Bodh Gaya

The Site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment

Lyle Vincent. Gate to Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya India.

Lyle Vincent. Gate to Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya India.

Bodh Gaya, found in the north-eastern province of Bihar in modern day India, is situated in Gaya District[i]. The Bodh Gaya lies right next to the Phalgu River in the southern part of the state known as Uruvela during the time of the Buddha. 

The oldest of these names is Sambodhi, meaning “complete enlightenment.”[ii] A more popular name, found in both Hindu and Buddhist documents was Vajrasana, which literally means “diamond throne” and today refers to the exact spot in which Buddha was enlightened[iii]. The most widely used and enduring name of Bodh Gaya’s is Mahabodhi, meaning “great enlightenment.” The main temple at the Bodh Gaya site is called the Mahabodhi temple still today.

Scared History

According to legend, after several years of wandering, ascetics practice, and contemplation on the nature of the universe, the Prince Gautama found himself in Bodh Gaya, were he sat beneath a “great tree to engage in ultimate meditation.” It was under what was later identified as a Bodhi tree that the Prince Gautama achieved enlightenment, and became known as the Buddha, which means the “Enlightened One”. Years later, after the Buddha announced “his imminent death” he admonished to his follower to go on pilgrimages to four places, one of which was Bodh Gaya, the place of his enlightenment[iv].

1280px-Bodhgaya_3640455476_ece9eaf386_tKen Wieland. The Vajrashila.

Official History

The scared history and “official” history of Bodh Gaya are extremely interconnected, given that Buddha is both a powerful religious figure and a historical person. Because there are incomplete records, and documentation it is difficult to term the exact history, and ownership of the temples at the Bodh Gaya site.


Anon. 1899 The Queen’s Empire. Vol 2. Cassell. Co. London

Both Buddhists and Hindus today claim the Bodh Gaya site as distinctly their own. The earliest monument at the site itself dates to the 3rd century BCE and credit for this monument is given to Emperor Ashoka[v]. As Buddhism declined throughout India in the 5th century CE, Bodh Gaya was still relatively popular and active . However, by around 1230 is it documented that Bodh Gaya had slipped out of Buddhist control, and had become an active place of Hindu worship under the direction of a Shaivite sect, who focus their worship on the god Shiva[vi].

It should be noted that by the sixteenth century, Buddhist practices were still be upheld and sustained by donations from pilgrims to the site, but for the most part, Bodh Gaya remained out of Buddhist control until the Buddhist “revival” in the late 19th century. Today, there is a lot of controversy around who has the “right over ownership” and historically precedence over the site. While this is a major source of conflict, for the most part the site is shared between Hindus and Buddhists today.


Mahabodhi Temple – Wonders of India.


Due to the vast number of additions throughout history, reconstructions, changes and adaptations there are numerous temples, shrines, monuments, sculptures and carvings within the Mahabodhi temple compound at Bodh Gaya.


Andrew Moore. Mahabodhi Temple Detail III.

Some of these monuments include the Shunga Railing, the monuments of the First Seven Weeks, which includes the Bodhi Tree, the Vajrasana, the Animeshalochana Chaitya, or Tara Temple, and the Jewel Walk and several different sculptures[vii].


Shefali11011. The most sacred place for Buddhists, Mahabodhi Temple.

Different aspects of the site incorporate different types of style, ranging from Gupta period in architecture, to Chinese and Sri Lankan influence in the styling of figurines and sculptures . The first temple was built by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE, however, the present temple dates from the fifth or sixth centuries . The Shunga Railing goes around the outside of the location that commemorates the Vajrasana, and is made up of a sandstone railing, standing at about 2 feet, which date to the first century BCE[viii].

The Vajrasana itself has changed over the years, and no longer include the original Bodhi tree that the Buddha sat under. Today an ornately decorated stone slab is located at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, dating back to about the 3rd century BCE[ix].

Bodhgaya Buddha Tree (Bodhi Tree).

Pilgrims Throughout History

Throughout history different people have been in charge of maintaining the structure of the site, and officiating rituals depending on if the site was under Buddhist control or Hindi.

Buddhist Man Meditating in Bodhgaya, Bihar, India

Jakub Michankow. Buddhist Man Meditating in Bodhgaya.

For example, in the sixth century, during a time in which it is documented that Bodh Gaya was quiet a large and popular temple, a community of Sinhalese Buddhist monks asserted considerable control over the site[x].The most important thing to note about the people who maintained and ran rituals, practice, and general “up keeping” of the site throughout history has mostly been the responsible of the pilgrims who came to the site.

All sorts of pilgrims throughout history have visited the site from throughout India, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and China[xi]. Today pilgrims, and tourist visit the site throughout the year in order to commemorate and witness were the Buddha was enlightened.

To some, just being at the Mahabodhi temple is considered a holy deed, and will help one achieve enlightenment, because of the vast amount of enlightened beings, yogis, and great Bodhisattvas that have made pilgrimage to the site[xii].

Practices and Worship


Eugene Kim. Cankamana.

Offerings are given throughout the year in dedication to a number of things, including personal dedications, preservation of pure Dharma, quick enlightenment, and find ultimate happiness . There is a seminal event, which occurs in the shade of the Bodhi tree, in which the roots of the original tree are official, commemorated.

There is also a nightly ritual, in which thousands of lights are placed around the Vajrasana and roots of the Bodhi tree at the temple today[xiii]. The lights are given in offering at dusk until dawn with other offering to the temple, and donations to the site. The Vajrasana also receives great veneration during the day, through Buddhist practicesspecific to the Vajrasana, meant to “elucidate the crystal-pure quality of true knowledge.”

graouhyogaBodhgaya buddhist chant festival.

Other activities that take place at the site include the Four Great Buddhist Festivals. These festivals include the 15 Days of Miracles, Lord Buddha’s Enlightenment and Parinivana or Saka Dawa, Lord Buddha’s First Teaching, Lord Buddha’s Actual Descent from God Realm of Thirty Three[xvi].

[i] Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia
[ii] Geary, David “Rebuilding the Navel of the Earth” Mod. Asian Stud, 2013 pg. 682
[iii] Geary, David “Rebuilding the Navel of the Earth” Mod. Asian Stud, 2013 pg. 681
[iv] Asher, Frederick  Bodh Gaya. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008 pg. 1
[v] Asher, Frederick  Bodh Gaya. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008 pg 6
[vi] Proser, Adriana Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art. New York: Asia Society, 2010, pg 10
[vii] Asher, Frederick  Bodh Gaya. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008 pg. 28
[viii] Proser, Adriana Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art. New York: Asia Society, 2010, pg 3
[ix] Proser, Adriana Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art. New York: Asia Society, 2010, pg 12
[x] Asher, Frederick  Bodh Gaya. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008 pg. 8
[xi] Asher, Frederick  Bodh Gaya. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008 pg. 65
[xii] Dhammika “History of Bodh Gaya” Buddhist Studies. Buddhist Dharma Education Association, 2008
[xiii] Myer, Prudence “The Great Temple at Bodh-Gaya”, 1985 pg. 284
[xiv] Leoshko, Janice “On the Buddhist Ruin of Bodh Gaya,” 2011, pg. 645