July 30, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Ramesh Menon

The famous Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, Bihar, where Buddha attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree about 2,600 years ago, has now become a world heritage site. Following the United Nations Cultural Organisation's decision, the 1,400-year-old 180-feet-high temple becomes one of the 730 sites of 'outstanding universal value' in the world. It is India's 23rd heritage site.

The decision, which was taken at a meeting in Budapest, Hungary, sent waves of joy among Buddhists all over the world. India had filed an application seeking heritage status for the site in December 2001, which was rejected because of technical reasons. On March 1, 2002, India was asked to apply again, with more details.

Indian Tourism Development Corporation Chairman Ashwini Lohani, who had prepared the draft for getting the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway declared a world heritage site in December 1999, swung into action. Within 12 days, he got a new application prepared with all the required details and sent it in. He was determined to see Bodhgaya on the famed list.

"Bodhgaya has got a great status after becoming a world heritage site," said a thrilled Lohani. "It was the most important place for Lord Buddha and now it is a heritage for the entire world. Bodhgaya is now on the world tourist map and will get tremendous focus and attention."

The Mahabodhi temple is considered one of the 10 most important monuments of ancient India.

There is present a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa), believed to have grown from the slip of the original pipal tree at the foot of which Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment and thus became Gautama Buddha. The earliest construction at the foot of the Bodhi tree was a polished sandstone throne believed to have been built by Emperor Asoka (circa 250 BC), who had undertaken a pilgrimage to pay homage to the place that made Buddha one of the greatest seers on earth.

The simplicity with which the Mahabodhi temple has been designed is of unique importance today as it characterises the architectural style of those times, still found in some of the ruined temples of Nalanda. The faithful see the temple as a symbol of peace, compassion and universal brotherhood in today's violent age.

UNESCO's R P Perera, programme officer, culture, says: "This nomination comes at a time when intercultural dialogue and understanding needs to be given pride of place. The site of the Mahabodhi complex where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment has excellent potential to promote religious tourism and intercultural dialogue with Lumbini in Nepal where he was born and Taxila in Pakistan which was an abode of learning."

Dr Chuden Tsering Misra, member secretary, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, told "Bodhgaya is really a world heritage site as it is sacred to the Thais, Japanese, Koreans, Sri Lankans and even Australians who have converted to Buddhism. India has a lot of work to do, like putting management systems in place. The precincts have to be improved and some restoration work has to be done. As large volumes of people visit Bodhgaya, it is a bit chaotic. But with funds flowing in now, things may look up."

The Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee already has plans to preserve the site and develop its surroundings. This involves a lot of work, since there are numerous shanties surrounding the site and the place is far from clean. Renovation work by the Archaeological Survey of India, which is expected to cost around Rs 6.5 million, is in full swing.

The funds, though, may not be released until the present controversy surrounding the temple is resolved. Now that it is a world heritage site, almost all the structures within a one-kilometre radius around the temple have to be removed in order to create the buffer zone as specified by UNESCO. If this is not done, UNESCO can withdraw the declaration.

What is worrying many is not the ugly shanties, including shabby restaurants, hotels, guesthouses and shops, but a string of breathtaking monasteries built by various countries, including China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan and Nepal, in their own architectural styles. Buddhist monks, in particular, see these monasteries as a part of the Mahabodhi temple and are emotionally attached to them.

Bhante Rahul, an angry Buddhist monk, says: "There is no way these ancient and magnificent monasteries around the temple can be removed. We will not let that happen. Even before UNESCO declared it as a heritage site, Bodhgaya was world famous and revered by millions of Buddhists around the world. They can take their declaration back, but we will not allow our cultural wealth around the temple to be changed. If the government tries to do it, they will not be allowed to do so."

All-India Bhikshu Sangha vice president Karunannanda Mahatera, however, feels it is highly unlikely the Bihar government will even think of clearing the monasteries as they are works of beauty. "Only the slums, commercial establishments and the dirty surroundings may be removed. The monasteries around may not be earmarked as the heritage site, but they are essentially a part of the complex."

The authorities have still not spelt out what they plan to do. But Lohani says there is absolutely no question of demolishing any of the monasteries, as they are a part of the site. He explains that UNESCO only specifies there should be a buffer zone of one kilometre around the site. This, he says, means that no new constructions would be allowed and, if there are any, they would have to blend with the heritage site and should not be above 33 feet.

The Bodhgaya Temple Advisory Board has already declared a protected buffer zone, beginning from the boundary wall of the temple, wherein no encroachments or illegal structures will be allowed. The Bihar government plans to persuade those living around the temple to shift. Around 1,000 acres of land have been earmarked just for this and may be called Gautamnagar after Gautama Buddha. But the local populace, whose lives are linked to the tourist traffic that visits the temple, are not keen on shifting to an area where their livelihoods are threatened.

Realising that the heritage site tag will boost tourism, Bihar would rather not fall into a whirlpool of controversy. Even with its limited infrastructure, Gaya is the highest revenue earner in Bihar. Lohani now hopes the tourist stream will flow in Bodhgaya's direction. "International tourists make it a point to visit world heritage sites," he said. The ministry of civil aviation has also pitched in with a Rs 112 crore plan to spruce up Gaya airport. Civil Aviation Minister Shahnawaz Hussain said Gaya airport will soon be given international status and Sri Lanka Airlines will be the first international airlines to fly there.

When the Mahabodhi temple was re-discovered by Alexander Cunningham and Major Mead in 1875, it opened a new chapter in Buddhist religious studies. They saw its top portion gently jutting out of the earth and, after extensive excavations, uncovered the 52-metre-high temple. Today, it is one of the four places of great significance in the historical legacy and heritage of the Buddhist faith.

Art historian Benoy Behl says the temple survived as the earth had protected it for so many centuries. He says this probably happened as there was an international community of intellectuals at Gaya at that time who figured out the only way to protect the temple from Islamic invaders was to bury it under a mound of earth. The Nalanda and Vikramshila universities had already been destroyed, along with numerous temples in various parts of India. "As a scale of human activity, this was probably greater than making of the pyramids. Just imagine thousands of devotees piling up millions of cubic feet of earth over such a huge temple," says Behl.

Chinese traveller Hseung Tsang, who visited the temple sometime in the early seventh century, has described it in eloquent terms as the centre of the Buddhist world. A large part of the civilised world at that time was Buddhist.

By the eleventh century, the king of erstwhile Burma was carrying out repairs on the temple. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Myanmar kings were building replicas of the Mahabodhi temple at their sacred capital, Bagan. After it was rediscovered by Sir Cunningham, it was again repaired in 1880-81. Utmost care was taken to retain the original decorations and repairs were carried out using the Bagan temples as a reference.

Behl, who researched the temple extensively before helping the government draft the UNESCO application, says: "The inclusion of the Mahabodhi temple as a world heritage site will focus attention on the great Buddhist legacy of India."

He is also interested in the archaeological finds that could come up if excavations around the Mahabodhi temple start. Satellite imagery and shards of pottery have already established a flourishing ancient civilisation existed here. Behl believes more Buddhist temples could be found under the earth and has already suggested excavating the nearby areas to Tourism Minister Jagmohan. The Bihar government's earlier attempt to excavate the site was limited to a few trenches. But, with the spotlight once again on Bodhgaya, the excavations may start again.

Design:Lynette Menezes

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