Why one man is unhappy about 290 kilos of Thai gold in bodh gaya

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bodhi-arupGaya (Raznama.com)। Arup Bramhachari, a priest and a regular PIL-filer, has taken legal action against the authorities of the MahabodhiTemple, which received a large gold donation by Thai devotees last year.

In November 2013, the historic MahabodhiTemple in Bodh Gaya got a new look: its 15-foot spire was plated with gold after Buddhist devotees from Thailand donated 290 kilos of the precious metal to the temple.

The sparkling temple spire is a mark of pride for the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee and the Union Ministry of Culture. But now the sheen has been dimmed by a legal notice from an activist that puts the authorities in the dock for accepting the donation and allowing the spire to be covered with gold.

gaya_temple_goldThe legal notice was sent on November 16, days after the gold-leafing work began, by Arup Bramhachari, a Hindu priest who lives in Gaya. Addressed to the Temple Management Committee, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Union Ministry of Culture and the former deputy prime minister of Thailand, the notice claims that the gold-plating was an “irrational” decision, incongruent with Buddhist philosophy, carried out without transparency and is damaging to the structure of the temple, which is UNESCO world heritage site.

Bramhachari has received no clear response from any of the parties in the past four months. He plans to file his grievances as a Public Interest Litigation in the Patna High Court by the end of March.

The MahabodhiTemple, according to the ASI, can be dated back to the 6th century. It is said to occupy the site of a monument built by Emperor Ashoka to mark the spot where Gautama Buddha gained enlightenment. The temple was not in use for several centuries in between, and the present structure is a product of restoration work done by Burmese kings and British administrators through the 1800s.

Bramhachari’s legal notice states that covering the temple spire in a “metal that costs millions” would only “add beauty, glitter” to the monument, “but such pride would be achieved at the cost of the loss of its originality which is imbedded in its archaeological value and heritage”.

The legal notice also alleges that the gold-leafing was sanctioned to “appease foreigners”, and that the Thai donors want to make the Mahabodhi Temple look like a copy of Thailand’s Doi Suthep Temple, whose dome and spire is entirely gilded.

“But the main issue is that there was complete lack of transparency about the gold donation, which the authorities claim is pure gold,” said Madan Kumar Tiwary, Bramhachari’s advocate. “The temple is ancient and made of bricks, not stone. How can its spire bear the load of 290 kilos of gold without causing structural damage?”

The Temple Management Committee, however, brushed aside these concerns. “The spire is 15 feet tall and has been fitted with a thin layer of pure gold,” said Nangzey Dorjee, member-secretary of the Committee, an advisory board constituted by the Bihar government to manage all the affairs of the MahabodhiTemple. He added, “All 290 kilos of gold have been used on the spire, certified by the ASI and other experts,” he said.

Dorjee emphasised that although the temple is managed entirely by the Committee, accepting the gold donation and implementing the gold plating required a clearance from the Union Ministry of Culture, through the ASI, because the structure is a UNESCO heritage site. “It is Buddhist tradition to make offerings as an expression of devotion,” said Dorjee. “The clearance was given after two years of considering the offer, on the condition that no structural changes would take place.”

The Committee, however, has not officially responded to Bramhachari’s legal notice. The only response it got, says Tewary, was from the Ministry of Culture, which directed the ASI to look into the matter. “The ASI, too, has not yet responded, so we will have to now file a PIL,” said Tewary.

This is not Bramhachari’s first legal action against the authorities of the MahabodhiTemple. The priest is a well-known name in Gaya for heaping allegations of corruption on the TempleCommittee for at least eight years.

In 2007, he filed a PIL against the authorities to protest against the alleged smuggling of branches from the holy Bodhi tree in the temple complex. The case is still sub-judice in a lower Bihar court. Early in 2013, he went straight to the Supreme Court with a PIL to declare the Mahabodhi temple a national monument, so that it would no longer be controlled by the Bihar state government’s Temple Management Committee. While this case, too, is pending, Bramhachari’s blog – which he writes under the name of Swami ji – is his platform to rail against alleged corruption and misappropriation of foreign donations at the Buddhist shrine.

bodhi-templeBramhachari does not reveal much about his background – he claims he is a fakir (ascetic) from Bengal who lived “in the forest” with his spiritual master for 14 years – but he presents himself as a staunch anti-corruption crusader. “I used to be a monk at the Bharat Sevashram Sangha in Gaya but left when I saw a lot of corruption there,” said Bramhachari, who decided to move to Chennai in 2005. When he went to pay his last respects at the MahabodhiTemple, he says, he found himself crying before the Buddha’s idol. “That’s when a German lady put her hand on my shoulder, and I felt an energy passing through me,” he said. “We spoke about spirituality for 14 hours, and before she left, she asked me to stay in Bodh Gaya and serve Lord Buddha.” 

Since then, Bramhachari has been persistent in his criticism of affairs at the TempleCommittee. In August 2013, quoting the local police, media houses reported that he had been arrested in connection with the bomb blasts in Bodh Gaya on July 7, 2013. The very next day, however, the National Investigative Agency denied the reports, claiming that the priest had merely been detained for sending abusive mails to the TempleCommittee over corruption.

“The police spread false information about me, in connection with the blasts, to the media, as a means to shut me up,” alleged Bramhachari. The priest, however, intends to continue fighting all his pet PILs in court.

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