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My Trip to Bodh Gaya and Nalanda

February 18, 2024 | By

Agneya Dutta Pooleery visits the Buddhist pilgrimages of Bodh Gaya and Nalanda. Go on a virtual trip with Agneya as he takes you through the ancient temples, stupas and library of the great historical sites.

rice fields near Asansol

The hills and paddy fields on the outskirts of Asansol

In my summer break, I usually go to India with my mom to visit my grandpa. We stay in our homes at Kolkata and Asansol, visit friends and family and experience India. This summer, we decided to visit some historical sites, since we worked on a module about India in our social studies curriculum in school, and I wanted to see some of the places described in my books. We were going to visit some Buddhist pilgrimages – Bodh Gaya and Nalanda. My mom had to visit for work,  but I was excited to go because I had never seen these places before.

Strangely enough, one of the most memorable parts of the trip was the train ride. We took the Poorva Express from Asansol Junction to Gaya Junction. We had reserved an A.C. three tier car. At the Asansol station, we had to wait a few minutes, as our train was slightly delayed. It wasn’t too bad by Indian standards. We had to go scrambling to the front of the train because the reserved coach was way up front. I expected just regular countryside scenery, which is engaging in its own right. The train slowly rumbled over the bridge on the Barakar River, which was dry because the monsoon this year hadn’t yielded much rain.

Soon we were outside the suburbs of Asansol, and I noticed that most of the freight trains were carrying coal – we were traveling through the infamous coal mining belt of eastern India. Our train got delayed again before Dhanbad station but we were never informed about the reason for delay. The next station was Parasnath — a Jain pilgrimage — this being the birthplace of the Jain Tirthankara, Mahavira. I learnt a temple has been constructed to commemorate this event and is located on top of an ancient hill in the Chota Nagpur plateau of the Giridih district. Finally, our train moved into one of the most picturesque parts of the trip – the Koderma National Reserve Forest.

Koderma National Reserve Forest

Views of the Koderma National Reserve Forest from our train

This reserve forest is in the state of Jharkhand and it was one of the most dense forests I have ever seen – the rains made it look even more beautiful. My grandpa told me that leopards, boars, and deer with antlers live in the forest. Unfortunately, I did not get to see any, but I enjoyed how the train made its way through numerous tunnels in the hills.

train ride through Koderma forest watercolour painting

The Poorva Express traveling through the Koderma National Forest (Water color on paper, Agneya Dutta Pooleery)

The train ride took four hours. Finally, we arrived at the city of Gaya. From there, we were able to take an auto to our hotel at Bodh Gaya, which was 15 kilometers from Gaya, believe it or not! The auto ride was a bumpy one, and went through a very congested part of the city before finally traveling alongside the dry Phalgu river. This river is believed to be associated with Indian mythology, particularly the Ramayana, and the Buddha lived and preached on its banks.

Dry River Phalgu (Right Bank)

Dry River Phalgu (Right Bank)

Bodh Gaya is very important to Buddhists, being the place where the Buddha achieved his enlightenment. There were several sites I visited here. The first was the Mahabodhi Temple which was originally built by King Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. The current temple was renovated sometime in the 5th or 6th century A.D. and is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Mahabodhi Temple Bodh Gaya

Close up of the Mahabodhi Temple (Right:) Temple as viewed from our hotel room

The story of the temple goes as follows — a prince named Siddhartha Gautama saw people suffering and hoped to end it. He ventured to the forest on the banks of Phalgu river. There, he meditated under a Peepul (Bodhi) tree and achieved enlightenment. Some three hundred years later, King Ashoka built the Mahabodhi temple to commemorate the Buddha’s achievement.

The Buddha is said to have spent seven weeks at different places near the Bodhi tree, contemplating his achievement of enlightenment. The first week of contemplation was spent under the Bodhi tree. The second week he stood and stared, uninterrupted at the Bodhi tree – this is now where the Animeshlocha (unblinking) stupa is constructed. The third week the Buddha spent walking back and forth from the Bodhi tree and the Animeshlocha Stupa. It is now called the Ratnachakrama or “Jewel Walk”. He spent his fourth week in Ratnagar Chaitya, to the north-east side. He spent his sixth week near a lotus pond, where legend has it that a storm broke out, and the king of the snakes, Muchalinda, used his hood to protect the meditating Buddha from the storm. The final week the Buddha spent was under the Rajayatna Tree.

In the present-day Mahabodhi temple, many of the Buddha statues which used to adorn the temple have been destroyed due to natural causes. The temple has two straight Sikhara towers, the largest being over 180 feet tall with a larger central spire. On the Sikhara towers, niches would line the surfaces in which painted statues could be found. However, most of these statues have been destroyed by the ravages of time, leaving the temple grey with little color remaining. The surviving artifacts are in a museum near the temple.

Bodh Gaya masks and artefacts

Fun fact: Around the Mahabodhi temple there are many stalls selling collectibles such as masks, statues of the Buddha, books, and other items of interest.

In the front of the temple is a cracked Ashokan pillar with an inscription on it, dating to about 200 BCE. There is a curved entrance to the temple, and a few steps further down you can see a golden statue of the Buddha, with precious stones and decorative elements embedded in it. In the 13th and 19th century, Burmese rulers restored the temple complex and the surrounding wall. In the 1880s, the then-British Colonial Government of India started to restore the temple under Sir Alexander Cunningham and Joseph David Beglar.

Library at Nalanda

The Library at Nalanda

The next site I visited was the historical Nalanda University. Nalanda was established during the Gupta Empire period (4th – 6th century CE). Over 750 years, the faculty included the most revered scholars of Mahayana Buddhism. It taught six major Buddhist schools and philosophies including Yogachara and Sarvastivada. The subjects taught include the Vedas, mathematics, medicine, grammar, and logic. It was an institution for both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, teachings, and practices. The university was also a major source of Sanskrit texts carried by pilgrims Xuan Zang and Yjing to China. Nalanda at its prime had a massive library with hundreds of thousands of manuscripts. After a scholar died at Nalanda, his manuscripts were added to the library. The Library not only collected religious manuscripts but also manuscripts on grammar, logic, literature, astrology, astronomy, and medicine.

A pilgrim from China named Xuan Zang visited Nalanda in 637 CE. He spent two years at the monastery. Xuan Zang returned to China with 657 Sanskrit texts and 150 relics which were carried by 20 horses in 520 cases. He personally translated 74 of the texts.

Nalanda

(Top) Monastery One with two levels and staircases (Right) The row of monk cells (Bottom) An individual cell for a monk.

Nalanda may not be directly connected to the Buddha — although ancient Buddhist texts state he lectured at a town called Nalanda. Some of his closest disciples passed away there. Nalanda is said to hold the Stupa of Sariputra, one of the Buddha’s disciples because records showed he died at Nalaka (presumably Nalanda) – however, this is very uncertain.

The university also received great patronage from empires and kings such as the King of Sumatra during the reign of Devpala. Many temples and monasteries were built at the site. The original construction of Monastery 1 is believed to have started in 6th – 7th century CE, but it underwent significant reconstructions (Nine phases are documented!) until its declining days. Several seals, stone and metal images, terracotta beads and plaques, stone and copper plates, were recovered from this site. I saw many of the individual rooms where monks would study. There were small niches in the walls where oil lamps would be placed for illumination. We saw several storage rooms and my favorite was the extremely deep well that we saw. It was dry, but people most likely retrieved water from it after the rains. My estimate for its depth is 50 meters. People tossed coins into the well.

nalanda wells

(Left) Niches in the wall for oil lamps (Middle) Remains of Temple 2 and (Right) Agneya sitting on the ledge of a well

Temples 2 and 3 are the most imposing structures at Nalanda. Temple 2, which was probably built in the seventh century has a plinth adorned with about 220 statues in arched niches. Nalanda at its prime would most likely have had Temple 2 with its brick walls adorned with these statues. The statues – which depicted gods and goddesses, scenes from Jataka tales, human, animal and bird figures — were surprisingly still intact, and a flight of stairs could be viewed leading up, suggesting that before its destruction it was a multi storied building. The statues were in the niches of the walls, and surrounding those niches were fine stone borders.  There has been speculation whether this temple was a Hindu or a Buddhist temple – but it has been deemed a combination of both.

nalanda university and monastery

(Left) One of the statues found in Temple 2. Sketch on paper, Haimonti Dutta
(Top) Designs on the panels (Bottom) An example of statues found in niches

Temple 3 has a small platform with stairs, and on the border of the platform there were niches with many carved figures (stucco images) inside. These small statues depict the Buddha and other figures of Buddhist importance including scenes from the Buddha’s life, the quest of Siddhartha, the Buddha himself, and other important religious scenes. The Buddha’s statues include him with his begging bowl, and him in teaching postures. His son Rahul and his wife Yodhashanta can be seen in them. In some of the Buddha’s stucco images, his disciples can be seen to his left and right. However, some of the finest of the imagery has been destroyed due to theft and natural causes.  The site often has been destroyed under the guise of “mining for bricks”. This site is also believed to have Hindu gods and deities and scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. There was small writing on some of the stone, not in any language we could recognize. It didn’t seem like graffiti, so it may very well have been Pali or another ancient language. Most of the large statues from this site have been moved to a museum east of the site.

nalanda university Bihar and monastery

(Left) Stucco images on niches in Temple 3 (Top) Another view of Temple 3 and its stairs.
(Below L to R) A statue of Hieun Tsang, Details of images from Buddha’s life and the Memorial

Nalanda was destroyed in 1190 by a Turko-Afghan military leader named Bakhtiyar Khilji. He sought to extinguish the Buddhist center of knowledge in his conquest of northern and eastern India. Only ruins remain today.

Today, the site has yet to be fully excavated. Many ruins lay scattered around in the paddy fields surrounding the area and several remnants of viharas and chaityas have also been uncovered. Directly across from the historical site at Nalanda, was a museum containing artifacts found in the ruins. We were able to see many different statues and small items that were still in good condition.

After a quick stop at Xuan Zang’s Memorial we returned to the hotel room.

The next day, we took an auto back to Gaya. This turned out to be quite interesting because at one point in the trip, the auto driver got out of the vehicle and kept asking passersby if they needed to go somewhere. He loaded the auto to its maximum capacity (about 10 people!), but eventually, we reached Gaya. The driver dropped us off at the train station, so then we looked at the train board and saw which platform our train was arriving at. After a long time waiting (our train was delayed) we got into our reserved A.C coach and settled down.

The trip back was pretty much the same as when we got there — I got to see Koderma forest again and then after a few hours more, our train arrived at Asansol Junction, ending our journey.

Overall, I think my trip to Bodh Gaya was a new and interesting experience because I got to expand my knowledge of different cultures and religions (specifically Buddhism) and see many different sites that were important to the culture and history and how they contribute to our society today.

More Must Read in LnC Travelogue

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Karavali: The Awe-inspiring String of Golden Beaches

Thousand Islands of New York – Where Glamour Embraces Penury

My Trip to Uttarakhand: Travelogue with Sketches

 

Agneya Dutta Pooleery is a seventh-grade student at Transit Middle School, Williamsville, NY. He loves reading, playing online games (such as Minecraft and Roblox), fencing, and playing western classical music on the guitar, violin and sometimes, the piano.
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