paying her respects to the path he is said to have walked. Faith manifests itself in many ways. This Tibetan lady is undertaking a ‘parikrama’ of the temple and the Bodhi tree. Every few steps she prostrates herself in front of the temple, in a mark of defference called ‘sashtang pranam’. The effort involved is apparent and a single round can take seven to ten minutes. Many pilgrims undertake multiple such Parikramas in a day for many days on end. This monk has found a quiet corner for himself, cut off from everything else he quietly reads, immersing himself in his worship, unencumbered by the world outside. In the temple you will find monks of all ages, including many young ones who undergo the ritualistic shaving of their heads for the first time in the Mahabodhi Temple. Monks do sashtang pranam before the Bodhi tree. They do this for hours at a time and by the end the day many would have done this hundreds of times.
Most monks spend the entire day, from sunrise to sunset at the temple in meditation. They stop only for meals, served to them in the temple itself by volunteering families who set up free kitchens, thus reflecting the spirit of Buddhism in their own way.
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