Bodhgaya: Beyond the temple walls

I hesitated to make this post, but I finally felt the need to share the other side of this area that doesn’t make it to the “Incredible India” tourist posters.

Bihar is considered one of the poorest states in India. And if one ventures further than the markets and the temples in Bodhgaya, one will see that this village is one of the poorest areas in the state.

This is my third time staying in Bodhgaya, and yet this is the first time I’ve become aware of the magnitude of poverty here in this area. By chance or karma, I landed in a guesthouse that’s right in the middle of village life, so to speak. The guesthouse itself is better than some others I’ve stayed in, and is spotless. I feel safe enough here as well, and would even use the guesthouse again if I return.


But staying here and walking around the back streets has really opened my eyes. I’ve seen slums and other poor areas in India before. Yet here on a daily basis I’m now walking along streets with open drainage, trash, houses without solid doors or roofs, and probably without plumbing. I’m cold enough to be bundled in a fleece over-shirt and scarf, yet there are kids running around without shoes, and sometimes without pants.

All the tourist money coming into the area is obviously not reaching the people that live here, and my heart goes out to them. They seem so resilient, and still friendly, returning the smiles of the strange gori walking through their midst. I realize how very, very fortunate I am.

 

I’ve read some reasons why the poverty continues here despite the town garnering impressive incomes. I’m not from here, and given the state of politics in my home country, don’t feel qualified to propose any reasons or solutions. There are some charities that seem to be doing great work here, but help for most seems to be slow in coming.

My aim in this post is just to share some of the other side, and let you see what’s behind the tourist curtain.

Bodhgaya: The Beautiful

Over 2500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama came to Bodhgaya after several years of study under various teachers, and self practice with austerity. Realizing that the extreme austerity hadn’t brought him to the end of suffering, he recalled a time of peaceful meditation he had experienced as a child. He decided to return to that practice, and after meditating for some time under a local ficus tree, he experienced enlightenment. At that moment, he became the Buddha, meaning the awakened one.

Great Buddha Statue

While the original tree was destroyed, a cutting from it was planted in Sri Lanka. The large Bodhi Tree that stands today has grown from a cutting of that Sri Lankan tree, and spreads over peaceful grounds where visitors all over the world come to visit. There is a temple near the tree that was constructed in the 6th century, at the site of a previous temple that had been demolished. Various stupas surround the grounds, and offerings are placed around the complex. Monastics in various colors of robes sit and meditate, chant, circumambulate, and perform prostrations around the temple. While I was there, there were Buddhist monks from all over the world participating in chanting the original Buddhist teachings. It made for a lovely space to meditate in.


Chanting under the tree
Stupa near the temple

 
Outside the temple complex are international temples built in the style of the countries which built them. I visited a few, although the main draw for me was the main temple with the Bodhi tree. Some of the monasteries here are really amazing to see, and are quite ornate, complete with all the finery.

The Thai Temple:


Tibetan Temples:



Japanese Temple:

Thousands of people flock here to Bodhgaya, and especially at the main temple, the spirit of devotion is palpable. Bodhgaya is still probably my favorite of the Buddhist holy sites, and I’m quite content to just sit under the tree as well.

However, there is another side to Bodhgaya beyond the temple walls and the paved main streets. And that will be the subject of my next post.