UNESCO Heritage Site #97: Bodh Gaya, the cradle of Buddhism

When I initially mentioned to some of my colleagues that I was going to Varanasi and Bodh Gaya, they thought I was a bit insane. I couldn’t exactly blame them, as I discovered that the daily temperature averaged somewhere around 42-43 degrees Celsius. Still, as my time in India was coming to an end, Varanasi and Bodh Gaya were high up on the bucket list, and it was worth the sweaty, parched trip.

Bodh Gaya greeted me with dried-out rivers and foot-scorching stone and marble temple floors. The small dusty town is one of the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites, as it is here that the Buddha had achieved Enlightenment. The focal point of Bodh Gaya is the  third-century BC Mahabodhi temple , built around the Bodhi tree where Buddha meditated. Throughout  the temple complex, religiously important places can be found commemorating each of the seven weeks that the Buddha spent after his Enlightenment. Mobile phones are not permitted at the temple site – a restriction, which, despite minor inconvenience, actually ensures a peaceful, flash-free, no-selfies experience.

To accommodate the many pilgrims coming to the site, various nations have built their own temples around the main Mahabodhi temple. From the beautiful opulence of the Bhutanese temple to the peaceful austerity of the Japanese one, it is certainly worth to wander the town simply to see the diversity of culture and architecture. The signposts are in multiple Asian languages, which makes it feel like the United Nations of Buddhism.

After a day an a half in Bodh Gaya, I was ready to come back to Varanasi. Following my hassle-free, efficient morning train ride from Varanasi to Bodh Gaya, I was ready sing praises to the Indian railway system, but the return evening train had me stop in mid-tune. On the way to Bodh Gaya, I booked a sleeper class, which despite being the lowest class for reserved berths was comfortable enough, and I didn’t think it would be an issue to book the same for return. What I didn’t realize is that although I was only booking an evening 3-hour segment between Bodh Gaya and Varanasi, the train was a long-distance, multi-day train that went all the way to Amritsar. The difference in the conditions of the sleeper wagon during the day and at night could not have been more different. Families crammed their large burlap bags in every available space, multiple people slept on single beds, while the conductor walked down the hallway, collecting bribes from ticketless passengers. In my compartment alone, eight bunks were divided between fourteen adults and two children. As the night crept in on our train, which was already two hours late after a three-hour journey, the passengers without a berth took to the floor, and by the time I had to get off at Varanasi, I tip-toed off the train, careful not to step on anyone’s limb.

Midnight Varanasi greeted me with yet another memorable scene. When I walked out of the train station, the entire parking lot outside was packed with sleeping bodies. Families spread blankets, and children slept on mothers’ laps, while the men simply slept on the floor. Hundreds of people huddled together while waiting for their overnight sleeper trains going to all ends of the country. It was a sight to see even after my three years in India.

The last day in Varanasi I spent walking the ghats and the back lanes of the city. As the highway and major through roads avoided the historic centre of the city, the lanes of Varanasi were busy but free from any traffic noise. The exhaustive heat forced most creatures to seek shade. As a result, going out for breakfast and having the famous Varanasi lassi was simple and peaceful.

After finishing my elaborately-concocted yogurt drink, I set out to visit Sarnath, yet another important place in the life of Buddha. It was in Sarnath, where after attaining Elightenment, Buddha came to teach ascetic monks and friends. The place is commemorated by the large Dhamekh Stupa, built in third century BC by the famous Indian king Ashoka. The adjoining museum houses the famous Lion Capital, which has become the symbol of India.

IMG_3736
The large Dhamekh Stupa and the foundations of Ashoka’s monasteries at Sarnath.

Practicalities:

Transportation: To get to Bodh Gaya from Varanasi, there are a few three-hour trains to Gaya train station. It costs around 100 rupees for an auto from the Gaya train station to Bodh Gaya.

Time: Bodh Gaya can be covered by foot within one day.

Cost: Mahabodhi temple and the temples around it are free.

Extras: Mobiles are forbidden at the temple and are stored in the lockers near the entrance. However, cameras are allowed for a fee of 100 rupees.

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