Short stories, Travel and Health Information
Built in the third century BC by Indian Emperor Ashoka, Bihar state’s temple complex of Bodhgaya (or Buddhagaya as it is known in Sri Lanka) is a sacred site for the world’s 300 million Buddhists
It was at this very spot, over 2500 years ago, that one of the world’s great religions came into being – when the Indian prince Gauthama Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became The Buddha. After being deep in meditation he attained enlightenment when he realised the answer to the fundamental questions about why suffering existed in the world and how it could be eradicated.
Within Budddhagaya’s temple compound there is a deep sense of peace and serenity. It is a moving experience to be there when the pilgrims begin chanting just before dawn. Sounds of deep-throated sonorous tones from Tibetan monks, gentler Pali stanzas from groups of Thai pilgrims and soft singing accompanied by the percussion of a silvery bell from members of a black-robed Japanese sect can all be heard. Surprisingly, the result is not discordant but a pleasing blend of sounds.
Sacred Bodhi tree
Just behind the main temple is an ancient pipal or Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), a descendant of the very tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Pilgrims can sit and meditate near this spot where the Buddha sat 2626 years ago – or share a roti and conversation with a Ladakhi monk from the Himalayas – or simply absorb the sounds and ambience of this holy place.
Strolling around the courtyard are pilgrims and visitors from around the world — saffron-clad Theravada monks from Sri Lanka and Thailand, Tibetan Mahayana monks in their Dalai Lama-like orange and purple robes, Westerners in traditional Indian dress, and Indians in jeans and woolly jumpers.
Origin of Buddhism
Although Buddhism originated in India the religion almost died out in that country. But it spread to neighbouring Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand — where today 80-90% of the population is Buddhist — and via the old silk routes through Pakistan and Afghanistan to China, Korea and Japan. It is pilgrims from these countries as well as Westerners interested in Buddhism who make up most of the visitors to Budddhagaya.
Monastery at Nalanda
A day’s drive from Budddhagaya lie the ruins of the ancient Buddhist university of Nalanda. During the Buddha’s lifetime it was a monastery. After his death it continued to function as a home and place of instruction for monks, gradually evolving into a place of learning. It received royal patronage and at the time of the Gupta dynasty (between the 4th and 7th centuries of the Christian era) it was attracting scholars from far and wide who came to learn Buddhism as well as subjects such as astronomy, mathematics, law, medicine and the arts. The university prospered for more than 700 years until it was sacked by Afghan invaders in the 12th century.
The buildings consist of cells built around a central courtyard with a gatehouse at one end and a shrine at the other, strikingly similar to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge with their porter’s lodge at one end and chapel at the other. The main difference is that Nalanda flourished from about the 5th century whereas Oxford’s earliest college dates from just 1249.
It is from the writings of Chinese scholars as early as the 5th century that historians have been able to gain an insight into the Buddhist kingdoms that thrived on the Ganges plain. In 1920, Lord Ronaldshay, one of the earliest presidents of the Mahabodhi Society of India which was established to revive Buddhism in India, said: “It is not necessary to be an actual adherent of the Buddhist faith to be a reverent admirer of the life and teachings of its founder.”
Nor do you need to be a Buddhist to appreciate the serenity, the sanctity and the beauty of these ancient sites of Buddhist pilgrimage
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