Mahabodhi Mahavihar in Bodh Gaya: Temple of enlightenment

Print edition : October 23, 2020

The Mahabodhi temple complex, as seen from the south-east. To the extreme right is the Tara temple.

The central path leading to the Mahabodhi temple, as seen from the east entrance.

The Jewel Walk, where the Buddha is believed to have spent his third week after enlightenment. Raised flowers on the left, carrying footprints, symbolise the Buddha’s paces.

Buddhapada, or the representation of the footprints of the Buddha.

The gilded blackstone statue of the Buddha in the sanctum of the Mahabodhi temple.

The railing which creates a path of circumambulation around the Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi temple.

The uninscribed shaft of a pillar believed to be erected by King Ashoka.

The tree believed to be a descendant of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The enclosure contains the Vajrasana (“The Adamantine Seat” or “Thunderbolt Throne”), a red sandstone platform with a polished surface that apparently marks the specific spot where the Buddha meditated.

Votive stupas can be found throughout the temple complex.

Tara Devi temple.

Ratnaghar Chaitya or Jewel Room, located to the north-west of the Mahabodhi temple, where the Buddha is believed to have spent his fourth week after enlightenment.

Muchilinda Lake, the lotus pond where the Buddha is believed to have spent his sixth week after enlightenment. Here he sat in perfect composure and was protected from a rainstorm by the mythical serpent king Muchilinda.

Statues in the Mahant’s Compound.

A shrine at the Mahant’s Compound.

The Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under a pipal tree, has a multi-layered history and also figured prominently in the formulation of independent India’s foreign policy.

Located on the banks of river Phalgu, a tributary of the Ganga, 115 kilometres from Patna, is the Mahabodhi temple complex, one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world. While there are many important Buddhist sites spread across Asia, four of them, connected directly with events in the life of the Buddha, are considered must visits for all Buddhists. These are Lumbini (associated with the Buddha’s birth, now in Nepal), Bodh Gaya (associated with his enlightenment), Sarnath (the site of his first sermon, near Varanasi), and Kusinagara (the place of his death, in Uttar Pradesh).

Siddhartha Gautama, the prince of the Sakya kingdom located in the lower regions of the Himalaya in Nepal, is said to have attained enlightenment under a pipal (ficus religiosa) tree at Bodh Gaya in 6th century BCE. He became the Buddha, the “Enlightened One”. The tree is now known as the Bodhi tree or the “tree of knowledge”. This enlightenment was the start of what eventually became a new religion called Buddhism, which now has followers across the world.

Located about 10 km from Gaya, a town known for Hindu funerary rituals, Bodh Gaya was earlier known by other names such as Uruvela and Sambodhi Bodhimanda. It has a multi-layered history which goes much beyond the gradual disintegration of the Mahabodhi temple as an active Buddhist pilgrimage site around 12-13th century CE. The advent of a Siva-worshipping ascetic in a ruined Bodh Gaya in late 16th century, and the steady consolidation of his successors as mahants (local spiritual heads) of the site, played an important role in the future Buddhist-Hindu contestations around the Mahabodhi temple complex.

The arrival of colonial administrators and archeologists on the scene around mid 19th century, and their comprehensive restoration of the complex in the late 19th century, further complicated Bodh Gaya’s physical and cultural landscape. Thereafter, the activities of the Sri Lankan monk Dharmapala Anagarika (1864-1933) and the organisation he founded in 1891, the Maha Bodhi Society, helped internationalise the campaign “Bodh Gaya for Buddhists” in the early decades of the 20th century. Finally, independent India’s handling of the wider spiritual realm of Bodh Gaya as a soft diplomacy tool has contributed immensely to the setting up of Buddhist establishments and the town’s emergence as a major tourist attraction.

Mahabodhi temple complex

While the Bodhi tree may have been venerated even before King Ashoka (c 268-232 BCE), historical evidence suggests that the first structures to be built in the temple complex were those by him. With its capital at Pataliputra near modern Patna, the Mauryan empire under Ashoka extended from Afghanistan in the north-west to Orissa in the east, and included most of peninsular India. Many Buddhist texts, and Ashoka’s own inscriptions, present him as a great and ideal king who was a devout Buddhist and played a major role in the spread of Buddhism. He is credited with founding most Buddhist monuments and establishments in the Indian subcontinent. The historian Upinder Singh says that Ashoka is believed to have undertaken pilgrimages to all major sites connected with the life of the Buddha and marked them with signs for the benefit of future pilgrims. His reign is popularly regarded as the “golden era” of Buddhism.

Ashoka is associated with building a slab that is currently installed beneath the tree believed to be a descendant of the original Bodhi tree. The slab, also called the Vajrasana (“The Adamantine Seat” or “Thunderbolt Throne”), is a red sandstone platform with a polished surface that apparently marks the specific spot where the Buddha meditated and is surrounded by an enclosure. Possibly, a pillar also stood near the slab which, in some form, became known as the tree shrine or the bodhighara. The pillared tree shrine appears in a relief on the railing at the Bharhut Stupa (2nd century BCE), where it appears crowned by an elephant capital, and also on a carved panel on the east gateway of the Mahastupa/Stupa 1 at Sanchi (1st century BCE), where an object symbolising the triratna (“Buddha, dharma and samgha”) adorns the seat of the shrine.

The art historian Frederick M. Asher points out that neither the Buddha nor Hindu deities were worshipped in an andromorphic form before the early 2nd century. Some scholars suggest that the uninscribed pillar shaft now standing to the south of the Bodhi tree may have been a part of the pillar with the elephant capital. The popular belief is that this pillar was erected by Ashoka, although it has neither the Mauryan polish characteristic of structures belonging to his reign nor any supporting inscriptional evidence.

Railing around Bodhi tree

Perhaps the next stage in the development of the temple complex is the stone railing or balustrade that currently surrounds the Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi temple. The relief style of the Bodh Gaya railing looks similar to those at Bharhut Stupa (dated to the Shunga period, circa 185-72 BCE) and the gateways at Sanchi (built around 1st century BCE during the reign of the Satavahanas). This railing has a complex past. The present structure is a replica of the original railing which is now on display at the Bodh Gaya Site Museum. Its scattered pillars and coping stones were recovered from the Mahant’s Compound and other parts of the temple complex and first reassembled around the Bodhi tree in the late 19th century as part of a comprehensive restoration exercise. The railing was later shifted to the Site Museum.

There are also debates around when the railing was built. The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who visited Bodh Gaya around 7th century CE, reported a railing at the site and attributed it to Ashoka. Asher elaborates that if Xuanzang’s account regarding the Ashokan railing is accurate, then it must have been a brick (not stone) structure surrounding only the Bodhi tree and not the Mahabodhi temple. Based on the repeated occurrence of an inscription recording the donation by Kurangi, queen of Indragnimitra, assumed to be a feudatory of the Shungas, scholars have suggested that the stone railing was built around the pillared tree shrine by the Shungas towards the beginning of the first century BCE in order to create a path of circumambulation. With this installation, the elementary tree shrine acquired an open pillared enclosure.

Considering the difference in the style of carving and the construction material used, archaeologists and historians argue that the original railing may have been expanded around 5th or 6th century CE during the Gupta dynasty (circa 319-550 CE) which held sway over the region then. The original railing pillars are constructed in sandstone and carry medallions adorned with lotus motifs and narrative episodes from the life of the Buddha. The relief also includes a few anthropomorphic representations of what are believed to figures of Hindu deities such as Indra and Surya or mythological creatures such as yaksha and yakshi. The later pillars are made of granite. One male figure bearing a trident, featuring on the later expansion, has popularly been identified as Hindu God Siva.

The discovery of a replica of the Mahabodhi temple on one of the relief plaques found at Kumrahar, a Kushana period site on the outskirts of Patna, has led some scholars to conclude that the tree shrine and the open pillared enclosure gave way to a brick tower-like structure under the Kushanas. This period also saw the enlargement of the Diamond Throne as coin impressions of King Huvishka suggest. Others, however, believe that the brick predecessor of the current temple emerged later in the 5th or 6th century CE during the time of the Guptas.

Asher says the shift from a pillared shrine to an enclosed pyramidal temple also involved a change in the object of veneration. The Bodhi tree gave way to the Buddha’s seat/throne as the primary object of veneration. This shift, he explains, may have resulted from political events involving the desecration or destruction of the Bodhi tree rather than any ideological shift. There are several accounts of the destruction and regeneration of the tree which, as Asher points out, had emerged as the central icon of the Buddhist faith. Xuanzang mentions the Bodhi tree being destroyed by Ashoka before his conversion to Buddhism. Later, Ashoka’s queen is said to have destroyed it. Upon seeing the tree’s miraculous properties, the Mauryan king is said to have it replanted it after bathing its roots in milk. In 7th century CE, Shashanka, the ruler of Gauda (a kingdom extending over modern West Bengal and Bangladesh) destroyed the tree again.

In any case, the present Mahabodhi temple and some related structures seem to have emerged in some form by the 5th or 6th century CE. The Chinese pilgrim Faxian, who visited Bodh Gaya in the early 5th century, reports several pagodas and images around the Bodhi tree as well as three monasteries. By 6th century CE, a community of Sinhalese monks had settled at the site, and an inscription of a Sri Lankan monk Mahanaman dated 588/89 CE records the establishment of a beautiful mansion for the “Teacher” (the Buddha) in the Bodhimanda, the place of enlightenment.

The existence of a large temple is also affirmed by a 6th or 7th century CE inscription which records the gift of plaster and paint to a building known as Vajrasana-gandhakuti or “the Perfumed Temple” enshrining the Diamond Throne. Xuanzang’s 7th century account also speaks of a huge ornamented vihara [monastery] east of the Bodhi Tree (where the main shrine stands now) painted in white lime and carrying golden figures in all the niches in the different storeys. The pilgrim also mentions several other structures in the complex and some stupas as well.

The next milestone in the development of the Bodh Gaya temple happens to be the Pala period. The Palas were Buddhists who ruled between the 9th and 11th centuries. Like the Gaudas, they ruled over a large empire which included the present-day States of Bihar and West Bengal in India, and Bangladesh. The Pala period, Asher points out, is known not only for the establishment of two Buddhist monasteries, Vikramashila and Somapura Vihara (also known as Paharpur), but also for the production of a large number of Buddhist and Hindu stone sculptures. While there is no direct evidence of any direct royal support to the Bodh Gaya temple, Asher explains that the stone sculptures produced during the Pala period can now be seen in the niches of the Mahabodhi temple and in the Mahant’s Compound. Some sculptures can also be seen at the Indian Museum in Kolkata and at the Bodh Gaya Site Museum. The decline in royal patronage after the decline of the Palas, the Afghan and Turk invasions in the region around the 12th and 13th centuries, and the rise of aggressive Hinduism, hastened the decline of Buddhism in India. Both the Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi temple complex fell into neglect. The Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin who visited the Mahabodhi temple in 1234 CE reported that the site was in a dilapidated state. A long inscription dated 1305 talks about the repairs carried out by a Burmese delegation that visited the temple complex.

The arrival of Hindu mahants

An abandoned and dilapidated Bodh Gaya was visited by a wandering ascetic Gosain Ghamanda Giri in the late 16th century. He established a monastery there and became the first mahant of Bodh Gaya. Gradually, a succession of Siva-worshipping mahants strengthened their control over Bodh Gaya. By late 18th to early 19th century, they had attempted to formalise their claims by citing a firman (royal order) from the late Mughal emperor Shah Alam (reign 1759-1806) which granted them rights to the village of Taradih, which included the Mahabodhi temple. Meanwhile, the temple continued to disintegrate until it was rediscovered by the ruin enthusiasts, colonial administrators and the first generation of archeologists, once archeology established itself as a modern discipline around mid 19th century.

In the 1870s, a Burmese delegation, sponsored by the Buddhist king of Burma, tried to repair the Mahabodhi temple with the permission of the Hindu mahant. This irked the colonial administrators. They first issued guidelines for the repairs by the Burmese delegation and appointed Rajendra Lal Mitra, Indian philologist and a member of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), to inspect the repairs. Finally, they ended up restoring the temple themselves through a massive rebuilding exercise under the leadership of Major General (retired) Alexander Cunningham, who had now become the Director General of ASI, and J.D. Beglar, his assistant engineer. Much of the current physical appearance of the temple, including the upper stories, the four-corner towers and the facade, stems from this large-scale restoration carried out by the British between 1879-1884 and some renovations carried out by the ASI after Independence. The art historian Janice Leoshko points out that very few visitors to the temple complex know that it preserves only the barest traces of earlier structures, most of which were swept away by the 19th century restoration. Architecture and layout

The present temple complex comprises the Vajrasana, the sacred Bodhi Tree, the 50 metre-high Mahabodhi temple and six sacred sites of the Buddha's enlightenment (“monuments of the first six weeks”) surrounded by numerous ancient votive stupas and shrines. These are enclosed within the inner, middle and outer circular boundaries. A seventh sacred place (“monument of the seventh week’), the Lotus Pond, is located outside the enclosure to the south.

The temple complex is approached from the east through a flight of steps. Thereafter, a long central path leads to the main brick temple and the surrounding sites. The temple is preceded by a small forecourt, with niches on either side containing statues of the Buddha, and a gateway built around 5th-6th century CE. The doorway to the temple, like some other Buddhist shrines, is flanked by standing Buddha figures—the one on the right belongs to around the 8th century, while the one on the left belongs to around the 10th century. The low basement of the temple is decorated with mouldings and geese and honeysuckle designs.

The doorway of the temple opens into a small hall, beyond which lies the sanctum. The sanctum contains a large seated and gilded statue of the Buddha, with his right hand touching the earth in bhumisparsha mudra. Made of black stone, this image dates to the Pala period. Above the sanctum is the main hall with a shrine containing a statue of the Buddha, where senior monks gather to meditate. The truncated pyramidal superstructure (distinct from the curvilinear shikhara over north Indian Hindu temples) over the temple’s sanctum creates an elevated terrace. The terrace contains niches housing stone images, mostly of seated Buddhas belonging to the Pala period. Further above such niches, there are mouldings and chaitya niches. At the top of the truncated pyramidal tower rests the amalaka (stone disk). The parapet of the temple contains shrines at four corners, each of which contains a statue of the Buddha and is topped by a small tower identical to the main one.

On the general path, to the south of the gateway to the main temple, lies a hemispherical black stone block carrying representation of the Buddha’s footprints, known as the Buddhapad. The footprints lie in front of a small shrine which looks similar in form to the Mahabodhi temple and dates to the 19th century. Moving further towards the main temple and next to the Buddhapad lies the Pancha Pandava Annapurna temple, which has a long structure with an arched portico. The first three of the sanctums enshrine Pala-period images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, and the next two contain Sivalingas which, Asher says, reminds one of multiple religious claims.

Monuments of the first seven weeks

This central path leading to the temple is marked with six sites where the Buddha spent his first six weeks after enlightenment. The seventh is located a little outside the temple enclosure in the south but forms a part of the temple complex. Tara N. Doyle, a scholar of religious studies, points out that these sacred sites—currently marked by marble and stone signboards—were installed in 1989 after a campaign led by prominent Burmese Theravada monks living in Bodh Gaya. She adds that the campaign was triggered by an attempt on the part of the temple’s superintendent to remove a historical pillar from a site believed to mark the Buddha’s fifth week after enlightenment (Ajapala tree).

The idea of the seven sacred sites is a very old one and their exact location and orderly sequence has always been a subject of debate. These sites were very popular in the Burmese Theravada accounts. The seven sites were also identified by Cunningham in the late-19th century. His identification was based on 7th- century CE descriptions of Xuanzang. It is worth noting, however, that even Xuanzang does not give very specific locations for some of these sites. Cunningham’s orderly sequence of the sites differs from the 1989 scheme. Further, except for the Bodhi tree and Cankamana, Cunningham placed all other sites in locations different from the 1989 scheme, including some outside of the temple compound. The idea of the seven sacred sites, Doyle indicates, also appears in several writings of the Maha Bodhi Society since its formation. However, all pre-1989 accounts of the society remain ambiguous about the exact location of the sites associated with the Buddha’s last three weeks. The last three sites have either been mentioned as “yet to be found” or located outside the Mahabodhi temple yard, a proposition even the Thai and Sinhalese monks concur with.

According to the text inscribed on these signboards, the Buddha spent the first week in bliss under the Bodhi tree (Bodhi Pallanka). He spent the second week gazing at the Bodhi tree without blinking (Animesha Lochana). The site of this gaze is identified with the Animesha Lochana Chaitya (prayer hall) on a raised area to the north of the central path. Popularly known as Tara temple now, this structure was built around 5th-6th century CE. The restored temple resembles the Mahabodhi temple in design and appears whitewashed.

The Buddha spent the third week (some say second week) walking back and forth in meditation in an area called Cankamana or Ratnachankrama (“Jewel Walk”). This site is identified as the space within the railing of the north wall of the Mahabodhi temple. It is said miraculous flowers sprang up under his foot as he walked east and west for ten paces. The Ratnachankrama currently has a raised platform (about one meter high and 16 metres in length). Raised flowers carrying footprints symbolise the Buddha’s paces. The place where the Buddha is supposed to have spent his fourth week—meditating on the “Law of Dependent Organisation” (Patthana)—is known as the Ratnaghar Chaitya or the Jewel House. It is now identified with remains of a small shrine located to the northwest side of the main temple.

Along the central path, immediately after crossing past the steps of the east entrance, is a pillar which marks the site of the Ajapala Nigrodha tree, the banyan tree under which the Buddha meditated during the fifth week post enlightenment, answering the queries of Brahmins. Here he is supposed to have famously said that people become Brahmana only by their deeds, not by their birth.

The Buddha is believed to have spent his sixth week at a lotus pond. Here he sat in perfect composure during which he was protected from a rainstorm by the mythical serpent king Muchilinda. This lake, now identified as the Muchilinda Lake, is located south of the Bodhi tree and outside the enclosure walls. From the centre of this lake emerges a modern image of the Buddha protected by the Muchilinda.

The Buddha’s seventh and final week at Bodh Gaya was apparently spent under the Rajayatana tree where he is believed to have sat in contemplation and finally aroused himself to receive rice cakes and honey from two merchants, Tapussa and Bhallika from Utkala (present-day Odisha). Some say these merchants were from Myanmar and that the Buddha offered locks of his hair to them, which now lie enshrined in Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon.

Dharmapala Anagarika and the Maha Bodhi Society

The afterlife of the Mahabodhi temple is not just about the entry and consolidation of Hindu mahants from the late 16th century onwards and the colonial restoration of the complex in the late 19th century. It is also about the site’s close association with the Sinhalese monk Dharmapala Anagarika. Appalled by the ruined state of the Buddha’s enlightenment site during his visit in 1891, he started the campaign “Bodh Gaya for the Buddhists” which gave birth to the Maha Bodhi Society in Colombo. One of the objectives of the society was to revive Buddhism as a pan-Asian force through an international campaign. The battle for the control of the Mahabodhi temple soon saw the society get involved in a protracted legal battle with the Hindu mahants. Dharmapala Anagarika’s speeches, along with the activities of the Maha Bodhi Society, including scholarly publications and international conferences, did much to popularise Bodh Gaya as the “Buddhist Jerusalem” and a pan-Asian Buddhist solidarity began to emerge around the site. The Buddhist campaign for control over Bodh Gaya drew support even from Mahatma Gandhi, some nationalist leaders and the Indian National Congress. Subsequent political negotiations finally saw the enactment Bodh Gaya Temple Act (Bihar XVII of 1949). In pursuance of the Act, the control of the Mahabodhi temple passed on to a government-administered Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC) in 1953. The Hindu mahants, however, retained control over the Pancha Pandava shrine inside the temple complex. The BTMC consisted of both Hindu and Buddhist members.

Independent India, Bodh Gaya and other Asian countries

The Buddha and Bodh Gaya figured prominently in the formulation of independent India’s foreign policy. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saw in Bodh Gaya an important resource for strengthening India’s diplomatic relations with the newly independent Asian nations. The State government of Bihar was a happy ally in this scheme, as this meant enhanced tourism possibilities and economic development. Together with the campaigns and activities of the Maha Bodhi Society, independent India’s diplomatic gestures provide interesting insights on how the once-ruined temple town became a prominent Asian Buddhist destination.

The Indian government decided to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinirvana (final liberation of Buddha) in a grand way. This Buddha Jayanti celebration in 1956 was attended by many Asian countries with large Buddhist populations. The Central government also constituted the Bodh Gaya Temple Advisory Board in the same year. With representations from various Asian nations, this Board was entrusted with the task of allotting land for the construction of Buddhist monasteries and rest houses.

The next couple of decades saw the establishment of temples and monasteries by Asian countries with large Buddhist populations, including Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan. They were built in the respective countries’ distinctive architectural styles and followed their own forms of worship. Following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, Bodh Gaya also became an integral part of the latter’s exile geography alongside Dharamshala. The proliferation of such monastic establishments in Bodh Gaya with transnational linkages also contributed to the spread of Buddhist ideas in the West. In the last few decades, Bodh Gaya has become an active site of several Buddha-centered activities by these transnational establishments. These include the construction of Buddha’s images (such as the Giant Buddha); the celebration of Buddhist public rituals (such as the famous Tibetan Kalachakra ceremony which attracted a million participants from 31 countries in 1985); and, setting up of rest houses and meditation centres for Buddhist pilgrims.

The award of the UNESCO World Heritage Site status (2002), the inauguration of the Gaya international airport (2002) and the celebration of the 2,550th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinirvana in 2006 have further contributed to Bodh Gaya’s global Buddhist appeal. However, the new developments have also led to a new set of problems. UNESCO advisors, for instance, have suggested a comprehensive redevelopment of the town to facilitate international Buddhist tourist traffic. The Central and State governments’ attempts at formulating redevelopment plans have nevertheless met with strong resistance from locals having socio-economic interests in the area surrounding Mahabodhi temple. And Bodh Gaya, which has historically remained a site of contestation between the Buddhists and Hindus, is now faced with a new contestation—those who see it chiefly as a tourist site versus those who see it primarily as a religious one. The latter camp includes some unlikely allies including the Maha Bodhi Society, the Hindu mahants, foreign Buddhist temples and the local businesspeople.

Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender, violence, culture and heritage.

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