The 180-foot spire of the Mahabodhi Mahavihara is the only surviving spire temple from early medieval India and is the prototype for all Indian spire temples. It marks the place, the Vajra Asana or Diamond Throne, believed by Buddhists to be the only place in the three-fold universe where a being can break through the entanglements of Samsara and arise as a Buddha. Successively enlarged from the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE, the current design was completed during the Gupta Empire. It is built directly over the site of the original Bodhi Tree, and has a 9th century Pala statue of the Buddha in the main shrine, sitting facing East towards the Nairanjana river, as the Buddha sat 2500 years ago under the Bodhi tree on the night of Enlightenment. In the main shrine hall, notice the engravings on the granite floor and the early oil lamp sconces on either side of the main shrine. You can also see the edge of a first century CE stone slab at the base of the lion throne on which the statue is mounted. On either side of the entrance hall, there are steep stairs rising to another shrine on the first floor. This is only open for the temple monks who use it for their morning and evening puja.
The stucco decoration of the main spire of the Mahabodhi Mahavihara was restored by the Archaeological Survey of India in the 1880’s and again in 2006. The stucco work was copied from existing stucco found on the shrine. Although the main portico had disintegrated and was totally rebuilt, most experts believe that the reconstruction was accurate, as it closely matches models of the temple found in Tibet in the 1950s. Some photographs of what the temple looked like before it was restored can be seen in the Mahabodhi Temple Management reception hall, situated just beside the entrance steps to the main temple compound itself. On top of the spire is a stupa, said to have been erected by Nagarjuna and containing many Buddha relics. It was still in place before the restoration and is the only unopened relic stupa in India.
Having paid respect at the main shrine, most visitors walk round the inner walkway of the Temple. Clad in white marble in the 1960s, notice the Buddha images in niches on the ground floor, and the stucco copies of rafter beams above them. This design copies early Buddhist wood temples, such as the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a wooden temple built at a similar period. Interestingly, the stucco design of the stupa at Nalanda is very similar. It is thought the same builders were used for both complexes during the Gupta period. When the temple was abandoned in the 14th century, the retreating monks buried it up to the first floor before leaving it. It is for this reason that invaders did not destroy the temple during that period, and when the ground floor was re-excavated in the 1880s, most of the Buddha images in the niches were still intact. Unfortunately some of them were stolen in the 1960s and replaced with concrete copies, but many are still originals from the Gupta period.
As you walk down towards the Bodhi tree, notice the railings that surround the inner walkway. Many portions of these railings date to the Shunga period (2nd century BCE), as they were erected at that time to surround the first brick temple built on the site, which is thought to have been a barrel-domed structure with the Bodhi tree growing through its roof. Images of it can be seen in the Bharhut stupa railings in the Kolkata museum. At the back of the temple is the Bodhi Tree itself, replanted from a sapling taken from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka by the ASI in the restoration of the 1880s. There had been a Bodhi tree in this location from the earliest period of the brick temple, but its roots had damaged the foundations of the main spire and two large brick buttresses supporting it were discovered when the site was excavated. When these were removed, a new tree was planted. At the foot of the tree another stone Vajrāsana can be seen covered by a golden canopy. As you return down the northern side of the walkway towards the main entrance, notice the octagonal railing bases still visible at ground level in the walkway. Those are the remains of the railing that surrounded the original Bodhi Tree and were erected by the Emperor Asoka during the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd century BCE.
Having walked the inner walkway (most visitors do this three times), take a little time to walk the outer walkway, the path that begins at the top of the steps at the entrance of the temple compound. Walking round this walkway, you can look down on the entire temple area. The Mahabodhi Temple is built on flat riverside land, as can be seen further up or downstream. The reason you look down on the temple is that you are walking on the unexcavated remains of many other structures that surrounded the Mahabodhi Mahavihara in ancient times and were not excavated in the modern restoration. Of particular importance is the large Sri Lankan Vihara, which was built in the fourth century CE directly to the north side of the main temple, and is now underneath the entrance plaza. You can still see the arches of the original walls of this vihara at the ground level walkway on the north side. Domed arches of ancient brickwork were exposed, but no further excavation was undertaken, and many new structures have now been built on top.
A second feature that is very apparent are the hundreds of smaller stupas that surround the main spire. These are votive stupas, offered by Buddhist families during the Gupta and Pala periods. You can still see this tradition of offering votive stupas to important temples in other Buddhist countries, such as Myanmar and northern Thailand. Some of these stupas must have been truly massive, as only their square bases remain, but were dismantled for the brick they contained once the temple was abandoned in the 14th century.
Another feature to note as you walk around this outer walkway is that the Temple compound contains all the sites where the Buddha stayed in the seven weeks following the Enlightenment. Ancient sources record that the first week was spent under the Bodhi Tree itself; the second was spent gazing at the tree from the Animisa (unblinking) shrine, the small stupa to the left of the main Temple as you enter. The third week was spent walking up and down beside the tree in walking meditation (marked by the raised platform beside the ancient Ashokan railing bases), and the fourth spent visiting the ten thousand fold worlds in meditation and fully manifesting the Abhidarma, the higher teachings of the Dharma. This happened whilst the Buddha sat in a location that is now surrounded by Buddhist flags on the north side of the temple about half way along. The Buddha spent the fifth week answering questions and meditating in front of the Bodhi Tree at a point marked by an ancient pillar at the bottom of the steps as you enter the temple, and the sixth week was spent near the Mucilinda lake, which lies to the south of the temple about a quarter of a mile away, where the Blessed One was sheltered by a huge snake as he sat in meditation during the first rains of the monsoon. The seventh and final week is marked by statues of Brahma and Indra to the right of the main entrance of the temple, the great Gods who persuaded the Buddha to teach and go forth for the benefit of the many, the multitude that had little dust in their eyes.
Before you leave the compound, take a final tour around the great square tank that lies to the south of the main temple. There are steps down to the water just beyond the meditation park beside the main entrance (also worth a visit). You can then walk beside the tank to the southernmost extent of the main compound, where there is a Vietnamese rock garden and meditation pavilion. The views from there back towards the main temple are some of the best that can be had in Bodhgaya. As you return to the temple on the other side of the tank, beside you are the eight lamp-offering houses, where you can offer lamps for the benefit of your relatives, friends and sentient beings everywhere. This offering is particularly stressed during Tibetan ceremonies held at the temple, but there is always an offering house open if you would like to make one.
Bodhgaya is unique in containing over 50 Buddhist temples from all of the traditions of Buddhism practiced in South East Asia. Many of the temples are beautifully ornamented in traditional styles, and visitors can get a glimpse of the culture of each country just by visiting them. Of particular interest are the Royal Thai Temple, the Japanese Vihara beside the big Buddha that lies on the road behind the Thai Vihara, and Tergar, a major temple in Tibetan style, where the Karmapa stays when he is in Bodhgaya.
In the 16th century, the abandoned Bodhgaya Mahavihara was taken over by a Shaivite sect, and became a major pilgrimage site in its own right. A large monastic compound was built on the banks of the river beside the Temple, and is still in good condition today. It is well worth a visit to see the market gardens and the impressive building. If you can, go up to the roof from which you can see over the river to the Barabar hills, and also get a wonderful view of the Mahabodhi Temple itself in the evenings.
Buddhist history records that just before the Enlightenment, Prince Siddhartha took sustenance in the form of rice gruel from a young girl living in the Sujata village. This occurred beside the Sujata village on the opposite bank of the Nairanjana river, and is marked by a recently excavated stupa in the ancient dome style. There are excellent views back towards the Mahabodhi Mahavihara to be had from the river bank in the evenings. Take a car across the Nairanjana river bridge and have a look.
Some five miles beyond the Sujata Stupa, although much farther by car which detours through Gaya to get there, is the beginning of a long line of hills that connect Bodhgaya with Rajgir, the ancient capital of Magadha. The first outcrop contains an important cave site, said to have been where the Siddhartha meditated before his enlightenment. It is also where the protector Mahakala manifested to an Arahant in medieval India, from which it gets its name.
If you have time, take a day trip to Rajgir, some 70 km by car from Bodhgaya. The long line of hills that starts at the Barabar hills terminates here in a natural amphitheatre that was fortified as the site of the capital city of King Bimbisara, the king of Magadha during the early life of the Buddha. You will see the line of hills emerging from the mist as you approach Rajgir, showing what a formidable natural obstacle they created, topped with an ancient cyclopean wall built by Bimbisara to protect his capital. Within, there are only a few remains as the city was constructed of wood, most of which is lost to the jungle, although there still stand stone foundations of a very early Buddhist monastery, including the ancient paving stones. It is very likely the Buddha himself would have walked on this spot. Further on there is the famous Vulture Peak, the rocky outcrop where the Buddha taught the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, and at the base is a wonderful funicular ride to a modern stupa built on top of the hills, which gives great views in all directions.
As you drive out of the ancient walls of Rajgir, you come to the modern city that was built by Ajatashatru, King Bimbisara’s eldest son. Immediately to your left are the important hot springs, and a hike above them leads you to the Sattiparna cave, where the First Council was held and the teachings of the Buddha recited for the first time. This cave site was damaged by an earthquake in the 1930s, but is still impressive because of its size and offers a vertiginous view over the new township of Rajgir. On clear days, the ancient university of Nalanda can be glimpsed about ten miles beyond. Before you leave Rajgir, drop in on the Veluvan pleasure park, which was given to the Buddha by King Bimbisara. This is the famous Bamboo Grove where many Buddhist teachings were given in the early period of the Buddhadharma.
Like Rajgir, Nalanda is a must see; the oldest international university in the world, which at its height hosted over 10,000 monks from many countries in Asia. Supported by the Gupta, Pala and Sena kings, the central complex that is open to visitors is a small proportion of the total site, which covers nearly ten square miles. Within the complex you can see the foundations of many monasteries surrounding a vast brick stupa which gives an impression of what the site must have been like 1500 years ago. An excellent museum lies across from the main entrance.
All of the villages in the region contain temples with important Buddha images in them, and in many cases the walls of ancient temples can be clearly seen lying just beneath the grassy soil. In this regard, Mahamayastan, some five miles off the road on the right side as you return from Nalanda is a worthy addition to any tour.