Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment

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Mahabodhi Temple has all the teachings of Lord Buddha. One of my favourites is – “What you think, you become. What you feel, you attract. What you imagine, you create.” And with this thought, I wished to explore my journey towards spirituality & enlightenment in the UNESCO-claimed world heritage. After multiple snoozing of my alarm, at long last, I woke up at 6 am. It was cold, but somehow I managed to pluck out of bed & get into the shower. It was 7 am by the time I stepped out of my room, and the essence of brewing coffee filled me with rapture. I walked towards the hotel restaurant- Saffron, for a hot steaming cup of coffee & some cookies. Immediately I was all set to explore the Maha Bodhi temple. It was a misty & windy morning; I quickly crossed roads and walked towards the Mahabodhi temple.


 At the entry of the Mahabodhi temple premises, there’s a cloakroom; a shoe stands since you need to leave them outside the Temple and a locker to keep mobile phones as it’s not allowed inside the complex. However, cameras are allowed inside for a fee of 100 rupees for hand cameras and 300 rupees for video cameras. I purchased my ticket and entered the sprawling complex. Being an international holy site, security arrangements were in place with check posts to screen visitors. The morning at the Temple greeted me with fragrant marigolds, roses and lotuses, and uncountable ochre and red-robed shaven-headed Buddhist monks and nuns prostrate in prayer in and around the main grounds temple. Besides, a smattering of tourists quietly joins the circumambulations around the main Temple—a mesmerizing sight.

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment
Entrance to Mahabodhi Temple

BUDDHAM SARANAM GACCHÃMI, DHARMMAM SARANAM GACCHÃMI, SANGG̣HAM SARANAM GACCHÃMI” –was the only chant in the breeze, the mantra accentuated with the crescendo beats of rattle drums, not even one voice out of sync. And it was no particular day, just like another day of wintertime. However, I was part of an extraordinary experience, witnessing Buddhists from all corners of the world visiting the Temple to pay homage to where Buddha received enlightenment. I first walked towards the Bodhi tree. The air here was saturated with the smells of burning butter lamps, incense sticks and fragrances emanating from the physical structures of the devotees seated or passing by. 

Flower Lade Winter morning

Lost in my ruminations, I forgot to move aside, blocking the way for other people. I realize their attention is concentrated on a tree, the Pippala tree (Botanical name: Ficus religious or sacred fig) or the Peepal tree. The original tree died or was destroyed, and the present Bodhi Tree is said to be a descendant of the original one- well, you can call this a grandchild, which was planted at the time of restoration work carried out by the British in the 19th century.  However, Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta brought a sapling of it to Sri Lanka, and this tree is from a sapling of the sapling.

Monks Seating around the Bodhi Tree

What grabbed my attention was many Buddhist sitting crosses-legged right under the tree, deep in meditation on this cold December morning. A blanket would have been nice. The thought passed over my mind. Anyway, I, too, acquired a seat in front of them and stared amusedly at the tree like a kid. At last, I sit under the tree where Lord Buddha spent his first Week & had his enlightenment. It’s the same tree where a young ascetic seated himself cross-legged 2,600 years ago, determined to find the Truth. Quite Interesting! I saw a podium attached to the main Temple adjacent to the Bodhi Tree.

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment

It’s made of polished sandstone known as Vajrasana (the Diamond Throne), initially installed by Emperor Asoka in 3rd BC to mark the spot as Buddha sat and thought over here. He achieved enlightenment at this place on a moon night in 527 BC. Also, this site under the Bodhi Tree was encircled by a sandstone balustrade. Now a few original pillars of the barrier are intact; they contain carvings of sculpted human faces, creatures, and decorative details. Looking around further up towards the main Temple is a small shrine with a standing Buddha and its footprints (Padas) carved in black rock. Emperor Asoka declared Buddhism the country’s religion in the 3rd century BC, and thousands of such footprint stones were installed all over his kingdom.

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment

On the other side is a raised area, which is the Animeshlochan Chaitya (prayer hall), where Buddha is thought to have spent the Second Week. From there, he gazed unblinkingly at the Bodhi tree in awe and gratitude. In the Third Week, Buddha walked eighteen paces by the Temple’s north wall, between the Bodhi tree and Animeshlochana Chaityain called Ratnachakrama (the Jewelled Ambulatory). It is said lotus flowers sprang up where his feet met the ground. There are raised stones where lotuses are carved on a platform to mark his steps. 

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment

The Fourth Week is spent in Ratnaghar Chaitya, located to the Temple’s northeast, where Buddha was contemplating the Truth. Blue, yellow, scarlet, and white rays are believed to have emanated from him as he meditated. These colours now make up the Buddhist flag. Towards the main path, there is a column marking the Ajapala Nigrodh Tree site. During the fifth week Buddha meditated, answering the queries of Brahmans.

Ratnaghar Chaitya

Lord Buddha spent his sixth Week next to the Lotus Pond just outside the temple complex enclosure. King Muchhalinda, the serpent King, protected him from a severe storm here. And the Seventh Week he spent under the Rajyatana Tree, to the southeast of the main Temple, currently marked by a tree- where two merchants, Tapussa and Bhallika—offered Buddha rice cake and honey. The very first to hear his doctrines.

Lotus Pond

As I walked towards the Temple’s gateway, its a central route, initially built by Emperor Ashoka but later rebuilt. The building towards the main Temple houses several statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas.A cluster of votive stupas built by noblemen, kings, princes, and laypeople could be seen towards the south pathway. At this place are seven locations marked by simple markers scattered across the complex. It is said Buddha spent a week at each post after his enlightenment. It takes time to locate these places, even with a guidebook or a guide in person. Each location falls in place as you walk around. After spending enough time around the Bodhi tree & rest area, I moved towards the main Temple.

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment
Route to the main Temple

The Mahabodhi temple is one of the four holy sites related to the lifetime of Lord Buddha. The Temple was initially constructed in the 3rd century by Emperor Ashoka; however, the current Temple dates from the 5th-6th century. Being an early Buddhist temple hence was built entirely in brick yet stood tall from the Gupta period. The building has had a significant influence on the development of brick architecture over centuries. 

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment
Mahabodhi Temple

Over 900 years since it served as a centre of Buddhism, the Sinhalese (Sri Lankans) maintained the Temple. The Burmese attempted to take over this role after the Temple between the 13th and 19th centuries. Even the last Burmese King did send missionary work to repair the Temple and build a monastery in 1877. But by then, the Mahabodhi temple was widely known for its enormous history and architectural significance. On the other hand, the British colonial government advised the Burmese mission on the restoration work, and the famous British archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham was part of it.

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment
Entrance to Mahabodhi Temple

But since the Anglo-Burmese war broke out, the mission had to depart, resulting in the Britishers stopping the work themselves. Also, the restored structure did not match the original temple architecture. Furthermore, some of the choicest Buddha statues, stupas and other antiquities were shipped away to museums abroad. Later the Sri Lankan Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Mahabodhi Society in 1891. And a campaign was started where the temple control was asked to be returned to Buddhists. Finally, in 2002, UNESCO declared Bodhgaya a World Heritage Site. The Grand Mahabodhi temple is 50m high, with intricate carvings all over the crest.

The architecture

The entry to the Temple is from the east, where the lower basement is decorated with honeysuckle and geese design mouldings. A series of niches above the basement contains Buddha images. Above these are Chaitya niches; Amalaka and Kalasha designs surmount the curvilinear Shikhara of the temple. While Mahabodhi temple’s four parapets have four Buddha statues in small shrine chambers. The beauty will leave you amazed. On the left, I saw a large bronze bell as I proceeded to the Temple. The bell was cast by King Mindon Min of Burma which was inscribed on it. It was brought to Bodh Gaya by the mission he sent in 1877 for the Temple’s restoration work. And here I remained firm in front of the most sacred Temple in the Buddhist world- The Mahabodhi.

The bronze bell

A doorway leads into a small vestibule, and the sanctum contains a gilded statue of the seated Buddha holding earth as witness to his achieved enlightenment. To begin with, a more miniature shrine was discovered, dated to 160 AD. And was made up of gold and precious and semi-precious stones. But they found another shrine made of sandstone, which was believed as the original seat. And part of the Mahabodhi temple was initially built by Ashoka in the 2nd century BC. These were found during the renovation work done by the British. 

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment
Glided Statue of Buddha Holding Earth

The original statue placed on the seat was called the Mahabodhi Image, the most famous statue in the ancient universe. Even in the 7th C, when a prominent Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang, visited this Temple, he detailed the figure. Merely in the 11th century, the Muslim invaders took away the statue. The present statue was set up in one of the ancient buildings near the temple complex. It was placed here by British archaeologist Joseph Beglar (who supervised the restoration work) at the request of Sir Alexander Cunnigham. 

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment
Buddha’s Holy Figure

Well, the gems of the Mahabodhi Temple Complex are not flagrant. Much like Buddha’s Truth, they lie hidden, but once revealed, they add a new meaning to the place and liveliness. This seat has an intangible treasure which takes one’s breath away. It took away mine, for sure. The cumulative energy of people bound in a belief of selflessness and compassion, with focused meditations and prostrations, is unbelievable. I saw an undivided devotion to a teacher for what the Lord Buddha was known, as he never claimed to be God. It reminded me of a Buddha saying-” The mind is everything; what you think you become.” 

Mahabodhi Temple: A Journey to Enlightment
Monk Meditating

I wished to spend some more time, had to leave for Rajgir and Nalanda. Leaving the Temple, I realized it isn’t easy to attain enlightenment. As in this state, one is entirely free from lust (raga), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha), but not impossible to attain it. It’s a quest to understand the causes of human suffering and how to free oneself of them, and this quest makes a human disciplined and humble.

How to Reach:

By Air: 

The nearest airport is Gaya Airport, 17 km away from Bodhgaya. Patna is another airport approximately 135 kilometres away from Bodhgaya. A cab can be hired outside the airport.

By Rail. 

Gaya Junction is the nearest railhead, which is 13 kilometres away from Bodh Gaya. A taxi can be hired outside the station, or even local buses can opt. 

By Road: 

The roads are well connected with Bodh Gaya. Bus(standard as well as deluxe buses) of Bihar State Tourism Corporation ply twice daily from Patna to Bodh Gaya. Buses also ply from Nalanda, Rajgir, Varanasi and Kathmandu. Even a new line of luxury air-conditioned Volvo buses has been introduced that connect Bodh Gaya with nearby towns and cities. You can self-drive or take cab services from various operators. But only a few drives as the road connecting to Gaya is rough and uncomfortable to drive on the rocky path.


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