Bodhgaya is the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage centre of Buddhism. This is where Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment beneath a bodhi tree 2,600 years ago and became Buddha, or the ‘Awakened One’. The bodhi tree is in the Mahabodhi Temple complex.
This temple town in the northern Indian State of Bihar attracts thousands of pilgrims from all over the world for prayers, study and meditation. The town’s many monasteries and temples were built in their national style by foreign Buddhist communities.
The Mahabodhi Temple, a Unesco World Heritage site, was built in the 7th century AD and razed by foreign invaders in the 11th century, later repaired and renovated, the last being in the late 19th century. The shrine is shaped like the original stupa constructed by King Ashoka.
The temple is an architectural combination of many centuries, cultures and heritages. Its architecture has a distinct stamp of the Gupta era, with inscriptions of later eras describing visits of pilgrims from Sri Lanka, Burma and China between the 7th and 10th centuries. It was probably the same temple Hieuen Tsang visited in the 7th century.
Topped by a 50-metre pyramidal spire, the inner sanctum of the ornate structure houses a 10th-century 2-metre-high gilded image of a seated Buddha. Four of the originally sculpted stone railings surrounding the temple, dating from the Sunga period (184–72 BC), have survived amid the replicas. The Archaeological Museum’s highlight is the collection of the 2,000-year-old railings and pillars rescued from the temple. The Museum contains mostly headless, stone sculptures dating from the 8th to 12th centuries.
Pilgrims and visitors from all walks of life and religions come to worship or absorb the peaceful atmosphere of this place exuding spiritual energy. In the perimeter of the temple compound, worshippers dressed in maroon and yellow coloured robes bow and stand up in a clockwise pattern to prayer while Tibetan monks perform prostrations on their prayer boards.
The bodhi tree, the most sacred fig tree ever, is the one at Bodhgaya under which Prince Siddhartha achieved enlightenment. Known as Sri Maha Bodhi, the original tree was paid special attention by Emperor Ashoka. His wife, in a fit of rage, got the original poisoned.
Before its death, a sapling of the tree was taken to Anuradhapura in Ceylon by Sanghamitta, Ashoka’s daughter, where it continues to flourish. A cutting was later brought back to Bodhgaya and planted where the original once stood. The direct descendant flourishes even today. The red sandstone slab, called the Vajrasan or Diamond Throne between the tree and the temple was placed by Ashoka to mark the spot of Buddha’s Enlightenment.
Chanramanar, located on the northern side of the Mahabodhi Temple, was where Buddha practised walking meditation or “Chanramanar.” The pathway was used by Buddha during the third week of meditation.
Among other places relating to the Buddha is the Dungeshwari Cave in the Pragbodhi Hills, 22 km northeast of Bodhgaya. He spent seven years living here as an ascetic, almost dying from starvation in the process. There is not much to see but getting there is fun, either on a motorbike or a trek.
Sujata Kuti Stupa across the Fagu River was built to commemorate the residence of Sujata, the cowherd who fed the starving Buddha rice pudding, thus ending his seven years of asceticism and spurring him to follow the “Middle Way.” The ancient brick stupa is a 20-minute walk from Bodhgaya and a further 10-minute walk away is Sujata Mandir, the actual site of the banyan tree where Sujata fed the Buddha.
Two caves namely Brahmayoni and Matreoni, and an ancient temple of Astabhujadevi, are situated on a hill. Brahmayoni was where Buddha preached the fire-sermon to a thousand former fire-worshipping ascetics and enlightened them. Devotees visiting this temple located on top of the hill will have to climb 424 steps to reach there.
The Great Buddha statue, 1 km from the city centre, is the tallest of the Buddha in India and was instated by the Dalai Lama in 1989. A meditating Buddha rests on a giant lotus constructed using intricately carved sandstone and red granite.
Among monasteries, the most impressive of Bodhgaya’s Tibetan-style monasteries is the Tergar Monastery of the Karmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa is often in residence here and gives teachings in the compound next door. The impressive Thai Temple has a brightly coloured wat with gold leaf shimmering from its arched rooftop and manicured gardens. Meditation sessions are held here mornings and evenings.
Other temples are the Chinese Temple which displays beautiful Chinese artwork, Burmese Temple, Bhutan Monastery with clay carvings on the interior walls depicting different aspects of Buddhist culture, International Buddhist House, Vietnamese temple and Indosan Nippon Japanese Temple.
Vishnupad temple, 9 km from the city centre, features a 40-cm-long footprint of Lord Vishnu and is enclosed by a basin made of silver plates. The Jama Masjid, Bihar’s largest mosque, dates back to about 200 years and was built by the royal family of Muzaffarpur.