Inside the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, Bodhgaya. Photo: Hoshner Reporter

Inside the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, Bodhgaya.

One of the four most important sites in the life of Gautam Buddha, Bodhgaya and the Bodhi tree under which he attained enlightenment, is at the heart of the Buddhist world. An important religious centre for centuries, visited by Emperor Ashoka, Huen Tsang and countless others, continues to pull pilgrims, backpackers and tourists from all over the world. Here’s how to make the most of your time in the spiritual home of the Buddha.

Best time to visit Bodhgaya
Though Bodhgaya is an all-year destination, winters are especially busy, when the temple complex is decorated with thousands of marigolds and the visiting monks in their trademark orange and maroon robes make the town a riot of colour. The streets outside the Mahabodhi Temple are abuzz with vendors selling Tibetan thangkas, Buddhist statues and relics and trinkets. This is also the time for meditation workshops, and the important Kalachakra Festival.

Bodhgaya is also getting a special visitor the week of 14 January, 2018. His Holiness the Dalai Lama of Tibet will be in town for a series of discourses. If you can time your trip, listening to the Bodhisattva of Compassion in the hallowed gardens of the Bodhgaya will be an experience to remember.

Getting in and around Bodhgaya
The nearest large town is Gaya, which is well connected to Patna by road and rail. You can take a 2-hour local train ride from Patna to Gaya, and catch a taxi or rickshaw to Bodhgaya, about a half hour (14km) away. Gaya also has an international airport with direct flights from several major Asian countries.

Bodhgaya itself is a small town and everything is within a two-kilometre radius from the main temple complex, including hotels, places to eat and shop. For short distances, you can hop on an electric auto, many now run by women, or even hire one for the day to go temple hopping (Rs300 for a day). Many hotels and guest houses offer cycles on hire as well.

Where to stay in Bodhgaya
Bodhgaya has accommodation for all budgets and needs. Sikkim Guest House near the 80-foot Buddha statue has basic rooms for a donation, which is usually around. Charity backpackers, a brightly decorated and homestyle guest house in the Tika Bigha village of Bodhgaya offers a space for travellers to meet and hang out for a good cause. The founders Murari Singh from India and Michael Saatkamp from Germany use all the revenue to fund the primary school next door that provides free education to children.

Hotel Niranjana has comfortable modern rooms in their new wing, within walking distance of the Mahabodhi Temple. Sakura House, tucked away in a small lane near the Thai Temple, has friendly staff and the suite on the 3rd floors offers lovely views of the town and the main temple. The new modern Oaks Hotel is a typical chain hotel but offers all necessary comforts and amenities 3km from the main temple complex.

While it is possible to stay in Patna and visit for the day, Bodhgaya has a certain vibe that is best experiences by spending a few days walking around amongst the sea of maroon and orange and a visit to the many temples and monasteries gives one a glimpse into the nuances of Buddhism practised around Asia.

Things to do in Bodhgaya

Visit the most famous tree in the world
The Bodhi Tree, the most famous in all the land, is where it all began over 25 centuries ago, when Prince Siddharta became the ‘Awakened One’, sparking a philosophy that spread through Asia and beyond without the aid of a military crusade. Today, people from far and wide converge here to pay homage to the Bodhi Tree which, by the way, is the fifth descendant of the original tree.

A monk praying at the Mahabodhi Temple complex. Photo: Hoshner Reporter

A monk praying at the Mahabodhi Temple complex.

Pray at the Mahabodhi Temple
The centre of the Buddhist universe and the preeminent place for followers of the faith, the main Mahabodhi Temple Complex houses the famous Bodhi Tree and the temple, a 150m tall brick structure dating back to the Gupta period. The stupas and shrines here were built to commemorate the seven weeks the Buddha spent here. Inside the temple is a large gilded 10th century black stone image of the Buddha in the ‘earth touching posture’. On one side are large ornate carved lotus flowers representing the footsteps of the Buddha.

Photo: Hoshner Reporter

The complex is a place for quiet reflection, meditation and contemplation. At any time of the day, one can see people of all faiths scattered amongst the lawns or seated calmly in front of the tree. There is a sense of tranquillity as you leave the bustling market outside and enter the gardens that fill the main complex. Volunteers, mainly Tibetan families, come every day, especially in the winter, to offer free food to the monks, including Tibetan butter tea and bread and welcome anyone who wishes to help out. (Timings: 5am-9pm)

Visit the ‘international’ temples
The world’s fourth largest religion finds its epicentre in tiny little Bodhgaya, and several Buddhist countries have built large monasteries and beautiful temples in their own inimitable style and form of worship. All these temples are open to the public, during prescribed timings, and you can spend a couple of days visiting the many temples each of which reflects the art and architecture of that nation. Some of these include the massive Thai Temple with elegant gold rimmed rooftops and beautiful frescos; the Royal Bhutan Temple with the typical red-and-gold architecture and stunning paintings; the simpler Japanese Temple; the new modest Mongolian Temple with a photo gallery about Mongolia; and the stunning Palyul Thupten Choekhor Dargyeling Monastery with three massive gold statues. (Timings: 5am-12 noon; 2pm-5pm)

Check out the Archaeological Museum
Don’t miss the excellent ASI Museum whose courtyard has some of the original granite and sandstone railings that once surrounded the Mahabodhi Temple and predate the current structure by another 700 years. (Timings: 10am-5pm, closed on Fridays)

Also of interest is the 25m tall statue of a seated Buddha in the middle of a lovely little garden that was unveiled by HH The Dalai Lama in 1989. (Timings: Sunrise-Sunset)

Restaurants in Bodhgaya
With pilgrims and tourist from all over Asia, Bodhgaya is full of delectable Asian cuisine—some of the best you will eat in India—as well as the usual backpacker fare, and India food, of course. The Asian food is authentic and largely caters to visitors from their own countries, much of it homemade. Apart from the smattering of thukpa, thentuk, momos and Chinese food, winter also sees a number of roadside stalls that serve everything from Thai to Korean and Burmese curries and you can enjoy a plate of steaming noodles with monks engaged in lively discourse.

Be Happy Cafe. Photo: Hoshner ReporterBe Happy Cafe.

While most hotels offer a mashup by way of a menu, don’t miss the pastas, pizza and deserts at the aptly named and brightly painted Be Happy Café; authentic Thai curries at Siam Thai; heart-warming noodle soup at Alice in Gaya Café; and the momos, Nutella banana pancakes and beef stir fry (yes!) at Mohammed’s Restaurant.

Dos and don’t’s in Bodhgaya

Embodying a tolerant religion, Bodhgaya and the many temples have no restrictions in general. However, there is a certain peace in the town and it is important to respect the sentiment of the place and its ideals. Footwear is not allowed inside any temple and it is requested that you dress modestly. Cell phones are also not allowed in the main Mahabodhi Complex—you can use the free lockers outside to leave them safely. Cameras and video equipment are allowed for a fee.

Getaways from Bodhgaya

About 70km away from Bodhgaya is the ancient Nalanda University, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was once one of the premier centres of learning in the world. Despite being over 1,500 years old, the complex is in a remarkable state of preservation and definitely worth the two-hour odd drive.

If you don’t mind a break from the spirituality, check out the stunning tomb of Sher Shah Suri, the Bihari Pashtun who defeated the Mughals and is best known for extending the Grand Trunk road from Chittagong to Kabul. His mausoleum is located in Sasaram, about two hours west of Bodhgaya. Whilst the town itself is like any small town in India the tomb itself, a beautiful blend of Afghan and Mughal architecture, located in the middle of a lake, is a stunning place to absorb everything you have taken in on the trip.