09 August 2005

The spiritual tourist, 2

Bodh Gaya was a paradise for a spiritual tourist like me. I visited several Buddhist temples within a few square kilometers – all in the course of a single day. Wandering the streets, I discovered temples from Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan… each reflecting its characteristic architectural style. Each one contained within it a beauty and a sense of peace I had rarely experienced.

But, the most important one was the Mahabodhi temple, belonging to India. This was where Buddhism began. This was where the Buddha achieved his enlightenment, under the Bodhi tree, some 2500 years ago. Inside the temple was a huge statue of the Buddha, said to be over 1700 years old. In front of the Buddha was, of all things, a Shiva Linga, said to have been installed by the great Hindu sage Shankaracharya. This was, indeed, a dampener to my spirits, and so I stepped out.

The famous Bodhi tree – a huge pipal tree – was behind the Mahabodhi temple, standing on a raised platform, a few Buddhist monks praying at its feet. This, of course, was not the original tree, but a descendant. Countless strings and ribbons and triangular flags, mostly white and yellow in colour, were tied around the Bodhi tree; the bark of the tree shining dark and oily from the hands of millions of pilgrims.

A gentle breeze was blowing and a few heart-shaped pipal leaves fell around me.

I stood there and wondered. What did all these turns of strings and ribbons around the tree signify? What did these hanging flags point to? What did it mean to touch this sacred tree or pray at its feet? Was this devotion? Was this piety? Faith? Are rituals and devotional acts absolutely necessary to achieve enlightenment? What spiritual metaphor was being communicated here that I failed to understand?

I found no answer. With a heavy heart, I carried my baggage to Gaya railway station and onwards to my next destination.

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