The Mahabodhi Temple (literally: "Great Awakening Temple"), 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moved to the museum beside the temple, and some, such as the carved stone railing wall around the main structure, have been replaced by replicas.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. But this means 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 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 karīsa. 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 that 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, Buddhist Emperor Asoka 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 toraṇas of Stūpa I, dating from around 25 BCE, and on a relief carving from the stupa railing at Bhārhut, from the early Shunga period (c. 185–c. 73 BCE).
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 scene 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 Kolkota, and have been replaced by plaster copies.
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.
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 Hindu 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. 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.
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.
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.
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 Avalokiteśvara (Padmapani, Khasarpana), Vajrapani, Tara, Marichi, Yamantaka, Jambhala and Vajravārāhī. Images of Vishnu, Shiva, Surya and other Vedic deities are also associated with the site.
In 1891, a campaign to return control of the temple to Buddhists, over the objections of the Hindu mahant.
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.
The Bihar state government assumed responsibility for the protection, management, and monitoring of 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. By law, the Committee must consist of four Buddhist and four Hindu representatives, including the head of Sankaracharya Math monastery as an ex-officio Hindu member. The Committee serves for a three-year term. A 2013 Amendment to Bodhgaya Temple Management Act allows the Gaya District Magistrate to be the Chairman of 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.
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.
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 is one of the most replicated Buddhist structures, both as temples and miniature replicas.