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Last updated: Tuesday, April 30, 2002
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Maitreya Statue
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Letter from Bodh Gaya


Having read the Village Republic's letter I talked with people in Bodh Gaya and elsewhere and wrote the following letter in September. It was published in 'Pure Vision', the newsletter of the Sakya Centre Melbourne Australia.


One More River To Cross

The Maitreya Statue Project, Dr Peter Friedlander, Burmese Vihar Bodhgaya

The monsoon has been fairly good in Bodhgaya this year. At dusk a cool breeze relieves the stifling heat if you stand on the new Japanese bridge across the Phalgu river. It’s a popular spot with locals to while away the hours around sunset. The Japanese built it to give access to the site where Sujata fed milk rice to the Buddha before his enlightenment. It is almost three years now since it was built yet on the far shore from Bodhgaya it leads – nowhere. The local administration has still not built a road to meet the bridge and so the bridge leads to a dirt track amidst the rice fields. In Delhi I was able to meet Renuka Singh, the Director of the Tushita Centre, who told me that this year there have been new problems with the Maitreya project. She told me that the Airports Authority of India has objected to a 500 foot statue within 6 km of the airfield at Gaya. On top of the problems with the purchase of the land needed for the statue, this has made for a difficult year. In the Bodhgaya area there has also been much discussion of the project and opinions are divided over it. Talking to people in the Bodhgaya market most know of the problems with the Airport Authority. Some had heard that it was due to the airport itself, others that it was a problem with the flight path from Delhi to Calcutta going over Bodhgaya. Some people believe that there is a court case going on, others are aware of a threat to move the statue to another place, perhaps in Bodhgaya, perhaps somewhere else altogether. Most of the tradesmen, shopkeepers and business people said that, as long as it did not cause problems, the statue was welcome as it would bring more tourists and trade to the village. Few realised quite how big it was going to be if built. The local Hindi newspaper had reported that it was going to be 500 metres high – a misprint for 150 metres one suspects! This illustrates the confusion in public opinion in Bodhgaya over the project. Most people know that it is going to be big, but not how big. Meanwhile other people are not so happy about the statue – whatever size it is. An informal association of grass roots social workers and activists has articulated its opposition. A letter of protest sent in May by the "Bodhgaya Forum of Village Republics" expressed dismay over the scale of the project and the fear that it will cause environmental damage by disrupting irrigation works. They also believe that local villagers will be displaced and dispossessed, and like many projects, the disruption will result in the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. In response to this letter the Maitreya Project directors expressed the desire to meet with local community groups. But when they came they were turned away on the grounds that an appointment had not been fixed. In other words, there is a willingness on both sides to discuss the issues but the process of discussion has yet to really begin – years after the project began. Meanwhile back at the Burmese monastery – next to the bridge to nowhere – the Abbot pointed another problem out to me. Each Buddha is enlightened under a different sort of tree that goes over the site of the Diamond Throne in Bodhgaya. Some years back the Vietnamese temple, near the Maitreya statue project site, planted all of the trees under which the Buddhas reach enlightenment. All varieties grew well apart from one. Whilst Maitreya’s tree grows well in the moist rain forests of Assam it will no longer flourish in the arid environment that Bodhgaya has become due to deforestation and urbanisation. Development threatens to change the environment even more. Undoubtedly mega projects – like the Japanese bridge and the Maitreya statue – bring benefits, but they do so at a cost. To build the access road to the bridge the last groves of palm trees by the river had to be cut down, creating a desolate wasteland on the shore. Who really can predict what the real costs of the Maitreya project will be, and who will balance the books at the end of the day? September 1999 (Dr Peter Friedlander is teaching Hindi and Buddhist History at the Antioch program in Bodhgaya this year.)

Reprinted from Pure Vision.


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Texts and Translations © Peter G. Friedlander unless otherwise indicated.