The centre where Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment is truly the centre of Buddhism.
Not very far from the ancient Magadh kingdom of Rajgir and adjoining the sacred city of Gaya, is the small town of Bodhgaya in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. It was in Bodh Gaya that Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment with the Mahabodhi Temple being built at this spot to commemorate his enlightenment. The 7th century Chinese Buddhist traveller Xuanzang called Bodhgaya ‘the centre of the Buddhist World’.
With the Islamic invasions of the Indian subcontinent during the medieval times and more specifically due to the invasions and destructions caused by Qutb-ud-din Aibak and the brutal blows by Bakhtiyar Khilji during the 12th century CE that the traditions which existed for millennia in central Bihar, especially at Nalanda and Gaya were devastated. Indic religions struggled from this point onwards. The upkeep or restoration of temples, stupas, and monasteries became an impossible feat for the survivors of the destructive onslaughts. It was from the 18th Century onwards that the colonial archaeologists and scholars realized the ancient significance of Gaya and Bodhgaya as these places had been mentioned in innumerable texts and inscriptions of both these religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Francis Buchanan during the early years of the 19th century, conducted the first major documentation of the findings at Bodhgaya that included structural remains, sculptures and inscriptions. He also interacted with the local communities and collected legendary accounts. By 1871, Alexander Cunningham, who was the surveyor-general had noted the reconstruction of most temples and structures on former sites with older materials. While documenting Bodhgaya, he relied on inscriptional and textual materials (Chinese and Burmese Buddhist works), especially the works of Xuanzang and Faxian. Cunningham documented several structural remains at the Mahabodhi temple site that included thirty-three inscribed sandstone and granite pillars, smaller temples (Tara Devi and Vagiswari Devi), a ruined fortress considered to be that of Amara Sinha, a cenotaph and numerous Buddhist statues.
Alexander Cunningham’s survey inspired future scholars to study Bodhgaya. The main questions to be answered were – the antiquity of Bodhgaya; the chronology of the construction of Mahabodhi temple and its architectural features; and the development of Bodhgaya’s landscape through analysis of smaller shrines, pillars and inscriptions. The outcome of intense research over the years has led to the understanding that the Mahabodhi temple came about in phases and the earliest phase has been attributed to 3rd century BCE Mauryan Emperor, Ashoka, who was an ardent follower of the tenets of Buddhism and ensured its spread to Central and South East Asia besides the Indian Subcontinent.
Buddhist accounts reveal the life of Siddhartha Gautam, who became the spiritual teacher, Buddha, once he attained enlightenment. Siddhartha was born in Lumbini (modern-day Nepal) as a prince in the royal house of the Shakya, with its capital at Kapilvastu. On seeing the suffering of the world he left his home in search of answers as to how to end these sufferings. This period in history, the 6th century BCE is well known for the Mahajanapada that were well established over most of the Indian Subcontinent. Gautam is said to have roamed the areas of Rajgir (in Nalanda district) and Gaya in search of answers during the reign of Bimbisar. He finally reached the banks of the Phalgu River, near the city of Gaya and sat in meditation under a Peepul Tree (Ficus Religiosa) that later came to be known as the Bodhi Tree. Gautam sat in uninterrupted meditation for three days and three nights and found answers to his questions. He attained enlightenment and became Buddha. It is at this location on the banks of the Phalgu River that Emperor Ashoka built the Mahabodhi temple around mid-3rd century BCE. Ashoka’s Mahabodhi temple has been depicted in relief on pillars in the Bharhut Stupa that is dated to 100 BCE. This Mahabodhi Temple is shown as circular and near the Bodhi Tree. The Vajrasana (seat for Buddha) is prominently placed in the centre. The Chaitya design on the temple walls is also clearly visible along with railings and an Ashokan Pillar with the Elephant crown. Representations of the early temple structure that appears to protect the Bodhi Tree are also found on the toranas of the Sanchi Stupa dated around 25 BCE.
(Mahabodhi temple depicted in the Bharhut Stupa dated to 100 BCE. The seat for Buddha is prominently placed in the centre)
The Mahabodhi temple is a two-towered structure with the bigger tower bearing a height of 55 meters. This grand brick structure in the shape of a Vimana (pyramidal form) with a hemispherical stupa on the top is one of the oldest standing grand buildings in the Indian Subcontinent. The main tower is surrounded by four smaller towers, constructed in the same Vimana style. A plaque from Kumhrar ruins of Mauryan dynasty near Patna dated 150-200 CE, shows the Mahabodhi temple in this Vimana form. This pyramidal temple style iconic structure was a changeover from the massive mound-like Buddhist stupas that held Buddha’s relics.
(A plaque from Kumhrar that shows the Mahabodhi temple in the Vimana form, dated 150-200 CE) – Wikimedia commons
The temple was built in various phases by various regimes with the Gupta period having contributed the most with regards to reconstruction and beautification during the 5th Century CE. The main buildings of the ancient Nalanda University have also been attributed to the Gupta period. The stucco figures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas on the Nalanda structures had set the style for future such works of art of making reliefs with sharper features and depicting meditative postures and intellect. Sculpted figures on stone also found a place within temples. The Mahabodhi temple has stucco figures in niches on all sides of the structure.
(The front view of the Mahabodhi temple)
The famous Chinese traveler, Xuanzang had visited Bodhgaya in the 7th century. He has described the statue of Buddha that was kept in the Mahabodhi temple. It is said that this statue was taken away by Muslim invaders. The current image that we see inside the Mahabodhi temple was found during excavations conducted under Sir Alexander Cunningham. This image was placed inside the temple after restoration work was completed during the early 20th century.
The statue is of golden hue and the Buddha is sitting in ‘Bhumisparsha mudra’ (Earth touching gesture), with his right hand touching the earth. It is said that while Gautam was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he was struggling with doubts and confusions personified as the armies of ‘Mara’ (demon Maya tried to frighten him with armies of demons and temptations) in Buddhist Traditions. Then Gautam reached out his right hand to touch the Earth and called upon her to bear witness to the fact of his self-discipline and resolve on the path of enlightenment. The earth bore witness and the demon Mara disappeared. Thereafter Gautam became the awakened and was called Buddha. The Bhumisparsha mudra or ‘the earth witness’ commemorates Buddha’s victory over temptation and his awakening and is thus one of the most common representations of Buddha.
(Buddha in the Mahabodhi temple)
The Bodhi Tree
The Bodhi Tree is a Peepul tree that is sacred for both Hindus and Buddhists. The present tree that grows next to the Mahabodhi temple is surrounded by pillared railing. The present tree is said to originate from the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. Branches of the original Bodhi tree had been taken to Srilanka by the children of King Ashoka (Mahendra and Sanghmitra) and it was planted in Anuradhapura. The original Bodhi tree was destroyed and a branch of the Anuradhapura tree was brought here and replanted.
(The bodhi tree)
The Seat of Buddha
One of the most important cum intriguing finds during the excavations and restoration work was that of the ‘Bodhi Pallanka’ or the place of Enlightenment. This is a sandstone seat that is called the Vajrasana or the Diamond Throne. The Vajrasana was well decorated with precious stones and Buddhist motifs. This throne has been dated to the times of Emperor Ashoka and it is said that he had got this made and placed at the site where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment under the Peepul Tree. Ashoka had built a shrine and a monastery that no longer exists but this seat was found in a small shrine that has been dated to the mid-2nd Century CE. This shrine is attributed to the Sungas, who also built columns with pot-shaped bases around the Vajrasana. The Vajrasana has been placed next to the Bodhi Tree and is well protected by railings that run all around the tree. One can easily view this seat from between the gaps in the railings. It is around the Bodhi tree that all the religious activities take place. Monks wearing red/orange/maroon robes are seen in meditation or chanting with the 108 beaded mala all around the tree. Tourists throng this place. Despite the presence of so many humans what is noteworthy is a sense of calm all around. One may not be in a meditative posture but the energy radiating from the temple and praying monks touches everyone.
(The Vajrasana next to the Bodhi tree)
This place is the most revered part of the whole temple complex. Not only did Buddha get the enlightenment under this tree, it also has the ancient Ashoka era seat, one of the few original remains from that era. Statues of Buddha have been placed around the world, but this direct connect with the seminal event of enlightenment of an evolved soul is palpably present only at this location.
(Front view of the Vajrasana)
According to the Buddhist traditions, Buddha remained in the vicinity of this tree after gaining enlightenment and reflected about the universal truths. He spent 7 weeks at different places and these are part of the temple complex in this Mahabodhi temple. The first week was spent below the Bodhi tree where he gained the knowledge.
During the second week, he sat at a distance from this tree and looked at this tree without interruption and without even blinking for seven days. This place is called Animesh Lochan, which translates to eye without interruption. A small shrine marks this place.
(The Shrine of Animesh Lochan)
During the third week, he paced back and forth near the tree thinking about the universal truths and meaning of life which had been just revealed to him. This place is along the wall of the current temple and it is marked by symbols of lotus. According to Buddhist traditions, lotuses sprouted wherever Buddha placed his feet during this back and forth walk. This location is called Chakramana place.
This place is also at the centre of devotional gathering during auspicious days. Devotees from all around the world come and this pathway symbolising Buddhas meditative walk is decorated with flowers. Devotees sit around at the floor and chant various hymns from Buddhist teachings.
(The floral decoration on festive occasions at the Chakramana Place)
During the fourth week, he sat at a place called Ratan Ghar (house of jewels). He meditated at this place for one week. It is a small shrine with a small statue of Buddha inside.
During the fifth week, he sat in meditation under a banyan tree called Ajapal Nigrodha tree. A learned man (Brahman) asked him a query and Buddha replied that one becomes a Brahman by his deeds and not by his birth. It shows that by this point of time, there was an awareness in the society about this saintly presence and Buddha was on his way to be recognized as a guide to the salvation. The Banyan tree existing at one side is considered to be this place.
(Ajapal Nigrodha tree; Banyan Tree)
During the 6th week, he spent time near a pond which is called Muchalinda Sarovar. It is said that during his sleep, there was a thunderstorm and a cobra spread his hood above Buddha’s head to protect him from the storm. This place is commemorated in the water tank to the left of the main temple. It seems that the link with snakes proved to be enduring and it became one of the constant motifs in Buddhist iconography as it spread to South East Asia and East Asian countries.
During the final seventh week he spent time under another Peepul tree called Rajyatna tree. This tree is located behind the present temple and it has been placed within the ubiquitous railings. After crystallising his thoughts following the revelations, he travelled to Saranath, near Varanasi, where he delivered his first sermon.
The Railings and their significance
The Mahabodhi temple is surrounded by a stone railing that is two metres high. What we see today is mostly a reconstruction of the original work. It is to be noted that though Bodhgaya was excavated and renovated in the 19th century, the excavations proved to be destructive since they destroyed the context of much of the ancient remains. This was mostly due to the unscientific archaeological excavations practices of those times. The railings that were discovered had diverse carvings and medallion motifs. The railings were of two materials, sandstone and granite. The sandstone railings have been dated to the Sunga period of 150 BCE. These have carved panels as well as medallions that are similar to Sunga railings at the Bharhut Stupa and Sanchi Stupa. These have carvings of both Hindu and Buddhist religions. Goddess Lakshmi in her Gajalakshmi Roop; Surya, the Sun God is shown riding a chariot that is drawn by four horses; Lord Indra are directly related to Hinduism. The Bodhi Tree; The Dharma chakra; medallions; scenes from the Jatakas are linked with Buddhism. Common motifs are that of the Lotus, elephants, lions, bulls, foliage etc.
The unpolished granite railings are additions made by the Gupta rulers. The expansion and additions appear to have gone on till the 7th century CE. The granite railings have carvings of stupas, Lord Vishnu’s mount the Garuda, Avalokiteswara, Tara, and also images of Hindu deities.
Much of the original railings are now in Museums. The motifs on the original railings speak loud about the syncretism of the two important religions of those times, Hinduism and Buddhism.
(A portion of the recreated railing that has an impression of the original carvings and lotus medalions)
The lower level niches of the Mahabodhi temple have a lot of statues of Buddha in various poses. Most of them have been recreated in recent times based on the old records which showed the original iconography. This arrangement comes in handy during festivals when the whole temple complex is full of devotees. Most of the devotees sit on the ground all around the temple and they have the presence of Buddha in front of their eyes. In fact, this temple is unique in the sense that on any crowded day the campus is full of people making it difficult to walk around but the sanctum sanctorum is relatively free and the pilgrim finds it easy to have a Darshan inside.
(The various icons of Buddha on the Temple wall)
These icons represent the various forms of Buddha. Most important of these is the Bhumisparsha, which the main deity represents inside the sanctum sanctorum. The other prominent mudras show him in benediction pose and in a pose matching with the traditional iconography of Lord Vishnu. In some Indian traditions, Buddha has come to be recognized as the incarnation of Vishnu.
The temple complex has numerous small Stupa structures all around. Some of them are simple structures and some have small Buddha statues placed in various niches.
One of the most striking stupa like structure is just after the main entry gate, to the left of the main pathway. There are numerous small icons which were discovered at this site and these are pasted to make this stupa. Some statues found during the excavations are also attached to this stupa. As a result it looks like an aggregation of thousands of Buddha images in a stupa form.
There is a stone slab with mark of feet on it. This slab is treated as the footmark of Gautam Buddha and placed near a small shrine.
(shrine dedicated to the footprint of Buddha)
Of all the organized religions, Buddhism is the most peaceful and tranquil in its overall philosophy (except, maybe Jainism). It had its state patronage in the spiritual kingdom of Tibet in high Himalayas before Tibet was captured by China and their leader, the Dalai Lama had to live in exile in India. This temple has a big bell donated by a Tibetan Lama (spiritual leader) aiming for world peace, longevity of Dhamma and to the memory of Tibet. Bells have a special place in Buddhist rituals and temples frequently have rows of bells for the use of devotees.
(The huge bell donated by a Tibetan Lama)
The Grand Buddha
A major attraction cum pilgrimage site near the Mahabodhi Temple is the grand Buddha that has a height of 80 feet from base to the top. The Buddha in meditation pose is 64 feet high. He is seated on a Lotus pedestal. This massive sandstone cum red granite statue took seven years to complete and was consecrated on 18th Nov 1989 by the 14th Dalai Lama. This statue is not a solid statue and it has 20000 small Bronze Buddha icons enclosed within it.
Statues of Buddha’s ten principal disciples stand around this Grand seated Buddha. These disciples played a major role in codifying the teachings of Buddha and taking his message forward. Ananda was the primary attendant of Buddha and his closest confidant who helped in compiling Sutras based on his memories. Mahakassapa organized the first Buddhist council in Rajgir after Buddha’s demise (Mahaparinirvana) and became the first preacher of Buddha’s teachings. Upali compiled Vinaya texts from his memory during the first Buddhist council. Sariputra’s relics were consecrated in Nalanda Mahavihar (where the great university was built). Maudgalyayana was the master of supernatural powers. Subhuti is related to Mahayana concept of emptiness. Purna was considered the greatest teacher of Law. Katyayana was considered as the person who best understood the Buddha’s teachings. Aniruddha was master of mindfulness and a cousin of Buddha. Rahul, who was the only son of Gautam Buddha, became his father’s follower at a very young age. He was a novice monk in contrast with the others who were masters of their field.
A very significant find by the ASI during the 1970s has been the Sujata Stupa in Bakraur Village, Bodhgaya Block. Bakraur Village is situated on the other side of the Phalgu River from the town of Bodhgaya and has rich historical remains that date back from the early historic period to the medieval period. The oldest historical find is the Sujata Stupa that has been dated to the second Century BCE on the basis of archaeological findings at this site such as dark grey polished potsherds and a punch-marked coin and seals. Based on the seals, scholars suggest that this Stupa was built to commemorate Sujata, who offered milk-rice (kheer) to the Buddha during his quest for enlightenment.
There is a temple called Sujata Kuti, not far from the Stupa that is dedicated to Sujata. It is said that when Prince Siddhartha was in search of enlightenment he roamed these areas and sat in meditation under a Banyan tree. He had not eaten for a very long time as it was a phase of severe asceticism and fasting that had gone on for 7 years. Sujata, a village lady saw him meditating under the Banyan tree and fainting with starvation. She offered him a sweet milk and rice dish called kheer. Siddhartha ate this kheer and was rejuvenated. He realized that extreme penance did not help in finding answers to his questions. This was a very important point in his life and it changed his outlook towards the path to enlightenment and his focus shifted from extreme ascetism to moderation. It was soon after this incident that Siddhartha found enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree at Bodhgaya on the other side of river Phalgu and became Gautam Buddha.
For Buddhists and tourists alike the Sujata Stupa and Sujata Kuti are important religious sites. These sites are standing testimonies of tribute to the generosity of Sujata, who, perhaps unwittingly provided the final spark of intuition needed by Prince Siddhartha in his quest for enlightenment.
The importance of Bodhgaya for the followers of Buddhism cannot be overemphasized. Pilgrims from almost all the East Asian countries come in large numbers to pay homage to the place where Buddha achieved enlightenment. A unique aspect of this attachment is visible through the numerous temples built by various countries within a short distance of Mahabodhi temple.
The Thai temple is built with the typical Thai style of multiple tiered roofs. There are undulating finials at the ends of roof panels which are called Lamyongs. The golden coloured Buddha statue inside has extensive decorations all around it.
(The Thai Buddha Temple)
The first country in the world to bring the national happiness index into government policy, Bhutan also maintains a Royal Bhutanese temple here. It is an elegant structure with a lavishly decorated Buddha statue inside.
(The Bhutanese Buddha Temple)
Tibet has been the custodian of Buddhism doctrine across hundreds of years. A Tibetan Karma temple is maintained by the Tibetan community. Its façade has intricate designs on the lintels and large paintings on the walls.
(Tibetan Karma Temple)
The Japanese temple is a very simple structure with a single layer roof set within a manicured garden. The Buddha statue inside is set against a wall which has wall to wall paintings in the background depicting scenes related to Buddha.
(The Japanese Buddha Temple)
Outside the town, on the way to Sujata Garhi in Bakraur village, there is a new temple called Metta Buddha, constructed by the Thai royal family. It has a beautiful white marble statue of Buddha right in the forecourt.
(Thai Metta Buddha Temple)
Bodhgaya is truly the centre for world Buddhism and it is clearly reflected by these multiple temples constructed by so many countries to pay homage to Buddha. It is in keeping with the syncretic outlook of the Indic civilisation that so many followers from all across the world come here to worship Lord Buddha in their own way and co-exist here, unmindful of their other differences. Probably in no other centre of an organised religion can such multilateralism be seen.
The spark of enlightenment which illuminated the thoughts of Prince Siddhartha almost 2500 -2600 years ago, not only created a new sect based on the primacy of personal experience, it also brought about a unique phenomenon concerning the spread of a religion. It was a novel feature in its own time that Buddhism spread throughout the whole of Asia without the power of the sword or the force of any king or army behind it. The religions which came after this point in history spread with the patronage of rulers and use of brute power and forced conversions.
The Mahabodhi temple survived explosions in 2013 that had been planted by elements, who had been fed intolerance as a part of their faith. It is a sad testimony of what we call ‘The Modern Times’ when in reality not much has changed from the medieval era of intolerance towards Indic religions by the newer Faiths. I could not take pictures of the Mahabodhi temple as phone cameras are not permitted within the temple premises due to the 2013 incident. Such security exists in almost all the important Indic places of worship within India.
Why is it that the new religions struggle to comprehend pluralism that ultimately extends to the universal consciousness? The answer lies in the question!
Acknowledgement: Most of the pictures of the Mahabodhi temple and temple complex are courtesy Riti Pritam.
- Archaeological Gazetteer of Gaya District by Bijoy Kumar Choudhary and Abhishek Singh Amar; Publisher K.P.Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna.