Bodhgaya, the seat of enlightenment , the holy Bodi tree, the spiritual center for Buddhism, and the end of the cycle of life and death. Many centuries ago, infact more than a millennia ago, around the 5th or 6th Centuries BC, a lonely sage who left his princely life traversed throughout India trying to find the reasoning for so much suffering in life. He, Siddhārtha Gautama, visited the Gaya District in the state of Bihar, and while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, obtained enlightenment , and became the Buddha. As previously mentioned, it is the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhist Pilgrims.
The city of Bodh Gaya, the main pilgrimage sight for Buddhist Pilgrims, and has many temple representative of their perspective countries. There are temples and monasteries from Thailand, Japan, Tibet, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam located around Bodhgaya. The highlight is of course the Mahabodhi Temple ( The Great Awakening)
In approximately 250 BCE, about 200 years after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, Buddhist Emperor Asoka visited Bodh Gaya in order to establish a monastery and shrine on the holy site. The new Mahabodhi temple included a diamond throne (called the Vajrasana) to mark the exact spot of the Buddha’s enlightenment. While Asoka is considered the Mahabodhi temple’s founder, the current structure dates from the 5th–6th century. One scholar, however, considers the building “largely a nineteenth-century British Archaeological Survey of India reconstruction based on what is generally believed to be an approximately fifth-century structure.” Prior to that, there seems to have been a pyramidal structure perhaps built in about the second century (Kuṣāṇa period). Knowledge of it comes only from a small, circa fourth century terracotta plaque found at modern Patna. It is significant that this version does not have the upper terrace with the small temples in the four corners. These small temples, although not used as such today, probably reflected certain esoteric traditions in Buddhism that were emerging more and more into less esoteric contexts by the late fourth and early fifth century. The pyramidal temple probably replaced an open pavilion that had been constructed around the tree and the Asokan platform. Representations of this early temple arc found at Sanci, on the toraṇas of Stūpa I, dating from around 25 BC, and on a relief carving from the stupa railing at Bhārhut (Fig.20), from the early Shunga period (c. 185-c. 73 BC).
Mahabodhi is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick that is still standing in India, from the late Gupta period. (Courtesy of www.wikipedia.com)
From what I learned, Emperor Asoka ( who’s name can be found in many Asian countries) was a great follower of the Buddha, he loved the Buddha so much that he helped to facilitate buddhism into a national religion. When he came and visited Bodhgaya, he prayed consistently under the same tree as the Buddha, although some 200 years later. Filled with jealousy, his wife, the queen, poisoned the tree and ultimately destroyed it. Another sapling was planted, and again it was destroyed by different Kings. Every time it was killed, a new sapling of the original was planted and grew . Fortunately, saplings from the tree was sent to many different places, and the current tree that is there today is a result from a sapling that was sent to ancient Lanka ( present day Sri Lanka)
Funny trivia, about a mile from my house here in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1913, Anagarika Dharmapala took a sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi to Hawaiʻi, where he presented it to his benefactor, Mary Foster, who had funded much Buddhist missionary work. She planted it in the grounds of her house in Honolulu, by the Nuʻuanu stream. On her death she left her house and its grounds to the people of Honolulu, and it became the Foster Botanical Garden. I have visited this garden so many times but never knew about the importance of the Bodhi Tree that is there. Now I do, and will make it a point to visit it. How special is that?
About my Journey:
When I first thought about visiting India, I did so based on many different interests. One of course was to see the country and experience and indulge in its spiritual beauty. I was also very much interested in following the footsteps of the Gautama Buddha . Since I couldn’t make it everywhere that was significant to him, I chose the best place possible, Where he became enlightened. It was an added plus that I was able to visit Sarnath when I was in Varanasi: The Holiest City of India to see where he gave his first sermon on Dharma.
While I was in Varanasi, I had a palm reading by my wonderful guide and spiritual advisor Dr. Tripathi. I thought it was just going to be a cute little reading. What astounded me was that when reading my palm, he rushed to grab a pen and drew on my palm and dharma circle. He said that this is the mark of Vishnu and that only a handful of people have this marking. According to him, Gautama Buddha was the ninth Avatar of Vishnu, possessing so many distinct characteristics. When you look at many Buddhist statues and pictures, you see him with distinct features. Long ears, Pointed nose, curly hair, a uni brow, all characteristics of Lord Vishnu. He also posses many spiritual characteristics of Vishnu and therefore is considered by many to be the ninth incarnation/ Avatar of the God. I was so touched by this.
It just so happened I told him, that I will be visiting Bodhgaya next, after Varanasi. He informed me that it is a very auspicious time as it is 1. The full moon, 2. The day of Vishnu, 3. Buddhas 2500 + YEAR Birthday. I was floored. No wonder why it was so difficult to secure a decent hotel room in Bodhgaya. Filled with this knowledge I couldn’t wait to get there. He did mention that on the day of the Full Moon ( the second day I’ll be there) , on Buddhas birthday and the Day of Lord Vishnu, I should visit Gaya and visit the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. I now had a mission.
I last left off telling you of my departure from : Varanasi: The Holiest City of India and the Nadesar Hotel. My driver picked me up and we were on our way to Bodhgaya , some 4.5 hours away. He was a very quirky driver. He set off an immediate alarm while driving through the city of Varanasi, as he decided to make a stop. I was concerned and asked him, why ? His respond, yes madam, yes madam, I stop meet owner madam. Ok, fine, you’re meeting the owner of the car company. After a brief moment, we continued our journey through the city of Varanasi heading for the highway. The roads were terrible. I mean Terrible. As if massive earthquakes daily affect the area. The roads were uneven with a pot hole every second it seemed. When we finally reached the on ramp to the free way, it was down right deadly. The ramp was half destroyed, and guess what, it was a two way ramp. A TWO WAY RAMP!!!! His car barely fit onto the ramp, how in the world is the truck and our car going to share the ramp without falling off the destroyed part of it? My heart was racing …. Well we made it obviously…..
About 2 hours into our drive, our driver pulled to the side of the road and told me bathroom yes madam? Yes? Omg yes I guess. But what he did left me with scarred images in my mind. He pulled out his slug right in front of the car to relieve himself on the side of the free way. I was pissed!!!!! And told him, ” You think I wanted to see your slug thing ?” Sorry Madam….. Whatever! Tired and exhausted from getting up so early to catch the sun rise on the Ganges, and partial disgust by his actions, I covered my face with my scarf and dosed off for a bit. About an hour later, my stomach was rumbling and I asked the driver If I could please find something to eat. He agreed through hand gestures, and we pulled on the side of the road at a rest stop restaurant.
The restaurant was decent, nothing to write home about. The food was most excellent as is everything in India. I had a private room to eat in where the fans were blowing like a windstorm, a much welcomed experience as it was hotter than the Sahara desert out there. What was so strange was when my driver took it upon himself to sit down and stare at me eating. I asked if he was hungry as I’d be happy to buy him some food. No Madam no hunger, he replied. He kept staring at me and all of a sudden, pulled out his phone and took a picture of me. I was like WTF? Is he serious? I was not impressed at all. Had he had a bit more tact, I would’ve been happy to let him take a picture of me. Later he invited fellow drivers to sit down and stare at me. I was boiling with anger, and demanded in one swift gesture that it was time to go. NOW! Sensing that I may be irate he quickly ushered me out and into the car. I know this may sound so cranky and like a spoiled child, but I am and was a solo woman traveler in India at this point, and the last thing i wanted to do is defend myself from unwanted advances. India at that time was going through massive scandal because of all the rape cases against women in the country. So I was taking no chances.
In the car I refused to talk to him. We finally arrived to the arid desert look of Bodhgaya. There really wasn’t much around there except for dry grass and humble homes. I can imagine what this place must look like after a nice monsoon season, all green and full of life. The river that flowed through the city was a mere tiny stream. But you could see how far the banks are from each other, indicating that during the rainy seasons, it can fill up immensely.
We arrived at my hotel after getting lost a few times. I was staying at the Bodhgaya Regency Hotel a 3 star hotel, and the best the area could offer. According to the website, it looked, clean, and was air-conditioned. You can read my full review ( don’t judge me) Here
When I arrived, all stretched out and ready to check in, there was NO ONE there to offer to help me with my bags. Ok that’s fine. So I wheeled myself in ( because Erika you really are not the Queen you think you are and get over yourself and return to reality) and went to the front desk. 3 minutes later and a few taps on the bell someone finally came out all annoyed to see what the hell I wanted. I showed him my reservation number and confirmation, and he made a quick call, and someone came out to offer me some coke to drink. Well this surely isn’t the palaces with their soothing drinks, I’m used to, but I’ll take it and accept it humbly. He quickly checked me in, there after, and that was it. No explanation on how to get to my room, no nothing about the area, no welcome to the hotel, no I’m so glad you are here, NOTHING! I had to ask about the temples and monasteries to which he gave me a map and immediately walked away. EXCUSE ME !!!!!! What about food? Call room service! OMG not the best way to start my stay here. I’m here for 3 nights and I already want to leave. The room was on the 3rd floor and the air-condition was going to town! There were two beds and a small bathroom with little to next to nothing along the lines of amenities. The nice thing is that they did offer house slippers. Cool Thanks
Having taken a quick shower to cool my body off , I got ready in my humble attire to go and visit this holy city. When I came to the lobby, I was met by an interesting little man who spoke decent English. He asked me where I was going, and I told him that i’m going to wonder around the town to see the different monasteries. He pointed me in the right direction and told me to come back by 6:30 pm to meet him, as he would take me to the Mahabodhi Temple. I said , ok why not. I walked around a bit to try and get my orientation. Fortunately the city is small. I mean really really small. After walking on what looked like ancient roads and dirt streets I came across a few merchants selling everything from water to images of the buddha, and the first temple from Bhutan. I walked and row upon row of temples and monasteries dotted the area. In the middle of it all stood a very very tall statue of the Buddha. The Buddha standing at around 80 Feet tall was a gift by japanese disciples of a religious buddhist sect. It is very awe-inspiring to see how it sits in contrast in the open space . The heat was on, and I was not in the best mood to continue so I decided to go back to my hotel room for a rest.
Later on in the early evening I came downstairs ready to head out towards Mathabodi Temple. The little man met me and offered to walk with me there. He said it can be dangerous at night so to please take care and be vigilant. The people on our way to the temple seemed to be miserable with life, or just miserable to see me. I was shocked as I thought that most of the people residing in the city would be happy buddhist. I later found out that most are not buddhist but hindu and they leave in very poor standards. I was saddened not to see shiny happy people like i’ve been experiencing all over India, even in the slums.
About 10 minutes into our walk I started to notice bus loads of people arriving and lots of foot traffic on the streets. Everyone was coming in to celebrate Buddhas birthday at this holiest of holy places for the Buddhist faith. Some even taking to the roofs of buses to secure a spot on the journey there. hahahaha
The entrance to the temple complex was huge and filled with people . There were groups of people camped out on the streets by the entrance. Large families, and groups who have probably traveled hundreds upon hundreds of miles to make this pilgrimage. It’s free to enter the temple, but they are very strict with cellphones. THEY ARE NOT ALLOWED. Trust me I tried and got gonged at one of the 2 security check points within the complex. You can for a fee store it at one of their check point lockers or just leave it back at the hotel. For RS100 you can also bring your camera. The check points are horrendous with the female guards absolutely rude and vile. If you ask the universe for patience ever, you’ll find out that it will give you opportunities to be patient , like when dealing with these evil creatures known as temple security. I guess it was all due to the 2013 bombing of the complex. With all that aside, when you enter the temple complex, you immediately see tibetan style flags everywhere, and most importantly you will hear the absolute deep tones of the Tibetan monks chanting live. Right when you pass security you come in direct contact with one of the most splendid sights I have every seen. Just beyond the foliage, jutting straight up to the sky, is the main Stupa. At is is amazing! Having reached there just as the sun set, there were hundreds of people everywhere in groups from different countries, praying in their local dialect, chants and sutras everywhere. I didn’t stay long as I was so tired. And had planned to come back in the morning and evening of the next day , as it would be the official birthday of the Buddha and the full moon. I blessed myself with thai gold leaf that was everywhere and headed back home with little man. I left him a small tip, to which he looked a bit disappointed. Grateful for his company, yet annoyed that I wasn’t enjoying the complex alone and on my time, I left him what I thought would be just and fair.
Got back to my hotel exhausted, and HANGRY: Angry because I was HUNGRY… ordered their illustrious room service, took a shower, and watched some local tv until I passed out exhausted.
I woke up super early the next morning. Even though I was still tired. Today is Lord Vishnu Day, Buddha’s Birthday, and the Full Moon. I grabbed some quick breakfast, dressed all in white in my hand made salwar Kameez I had made while visiting Durahbi Slum in Mumbai: My first Introduction to Mother India and headed out for the temples. Motorcycles were flying by everywhere with passengers, and there were a few bus loads already letting people off to catch the morning sun at the temple. Today is a very auspicious day and a very holy one. Even with all the people coming the temple complex felt quiet and calm. After passing the evil ladies at the security check point, I decided to do a full loop around the Stupa first and pray in my own way … I reflected on where i’ve come thus far, and how grateful I was. After making a full loop, I stopped on a side part of the complex to visit a beautiful pool with the image of the Buddha being protected by Naga The Cobra while he sat and meditated. Naga is also the animal avatar for Lord Vishnu. Another correlation. It was beautiful
I walked around slowly, taking in the silence of the morning, until I started to hear multiple chantings. There were different sects praying everywhere and it was quite special and beautiful. I finally stopped at the North facing corner of the Stupa to see , to my surprise, the Bodhi Tree, which was completely fenced off and guarded. People were praying on all sides, singing the beautiful mantras . Right next to the tree are 2 foot prints. The first being Buddahs, the second being Lord Vishnu’s . Another correlation and similarity. I sat and tried to quiet my buzzing mind, but to no avail. I stayed for about a good 3 hours, and headed back to my hotel to meet my driver.
Mr Yes Madam, was still parked exactly where he left me the day before just waiting to be of service. I told him that I would like to go to Gaya and visit the Vishnu temple. He said ok and we were off. About 20 minutes later, before arriving in Gaya, he made a phone call and said that in order to enter temple, I need a guide. Oh great , here we go. ….
We parked the car next to an open sewer and i hopped here and there all while trying to catch my footing and not be a product of poop waste. His Temple boy met us and spoke great English, and laughed at my minuscule Hindi. He told me that I needed to pay an entry fee and to leave my shoes at the locker in this little store. I also needed to buy offerings, and candles, and incense, and and and . I was already perturbed, knowing that I think I’m about to be taken for a ride.
The main temple of Gaya is the Vishnupad Mandir Temple. It is an ancient temple . The construction of the temple is unknown but in the 18th century it was rebuilt to what it looks like today. There are legends that the God and Goddess Rama ( the 7th Avatar of Lord Vishnu) and Sita his wife had visited this site. The most important icon is a imprint of Lord Vishnu’s foot which is worshiped till today.
The place wasn’t the cleanest place on earth , in fact it was really , really dirty. I know I sound like a winer : wahhhh wahhhh but it didn’t leave much to be desired. The oh so humble temple boy walked me through the grounds and told me that this is the place where Vishnu walked. Oh Ok…. At this point I was really trying my hardest not to be so disappointed. I came here with high hopes. Maybe too high. I was so enthralled by the majesty of Lord Vishnu and that I would come to his sacred temple on His day and on the Full Moon that I guess I was expecting some heart bursting magic to happen. And just because things weren’t going the way I thought it should ( never assume ) I was trying my best not to let it ruin my day. That is of course, until we went to the lower section of the temple, and I was told to go wash my dirty hands ( um dirty? really? me? ha!) But of course I did this with all reverence. Next to the water pipe was dirty diapers, and things that go into diapers on the ground, followed by a rat the size of a cat. I laughed a little and thought ” oh you mischievous dieities trying my patience. ” After I washed my hands I came to meet Mr. Temple Boy and he told me to sit down. He said that this is a really auspicious day for me to be visiting the temple, and most foreigners are not allowed. He was right a bit, as I was the only pale skin in the temple. Lucky me! He brought a basket and a bunch of candles that he obtained outside the temple grounds on my dime of course and told me that today we are going to pray for my ancestors , all of them, so that they can reach Moksha Nirvana and not suffer any longer. Ok whatever. As previously mentioned in Varanasi: The Holiest City of India I had an uncle who recently passed and I was praying for him there and I will do it now. We prayed for my grand parents, my close relatives, friends, and ancestors all the way back to the beginning of time. Later asked me how much I would give so that they could receive Moksha. My blood was boiling. There is nothing I despise more than being duped and for someone to dupe with while posing to actually care about a spiritual thing or place. Its in my opinion sacrilege. I told him I would give me the equivalent of $10 he said $200 is normal I said well then I can give you $5 . He said ok $10. And prayed really quick. I wanted to hook his face and make him pay me to stop bashing him. I was pissed beyond belief. Next he told me to go and pray to all the different statues of Lord Vishnu in this little cove lit by fire . There was an older temple man there who said pray here, and donate, pray here and donate and I said to him you pray. ” me pray?” he said . “yes, pray i don’t hit you in your face” ….. “madam so much anger” ” Sir you haven’t seen angry yet” .
The young temple boy came running in when Mr Temple Man was screaming something in Hindi at him. I said to the temple boy take me to Lord Vishnu Feet IMMEDIATELY!. Ok madam.
Where Lord Vishnu’s foot print was , was a crazy place within itself . People were trying to throw themselves on the feet, and crying and throwing flowers, and kissing it all while the temple priests were beating them with sticks to hurry up and go away.
By this time I was so angry , disappointed, and hurt because I didn’t have what I thought was quality spiritual time in this supposed holy temple that is now a place for charlatans.
Upon leaving and grabbing my slippers and quickly running off to my driver to let him have an earful, the temple boy said ” madam, madam, tip?” Here’s a tip don’t ever try to cheat a tourist again who came to pay respect to your God, and runaway from me as fast as you can or I’ll be lighting a candle soon to pray that you reach MOKSHA. He ran so fast and everyone was looking at me, in disgust at my outrageous behavior. I could give a big F#$% at this point. I was duped, cheated, humiliated, taken advantaged of, and I didn’t get to truly pray and connect with Lord Vishnu on his big day.
When I got back to the car, my driver asked me how was it. To which I gave him an earful of don’t you ever try to pull a fast one like that on me again. Don’ you ever think I’m so stupid enough to believe in paying for spirituality. Don’t ever do that to me again.
I was really not enjoying Bodhgaya at all. Infant, it was the complete opposite of everything I was hoping to experience. No peace, no nirvana, no spiritual connection, no happiness. What I didn’t know then, was that I got everything I needed …. I got tested to see if I would show compassion, I was tested to see if i could let go of my western beliefs and ideologies, and I was tested to see if I could let go and experience the true nature of man and show compassion when needed. Well I failed epically .
Exhausted and drained from the whole ordeal, I retired to my room for the rest of the day. I was crying because I was upset and lonely. My room was ugly ( another lesson I learned: humility) but exactly all I needed, especially as this was their best hotel, I could imagine what the rest looked like. I was so angry with myself as well, feeling as if I’m such a spoiled brat that I needed more comfort, more attention, more people being nice to me, more more more. So I guess I did learn exactly what I needed. I just didn’t realize it until I was back in Varanasi and complaining about how much of a horrible time I had … It was so bad that I wanted to end my trip immediately and head back to Varanasi ASAP. I had become to accustomed to comfort and luxury and having this go the way I want them. Everything that the Buddha gave up and left behind so that he may find himself and the answers to life , suffering, and death. I wonder if I had a better attitude maybe my experiences would’ve been different.
That night with my soul so weak and so defeated, I made the trek back to Mathabodi temple to celebrate Lord Gautama Buddha’s birthday. It was PACKED, Thousands of people. I saw Thai dignitaries all dressed in white walking around , beautifully dressed monks in their most simplest form. The temple was a buzz. There were so much chanting going on it was amazing. My mood quickly changed. and I just sat in wonderment of it all. When night came, and the only things lighting the sky was the Full moon and the candles from all the different sects, the service began. People from all over the world lined up lit their candles and chanted. Everyone walked in slow procession around the Main stupa . I followed everyone and was in awe. I was quiet with my thoughts and quiet in my steps and I was ever most humbled and small like a child. I was obedient and followed faithful the procession until we came full circle to the Bodhi Tree. Everyone lit their voices and sang their sutra’s in all the same language. It was beautiful.
I decided to leave before the mass exodus happened. As I walked home, I noticed stray dogs following me, some were very kind but others looked like they were up to no good bullying. I quickly made my way to the hotel, locked and bolted myself in and cried myself to sleep, still debating whether or not I should leave tomorrow and end this trip here early.
When I woke in the morning, I walked to the temple again, with my head so cloudy. I didn’t know what to do. Things weren’t going my way and I almost gave up. After sitting in different sections of the temple I found to my surprise, an alter dedicated to the mother of the Buddha. I sat down next to it while staring at the stupa. All of a sudden a dog came and sat by me, then another, and another, and 3 more. They stared at me and begged for some affection. To which I obliged. Then it hit me. maybe I’m supposed to be experiencing all of this. Maybe I’m supposed to shed myself of all my vanities , wants, needs, and attitude and humbly submit. My mind cleared, my soul lightened, and I thought to myself, this is an opportunity to learn. So learn I did. I learned how ugly I get can when things get to what I thought was difficult. Instead of accepting things whole heartedly and moving and flowing forward like a river. Life is not all palaces, drivers, lovely clothes, perfect situations, and easy prayer. Life is complex , chaotic , yet beautiful in its strange faces.
I left the temple, this time relieved and with full respect for the lessons I’ve learned. I may not still particularly like Bodhgaya except for the temple. But I did learn a big lesson. A lesson of humility and I also really learned how I act when situation go in a different direction then I wanted them to flow. I guess I grew a bit.
The next morning, I was cheerful and ready to leave. Yes I’ve learned valuable lessons, but now I want to apply those lessons outside of this City. Maybe I stayed too long, but stayed I did and I didn’t give up.
My driver was ready , I checked out with the same guy giving me the same face of unamused enthusiasm to which this time I chuckled instead of standing their in disgust. I thanked him and hopped into my car. Driver , drive like the wind and get me back to Varanasi in one piece…….