Today we return to our Ancient Wonders series where we look to Bihar state in India and the Mahabodhi Temple. The temple is around 2,200 years old, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major site of Buddhist pilgrimage – so let’s explore Mahabodhi Temple’s fascinating history!

The Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India. Image via UNESCO.

The origins of the Mahabodhi Temple lie with Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism who lived some time between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Siddhartha was an educated prince, but he spent much of his time in philosophical thought about the evils of the world, rather than the worldly pursuits of his station in life. As he neared 30, he left his home and family behind to search for a way to free mankind from suffering. After travelling far and wide, he came across a bodhi tree (a type of fig tree) near the banks of the Phalgu river and he sat underneath it to meditate. He sat there for three days and nights, after which he reached a state of enlightenment and found the answers he sought after. Once reaching enlightenment, Siddhartha spent seven more weeks at the site meditating at seven different locations.

The Mahabodhi Temple was built around 200 years after Buddha’s enlightenment, during the 3rd century BC, by Emperor Asoka who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent at the time. The temple complex was built around the seven spots that Buddha meditated. The Bodhi tree was given a place of prominence, and today still stands a descendent of the original tree. During Buddha’s second week of meditation he stood unmoving on one spot looking at the Bodhi tree, and so on this spot a stupa was built known as the unblinking shrine complete with a statue of Buddha watching the tree. His sixth week was spent next to a Lotus pond, during which a huge rain poured down from the sky. The king of the serpents, Mucalinda, shielded Buddha with his hood until the storm cleared, and a statue commemorates this on the lake today.

The Holy Bodhi Tree, underneath which Buddha found enlightenment. Image 1, Image 2.

The exact format of the original temple is unknown, for it was rebuilt during the 5th-6th centuries AD. Made from brick and covered in stucco, it is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely of brick still standing. At the heart of the Mahabodhi Temple is a 50 metre high grand temple, the Vajrasana, which is in the shape of a truncated pyramid. A series of steps rise up the temple with niches that hold images of Buddha. At the top of the pyramid is a stupa whilst at its base is an 11 metre high wall. The four corners of the wall each hold a statue of Buddha inside small shrine chambers within a tower.

Parts of the older temple complex survive today, incorporated into the later building. Sandstone posts dating to c.150 BC have been found within the railings around the temple, alongside carved panels of a similar date. There also survives the Vajrasana, or Diamond Throne, made of polished sandstone which was erected under Emperor Ashoka when the original temple was built on the exact spot where Buddha reached enlightenment.

The Diamond Throne when it was rediscovered. WikiCommons.

For centuries, the Mahabodhi Temple was a sacred site of pilgrimage for Buddhists in India, but around the time that the temple was rebuilt in the 5th-6th centuries invasions began by the Huna and Arab Muslims. This saw India come under different religions, and Buddhism began to decline. The region where Mahabodhi is located saw a strong revival of Buddhism between the 8th and 12th centuries, ensuring the preservation of the temple, but after the fall of the ruling Pala Empire Buddhism all but died out in India. Muslim Turk armies invaded the area, and the Mahabodhi Temple fell into disrepair and was largely abandoned. The last abbot left the temple in the 15th century.

In 1874, the Burmese King Mindon-Min sought permission from the British-led government of India to begin renovation of the temple. Permission was granted, but as the 1880s arrived the British colonial government took over control of the project. Led by Sir Alexander Cunningham and Joseph David Beglar, huge work was done to restore the temple, including returning a large image of Buddha from the Pala period. The work of the Burmese and then British teams drew attention to the state of the site. A Buddhist High Priest, Weligama Sri Sumangala, published several articles aimed to get Buddhists invested in the poor conditions of the temple.

The Mahabodhi Temple prior to its restoration, 19th century. WikiCommons.

In the years between Mahabodhi’s abandonment in the 15th century, and restoration in the late 19th century, the site had not been entirely empty. Certain Hindus considered Buddha an incarnation of their god Vishnu, and so Mahabodhi had become a place of worship. Subsequent to the restoration of the temple, the Hindus refused to hand control back to the Buddhists and campaigns were launched to see its return to Buddhist care. Buddhists had even been banned from worshiping in the temple.

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Various movements were launched soon after the temple’s restoration, but it was not until 1949 that some headway was made in the struggle between the Hindus and Buddhists. The State Government was assigned control of the care and management of the temple complex which was to be run by management committees. The temple itself was to be managed by a committee with an equal number of Buddhists and Hindus, but the whole site was run by a committee of nine members, the majority of whom (including the chairman) had to be Hindus. It was not until 2013 that the government amended the act to allow a non-Hindu to head the temple committee. This coincided with a protest by 1,000 Indian Buddhists who demanded the Mahabodhi Temple be given into Buddhist control.

Mahabodhi Temple became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 and a set of repairs was launched in 2006. However, in 2007 the temple’s head monk came under scandal when he was charged with selling cuttings of the branches of the Holy Bodhi Tree to foreigners for large sums of money. In 2013, 10 small bombs were detonated in the temple complex in the early hours of the morning, injuring 5 people but leaving the main temple undamaged. An Islamic terrorist group were announced as responsible for the bombings. In the same year, the upper portion of the temple was covered with 289kg of gold as a gift from the King of Thailand.

With well over 2,000 years of history, the Mahabodhi Temple is a significant ancient wonder. From its unique architectural style, its aged bricks, and its importance to the Buddhist faith, it has been an influential site for millennia. The changing politics and faith of India has meant that in recent centuries the temple has become a site for religious conflict, but historically it remains a place of great importance.

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