Univela is a temple town in Bihar seemingly no different from most other pilgrimage sites in India. Yet it is. It is here that one of the most significant events in Buddhism took place around 2,500 years ago – it is where Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha after he attained enlightenment.
Called Bodh Gaya today, the town’s aura of calm gives way to a quiet bustle as people from all over the world converge in search of enlightenment. The most sacred of Buddhist sites in the world, Bodh Gaya today houses Buddhist temples and monasteries representing all the major schools of the religion and has representatives from all the nations where Buddhism is followed.
But hark back to the 1800s, when it was a small village with a smattering of ancient ruins that few connected to Buddhism.
It was only in the second half of the 19th century that archaeologists ‘rediscovered’ the site and carried out extensive restoration of the temples at Bodh Gaya, most significantly the Mahabodhi temple.
The first to correlate Bodh Gaya with the faith they saw in East Asia were the British. It was Francis Buchanan Hamilton, a physician, geographer and botanist, who in 1811-12 heard about Bodh Gaya’s connection to the Buddha, while he was in Burma. Subsequently, Alexander Cunningham, the first Director-General of the Archeological Survey of India, conducted extensive excavations and restoration at Bodh Gaya, most significantly at the Mahabodhi Temple.
Before the British, the last major intervention at the site was in the 11th century by the Burmese, who conducted extensive repairs at the temple, which we know of thanks to an inscription which tells us that the work was completed in 1079 CE. After that, Bodh Gaya was lost to the world, and for the next 600 years, any reference to Gaya usually implied the Brahmanical Gaya and was not associated with Buddha.
With the decline in Buddhist practices in India and the coming of Islam and the Bhakti movement of Hinduism, sites associated with Buddhism were also lost to history. In the centuries between the last Burmese repair and the British rediscovery, the temple and its environs had gradually become more and more ruined.
Known through history as Sambodhi, Bodhimanda and Mahabodhi, and today called Bodh Gaya, this is the holiest of the holy sites for Buddhists.
It is a place where tonsured monks clad in saffron meditate and chant next to believers praying to Buddha. The site is a fascinating mix of history, myth and belief.
The Buddha is the founder of Buddhism, a faith which preaches the middle path and his story is a fascinating one. Four major sites are associated with the life of Buddha – Lumbini, where he is believed to have been born; Bodh Gaya, where he is believed to have attained enlightenment or nirvana; Sarnath, where he delivered his first sermon and where the first Buddhist Sangha was established; and Kushinagara, where Buddha left the mortal realm and attained Mahaparinirvana. Of these, Bodh Gaya is considered holiest for Buddhists.
Buddha is believed to have received enlightenment underneath the peepul tree at Bodh Gaya, after meditating continuously for seven weeks. However, the tree standing at the site today is much younger, planted as it was in the 1880s. Aptly, it has a fascinating story of destruction and regeneration.
The tree was first said to have been destroyed by Tissarakha, one of the queens of Ashoka, who was jealous of Ashoka’s devotion to the faith. Another tree is said to have sprung up in its place almost immediately. Over the years, that tree was also destroyed, by Pushyamitra Shunga in the 3rd century BCE, and later king Shashanka around 600 CE.
The tree was often a victim of religious intolerance, jealousy and disagreements. However, every time it was destroyed, a new one was planted in its place. Over the millennia or so, after King Shashanka’s destruction, the history of the tree isn’t very well recorded but it is possible that multiple trees might have grown at the site.
In the 1800s, the British grew interested in the site and conducted research, multiple excavations and extensive restoration there. In 1876, the tree was considerably weakened with age and it was destroyed in a storm. In 1881, Alexander Cunningham of the Archaeological Survey of India planted a new tree, which stands here to date.
Below the tree is the Vajrasana or ‘Diamond Throne’, to mark the place where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. Made of polished grey sandstone, it is believed to have been placed here by Emperor Ashoka as a symbolic relic of the Buddha, who had attained enlightenment 200 years earlier. The throne was rediscovered by archaeologists in the late 1800s. It is one of the earliest artefacts found at the site.
The Mahabodhi Temple is the spiritual centre of the town and it has been reconstructed many times during its 2,300-year history. Around 200 BCE, Ashoka is believed to have visited the site of Buddha’s nirvana and established a monastery and shrine at Bodh Gaya. These don’t exist today and the only remnant believed to be of that period is the Diamond Throne. It is at this site that the Mahabodhi still temple stands today.
The temple we see today was extensively restored by the Burmese and the British during the 19th century. Originally a brick shrine, the temple dates back to Mauryan times, with its Shikhar reaching a height of 50 feet. When the British rediscovered it, large sections of the surface stucco had disappeared, the brick walls had peeled away in many places, and many sections had lost a large number of bricks.
Around the temple and within the complex are other sacred spots where the Buddha meditated after attaining enlightenment. These are the Ratnachakrama or path where the Buddha walked 18 steps in deep thought, the Animeshlochan Chaitya, Ratnaghar Chaitya, Ajapala Nigrodh Tree and Rajyatana Tree. The Lotus Pond or Muchalinda Pond where the Buddha meditated in the sixth week after attaining enlightenment is located just outside the southern boundary wall of the temple. The Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang visited the temple in the 7th century and left a detailed description in his travelogues.
The temple has seen many skirmishes over its control since its rediscovery. It was controlled by Hindu mahants for a period of time in the early 1900s. In 1949, post-Independence, the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee was formed under the government of Bihar, which still administers the temple. The Mahabodhi Temple Complex became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 and now the government of India is bound to report on its maintenance to UNESCO on a regular basis.
Some distance from the temple is the Sujata Stupa, a testament to a fascinating story that precedes Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment. Buddha had been practicing extreme for 7 years when he was offered milk and rice kheer by a village girl called Sujata, who thought Buddha was a tree spirit who had granted her wish. On consuming the kheer, Buddha is believed to have realized the futility of extreme asceticism and the value of the middle path. After this, he started his meditation anew under the Bodhi tree and at the end of 7 weeks, attained nirvana.
The stupa is believed to date back to the 2nd century BCE and was expanded and reinforced many times over the centuries. The last major expansion was done by Devapala of the Pala dynasty in the 9th century CE.
Besides these historical and spiritual landmarks, the town is also home to a museum administered by the Archaeological Survey of India, where one can see many archaeological relics found here.
The region itself is also full of places which played a significant role in ancient Indian history as well as Buddha’s journey. One of these is the town of Rajgir, where one can find Gridhakuta (Vulture's Peak), where the Buddha gave many of his discourses, and Venuvana, the first Buddhist monastery. Not far from Bodh Gaya are the archaeological sites of Nalanda University, Barabar Caves and the Hindu holy town of Gaya.
The town of Bodh Gaya is a fascinating place, where Buddhists from across the world mingle with the local population. It is a place where one can explore representations of various schools of Buddhism, and observe art and architectural styles from countries where Buddhism is practiced. It is an interesting amalgamation of Indian and foreign. It is a place where different faiths come together.