Bodh Gaya, Bihar
The Mahabodhi Temple is one of three of the great Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India (the fourth great Buddhist pilgrimage site being located in Nepal). As the location where it is believed Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment, it is by some accounts the most sacred Buddhist site in the world. It is also one of the most awe-inspiring Buddhist temples anywhere, as well one of the oldest structures in India. An ancient Bodhi Tree is located here, said to be a direct descendent of the tree under which the Buddha meditated. The Mahabodhi Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sometime around the 6th century BC, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama traveled throughout India seeking an end to the sufferings he saw all around him. According to tradition, his wanderings took him to what is now Bodh Gaya, where he discovered a tree (the Bodhi Tree). After spending three days in constant meditation near the tree, Siddartha achieved enlightenment. He spent the next seven weeks in the vicinity of the tree in further contemplation.
The Bodhi Tree later went on to play an important role in the traditions of Buddhists. But it wasn’t until the 3rd century BC that Bodh Gaya became a true pilgrimage center. This was thanks in large part to then-emperor Asoka. Asoka, who earlier in his life had been warlike, had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Later repenting of his deeds, he became a Buddhist, devoted his life to pacifism, and proceeded to construct Buddhist temples and monasteries all over his realm.
Arguably the most important of these was the Mahabodhi Temple at the site of the Bodhi Tree (or one of its descendents). This original temple stood for over seven hundred years before being rebuilt in the 6th century AD. It was one of the most important centers of Buddhism well into the Middle Ages. However, foreign invasions of Muslims and the decline of India’s Buddhist population left the temple essentially abandoned.
Periodically foreign gourps of Buddhists would endeavor to reclaim and restore the temple, but efforts were short lived until the arrival of the Britiah Raj. Under the British the temple was fully restored in the 19th century. It did not return to Buddhist control until the 20th century. Like other Buddhist shrines, the existence of statues of Buddha drew the ire of Muslim extremists, who bombed the temple in 2013. This has only seemed to increase increase in the place and a larger number of visiting pilgrims.
The Mahabodhi Temple is one of the oldest structures in India, with much of the building dating back at least as far as the 6th century AD. A traditional pyramid-esque tower that soars over eighteen stories, its gleaming white brickwork can be seen for a great distance in many directions. Decorative gold leif was added to decorate the temple in 2013, courtesy of the King of Thailand. Immediately to the west of the temple is the current descendent of the famous Bodhi Tree.
There are a number of stations inside and around the temple marking important places where the Buddha spent his seven meditative weeks in the area. There are several Buddha statues, including inside the main shrine, and another outside staring contemplatively at the tree. The temple is covered inside and out with intricate carvings from both Buddhist and Hindu legend.
The Mahabodhi Temple is located by the banks of the Falgu River about six miles south of the town of Gaya and 300 miles northwest of Kolkata. The temple is open year-round, and there is no cost of admission other than voluntary donations. Web: www.mahabodhimahavihara.org (official website).
Places related to the life of the Buddha can be found throughout eastern and central India. Of the major sites, the closest one to Gaya is the Buddha’s Cave in Rajgir, where the Buddha subdued a wild elephant. Also not too far from Bodh Gaya is the Japanese Temple in Vaishali, which commemorates where a monkey offered the Buddha honey.