Bodhgaya India: Buddha's Place of Enlightenment

Bodhgaya, a small town in central northern India, in the midst of India's poorest state Bihar. This was top of our list of destinations to visit in India. We wanted to be amongst the energy of the site where Buddha attained his enlightenment 2600 years ago.


We arrived in Gaya by Shatabdi train that was late. We were quite relieved it was late otherwise we would've ended up in Gaya at 4am.

Once in Bodhgaya we felt right at home as soon as we stepped inside the Root Institute, our home for the next 12 days. Nick and I are staying in dorm rooms. Separate dorm rooms. I have 8 girls in my room. Nick is in bunk beds with 8 guys in his room. 

The grounds are amazing. It's a semi-monastic community in Tibetan Buddhist tradition so there is a giant golden Buddha in the center court yard, a massive prayer wheel that is being used all day, and a beautiful gompa for meditation and courses.

On the other side of the walls though, is a crazy town, in a state known for its lawlessness. The center of town revolves around the Mahabodhi temple, a massive stupa build right next to the famed Bodhi tree, the spot where Buddha sat and reached enlightenment in the 4th century B.C.

Mahabodhi Temple Bodhgaya

Our first priority once in town was to visit the sacred Mahabodhi temple.  We hailed a cycle rickshaw outside the Root Institute walls and took off down the dirt road.   In the mile or so we traveled, we saw hoards of monks walking down the dirt road toward the temple.

We made our way past numerous hawkers selling flowers and souvenirs to find a long line of monks was forming to enter the temple gates.  Not ones to stand in line, we both decided to cut into the much shorter ladies line.

Mahabodhi Temple Bodhgaya India

The line of peaceful monks in orange robes quickly morphed into a crowd of anxious monks, and further into an unruly mob of  forceful monks pushing and lurching, trying to get into the narrow gateway.  This was the first mob-like situation we have encountered on this trip, and I just couldn't believe it was a mob of monks! I expect this behavior amongst common Indians boarding the trains, but not spiritual monks entering the most sacred Buddhist site in the world!

There were two security checks and they were specifically searching for mobile phones. I hid mine but Nick got caught and ended up just handing his phone to a random guard who offered to keep it safe, so Nick didn't have to walk all the way to the front and brave the mob again. At that moment of surrendering his phone, we both essentially kissed it goodbye, thinking there was no way he would get it back. And Nick was surprisingly ok with that.

When we got into the temple grounds we began to circumambulate clockwise with the crowd on the upper level of the compound. 

There were thousands of monks down below praying. In fact there were dozens of separate groups chanting on their own loud speakers, in their own languages. These monks had pilgrimaged from all around the world to pray for a week at this festival. 

I think we were expecting the most sacred Buddhist site to be a little more peaceful. A lot more peaceful actually. But it was alive! The entire compound was buzzing with energy, and sound, and movement. 

As we made our way around, we could feel the energy shifting as the separate groups were either seating and praying, or seating and chanting, or doing physical prostrations. Many of them managed to become distracted by Nick walking by though. Monks are curious!

Mahabodhi Temple Bodhgaya India Behar

We walked down to the lower ring where we had to remove our shoes and could enter the main stupa towering 180 feet above us. Inside was a tiny room with a golden Buddha and several people praying, but most people were just passing through though.

Continuing around the outside of the stupa, we had the monks all around us who were all facing into the stupa and chanting. On one side is the Bodhi tree, the actual site where Buddha sat for 45 days until he gained enlightenment. The tree is massive! But this isn't the actual tree. It is a cutting from the original tree that was damaged many years ago and then relocated. 

We sat down on the marble floor at the base of the tree and just took it all in.

In those first few moments of stillness under THE Bodhi tree I just couldn't believe it. I was feeling extreme overwhelm by the energy of the place, by the magnitude of what Buddhas teachings have done for the world. I was visualizing the stillness and openness of this very place when Prince Siddhartha first sat here, and then eventually rose as the Buddha, and what has evolved since then. Millions of people follow his simple teachings, and we were surrounded by thousands of people who have devoted their entire life to it. 

When I eventually felt ready to close my eyes and begin meditating there, I was instantly calmed by the sounds of thousands of voices chanting from different directions in different languages. Despite the movement around me I was able to go deep, and could feel my heart expanding as I meditated to generate peace for all beings. I just felt so powerful sitting there, in the middle of India, in the heart of the Buddhist faith.

We came back again the next day, but the monks were on break, so we were privileged to an entirely different experience of the temple. It wasn't quiet in the way you would expect, but there were no loud speakers, and most of the thousands of monks were out in the town. We were mainly sharing the site with other tourists and local devotees.

Nick and I had another excellent meditation underneath the Bodhi tree, this time pieces of bark were falling on us.

A rather large piece fell on Nicks arm, but instead of disturbing his mediation, he decided to pick it up when he was done. No sooner could he close his eyes again, did he feel the monk seating in front of me crawling over him to grab the bark. Nick was bummed, and they began exchanging glances. The man let Nick touch the Bodhi tree bark before he put it in his bag and grabbed 50 rupees to give to Nick. 

We disagree as to why he gave Nick the money. I think it was a kind offer because he was taking the bark.  Nick thinks the monk was giving him money for food. I guess we will never know. Shortly after I was done meditating a leaf from the tree fell on me, so I was sure to snatch it up right away.

Both of the days we went to the temple, we decided to wander around town a bit when we were done. There are hundreds of souvenir stalls selling religious items, trinkets, and jewelry from Nepal and Tibet. I bought the coolest copper and turquoise Buddha, and Nick bought some beautiful wooden Mala beads.

On four separate occasions, random young men approached us trying to practice their English, and further inviting us to sit down for chai.

We said no each time, reluctantly at first because it was refreshing to not be approached to buy something. But when the second set of guys said almost the exact same speech, we realized that was likely the beginnings of the local scam. We don't know what exactly would come from sitting down to chai with them, but we are clear that it isn't purely innocent.

Would you like more inspiration to visit India?  Check out our other blog posts.


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