Patna, January 12 – Pilgrims thronging Bodh Gaya today witnessed their supreme leaders, the Dalai Lama and the 17th Karmapa, kick off the Kalchakra festival and joined a mass initiation ceremony later, but missed a glimpse of the “holy ashes” of the Buddha, which are preserved in Patna Museum.
Concerned about conservation of the ancient relic, the Bihar government has gone back on its word to send the ashes to the Mahabodhi temple complex so that the pilgrims could pay homage after offering prayers in the auspicious hours of Kalchakra.
The government felt that moving the ashes to Bodh Gaya was not only fraught with risk, but could also damage the relic. “We had to take the unpleasant decision because we cannot afford to let anyone cause any further damage to the ashes,” said S. Agarwal, curator of Patna Museum. She argued that it was not wise to send the ashes anywhere for public view.
The move has disappointed many, like Inchen Lama from Sikkim. “I thought I could get a glimpse of the holy ashes I was looking forward to seeing. It would have been a lifetime experience,” he said.
However, the government has made special arrangements for those intent on paying respects to Buddha’s relic. Bihar tourism minister Ashoke Singh said his government is running regular buses between Patna and Bodh Gaya to ferry tourists to Patna Museum. The journey will set a pilgrim back by Rs 400, apart from the Rs 100 ticket to enter the museum. “This looks a bit expensive for the tourists,” said Vijien Dorji, who has come all the way from Tibet.
But it hasn’t proved a damper for the Kalchakra festival. Officials expect at least 1 million pilgrims from 12 Southeast Asian countries, including China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Korea, during the 10-day programme that will continue till January 22.
At least 20,000 Buddhists gathered under a shamiana about 100 yards from the Mahabodhi temple, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, when the programme began at 10.30 am. Amid a riot of saffron and the throb of beating drums, the ceremony continued till late afternoon.
Kicking off the festival, the Dalai Lama said: “You are here to purify yourself and promote peace within and outside. I was ill last year when this programme was postponed. This year it is taking place. I am in a better frame of health.”
Later, he conducted a mass initiation ceremony in the presence of Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorjee.
There was unprecedented security all around. Police last night arrested about 12 neo-Buddhists in Bodh Gaya, who were agitating against the Dalai Lama. They have been detained in a centre at Chandauti in Gaya, said Magadh division DIG N.C. Dhondiyal.
The holy relic was last displayed at Bodh Gaya during the Buddha Mahotsav programme in 1998-99. Pilgrims, particularly delegates from foreign countries, had requested the government to put it on display again at the festival.
Museum sources said famous archaeologist A.S. Altekar had found the casket containing the ashes in 1956 during excavations in Vaishali.
The tour operators were angry with the state government for taking a late decision as they had marketed a glimpse of the relic at Bodh Gaya as part of their packages.