BUDDHIST MONKS
Manish Swarup  /  AP
Buddhist monks assembled for the International Conclave on Buddhism and Spiritual Tourism in New Delhi on Wednesday.
updated 2/19/2004 11:41:48 AM ET 2004-02-19T16:41:48

Monks chanted mantras as 400 worshippers from 25 countries gathered Thursday at Buddhism’s most sacred shrine to celebrate its inclusion in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

Buddhists believe that Gautama Siddhartha, a prince from a Himalayan kingdom, attained enlightenment and became the Buddha 2,500 years ago while meditating under a bodhi tree where the Mahabodhi Temple stands at the Bodh Gaya religious center.

The 164-foot temple, which dates from the 5th or 6th centuries, is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, according to UNESCO.

The temple was declared a UNESCO heritage site in June 2002, but it took several months to prepare before the formal dedication could be held Thursday with the lighting of lamps, beating of drums and reciting of Buddhist scriptures by monks in red and saffron robes.

“We the people of India ... would like peace and harmony to prevail in the world in the true spirit of Buddhism. We, therefore dedicate this temple to the world,” said Indian Tourism Minister Jagmohan, who uses one name.

Discord over seating arrangements
There was some discord at the ceremony in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, however, when five monks walked out in protest over the seating arrangements.

Bhadant Dhammaviriyo, president of the Monks Association at Bodh Gaya, objected to the chanting monks being seated on the floor, while other visitors — like a Cambodian princess and Singapore’s Trade Minister George Yeo — sat in luxurious chairs.

“This arrangement is in total violation of the established Buddhist tradition, where the monks are accorded a high pedestal,” said Dhammaviriyo. The temple’s chief priest, known as Bodhipal, refused to respond to the monks’ complaint, and some left.

Touching on another controversy, Tourist Minister Jagmohan said “shops and residential establishments will have to be relocated” and he urged the state government to remove beggars and vendors from the temple area.

For months leading up to the dedication, shopkeepers, residents and vendors have protested eviction plans and officials say many have erected makeshift constructions recently in hopes that they’ll be declared as part of the existing site and allowed to remain.

Bodh Gaya is about 80 miles southeast of Patna, capital of Bihar, considered India’s most lawless state.

UNESCO is responsible for implementing the 1972 U.N. Convention on the protection of cultural and natural sites around the world, with 754 sites listed in more than 120 countries.

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