temple-hopping in bodh gaya: from tibet to japan

Auto-rickshaw driver: Which temple would you like to see? Tibet or Japan? Or Thai? [All the rickshaw drivers in Bodh Gaya, I realise by now, speak impeccable English.]

Me: All of them. Oh, and yeah, Sujata temple too. 😀

I see his eyes light up. I can almost read his mind: This woman will pay me well. She is the wandering types.

Auto-rickshaw driver: It will be Rs. 1,000!

I bargain my way down to Rs. 500 plus a hundred-rupee tip. We shake hands and embark on a six-hour camaraderie which survives through the rattling by-lanes to Bodh Gaya’s far corners, in search of Buddhist temples and monasteries from Tibet to Japan. I say “search” because some of our stops I had merely wisps of information of, and he was completely clueless about.

Though Buddhism as a religion took birth and flowered in India, only 0.7 percent of modern India’s population is Buddhist. The rise of Brahminism from the 5th Century AD onward and the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent in 1204 AD resulted in Buddhism losing its hold on the people of Hindustan by the end of the 12th Century.

But not before it had spread to the south into Sri Lanka and to the east, over South-East Asia and on to the Far East, where it continued to thrive over the ages, creating 520 million followers or 7 percent of the global population. Whilst the essence of Buddhism remained intact through all this, it morphed culturally in these various lands.

Result: Bodh Gaya, the centre of the Buddhist world where Buddha received his enlightenment way back in the 6th Century BC is also a microcosm of the Buddhist world. Different countries have built scores of Buddhist temples and monasteries in their inimitable architectural and spiritual styles on this hallowed ground.

From Tibet’s colourful, mystical Mahayana Buddhist monasteries to the simplicity and clean lines of Japan’s Nichiren Buddhism to the sweeping graceful lines of Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism which traces its way back to Emperor Ashoka. They are all here, some better than the rest. PS. The better ones are in this post.

This dear reader, in conclusion, is what the Buddhist world on our beloved earth looks like on a winter afternoon of temple-hopping in Bodh Gaya. Happy photo viewing. ❤

The perfect place to start: Daibutsu or the Great Buddha Statue built by the Daijokyo sect of Nagoya, Japan in 1989 as a mark of peace and happiness. In Bodh Gaya, the monks are the tourists.

A stone’s throw away from the Great Buddha Statue is the Tibetan Palyul Namdroling Temple which I stumbled upon by chance. Relatively new, it was built in 2016. You will recognize it with its candy-coloured stupas in the grounds [see blog post title image].

Further afield, across the Phalgu river, are two historical places associated with Sujata, the cow-herder who offered Buddha a bowl of rice pudding, mistaking him for a tree deity. Weakened by six years of penance and fasting, and not getting anywhere, the meal set him on the path of the Middle Way.

Above: A stupa [8th – 9th Century AD] marks Sujata’s home. Below: The banyan tree under which Sujata offered the rice pudding to the emaciated Buddha.

Aah, time for a break, and where else but at a “happy place” aka the Be Happy Cafe, a vegetarian pizzeria, coffee house, and bakery.

Bursting at the seams with Tibetan atmosphere is the Tergar Monastery (2006) of the Karmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism. If you ever wanted to visit Tibet in all its colourful, mystical glory, this is the closest you’ll find in Bodh Gaya.

Prayer beads in wood, glass, and rudraksha, in browns, yellows, and reds.

Guardian deities at the Thai Temple. Both the ferocious and kind types. The only one of its kind in India, the temple was built in 1956.

Talk about being enterprising! The Thai Temple has donation boxes for each day of the week with pretty creative rationales for donating. My visit was on a Saturday, so this was what was prescribed. For Friday, it read: “Donate for electric payment and water supply. The result: Removing grief and sadness bringing the bright, smooth and abundance.”

Decorated from top to bottom with 3D frescoes of scenes from Buddha’s life, the kings of Bhutan, and the kingdom’s religious leader is the fantastical Royal Bhutan Monastery. Compact and filled with delightful details, I think I spent more time gasping in child-like wonder here than bowing with reverence.

My last and final stop, the wooden Indosan Nipponji Temple (1972), an epitome of Japanese subtlety. Above: Its hand-painted ceiling of swans and roses. Below: The tiny shrines next to the enormous bell which booms out at fixed times.

A row of khatas tied on a balustrade. The traditional, ceremonial Tibetan scarf, its white colour is symbolic of the purity of the giver’s heart. What a perfect sight to end my day’s wanderings from Tibet to Japan in Bodh Gaya. Wouldn’t you agree?

Travel tips:

  • An auto-rickshaw for a day of temple-hopping cost me Rs. 600.
  • The monasteries and temples are closed from 12 noon to 2 pm.
  • Circumambulations are clockwise and to be done in odd numbers [1, 3, 5 …].
  • Best time to visit: November to March.
  • Bodh Gaya is 115 km from Patna. The roads in Bihar are in pretty bad shape with extensive ongoing roadworks. I took a local bus from Patna to Bodh Gaya—it took me 5 hours one way.
  • Staying there: I stayed for 3 days at Oaks Bodhgaya, a modern hotel with large, peaceful, super clean rooms, and fantastic staff.

buddha’s bodh gaya: the sacred hidden treasures of mahabodhi temple complex

“Is there some festival or special event taking place here today?” I whisper to the Buddhist monk seated next to me.

I am confused, and overwhelmed.

The entire Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya, in the Indian State of Bihar, is draped with marigolds, lotuses, and roses. Hundreds of ochre and red-robed shaven-headed Buddhist monks and nuns prostrate in prayer in the grounds, and around the main temple. A handful of tourists quietly join the circumambulations around the main temple. I see pilgrims from Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Tibet, and Sri Lanka in deep prayer. Most are dressed in their traditional attires. I see a few pilgrims from the West as well, no less in the purity of their faith. Groups chant with micro precision around me, not one voice out of sync, their mantras punctuated with the crescendo beats of rattle drums.

“No. Nothing special. It is like this every day all winter.” And he goes back to his meditation.

Nothing special. Just the extraordinary experience of being part of, and witnessing Buddhists from all corners of the world come and pay homage to the place where Buddha received enlightenment. 🙂 Continue reading

global travel shot: nalanda, the world’s first residential international university


When writing the title of this post, I found myself in a bit of a quandary. Should I call it a global travel shot or an Indian travel shot? The former won.

The above image is of the red brick ruins of the world’s first residential international university—Nalanda Mahavihara—built in the Indian state of Bihar in the 5th Century AD. To be more specific, it is an image of the stupa marking the nirvana of Sariputra, Buddha’s famed disciple, within the university. A Sanskrit name, Nalanda means giver of lotus stalks; mahavihara translates to great monastery.

For 800 years, Nalanda, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracted the brightest brains from all over the ancient world, from as far afield as Central Asia, China, and Korea. Hungry for knowledge, these scholars flocked to Nalanda’s doors to be met by a rigorous oral examination by its gatekeepers. Only those who passed were allowed to study inside the coveted walls. Many were turned away. Continue reading

36 hours in essaouira, where europe meets africa

The year is 1765. The place: A windy bay in Western Morocco. Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah, Morocco’s Sultan, has come up with the idea of building a fortified port-city by the sea to strengthen trade ties with Europe and the New World.

But with a difference. He decides to commission a Frenchman, Theodore Cornut to build it, using French military architectural elements. The city is populated with Africans, Amazighs, Arabs, and Europeans. A colony of Moroccan Jews are especially brought in to carry out the trade. And, thus, Essaouira meaning “the beautifully designed” is born. Continue reading

8 reasons why hassan II mosque tops the casablanca travel bucket list

This is what the Hassan II Mosque on the shores of the ice-blue Atlantic Ocean in Morocco’s northern coast looked like when I landed up at its doorstep one wintry morning in November. ❤

Can you blame me if my camera and I went a little berserk with joy!

It had rained the previous day. With the sun now out, it was as if the world had been painted afresh and the sky and the sea truly met at “god’s throne.” Wonder what I am talking about? Do read on. Continue reading

the story behind chefchaouen, the blue pearl of the rif mountains

Me to Google in Marrakech: “How to get from Marrakech to Chefchaouen.”

Google’s response: “3-hour train journey to Casablanca and then a 6-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Chefchaouen.” No airport. No train. Just one daily CTM bus. I knew Chefchaouen was kind of remote. But this sounded over the top. If I missed the bus, shucks, I also missed a travel day.

But being in Morocco and not exploring Chefchaouen would be blasphemy. Originally called Chaouen meaning “peaks,” the town was renamed Chefchaouen in 1975 which means “look at the peaks.” And well, I wanted to look at the peaks.

If neither of the names strike a bell, do have a look at the post’s title picture. In all likelihood you would have come across this scene at least once online. It is the most Instagrammed backstreet in Chefchaouen. Along with it, pictures of igloo-blue homes and lanes would also have sprung out to you from travellers’ social media accounts.

Seems unreal to you? In fact, the real thing is bluer, prettier, and even more magical! Continue reading