The Mahabodhi Temple (literally: "Great Awakening Temple") or the Mahabodhi Mahavihar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an ancient, but much rebuilt and restored, Buddhist temple in Bodh Gaya, marking the location where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. Bodh Gaya (in Gaya district) is about 96 km (60 mi) from Patna, Bihar state, India.
The site contains a descendant of the Bodhi Tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment, and has been a major pilgrimage destination for Hindus and Buddhists for well over two thousand years, and some elements probably date to the period of Ashoka (died c. 232 BCE). What is now visible on the ground essentially dates from the 7th century CE, or perhaps somewhat earlier, as well as several major restorations since the 19th century. But the structure now may well incorporate large parts of earlier work, possibly from the 2nd or 3rd century CE.
Many of the oldest sculptural elements have been moved to the museum beside the temple, and some, such as the carved stone railing wall around the main structure, have been replaced by replicas. The main temple's survival is especially impressive, as it was mostly made of brick covered with stucco, materials that are much less durable than stone. However, it is understood that very little of the original sculptural decoration has survived.
The temple complex includes two large straight-sided shikhara towers, the largest over 55 metres (180 feet) high. This is a stylistic feature that has continued in Jain and Hindu temples to the present day, and influenced Buddhist architecture in other countries, in forms like the pagoda.
Traditional accounts say that, around 589 BCE, Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince who saw the suffering of the world and wanted to end it, reached the forested banks of the Phalgu river, near the city of Gaya, India. There he sat in meditation under a peepul tree (Ficus religiosa or Sacred Fig) which later became known as the Bodhi tree. According to Buddhist scriptures, after three days and three nights, Siddharta attained enlightenment and the answers that he had sought. In that location, Mahabodhi Temple was built by Emperor Ashoka in around 260 BCE.
The Buddha then spent the succeeding seven weeks at seven different spots in the vicinity meditating and considering his experience. Several specific places at the current Mahabodhi Temple relate to the traditions surrounding these seven weeks:
The first week was spent under the Bodhi tree.
During the second week, the Buddha remained standing and stared, uninterrupted, at the Bodhi tree. This spot is marked by the Animeshlocha Stupa, that is, the unblinking stupa or shrine, to the north-east of the Mahabodhi Temple complex. There stands a statue of Buddha with his eyes fixed towards the Bodhi tree.
The Buddha is said to have walked back and forth between the location of the Animeshlocha Stupa and the Bodhi tree. According to legend, lotus flowers sprung up along this route; it is now called Ratnachakrama or the jewel walk.
He spent the fourth week near Ratnagar Chaitya, to the north-east side.
During the fifth week, Buddha answered in details to the queries of Brahmins under the Ajapala Nigodh tree, now marked by a pillar.
He spent the sixth week next to the Lotus pond.
He spent the seventh week under the Rajyatna tree.
The Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya is directly connected to the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who attained enlightenment or perfect insight when he was meditating under it. The temple was built directly to the east of the Bodhi tree, supposedly a direct descendant of the original Bodhi Tree.
According to Buddhist mythology, if no Bodhi tree grows at the site, the ground around the Bodhi tree is devoid of all plants for a distance of one royal kar?sa. Through the ground around the Bodhi tree no being, not even an elephant, can travel.
According to the Jatakas, the navel of the earth lies at this spot, and no other place can support the weight of the Buddha's attainment. Another Buddhist tradition claims that when the world is destroyed at the end of a kalpa, the Bodhimanda is the last spot to disappear, and will be the first to appear when the world emerges into existence again. Tradition also claims that a lotus will bloom there, and if a Buddha is born during the new kalpa, the lotus flowers in accordance with the number of Buddhas expected to arise. According to legend, in the case of Gautama Buddha, a Bodhi tree sprang up on the day he was born.
In approximately 250 BCE, about 200 years after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, Emperor Ashoka visited Bodh Gaya in order to establish a monastery and shrine on the holy site, which have today disappeared.
There remains however the Diamond throne, which he had established at the foot of the Bodhi tree. The Diamond throne, or Vajrasana, is thought to have been built by Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Empire between 250–233 BCE, at the location where the Buddha reached enlightenment. It is worshiped today, and is the center of many festivities at the Mahabodhi Temple.
Representations of the early temple structure meant to protect the Bodhi tree are found at Sanchi, on the tora?as of St?pa I, dating from around 25 BCE, and on a relief carving from the stupa railing at Bh?rhut, from the early Shunga period (c. 185–c. 73 BCE).
Columns with pot-shaped bases
Additional structures were brought in by the Sungas. In particular, columns with pot-shaped bases were found around the Diamond throne. These columns are thought to date to the 1st century BCE, towards the end of the Sungas. These columns, which were found through archaeological research at the Buddha's Walk in the Mahabodhi Temple, quite precisely match the columns described on the reliefs found on the gateway pillars.
The railing also around the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya is quite ancient. These are old sandstone posts dating about 150 BCE, during the Sunga period. There are carved panels as well as medallions, with many scenes similar to those of the contemporary Sunga railings at Bharhut (150 BCE) and Sanchi (115 BCE), although the reliefs at Sanchi Stupa No.2 are often considered as the oldest of all. The railing was extended during the following century, down to the end of Gupta period (7th century), with coarse granite decorated with elaborate foliate ornaments and small figures as well as stupas. Many parts of the initial railing have been dismantled and are now in museums, such as the Indian Museum in Kolkata, and have been replaced by plaster copies.
Current pyramidal temple
While Asoka is considered the Mahabodhi temple's founder, the current pyramidal structure dates from the Gupta Empire, in the 5th–6th century CE.
However this may represent a restoration of earlier work of the 2nd or 3rd century: a plaque from Kumrahar dated 150–200 CE, based on its dated Kharoshthi inscriptions and combined finds of Huvishka coins, already shows the Mahabodhi Temple in its current shape with a stepped truncated pyramid and a small hemipherical stupa with finals on top. This is confirmed by archaeological excavations in Bodh Gaya.
It is thought that the temple in the shape of a truncated pyramid was derived from the design of the stepped stupas which had developed in Gandhara. The Mahabodhi Temple adapted the Gandharan design of a succession of steps with niches containing Buddha images, alternating with Greco-Roman pillars, and top by a stupa, as seen in the stupas of Jaulian. The structure is crowned by the shape of an hemispherical stupa topped by finials, forming a logical elongation of the stepped Gandharan stupas.
This truncated pyramid design also marked the evolution from the aniconic stupa dedicated to the cult of relics, to the iconic temple with multiple images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. This design was very influential in the development of later Hindu temples. The "shikhara" tower with an amalaka near the top is today considered more characteristic of Hindu temples.
The Temple was restored by the British and India post independence.
Buddhism declined when the dynasties patronizing it declined, following Huna invasions and the early Arab Islamic invasions such as that of Muhammad bin Qasim. A strong revival occurred under the Pala Empire in the northeast of the subcontinent (where the temple is situated). Mahayana Buddhism flourished under the Palas between the 8th and the 12th century. However, after the defeat of the Palas by the Sena dynasty, Buddhism's position again began to erode and became nearly extinct in India. During the 12th century CE, Bodh Gaya and the nearby regions were invaded by Muslim Turk armies, led by Delhi Sultanate's Qutb al-Din Aibak and Bakhtiyar Khilji. During this period, the Mahabodhi Temple fell into disrepair and was largely abandoned. Over the following centuries, the monastery's abbot or mahant position became occupied by the area's primary landholder, who claimed ownership of the Mahabodhi Temple grounds.
In the 13th century, Burmese Buddhists built a temple with the same name and modelled on the original Mahabodhi Temple.
It is said that four weeks after the Buddha began meditating under the Bodhi Tree, the heavens darkened for seven days, and a prodigious rain descended. However, the mighty king of serpents, Mucalinda, came from beneath the earth and protected with his hood the one who is the source of all protection. When the great storm had cleared, the serpent king assumed his human form, bowed before the Buddha, and returned in joy to his palace.
The subject of Buddha meditating under the protection of Mucalinda is very common in Iconography of Gautama Buddha in Laos and Thailand. One modern rendition is present in Bunleua Sulilat's sculpture park Sala Keoku.
During the 11th century and the 19th century, Burmese rulers undertook restoration of the temple complex and surrounding wall. In the 1880s, the then-British colonial government of India began to restore Mahabodhi Temple under the direction of Sir Alexander Cunningham and Joseph David Beglar. In 1885, Sir Edwin Arnold visited the site and under guidance from Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala published several articles drawing the attention of the Buddhists to the deplorable conditions of Buddhagaya. In the nineteenth century, the main Buddha image, removed at an earlier stage to the Mahant's residence, was reinstated in the Mahabodhi temple. It has since been repaired, painted and gilded and is under active worship in the sanctum.
Bodh Gaya quadriga relief of the sun god Surya riding between pillars (detail of a railing post), 2nd–1st century BCE.
Mahabodhi Temple is constructed of brick and is one of the oldest brick structures to have survived in eastern India. It is considered to be a fine example of Indian brickwork, and was highly influential in the development of later architectural traditions. According to UNESCO, "the present temple is one of the earliest and most imposing structures built entirely in brick from Gupta period" (300–600 CE). Mahabodhi Temple's central tower rises 55 metres (180 ft), and were heavily renovated in the 19th century. The central tower is surrounded by four smaller towers, constructed in the same style.
The Mahabodhi Temple is surrounded on all four sides by stone railings, about two metres high. The railings reveal two distinct types, both in style as well as the materials used. The older ones, made of sandstone, date to about 150 BCE, and the others, constructed from unpolished coarse granite, are believed to be of the Gupta period. The older railings have scenes such as Lakshmi, the Hindu/Buddhist goddess of wealth, being bathed by elephants; and Surya, the Hindu sun god, riding a chariot drawn by four horses. The newer railings have figures of stupas (reliquary shrines) and garudas (eagles). Images of lotus flowers also appear commonly.
Images of the site include Avalokitesvara (Padmapani, Khasarpana), Vajrapani, Tara, Marichi, Yamantaka, Jambhala and Vajravarahi. Images of Vishnu, Shiva, Surya and other Vedic deities are also associated with the site.
Control of the site
In 1891, a campaign to return control of the temple to Buddhists, over the objections of the Hindu mahant. Sir Edwin Arnold, author of The Light of Asia, who started advocating for the renovation of the site and its return to Buddhist care. Arnold was directed towards this endeavour by Weligama Sri Sumangala Thera. In 1891 Anagarika Dharmapala was on a pilgrimage to the recently restored Mahabodhi Temple, where Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, India. Here he experienced a shock to find the temple in the hands of a Saivite priest, the Buddha image transformed into a Hindu icon and Buddhists barred from worship. As a result, he began an agitation movement. The Maha Bodhi Society at Colombo was founded in 1891 but its offices were soon moved to Calcutta the following year in 1892. One of its primary aims was the restoration to Buddhist control of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, the chief of the four ancient Buddhist holy sites. To accomplish this, Dharmapala initiated a lawsuit against the Brahmin priests who had held control of the site for centuries. After a protracted struggle, this was successful only after Indian independence (1947) and sixteen years after Dharmapala's own death (1933), with the partial restoration of the site to the management of the Maha Bodhi Society in 1949. It was then the temple management of Bodh Gaya was entrusted to a committee comprised in equal numbers of Hindus and Buddhists. The campaign was partially successful in 1949, when control passed from the Hindu mahant to the state government of Bihar, which established a Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC) under the Bodh Gaya Temple Act of 1949. The committee has nine members, a majority of whom, including the chairman, must by law be Hindus. Mahabodhi's first head monk under the management committee was Anagarika Munindra, a Bengali man who had been an active member of the Maha Bodhi Society. In 2013, the Bihar government amended the Bodh Gaya Temple Act of 1949, allowing for a non-Hindu to head the temple committee. Also in 2013, one thousand Indian Buddhists protested at the Mahabodhi Temple site to demand that control over it be given to Buddhists. These Buddhists included such leaders as Bhante Anand (president of the Akhil Bharatiya Bhikkhu Mahasangh, an influential body of monks), as well as the president of the Bodh Gaya Mukti Andolan Samiti. Additionally, Japanese-born Surai Sasai emerged as an important Buddhist leader in India as both he and Bhante Anand became two of the most well-known leaders of this campaign to free the temple from Hindu control.
Current status and management
The Bihar state government assumed responsibility for the protection, management, and monitoring of the temple and its properties when India gained its independence. Pursuant to the Bodh Gaya Temple Act of 1949, such responsibilities are shared with the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee, and an advisory board. The Committee, which serves for a three-year term, must by law consist of four Buddhist and four Hindu representatives, including the head of Sankaracharya Math monastery as an ex-officio Hindu member. A 2013 Amendment to the Bodhgaya Temple Management Act allows the Gaya District Magistrate to be the Chairman of the Committee, even if he is not Hindu. The Advisory Board consists of the governor of Bihar and twenty to twenty-five other members, half of them from foreign Buddhist countries.
In June 2002, the Mahabodhi Temple became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All finds of religious artifacts in the area are legally protected under the Treasure Trove Act of 1878.
The temple's head monk, Bhikkhu Bodhipala, resigned in 2007 after he was charged with cutting the branches of Holy Bodhi Tree on a regular basis and selling them to foreigners for significant amounts of money. A newspaper alleged that wealthy Thai buyers bought a branch with the cooperation of senior members of the temple's management committee. While the temple's spokesman stated that botanists had pruned the tree, the Bihar home secretary ordered the tree examined. A criminal charge was filed against Bodhipala. If convicted, Bodhipala would be subject to at least 10 years' imprisonment.
Following the expiration of the Committee's term in September 2007, Bihar's government delayed appointing a new Committee and the district magistrate administered the temple pending such appointment. Eventually, on May 16, 2008 the government announced the appointment of a new Temple Management Committee.
As of June 2017, the Temple's head monk was Bhikkhu Chalinda.
In 2013, the upper portion of the temple was covered with 289 kg of gold. The gold was a gift from the King of Thailand and devotees from Thailand, and installed with the approval of the Archaeological Survey of India.
On 7 July 2013, ten low-intensity bombs exploded in the temple complex, injuring 5 people. One bomb was near the statue of Buddha and another was near the Mahabodhi tree. Three unexploded bombs were also found and defused. The blasts took place between 5.30 a.m. and 6.00 a.m. The main temple was undamaged. The Intelligence Bureau of India may have alerted state officials of possible threats around 15 days prior to the bombing. On 4 November 2013, the National Investigation Agency announced that the Islamic terrorist group Indian Mujahideen was responsible for the bombings.
Mahabodhi Temple replica
Mahabodhi Temple is one of the most replicated Buddhist structures, both as temples and miniature replicas.
Zhenjue Temple, Beijing, China
Mahabodhi Temple, Bagan, Myanmar
Wat Chet Yot, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thatta Thattaha Maha Bawdi Pagoda, Myanmar
Bodh Gaya Chedi Replica (Chedi Phutthakhaya Chamlong) in Wat Yannasangwararam, Chonburi Province, Thailand