The history of the Mahabodhi stupa (Bodhgaya Temple) goes back 2,500 years. Here is recorded the rise, fall and resurrection of Buddhism in India.



Apart from the one personal comment (so noted) this material is all taken from "Buddha Gaya Temple Its History" by Dipak K Barua published by the Buddha Gaya Temple Management Committee Buddha Gaya 1981. I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in and around the Mahabodhi Temple grounds at the end of last century, completely fascinated. I read the book twice. It is not an easy book to read, so I’ve taken the liberty of attempting to produce here a condensed version that will be useful for students, and still provide enough information to whet the appetite of the more devoted visitor.



According to the Jataka tale, when Buddha first came here (after checking out some rather frightening places), the Papilla, or Indian fig (Bodhi) was a massive tree. It stood at the centre of a mandala composed of a silver white sandy ridge, encircled by creepers and a grassy woodland with all the trees inclining towards the Bo tree that stood in the middle. Close by were the pure, glassy waters of the Neranjara river, with many pleasant bathing pools. When he sat down in front of it facing East, a long vista opened out to through an avenue of Sale trees to the glistening beach of the crystal Neranjara. Thus it was 2,500 years ago. Very beautiful.

After he left, he never looked back, and never visited again. But he did recommend it as one of the four memorable places worth visiting for inspiration.

Buddhist believe this is the navel of the universe, the vajra seat, where past and future buddhas achieve the ultimate state.

Still, no one seems to have taken any notice for around 250 years.

The Buddhist emperor Asoka went there after being in power for 10 years, and again 10 years later. This time, he set up a stone pillar with an elephant capital here, as well as similar pillars at Lumbini, Sarnath and Kusinara. (Birth first teaching and death spots). He also sent a branch of the still living tree to Ceylon, where it was successfully planted. This all happened around 250 BC.

A good thing, as his queen got jealous of her emperor’s devotion, and had the original tree destroyed. A new one was quickly planted.

Another 150 to 300 years pass, then a couple of devoted women have some work done. One, an elderly matron who’d been married to a local king was called Kurangi. To perpetuate the memory of her dead husband, she built an open pavilion, supported on stone pillars, surrounding the tree and the "vajra-asana", or lion seat, the actual spot in front of the tree where the Buddha had sat. To the side, where Buddha had walked up and down for 7 days after achieving the sublime state, a "jewel walk" was constructed, a stone lotus petal for each of his footprints. A sandstone throne was formed over the spot where he had sat, and a sandstone railing was built right around the whole construction as well.

This gives us the 5 essential parts of the site, which can still be found (in an evolved form) today: tree, throne, jewel walk, temple and stone railing.









The current Bodhi tree, within a small enclosure that also houses the varja seat (between the tree and the temple, directly above the monks, in behind the fence)







The restored / rebuilt sandstone railing, very similar to the original

The first of many Chinese pilgrims who thoughtfully took good notes (and left them behind for prosperity) arrived not long afterwards, around AC 400. (So already 900 years have passed since the Buddha was there, and the open pavilion has been standing maybe 400 years). Fa-hien records that there are now some statues of the Buddha in the open pavilion. He also notes that the whole area has become filled with monuments to specific instances in the Buddha’s travels to and from the spot. There are also monasteries, filled with monks keeping strict vows.

Sometime in the next 200 years, there is a very major change. When the next Chinese pilgrim (Hiuen-tsang) visits around AC 635, the Mahabodhi stupa, remarkably similar to what we see today, has appeared. He took accurate measurements, both here and at Nalanda, where there was a similar stupa/temple. This means it was built around 1,500 years ago, or 1,000 years after buddha had passed through.

The most popular current theory (presented in the book) is that the temple was built by a Brahmin minister, acting on advice given him by Shiva. His brother (on the same advice) excavated the tank (lake) alongside, where Buddha had washed. Presumably these brother had the support of the local king. Shortly afterwards, King Puavarma (Ac 600-620) built a new 24 foot wall around the site, and planted another Bodhi tree in the time honored spot.

During Hiuen-tsang’s visit, there were many other smaller temples, containing statues of the Buddha, and a very large monastery on the North side (where the mall and shops are now). This monastery had been built by the King of Ceylon (Shri Lanka), and had 6 courts, was three stories high, and surrounded by a 30 to 40 foot high wall. It had come about because of a pilgrimage by the king’s brother, who had returned home most upset, with a permanent stutter. This was the result of the appalling manners displayed by the locals. His brother, the king, was not amused, and quickly took steps to make sure no foreign pilgrims in the future would be treated so inhospitably. Or at least not ones from Ceylon.




top of restored mahabodhi temple


closeup of side of mahabodhi temple


The main temple had a different entrance. There were 3 lofty halls interconnected, and 10 foot high silver statues, one on either side. It is not at all sure there were four miniature towers as seen today at the corners. These were put there by the British restorers. (More below)

What is interesting, is that the original lion throne, jewel walk and stone rail and pavilion pillars had been all torn down to build this new temple. Some of the old foundations were found by British restorers under the foundations of the current temple.

It must have been an amazing place. You could spend weeks on the local tour, following in the Buddha’s footsteps, reliving the golden moments at your leisure, with delightful rest houses and monasteries at every hallowed spot

Not long after this, a Chinese official brought silk robes for the main image (AC 680 ish). During the 8th and 9th century, there was a slight decline. In the 10th century wealthy patrons sponsored new statues and shrines. In the 11th century, 2 Burmese missions came. In 1035, the Burmese plaque reckons the temple has been rebuilt three times already. During this time local kings also patronised zealous monks who wished to do repairs.

All through 12th and 13th century the Burmese were very active in sending teams to restore the temple, despite their own country being invaded by the Chinese. By 1305, they had completed the complete repair and restoration of all the walls, including the stucco facings, and side buttresses.

A Tibetan monk visited around 1235 and found 300 Sinhalese monks in residence.

By now the Muslin invaders have well and truly invaded India. 1232 was the year the Qutub Minar was built in Delhi.(If you don't know what means, Indian History is obviously a mystery you have yet to unravel)

It is not clear when exactly Mahabohi was sacked, but sometime during the 13th century. For the next (approximately) 350 years, it was abandoned, in ruins, ending some 1500 years of continuous occupation by practicing Buddhists.

Around 1590, a wandering Hindu arrived and settled down on the river bank near the ruins, gathering disciples. A few generations later, the Muslim emperor in Delhi gave the successor vast amounts of property in the area, including a couple of local villages (the ruins weren’t specifically mentioned). The old temple was never actually converted to a Hindu shrine, although some extra buildings were established for Hindu worship.

In 1811, the Burmese came back to work again, and the next year, 1812, sees the first visit of a European archaeologist. A few years later, the current leader of the Brahmins starts to claim the actual ruins as his.

The Burmese came back again in 1874, with lots of gifts for the Govt. of India (English, by this time, Muslins and Hindus both beaten into submission), to encourage them to offer assistance to Buddhist pilgrims, and to pay for the restoration of the temple. The British asked the local Bhramin if this would be okay, and he raised no objections, so work got underway. General A Cunningham came to supervise, and his work is were well covered in Root Institute’s page on the history of the Mahabodhi stupa, where there are also great "before" shots showing how much destruction had been wrought. Mind you, if the stupa at Nalanda was identical, then Mahabodhi got off very lightly, as the Nalanda one was reduced to a pile of bricks, (photo) The good general was also there when the two current Bodhi trees were planted.








In 1889 the work was finished, and a couple of years later a young man from Shrilanka visited: Anagarika Dharampala. He was inspired, and formed the Maha Bodhi Society. He devoted the rest of his life to trying to get control of the temple restored to the world’s Buddhists. He hated that the Hindus were desecrating the shrines, and carting away relics to use in private houses. His life long struggle makes heart-rendering reading, and he died without completing his task. Several times he was beaten, and spent a fortune in protracted legal battles. My own personal interpretation of this (lengthy) section of the book is that the British Colonial Government preferred to back a (local) Hindu, rather than handing over control to a group of (foreign) Buddhists. Especially as one of the biggest, most powerful groups of Buddhists was Japanese, and the British distrusted their motives. In other words, it was political, and very painful for the Buddhists.

bust of Anagarika Dharampala outside the Maha Bodhi Society Building in Bodgaya


Finally, after independence, in 1949, an act of Parliament was passed covering how the temple complex was to be administered. This is still in effect today. There is a committee, of four Buddhists and four Hindus. They first met in 1953, and since then have done a great deal to upgrade the facilities. In keeping with many of the previous repair jobs, I noticed that the stucco repairs done in 1968 are already failing (reinforcing steel bursting out). In 1973 the Buddha Gaya temple Advisory Board was formed. This has 21 members, including representatives from Thailand, Laos, Burma, Sikkim, Cambodia, Bhutan and Ladhak. Nearby are a museum, a library, lots of new temples and guesthouses to suit every inclination


There is now a very nice marble walkway around the whole site, and an imitation Asokan railing / fence. The place is flood lit at night. The upper shrine is a sanctuary for silent meditation, open to all. Tibetan artists are busy painting gold on to all the images. The grounds are filled with wooden prostration boards where Tibetans, Europeans and Asians work out their sweaty routines in murmured harmony. Practictioners of every age and nationality wend their ways around the three different circumambulatory paths, or sit on the lawns and under the trees. Indian tourists are (almost) reduced to respectful silence. It's a place where any buddhist feels at home.


If this made you interested in Mahabodhi, here's a couple of other pages to check out: An excellent series of pages by Root Institute, including lots about the British Restoration, and photos of what it looked like before
  Bodhgaya News An on line newspaper, with many stories about Bodhgaya and its history
  This goes to an index page of a few of the photos I took during the millenium visit: some predictable, some unusual :)
  back to The stupa Information Page

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