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Buddha’s place of enlightenment is getting a lighting facelift

The new Mahabodhi lighting will be one of the largest and most lasting light offerings in Buddhist history

BY 2019 end, Buddhist pilgrims to the iconic Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya are likely to see it illuminated by a better, softer and warmer glow in place of the present harsh and inadequate illumination thanks to a major lighting project underway at the temple for the first time. 

The new nighttime illumination promises to transform this defining landmark into an even more beautiful and tranquil place to go on a pilgrimage to.

It will make circumambulating, praying and meditating around the Mahabodhi Temple complex safer and stress free, helping you focus on your spiritual affairs. A cause for a major sigh of relief will be the vastly reduced presence of nighttime aerial pests.

Called ‘Lighting the Mahabodhi’, it is initiated by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, the Bhutanese/Tibetan lama (who is also a filmmaker and writer), and supported by his teaching arms in India Siddhartha’s Intent India and Vana Foundation, and by his own Khyentse Foundation in Bir. And executed in the spirit of the quintessential undertaking of a practicing Buddhist— offering lights. Together, the team aims to make it one of the “largest and most lasting light offerings” in Buddhist history.

The extraordinary project has galvanized thousands of Buddhists around the world to chip in for the cost, motivated by the profound aspiration of the project and the fact that it is implemented at the Mahabodhi Temple complex in Bodhgaya, the cradle of Buddhism. 

More than 30 percent of the total cost of the project, estimated at US$ 1.4 million, has poured in since it was launched two months ago. And counting.

Balance, elegance and harmony

The matter of light offerings at the Mahabodhi Temple complex had become something of an issue ever since the use of butter lamps and candles was banned throughout most of its area years ago. Hardcore devotees would resort to battery-operated lamps or candles. 

But that too became a sticky matter after the security was tightened around the complex in the aftermath of the 2013 terrorist bomb attack. A house was eventually built within the complex, away from the main edifices, where devotees were given the option to pay to light real butter lamps.

It wasn’t, however, just the issue of light offerings that bothered people. The present lighting system while useful doesn’t cover the whole area and most of the edifices are either unlighted or only crudely illuminated with big, high-heat, insect-embracing floodlights that shine directly onto the facades. Lights for staircases, walkways and prostrations areas are either non-existent or insufficient.

All these will change, said Prashant Varma, the coordinator of the Mahabodhi lighting project, via email, who is the head of Siddhartha’s Intent India, and also a close student of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. 

The idea, he added, was to create an atmosphere, an ambiance— of “balance, elegance and harmony,” akin to what one saw at places of spiritual and cultural significance around the world.

Once completed, the new lighting will bathe the entire Mahabodhi Temple complex in a soft, enveloping glow that will reflect the sublime esthetics and holiness of the place and will not, Prashant Varma was quick to add, be anything like the garish multicolored edifice lighting one saw in the West. Every surface will glow with the softness of moonlight. 

The project will employ top-shelf LED light technology including softwares to control and automate a myriad of high-efficiency, low-heat, non-insect-embracing, LED bulbs and fixtures. 

Despite the color possibilities opened up by halogen lights, the color range at the Mahabodhi will be primarily white through a warm yellow to gold, a palette that is considered more refined in the world of subtle lighting design. One of the highlights of the new lighting will be the creation of automated light scenes for Buddhist festivals and auspicious days.

It was not easy when they started. There were no archaeological or architectural drawings present of the Mahabodhi Temple complex indicating that no such surveys were ever carried out. Producing the maps alone took more than a year. 

Given obvious conservation and archeological concerns, climbing the edifices was a no-no. Bricks and stones could not be moved or adjusted, walls could not be drilled or cut. 

So laser distometers and mathematical formulae were used, for instance, to measure the elevation of the structures and motifs on the surface of the temples. A host of creative rigs and housings were also crafted so that LED light fixtures could be installed onto the natural ledges and cornices of the ornately decorated structures.

“We are making absolutely sure not to disturb the integrity of the facades and other features of the Temple,” Prashant Varma said.

A unifying force

It was in the winter of 2015, on one of his spiritual retreats at the Mahabodhi Temple complex, that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is said to have come upon the idea of giving the Buddha’s place of enlightenment a lighting facelift that would benefit generations of Buddhists.

The idea quickly metamorphosed into a full on, all encompassing project proposal with different stakeholders in India, including his close Indian students, stepping on board.

By 2017, the proposal had sailed through review processes and won approvals from the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee and the Gaya District Magistrate, who were happy to hand over the job without any financial or organizational investment required of them. The former will own both the new lighting system and the maps once the project is completed.

To Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche who, Prashant Varma point out, is involved in “every step of the project”, the Mahabodhi lighting holds deep personal and spiritual significance. 

As the guardian of the Rime, a non-sectarian movement championed by his previous incarnation Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, known in the Buddhist pantheon as the father of the Rime, the Mahabodhi lighting is in many ways a personal project employed in the service of bringing together the many different schools and lineages of Buddhism.

Thousands of Buddhist masters, students and followers visit the Mahabodhi Temple each year, from Theravada to Mahayana to Vajrayana, from Gelug to Kagyu to Nyingma to Sakya, from countries Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand to Japan and China to Bhutan, Russia and the Americas.

By lighting the Mahabodhi Temple complex and presenting it as a symbolic offering of light at the very place where the father of all Buddhist schools and lineages, the Buddha, attained enlightenment— the project is aimed as a spiritual catalyst to unify Buddhists of all practices and views, no matter their differences.

It is no accident that the lighting project was launched on the anniversary of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, on March 26, 2019, who embodied the Rime movement in Tibet in the 19th century.

“If there is one thing in the world that resembles our minds, it is light,” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said via email. “As Buddhists in the Rime tradition, our aim is to illuminate our minds free from judgment, prejudice or pride. And so, it is to symbolize that realization and to appreciate the Buddha’s infinite compassion and skillful means in guiding us towards it, that we are now offering light at the very place of the Buddha’s enlightenment.” 

The lighting project also represents Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s well established desire to bring back “authentic Buddhadharma” to India, the country of its origin, said Prashant Varma, who added that it was also the “dream and aspiration” of his direct incarnation Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro who died in 1959, a staunch promoter of the Rime movement himself.

It is no secret that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, be it in his writing or talks, laments greatly about the near disappearance of Buddhism from India, likening it often to the sad and painful separation of a mother from her child, or worse. Buddhists form less than one percent of India’s population. A popular refrain is that India is the land where Buddha gained enlightenment and taught, but China has the largest population of Buddhists today.

“I wish that understanding prevailed in India itself,” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said. “But it may be too late for that, as Indians for centuries seem to appreciate western culture over their own. Nevertheless, I believe there must be a few pockets of Indians who can still appreciate, understand and even make use of India’s great wisdom traditions taught by its realized masters like the Buddha. I hope these Indians may draw inspiration from this offering of light in their homeland.”

The center of the universe

To the 600 million or so Buddhists in the world, the Mahabodhi Temple complex in Bodhgaya is the center of the universe— the last place to be destroyed in the end of time and the first place to be reborn in the new world.

To go on a pilgrimage there is to enter a heightened place where emotions soar. Where the power of the place, even by inference, is said to be so palpable that it has transformed many who have visited it, including the skeptics.

As a follower of the Buddha, it is inherently beholden upon of every able-bodied Buddhists who can afford to do so to travel to Bodhgaya at least once in his or her lifetime. 

It was at this place 2,500 years ago (531 B.C.) one evening when the 35-year-old prince-turned-ascetic Siddhartha Gautama settled himself under the spreading branches of a fig (Bodhi) tree. 

For weeks, the young prince sat, meditating on the reality of samsara and the suffering of sentient beings, and finding, in his contemplations, the path to liberation. 

In the course of his meditations, Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha.

The most remarkable feature about the complex is the 50-meter pyramid temple—the Mahabodhi Mahavihara—that dominates the 10-acre complex both in size and aura.

It is said that around 200 B.C., about 250 years, after the Buddha passed into parinirvana (nirvana-after-death), Emperor Ashoka, the ruler of much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century and one of Buddhism’s most devout and famous converts, visited Bodhgaya and built a temple to honor Buddha.

Thus it came to be that the first Mahabodhi Mahavihara was built by Emperor Ashoka. But the temple, history records, fell into ruins after his death. 

It was one of the Gupta kings of India, many decades later, who would build the present pyramid temple in the seventh century. A jewel of the Gupta architecture, the temple is one of the earliest Buddhist temples to be built entirely in brick, and one of the few still standing today. 

The legacy of Emperor Ashoka’s work at the site, however, did not vanish entirely and remains to this day in the striking, awe-stirring form of the Diamond Throne, or Vajrasana, which he built on the exact same spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

The Mahabodhi Temple complex would endure withering disrepair and neglect during the defining political and social upheavals in India in the 11th and 12th century, and as Islamic interests devastated Buddhism in the country. 

It wasn’t until in the 19th century that the Mahabodhi Temple complex was restored to its former grandeur, largely due to the efforts of the Burmese Buddhist rulers and the then-British colonial government of India.

The Mahabodhi Temple complex is today a UNESCO World Heritage site and houses, beside the Mahabodhi Mahavihara, a total of seven other sacred sites, including the Bodhi tree, each one related to the events of the seven succeeding weeks after the Buddha reached enlightenment. The Buddha is said to have spent a week each on these spots meditating on his findings.

Accumulation of merit

Like with most Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche projects, support in the way of organizational services and time come as voluntary contributions from his students. It is also why the bulk of the cost of the project is going into buying light fittings, light automation software and other infrastructure including for maintenance and payment to consultants. 

B-Lit, the light design company from Bangkok, Thailand, which is designing the entire lighting system for the Mahabodhi Temple complex, is providing their services free of cost— as an offering of devotion.

It is said in Buddhism that the offering of lights to the Buddha or the representations of the Buddha helps you accumulate merit and along with it wisdom, two crucial ingredients to a Buddhist practitioner’s growth toward enlightenment. 

In its most basic concept, merit is a favourable and protective force, which accumulates as a result of one’s good deeds, acts, or thoughts. 

Merit-making is fundamental to Buddhist practice. It is said that every second of a person’s life is conditioned by merits that he has accumulated in his past or present life. 

Even as seemingly independent and voluntary act as taking time off to attend the teachings given by a Buddhist master, or getting the itch to learn Buddhism, or possessing the capacity to grasp what Buddha said— or simply being lucky in the things one does, it is said, depend on one’s merit.

For the thousands of Buddhists partaking in the ongoing Mahabodhi Temple lighting project as workforces and sponsors, it is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime chance to accumulate merits and honor the Buddha.

“We hope to have part of phase one, the core of the Temple lighting, ready by the end of this year,” Prashant Varma said. “We shall then steadily work towards completing all other areas of the Temple Complex, other than the Sarovar lake and the new Meditation Park, by the end of 2020.”

Contributed by  Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

The writer is a former 

editor of Kuensel. 

He can be reached at kw2229@gmail.com 

P.S: In case some of you feel moved to contribute to the project, here is the info: Account name: SI – Lighting The Mahabodhi. Account no: 5000061946003 (BNB). Or call 17119779.

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