Pilgrims walking past the ornately caved walls of the Mahabodhi Temple // © 2013 Deborah Dimond
When many Westerners dream about their bucket lists, they think about gazing at the splendor of the Taj Mahal. For me, it was meditating under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India. While the idea of sitting under a humble tree might not stir the imagination of every traveler, the temples and grounds that surround it are just as spectacular as the Taj in my opinion.
Although Buddhism’s allure is growing in the U.S., it is still a mystery to some. But for the savvy traveler, a trip to the holy pilgrimage sites is necessary to understanding the rich cultural and religious history in the rural areas surrounding Varanasi, India.
Seeking the Truth
Buddhism is the third-largest religion after Christianity and Islam with more than 300 million followers estimated worldwide. The religion originated approximately 2,500 years ago when an Indian prince — Siddhartha Gautama, who was raised apart from the hardships of the human condition — decided to give up all the comforts of his palace and birthright to seek truth.
At age 29, Siddhartha Gautama hit the road and became a religious sage exploring the different teachings, religions and philosophies of his day. In his search, he was able to find the key to human happiness. It required a six-year journey of study and meditation before he finally found “the middle path” and earned the title of Buddha, or Enlightened One. The site of this very important experience is the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, located about 150 miles from Varanasi. From there, Buddha journeyed on and began teaching. The site of his first lectures was a deer park in Sarnath, where the religion formally began. Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the principles of Buddhism — called the Dhamma — until his death at the age of 80.
The Mahabodhi Temple
When Siddhartha Gautama first sat under the Bodhi tree, he vowed not to leave his meditation until he attained enlightenment. From the site of that humble tree has sprung a gorgeous complex including a temple, stupas and six holy sites. The Mahabodhi Temple translates to “Great Awakening Temple.” It was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 and, last year, it made its way into Time magazine’s list of The Most Influential Places in History.
Nuns, monks and lay people from all over the world travel there to sit in deep meditation. Finding their way past the hustle and bustle of vendors of the small town of Bihar, it feels as if you have walked onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie. Lit against the black night sky, a massive carved tower is the focal point of the complex and, around it, a labyrinth weaves its paths through the holy grounds. The first thing visitors find is that the complex is very much a living site. Active chanting and worship are practiced among the relics and historical grounds.
Visiting the temple complex is best done at night when visitors can comfortably walk around barefoot on the stone-covered grounds. Taking in the choruses of chanting monks, I admired the intricately carved stone tower and made my way to the western side of the complex, where the holy Bodhi tree sits. Sitting cross-legged, I took in the sounds of the birds and the monks and wondered what it was like here more than two and half millennia ago.
Sadly, this peaceful spot was rocked on July 7, 2013, when 10 low-intensity bombs exploded in the temple complex, injuring five people. Fortunately, no one was killed and the grounds were not harmed. As a precaution against future terrorist attacks, security has been ramped up and the Central Industrial Reserve Force is now guarding the site.
Sarnath Deer Park
Sarnath is about six miles from the busy city of Varanasi; it is also the second-most famous site for Buddhist pilgrims. Buddha began his teaching in the deer park, where several impressive monuments were built in honor of the event.
The Dhamek Stupa complex looks a lot like an open archeological site. The massive carved stupa marks the part of the deer park where Buddha’s first sermon was delivered. The structure was built in 500 B.C. to enshrine small pieces of bone and other relics of the Buddha and his disciples. For good luck, walk clockwise around the massive pillar and gaze up at the intercut writing and figures carved into the stone.
Afterward, stroll over to the Sarnath Archeological Museum. This small museum houses a collection of antiquities — ranging from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. — which were found around the area. Significant works include the Lion Capital of Asoka, adopted as the Emblem of India in 1950 and printed on the national tricolor flag. In the museum’s five galleries, visitors can gaze at an awe-inspiring collection of Buddhist artifacts. The hallmark of these is a sculpture of the Buddha from the 5th century sitting cross-legged, with eyes downcast in deep meditation, and a halo around his head.
After visiting the museum, visitors can easily walk to the Mulagandhakuti Vihara Temple, a prime place for worship for the Buddhist community. This modern temple was built in 1931 by the Mahabodhi Society from Sri Lanka. Impressive murals by the Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu cover the inside wall. I stopped in just to see the paintings and instead received a protection blessing and a simple orange string bracelet from a monk. A sapling from the original Bodh Gaya Bodhi still grows on the grounds, and one of the parks still attracts deer.
A destination as rich and culturally diverse as India can be experienced in a multitude of ways, and making a point to visit these two sites, with their beautiful architecture, rich history and present-day practices, gives visitors a truly enlightened experience.
India Tourism Office
The colorful and melodramatic films of Bollywood have won over hearts around the world, and with the help of Mumbai-based Bollywood Tourism, fans can get a behind-the-scenes look at the Hindi movie industry.
Tours can be independent or guided and generally include production set visits, a live shoot and a road trip past the homes of film stars. Prices begin at approximately $53 per person for a half-day tour. www.bollywoodtourism.com
Uttarakhand’s Corbett National Park
The first of its kind in India, Corbett National Park in the northern state of Uttarakhand has been home to protected Bengal tigers, Asiatic elephants and more than 600 bird species since 1936. All park exploration is driven by park guides, but guests can opt to visit for the day or for multiple nights via organized safari tours with accommodations in the park. Day permits are $7 per person, and a four-hour vehicle tour is an additional $8. Elephant rides and angling trips along the Ramganga and Mandal rivers can also be scheduled through the park. The park is open Nov. 15 through June 15 but closed the rest of the year due to frequent monsoons. Trains to Ramnagar, the town nearest to the park, depart daily from New Delhi. www.corbettnationalpark.in
New and Noteworthy
The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa Opens
Earlier this year, The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa opened its doors in the mountain town of Gulmarg. The resort’s 80 rooms and five private cottages are designed in Kashmiri style and its location makes it an ideal getaway for outdoor enthusiasts year-round. In the winter months, skiers can easily access snow-covered slopes and the world’s highest ski lift, the Gulmarg Gondola. Restaurants serving international cuisine, a tearoom and a cigar lounge await guests back at the hotel, and the on-site Alaya Spa is set to open in October. www.khyberhotels.com
India’s First Live-Aboard Yacht Launches
In July, Mumbai-based Katrina Tourism and Adventures launched India’s first live-aboard yacht, constructed in Thailand for the purpose of carrying scuba divers to the remote Andaman Islands and Lakshadweep. The 130-foot-long, fully air-conditioned Infiniti boasts eight cabins with in-suite bathrooms. Scuba divers onboard will benefit from state-of-the-art diving equipment, a large diving platform and an expert dive crew. Four-night tours begin at $980 and include airport or hotel transfers, all onboard meals and snacks, at least nine crew-led dives and gear. For new divers, PADI certification courses are also available. www.infinitiliveaboard.com
The Aloft Brand Comes to Ahmedabad
Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc. opened The Aloft Ahmedabad in May, a five-star, 176-room hotel with loft-inspired design. Rooms feature colorful and modern decor, rainforest showers, iPod-docking stations and views of the city or hotel pool. Other on-site amenities include a bar and lounge, a 24-hour pantry stocked with snacks and drinks and a fitness center. Rates begin at approximately $61 per night, based on double occupancy. www.starwoodhotels.com
Customizable Tours Via Oberoi Hotels and Resorts
Sightsee in India this winter with a customizable vacation through Oberoi Hotels and Resorts. Itineraries via the Oberoi Exotic Vacations package range from six to 12 nights with accommodations in various Oberoi properties. Suggested stops include Delhi, Udaipur, Jaipur and Agra. Rates begin at $580 per night, based on double occupancy, and include daily breakfasts and yoga sessions, 25 percent off spa services and hotel transfers. The package is available for travel from Oct. 1 through March 31, 2014, but holiday travel from Dec. 20 to Jan. 5 is excluded. www.oberoihotels.com
The Grand Prix Package
Speed demons will enjoy the Grand Prix Getaways package available at Jaypee Greens Golf & Spa Resort in Greater Noida, which gives travelers the chance to take a lap on the Buddh International Circuit in a Mercedes-Benz. The racetrack has hosted the Formula One Indian Grand Prix annually since 2011. This one-night, two-day package is available from Oct. 1 to March 31, 2014, and begins at approximately $212 for a deluxe room for two, with views of the golf course, pool or gardens. The package is not available from Dec. 24 through Jan. 2. www.jaypeeresortdelhi.com
Stay Longer With The Park Hotels
The Park Hotel Group is offering the Long Stay package with discounted rates for guests booking a minimum of four nights at participating locations. The package includes early check-in and late check-out, a complimentary in-room welcome drink, daily newspaper, daily buffet breakfast and a 15 percent discount on on-site food, beverages and spa treatments. The offer is valid through March 31, 2014, and participating locations include New Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Navi Mumbai. www.theparkhotels.com/offers-events.html
Pushkar Camel Fair
This annual Hindu Fair takes place in early winter in the small city of Pushkar, known for its beautiful temples and holy bathing ghats. Livestock owners trade thousands of camels each year and locals and tourists alike enjoy folk dancing, singing performances, handicraft sales and regional cuisine. There are also camel beauty contests and races. Guests are encouraged to follow Hindu practices throughout their stay in Pushkar, enjoying vegetarian fare, abstaining from alcohol and dressing modestly. (Nov. 6-17)
The hilly, northeastern state of Nagaland is known for its diverse tribal population, and every year the groups gather to celebrate their cultures at the Hornbill Festival outside of Kohima. Guests can expect dance performances in tribal dress as well as vendors selling herbal medicines, art and regional foods. Concerts, indigenous games and Naga wrestling are also part of the festivities. (Dec. 1-7)
India Art Fair
India Art Fair occurs annually at National Small Industries Corporation Exhibition Ground in Mumbai and showcases modern and contemporary work by artists from India and abroad. With more than 300,000 domestic and international guests since its inception, the fair is considered to be one of the country’s premiere art shows. Galleries from around the world curate exhibitions for the event, and guests attend forums led by academics, curators and artists on a range of art-related topics. Tickets cost about $5 and can be purchased online as the date approaches. (Jan. 30-Feb. 2)