In 528BC, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, settled under a bodhi tree and – after surviving a night of temptations and threats – found enlightenment. The Mahabodhi Temple, which marks the spot, has since become the world’s more important Buddhist pilgrimage site.
Bodhgaya, the town that has sprung up around the temple, manages to retain a wonderfully serene air, despite being located in India’s poorest state, Bihar – an anarchic place, riven with caste conflict. Between November and February, large communities of exiled Tibetans – including, from time to time, the Dalai Lama – join red-robed monks, pilgrims from around the world and curious travellers, giving Bodhgaya a truly cosmopolitan feel.
Devotees have built a number of elaborate – and sometimes incongruous – modern temples and monasteries in various national styles: Thai, Japanese, Bhutanese and Tibetan among them. There is also a huge 25-metre-high Buddha statue in an ornamental garden, innumerable meditation centres and increasing numbers of hotels – which run the gamut from austere monastery guesthouses to luxury five stars.
The focal point, however, is the Mahabodhi Temple, a sixth-century construction with an elegant single spire surrounded by a collection of smaller stupas and shrines. At the heart of the temple complex is the bodhi tree itself – this one, however, is only a distant offshoot of the original, which was destroyed by Emperor Ashoka before his conversion to Buddhism.
Beside the tree, which has multicoloured threads tied to its branches and Tibetan butter lamps around its base, is the vajrasana (thunder seat), a sandstone block on which the Buddha is reputed to have sat. Many people come to meditate here, but regardless of your religious beliefs the place invites quiet contemplation, particularly as the afternoon draws to a close, when the crowds slowly disperse, the sun descends and ritual chants drift over on the breeze.
A version of this post was first published in Make the Most of Your Time on Earth.