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Bodh Gaya


The Buddha attained complete and perfect enlightenment while seated on the diamond throne (vajrasana) under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gayā. Also called the seat of enlightenment (bodhimaṇḍa), this throne is said to be located at the earth's navel, the only place on earth that rests directly on the primordial layer of golden earth supporting the cosmos. Only there can the earth support a buddha undergoing full enlightenment without breaking apart. The bodhimaṇḍa numbers among the numerous invariables in all buddhas' biographies, which have only three distinguishing features. These are the genus of their bodhi trees, and the places of their births and deaths. Hence, individual buddhas are identified with and by their particular bodhi trees, Śākyamuni's being the pipal tree (ficus religiosa).

The enlightenment is further ritualized and solemnized by its being embedded in an elaborate sequence of actions, beginning with Siddhārtha's decision to abandon physical austerities and to follow the middle way. Despite the site's extent, the ground is thick with sacred traces of the Buddha performing these actions. According to the Chinese pilgrims Faxian (ca. 337–418 c.e.) and Xuanzang (ca. 600–664 c.e.), individuals hailing from different places and eras erected stŪpas, pillars, railings, temples, and monasteries to memorialize deeds and places. An example is the jewel-walk, one of the seven spots where the Buddha spent one week of his sevenweek experience of enlightenment.

Though the emperor AŚoka probably established Bodh Gayā and the bodhi tree as Buddhism's most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site and object, the earliest extant remains and inscriptions are Śuṅgan (second to first century b.c.e.). Recording three Śuṅgan noblewomen's donations to the King's Temple, its railing and the jewel-walk posts, these inscriptions inaugurate an ongoing domestic and foreign tradition of donations and repairs. Early inscriptions also record Sri Lankan, Burmese, and Chinese pilgrimage. For example, Sri Lankan donative activity began with King Meghavarman's building of the Mahābodhi Monastery (ca. fourth century c.e.) to house Sinhalese monks. Beginning in the eleventh century, the kings of Burma sent several expeditions to repair the temple.

Muslim invaders vandalized Bodh Gayā, probably before the last Burmese repair in 1295. The site remained desolate until the seventeenth century, when a Mahant settled there. Gaining ownership of the site, he salvaged its archaeological remains to build a Śaivate monastery near the Mahabodhi temple. The nineteenth century saw the resurgence of foreign Buddhist pilgrimage and Burmese reparative expeditions. The latter inspired British interest, resulting in colonial excavation and rebuilding in the 1880s. In 1891 AnagĀrika DharmapĀla founded the Mahābodhi Society in Sri Lanka to reestablish Buddhist ownership of the site. A lengthy legal battle ended victoriously in 1949. Today, Bodh Gayā is a thriving center of international Buddhism, attracting millions of Buddhist pilgrims every year from all over the world. Continuing a long-standing tradition, Buddhist sects throughout Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma [Myanmar], Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan) have established flourishing missions and built and repaired monasteries and temples there.

See also:Bodhi (Awakening)


Ahir, D. C. Buddha Gayā through the Ages. Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1994.

Barua, Benimadhab. Gayā and Buddha-Gayā, Vol. 1: Early History of the Holy Land (1931). Varanasi, India: Bhartiya, 1975.

Barua, Dipak Kumar. Buddha Gayā Temple: Its History. Buddha Gayā, India: Buddha Gayā Temple Management Committee, 1975. Second revised edition, 1981.

Beal, Samuel, trans. Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World, Translated from the Chinese of Hiuen Tsiang (a.d.629). London: Trubner, 1884. Reprint, Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp., 1969.

Bhattacharyya, Tarapada. The Bodhgayā Temple. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyah, 1966.

Legge, James, trans. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Being an Account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hsien of His Travels in India and Ceylon (a.d. 399–414) in Search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline. Oxford: Clarendon, 1886. Reprint, New York: Paragon, 1965.

Leoshko, Janice, ed. Bodhgaya: The Site of Enlightenment. Bombay: Marg, 1988.

Leela Aditi Wood

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