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"Bodh Gaya" by Shantum Seth

18 March 2010

Bodh Gaya, is located in the Indian state of Bihar 115 km from its capital Patna. The land is rich and fertile, dotted with green fields watered by the Neeranjana river. A range of low hills silhouette the small hamlets flanking the glistening sandy banks of the river.

More than 2500 years ago Siddhartha Gautama, a young seeker, having renounced his royal heritage came here looking for a quiet retreat where he could meditate upon the causes and ending of human suffering. He had tried many spiritual practices in his search, the latest of which was extreme asceticism. As he lay at a charnel ground, he felt the pleasantness of a gentle breeze on his face and gazed across the river upon the serene landscape of Uruvela village (modern Bodh Gaya) he knew that he had to start giving his body nourishment. The kind daughter of the village chief of Uruvela, Sujata, offered a bowl of kheer (sweet rice milk) to the starving ascetic and it revived him.

Siddhartha spread Kusha grass beneath the Bodhi or Bo tree (Peepal tree; botanical name, Ficus religiosia) and sat cross-legged facing the east with extreme determination. Guided by reason and dispelling self doubt, he entered deeper states of contemplation. He had unusual dreams and through his deep absorption, he knew that a breakthrough was at hand.

As the morning star arose, on the full moon night of April-May, through in his clarity, understanding and wisdom, he had attained Samma Sambodhi, the Enlightenment that he had been seeking for so long. He had developed the Four noble Truths and discovered the law of conditioned arising. He was no more a seeker or Bodhisattva. He had become the Buddha, the one who is awake.

Through many a birth in Samasara wandered I,
Seeking but not finding, the builder of this house.
Sorrowful is repeated birth.
O house-builder! You are seen.
You shall build no house again.
All your rafters are broken, your ridgepole is shattered.
To Nirvana goes my mind. Achieved is the end of craving.
 - Dhammapada 153,154

As the place of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, Bodh Gaya is the spiritual home of Buddhists. It attracts tens of thousands of believers from all over the world. Shaven heads, billowing ochre and maroon robes, monks and nuns, a string of beads in hand, rub shoulders with sari and jeans clad locals and tourists from across the globe. An all pervading calm envelops the town, casting a peaceful spell on the visitor.

Set among verdant lawns, the magnificent 52 metre high sandstone Mahabodhi Temple soars towards the blue skies and white clouds. The Bodhi tree, behind the temple is surrounded by small beautifully carved votive stupas and chaityas and numerous images of the Buddha. Prayer flags flutter in the sky, spreading the message of the Master. At daybreak not a whisper, not a sound is heard, except for the gentle rustle of the Bodhi leaves and an occasional murmur of mantras. One can walk mindfully through the temple complex to the seven places where the Buddha is meant to have spent a week each after his awakening.

Bodh Gaya is quite an international town as monasteries, guest houses, meditation centers and Buddhist temples of different countries abound. These are traditionally built and decorated with colorful images and Buddhist symbols. Within a square mile there is an opportunity to visit the temples, images and practices of Buddhists from across the globe, and experience how Buddhism has manifested in different cultures.

Bodh Gaya, the holiest of all Buddhist pilgrimage sites, draws devotees all year round. Pilgrims attend the Buddha Jayanti celebrations on the full moon night in the month of Vaisakha in April-May when the temperatures can touch 113 F. The entire town celebrates the event with prayer meets, religious discourses, group meditation, processions and symposia. The Mahabodhi Temple wears a festive look, specially decorated with colorful flags and flowers. The best times to visit in terms of weather is between mid-October to mid-March.

Adapted by Shantum Seth from the book Walking with the Buddha, co-authored by Shantum, who has lead acclaimed pilgrimages to traditional Buddhist sites --'In the Footsteps of the Buddha’-- since 1988. Visit www.buddhapath.com to learn more.


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.