Skip to main content

Mahabodhi Temple


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.


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.

Cunningham, Alexander. Mahābodhi or the Great Buddhist Temple under the Bodhi Tree at Buddha-Gaya. London, 1892.

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

Mitra, Rajendralala. Buddha-Gaya: The Great Buddhist Temple, the Hermitage of Sakya Muni. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press, 1878. Reprint, Delhi: Indological Book House, 1972.

Myer, Prudence. "The Great Temple at Bodhgaya." Art Bulletin 40 (1958): 277–278.

Leela Aditi Wood

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Mahabodhi Temple." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . 19 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Mahabodhi Temple." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . (April 19, 2019).

"Mahabodhi Temple." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. . Retrieved April 19, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.