About 110 kilometres away from the state capital, Patna, Bodhgaya is a popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists. The first time I visited this dusty town in 2013, I didn’t know I would return thrice over and it was deepen my inclination for Buddhism manifold.
As I concluded my fourth travel to Bodhgaya, I knew I could chalk out an itinerary from memory.
Things to do in Bodhgaya
Spend half a day in Mahabodhi Temple
The main shrine is a prominent 55 metres tall and has intricate designs of Buddha on its immaculate architecture. One of the oldest brick temples in India, the architecture depicts a classical Indian style of work with motifs and layers through its height. This is where the gold plated statue of Buddha is placed. A small but overcrowded passage leads to it. The statue is believed to have been built by the Pala Kings of Bengal.
Most significant and revered part of the temple complex is the Bodhi Tree. Directly behind the main shrine, it is here that Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment on the night of full moon—the reason behind Buddha Purnima celebrations. This peepal tree is believed to be the fifth in its succession. The original Bodhi Tree was destroyed by natural calamities.
Other places to see within the temple complex include the Meditation Park, where visitors can meditate from sunrise to sunset by paying a nominal fee; Muchalinda Sarovar, where Buddha was meditating in the sixth week when Muchalinda, the snake king of the lake, came out to shelter him against thunderstorm; Cloister Walk, also called the Cankamana, where lotuses sprung up as Buddha walked while in the third week of meditation; and Butter Lamp house, where visitors can donate butter lamps in various denominations as a part of holy tradition.
The Ajapala Nigrodha Tree and Ratnaghara are also notable spots in the premises. The former denotes Budhha’s fifth week in meditation, after attaining enlightenment. It is believed this tree was planted by a shepherd to protect Buddha. And Ratnaghara literally translates to the Jewel House and where Buddha spent his fourth week of meditation reflecting on Patthana or the Law of Dependent Origination. According to legend, it is here that colours were emitted out of Buddha’s body which now find themselves in the Buddhist flags.
Marvel at the Giant Buddha Statue
The 80-feet Giant Buddha Statue, also called Great Buddha, is quite spectacular. A little away from the Mahabodhi Temple, this state is made of marble. What I liked most was the eight statues of Buddha’s disciples on either sides.
Visit the many monasteries
Start with the imperial Royal Bhutan Monastery, then the ornate Wat Thai Temple, followed by Indosan Nipponji Japanese Temple and finally Vietnam Temple. All of these flank the main road, though these are not limited in number.
Things to do around Bodhgaya
Visit Rajgir and Nalanda
A day’s visit to the neighbouring ruins of Nalanda is recommended for all history enthusiasts. The now operational Nalanda University is about 85 kilometres from Bodhgaya and was an ancient residential university since the third century. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is spectacular with excavated ruins of stupas, temples and virahas (residential rooms) emerging from the earth in its brick facade.
Rajgir is approximately 15 kilometres ahead of Nalanda, while returning to Bodhgaya. It is believed Buddha spent many years living and delivering sermons here. Today tourists visit Rajgir not only to explore the remnants of Buddhism but also the Jain and Hindu temple complexes.
Visit Dungeshwari Caves
Driving away about 44 kilometres away from Bodhgaya towards Patna, the Dungeshwari caves (also called Mahakala caves) is the spot where Buddha is believed to have spent six years before he walked towards Bodhgaya. There are three caves that house Buddhist shrines and Dungeshwari, the Hindu deity.
Where to eat
There is no dearth of restaurants, dhabas and tea shops in Bodhgaya. However, if you’re looking for a good dine-in experience, you could be looking for long. Ram Sewak Tea Corner on Birla Dharamshala Road is a great choice for snacks. Samosa, puri-sabji are popular, quick bites though at lunch you can treat yourself to a thali or a selection of dosas. Occasionally they serve litti-chokha too, a (heavenly) local Bihari dish!
If you’re looking for only vegetarian good, try Cafe Be Happy, not too far from Ram Sewak. I decided against it after a quick glance, since many places in town serve vegetarian food sans the fuss.
Chinese cuisine is a favourite in Bodhgaya. If you don’t mind the oil, usual Chinese favourites in any restaurant are quite good with big serving portions. Walk into any hotel’s restaurant (most invite walk-in guests) though the hygiene standards may not be very high.
Don’t miss Tibetan food from the street vendors. They prepare fresh and comforting momos and thukpas.
Where to shop
Buy antiques, Tibetan attires, jewellery and a plethora of other handicrafts from Bodhgaya. I would suggest the main road to Mahabodhi Temple. Products do not differ much—in price or quality. Be prepared to bargain.
Where to stay
During one of my visits to the town, a guide had told me, ‘There are too many new hotels in Bodhgaya. Even we locals find it tough to keep up!’ And in course of my travels, I have realised it is indeed true.
Choosing accommodation here should be governed by two factors: distance from the main temple and hygiene. There are multitude of hotels and guest houses across budgets around the main temple, however, their cleanliness can be argued.
Root Institute for Wisdom Culture offers retreats and volunteer courses and is close to the Mahabodhi Temple.
I preferred Royal Residency, about 2.5 kilometres from the main temple, which is one of the oldest hotels here. The rooms are spacious and service is slow but attentive. The tariff here can be steep by Bodhgaya standards (about ₹6100 a night, for a double room) but it is worth the cleanliness and stay.
Getting there and away
The closest airport to Bodhgaya is Gaya Airport, which is approximately 21 kilometres away. Patna airport is about 130 kilometres away and approximately 3-4 hours drive from Bodhgaya.
Transport within Bodhgaya are usually cycle rickshaws. Everything is close by and can be explored on foot if necessary. Bicycle are available on rent as well.
Good to know
-Visitors are expected to leave their mobile phones in the security counters before entering Mahabodhi Temple.
-Mahabodhi Temple is clean, has drinking water and toilets within the premises.
-Entry fee to Nalanda ruins is ₹15.
-Cabs to Nalanda and Rajgir from Bodhgaya will cost ₹3200 (approximately).
-Cabs to Mahakala Caves from Bodhgaya will cost ₹1200 (approximately).
-Bihar is a dry-state, i.e. consumption, purchase and possession of alcohol is not permitted.
-Bodhgaya is a dusty town. Buying a nose mask may help.
Have you been to this Buddhist pilgrimage yet?