The Mahabodhi Temple, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment

The temple is located in Bodh Gaya, in India’s northeast state of Bihar, which borders Nepal. Buddhist history says that it was here that the Buddha sat in meditation under a pipal (religious ficus), called the Bodhi Tree, until he achieved enlightenment. Historians don’t know exactly when the Buddha lived, but the enlightenment probably happened at the end of the 5th century BCE, more or less.

According to Buddhist history, the first Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya was built by Emperor Ashoka, a patron of Buddhism who ruled most of what is now India and much more from around 269 ​​BCE to 232 BCE. The stump of an Ashoka pillar is still there. This temple may have been replaced in the 1st or 2nd century CE. The present temple probably dates from the 5th or 6th century CE and remains one of the oldest brick structures in India.

A long stagnation

Although Buddhism began in India, from around the 6th century CE, it began a gradual decline. By the 12th century, most of what was left of Buddhism on the Indian subcontinent was concentrated in three large monasteries in what is now the Indian state of Bihar and two others located on the lower Ganges in what is now Bangladesh. These were all destroyed by invading Turkish armies in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. There may have been a few Buddhists in Bodh Gaya until the 15th century, but not after.

Although the memory of the Mahabodhi temple and the importance of Bodh Gaya have been lost in India, they have not been forgotten in other countries where Buddhism flourished.

A chance discovery

Dr Francis Buchanan (1762-1829; sometimes Dr Francis Buchanan-Hamilton) was a Scottish surgeon and amateur botanist who spent many years in India and South East Asia. At one time, Buchanan was part of a diplomatic expedition to Burma, now called Myanmar. In 1797, as part of his work in Burma, he published an essay entitled On the religion and literature of the Burmese. The essay contains what is believed to be the earliest use of the English construction Buddhism.

Buchanan then spent time in Nepal, mostly cataloging native plants. Nepal was predominantly Hindu, but Buchanan realized that the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley employed symbolisms similar to those of the Buddhists of Burma. He proposed that there is a connection between Newar and Burmese religions.

In 1811, this same Dr. Francis Buchanan and a few assistants were traveling in northeast India when they came across the ruins of an ancient temple. The ruins were inhabited by a group of Hindu ascetics who did not know of its origins. But Buchanan acknowledged that the temple’s weathered stone carvings included images of the Buddha, very similar to what he had seen in Burma.

Then came the British Orientalists

At the time Buchanan made his discovery, India was ruled by Muslim rulers from Mughal Empire since the 16th century. But the British East India Company had moved in, building factories and trading posts and establishing communities of British expatriates. By the time Buchanan discovered the ruins of the Mahabodhi Temple, the East India Company was the real power in India. And many British expats in India were genuinely interested in learning about India’s history and culture.

These Orientalists, as they were called, realized that India must have had an ancient history, but the Indians themselves seemed to know nothing of anything that had happened before the Mughals. Eventually, some Westerners learned to read Sanskrit and were able to read ancient texts themselves. They also consulted classical Greek texts on India from the time of Alexander the Great, and very slowly a long lost history of ancient India began to emerge.

A British diplomat in Nepal named Brian Hodgson (1800-1894) made enormous contributions to the understanding of early Buddhist history and its origins in India. Largely due to his work, Westerners finally understood the meaning of the Buddha. And they realized the significance of the Mahabodhi Temple as marking the place of Buddha’s enlightenment.

The restored Mahabodhi Temple

In 1857, a revolt against the East India Company caused the British government to intervene and take direct control of India. This marked the end of the Mughal Empire and the beginning of the british raj. In the 1880s, the British colonial government of India decided to restore the Mahabodhi Temple, in response to complaints about its deplorable condition. The government turned to Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893), a British army engineer, to lead this effort.

Cunningham’s excavations found remains of earlier temples, including some of the original temples built by Ashoka. Among other long-lost items, he located the Vajrasana, or “Diamond Throne”, a carved stone slab which is said to have been placed by Ashoka on the very spot where, according to him, the Buddha must have meditated. He also replaced the dying Bodhi tree with a sapling of the same plant, and it is the tree that stands there today.

Yet there was still work to be done. In 1885, the British poet Sir Edwin Arnold published a series of articles on the Mahabodhi Temple which brought more attention to the site. Asian Buddhists have begun to speak out, including Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a Buddhist activist from British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who also helped start an independence movement. Dharmapala campaigned for the temple to be returned to Buddhist control, a demand which was met with resistance from Hindu clergy. Many Hindus had come to regard the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, and they also regarded Mahabodhi as their temple, especially since a sect of Hinduism had been using it since the Buddhists had abandoned it.

A difficult compromise

After India gained independence from the UK in 1947, the Mahabodhi temple complex became the responsibility of the Bihar state government. Bihar has established a management committee consisting of five Hindus (including the chairman) and four Buddhists. The Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee is still in charge today, although in 2013 the policy was changed to allow the Gaya District Magistrate to act as chairman even if he is not a Hindu . There is also an advisory committee which includes representatives of Buddhism from several other countries.

This arrangement has never satisfied most Buddhists, who want total control and want Hindu symbols, such as depictions of Vishnu and Shiva, removed from the temple. The controversy is ongoing.

Terrorist attacks

In July 2013, a series of ten bombs exploded around Mahabodhi. The temple and the Bodhi tree were not damaged. Five people, including two Buddhist monks, were injured. Three other bombs planted in the area were discovered and defused. Eventually, members of a Muslim group, the Indian Mujahideen, were arrested and found guilty of the attack. Another bomb attack was attempted in 2018, while His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in Bodh Gaya. It is possible that His Holiness was the target. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries or damage. Those convicted of the bombing were members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, also a Muslim group.

The temple today

The temple is now a Unesco World Heritage. According to UNESCO, the current temple is one of the oldest and most imposing structures built entirely of brick from the Gupta period. The temple complex covers nearly 12 acres; the main pyramidal temple is 180 feet high. Next to the temple is a huge pipal (the one planted by Sir Alexander Cunningham in the 19th century) believed to be a direct descendant of the Buddha’s Bodhi tree.

The Mahabodhi Temple in 2013. Source: Matt Stabile, Wikimedia Commons, cc-by-2.0

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