Around 2,500 years ago, a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama wanted to discover the end to suffering in the world. He wandered from place to place, teaching his followers, holding discourses, contemplating and meditating. One day, he reached a place near Gaya in present-day Bihar, and sat in meditation under a peepal tree.
Gautama meditated for three days under this tree, and on the third day, he attained bodhi or enlightenment. This was the ultimate knowledge or wisdom he had been seeking all along. And it was in this moment of awakening that Gautama became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One.
Situated 15 km from the town of Gaya, this place came to be called Bodh Gaya. And to venerate the sacred site, Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269-232 BCE), who famously converted to Buddhism, built a temple here – the Mahabodhi Temple (‘Great Awakening Temple’). Constructed in the 3rd century BCE, around 250 years after the Buddha attained enlightenment, it was also the first temple Emperor Ashoka ever built.
Bodh Gaya is 100 km south of Patna, the capital of Bihar, and is one of the four sites named by the Buddha himself as being the holiest for Buddhists. As he lay on his deathbed at Kushinagar in northern Uttar Pradesh, the Buddha told his only companion, Ananda, that after his death, Buddhists should make pilgrimages to four sites: Lumbini in Nepal (the site of his birth), the Deer Park at Sarnath (the site of his first sermon), Bodh Gaya (where he attained enlightenment) and Kushinagar (where he passed away and attained parinirvana (nirvana after death).
All year round, Bodh Gaya throbs with the ebb and flow of pilgrims from all over the world, and resonates with the teachings of the Buddha even today. The focus of all spiritual activity is the Mahabodhi Temple, the sacred Bodhi Tree (‘Tree of Enlightenment’) outside this shrine, and the Vajrasana or Diamond Throne, a stone platform made of polished grey sandstone at the foot of the tree, marking the spot where the Buddha sat and meditated.
But the Mahabodhi Temple you see today, with its shikhara or tower rising 180 feet, is not the one built by Ashoka. This version dates to the Gupta period (300 - 600 CE), to the 5th or 6th century CE. It has been renovated many times since. Ashoka also built a monastery here although no material evidence of it remains. The Vajrasana or Diamond Throne at the foot of the Bodhi Tree was also a gift from Ashoka, an act that is depicted in a medallion on the railings of the Bharhut Stupa in Madhya Pradesh.
The present Mahabodhi Temple is a Gupta Era version derived perhaps from the Kushana style. It has Gandharan columns, a tapering shikhara, much like Gandharan stupas, and its finial is surprisingly similar to the later Hindu temple shikharas, with an amalaka and a kalasha at the top. The amalaka is a large disc atop the temple tower and is usually capped by a kalasha or pot-shaped finial with a coconut in it. The finial at Bodh Gaya was definitely influenced by the Kushana Era, Gandharan stupa pinnacles.
Buddhism in the subcontinent declined in the 8th and 9th centuries CE but experienced a revival under the Pala Empire (9th to 12th century CE) and their successors, the Sena Dynasty (1170-1230 CE). The Mahabodhi Temple was abandoned after the defeat of the Senas by the Delhi Sultanate led by Bakhtiyar Khilji. Fortunately, the temple escaped total annihilation but with the decline in Buddhism in India, it was left to the vagaries of time.
This oft-repaired and enlarged temple was renovated once again in the 19th century CE by the Burmese royal family, which had already restored it in the 11th century CE. They repaired the temple and the surrounding wall with active participation from the British Government in India, under the direction of Sir Alexander Cunningham, in the 1880s.
In 1885, Sir Edwin Arnold, an English poet and journalist, principal of the Government Sanskrit College in Pune from 1856-61, and author of Light of Asia (1879), took an active interest in the Mahabodhi Temple. He published a series of articles highlighting the plight of the monument. His book Light of Asia was based on the life of the Buddha, and while not always totally accurate and often criticised, it had a huge impact on popularising Buddhism in the West.
Arnold did this under the guidance of the Venerable Weligama Sri Sumangala, a respected bhikku and scholar from Sri Lanka, and brought the situation to the attention of Buddhists all over the world. This seriously helped the cause. Along with the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Srimath Anagarika Dharmapala, who was also a very important revivalist of Buddhism in India, Arnold was one of the founders of the Mahabodhi Society of India, which lobbied hard to have the temple repaired and returned to Buddhist care.
Interestingly, the Bodhi Tree that stands outside the Mahabodhi Temple today is not the tree under which the Buddha meditated. It is a direct descendant of the original one. The tree has been destroyed many times and is always replaced by a young one, either from offspring it spontaneously produces or from the fruits of the tree being replaced.
Another descendant of the original Bodhi Tree is in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, taken there by Sanghamitra, daughter of Emperor Ashoka. A supposedly even older descendant is at Shravasti in Uttar Pradesh, and was planted there by the Buddha’s principal disciple Ananda, at the entrance to the Jetavana Garden donated by Ananthapindika to the Buddha. It is known as the ‘Anandabodhi’.
Over the years, many saplings of the Bodhi Tree have been given as gifts and there are a large number of certified offspring in the world today. In 1862, while repairing the Mahabodhi Temple, Sir Alexander Cunningham realised that the Bodhi Tree was dying. It was finally destroyed in a great storm in 1876 and Cunningham planted the present tree in 1881.
In 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala went on a pilgrimage to the newly restored Mahabodhi Temple and was taken aback to find the temple in the hands of Shaivaite priests, who had transformed the idol of the Buddha into a Hindu icon. Not only had it been taken over by the Shaivaites, but Buddhists had also been banned from entry and worship.
The Mahabodhi Society, which had been founded in Colombo, Sri Lanka, soon shifted to new headquarters in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata in India). It immediately began to lobby against the Shaivaite control and went to the courts in a battle to liberate one of the four holiest Buddhist shrines.
It took a protracted legal battle of over 50 years (sadly 16 years after Dharmapala’s death) to wrest control of the Mahabodhi Temple from the Brahmin priests. Finally, the Mahabodhi Society got partial control in 1949, when the temple administration passed to the state of Bihar, which in turn established a temple management committee of nine members. The image of the Buddha was once again installed and the first Buddhist head monk, Anagarika Munindra (from Bengal).
Even today, a majority of the committee members are required by law to be Hindus but the temple is now a Buddhist shrine. The committee consists of four Hindus, four Buddhists and the head of the Shankaracharya Math as the ex-officio ninth member. This was amended by a 2013 law, which made the ninth member the Gaya District Magistrate, irrespective of his or her faith, as the Chairman of the Temple Committee. There is also a large advisory board comprising the Governor of Bihar, Indians and members of numerous Buddhist countries.
The Mahabodhi Temple is one of the oldest surviving brick temples in India. It is an extremely exquisite example of brick work, perhaps some of the finest in India from the Early Historical period (6th century BCE to 6th century CE), and definitely the most impressive surviving structure from the Gupta Era.
The central shikhara is surrounded on a square plinth by four smaller identical towers. It is surrounded by a 2-metre-high vedika or railing (the modern railing is a copy of the original). The railing has two very clearly different styles of members made from different raw materials. The early 2nd century BCE vedika members are made of polished sandstone, and the others, believed to have been added in the Gupta Era when the temple acquired its present shape, are made of coarse, unpolished granite. The railings are decorated with numerous Buddhist iconic reliefs and stories from the Jatakas, with stupas, garudas and kalashas with lotus flowers.
The Mahabodhi Temple is a protected monument under the Archaeological Survey of India. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Monument in 2002. In 2013, its upper portion was covered in 289 kg of gold, a gift from the king and people of Thailand. The design of the Mahabodhi Temple is one of the most copied designs of any Buddhist shrine in the world, and near-identical temples exist in China, Myanmar and Thailand. Today, it stands tall as a beacon of Buddhism and a centre of devotion for Buddhists from all over the world.