Beholding Buddha’s Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya

BODHGAYA, India — Past the souvenir hawkers, the auto rickshaws and the horse-drawn delivery carts populating the streets of Bodhgaya, the Mahabodhi Temple Complex offered a joyous, welcome sense of calm.

At the center of the walled garden stood the most important of Buddhism’s four pilgrimage sites — the location where Siddhartha Gautama attained his great awakening under a bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) to become the Buddha.

Making my way around the main Mahabodhi Vihar tower, I passed carefully arranged floral offerings dominated by bright orange marigolds and statues of Buddha decorated with fresh garlands.

An abundance of fresh flowers covered every horizontal surface at the foot of the temple structure. Winding my way to the far side, I caught sight of the bodhi tree, sprawling limbs arched toward the sky, and I knew immediately what it was. Limbs thick like tree trunks stretched a good 50 feet from the ground and seemed to defy gravity, like hands with outstretched fingers in an eternal sun salutation.

Some of the longer, older limbs were supported by metal poles, allowing the larger branches to grow almost horizontally.

Beneath the great canopy, fallen heart-shaped leaves covered the ground. The top half of each leaf shaped like a stupa, as my guide at the Prambanan complex in Java had shown me.

Monks in saffron robes knelt in prayer nearby, in front of a small shrine, and pilgrims walked by in an orderly manner, raising their clapped hands to their heads and their hearts.

While it isn’t the very same one Buddha knew, the bodhi tree so revered is believed to be a direct descendant planted in 288 BCE.

Legend has it that Emperor Ashoka’s wife cut down the original after growing jealous of how much time her husband was spending with it. But its growth returned, or a shoot from the tree was saved — I’m not sure which — and it had since been protected by the emperor.

It was a lovely way to spend a morning.

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Leaves from the bodhi tree lie around its base like so many offerings around the Mahabodhi temple. At top, a Buddhist shrine stands in front of the holy tree. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)
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Sunlight filters through the branches of the bodhi tree.
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Metal poles provide support for some of the bodhi tree’s older, horizontal branches.
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Golden statues of the Buddha are wrapped in saffron sashes, with the bodhi tree in the background.
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Floral garlands adorn stupas containing statues of the Buddha.
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