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30,000 Bhutanese on pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya in India
Bodhgaya temple in Bihar, India

Bodhgaya in Bihar, India, is one of the holiest sites for Buddhists all over the world, where prince Siddartha gained Buddhahood 2,500 years ago. It is six in the morning and the mercury has fallen to two degrees Celsius as scores of beggars huddle in a small tight group to keep themselves warm.

With begging bowls in hand, they patiently wait for Penjore and the others to finish prostrating in front of the massive Mahabodhi temple. But they show no signs of stopping.

The elderly Bhutanese pilgrims, conspicuous in their ghos and kiras, circumambulate the Mahabodhi temple early in the mornings and in the evenings when the main spire of the temple, a fifty metre tall pyramidal tower, crowned with a bell like Stupa, glows softly by the light of thousands of butter lamps surrounding it.

The Bhutanese pilgrims are together with Tibetans, Japanese, Koreans, Westerners and hundreds of other Buddhists to attend the nine-day Duekhor Wangchen and the Kalachakra ceremonies conducted by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

"I consider myself a very fortunate person to receive blessings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other high lamas like the Gyalwa Karmapa and Penor Rimpoche," said a Bhutanese pilgrim.

For 60-year old Choden from Khaling, Trashigang, the trip was a fulfillment of her long desire to visit the sacred site.
" There is an overwhelming presence of God here," she said. Like many other Bhutanese pilgrims, Choden and her daughter left Bodhgaya to visit Nalanda, Sarnath, and other sacred Buddhist sites.

But an old woman from remote Shingkhar Lauri geog, Samdrup Jongkhar, does not have the means to visit the other holy sites. She spends her time praying near the Mahabodhi temple. Beyond the temple complex, the Bodhgaya town is bustling with activity, cashing in on the religious sentiments of the pilgrims.

"Everything here is commercial, even burning the butter lamps," said one pilgrim referring to the sale of ready-to-burn butter lamps for Rs 2 a lamp.

Accommodation is expensive and finding one is an even bigger problem. Almost every open space in the town is full of tents and temporary shelters rented to pilgrims. A small room, which can barely house about five people cost about Nu 8000 a season, that is till the Wang and other ceremonies end, which is usually for a month
In the true Buddhist practise of Tshethar or saving lives, pilgrims also spend a good amount of money buying live fishes from fishmongers and releasing them in the lake near the Bodhi temple..

Contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper 2004
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