Around 2,500 years ago, a Samana (a wandering ascetic) accepted a bowl of rice from a young girl. This simple act made him realise that austerities alone could not lead to nirvana. Gautama Buddha left the life of an ascetic and sat meditating for days under a Peepal tree. This is where he attained enlightenment.
One man’s awakening changed the course of history. It was at this moment that the ‘middle way’ was born.
Today, 17 km from Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar, stands the 5th succession of the Peepal tree under which a wanderer became a Buddha–the awakened one. Even though Gautama Buddha left the place later and set out to teach people the middle way, Bodh Gaya became the birthplace of Buddhism.
Around the 3rd century BC, Emperor Asoka visited the Bodhi tree and built the earliest Buddhist temple which would later be known as the Maha Bodhi temple, one of the four major sites on the map of Buddhism. Legend has it that one of Asoka’s wives had the original tree cut down out of envy as Asoka would spend most of his time under it.
Bodh Gaya is considered one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Buddhists–visited by a steady wave of tourists from all over the world. In fact, Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Thailand, Japan and Bhutan, have built temples and monasteries near the Maha Bodhi temple complex.
The complex consists of the main temple, the Bodhi tree, Vajrasana, the lotus pond, and six other spots of spiritual significance–all of which are well protected by inner and outer walls. Each site has its own significance and legends associated with it. However, the stories are so precise that one could trace the Buddha’s steps throughout his spiritual journey. It is said that after achieving Nirvana, he spent the first week under the Bodhi tree and the second week in Animeshlochan Chaitya, now a prayer hall. The third week was spent walking in an area called Ratnachakrama and the fourth in Ratnaghar Chaitya. In the fifth week, he meditated under the Ajapala Nigrodh tree and spent the sixth week near the lotus pond. And before setting out to write the future of man’s spiritual quest, Gautama Buddha spent the seventh and the final week under the Rajyatana tree.
Today, if you walked into the temple premises, you’d see the followers of the Buddha circumambulating around the temple, prostrating and offering prayers. Vajrasana, the stone platform on which the Buddha sat in meditation, is off-limits to visitors. But its mere sight is enough to paint a peaceful picture of a man sitting cross-legged, deep in meditation, his face radiating calm.
Every year on December 8, the seekers of one of the world’s most profound philosophies, celebrate Bodhi day at this world heritage site. As the Maha Bodhi Temple reverberates with sounds of Budu Saranai (roughly translated as ‘May the peace of the Buddha be yours’), the entire atmosphere leaves you in awe of not only Bodh Gaya but also what it stands for.
Bodh Gaya is not merely a historical site, but a place where a wanderer showed people the middle way and gave birth to a philosophy that came to revolutionise the way the world looks at spirituality.