There is no other place more venerated by Buddhist than Bodh Gaya, where Gautam Siddhartha attained enlightenment and came to be called the Buddha, the Awakened one. A visit to Bodh Gaya is to commune with that sparkling illumination, that perceptive light of wisdom which removes unhappiness. This is why each year on the full-moon night in the month of May one can still see pilgrims (from India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, China, Japan, and other countries) thronging here to celebrate the sublime event of the Buddha's Nirvana.
The story beings with Siddhartha, born in Nepal, who renounced his royal household, young son, and wife, and wandered through the foothills of the Himalaya to the plains to visit religious centers such as Varanasi on the banks of the Ganga. Searching for the meaning of life and unconvinced by current philosophic discourse he visited Rajgir (65 kilometers away) and finally came to Gaya, an ancient religious center. Siddhartha retreated for some years to the outskirts of Gaya (13 kilometers away) besides the Falgu stream. There, seated beneath a papal tree (Ficus religiosa), he spent forty-nine continuous days and nights in deep meditation. Several important events took place during this period, all of which find popular expression in later Buddhist sculpture and painting. In one tale, a great storm broke, as if to deliberately drown the fasting Buddha. From the depths of the waters an enormous serpent, Mucalinda emerged and, 'enveloping the body of the blessed One seven times within his folds, spread his great hood above his head and protected the Buddha'. This scene of Mucalinda emerged and protecting the Buddha became a favorite theme not only in the Indian subcontinent but throughout East Asia.
Then comes the story of the temptation of the Buddha by Mara. Seated cross-legged under the Bo tree, on the immoveable spot, the thirty-five years old princely engrossed in his search for truth. Mara appeared before him, in the form of the internal temptress, to district him from his meditation and lure him to sensual earthly pleasure. Throughout the period of temptation offered by Mara, her lovely daughters, and frightening followers, the future Buddha remained unmoved. He merely lowered his hand to the ground and touched the Earth, who witnessed his ultimate victory over desire, the source of all human suffering. That night, under the light of the full moon as the heavens rained flowers, the whole universe celebrated the conquest of wisdom over all else. The young man became the Buddha, the Awakened One, full of Buddhi or wisdom. The tree which sheltered him through this trial and victory was named the Bodhi Tree, and the site Bodh Gaya.
At the pilgrimage center of Bodh Gaya there is one main road and one focus of attention, the grand Mahabodhi Temple, and situated behind it (to the west) the Bodhi Tree. Although Bodh Gaya has structural and sculptural remains from the Mauryan-Shunga period (third to first centuries BC), the Mahabodhi Temple was presumably built up to its present dimensions by the seventh century because it was described by the Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese scholar who visited this holy site. Continuous renovation and rebuilding have resulted in the present front of the temple, which actually dates only to the nineteenth century but is believed to be a reasonable accurate copy of the original shrine. The Mahabodhi Temple was built of brick and lime with plaster- Work niches with sculpture. It consists of an inner sanctum above which stands a large looming tower (over 55 meters) that rises in several horizontal planes, each one portioned into a series of niches and chaitya windows. Architecturally it has an interesting design, for though built in brick, the tower has many features that were to be found later in Hindu temple shikhara constructions in stone. The niche at the main entrance holds a sixth century figure of the standing Buddha. Within the inner shrine is a colossal image of the cross-legged seated Buddha, in the earth-touching posture, a reminder of the triumphant event so closely connected with the site.
After the ritual pradakshina procession around the main temple and a visit to the shrine one most see the great Bodhi Tree. It has an elevated platform built around it and the area is enclosed with a railing (the original belongs to the second century and is kept in the Archaeological Museum at Bodh Gaya). The way to honour the Bodhi Tree is to perform a ritual pradakshina, walking around it slowly once, thrice, or seven times. The holy tree is always festooned with offering of flowers and banners. It is no longer the original one under which the Buddha sat (almost two thousand five hundred years ago), but is believed to be a close relative and the vajrasana is the seat marking the hallowed spot. There is a story about Emperor Ashoka who, when he converted to Buddhism, earned the jealous wrath of his wife. She destroyed the Bodhi Tree in a fit of mindless anger. The tree or a shoot was saved and a sapling from the original Bodhi Tree was sent as a massage of peace by Ashoka with his son Mahendra to Sri Lanka, to enable a Buddhist order to be established on the island.
Several other shrines, votive stupas, and newer temples (the Tibeten, Chinese and the Japanese ones built early this century) from the rest of the complex. To the north of the temple is Lotus Lake with an image of the Buddha shielded by the serpent Mucalinda. Beyond is the Jewel Walk where the Buddha is said to have walked and pondered on what to do with this great gift of enlightenment that had been bestowed on him. There is another site further away where a stone sculpture of the Buddha's feet or footprints are worshipped.
The Archaeological Museum has a very interesting collection (the Japanese temple nearby also has some lovely things brought from Japan). The remains of the second to first century BC railing of the main temple is displayed here. There are a number of images belonging to the Pala period (eighth to twelfth centuries), several of them beautiful bronze cast figures of the Buddha made at a celebrated craft center nearby. There are a few sculptured panels and medallions that formed the railings of other buildings constructed over the long period of occupation (from the third century BC to the twelfth century AD before the Muslim invasions). Bodh Gaya's fame reached far-flung corners of the world, which brought donors and visitors to see the original site where the Buddha attained his spiritual awakening, or Nirvana.
Hiuen Tsang describe the famous University city (to which he came all the way from China to study, in the seventh century), and says it was 7 yojanas (80 kilometers) from the holy pipal tree at Bodh Gaya. It is an amazing site, both in scale and for what it represents. The site was known during Mauryan times as the birthplace of the Buddha's right-hand disciple Sariputra (whose commemorative stupa No.3 is at Sanchi). Excavations and layers of successive habitation have proved the antiquity of the site. No building dates from before the Gupta period.
It is conceivable that in the early days students lived in humble gurukuls or abodes with there gurus and over a period of time the place grew into one of the most prosperous and well-reputed centers of learning. We are told that Emperor Harshvardhana (AD606-47) made generous gifts to Nalanda University with grants of rice, butter, and milk from a hundred villages to enable students to devote themselves exclusively to their studies. From all accounts this site was famous throughout the ancient Buddhist world as the greatest university where students from distant lands could come to study the various branches of Buddhist logic, sciences, medicine and philosophy. Hiuen Tsang tells us that:
The priests to the number of several thousands are men of the highest ability and talent. Their distinction is very great at the present time, and there many hundreds whose fame has rapidly spread through distant lands� If men of other quarters desire to enter and take part in the discussions, the keeper of the gate proposes some hard questions; many are unable to answer, and retire.
The dimensions of the site are incredible: there were several 'noble tanks' which surrounded the ruins, a line of monasteries on the eastern side, with religious buildings assembled along the west. The only really irregular part of this scheme is Temple No.2 which housed several very beautiful Hindu images which carved panels of Rama and Sita. A typical monastery consisted of an entrance gateway which opened on to a large rectangular courtyard for communal work. On all four sides of the court were verandahs which led into a line of small cells or cloisters for the religious order to live in. a small shrine, usually placed at the rear, housed an image and served as a prayer room for the monastery.
As you enter the Nalanda complex you walk down a passage between monasteries 1 and 4-5, moving westward to approach the domineering presence of the Main Temple, Site No.3. It is a huge brick structure (31 meters high) with an imposing stairway that offers a splendid, breathtaking view of the entire area and the layout of the university city. The Main Temple stands in a central courtyard surrounded by several brick and plaster-coated stupas and octagonal based votive shrines which were once adorned with beautiful images of the Buddha, his loyal flowers, and the Bodhisattvas.
Nalanda reigned supreme as a center for education for over five hundred years, and it was only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Muslim invasions in the region threatened the establishment, that the monks fled to Himalayan retreats, establishing Buddhist centers in these secluded places. We are told that the great library of Nalanda was burned down.
The Archaeological Museum of Nalanda is also well worth a short visit for it holds a representative collection of artifacts, establishing the idea that Nalanda was once also a prolific art center. There are beautiful clay, plaster, and bronze images of Buddhist orientation in the museum collection.
� What's in the neighbourhood
The best way to approach Bodh Gaya and Nalanda is to arrive through Patna, the capital city of the Bihar. It is not a particularly pleasant city, but the Patna Museum has one of the finest collections of early Indian sculpture in the region. Priceless terracotta images, early Mauryan statues like the grand Didarganj Yakshi, and several bronze icons of the regions are housed in this museum.
Near Nalanda, at a distance of 15 kilometers, is Rajgir or the Mauryan township of Rajgriha, the abode of kings. Surrounded by a ring of hillock, this once ancient city was visited by the Buddha who, we are told, loved to stay on Grihrakuta Hill. Old Rajgir is also where Mahavir, the last Jain Tirthankara, enjoyed spending the monsoon season. It was here, after the Buddha's death, that the first Buddhist council was held at the Vaihara hill caves near the hot springs.
� How to get there
Bodh Gaya is 13 kilometers from Gaya which is connected by road and rail to Patna, Varanasi, Calcutta, and other cities. From Gaya it is 65 kilometers to Rajgir and another 15 kilometers to Nalanda. Nalanda or Baragaon is 90 kilometers south-east of Patna and is linked by road and rail. A variety of accommodation is available to Both Gaya; and there are also several ashrams and dharamshalas. Both Gaya and Patna have adequate accommodation and regular bus links to these celebrated Buddhist sites. You should plan your stay with a one day visit to Bodh Gaya, another to Rajgir and Nalanda, and some time to see Patna Museum. These are discourses and religious studies conducted at these sites which may tempt you to stay longer, to listen and learn about one of the greatest religious of the world.