Poor Indian children make a living from ‘holy leaves’

Amarnath Tewary
Bodh Gaya, Bihar
9 March 2013

Vikas Kumar

Hundreds of poor children in the Indian state of Bihar make a living by selling leaves to Buddhist pilgrims from the Mahabodhi tree – under which Gautam Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

The leaves from the peepal tree cost Indian pilgrims only 10 rupees (18 cents; 12 pence); but to foreign pilgrims, they are sold from anywhere between $1 and $10.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya town, where the holy tree is located, during the five-month-long tourist season in the winter. The site is seen by Buddhists as the birthplace of their faith.

The world-famous temple is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the present tree, about 80ft high and approximately 115 years old, is the fifth generation of the original Bodhi tree.

For the children, who collect the fallen leaves and sell them to pilgrims, the dollar-paying foreign tourists are much sought-after.

“Usually, I make about 200 rupees ($3.65; £2.40) a day but whenever I manage to sell the leaves for a few dollars, the day becomes special for me,” says 12-year-old Vikas Kumar.

His favourite, he says, are Japanese pilgrims: “They are fewer in numbers, but they pay very well.”

Chasing pilgrims

Leaves from the holy treeSome leaves are embossed with an image of the Buddha

Vikas is enrolled into the local government school, but in the tourist season, nothing can keep him away from the temple.

His father is a rickshaw puller and the money Vikas makes by selling leaves goes a long way in supplementing the family income.

“How can we feed ourselves if we do not come here to sell leaves?” he asks.

Vikas knows a few English words like “please”, “thank you”, “dollar” and “hello” and says that he can say these words in Japanese, Mandarin and Burmese too.

During the season, young boys and girls can be seen chasing tourists with small plastic bags, containing leaves, some embossed with an image of the Buddha.

Mukesh, 12, has been selling leaves for the past two years and says that in season, he earns well.

“If we’re lucky, we can even get $10 for a Bodhi leaf.”

He says his father, a carpenter, “doesn’t earn well enough to feed us all. And he is an alcoholic. I contribute a substantial amount towards running my household”.

Deepak Kumar, who runs a rescue centre for children in Bodh Gaya, says many of the leaf-sellers are working to foot the “liquor bill” of their parents.

‘Cheating pilgrims’

The authorities have time and again tried to clear the temple complex of these children and, in January, the district administration loaded hundreds of leaf-sellers into five buses and dropped them off at a place 10km (6.2 miles) away.

Mahabodhi tree
Every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya town, where the Bodhi tree is located

But the very next day, they were back at their business.

Besides the holy Bodhi tree, there are six other peepal trees inside the Mahabodhi complex and the temple authorities say these children often collect and sell leaves from other trees to unsuspecting pilgrims.

“They cheat the pilgrims by telling them that the leaves belong to the original holy Bodhi tree,” says Nangzey Dorjee, member of the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee.

Temple officials say Buddhist pilgrims covet leaves from the tree as they consider them auspicious and holy.

Buddhists around the world consider Mahabodhi temple as one of their holiest places which they try to visit at least once in their lifetime.

Pilgrim, tourists and visitors mostly come from Buddhist countries like Japan, China, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tibet and Singapore, but many others come from across the globe.

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader and Buddhist monk, visits Bodh Gaya every year along with thousands of followers, including Hollywood actor Richard Gere.

Mr Dorjee says different countries and Buddhist sects have set up around 50 monasteries in Bodh Gaya and hundreds of hotels and guest houses have also come up around the Mahabodhi temple, putting pressure on the place.

But, temple officials say, the state authorities are indifferent to the upkeep of this heritage site.


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