The road to Bodh Gaya

by Raghu Krishnan, India Times, Dec 16, 2007

Bihar, India -- Bihar will have a tryst with history in 2077 AD. That year will see the 2,700th anniversary of the day Siddhartha achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha at a place which has come to be known as Bodh Gaya.

Yet this holiest of places in Buddhist history can only be accessed by some of the worst highways in India. The pilgrim's progress is quite arduous. The two-wheelers seem better equipped to take the rough with the smooth in the absence of anything resembling a street-light.

Yet the place the highway leads to is divinely unique. The fifth apling of the original banyan tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment is there to be venerated, as is the beatific image of the Buddha at the entrance of the shrine.

Within a radius of some 50 kilometres is Rajgir at the peak of whose Gridhakuta Hill the Buddha delivered many of his sermons. Near Rajgir is the residence Ashoka’s royal ancestor Bimbisara built for the Buddha. And it was at the nearby Saptaparni Cave that the first Buddhist Council was held after the Mahapranirvana passing away) of the Buddha.

The epicentre of this gloriously divine chapter in history is Bodhgaya’s Mahabodhi temple whose inscriptions record the visits of pilgrims from Sri Lanka, China and Myanmar in the 7th and 10th centuries AD.

Hieun Tsang came here from China in the seventh century and studied for five years at Nalanda, that unparalleled centre of excellence whose dedicated university graduated some of the best and the brightest and not just from India, with aspirants for admission being interviewed by the gate-keeper.

Stand as I did on the red ruins of what was once a 10-km long and five-km wide campus and you cannot but be awed by the thought that some five centuries before Oxford and Cambridge were established, there flourished at Nalanda the finest university of its time with 9 million books, 10,000 students and 1,500 teachers.

The largest residential university of its time, Nalanda focussed on Buddhist thought and was endowed by Hindu kings before being destroyed in the 12th century by Bhaktiar Khilji.

Guide Debi Prasad shows me the remains of a hostel-room with built-in spaces for books and two beds, the idea being that each junior student could interact with a senior student and exchange enthusiasm for experience. It seems a unique concept for today’s varsities which are literally divided by class!

As the vehicle I am sitting in lurches from side to side on the ravaged road from Gaya to Rajgir, I tell myself that never before in the history of human civilisation have so many places of such historically spiritual significance been connected by such terrible roads.

Bihar may have lost much of its mineral wealth to the newly-created state of Jharkhand. Yet few states have such a rich lode of historical and spiritual wealth as Bihar. The tragedy is that the potential which exists for historical, pilgrimage and cultural tourism has been negated by the appalling condition of the highways linking the glorious past to the tenuous present.

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