Bodhgaya and Parasnath Hills: Pilgrimage sites

In northern India, not far from the border with Nepal, we found 3 very important pilgrimage sites for the ancient religions of Buddhism and Jainism. Their origins are similar and so are many of their beliefs, but the traditions and customs of these two religions demonstrate their differences.

Buddhism began in India in mid-500 BC when Buddha was a young, wealthy prince dissatisfied with the current state of the world around him, including religion. He spent many years living a humble life trying to make sense of the world. He felt that suffering was the biggest concern and it only occurred because of our cravings for pleasure. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and so each successive life would amount to a lot of suffering for one person. He felt the way to end suffering was to achieve Nirvana where a person is not reincarnated after death but instead goes to heaven. In the town of Bodhgaya, Buddha was meditating under a bodhi tree for weeks. During one meditation session he became enlightened or achieved Nirvana by discovering ‘the middle way’. He spent the rest of his life teaching and practicing this concept of the ‘middle way’; finding enlightenment by living on the minimum of necessities but not too extreme in either wealth or poverty. He also believed that meditation helped find the middle way.

For hundreds of years Bodhgaya was an important site for Buddhist pilgrimages. During the Mughal reign Buddhism was disallowed and the area was forgotten. Today however, Bodhgaya is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The 6th century Mahabodhi Temple is located on the spot where they believe Buddha was enlightened. There are many sculptures on the tall building’s exterior.

There’s a large bodhi tree behind the Mahabodhi Temple which represents the original tree. Some believe it is an ancestor of the tree where Buddha was enlightened.The Temple is set in a peaceful, manicured garden with many old chortens. When we were there, hundreds of monks, nuns and worshipers had come to pay homage to the site. The monks chanted mantras in groups or alone, many prostrated all day long.

There are also many Buddhist monasteries in town built by Buddhists from around the world. Some are magnificently decorated both inside and out. Bhutan’s monastery has colourful sculptures on the walls recreating Buddha’s life. Thailand has one monastery and a few temples. They are all beautiful and similar to temples we saw in Thailand. One of our favorite monasteries was the modest, quiet Japanese monastery. There was a simple puja going on when we were there.

Behind the Mahabodi Temple we found a yard with many old Hindu shrines. It was not maintained and there were no signs indicating how old they were, but it was a fascinating site. From the top floor of one of the shrines you could see the steeple of Mahabodi Temple along with steeples from the Hindu shrines.

West of Bodhgaya is the small town of Sarnath where, after achieving enlightenment, Buddha gave his first teaching to his new disciples. A monastery was built at this site which dates between the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD. The site is mostly ruins, but on structure that is still standing is a massive 1000-year-old stupa made from bricks. It is said the stupa is on the exact spot of Buddha’s first lecture. There are also a few small stupas that have very different designs than we’ve seen at other sites. 

The Sarnath museum has many pieces that were found in the area. Many of them date back to the 1st and 2nd century AD. 

East of Bodhgaya is an important pilgrimage site for people who follow the Jain religion. The main Jain Tirthankara (teacher) was a contemporary of Buddha’s in the 6th century BC. Instead of continuing with Buddhism, he established Jainism. The main Jain objective is also to attain enlightenment through meditation, and their way of life is based on minimalism, non-violence, non-thievery, celibacy/non-adultery and truth telling. Jains are vegetarian or vegan. They don’t even eat root vegetables, onions or garlic as pulling them from the ground may kill microbes. Priests and nuns often wear masks over their nose and mouths so as not to inhale microbes. They use a broom to sweep the ground in front of them to avoid stepping on any insects. If they wear clothes, priests and nuns usually wear white, but many priests take minimalism to the full extent by not wearing clothes at all.

The small town of Madhuban is located below Parasnath Hill where all 24 Jain Tirthankaras (teachers) attained enlightenment. On a ridge on the hilltop are 24 temples, one for each Tirthankara. For their pilgrimage, Jains walk to the top via a 9 km long trail that has a 900-meter elevation gain.  
Hiking up we had glimpses of the main Shikharji Temple on the cliff above. We saw many pilgrims struggling up the long trek, and many more on bamboo dolis (litters) carried by porters.

From the ridge you can see many of the 24 temples on the surrounding small hilltops. The pilgrimage walks up and down the hills along the ridge, visiting each temple over a 9 km Parikrama (circuit). There were hundreds of people doing the pilgrimage on the day we were there. With a 27 km return trip and a lot of elevation gain, many pilgrims hire a ‘doli’. We felt bad for the porters as it was a pretty tough walk without having to carry someone. We did see one naked priest who was walking between the temples wearing nothing but a smile and carrying a broom (warning pictures below). 

Jain priest with his broom, Parasnath Hills
Jain priest with his broom, Parasnath Hills

The temples themselves are quite plain, but many are set on spectacular mountain cliffs. Pilgrims visit each temple, pray and make an offering of uncooked rice. The parikrama ends at the Shikharji Temple which is the temple for the main Jain Tirthankara. It is the largest temple and though impressive on the outside, inside it is much simpler. There are 2 small chapels with shrines and people praying on the floor in front of them. It was a very interesting to see yet again the lengths people will go to for their religion. There were no other tourists and we were often asked ‘why are you here? Are you Jain?’. It was strange, as we’ve never been asked that at a Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim site. We’ve also never had so many people ask us to take ‘selfies’ with them.

The town of Madhuban, at the base of the hill, has many Jain Temples. We visited a few. They are basic buildings with shrines for their 24 Tirthankaras (teachers). The shrines usually have small statues of their teachers where they were seated in a meditative pose similar to Buddha statues. There was one large difference, the Jain statues were naked. One temple though had dozens of large, colourful yet strange egg-shaped stupas. Worshipers visit the shrines and offer a small handful of uncooked rice and unshelled nuts. The floors are covered with uncooked rice and since you must take off your shoes, it was quite uncomfortable to walk. We also visited the Jain museum which has a few old artifacts, but mostly it has window displays of creepy dolls depicting the history of the main Jain Tirthankara.

It was very interesting to visit these important Buddhist and Jain sites as it gave us more insight into their beliefs and interesting customs.

Coming up next: Top 15 pictures from the Indian Himalayas.

For extra pics from this trip go to Gallery/Delhi & East India. For extra pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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