Bihar, the heart of spiritual India

by Antje Schmid, DPA, May 23, 2007

BODHGAYA, INDIA -- IN HARDLY any other place in India do economic poverty and spiritual wealth go hand in hand than in the north-eastern state of Bihar. Bihar is one of the poorest areas in the country as evidenced by its dilapidated system of roads.

At first glance, it is hard to distinguish the cultural wealth that can be found in Bihar's many historical towns such as Bodhgaya the Place of Enlightenment.

Tourists and Buddhists from around the world make pilgrimages there to visit the 50 metre-high Mahabodhi Temple.

The temple is the place where Buddha is reputed to have attained enlightenment 534 years before Christ. Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The faithful come from Sri Lanka, Japan, China, the United States and Europe to sit and meditate under the Bodhi Tree, which is situated right behind the temple.

The tree is believed to be descended from the one where Siddhartha Gautama sat and received answers to all his questions.

The temple was built in the sixth century AD on the same spot where 800 years earlier Indian Emperor Ashoka had a place of worship constructed.

The place fell into disrepair after a Muslim invasion in the 11th century but has been reconstructed and restored several times since.

A large golden statue of Buddha greets pilgrims inside the temple. Sundown is the most popular time to visit the temple and get a sense of its atmosphere, observe the monks at work or to just meditate.

A short distance northeast of Bodhgaya is Nalanda.

It is easy to spend a few hours strolling among the ruins of the huge university that was founded there in the fifth century BC.

With the scent of roses hanging in the air, admire the remains of what used to be one of the most important universities of the ancient world.

In the seventh century AD the university was home to an estimated 10,000 monks and students who studied theology, astronomy, metaphysics, medicine and philosophy. More than 1,000 teachers taught here.

The university was made up of several nine-storey buildings as well as six temples and seven monasteries.

Nalanda's three libraries and their nine million books were so large that they burned for six months after they were plundered by the Afghans in the 12th century. If you come to Bihar, then do not miss the city of Rajgir the "House of the King".

Just outside the city, high above the vultures' nest and surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags there is a fantastic view of the mountainous countryside.

Monks can be heard reciting religious scriptures in the place where Buddha is believed to have taught his followers sermons such as the Heart Sutra.

When in Bihar, consider paying a quick visit to Lumbini in Nepal just a few kilometres across the Indian-Nepalese border.

This is the birthplace of Buddha and is situated right at the foot of the Himalayas. Buddhists from all over the world go there to enjoy the peace and quiet of Lumbini's gardens.

The most important historical object here is the 6.5m high statue of Emperor Ashoka erected in 245 BC. Followers of different Buddhist sects have built their temples here and all of them are open to the public.

With a bit of luck, and if you want to get a more authentic experience, try renting a room in one of the monasteries' guest houses.

Unesco has recognised the unique qualities of Lumbini and added it to its list of World Heritage Sites.

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