For my fifth visit to Bodh Gaya this lifetime, and the first in a series of short photo articles on pilgrimage sites in, and around, the sacred Buddhist place of Bodh Gaya (where the Buddha attained full awakening), I offer this about three places I visited recently:
1) the village place, Uruvela, where Buddha moved down to from the cave in the hills to continue meditating under a Banyan tree;
2) the cave in the hills where Gautama Buddha, in an emaciated state practicing austerities (called the Dungeshwari Hill (Mahakala) Caves), and
3) the recently excavated 2nd Century Ashokan stupa said to be constructed for Sujāta near the village.
At that village Banyan tree, the milk-maid Sujātā, who was a farmer’s wife is said to have fed Gautama Buddha a bowl of kheera, a milk-rice pudding, ending his six years of asceticism. Such was Gautama’s emaciated appearance that she wrongly believed him to be a tree-spirit that had granted her wish of having a child. The gift was said to have provided him enough strength to continue on to Bodh Gaya and attain full awakening, becoming known as the Buddha. The village of Uruvela near Bodh Gaya is believed to be her home. In this post, I share some information about the sites and their historical background as well as unique photos I took there.
As I visited these sacred places, in the middle of materially poor and undeveloped villages in Bihar, I was reminded of two things: the fundamental impermanence of all conditioned things and how absolute jewels of priceless worth can be found in the so-called ‘dirtiest’ and ‘poorest’ of places. Some foreign pilgrims complain about the amount of begging around these places and caves, for me, they were a reminder of the extraordinary kindness and compassion of the woman, Sujata, who on seeing Gautama wanted to help him. There is no doubt that to many, in his emaciated state and tattered robes, he perhaps would also have physically looked like a beggar too. Appearances can be very deceptive, and so the story also reminds us all to look below the surface appearance of ‘poverty’ to the jewel hiding within us all. If we do that, then we can truly start to see all beings as Buddhas in waiting: “a wonderful world and beautiful people!”
May we all like Sujātā, see through the ‘dirty’ appearances to the priceless gold within all beings!
Adele Tomlin, 2nd January 2023.
The Banyan Tree where Sujata gave Buddha the milk-rice
The first place on the pilgrimage route is the place Uruvela, dedicated to Sujātā, about twenty minutes rickshaw ride from the centre of Bodh Gaya, across the Falgu river through dusty, hobbled village lanes, that look the same as they did hundreds of years ago. I visited this place before a few years ago. The temple complex around the main banyan tree is clean and well-kept and the local beggars were waiting in an orderly fashion outside the main gate to it. The story around this place and the Banyan tree there is as follows:
“Pali tradition believes that every Buddha was offered milk-rice from some maiden just before his Enlightenment. For example, Vipassi Buddha accepted the milk-rice from Daughter-of-Sudassana-Setthi; Sikhi Buddha accepted it from Daughter-of-Piyadassi-Setthi; Vessabhu Buddha accepted the milk-rice from Sirivaddhana; Kakusandha Buddha accepted the milk-rice from a brahmin girl Vajirindha of the village Suchirindha; Konagamana from a Brahmin woman Aggisoma; and Kassapa Buddha from his wife Sunanda. Last in the list is Gotama Buddha, who accepted the milk-rice from Sujata.
Separating from the five monks with whom Gotama had undertaken several ascetic penances in Uruvela for the Enlightenment after having left his two gurus, namely, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, he sat under a banyan tree called the Ajapala Nigrodha. As he felt that the extreme austerities for the spiritual achievement was not a necessary condition to realise the spiritual goal, the natural human drive for the normal human food once again became operative in him. His desire was, however, fulfilled by a woman named Sujata, who offered him the milk-rice.
Sujata, a daughter of the landowner of the village Senani near Uruvela had once pledged that she would offer the milk-rice to the spirit of the tree if she gave birth to a son. As her wish was fulfilled she asked her maid Punna to visit the tree and prepare the place for offering. When Punna visited the place she saw Gotama sitting under the tree. She then mistook him to be the tree-deva and reported the matter to Sujata, who in a great joy reached the spot and offered him the milk-rice in a golden bowl.
Gotama accepted the bowl; walked to the river-bank; bathed in the Suppatthita; and then ate the food. This was his only meal after the gap of forty-nine days.
See Digha Nikaya ii.135;Sutta Nipata Commentary 1.154; Dhammapada Atthakatha 1.71.”
From one of the few academic articles I found about the Sujātā story, by K.M. Srivastava (1978) “WHERE SUJĀTĀ OFFERED PAYASA TO THE BUDDHA.” it further elaborates:
2) Mahakala Caves/Dungeshwari Hills
The Dungeshwari Hills, the location of what the locals and Tibetans call the Mahakala Cave, takes about 20 minutes in a rickshaw from the Sujata village and banyan tree, travelling through villages, which are like stepping back into the time of the Buddha, with grass huts, cows and children running about barefoot. On reaching the bottom of the pathway up to the caves, it takes about 5 to 10 minutes to walk up.
On arriving at the cave, there is a new stupa and Tibetan Buddhist temple, inaugurated by HH 14th Dalai Lama, with stunning live-size statues of the emaciated Buddha, for example this one in particular:
When I asked an Indian person working in the cave why they called it the Mahakala Caves, he told me because there was a statue of Mahakala also in the cave (which was the Hindu goddess, Durga). The reason was not that clear though, so if anyone knows please let me know!
UPDATE: I was informed by a follower of this website (thanks Claude!) that the reason for the name is because it is the place where Drubchen Shawaripa had a vision of Mahakala. The praise of Shawaripa to Yeshe Gonpo, is in the sadhana of Yeshe Gonpo of the Shangpa Kagyu Lineage of Khyunpo Naljor. That praise starts by describing his holy feet. It is said that when Sharawipa saw the Mahakala vision he was so scared that he could only look at the feet first and so started describing it from the feet upwards. There is also said to be a Mahakala (Yeshe Gonpo) temple next to the cave, but I did not see that/missed it.
3) The 2nd Century Sujāta Stupa
Sujata Stupa, also Sujata Kuti stupa or Sujata Garh, is a Buddhist stupa located very near the village where Sujātā gave the milk-rice dish to Gautama. The stupa was initially built in the 2nd century BCE as confirmed by finds of dark grey polished wares and a punch-marked coin in the monastery nearby. Srivastava, K. M. (1978) describes the background to it:
The stupa was originally adorned with a pillar of Ashoka, which was quarried in part for building material in the 1800s, then placed at the Gol Pather intersection of Gaya, and finally moved to Bodh Gaya in 1956. The stupa was an integral part of the original landscape at Bodh Gaya, and it was reinforced and enlarged several times over the centuries.
The Archaeological Survey of India made excavations in 1973-74 and 2001-06. A plaque found in the excavation has an inscription from the 8th-9th century CE that reads “Devapala Rajasya Sujata Griha”, Devapala being interpreted as the 9th century Pala dynasty king, hence meaning “Sujata House, of King Devapala”. This suggests that the last phase of construction of the stupa dates to Devapala in the 9th century CE, to commemorate the house where Sujata lived.
Before the discovery of this inscription, it was thought that this stupa had been dedicated to “Gandha-hasti”, the “Perfumed elephant”, and was therefore named “Gandha-hasti stupa”. This interpretation was based on a description made by the 7th-century Chinese pilgrim, Xuan Zang (in 大唐西域記: Buddhist Records of the Western World) who recounted that when he crossed the river (Niranjana) and went to Bakraur, he encountered a stupa and a stone column at the place where Gandha-hasti used to dwell (referring to the place where the Buddha, in a previous life, was reborn as the offspring of a Perfumed elephant).