|A morning with the team of 'Bodhgaya Bicycle Tour'
On my foot journey, I arrived in Bodhgayā on 31st of October. I planned to pay a visit to the Mahābodhi Temple the next day, but because of COVID, the temple was open only from 8 am to 11 am and 3 pm to 9 pm. I noticed the interconnected lanes and bylanes around the Mahābodhi Temple complex, which during these months of the year are usually dotted with eateries, hawkers and roadside shops selling souvenirs like bodhi leaves, bead necklaces, Buddha images. But this year, all of them were absent due to the COVID situation. Inside the Mahābodhi Temple complex also, it was very quiet. Normally, during these months of the year, which is the peak pilgrimage period, at least 5000 national and international visitors visit the temple daily. The pilgrims would wait for hours for an opportunity to sit and meditate under the most sacred bodhi tree. But this time, as I was standing near the Bodhi tree, the area was vacant.
My friend and fellow Buddhist pilgrimage guide and interpreter, Jackie Viswakarma, after learning of my arrival in Bodhgayā, invited me to join him for a bicycle tour of the sacred spots associated with the austerities of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha.
As decided, I arrived at the Mahābodhi Temple, the starting point of the tour, early in the morning on 1st November. I was welcomed by fellow guides, Vikash Kumar, Milind Anand, Abhimanyu Singh and Avinash Singh, all in their early twenties. They were on their bicycles. All of them congratulated me on my safe arrival in Bodhgayā. They told me that they had been following my walk on social media.
The economy of Bodhgayā revolves around pilgrimage tourism. The livelihood of many people is dependent on the coming of domestic and international visitors. Locals are finding it difficult to sustain themselves in the absence of tourism due to the covid situation. With the revival of tourism not in sight, the people I met, including my guide friends, were very anxious and worried about what the future would hold.
However, Jackie has not lost hope. He told me that he is utilising his time in developing a bicycle pilgrimage tour to promote Buddhist pilgrimage to the lesser known Buddhist places of significance in the vicinity of Bodhgayā. Vikash, Millind, Avinash and Abhimanyu were motivated by this idea of bicycle touring proposed by Jackie. Jackie said there were few more boys in the group who could not join us that day for cycling. Milind (studying in B.A. English, 2nd Year) thinks bicycle touring will promote eco-tourism in Bodhgayā. Eco-tourism, according to him, is also the future of tourism and pilgrimage around the world. Vikash added that the neighbourhood of Bodhgayā, specially the places associated with austerity of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha, is spread in the rural areas. Many Buddhist pilgrims would love to explore these sites on bicycles rather than in buses and cars.
|Mahābodhi Temple vacant because of COVID.
|Map depicting route and places included in Bicycle Tour.
|With Jackie, Abhimanyu, Avinash and Milind at the start point of the bicycle tour.
|Sharing history at the River Nairāñjanā
|With Jackie in village Bakrour.
|the two neglected mounds in the vicinity of Sujātā temple.
|On way to the village Gangābighā.
|At Sujātā stūpa, Bakrour.
Jackie explained to us the path and stoppages of his proposed bicycling pilgrimage tour. His tour comprises exploring the footsteps of Bodhisattva Siddhārtha on the east bank of River Nairāñjanā. The earliest biographical texts of the Buddha like Mahāvastu (2nd BCE-4th CE), Lalitavistara (3rd CE), Buddhacarita (2nd CE), Nidānkathā (5th CE?) and Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra (6th CE), broadly agree on the fact that the Siddhārtha spent 6 years practicing penance the surrounding of present-day village of Bakrour situated on the east bank of River Nairāñjanā. After taking penance and practising austerity for about 6 years, he felt that he was pursuing the wrong path. Siddhārtha became convinced that he would not get enlightenment and final liberation through a weak body that had lost its strength. He decided to shun the austere life and go to nearby villages to beg for food and strengthen his body again. On the day of Veśāk Pūrṇimā (full-moon day of May), a village girl by the name of Sujātā is said to have served him milk-rice in a golden bowl. After receiving milk-rice, Siddhārtha went to take a bath in River Nairāñjanā. According to Faxian, after taking a bath, Buddha went to a nearby rock (now identified as the Ratnāgiri rock) and consumed the food offered by Sujātā (sitting on the rock facing east). After consuming the milk-rice he threw the golden bowl in river Nairāñjanā. Monk Pilgrims Faxian (5th CE), Xuanzang (7th CE) and Dharmaswāmin (13th CE) in their travelogues have mentioned shrines marking important events related to Siddhārtha’s 6 years stay in these surroundings.
Jackie assigned me the task of storytelling (i.e. interpreting Buddhist sites), and asked Vikash to take pictures. Starting from the Mahābodhi Temple, we first went 2 km east, crossing the River Nairāñjanā to arrive at the village of Bakrour. Bakrour is popular among the Buddhist pilgrims as the ‘Sujātā Village’. According to Buddhist legend, during the times of Buddha, Bakrour was called Senānigrama. The people of Senānigrama sustained Siddhārtha during his 6 year penance. And on the day of Veshākha Pūrṇimā, a village girl named Sujātā offered milk-rice to Siddhārtha. The act of Sujātā offering kheer to Siddhārtha is considered to be a turning point in Siddhārtha’s journey to enlightenment. Even centuries later, out of gratitude for the village of Senānigrama and village girl Sujātā, the followers of the teachings of the Buddha, built shrines here.
At the turn of the 2nd millennia, when the new political climate was not conducive for sustenance of Buddhist pilgrimage and institutions, Buddhist shrines were abandoned and turned into ruins gradually. In the next few centuries, a new population occupied these remains who were ignorant about its significance. They used ancient buddhist remains as brick quarries, reusing its materials. Bakrour is one such village settled over the remains of ancient Buddhist shrines. Fortunately, this mound, locally popular as Sujātāgaḍha survived the vandalisation. Excavation in 1973 revealed Sujātāgaḍha to be a stūpa marking the place where the house of Sujātā existed. The villagers are now becoming aware of the significance of the place. This is a good development.
We cycled through the narrow streets of the village of Bakrour to arrive at the Mātaṅgwāpī temple complex, 250 m east of the village. A temple, situated on the eastern part of the Mātaṅgwāpī temple complex is now popular as ‘Sujātā Temple.’ Circumstantial evidence suggests this temple could be the place where Sujātā offered milk-rice to Siddhārtha. The temple was closed because of COVID. The priests did not feel motivated to open it for us early in the morning as there were no other pilgrims.
Next, Jackie led us to an ancient mound in the village of Gangābighā. On the way to Gangābighā, we crossed a huge mound spread across 2 acres. Ancient bricks could be seen on its surface. Fortunately, this mound is not damaged. It was not being used as a brick quarry by villagers to make new houses. There are many ancient mounds in this vicinity which are undocumented.
Cycling in a narrow village road along the River Mohāne for 250 m, we arrived at the Gangābighā mound. The mound was situated 10 m west of the River Mohāne. I noticed a small stream of water flowing in the river. The mound is approximately 100 ft x 100 ft sq. and is surrounded by agriculture fields. A dilapidated temple complex stands on the mound. Jackie is convinced this mound is the shrine marking the place where Bodhisattva Siddhārtha, after consuming the milk-rice offered by Sujātā in a golden bowl, threw the golden bowl in the River Nairāñjanā.
According to tradition, the meal offered by Sujātā to Siddhārtha on the dawn of Veshākha Pūrṇimā was the last meal before attaining enlightenment. After finishing the meal Bodhisattva Siddhārtha threw the golden bowl into the river and said:, ‘If I am to succeed in becoming a Buddha today, let this bowl go upstream, but if not, let it go downstream.’ The bowl remained floating and moved upstream against the current.
Faxian, Xuanzang and Dharmaswāmin have not mentioned this event in their description, but it was a very important event in Buddha’s life. We find it mentioned in the earliest Buddhist texts. If this event happened as earliest Buddhist texts describe it, the place the event took place would be on the way between Sujātā Temple and Prāgbodhi hill. Therefore, the mound Jackie identified could be the spot of the stūpa marking this event. According to Faxian and Xuanzang, after finishing his meal, Bodhisattva Siddhārtha went to Prāgbodhi Hill in search of a new place to make a fresh beginning. The Gangābighā mound falls exactly on the path connecting Ratnāgiri rock, where the Buddha consumed food, and Prāgbodhi Hill. Also, the mound is situated on the bank of River Mohāne (Mohā of Xuanzang and Nairāñjanā of Pali sources).
Just as we parked our bicycles by the mound and were discussing the mound, two men named Rajkumar and Dilip who were working in the nearby fields approached us. They belonged to Gangābighā and knew Jackie and Vikash. Rajkumar and Dilip are photographers who work in Mahābodhi Temple taking pictures of tourists. Due to COVID, their licenses have not yet been renewed by the district administration. As in the absence of work, they are struggling to make ends meet.
|With Rajkumar and Dilip (3rd and 4th from right). Gangābighā mound.
Rajkumar informed that the dilapidated structure on the mound were the remains of the maṭh (hindu monastery) - a unit of the Bodhgayā maṭh. I was not surprised to learn this. In fact, the majority of Buddhist shrines in Uruvelā (Bodhgayā and around) were absorbed into Brahmanical tradition after they were abandoned in 13-14th CE. According to Buddhist pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang and Dharmaswāmin, the Bodhi tree, Dharmāraṇya and Mātaṅgwāpī, situated in this vicinity are the places related to Buddha’s austerities. But according to the ancient Hindu literature Vāyu Purāṇa, the Bo-tree Aśvattha (Bodhi tree), Dharmāraṇya and Mātaṅgwāpī are part of the Gayā śrāddha (funeral rites) pilgrimage. These three places in Uruvelā are part of the 45 sites in Gayā-kshetra (holy tract of Gayā) where the Hindu pilgrims from all over India come to offer Pindas (balls of rice) to the spirits of the dead ancestors (Barua 1934:16). Probably, after they were abandoned, these Buddhist shrines were absorbed into Brahmanical tradition. To know more, please read my story Ratanāgiri Rock: The place where Siddhārtha ate food offered by Sujātā
After Mahābodhi Temple was abandoned in 13-14th CE, a Hindu Shaivite monk named Gossain Ghamandi Giri, made the Mahābodhi temple as his base and established a maṭh (Hindu monastery) there in circa 1590 CE. In the next few centuries, his disciples built a large Hindu monastic complex just 50 m east from the ruins of Mahābodhi temple complex by using materials from ruins of the Mahābodhi temple. They extended their influence in neighbouring villages. At their peak of its influence, the Hindu monastic complex owned more than 50,000 acres of land in this area.
Though the Buddhist monks left the area of Bodhgayā (Mahābodhi) and surroundings by the 13-14th CE, the sanctity of the abandoned Buddhist shrines continued. Local people worshipped at these shrines. Most probably, by encashing on the continued sanctity of these shrines associated with the Buddhist pilgrimage, the Bodhgayā maṭh made these shrines including the one Gangābighā as their units. In my survey of the vicinity of Bodhgayā, I noticed many ancient mounds which are likely to be Buddhist shrines mentioned by Xuanzang. Most of them have dilapidated temples and monastic complexes over them made by Bodhgayā maṭh. The Bodhgayā Shaivite Hindu monastery flourished till the 1940's, but after that took a downward curve when the Mahābodhi Temple complex came under the control of Bodhgayā Temple Management Committee instituted by the Government of India in 1949. All the units of Bodhgayā maṭh including the one built over the mound in Gangābighā gradually got abandoned.
All of us could notice, the Gangābighā mound had been damaged very recently. The people who owned the field on the east of the mound had removed earth from it. If nobody stops them, in the next few years, the mound will be completely lost. Rajkumar and Dilip realise the significance of the mound and the urgent need to preserve it. They shared with us that there was a similar mound situated in the middle of the village of Gangābighā which is now lost due to such acts of vandalisation.
It is too early to say if Jackie's claim is correct about this mound as the place where Siddhārtha threw the golden bowl in the river. More investigation needs to be done on the mound by competent people. However, Jackie’s claim has a theoretical basis with which I am also convinced.
Jackie has a copy of the travelogues of Buddhist pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang, which he is studying closely. He said to me that he wants to facilitate an out-and-back cycling trail incorporating all the places of significance related to what happened on the day of Veśāk Pūrṇimā (as mentioned in Buddhist literature and travelogues of Faxian and Xuanzang). Early in the morning of Veśāk Pūrṇimā , after consuming the milk-rice offered by Sujātā, Bodhisattva Siddhārtha went to Prāgbodhi Hill to practice meditation. After practicing for a few hours, first on the top of the hill and later, in a cave, Buddha realised these were not the right places. To appease the dragon living in the cave, Buddha left his shadow there. His inner voice said he should try practising under the Pipal tree on the west bank of River Nairāñjanā. On the way to Pipal tree, Buddha saw a skinned cobra snake. The cobra blessed the Buddha-to-be. Finally, on the night. Siddhārtha attained enlightenment under the Pipal tree and became the Buddha.
All the places in this trail: Bakrour (house of Sujātā) - Dharmāraṇya (austerities place) - Sujātā Temple (milk-rice offering place) - Ratnāgiri rock (milk-rice eating place) - Gangābighā mound (bowl throwing place) - Prāgbodhi hill (shadow cave) - Saraswati (nāgā blessing place) - Mahābodhi Temple (enlightenment place), makes around 18 odd km trail. This trail has two river crossings (Nairāñjanā and Mohāne), villages (rural life), sand, beautiful lush green agricultural fields, and mountains.
I appreciate the efforts made by Jackie. Jackie was part of the team, which facilitated re-enactment of a sequence of events Bodhisattva Siddhārtha underwent in Uruvelā (Bodhgayā) on the day of Veshākha Pūrṇimā (see link). He is also advocating for large scale tree plantation in government lands in this vicinity. He thinks it is very important to maintain the pristine character of this area as it used to be in the times of the Buddha.
I thanked Jackie and his team of ‘Bodhgaya Bicycle Tour’ for the wonderful morning. I reiterated to him that we have to preserve the beauty of this sacred area, before it turns into a concrete jungle, which means Jackie needs to engage in activism to stop reckless construction of new hotels in the historic landscape.
Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami
Barua, B. M.; 1934, Gaya and Bodhgaya, Calcutta.
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Anand, D. (2019, January 10). Ratanāgiri Rock: The place where Siddhārtha ate food offered by Sujātā. [Blog post]. Available from: http://nalanda-insatiableinoffering.blogspot.com/2019/01/ratanagiri-rock-place-where-siddhartha.html [Accessed 24th December 2020]
Goswami, A., Anand, D.; 2016, The Pilgrimage Legacy of Xuanzang, Nalanda: Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University).
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