By Dr. Nilza Wangmo
Bodh Gaya, located in the central province of Bihar State of India is one of the holiest sites for Buddhists all over the world where thousands of foreigners mostly Buddhist devotees throng each year. Under the sacred pipal, or Bodhi tree, Gautama Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. It is believed to be the centre of the universe according to Buddhist some texts and the seat of enlightenment of all past and future Buddhas. In the 3rd century BCE, a simple shrine was built by the emperor Ashoka to mark the spot, and this was later enclosed by a stone railing in 1st century BCE, part of which still remains. Ashoka’s stone slab purporting to mark the exact position where the Buddha sat is traditionally called the Buddha’s Vajrasana (literally “diamond throne” or “thunder seat”). In the 2nd century CE, the shrine was replaced during the Kushan period by the present Mahabodhi temple which was itself refurbished in the Pala-Sena period (750–1200), heavily restored by the British archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham in the second half of the 19th century, and finally restored by Myanmar (Burmese) Buddhists in 1882.
The temple’s central tower stands 180 feet (54 metres) above the ground. Its pyramidal shikhara (tower) comprises several layers of niches, arch motifs, and fine engravings. Four towers, each identical to its central counterpart but smaller in size and topped with an umbrella-like dome, adorn the corners of the two-story structure. A shrine inside the temple holds a yellow sandstone statue of the Buddha encased in glass. One of the most famous of Ashoka’s many pillars (on which he had engraved his edicts and his understanding of religious doctrine) stands at the southeast corner of the temple. The 4.8-hectare (11.9-acre) complex also includes ancient shrines and modern structures built by Buddhist devotees. It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002.
On 5th of September 2015, the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, in the midst of delegates from different Buddhist countries reiterated the relevance of this holy place saying, “We are meeting in Bodhgaya, a land that has a distinctive place in the history of humankind. This is the land of Enlightenment. Years ago what Bodhgaya got was Siddhartha but what Bodhgaya gave to the world was Lord Buddha: the epitome of knowledge, Peace and Compassion.”
Resonating the PM Modi’s thoughts, some of the firsthand accounts of the Asian Buddhists who took a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya write about their experiences at this holy site. A Korean nun Hyeran Lee who got her PhD degree in Buddhist Studies from the University of Delhi in 2016 and is currently a Lecturer at Dongguk University, Republic of Korea writes, “Bodhgaya is the place where I can feel the energy of the Buddha. I had become a Buddhist nun at the age of 20 in order to devote my life to pursue the Buddha’s teaching and dharma. I was very curious about India – the land of the Buddha. When I was in my mid-twenties, I visited India for the first time. I had always been curious about the land of the Buddha and had seen the pictures of Buddhist sacred places so many times and did not expect to visit Bodhgaya and the other Buddhist sacred sites in India. But when I actually made a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, I realized that the pictures cannot express everything that a Holy place holds. The atmosphere of Bodhgaya was sacredly mysterious and the place was crowded with pilgrims from all parts of the world. There were many people making prostrations to the Buddha and around the Mahabodhi Temple. Bodhgaya is a religious site where the Buddha attained Enlightment under the Bodhi Tree. When I visited Bodhgaya again after 20 years, I felt the same feeling how I had felt during my first visit to Bodhgaya- I could feel the energy of the Buddha when he lived around 2600 years ago. I think that Buddhists and non-Buddhist can feel the Buddha’s power in Bodhgaya, as many come on a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya every time.”
Another nun scholar from Vietnam Li Thi Kim Lien who finished her Masters in Buddhist Studies from University of Delhi very sincerely expresses her moment of experience in Bodhgaya saying, “It was a great blessing for me to come and admire Bodh Gaya under the Bodhi tree, which all Buddhists called the land of enlightenment. When my foot entered the gate of the Great Stupa, occasionally listening to the chanting of the Pali sutras emanating from the loudspeakers, I felt an indescribable emotion in my heart- an atmosphere of sacredness, mystery, and majesty pervades Bodh Gaya. I respectfully folded my hands and saluted the Great Stupa facing me. As I started walking towards the steps leading to the Great Stupa, I felt there was an invisible power that affected my consciousness. It affected my every step. Every step I took was like an electric current being transmitted to my body, making my whole body vibrate strangely. A spiritual force at the place of Buddha’s enlightenment acted on my body and mind. At that time, I felt I am just a tiny human being before that spiritual power. It is strange that being under the influence of this spiritual power and the majesty of the Great Stupa, my heart felt peaceful and reverent, and I felt all me fears going away.”