Bodhgaya is the holiest place in Buddhism: it’s where Buddha reached enlightenment. You don’t get any holier than this when it comes to religious sites.
And yet, when I arrive there, I’m not exactly feeling spiritual. The bus ride that I was expecting would take 6 hours took 8, and just when I think I’ve finally arrived, I’m shoved onto another bus, and then a rickshaw, before finally arriving in Bodhgaya.
At first glance, it looks more like an Indian Disneyworld than a place where a prophet formulated a major world religion. The main square on the north side of the main temple is packed with travel agencies splashed in gaudy pink paint and neon signs alongside bored merchants squatting over plastic Buddha figurines. Beggars crawl across the plaza while touts chase foreigners with the friendly-menacing, “Hello! Where you are going, madam? Hotel? Hotel? Rickshaw?”
But the next morning is different. Most of Bodhgaya is still sleeping when I leave my hotel around 6:30 am. A smattering of bicycle rickshaw drivers pedal past quietly; he dogs are still dozing on the pavement.
I tiptoe into the Mahabodhi temple complex, removing my shoes. The massive spire is even more impressive up close: several tons of stone carved into a beautiful pyramid, towering over a sprawling garden set with stupas and shrines.
Buddhist monks in saffron and crimson robes are mostly leaving as I’m entering, but a few are still inside. One, who looks Japanese, sits at the top of the slopes that crest around the central temple. He leans over a prayer book; his chanting echoes across the temple yard.
I descend and enter the temple. A small room inside houses a 7-foot golden statue of Buddha. A few monks near the front hum prayers, while Hindu Indians buzz in and out, perfunctorily making the Hindu gestures of blessing and raising their palms in prayer.
I’m looking, though, for the tree. There is a descendent here, they say, of the original tree under which Buddha reached meditation. I follow a quickly-pacing East Asian woman in white holding a string of prayer beads and humming. We round a corner and suddenly there it is. A tree, huge, spreading, enclosed in a peeling fence and two plain signs in English and Hindi, but otherwise, no ceremony, nothing.
Every hair on my body is standing up.
I tiptoe to the fence, peering at the sandstone slab, originally laid by Emperor Ashoka several thousand years ago, that marks the actual spot where Buddha reached enlightenment. I walk to the far side of the tree. A group of Asian women are sitting talking. A white woman wearing saffron loops past, mumbling a chant. I sit, cross-legged, under the tree, and watch. I close my eyes and listen to the birds in the tree. I open my eyes and watch them flitting through the branches.
I watch. I listen. I feel the sweat rising on my arms as the sun climbs. I feel my stomach snarling for breakfast. The monks chant. I close my eyes. I listen. The birds sing.
And when I open my eyes again, I realize that for a few moments, minutes, maybe, I didn’t feel heat or hunger at all.