The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya has a very special place in the Buddhist religion. As it is believed to be where the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. Which (as I understand it) is when a Buddhist overcomes the human tendency for dissatisfaction. And discovers/uncovers their true self to achieve bodhi – awakening. Mahabodhi literally means “great awakening”.
But even if (like me…) you are a non-Buddhist, it’s still a very interesting, peaceful and scenic place to visit. Plus it’s a very photogenic location – both for its architecture and its visitors!
The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya – Buddha and the Backstory
Siddhartha Gautama is said to have arrived at Bodhgaya in his mid 30’s around 500 BC. Having renounced his status as a prince, together with its life of privilege and luxury, when he was 29.
He then set out to roam northern India for the five to six years seeking enlightenment. Which involved rigorous asceticism through extended breath-holding and long periods of fasting.
Eventually he wandered into Bodhgaya and seemingly found what he was looking for… A sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa) on the banks of the Phalgu River – which he sat beneath and began to meditate. It is said that the Buddha achieved his long sought after enlightenment after three days and three nights of intense meditation.
He then spent the next seven weeks at seven different spots in the area meditating further and considering his experience. As a result of all that the fig tree became the Bodhi Tree and Bodhgaya achieved its special status in Buddhism!
If you are interested in learning more about all that. Check out this link, which provides a nice explanation of the Enlightenment of the Buddha
The first temple built at Bodhgaya was constructed on the instructions of Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C. Some 200 years after the Buddha’s enlightenment. While the current temple was built around about the 5th century and is one of the earliest Buddhist temples constructed entirely in brick still remaining in India.
There have been numerous major repairs and restorations to the temple. With the most recent major restoration taking place at the end of the 19th century. Which was conducted under the supervision of Sir Alexander Cunningham, for the British government of India, and very much needed after the temple complex was left abandoned from the 13th to the 18th century.
The temple complex occupies about 5 hectares of land on the western bank of the Phalgu River at Bodhgaya in India’s Bihar state. Bodhgaya itself is a small town located about 115 km south of Patna, the state capital of Bihar.
By far, the defining feature of the complex is the Vajrasana – the 50 m high grand temple. It is built in the classic shikhara style that has continued with both Jain and Hindu temples to the present day.
I hired a car and driver to take me to Bodhgaya from Patna and bring me back the following day. Bihar is known as one of the poorest states in India and you definitely get a taste of that on the journey, which takes a couple of hours.
Apart from the Mahabodhi Temple I did not see much else of significant interest at Bodhgaya…
The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya – The People
For me personally, while I appreciate the architecture and setting of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya, the most significant aspects of it all is the peaceful serenity and overall atmosphere inside the complex.
As opposed to the usual chaotic Indian nature of things on the other side of the entrance gates. It’s a kind of digital one’s and zero’s situation with an almost instant change upon entry…
That serenity and atmosphere are hard to describe, as they are just feelings. But they are very tangible and are probably best illustrated by the people visiting the temple complex.
They range from monks in their colorful robes to nuns with closely shaven heads and their white robes.
Then there are extended families posing en-masse in front of the Vajrasana temple. And clearly very devout Buddhists performing their Kora by repeatedly prostrating themselves and basically crawling around the Vajrasana.
Clearly they all know they are in a very special location. One that means a huge amount to each of them, albeit for different reasons.
Their happiness at being there is real and very palpable. And it’s what radiates out and creates the serenity and overall atmosphere. Something that even a non-believer like myself can feel and appreciate!
The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya – Should You Go?
Well, I am certainly glad that I went there as it was an interesting experience. That said, I went there to take photographs. Something I was able to do without any hassles such as “sorry sir, but no tripods allowed”. So for me the answer is yes, you should go.
But, I was in Patna on business and was able to do the trip over the weekend…