Construction of the Māhabodhi Temple Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Māhabodhi Temple was built to commemorate the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It is the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists the world over.

Summary of Event

The Māhabodhi Temple in Bodh Gayā commemorates the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The origins of the temple are shrouded in the legends surrounding King Aśoka, who is said to have built a structure around the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment. According to the Aśokāvadāna (third century b.c.e.; the legend of Aśoka), translated from Sanskrit to Chinese by the pilgrim Faxian, Aśoka’s wife was upset that her husband spent so much time at the Bodhi tree, so she had it cut down. Aśoka then heaped up the earth on the four sides of the stump and bathed it in milk. The tree is said to have been restored to its former state. Xuanzang, another Chinese pilgrim in the seventh century, reported that Aśoka built a stone wall around the tree. In this version of the story, Aśoka burned the tree before his conversion to Buddhism, then repented and revived it with a milk bath. His queen had the tree destroyed, only to have Aśoka restore it a second time. Buddha Aśoka Faxian

The earliest pictorial evidence for the temple is a relief sculpture from Bhārhut (first century b.c.e.) showing a two-story structure built around the Bodhi tree and the Vajrāsana (the Diamond seat), on which the enlightenment of the Buddha occurred. Alexander Cunningham, in his archaeological report, reported that an altar, three column bases, and a step had been found under the floor of the present temple. He assigned these remains to a rectangular temple similar to that found in the Bhārhut relief and believed that they belonged to the Aśokan temple. Later scholars have usually placed these remains somewhat later (second-first century b.c.e.) and have pointed out that the relief shows a circular, wooden structure. The construction of this structure coincided with a rise in devotion toward the Buddha and places associated with him—something that the Buddha had discouraged. Although the bodily relics of the Buddha had drawn much attention immediately after his death, it was not until after Aśoka that this devotional tendency increased. Scholars have attributed this increase to attempts of certain Buddhist sects to appeal to the laity.

When Faxian visited Bodh Gayā in the fifth century c.e., he reported that a stupa had been built at the place of enlightenment. This structure, now in stone, has been attributed to the newly arrived Kushāns (100-400 c.e.). It is probably represented on a plaque from Patna showing a statue of the Buddha within the temple. Although Faxian did not speak of a statue, it nevertheless seems probable that there would have been a statue given the emergence of images of the Buddha in the first century c.e. It is also likely that the Bodhi tree was moved outside at this time.

In the seventh century c.e., Xuanzang reported that the temple consisted of a 160-foot (49-meter) tower on a rectangular base. He also related the legendary origin of the statue of the Buddha in the temple. From his description, it is clear that the statue showed the Buddha in the bhūmisparśa mudrā (the earth-touching gesture). This type of statue commemorates the moment at which the Buddha overcame Māra, calling on the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment (the statue in the present temple dates from the tenth century c.e.). The temple of this time probably formed the basis for the present temple.

Sometime after the twelfth century, the temple fell into neglect. It was not until the Burmese mission to the temple in 1802 that interest in the Māhabodhi Temple revived. The Burmese mission drew the attention of the British. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton visited the site in 1811, publishing a report much later in 1836. In 1861, Alexander Cunningham suggested excavation of the site, which was carried out by Major Mead. After the Burmese mission of 1875 and in conjunction with the mission of 1880, J. D. Beglar directed a restoration of the temple based on an eleventh century miniature model of the temple. The model showed a tower and four smaller corner towers on a two-story base.

Significance

The Māhabodhi temple, along with the Bodhi tree and the Vajrāsana, are the major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists. The architecture of the temple and its artwork have influenced Buddhist temples and art throughout India and other Buddhist countries. The temple itself has also been reproduced in other Buddhist countries. Two reproductions are found in Burma, the Māhabodhi Temple at Pagan (thirteenth century) and the Schwegugyi in Pegu, and two in Thailand, the Wat Chet Yot at Chiengmai and the Chiengrai Temple. The last three reproductions date from the fifteenth century. In Nepal, the Mahābauddha Temple dates from the sixteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barua, Dipak K. Bodh Gayā Temple: Its History. Bodh Gayā, India: Buddha Gayā Temple Management Committee, 1981. Barua gives a detailed history of the development of the temple, taking all the factors of architecture, art, and literature into consideration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coomaraswamy, A. K. “Early Indian Architecture II. Bodhi-garas.” Eastern Art 2 (1939): 225-235. This article discusses the early form of the Māhabodhi Temple as a tree shrine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cunningham, Alexander, Māhabodhi: Or, The Great Buddhist Temple Under the Bodhi Tree at Buddha-Gayā. London: W. H. Allen, 1892. Although the temple was not systematically excavated, archaeologist Cunningham reported on what he found before the restoration of the temple.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leoshko, Janice, ed. Bodh Gayā: The Site of Enlightenment. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1988. A collection of essays on various aspects of the temple. In addition to the history of the temple, essays discuss the sculptures and votive objects at the temple. Other essays examine the relation of the temple to Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Nepal, and Tibet.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Aśoka; Buddha; Faxian. Māhabodhi Temple[Mahabodhi Temple];building of

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