Big Trouble Under The Banyan Tree

For thousands of years, a certain spot under a huge tree in a sleepy village in northeast India has drawn Buddhists from around the world. Here, some 2,500 years ago, a wandering monk named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation and attained enlightenment, becoming the Buddha. Ever since, millions of his followers have considered the tree (actually a pipal, though known as a banyan) and an adjoining temple the holiest of sites, which they try to visit at least once in their lives. But the Mahabodhi Temple, as the complex is known, makes for an unlikely pilgrimage destination. It is mired in crime, corruption and astounding sacrilege. Relics have been stolen. Goons harass visitors, particularly women. Garbage piles up around the temple. Beggars attack devotees. And con artists posing as monks sell leaves off the holy tree.

How did Mahabodhi Temple become such an un-Buddhist place? Many blame the government. Nearly 60 years ago, an Indian law stipulated that the site be managed and protected by a nine-member committee that must include a Hindu majority—which strikes many Buddhists and their sympathizers as absurd. Over the years, investigators say, this committee has failed to account for millions of dollars' worth of donations. They claim that hundreds of idols and statues have disappeared from the temple—and suddenly reappeared in Western museums and homes. Last year, a wealthy Thai Buddhist donated an expensive SUV for temple upkeep. It now sits in the garage of the committee's chairman, Jitendra Srivastava (he says he uses it for temple-related work).

Lately, the faithful have begun to fight back, organizing protests to pressure the government into turning the management of the Mahabodhi Temple over to an eminent group of Buddhists, including people like the Dalai Lama. "If [Hindu] temples, churches, mosques and gurdwaras [Sikh temples] are not under the control of other sects, then why is the same not applicable to Mahabodhi Temple?" wonders Bhadant Anand, president of the Bodhgaya Mahabodhi Vihar All-India Action Committee, a pressure group.

He and other angry Buddhists have called on their brethren the world over—who now number more than 350 million—for support, and there are some signs their campaign is having an impact. Protests last year sparked a police investigation of three committee members, including Bhikkhu Bodhipala, a Buddhist monk, for his alleged role in an incident in which a branch of the holy tree was chopped off—supposedly to be sold to a wealthy Buddhist. Investigators are relying on testimony from the temple gardener, Deepak Malakar, who says he cut the limb at Bodhipala's request and deposited it at his residence. "I could not defy his orders." Malakar says he and his family have been pressured to change their testimony, "but it is a sin to lie."

Bodhipala denies wrongdoing, saying the tree was pruned in 1977, long before he became involved. (The two other committee members declined to comment.) But Srivastava says the limb was chopped off in 2006. Meanwhile, botanists have begun finding other signs of neglect. Toxic green paint has been applied to the tree's base, causing some of its branches to wither. Candles lighted near the tree have singed its bark. And monks have also discovered notices plastered on pillars around the temple that purport to reserve space there for Western devotees—anathema to Buddhist principles of equality and signs that Western pilgrims are being scammed. "All this breaks my heart," says Linda Noble, an American Buddhist who has been visiting the temple for more than a decade. "Innocent visitors are duped. Women feel unsafe after dark. Violence and fear stalk anyone who dares to protest."

Cleaning it all up will take time. The Bihar state government appoints the oversight committee, but Buddhists say it has been noticeably reluctant to tackle any of these issues directly. For instance, the state government initially denied that the tree branch had been cut, only admitting it after pressure was applied by the media and protest groups. In October, the oversight committee's term ended, but instead of appointing untainted new members, the Bihar government inexplicably handed over full control of the temple to the committee's chairman, Srivastava, who is himself under attack for mismanagement. Visitors to the site say that the government is also ignoring safety concerns, and is only interested in using the region's rich Buddhist heritage to lure foreign visitors. "I have given proof of mismanagement to the government but the culprits still rule the temple," says Arup Brahmachari, a Hindu monk.

For Buddhists who still flock to the site (temple sources put the visitor total at 3.5 million for last year), it's all cause for embarrassment and an outrage. Their pride in the temple is similar to what Muslims feel for Mecca, or Jews for the Western Wall. Legend has it the great Indian emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, built the temple around 250 B.C. and marked with a throne the precise spot where Buddha meditated. But in the 12th century, Muslim invaders ransacked the temple, and later generations of rulers neglected it. By the 1880s, the British had restored the temple and discovered several invaluable idols and statues buried under the rubble. Today, despite its problems, the temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Somehow, through it all, Buddhists believe that the pipal tree that once shaded Siddhartha has managed to survive. But these days, Buddha himself might find it harder to find serenity there.