Bodhgaya is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage place in the world. Located in the state of Bihar, it's here that Lord Buddha became enlightened during intense meditation under a Bodhi tree. The exact spot is now marked by the sprawling Mahabodhi Temple complex. It's a very serene and peaceful place. Monks from all over the world can be found sitting at the foot of an enormous carved Buddha statue, reading holy scriptures in deep contemplation.
The town is also home to dozens of Buddhist monasteries, maintained by various Buddhist countries.
Gaya airport, 12 kilometers (7 miles) away, has infrequent direct flights from Kolkata. If you're coming from other major Indian cities, the nearest airport is in Patna, 140 kilometers (87 miles) away. From Patna, it's around a three to four hour drive.
Alternatively, Bodhgaya can be conveniently reached by train. The nearest railway station is Gaya, which is well connected with Patna, Varanasi, New Delhi, Kolkata, Puri, and other places in Bihar. The journey from Patna by train is around two and a half hours.
If you're interested in visiting Bodgaya as part of a pilgrimage to other Buddhist sites in India, Indian Railways operates a special Mahaparinirvan Express Buddhist Tourist Train service.
When to Visit
The pilgrimage season starts in Bodhgaya from September, and reaches a peak in January.
Ideally, the best time to visit weather wise is between November and February. You should avoid visiting in monsoon season between June and September. The weather gets quite oppressive, followed by heavy rains. Summers, from March to May, are very hot. However, Bodhgaya still attracts a large number of devotees during this time for Buddha Jayanti (Buddha's birthday) celebrations, held in May.
The elaborately carved Mahabodhi Temple, Buddhism's holiest shrine, is the big attraction in Bodhgaya. The temple was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. It's open from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, with chanting and meditation held an hour after opening and an hour before closing. Read about my experience of visiting the Mahabodhi Temple.
The other monasteries, built and maintained by various Buddhist countries, are also fascinating -- particularly the different architecture styles. Opening hours are from 5 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Don't miss the very ornate Thai temple, shimmering with gold. Another popular attraction is the towering 80 foot statue of Lord Buddha. Bodhgaya also has an Archaeological Museum displaying an interesting array of relics, scriptures, and ancient statues of Buddha.
Meditation and Buddhism Courses
You'll find plenty of meditation and Buddhism courses and retreats on offer in Bodhgaya. The Root Institute for Wisdom Culture offers introductory and intermediate meditation and philosophy courses, explained in the Tibetian Mahayana tradition, from October to March. Those interested in Vipassana Meditation can learn it at the Dhamma Bodhi Vipassana Center.
Ten day residential retreats start on the 1st and 16th of every month. Some monasteries also offer various Buddhism courses.
The biggest festival in Bodhgaya is Buddha Jayanti, held on a full moon in May each year. The festival celebrates Lord Buddha's birthday. Other festivals in Bodhgaya include the annual Buddha Mahotsava, a three day celebration filled with cultural and religious activities. The Kagyu Monlam Chenmo and Nyingma Monlam Chenmo prayer festivals for world peace are held around January-February every year. The Maha Kala puja is conducted at monasteries for several days before the new year, for purification and to remove obstacles.
Where to Stay
A stay in one of Bodgaya's monasteries is a peaceful alternative to a hotel. One of the best options is the well maintained Bhutanese monastery (phone: 0631 2200710), which is extremely quiet and has rooms located in a beautiful garden.
It's also possible to also stay at the Root Institute , which is well located near the Mahabodhi Temple and offers meditation retreats. If you'd prefer to stay in a guest house, Kundan Bazaar Guest House and Tara Guest House are very popular with travelers. They're located in the quaint village of Bhagalpur, a five minute bicycle ride from the center of Bodhgaya. Hotel Bodhgaya Regency is the pick of the top-end hotels, and it has a convenient location near the Mahabodhi Temple.
A side trip to Rajgir, where Lord Buddha spent much of his life teaching his disciples, is recommended. It's located about 75 kilometers (46 miles) from Bodgaya, and can be reached by bus or taxi. There you'll be able to visit Gridhakuta (also known as Vulture's Peak), where the Buddha used to meditate and preach. You can take the aerial tramway/ropeway up to the top, for great views. The extensive ruins of ancient Nalanda University, a significant center for Buddhist learning, are also nearby.
There are regular power cuts in Bodhgaya, so it's a good idea to carry a flashlight with you. Both vegetarian and non vegetarian food is available in Bodhgaya, and there's a wide range of cuisine from Thai to Continental. Be Happy Cafe caters to western tastes, and has great coffee and cakes, although some people think it's overrated and overpriced. The makeshift tented restaurants that line the roadside are also interesting and inexpensive places to eat.