The “rediscovery” of Bodh Gaya !

The Story of the “rediscovery” of Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya today is a classic and living example of how some silent pages in history can acquire voice after ages, and can become part of the mainstream lore. Imagining a visit to Bodh Gaya today, without knowing the story of the Buddha, and his association with the site may seem ridiculous today. It is indeed difficult to imagine so since the Buddha’s existence is so deeply connected to the town. But surprisingly as it stands, such indeed was the state of affairs one would have encountered, had one visited the site just two centuries back. The site had lost its importance in the turbulent phases and turmoils of history, so much so that in the early 19th century, no such individual existed there in Bodh Gaya who followed the Buddha’s preaching, or even one who could narrate the story of the Buddha. Due to decline in Buddhism in India, and, due to the absorption of the Buddha as one of the avatars of Vishnu in Hinduism, different legends were in place then about the existence of Bodh Gaya and about its historical importance. The site was then popular extensively as an abode of the Shaivaite Sanyasis, belonging to the traditional Hindu religion. The premises of what today houses the Mahabodhi temple were once a part of the private property of the Shaivaite Sanyasi Math still in existence nearby, and the significance of the ruins was actually unknown to the locals. A site of international pilgrimage was lost, only to be rediscovered in the late nineteenth century. The story of the silent pages of Bodh Gaya is interesting indeed.

I have been visiting Bodh Gaya on several occasions since 2005, and my understanding of the place and its importance has been increasing after every visit. Bodh Gaya today is an international tourist destination visited by tourists from across the Globe. The site appeals to one and all with the message of universal peace.  The Mahabodhi Temple Complex today is a World Heritage Site, as declared by the UNESCO. A lay tourist visiting Bodh Gaya generally develops the feeling that the site was preserved in the earlier times in the same manner as it is seen today. It may appear very strange if the tourist is made to understand that just about two centuries earlier, a tourist visiting Bodh Gaya was not even aware about the existence or importance of the Mahabodhi temple, or about the sacred and historically revered Bodhi Tree. When Francis Buchanan had visited the site in 1811-12, he found no mention of any importance of the Buddha at the very place of his enlightenment. Even though the place was called Bodh Gaya, the significance of the site in history was only vaguely understood. The local populace was totally unaware of the story and the legends of the Buddha’s existence at the site.

It was only in the later part of the 19th century that Bodh Gaya could be rediscovered. In fact, the credit for the rediscovery of Bodh Gaya on the tourist map largely go to the excavations carried out at the site during British rule, and to the reconstruction of the ruins under Cunningham in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Mahabodhi temple as seen today is the result of thorough repair and restoration work carried out by Cunningham and Beglar in 1880, under the orders of Sir Ashley Eden, the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. The Management of the Temple was removed from the Math after independence and is handed over to a committee as per the Bodh Gaya Temple Management Committee Act, 1953. The site remains as a tribute to the ancient glory of the Buddha and to his important place in the history of mankind.

Ancient statues lying in the premises of the Math

Ancient statues lying in the premises of the Math

The Silent Pages of Bodh Gaya – a living Wonder
History of Bodh Gaya

A relook at the History of Bodh Gaya and a stock of the times before 1880

About 2600 years ago, a prince had left his royal palace to wander around in solitude in the forests. He left his family behind and wandered around in the forests of Bihar looking for a solution to the problems of human existence and suffering. Years passed around in the wandering, and his craving for the truth brought him to the banks of theNeranjara river (a branch of the river Falgu, also called Nilanjana) in the forests near the ancient town of Gaya. The site lay deep within the forest with no structures around at that time. Some visitors from the nearby villages at times visited the forest for paying obeisance to the forest deities, one of whom was Sujata, who almost saved the life of the wanderer ascetic prince with the offering of a precious bowl of milk. It was here that he attained enlightenment about the truth. He founded the middle path to salvation that would forever serve as a guide to mankind. The place later came to be called as Bodh Gaya. It was here at Bodh Gaya that the Buddha every day bathed in the river and did walking meditation along the riverbanks and along the small forest paths his own steps had created. He sat in meditation on the shore beside the flowing river or beneath the Pipal (Bodhi) tree where hundreds of birds chirped among its branches.

Years passed, and the significance of the place and the Bodhi tree, below which the Buddha had attained enlightenment, was realized. During the time of the Great KingAsoka, in the 3rd century B.C, the place had already started attracting pilgrims from across different lands. Asoka in his zeal had started the construction of Stupas for the propagation of the Dhamma. Bodh Gaya received his immediate attention. He constructed the Vajrasana (a pedestal below the Bodhi tree), where the Buddha sat and meditated, and constructed a railing to surround the sacred site. A Stupa was constructed nearby to act as a symbol of reverence of the Buddha.

Over the years, the importance of the site had increased, and it had started attracting pilgrims from even distant countries. In the patronage received, a new temple was constructed around the 2nd/1st century B.C. Gradually in the later Gupta age, probably around 500 A.D. the main Vajrasana temple gave way for the construction of the greater Mahabodhi temple, which was in place when the Chinese pilgrimHieun Tsang visited in the 7th century A.D. The main statue was probably made of Gold and the site must have appeared grand and full of scenes from the life of the Buddha.  The temple site abounded with the statues of his different mudras, and monasteries were built around for meditation by the visiting souls. The site became very famous worldwide and every visitor was fully aware about the legend of the Buddha and his times. The same temple as seen by Hieun Tsang stands to this day. But times are and were never the same. It so happened in Bodh Gaya as well. The glory of the site diminshed from bad to worse in the intervening years that followed the rule of the Pala kings of Bengal. Over the years, the times had changed. The royal patronage gradually disappeared. The older traditional Vedic faith had resurged among the masses in India, owing to the efforts of the Shankaracharya and other religious leaders of those times. The Buddha was accepted as an incarnation of Vishnu and became a part of the Hindu fold. The now reduced numbers of followers in India, of the old path of the Buddha, faced severe persecution at the hands of several foreign invaders who made their foray into India, and were even forced to abandon their faith. Monasteries after monasteries from Afghanistan on the north-west of India to Bengal in the east were destroyed by the invaders, and the inmates were put to the sword. The Universities of Takshashila, Nalanda and Vikramshila were ransacked and burnt. The atrocities on the Buddhists continued to an extent that the faith disappeared altogether from the land of its origin. No monument of the former testimony remained and practically all sites of Buddhist pilgrimage were wiped off the tourist map. The broken and mutilated statues in the Archaeological Museum of Bodh Gaya bear testimony to those troubled phases of history. The conditions gradually became so dismal that even the old memories of the Buddha having received enlightenment at Bodh Gaya were erased from common memory. The place still continued to be called as Bodh Gaya, but the significance was lost.

A visit to the Bodh Gaya archaeological museum makes one realize and imagine the turbulent phases of the history associated with the site. The Museum is home to several ancient statues of the Buddha, the majority of which lie in mutilated form in the galleries. The remains of the ancient railing that surrounded the Bodhi tree in the Mauryan and later ages, now adorn the gallery of the Archaeological Museum. The temple as seen presently was built sometime in the 7th century A.D. The Chinese traveler Hieun Tsang also probably found the temple in largely the same form as seen today during his visit. The temple was repaired later on several occasions, till about 1306 A.D by the Burmese, when Buddhism in the area declined.

The site was then for centuries left deserted, abandoned and neglected by the population. It was reclaimed again by the forests nearby and reduced to the same state as it was hundreds of years earlier, when the Sakyamuni had found solace in the solitude of the greens. History often repeats itself. A forest was reconverted into a forest. It was interestingly in the late 16th century that another wandering ascetic named Shri Ghamandi Giri*, himself a follower of the Shankaracharya’s fold, who was searching solitude for meditation arrived at the same very banks of the Neranjara, unaware of the earlier history of the place. At that time, the place had been overtaken by the forest, and the remains of earlier times were in ruins. The ascetic Giri settled among the ruins and spent his time in meditation. He found the place most peaceful and suitable for the founding of a Math, since it contained the ruins of old temples extensively. The material from the ruins was used extensively for the construction of new temples and buildings in the Math. Many of the images, earlier used as decorative panels in the older temples, now became objects of worship by the Mahants and the local populace.

Buchanan mentions about the Mahant

This person in the course of his penitent wanderings came to this place, then overrun with wood and bushes, and finding the temple a convenient shelter, took up his abode in it, until his extraordinary sanctity attracted the notice of numerous pilgrims and he became a principal object of veneration among the powerful chiefs and wealthy merchants who occasionally frequented Gya. From these he received the various endowments which his successors enjoy.”

The math later also received a royal grant during the time of the later Mughal rulers. Many of the older statues of the Buddha and other deities which were lying deserted in the ruins were placed within the math. The Math gradually gained prominence, and the site again started witnessing the flow of pilgrims. But at this juncture of history, the visiting pilgrims had no idea about the earlier history of the place. They had no idea of why the place was called Bodh Gaya, and what role or association did it have with the Buddha. The Mahabodhi Temple premises existed in a ruined state within the Math, totally neglected.

The flow of time continued and at a new stage of history of India, the British arrived and gradually took over the polity of the country. The early Britishers who had no knowledge of the earlier history of India, started traversing the lengths and breadths of the country. A survey of all that remained as a witness of India’s lost past was begun. After the advent of the British in India, there was scope for re-discovery of India’s lost heritage. At Bodh Gaya, looking at the statues of the Buddha around and the ruins, many were bewildered. After all, it was not clear as to why were they lying there. The Buddha was familiar to the Britishers from their experience in Burma and other lands as a living light of the Asian peoples outside India. Buddhism was still established as a living religion in the lands outside India, like Tibet, Thailand, Burma and others. Lay visitors to such Buddhist lands often had thought that the Buddha might have belonged to those lands and not to India. And they cannot be wronged for their interpretations, since after all, there were no followers remaining of the Buddha’s faith in India. It remained a mystery as to whether Buddhism had originated in India. One wandered that if it was so, then what could have led to its complete disappearance.

Regarding the understanding of those times, the accounts left by Buchanan are very interesting. He mentions :-

I then took a view of Buddh Gya, accompanied by a Rajput who has been converted to the doctrines of the Buddhs by two officers dispatched by the King of Ava to the Holy places of this vicinity and to bring him an account of this state. He says that the sect so far as he knows has become perfectly extinct, and that no books relating to it are now procurable in the country.”

This well illustrates the condition of Buddhist following in India in those times. He further mentions:-

“The messengers from Ava taught him much in Pali or Sanskrit language, and from their books were able to discover the old places of worship, which are numerous in this vicinity, as being the native country of Gautama. They said on the authority of their books that the temple was built by Asoka Dharma, King of Magades, who resided in the palace immediately adjacent about 5000 years ago. The Rajput calls the Burmas Brahmas. It must be observed that some families of Rajputs still continue to act as the priests of the temple of the Buddhs or rather of the Mahamuni, for the image represents the lawgiver, but he was worshipped by the messengers from Ava. The Rajputs reconcile this to their conscience by considering the image as Budh Avatar.

The understanding of Buddhism and its origins gradually improved. Francis Buchanan was one of the first visitors in the early 19th century to realize the association of Bodh Gaya with the Buddhist faith. Bur he had no idea about the rule of Asoka and the history and traditions of the Buddhist faith in India. As the years passed, some Buddhist monks from Myanmar, on the reading of locations of sacred places as laid in ancient texts started rediscovering Bodh Gaya.  It was in the nineteenth century that an effort was made by the Buddhists from Myanmar to gain control over the temple, which was still under the control of the Shaivaite Math. Bodh Gaya had been re-discovered as the place of enlightenment of the Buddha. The birth-place of the Buddha was still at that time unknown, and only in the late 19th century could the site of Lumbini be discovered with the Asokan inscription that was its claim to fame.

Identification of Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya is situated on the left or western bank of the Falgu river (also known variously as Neranjara, Nilanjana or Lilanjana), about 5 miles south of the district town of Gaya. Not very far from Bodh Gaya on the Dhongra Hill is the village of Urel, representing the village Uruvela, Uruwelaya or Uruvilwa where the eldest of the three Kasyapa brothers, the most famous of the sages of the Buddha’s time, is said to have lived. The name Uruvela has been variously derived by Cunningham from the sandy wastes of the river or from the forest of Bel trees close by. The Ceylonese chronicle, the Mahavamsa, the Lalita-Vistara and other Buddhist texts abound in references to Uruvela as the place intimately associated with the events of the Buddha’s life just before enlightenment before the famous tree. The tree may have been known originally from the village of Uruvela for some time, till it acquired a separate name for itself. Such a name was variously known as Bodhi, Mahabodhi, or Buddha Gaya. The term Bodhi was probably in use in the time of Asoka and in many other inscriptions the place is referred to as Mahabodhi. The name Buddha-Gaya first occurs in the inscription of Amara-Deva and in Akbar’s time may have been the common name to distinguish it from Gaya, which had by then grown to considerable importance after the decline of Buddhism. Abul Fazl refers to Gaya as Brahm Gaya, possibly to distinguish it from Bodh Gaya. The same name is used as the modern name of Bodh Gaya.

The Heritage of Bodh Gaya

Temples and Structures around the Mahabodhi Temple

Mahabodhi Temple

Visits to the Mahabodhi Temple and other historic sites nearby 

Bodh Gaya was largely known for its large collection of Hindu temples and Buddhist sculptures in the early nineteenth century. It may be surprising for the visitor to see that the Mahabodhi temple is surrounded on all sides by Hindu shrines. It is notable that many of these shrines have actually used materials recovered from the earlier ruins, chiefly Buddhist in origin. Most of them are now more than two centuries old, and may be declared as protected monuments for their better preservation. They form a part of the historical heritage of Bodh Gaya. They also exhibit the condition of the site in those times of the early nineteenth century, when Mahabodhi Temple was not known for the reasons that it is known today, or for those for which it was constructed in earlier eras. I will start the description of the structures with the Math and adjoining temples, which must be visited to gain an understanding of the medieval history of Bodh Gaya.

Visit to the Historic Math in Bodh Gaya

Cunningham in 1861, while referring to the antiquities of Bodh Gaya, mentioned that they consisted of numerous statues of various sizes, some of which were placed in small temples, and others scattered about the ruins; but the greatest number of them, and by far the finest, were fixed in the walls of the Mahant’s residence. So going by his description, a visit to the Mahant’s residence had become important to get a fuller picture of the antiquities of Bodh Gaya. In October, 2013, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ruins, I decided to explore some less visited sites near the main temple of Bodh Gaya. I happened to visit the historic Math founded by Shri Ghamandi Giri, and the other adjacent temples. From a distance, the Math gives the impression of a castle with its high wall and buildings that look like military defences.
Bodh Gaya

The account of Buchanan in this regard is very interesting to read. It was on 9thDecember, 1811, that Buchanan first visited the Mahant at the Math in Bodh Gaya. He mentions:-

I went to Buddh Gaya, distant from the south end of (the) Sahebganj near six miles, and situated on the west side of the Fulgo. The houses and gardens of Gaya extend about 1.25 miles south from Sahibgunj. The country through which I passed, overloaded with plantations. I was here visited by and visited the Mahant, who received me very civilly, and his principal chelas, who have been very great travelers, were fond of talking on the subject, and had here laid aside the habit of begging; on the contrary they are here exceedingly charitable or hospitable.”

The Building had almost the same appearance in the times of Buchanan. Giving more details about the Math he further mentions:-

 “The convent is surrounded by a high brick wall containing a very considerable space on the banks of the west branch of the Fulgo, between it and the great temple of Buddh Gya. The wall has turrets in the corners and some at the sides, and has two great gates, the handsomest part of the building.”

My visit to the Math on the 8th of October, 2013, only re-confirmed the observations made by Buchanan about two centuries earlier and which hold true even today. I was looking for the description given by Buchanan in his journal during the visit.  I had to take permission of the head Mahant Shri Giri residing there for taking photographs, since the Chief Mahant was out on a visit to Lucknow. I had the opportunity to talk to Shri Giri, the head Sanchalak or Administrator of the Math, who stays in a small chamber at the second floor of the Math.

Statues lying scattered in Garden

Statues lying scattered in Garden

The room has a very good panoramic view of the Phalgu river, and its calmness make it an ideal place for meditation. During our conversation, he told me that he had been living in the math for 71 years, and was now aged about 87 years. He recollected the history of the Math very briefly, and mentioned that the math was initially established in the late 16th century. The math was later given a land grant which included the present villages of Mastipur and Tardih, during the period of Alamgir, the Mughal Ruler of Delhi, the sanad of which was presently not existing in the Math, and may probably be found in the records of the High Court at Patna, where it was submitted for the resolution of some title suit. He informed that the Math had about 11,000 acres of land, a large portion of which was donated to the Government during Bhoodan Movement of Acharya Vinoba Bhave. He recollected that the Main temple premises also once fell within the property of the Math, and also further recollected some names of the previous Mahants, which however were very difficult to remember.



Shri Giri also recalled that the ground water level in the river was very high earlier, and that water could be found only by slight digging. He remembered that he himself was used to drinking water obtained after small digging of the riverbed in earlier years. But since last few decades, the water levels had gone down, and the river was now practically dry for most periods of the year. 


I took a round of the Math where several ancient statues were seen well preserved within the premises. Those statues carved in granite, which related to the well known Hindu deities, were found to be placed within a chamber, where worship was continued; while several other statues related to the Buddhist fold are placed in the pavilion ahead of the main courtyard along with other Hindu statues. The following observations of Buchanan seemed to have stood the testimony of time.

“Towards the river is a Dharmsaleh, consisting of a large cloister, but not quite finished. The principal building is a large square, with towers at the corners like a castle, and very few windows outwards. It contains several courts and many apartments totally destitute of neatness, elegance, or convenience. Within the wall is also a graden, a plantation of turmeric, and a burial ground where several Sannyasis are deposited in temples of Siva. The buildings have been erected at very different times, each Mahant having made various additions, so that there is no uniformity nor symmetry of parts. The materials have been taken almost entirely from the ruins, and the Mahants seem to have been at particular pains to have rescued the images although all Nastik, and to have placed them where they might be saved from injury.”

The chief seat of the Mahant was found to be placed in the centre of the main courtyard, with an actual Tiger skin forming the seat which has the Masnads placed upon it. The chief seat is adorned with ancient statues, likely to have been recovered from the ruins. Photographs and paintings of old mahants are placed nearby and also in the balconies.


I walked in the gardens around the math, which are enclosed within a large wall. At one corner of the graden is a deep well, which is now dangerous to approach owing to the lack of repair over the years. Nearby are two small temples, one of which carries a large inscription probably in Sinhalese along with Pali characters. Nearby several staues were seen lying scattered below a tree and had been recently anointed with vermillion by some devotee. It was worthwhile to recall the account of Buchanan who has mentioned :-

“In a small building is an image of Gautoma and Mannat, near it in a wall have been built images of Sakimuni and Chandamuni. These three Munis are three of the admitted lawgivers among the Buddhs. Under one of the sides of the western gate is a flag containing a long inscription partly visible. In the wall of one of the courts has been built an inscription in the Pali character of the Burmas. In the wall of the south-east turret of the outer wall fronting the river, is built an image of Sakti, but having a necklace of Buddhs in place of human heads, with which she is represented in orthodox images. A short inscription partly defaced under her feet. Immediately north from the Dharmsaleh on a tower is a Buddh, with an inscription at his shoulders and another at his feet. In the wall south from the gate facing the river is a large female figure with many heads and arms. It is allowed to be Nastik and to have been taken from the ruins. In a small chamber on the north side of the same gate is an image standing with a short inscription. The number of Munis built into the wall is very great.”

Visit to the Jagannath Temple 

(in front of the Mahabodhi Temple)


Jagganath Temple

I visited the temple of Jagannath, which is located just in front of the gate by which the tourist enters the premises of the Mahabodhi temple. During his visit Buchanan had described the Jagannath temple, which at his time was not very old as follows:-


West from the north end of the convent of the Gosaigns, on the ruins of the old palace of Asoka Dherma, has been erected a large building, constructed lately but at different periods and containing two temples, one of Jagannath the other of Ram, built according to an inscription by Ganga Bai. In the wall of the temple of Jagannath is also built an inscription but it has been taken from the ruins, Jagannath having been built by the present occupant’s father. The building on the whole respectable in size. It has no endowment. The ruin of the palace is very large. It has had a ditch, but no cavity is to be observed within.”

At present the old temples are in ruins, and a board has been put up warning the visitor not to enter the temples due to the risk of its collapse. Between the two old temples a modern structure of the Jagannath temple has come up, and some construction work was ongoing. There is vacant space just behind the temple which is lying unutilized. Several pilgrims were seen in the temple premises along with locals who seemed to be using the place for relaxation. The temple is uniquely located just in front of the Mahabodhi temple, and needs to be well maintained in order to preserve the overall bearing of the site. Access to the temple may also be controlled properly for keeping the premises clean. Some sculptures and ruins of older Buddhist temple were found lying below an old banyan tree, and the place being used as a relaxation point. A wooden Rath of Jagannath was seen covered with plastic sheet within the premise.


The Mahabodhi temple and other Structures 

Spire of the temple being laid in Gold, 2013

Spire of the temple being laid in Gold, 2013


t is now time to describe the main shrine of Buddhist pilgrimage, which was lost till about two centuries earlier. The ruins around the Mahabodhi temple were not still understood in the times of Buchanan, and were thought to be the ruins of a large palace built by Asoka, who then was a legendary ruler shrouded in mystery. Regarding the ruins he mentions:-

I have already mentioned that west from the north of the Sannyasis’ convent, there are traces of a very large building called the Rajasthan or the palace of Dharma Asoka. These extend about 1300 feet from east to west and about 1000 from north to south. On the east, north and west sides are the traces of a ditch, and on the west and south sides there are traces of an outer wall with a ditch between it and the palace, but by far the greater part seems to have been a very large castle probably containing many small courts, as the ruin, except on the sides where there are traces of a double wall, is everywhere an uniform terrace consisting chiefly of bricks now covered with soil. Immediately south from the palace and separated only from it by a road was the temple of Buddh, which by the messengers from Ava was called Mahabuddh, (it) has been about 800 feet from east to west and about 480 from north to south, and it also seems to have been composed of various courts now mostly reduced to irregular heaps of bricks and stones, as immense quantities of materials have been taken away.”

The Ancient Vajrasana


Underneath the Bodhi tree was placed, perhaps by the Emperor Asoka in the 3rd Century BC, a polished sandstone slab called as Vajrasana or “Diamond Throne” representing the seat of the Buddha, and around it was erected a stone railing (now seen in the Archaelogical Museum nearby) in the 1st century BC. The Vajrasana was still in existence during the visit of Hieun Tsang in 637 A.D.

While removing the supporting buttress, against the western wall of the Great Temple, in the course of repairs and renovation in 1880, Beglar and Cunningham found, placed against the wall, a polished Vajrasana throne of grey sandstone. Its upper surface is carved with geometrical patterns, circular in the middle, with a double border of squares, while the four sides are richly carved with pigeons and the conventional acanthus flowers and the geese usually seen on Asoka’s capitals. On the narrow edges of its upper surface is an illegible votive inscription in early Brahmi script intended to record a gift of the throne. Underneath it was discovered a brick platform 3’4” in height ornamented, on its sides, with figures of men and lions. Inside the masonry of the brick platform, in the middle of its front face, was found a ball of stiff clay which, when broken, yielded a number of gold and silver objects, gems and pearls including a hollow golden amulet imitating the obverse motif of a coin of Huvishka on both its faces and 5 punch marked coins. While removing the plaster on the platform it was further noticed that the mortar “instead of being composed of sand and lime, consisted of coarsely pounded coral mixed with small fragments of sapphire, crystal, pearl and ivory, bounded together with lime”, obviously indicating that this shrine or the Vajrasana was held in the highest veneration and sanctity.

Cunningham states that “it would seem that it (i.e. the polished sandstone slab of the Throne) did not occupy its original position and I believe that it must once have formed the upper slab of the sandstone throne which was found inside Asoka’s Temple”. He would further date both the brick-platform and the Great Temple to the reign of the Indo-Scythian King Huvishka. Barua, however, assigns both the sandstone slab and the platform to the beginning of the Christian era and would attribute their erection to the lady Kurangi, the sandstone portion of which may have originally enclosed the Vajrasana Temple.

The Mahabodhi temple

Cunningham mentions (1861) “ Immediately to the east of the Pipal tree there is a massive brick temple, near 50 feet square at base and 160 feet in height from the granite floor of the lower story to the top of its broken pinnacle (The pinnacle was later restored). This is beyond all doubt the Vihar, from 160 to 170 feet in height, described by Hieun Tsang as standing to the east of the Bodhi tree. It was built of bluish bricks plastered with lime; it was ornamented with niches in stages, each niche holding a golden statue of Buddha, and was crowned with an amalaka fruit in gilt copper. The existing temple, both in size and appearance, corresponds so exactly with this description, that I feel quite satisfied it must be the identical temple that was seen by Hieun Tsang.

Bodh Gaya was visited by another Chinese traveller Fa-Hien between the years 399 to 414 A.D., but his account is brief. However, the account of Fa-Hien shows that there was no temple in existence then. Fa-Hien noted the spot where Buddha seated on a stone under a great tree, ate some rice presented to him by two maidens.

In an inscription dated A.D. 948 (translated by Charles Wilkins), the record ascribed building of the temple, and the erection of the image of the Buddha, to the illustrious Amara-deva, who is stated to be one of the nine gems of the court of King Vikramaditya. This makes his identification as Amara Sinha, who as a contemporary of Varaha mihira and Kalidas, must have lived in 500 A.D.

How and when the Great Temple was erected in relation to this earlier Vajrasana Temple has not been satisfactorily explained so far. It appears, however, clear that the erection of this great temple, of much larger dimensions, involved dismantling of the sandstone railing, which previously enclosed a smaller quadrangle with the Vajrasana Temple and the Bodhi Tree inside. Further it is obvious that as a part of the scheme of the new construction a far larger length of railing was required which was provided by additions, as seen in the granite portion of the existing railing. Hieun Tsang gives a vivid description of the Great Temple as seen by him and has also handed down the tradition, current in his time, of the history of its construction. He says “On the site of the present Vihara Asoka-raja, at first, built a small vihara. Afterwards there was a Brahman votary of Siva-Maheshwara who reconstructed it on a large scale”. He then adds that a younger brother of the Brahman excavated the tank, called Buddha Pokhar, on the south, while a Brahman sculptor was employed by the builder for the purpose of executing the beautiful image of the Buddha enshrined inside. About the name and history of this Brahmin builder of the Great Temple Hieun Tsang does not give any more details. He further indicated that the railing was enlarged by King Punarvarman of Magadha some time after Sasanka’s death. The pilgrim’s statements have, however, not been corroborated by a more authentic evidence and in the circumstances it would suffice to say that the temple and the enlarged railing existed in his time and were erected some time before his visit to it in early 7th century AD.

The Great Temple as it exists now, with the restoration work carried out by Cunningham and Beglar, in 1880, consists in plan of the main shrine chamber, with a narrow passage through the thickness of the wall, an ante chamber and portico in front. The temple is built on a slightly raised terrace paved with granite stone slabs with large-size bluish bricks plastered all over their surfaces. The exterior face of the walls and of the lofty spire above them are ornamented with horizontal tiers or rows of niches, done in plaster, each niche once holding a stucco image of the Buddha perhaps gilded over in gold. Many of the images have disappeared.


The reference to the Mahabodhi temple as mentioned by Buchanan is interesting. He mentions:-

“The great Mandir is a very slender quadrangular pyramid or spire placed upon a square terrace from 20 to 30 feet high. Except ornaments, the whole has been built of brick, but it has been covered with plaster and as usual in Hindu buildings has been minutely subdivided into numberless projecting corners, niches, and petty mouldings. The niches seem to have each contained an image of a Buddh in plaster, and on each projecting corner has been placed a stone somewhat in the shape of a bee-hive and representing a temple. On one of the sides of these small temples is a door much ornamented and a cavity containing the image of a Muni, and on the three other sides are niches containing similar images. The number of these small temples scattered all over the neighbourhood for miles is exceedingly great. The Mondir has had in front a porch containing two stairs leading up to two stories that the temple contained, but the roof has fallen in, and almost every part of the Mondir is rapidly hastening to decay, except the northern and western sides of the terrace, which have (been) very recently repaired by a Maratah chief. The reason of this repair is that on the east side of the terrace there grew a pipal tree which the Buddhs call Buddh Brup, and some of them allege that it was planted by a King of Singala before the temple was built, while the Burma messengers alleged that it  was planted by Asoka Dharma. The orthodox with equal probability allege that it was planted by Brahma, and it is an object of worship with all. It is a fine tree in full vigour, and in all probability cannot exceed 100 years in age, and had probably sprung from the ruins long after they had been deserted. A similar tree however may have existed there when the temple was entire. Around the roots has been raised a circular heap of brick and plaster in various concentric stages, and on one of these have been placed, in a confused heap, various images and carved fragments of stone taken from the ruins. On the pedestal of one of the images representing what the orthodox call Hargauri, the messengers of Ava engraved their names and the date of their arrival.”

The above reference reflects the understanding and actual condition of those times.

The sanctum inside the Great Temple is double storied and has a vaulted roof plastered over and ornamented with rows of panels each containing a small Buddha figure. Along its western wall is a raised pedestal of black basalt for the enshrined image of the Buddha, with the granite paved floor in its front. The floor slabs bear carvings of figures of pilgrims, on their knees, facing the pedestal and holding the flags or offerings. The Shiva-linga installed later, is placed in the centre of the sanctum. The ante-chamber in front of the sanctum and the entrance porch have, both of them, vaulted roofs. The total height of the building from the basement floor to the top of the pinnacle is about 160 feet.

Regarding the inner sanctum sanctorum, Buchanan during his visit mentioned :-

“The original stairs leading upto the terrace were through the porch which has fallen, but the stairs are still entire and for Hindu workmen tolerably easy; but the access to a holy place through a heterodox temple appeared so improper to the Mahrattah who repaired the terrace that he has constructed a new stair on the outside. The chamber in the Mundir on the ground story is very small, and is covered by a gothic arch, the plaster work on which has been divided into small compartments, each containing the image of a Muni. The whole far end of the chamber has been occupied by a throne (Simhasana) of stone in a very bad taste, which has however been much disfigured by a row of images taken from the ruins and built upon the front of the throne on which the image of Mahamuni is seated. The image consists of clay, and is so vastly rude in comparison with all the other images as to favour very much the truth of a current tradition of the image having been gold and having been taken away by the Muhammadans. In fact the present image would appear to have been made after the sect had felt persecution and were no longer able to procure tolerable workmen. The two chambers above this temple are no longer accessible, but many people about the place remember the porch entire, and have been often in them. The second story has a throne at its far end, but no image. The uppermost was empty. These three chambers do not occupy one-half of the spire, even in its present reduced state. It may perhaps be 150 feet high, but is not to be compared with the great temples in Pegu. There is nothing in this work to induce one to believe that it has been originally constructed of ruins. All parts not evidently quite modern are built with the symmetry which shows their materials to have been intended for the parts they now occupy. The outer door of the porch is indeed composed of various fragments rudely placed together, but that is said to have been done after the roof fell in and broke down the door.”


During the last 1400 years or more after its construction, the temple had undergone additions, renovations, restorations and repairs of which the following are more important and are referred to in the inscriptions from the temple viz.

  1. By a monk named Prakhyata-Kirtti, belonging to the Sri Lankan royal family, who did the new coating of plaster and paint in the 7th century
  1. By King Kyanzittha of Pagan, Upper Burma (Myanmar), who got some repairs done between 1084-1112 AD.
  1. By King Letyaminnan of Arban who, sometime in the 12th century caused certain repairs to the temple and perhaps the railing also.
  1. By King Bodawpaya or some other King of Ava (Mandalay) in early 19th century AD.
  1. Thorough repair and restoration by Cunningham and Beglar in 1880. The fallen spire was completely restored and the corner turrets added at the four corners.

In addition to the sacred tree and the ancient railings and the temples there are numerous votive stupas, chaityas, remains or traces of other shrines and another tree, now sacred to the Hindus, inside the premises of the Great Temple. Numerous sculptures, carvings and inscription slabs were also found in course of repairs and other excavations in the court-yard and debris of the temple. Some of them were shifted to the Indian Museum at Kolkata, while others are seen in the Archaeological Museum nearby. Several other items are also seen in the temples nearby and in the Math, which seem to have originated directly from the premises of the great temple.

The Bodhi Tree

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The sacred Pipal (ficus religiosa) tree is variously mentioned in Buddhist literature as Samboddhi,Mahabodhi or Bodhidruma. It is believed to have been in existence since the days of Siddhartha. Tradition recounts that it was destroyed by Tishyarakshita, queen of Emperor Asoka, who got it revived immediately. Hieun Tsang has described that the Bodhi tree was first destroyed by Asoka, before his conversion to Buddhism, and afterwards by his queen, but was miraculously renewed on each occasion. Asoka then surrounded it with a stone wall 12 feet high, which was seen by Hieun Tsang.  It was again uprooted by King Sasanka of Bengal around 600 A.D., but the King Purnavarma of Magadha revived it soon after in around 610 A.D. In 1811, Buchanan found it in full vigour and was according to him possibly 100 years old at that time. In 1862, Cunninghamsaw it much decayed, while in 1876 it was completely destroyed in a storm but a young scion of the parent tree took its place. It seems that there must have been a succession of fresh trees raised from the seeds of the earlier one ever since the times of Asoka to the present day.

The Stone Railing

Remains of a massive Stone Railing, is found enclosing the Great Temple on three sides along its basement, the western side being provided with a small entrance facing the Bodhi Tree inside. The railing consists of pillars or uprights with mortice holes to hold cross bars and with copings on the top. The total height of the railing from ground level is about 10 feet. Part of the railing is sandstone while part is of granite. Some of the uprights and cross-bars and many of the copings have disappeared. The railing bears carvings such as sculpted panels, medallions, other ornamental patterns, those on the sandstone portion differing materially from those on the granite portion. The former contain relieves representing scenes from the Buddha’s life, the sacred tree, the Dharma Chakra or wheel, the Stupa, the Gaja-Lakshmi, the Sun God with his horse-drawn chariot and human figures like Kings, merchants, devotees etc. The latter contain mostly ornamental motifs or details such as eagles, Kirtti-mukhas, chaityas etc. characteristic of the Gupta period (4th to 5thcenturies BC).

The sandstone portion of the railing contains many inscriptions – seventeen of them referring to a noble lady Kurangi as the donor, three to Sirima (two of them jointly with Kurangi), another female donor, one to Nagadevi, wife of King Brahmamitra and three others referring to gifts of persons named Amogha, Bodharakshita, and an unknown person whose name is not legible. Besides these there are other three inscriptions on the sandstone copings viz. a. of an unknown donor recording endowment to the temple and adorning it with painting and plaster (6th / 7thcentury), b. of Prakhyata-Kirtti, a monk belonging to the Royal family of Sri Lanka (6th /7thcentury), and c. of Jindasa, a Buddhist monk from Parvata, i.e. Multan in Punjab (now in Pakistan), in Devanagari characters (probably 15th/ 16th century AD).

On a closer examination the railing shows two stages in its erection, viz

  1. the original one consisting of the sandstone portion only and enclosing a smaller quadrangle with the Bodhi Tree and the Diamond Throne inside, erected very probably by the noble lady Kurangi of the above mentioned inscriptions, who was wife of King Kaushikiputra Indragnimitra of about 1st century BC.
  1. Enclosing a larger quadrangle, with the Great Temple inside, in addition to the Bodhi Tree and the Diamond Throne, by the removal of the earlier railing posts and by the addition of the granite portion erected probably by the King Punarvarman of Magadha in the 7th century A.D.  The existing railing represents the second stage except for the missing parts and for certain minor additions and changes made by a Burmese mission in the course of later repairs. Of the missing parts, 3 pillars are in the Kensingston Museum, London, and 3 or 4 pillars in the Indian Museum, Kolkata.

The Bageshwari and Tara Devi Temples

The structures seen adjacent to the main temple are also historic and were in existence in the times of Buchanan as they are today. Buchanan traces the origins of these structures, which in his words is:-

“The largest heap now remaining is at the north east corner, where there is a very large terrace on which are two modern small temples. The one to the east is called Bageswori, and was erected by one of the Mahants of the convent. The image was dug up from the ruins and obtained an orthodox name. It had been employed before as an ornament, not as an object of worship. The temple of Tara Devi is towards the west, and its history is the same.”

Cunningham (1861) has mentioned that the Tara Devi temple contained only a standing male figure with a short inscription over the right shoulder of about 1000 A.D. The Bageshwari temple contained a seated male figure, holding a lotus in his left hand, and a sword in his uplifted right hand, with a Buddhist tope on each side of him. The temples were erected by the ancestors of the Mahant of the Bodh Gaya Math. The site of Bageswari has been pointed out to be the site of theAnimesh Lochana Chaitya or “fixed gaze shrine” of the Buddhist tradition, where it is believed, Buddha stood steadfast gazing fixedly on the scene of his enlightenment in the second week after the memorable event. Cunningham, however identified this sacred spot with a large basement immediately to the north of the Ratn Chakraman Sthala and on the other side of the railing.

Ratn Chakraman Sthal or the Jewel Walk Shrine


According to Buddhist tradition, immediately after enlightenment, Buddha walked to and fro, near the sacred tree, for seven days. The spot where he so walked was considered sacred and a shrine was built probably by the noble lady Kurangi, in about the 1st century B.C. called as the Ratn-chankraman-chaitya (represented in bas-relief at Bharhut Stupa). The spot is situated close to the north of the Bodhi tree within the area enclosed by the existing railing. The remains now consist of a brick platform bearing on its upper surface carvings of two lotus flowers each representing, serially, a footprint of the Buddha. Traces of a pillared structure over the platform are also visible in the surviving bases and in one pillar still standing in situ and bearing representation of a beautiful female figure on one of its sides. From its representation in the Bharhut reliefs, it seems that the superstructure was an open pillared hall canopied by a flat or gabled roof.

This was discovered during the restoration work in 1880. Cunningham mentions that he first had thought these to be parts of the temple built by Asoka, but later discovered its true significance since it was seen to be covered by a roof. These pillars were marked by a letter of the Asokan alphabets.

The Hindu Monastery, Temples and samadhis


Just in front of the Mahabodhi temple is built a samadhi of the founding Mahant Shri Ghamandi Giri. The Samadhi is a construction of the early seventeenth century. Buchanan mentions:-

“South from thence has been a tank. West from these two masses of buildings has been a court surrounding the two principal objects of worship, that is, a Pipal tree placed on the west side of a terrace forming the lower part of a (Mondir) spire or pyramid, containing the image of Mahamuni. The arched way led from the cast into this area in front of the great Mondir. On the right in entering is a small brick chamber, probably modern, and containing no image. On the left are two small chambers, both modern. That nearest the entrance contains several large images said to have been taken from the ruins and built into the wall. Five of them represent in the usual sitting posture adopted by the Buddhists to represent their Munis are said by both the orthodox and heterodox to represent the five sons of Pandu, who are claimed by all sects. The other small chamber is the tomb (Somadh) of the first Mahant of the convent of Sannyasis.”

Cunningham (1861) mentions

 “Close to the Great temple there is a small plain Samadh or cenotaph, over the remains of the earliest Brahmanical Mahant. This is of no interest in itself, but the vestibule in front is supported on nine square sand-stone pillars, which have once formed part of a Buddhist railing, similar to those at Sanchi near Bhilsa, and which cannot be of much later date than Asoka. Many similar pillars, but of granite, support the arcades in one of the courts of the Mahant’s residence. A few of them bear an inscription in the ancient Pali characters of Asoka’s well known records, Ayaye Kuragiye danam, i.e. “Gift to the holy Kuragi”. There are altogether 33 of these pillars still remaining, of which five or six bear the inscription.”  

Goasin Ghamandi Giri belonged to one of the seven orders of the Saivite Sanyasins of the Shankaracharya’s school. It is said, in the course of his pilgrimage, Ghamandi Giri came to the Mahabodhi premises in about 1590 AD, and was so attracted by its solitude that he selected it as the place of his religious devotion. He was the first Mahant or founder of the Hindu Math or monastery. In about 1727, the then Mahant received,  by royal firman from the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, the grant of the village Tardih where the ruins stood, and thus acquired possession of the shrine. Ghamandi Giri, the founder of the Math, was buried in front of the Mahabodhi Temple, and a shrine or Samadhi was erected over the spot, which still exists. To the east of the Mahabodhi temple is the Math of the Mahants which is still under occupation. Inside the Math area are a number of Hindu temples built in the course of the last two or three centuries. There are also the samadhis of the other Mahants and Sanyasins.

Buddha Pada

Buchanan mentions :-

“Before the porch of the great Mondir is a stone containing the impressions of the feet of a Buddh, and called Buddh Pada, and round it have been heaped many images. Among these, one representing a Muni has a short inscription under its legs; another has an inscription round the head. A male figure with two arms, having the figure of a Muni sitting on his head, has an inscription round his head and another below his feet. Adjacent to the Buddha Pada is lying a stone with a transverse inscription.”


Cunningham (1861) mentioned about the Buddha Pada as being the same as the one referred to as Vishnu-pad in the Amara Deva’s inscription. He mentions that originally the feet may have been those of the Buddha, which, on the decline of Buddhism, were quietly appropriated to Vishnu by the accommodating Brahmins. There is a short Nagari inscription on the east side of the stone, giving the date of Saka 1230 i.e. 1308 A.D.

The Muchalinda Sarovar


Cunningham (1861) mentions “To the south-east of the Great Temple there is a small tank called Bodhokar Tal, which exactly answers the description given by the Chinese pilgrim of the tank of the dragon Muchalinda. The agreement is so striking, that it was seen at once by the members of the Burmese Embassy.”

According to Buddhist tradition, Muchalinda is named after a Naga Raja who protected the Buddha while engrossed in meditation, after his enlightenment.

This article was first posted at Silent Pages.