Bodh Gaya: What Mecca is for Muslims and Vatican for Catholic Christians, Bodh Gaya is for Buddhists.
The town houses Buddhism’s holiest shrine because Lord Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a place where the majestic Maha Bodhi temple stands.
The Mahabodhi Temple in the town boasts of a 289-kilogram Golden Dome gifted by Thai devotees and several Buddha statues including one 80 feet high (installed by a Japanese temple) and another commissioned by women monks.
Among the four places held most sacred by Buddhists, the Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya, located about 115 km south of Patna, is the most visited. Devotees visit from across the globe.
The other three, Lumbini in Nepal, where he was born; Kusinagar, where he attained Mahaparinirvana; and Sarnath, where he gave his first sermon, are equally important. But, Bodh Gaya is special. It is here Siddharth the restless and inquisitive prince turned Buddha, the enlightened.
The chief monk of the Mahabodhi Temple is Chalinda Bhikkhu who hails from Assam.
“I am from Pathargaon in Jorhat,” Chalinda Bhikkhu (also called Bhante) told me as I started to interview him in Assamese.
He last visited Assam a year ago but fondly remembers his roots.
When I sought his interview by calling him in Assamese, Chalinda Bhikkhu immediately agreed.
“Ahijaok, apunar Karone rokhiasu (come over, I am waiting for you),” he responded.
I later found he usually avoids the media because the local media once even falsely accused him of Chinese links.
“Before 2017, lots of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims used to come to Bodh Gaya. There was a Chinese lady who came and prayed here. Later she was detained in Delhi for spying. Since I bless so many pilgrims, it was natural I had blessed her. The police came to me to check on her and the local media promptly misrepresented it as my having links with the Chinese spy,” Chalinda Bhikkhu recounted with a tinge of sorrow.
But that did not diminish Chalinda Bhikkhu’s religious prestige. Held in high esteem in the Buddhist world, he has remained the head monk of Buddhism’s most visited religious shrine.
Five lakhs pilgrims visited the Mahabodhi Temple every year, most of them from the Buddhist dominant countries of Southeast and East Asia.
During Chalinda Bhikkhu’s stewardship, the temple has attracted huge donations including 289 kgs of gold that now makes up the dome of the temple. “This was entirely donated by the devotees from Thailand,” Chalinda Bhikkhu said.
He has spent 22 years in service of Buddhism at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya before which he studied Buddhism at Nalanda Mahavihara, a leading school of Buddhism.
Now 57, Chalinda Bhikkhu follows a strict dietary regimen and meditative discipline.