Photographing Peace: The Buddhist Holy Grounds of Bodhgaya, India

Photo of Buddhist monk meditating in front of fig tree swathed in prayer flags at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

At Peace

A Buddhist monk swathed in crimson meditates in
front of an enormous fig tree swathed in prayer flags.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/50 sec, f/2.8/ISO 640.

I’m sitting on a slab of marble several feet away from the spot where Prince Siddhartha Guatama reached enlightenment and became the Buddha. Before me a descendant of the Bodhi tree reaches to the sky, planted on the spot where the original tree stood. Beneath it is the diamond throne, a sandstone slab marking where Buddha was said to have once sat. The soothing sound of monks chanting mantras surrounds me. This place is so peaceful.

Photo of Buddhist monk meditating near the Bodhi tree at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.

© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All rights reserved.

Prince Siddhartha attained Buddhahood (full enlightenment) in the year 623 B.C. while sitting under the Peepul tree (Fiscus religiosa or Bodhi tree) during the Vasakha full moon day. The Vajrasana or the Diamond Throne, which is under this Bodhi tree, is the central place of worship.

The slab next to the Bodhi tree reads:
Bodhi Palanka
(The Place of Enlightenment)


Bodhi Tree

Reaching to the sky, a descendant of the original Bodhi tree stands at the spot where Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/25 sec, f/4, ISO 400, stitched panorama.

Map of Bihar state, India and road from Varanasi to Gaya to Bodhgaya.

Photographing Bodhgaya and the Mahabodhi Temple

I arrived in Gaya at 10 p.m. after an impromptu train ride out of Varanasi. That meant disorder a-plenty and a little finagling on my end to secure a berth in a train car that wasn’t too deplorable. A 20 minute tuk-tuk ride brought me out of Gaya and plunged me into the inky darkness of the Bihar countryside of India. I’ll rest, anticipating what Bodhgaya has to offer this photographer.

Waking at sunrise I pick my way through muddy streets, stepping over sleeping dogs and skirting around various livestock to reach the Mahabodhi Temple, the holiest location for the Buddhist faith. Pilgrimage is the name of the game, and I aim to beat most of the pilgrims to the temple while the light is still soft and the grounds are still quiet. The temple complex radiates a hallowed tone, glistening in the last drips of a night shower. The crimson sandstone walkways cut across the well-tended grass plots, leading the pious to the ancient temple.

Each time I raise my camera and take a photograph, the normally quiet sound of the shutter seems to grow in volume a thousand fold, filling the empty space and broadcasting the presence of a foreign man with his foreign device. One of the greatest challenges as a photographer is documenting a scene without altering it.

Photo of Mahabodhi Temple grounds, Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

The Mahabodhi Temple Grounds

The verdant temple grounds are punctuated by bright
sandstone walkways leading to the Mahabodhi Temple.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/100 sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer.

Photo of interior of monastery at Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.

© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

The interior of one of the many Buddhist monasteries of Bodhgaya.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/40 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1250.

The temple complex is nearly empty, and as I approach the temple the Buddhist mantras chanted by the devout reach my ears. Early rising pilgrims are making their way to the interior to offer their prayers and small plates covered in an assortment of flowers. Before the Buddha, the offerings stack higher and higher and the number of pilgrims begin to increase. The environment is changing from tranquil to tense as these pious people vie for a plot of tile to render their prayers. The once vacant offering room swells with boisterous crowd after crowd which means it is time for me to leave. I must say that I am surprised at the behavior of many of these visitors, and loathe their blatant disrespect for the very thing to which they offer their prayers.

Photo of pilgrims presenting offerings to Buddha at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.

© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All rights reserved.

Offerings to Buddha


Pilgrims present offerings of prayers and flowers to the Buddha within the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/25 sec, f/2.8, ISO 640.

The temple complex is large and I try to lose myself in the quiet corners. Here I can get away from the crowds. I can pull myself out of a crowd, but it seems I will never fully avoid them. Our interests and paths collide too often. But if I can lose the crowds for even just 15 minutes, I will find relief, that which is found in these quiet corners. Monks sit in meditation. I know not what goes on in their minds – what they are thinking during these long periods of stillness.

They are barely breathing. They are incredibly still. Their expression is at times of peace, at times pensive, and always serious. Prayer flags flap in the wind, surrounding a pair of monks swathed in sanguine. Within the gentle breeze that stirs the prayer flags comes the chirping of birds and the occasional chanting of a mantra.

Moving along through the temple complex I find another form of meditation. Monks pay their respects through prostrations. They perform hundreds of them, kneeling down and sliding along a wooden board towards a lotus flower. The boards are smooth and worn, no doubt from thousands of these prostrations. They perspire and they purify. They prepare for meditation.

Photo of Buddhist monk doing prostrations at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.
© 2011 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

Morning Prostrations

Buddhist monks undertake morning prostrations to for purification and
preparation for meditation at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/80 sec, f/2.8, ISO 800.

I cautiously photograph the monks. I move slowly, silently, and respectfully. I survey the scene before taking a photograph. I make each photograph count, and depend on my previous experiences to know that I will lock in a great image rather than depending on sheer numbers of images in hopes of producing a single quality one.

And there are more monks. They are spread out among the complex, and if I look hard, I can find them. One sits in orange robes among elaborately carved stupas. Another walks down a corridor, spinning the prayer wheels – always in a clockwise direction. I pass one monk, walking with an umbrella slung over his arm and am delighted when he gives me the slightest smile and a nod. I wonder if my visage entertains him as much as his does me. Certainly, I stand out among the crowd of dark haired, dark skinned pilgrims clad in various colored robes. In fact, to my knowledge, I’m the only white man in the entire area.

Photo of Buddhist monks meditating under prayer flags at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All rights reserved.

Meditation

Buddhist monks deep in meditation at the Mahabodhi Temple of Bodhgaya.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 50mm f/1.2L, 1/500 sec, f/1.2, ISO 100.

Photo of Buddhist monk meditating among the stupas at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All rights reserved.

Thoughtfully Orange

A lone Buddhist monk sits in meditation among the stupas at the Mahabodhi Temple.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/125 sec, f/3.2, ISO 400.

The sun climbs higher into the sky and more and more people fill the complex. A large group of Sri Lankans has just arrived and they are sitting on all sides of me, on the marble. We don’t talk. We do smile and nod. They are taking a short break from walking around the complex and I am sitting, back against a stone railing, taking it all in. The presence of the early morning, of birds chirping, of monks chanting, has diminished, and the time for my exit grows near.

Moving around and towards the front of the temple area I come across one pilgrim isolated from the rest. Clad in a deep orange and against a yellow undergarment, he sits in repose with a book and a bright blue sack. He appears scholarly and wise. He is old, with short grey whiskers and a shiny bald head, yet he seems powerful. His gaze is strong-willed and his arms are sinewy. I gesture towards my camera and he nods, placing his hands together in a display of reverence for this holy place. I then lift the camera to my eye and create the image.

Buddhist monk poses for a photography at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore.
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

Strong Pilgrim

The strong willed stare of this pilgrim is undeniable. His sinewy muscles
and determined countenance reveal a life of hardship and devotion.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/200 sec, f/2.8, ISO 200.

I’m gracious for the solitude I found that morning, and my appreciation for that solitude grows 100 fold as I exit the temple complex.

The Mahabodhi Temple and the men and women within it are subjects that I have spent years training to photograph. Everything comes down to that one moment, when the subject is just right, and I’ve got one chance to capture that image before it is gone forever. There’s no time to fiddle with settings and dials. I must know the craft and know the equipment. Stepping away from the temple I am thrilled, knowing that I was able to document something truly special that morning.

by Nico DeBarmore

Bestselling DSLR #2
Bestselling DSLR #3
SaleBestselling DSLR #4
Canon EOS 80D Digital SLR Camera Body (Black)
Canon - Electronics
$999.00
All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.