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Thứ Bảy, tháng 6 18, 2005

No. 0367

Nirvana nightmare

It’s the mecca of Buddhism and attracts 500,000 tourists annually but it’s in a state of disrepair, amid garbage piles, and facilities are non-existent
Posted online: Thursday, June 16, 2005 at 0204 hours IST

BODHGAYA, JUNE 15: In many ways, the Mahabodhi temple complex in this Bihar town is the Mecca of Buddhism. Every year, it attracts 500,000 tourists, 70,000 of them from abroad. There’s every sort of Buddhist here — traditionalist and trendy, old monk and neo-Buddhist. Or just those who gaze at the images carved in rock, telling a story that is at once history and legend, faith and folklore.

But Bodhgaya is no nirvana experience. The temple complex is spread over 14 acres — encompassing the seven different locations the Buddha stayed in for seven weeks following his enlightenment — and has been burdened with iron ladders for over two years. That was when the repair began, and has since been stalled.

Meanwhile, water seepage damages even the flagship Mahabodhi temple. The main gate to the complex — the original is believed to have been erected by Emperor Ashoka, the current one is about a century old — has paint flakes falling off, along with exposed bricks.

Adjacent to the main temple is the samadhi of four disciples of a 16th century Kanchi Shankaracharya. It resembles a graffiti wall. Indeed, the fascination for graffiti is visible everywhere, particularly in the complex near the Muchalinda Lake.

While the Bodhgaya complex is officially plastic-free, the waste is placed next door. Just beyond the lake area wall are piles and piles of plastic.

The 13 guides from the state tourism department are, between them, reasonably versed in English, Japanese, Korean and Chinese — an indication of the pan-Asian appeal of Bodhgaya. That is about the only concession for foreigners.

There are 10 toilets in the complex, each dirtier than the previous. Not one has a WC, not one is disabled-friendly. In October 2004, 25 Walkmans were procured, along with cassettes — there was an option of Hindi, English, Japanese or Korean — that would provide commentary on Bodhgaya. Visitors could use these for solo tours. By January 2005, the system had been discontinued. The 25 cassette players are now kept locked in the Temple Management Committee office.

The private sector is flourishing in Bodhgaya, even if quality control is nobody’s priority. There are some 50 hotels and numerous guest houses here, providing 2,000 rooms. Monasteries set up by Buddhist sects from various countries provide accommodation too. That aside there are numerous PCO booths, internet cafes, private meditation facilities.

Not surprisingly, the Mahabodhi temple complex is the town’s biggest industry. From rickshaw drivers to trinket shop owners, it is estimated 70 per cent of the Bodhygaya Nagar Panchayat’s 30,806 residents (2001 Census) depend on heritage tourism for a living.

What does the tourist get in return? Bad roads — the 1.5 km journey from the Mahabodhi temple to the Sujata temple can mutilate your backbone. Open sewage and the bazaar just outside the complex, the lack of a proper waste disposal system for the Bodhygaya main market: these are a direct threat to the monuments.

The Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee blames the Nagar Panchayat for the urban mess, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for the temple disrepair and, probably, The Indian Express for asking pointless questions.

‘‘We have made a proposal for renovation of the temple structure with a budget of Rs 35 lakh,’’ said Kalicharan Singh Yadav, member-secretary of the Committee. ‘‘We have already provided for Rs 20 lakh. Initially they sent a team to the site, but we did not like their work. We then asked ASI to send another expert team.’’

Others point to Yadav himself as being the problem. He is an RJD politician, member of the party that ruled Bihar till February. The Temple Management Committee — eight Hindus, eight Buddhists and the Gaya district magistrate as ex officio chairman — is appointed by the state government for a five-year term. Like everything else in Bihar, heritage too has been politicised.

Yadav says Rs 3 lakh is spent every month on salaries for 66 employees — only 15 of whom are permanent. Others openly allege a Yadav-run patronage network. Asked about the inadequate toilets, Yadav brushed aside the issue, ‘‘Things will be alright once the HUDCO plan is in place.’’ But the HUDCO masterplan for Bodhgaya has a 25-year time-frame!

The HUDCO plan was submitted to the Bihar government in December 2004. It envisaged spending Rs 540 crore over a quarter-century and converting, by 2032, Bodhgaya into a model tourist-pilgrimage town, with quality urban facilities.

As per the plan, a distance of between 500 metres and two kilometres — depending on direction — from the temple complex is to be declared a buffer zone, free of commercial activity. In 25 square kilometres around the complex, business centres, markets and residential colonies are to be developed.

In the short run, the plan will be painful. It will require 350 shops to be relocated and removal of the makeshift, biweekly Bodhgaya market. It will break down structures and realign roads, as in any town planning exercise.

In April 2005, the Nagar Panchayat was sent a copy of the HUDCO report. All hell broke loose. The local traders’ association called a two-day bandh, coinciding with the April 23-24 visit of a UNESCO conservation team.

‘‘The HUDCO plan will spell doom for us. They are planning to drive us out,’’ said Ashish Sinha, whose paan shop stocks a good number of foreign cigarette brands. Two thousand years after the Buddha, Bodhgaya awaits enlightenment