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Strangely enough, the little village of Bodh Gaya, 14 km south of Gaya, is the center of the Buddhist universe. It was here in the 6th century BC that Prince Siddhartha Gautama gained enlightenment under a papal tree, launching his career as the Buddha. During the winter months, pilgrims from all over the world venture here. In this most powerful of places, many Buddhists believe that the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, will also attain enlightenment. Some expect him soon -  in about a hundread years. To welcome him, devotees plan to erect an enormous Maitreya statue in a field on the edge of town.

The Buddhist presence in Bodh Gaya, whose population is primarily Hindu, is quite new and mostly foreign. Although Buddhist monasteries thrived here long ago, they were left to sink into the mud after Buddhism faded out of India in the 12th century. Non until the 19th century, when Sri Lankan and Burmese monks led the campaign to restore the Mahabodhi Temple, was Bodh Gaya revived as a religious center. Now a days, the Dalai Lama often winters here, bringing with him a large Tibetan contingent. During Bodh Gaya’s season, the monasteries quietly fill up, visiting teachers offer meditation courses and scads of tent restaurants appear. Busload upon busload of pilgrims make the rounds of the temples and crowd the curio stands in the market square. Monks from several Buddhist nations intone sutras in monasteries built in their own national styles and dish out their native cuisine to nirvana – hungry faithful from back home. By April, however, the crowd has thinned out and Bodh Gaya takes on a quietude appropriate to its status as a world religious center.

Sights

Mahabodhi Temple

The main point of interest in Bodh Gaya is the Mahabodhi Temple, referred to as ‘the Stupa’ by most Buddhists. The tall, thin shikhara, which is covered with a jigsaw puzzle like pattern, towers over the many chaityas and other shrines in its courtyard. The temple is right next to the actual site of enlightenment, while some of the other shrines are linked to different stages in the Buddha’s meditations. Emperor Ashoka built the first temple on this site in the 3rd century BC. The present temple, which has been through layers and layers of restorations, dates from the 6th AD. Much of the rescue work was initiated in 1882 by Burmese monks who found the temple neglected and overrun by squatters. Over the last 30 years, many statues have been stolen from the temple’s circular niches. The oldest structure left on the site is a stone railing built in the first century AD to keep out wild animals; however, a quarter of it has been whisked away to museums in London and Calcutta. Monks stroll around the marble sidewalk of the temple ground, interminably snapping pictures with their automatic cameras.

At the back of the temple is the sacred Bodhy Tree, a grandchild of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The platform between the tree and the temple is thought to be exactly where the Buddha sat. It is called the Vajrasana or ‘diamond throne’ and some believe that an enormous diamond buried beneath the earth here fuels the site’s spiritual power. It is said that Emperor Ashoka killed the original Bodhi tree prior to his conversion to Buddhism. After he converted, however, Ashoka sent his son, Mahindra, on a mission to Sri Lanka carrying an offshoot from the tree. This tree still lives on in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka; the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya has grown from one of its pointy-leaved saplings. It’s considered to be almost as good as the real thing, and it is surrounded by its own fence, which is usually only opened in the morning and evening.

A large gold Buddha is kept behind glass in the temple, and another one, supposedly remarkably true-to-life, is on the first floor, which is only open in the evenings for meditation. A part of the first floor is permanently closed off, due to one man’s recent attempt to saw off a branch of the sacred tree as a souvenir.

During the high season, meditation courses are a major industry in Bodh Gaya. Teachers from all over the world jet in to provide training to Buddhists and aspiring Buddhists in the karma-rich atmosphere of temple town. A few permanent institutions in Bodh Gaya dedicated to spreading the Buddha-word also conduct lessons.

There are a number of licensed charitable organizations in Bodh Gaya. They take volunteers and sponsors for activities such as tree planting during the monsoon, all year Leprosy and Polio projects and Destitute house.

Map of Bodhgaya

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