For a tree under whose arbour a man is said to have got enlightenment and launched a religion that did away with materialism, the Mahabodhi peepal in Bodh Gaya has created a market for leaves. And it is not even a free and fair market.
If you are an Indian, you get a leaf for Re 1. But for a foreigner, the price is anywhere between Rs 50 and Rs 500. The ones selling it are little children. Huppa is the Japanese word for the Bodhi peepal tree leaf and since some of their main patrons are from that country, these children have come to be known as ‘huppa bechawa’—those who sell huppas.
The kids go to school, but during tourist season from October to February, they bunk class for business. “During that period, attendance in government schools drops substantially,” says Rajesh Kumar, who runs an NGO for children, Ecoles De Laterre. Vikas Kumar, son of a rickshaw puller, asks how he is expected to feed himself if he does not sell these leaves. “We do business, not beg,” he says. Vikas and his friends know words like ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ in English, Japanese, Mandarin and Burmese. Mukesh Kumar, the son of a carpenter, says that he earns about Rs 200 daily but when he makes a dollar sale, “the day is blessed”. His father is an alcoholic and the house runs largely on Mukesh’s earnings. “Japanese Buddhist pilgrim tourists are now less in number, but they pay well,” he says.
In January, the district administration rounded up the children and transported them in five buses 10 km away from the temple. But the kids were back the next day. “These children selling Bodhi tree leaves to foreign tourists basically foot the liquor bill of their parents,” says Alok Kumar, a local journalist.
According to temple authorities, many children even pass off leaves of the other peepal trees as those of the Mahabodhi tree. “They cheat the pilgrims,” says Nangzey Dorjee, member-secretary of the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee.
Temple officials say Buddhist pilgrims consider Mahabodhi leaves auspicious. Sometime back, a branch of the tree was found cut. It was rumoured to have been sold for an astronomical amount to a foreign tourist. The state government later ordered an inquiry.