Mahabodhi Temple

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The history of Mahābodhi, the temple located at the site of the Buddha's enlightenment at Bodh GayĀ, is a contested one. According to the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (ca. 600–664 c.e.), the imposing structure visible during his lifetime was built over a smaller temple erected by King AŚoka. A Bhārhut medallion shows a circular open structure enclosing the diamond throne and the bodhi tree above it. While the Aśokan pillar beside it suggests that it may represent the original Aśokan shrine, archaeological evidence for the latter is inconclusive. The large stone slab resembling the diamond throne of the Bhārhut relief recovered from the ruins might well be a conscious archaism.

The structural temple Xuanzang describes probably dates from the third to fifth centuries c.e. (late Kushan and Gupta dynasties). Myriads of tiered niches housing golden figures covered its soaring 170-foot high tower of whitewashed brick. Stringed pearl and celestial sages decorated its walls. A three-storied jeweled pavilion with projecting eaves abutted the east wall. Niches with ten-foot high silver figures of the bodhisattvas Maitreya and Avalokiteśvara flanked the outside gate, while a Buddha image twice that size occupied the sanctuary's massive diamond throne. The Buddha's earth-touching gesture (mudrĀ) represented the moment when the Buddha called the earth to witness his eligibility for enlightenment and MĀra was defeated. The new structure necessitated the removal of the bodhi tree from the sanctuary to a location outside the temple, which Gupta inscriptions called a mahāgandhakuṭī, or the great fragrant chamber where the Buddha resides. Thus, in Bodh Gayā by the fifth century, the bodhi tree as the primary locus of the Buddha's living presence was replaced by his residence, throne, and image.

The present Mahābodhi temple is a late nineteenth-century restoration of dubious authenticity. It has a tall central tower with a high arch over the entrance and identical smaller towers on each of its four corners. Evidence from India, Burma, and Thailand indicates that corner towers were present before the eleventh century. This evidence consists of a small eleventh-century model of the Mahābodhi from eastern India and of its four Burmese and Thai re-creations beginning in the eleventh century. In referencing the directions and the four continents, the corner towers intensify the central tower's kinship with Mount Sumeru, thereby reinforcing the seat of enlightenment's increasing importance over the tree at Bodh Gayā. By contrast, in Sri Lanka the bodhi tree at Anurādhapura remains the prime relic of the enlightenment. No major enclosed structure has diminished or usurped its primacy as one of Sri Lanka's two major Buddha relic-shrines. Its preeminence probably derives from the belief that it is the sapling from the original bodhi tree that Aśoka's missionary son brought to the island together with Buddhism.


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Leela Aditi Wood