Mahabodi Temple in Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya (260 kilometers from Varanasi, 115 kilometers south of Patna) is where tradition says Buddha attainted spiritual enlightenment. Commemorating the spot where this important event took place is the vast Mahabodhi temple complex which has been called the "Jerusalem of the Buddhist world." Here Siddhartha Gautama meditated beneath the sacred Bodhi Tree while being tempted by the demon Mara in an episode similar to Jesus's encounter with the devil on the Mount of Temptation. After casting off the demon the prince achieved enlightenment (nirvana) was transformed into Buddha — the enlightened one.

According to UNESCO: Bodh Gaya “has direct associations with the life of the Lord Buddha (566-486 BC) as the place where in 531 BC he attained the supreme and perfect insight while seated under the Bodhi Tree. It provides exceptional records for the events associated with his life and for subsequent worship, particularly since Emperor Asoka made a pilgrimage to this spot around 260 BC and built the first temple at the site of the Bodhi Tree. The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is located in the very heart of the city of Bodh Gaya. The site consists of the main temple and six sacred places within an enclosed area, and a seventh one, the Lotus Pond, just outside the enclosure to the south." [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

When Buddhism grew and prospered after Buddha's death, great temples and monasteries were built on Bodh Gaya. These were destroyed or fell into ruins when Buddhism died out in India in the Middle Ages and the region was racked by invaders. In the 19th century the holy Buddhist sites were rediscovered by pilgrims from Sri Lanka and Burma and temples and monasteries were rebuilt and pilgrims began returning in large numbers.

Today, Bodh Gaya ebbs and flows with devotees throughout the year, yet it remains suspended in time, as monks in saffron and maroon robes walk around the monuments and temples, their chants and prayers enveloping the surroundings in a cocoon of peace. Monks with shaved heads and tourists with nunlike gowns and white mats can often be seen lighting red candles with gilded foil that amplify the light at the base of the main temple and the enclosure. Bodhgaya also holds a special significance in Hinduism; Gaya is mentioned in the great epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is also said to be the place where Lord Rama, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, came to offer pind dan (an offering to ancestors during Hindu funeral rites) for their father Dashratha. The influx of pilgrims and tourists has brought some affluence to an otherwise very poor area. The roads in and around the town are in fairly good condition. The schools are well-maintained.

Pilgrims to Bodh Gaya

location of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India and Nepal

Each year the town is visited by hundreds of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims. Peter Garfinkle wrote in National Geographic Traveler, “It's a spiritual three ring circus...The mesmerizing chants of a hundred Tibetan monks, amplified by tiny speakers. The pungent smell of cheap incense. The sight of saffron-robed monks repeatedly throwing their bodies to mats in front of them in perpetual protestation. The veritable parade of Buddhists circumambulating the temple, as well as curious Hindus following a bullhorn-wielding guide."

Anuj Chopra wrote in U.S. News and World Report: The Bodhi Tree “is perhaps the world's most venerated tree."Centuries after Buddha attained enlightenment here, Bodh Gaya evokes the potential of spiritual awakening for those who aspire to achieve it," says Prof. G. A. Somaratne, the head of the department of Pali and Buddhist studies at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. Pilgrims, many of them in maroon robes, circumambulate the temple and the Bodhi Tree, performing prostrations and offering prayers in a multitude of languages. ‘This is the place where Buddha was 'born,' hence Buddhism was born," says Somaratne. ‘Even in the modern world, Bodh Gaya inspires pilgrims to seek spiritual awakening and thereafter be free from the endless cycle of birth and death." [Source: Anuj Chopra, U.S. News and World Report Nov. 16, 2007 =/=]

In addition to the Bodhi Tree and the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya is home to numerous Buddhist monasteries. Each is built in a distinctive architectural style reflecting different national identities — Sri Lankan, Thai, Tibetan, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Nepalese — but all retain the identity of their common Buddhist faith. The Tibetan monastery houses a massive dharma chakra, or wheel of law, that represents the eight tenets of Buddhist life; the Thai monastery has gleaming gilded roofs and elegantly curved lines.

Inside, Buddhist values like renunciation and empathy for all living things are preached. Enlightenment — or at least transcendental peace — can be achieved even in the modern world, pilgrims are assured. That requires neither extreme self-indulgence nor self-mortification, they are told, but rather following a "middle path" of moderation in all things. Ironically, this place of peaceful introspection is located in the lawless northern Indian state of Bihar, blighted by crime and a bloody Maoist insurgency. But that doesn't deter millions seeking to follow in Buddha's footsteps.

Food, Accommodation and Shopping in Bodh Gaya

In Bodh Gaya there are few luxury hotels. The Lotus Nikko is one the nicest, with a double going for as little as $90. Some monasteries offer rooms to visitors.,Ralph Frammolino wrote in the New York Times: “The Karma Temple, near the Great Buddha Statue, is run by the Kagyupa Vajrayana Buddhist Monastery in Bodhgaya (Temple Street; 91-9431-2808-12; The suggested donation of 350 rupees a night includes the use of a communal bathroom; meals are not included....The Tibetan Market, near the Kalachakra Grounds, has Buddhist-themed food tents serving Tibetan dishes like momos (meat or vegetable dumplings) and other Tibetan specialties. American-style breakfasts are available at the Aahar Restaurant in the Embassy Hotel (Dumhan Road; 91-631-220-07711), opposite the Thai Temple [Source: Ralph Frammolino, New York Times, May 24, 2009].

You can shop for books on Buddhist philosophy, statues of Lord Buddha and miniatures of the Mahabodhi Temple and the monasteries from the souvenir stalls at Kundan Bazaar. The Tibetan market is fairly large. One can find a large variety of handicrafts, souvenirs and winter-wear as well as food. You can find statues of Lord Buddha sitting in various poses made of metal and sandalwood.

There are some delicious foods to try while in Bodh Gaya. Kadhi is a yoghurt-based gram flour curry that is usually served with rice. Rasia is a special type of kheer (rice pudding). It is usually served during the Chhath Puja festival in Bihar. Its other version is made from fox nuts or makhana and is called makhane-ki-kheer. Khurma is made with flour and salt is deep-fried and dipped in hot sugar syrup. As the syrup cools, it crystallises and gives khurma its great taste.

Laung Latika is a traditional dessert of Bihar that is prepared during festivals. It has a clove pinned at the center whose pungent aroma complements the sweet taste of the dish. Kesar Peda is a sweet treat, which are prepared with khoya (reduced milk), sugar, cardamom seeds, pistachios and saffron. Naivedyam is made with gram flour, sugar, cashew, green cardamom, saffron and then cooked in ghee (clarified butter). Moulded in a ball-shape, it is often served as prasad (holy offering to the deity).

pilgrims at Mahabodhi temple

Thekua is also called khajuria and is a commonly prepared snack in Bihar. It is made of wheat flour and jaggery and then deep-fried. Also known as chandrakala, pedakiya is very similar to gujiya (a sweet deep-fried dumpling). Stuffed with sweetened khoya (reduced milk), cardamom powder, coconut and dry fruits, it tastes heavenly. Mutton and Reshmi Kebab is a famous Mughal recipe that has mutton as the main ingredient. Papaya paste, chickpea flour, bread slices, ginger-garlic paste and spices give it its delicious flavor.

Getting to Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya lies 115 kilometers south of the state capital of Bihar, Patna and 16 kilometers from the district headquarters at Gaya, in northern India on the eastern side of the country. Getting to Bodh Gaya is not easy. Bihar is the poorest and one of the most troubled parts of India. Pilgrims have to endure bad roads and lawlessness. Because of the activities of bandits and Maoist guerillas all travel has to be completed before nightfall. Many visitors fly to Patna and hire an SUV for $45 for the bumpy three-hour road trip or take the train to Gaya, half an hour away.

Getting There: By Air: Gaya is the nearest airport, approximately 17 kilometers from Bodh Gaya. The other airport is at state capital Patna (135 kilometers away) and has better connectivity. By Road: A main road connects the town of Bodh Gaya to the city of Gaya. You can hire cabs or take a bus. By Train: The nearest rail head is Gaya Junction, which is 13 kilometers away from Bodh Gaya.

Ralph Frammolino wrote in the New York Times: ““Eager to leave Kushinagar, we pined for Bodhgaya, 280 miles southeast in Bihar state... Our goal was to be sitting under the tree on New Year’s Eve. Since there were no direct buses or trains, we hired a private driver. Twenty-nine hours later — fog, a snapped suspension spring, a cracked wheel bearing and many wrong turns — we limped into Bodhgaya on Dec. 31, angry, tired and in no mood for epiphanies.” [Source: Ralph Frammolino, New York Times, May 24, 2009].

Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya

The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya (west of Mahabodhi Temple) is a ficus tree (Ficus religiosa) said to be a descendant of the original tree that The Buddha sat under while achieving enlightenment. The tree is situated on the spot where the original Bodhi tree once stood that The Buddha meditated beneath for more than a month. Every year on December 8, Buddhist followers across the world celebrate Bodhi Day, a celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree.

bodhi tree in Bodhgaya

The present Bodhi tree is probably the fifth succession of the original tree. Surrounded by a marble enclosure and beautifully carved votive stupas, chaityas (Buddhist prayer halls) and several statues of Lord Buddha, one can find Buddhist monks sitting here in peace, reading or meditating. It is said that emperor Ashoka's daughter, Sanghamitta (or Sanghmitra), took a branch from the original Bodhi tree from Bodh Gaya to Sri Lanka, and planted it in the city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. That Bodhi tree is still alive and is supposedly the oldest continually documented tree in the world. The current Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya is believed to have been grown from a sapling brought from the one in Sri Lanka. In recent years the tree has had trouble. It was attacked by mealy bugs thought to have been nourished on the remnant of candles and incense lit around the tree. A heavy dose of chemical pesticide used combat the bugs drove away the squirrels and birds.

According to UNESCO: “Next to the Bodhi Tree there is a platform attached to the main temple made of polished sandstone known as Vajrasana (the Diamond Throne), originally installed by Emperor Asoka to mark the spot where Buddha sat and meditated. A sandstone balustrade once encircled this site under the Bodhi Tree, but only a few of the original pillars of the balustrade are still in situ; they contain carvings of sculpted human faces, animals, and decorative details. Further up the central path towards the main temple to the south is a small shrine with a standing Buddha in the back and with the footprints (Padas) of the Buddha carved on black stone, dating from the 3rd century BC when Emperor Asoka declared Buddhism to be the official religion of the state and installed thousands of such footprint stones all over his kingdom. Further on the path towards the main temple is a building housing several statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Opposite is a memorial to a Hindu Mahant who had lived on this site during the 15th and 16th centuries. To the south of the pathway is a cluster of votive stupas built by kings, princes, noblemen and lay people." [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Laying Eyes on the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya

Anuj Chopra wrote in U.S. News and World Report: “ The Bodhi Tree's branches stretch out from its solid trunk, their distinctive heart-shaped leaves casting protective shade over those who sit beneath. It was under just such a tree, here along the banks of the Phalgu River in northern India, that a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation some 2,500 years ago and is believed to have attained nirvana." [Source: Anuj Chopra, U.S. News and World Report Nov. 16, 2007]

closer look at the Bodhi tree

Aravind Adiga wrote in Time, “ You go around the temple, and you wonder at once if that is the tree: an ancient-looking, sprawling tree, with a massive trunk and a zone of deep, hypnotizing shade at its center. A middle-aged Japan man dressed in white, wearing a mask, is meditating in its shadow. Behind him two Tibetan monks are counting off their prayer beads and whispering. But as you walk to the back of the temple, you see another tree, even larger with green metal beams holding up the branches. There is a stone fence around it: a sign says, PRINCE SIDDHARTHA ATTAINED BUDDHAHOOD FULL ENLIGHTENMENT...SITTING UNDER THE PEEPUL (BODHI) TREE. So that is the tree. A group of Sri Lankan monks in golden robes gather and sit down before it. They recite from their prayer books, and their words boom around the temple complex over loudspeakers: ‘Buuham Sharanam Gacchami’ — I go for refuge to the Buddha."“

On visiting the Bodhi tree around New Year, Ralph Frammolino wrote in the New York Times: “After stowing our luggage in our room at the Karma Monastery, we stomped off to the tree. “What we found was something like New Year’s Eve at the Rose Bowl. As beggar children tugged at our arms for money, throngs of monks in their “school” colors paraded toward the temple grounds, where the tree is enshrined. There were Tibetans in maroon, Thais in mustard yellow, Sri Lankans in bright orange — many, oddly, wearing surgical masks against the air pollution. [Source: Ralph Frammolino, New York Times, May 24, 2009].

“Subsumed in the giddy crowd, we were carried through the entrance of the complex.... Turning left, we swept to the other side of the temple. Then, we saw it — the Bodhi Tree. Mystical and familiar, it stood more than 50 feet, its branches thick with leaves and extending over an ancient balustrade, its larger limbs supported by painted steel poles. According to historians and Buddhist scholars, the tree is probably a fifth- or sixth-generation descendant grown from cuttings traced to the original, which was reportedly destroyed by the jealous wife of Ashoka, the ruler of much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century B.C. and widely believed to be Buddhism’s most famous convert. Yet the power of the tree, even by inference, seemed palpable. Under streamers of colorful prayer flags tied to its branches, some people collected wind-blown leaves as sacred souvenirs. Mostly, they sat in meditation. So did we. We had come halfway around the world for this moment. It didn’t disappoint.”

Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya

Mahabodhi Temple (east of the Bodhi Tree) is a vast complex honoring Buddha's enlightenment and one of the four holy sites related to the life of Lord Buddha, marking the spot where he attained enlightenment. Situated in the middle of Bodh Gaya town and set amid lush green lawns, this magnificent sandstone temple features intricate engravings and arch motifs on its shikhara (tower). Inside the temple, a gilded statue showcases Lord Buddha in his famous bhumisparsha mudra, with one finger of his right hand touching the earth, asking it to witness his enlightenment. A chamber at the top houses a statue of Mayadevi, Lord Buddha’s mother. The Mahabodhi Temple, destroyed in the 12th century was resurrected in the 14th century and excavated in 1811. A pond near the temple houses blooming lotus flowers.

The main building has a soaring 52-meter (172-foot) -high central spire, several smaller spires, and gilded image of Buddha inside. The walls bear scenes from Buddha's life. The gilded statue of the Buddha touching es the earth shows him in the position he was believed to be in when he attained enlightenment. Anieshlochan Chaitya marks the place near the Mahhabodhi temple where Buddha stood gazing at the tree in gratitude after receiving enlightenment. Also a part of the complex is an archaeological museum that contains a large collection of Buddha statues, in gold, bronze, and stone. Pilgrims have been coming to the temple since Buddha's time and Buddha himself said that visiting places associated with episodes in his life would help win them merit. The complex became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.

According to UNESCO: “The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. In the context of philosophical and cultural history, Mahabodhi Temple Complex is of great relevance as it marks the most important event in the life of Lord Buddha, the moment when Prince Siddhartha attained Enlightenment and became Buddha, an event that shaped human thought and belief. This property is now revered as the holiest place of Buddhist pilgrimage in the world and is considered the cradle of Buddhism in the history of mankind. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Mahabodhi Temple was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because: 1) the temple is of immense importance, being one of the earliest temple constructions existing in the Indian sub-continent. It is one of the few representations of the architectural genius of the Indian people in constructing fully developed brick temples in that era. 2) The Mahabodhi Temple, one of the few surviving examples of early brick structures in India, has had significant influence in the development of architecture over the centuries. 3) The site of the Mahabodhi Temple provides exceptional records for the events associated with the life of Buddha and subsequent worship, particularly since Emperor Asoka built the first temple, the balustrades, and the memorial column. 4) The present Temple is one of the earliest and most imposing structures built entirely in brick from the late Gupta period. The sculpted stone balustrades are an outstanding early example of sculptural reliefs in stone. And 5) The Mahabodhi Temple Complex in Bodh Gaya has direct association with the life of the Lord Buddha, being the place where He attained the supreme and perfect insight. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

History of Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya

Mahabodhi Temple complex

According to UNESCO: ““Mahabodhi Temple Complex is the first temple built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th–6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing, from the late Gupta period and it is considered to have had significant influence in the development of brick architecture over the centuries. The property encompasses the greatest remains of the 5th-6th century A.D in the Indian sub-continent belonging to this period of antiquity. The property has a total area of 4.8600 ha.

“The main part of the temple is recorded from about the 5th - 6th century A.D. But, it has undergone various repairs and renovation works since then. Having suffered from long abandonment (13th -18th century A.D) it was extensively restored in the 19th century, A.D and more works were carried out in the second half of the 20th century A.D. Nevertheless, the temple is considered to be the oldest and best preserved example of brick architecture in India from this particular period. Even though the structure has suffered from neglect and repairs in various periods, it has retained its essential features intact.

“The belief that Buddha had attained Enlightenment in this particular place has been confirmed by tradition and is now called Bodh Gaya, this is of supreme value to the world. It has been documented since the time of Emperor Asoka who built the first temple in 260 BCE when he came to this place to worship the Bodhi Tree, which still stands as witness to the event, along with the attributes of the property (the Vajrasana, etc). Buddhist texts of both Theravadhan and Mahayanan traditions have clear reference of this event of Buddha's enlightenment at Bodh Gaya. Buddhists from all over the world today venerate Bodh Gaya as the holiest place of Buddhist pilgrimage in the world.”

Components of Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya

According to UNESCO: “The present Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya comprises the 50 meter high grand Temple, the Vajrasana, sacred Bodhi Tree and other six sacred sites of Buddha's enlightenment, surrounded by numerous ancient Votive stupas, well maintained and protected by inner, middle and outer circular boundaries. A seventh sacred place, the Lotus Pond, is located outside the enclosure to the south. Both the temple area and the Lotus Pond are surrounded by circulating passages at two or three levels and the area of the ensemble is 5 m below the level of the surrounding land. It is a unique property of archaeological significance in respect of the events associated with the time Lord Buddha spent there, as well as documenting the evolving worship, particularly since the 3rd century, when Emperor Asoka built the first temple, the balustrades and the memorial column and the subsequent evolution of the ancient city with the building of sanctuaries and monasteries by foreign kings over the centuries. [Source: UNESCO]

“The Main Temple wall has an average height of 11 meters and it is built in the classical style of Indian temple architecture. It has entrances from the east and from the north and has a low basement with mouldings decorated with honeysuckle and geese design. Above this is a series of niches containing images of the Buddha. Further above there are mouldings and chaitya niches, and then the curvilinear shikhara or tower of the temple surmounted by amalaka and kalasha (architectural features in the tradition of Indian temples). At the four corners of the parapet of the temple are four statues of the Buddha in small shrine chambers. A small tower is built above each of these shrines. The temple faces east and consists of a small forecourt in the east with niches on either side containing statues of the Buddha. A doorway leads into a small hall, beyond which lies the sanctum, which contains a gilded statue of the seated Buddha (over 5ft high) holding earth as witness to his achieved Enlightenment. Above the sanctum is the main hall with a shrine containing a statue of Buddha, where senior monks gather to meditate. From the east, a flight of steps leads down through a long central path to the main temple and the surrounding area. Along this path there are significant places associated with events that immediately followed the Buddha's Enlightment, together with votive stupas and shrines.

“The most important of the sacred places is the giant Bodhi Tree, to the west of the main temple, a supposed direct descendant of the original Bodhi Tree under which Buddha spent his First Week and had his enlightment. To the north of the central path, on a raised area, is the Animeshlochan Chaitya (prayer hall) where Buddha is believed to have spent the Second Week. Buddha spent the Third Week walking eighteen paces back and forth in an area called Ratnachakrama (the Jewelled Ambulatory), which lies near the north wall of the main temple. Raised stone lotuses carved on a platform mark his steps. The spot where he spent the Fourth Week is Ratnaghar Chaitya, located to the north-east near the enclosure wall. Immediately after the steps of the east entrance on the central path there is a pillar which marks the site of the Ajapala Nigrodh Tree, under which Buddha meditated during his Fifth Week, answering the queries of Brahmans. He spent the Sixth Week next to the Lotus Pond to the south of the enclosure, and the Seventh Week was spent under the Rajyatana Tree, to the south-east of the main temple, currently marked by a tree.

“The gateway to the Temple, which is on the central path, was also originally built by Emperor Ashoka, but was later rebuilt. Further on the path towards the main temple is a building housing several statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Opposite is a memorial to a Hindu Mahant who had lived on this site during the 15th and 16th centuries. To the south of the pathway is a cluster of votive stupas built by kings, princes, noblemen and lay people. They vary in shape and size, from the simplest to the most sumptuous ones."

Vajrasana is the red sandstone slab between the Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi Temple said to have been erected by emperor Ashoka to mark the exact position where Lord Buddha sat. It is traditionally called Buddha’s vajrasana (meaning diamond throne or thunder seat). It is said Lord Buddha sat here in meditation gazing eastwards. One of the most famous of Ashoka’s many pillars (on which he had engraved his edicts and his understanding of religious doctrine), it stands at the southeast corner of the temple. Vajrasana has been mentioned in the work of many scholars like Ashvaghosa, who in his Buddhacharita reveals that this seat is the “navel of the earth”; Fa-Hien mentions that all the past Buddhas attained enlightenment here and the future Buddhas too will attain enlightenment at this spot.

Anieshlochan Chaitya marks the place near the Mahhabodhi temple where Buddha stood grazing at the tree in gratitude after receiving enlightenment.

Temples, Monasteries and Stupas at Bodh Gaya

Buddha meditating under the bodhi tree

Almost every country with a sizable Buddhist population has built a temple or monastery in Bodh Gaya. Magadha University is an international university and a center for studies in history, culture and philosophy. At night robed monks on bicycles pick up groceries at the shops and the sound of bells and gongs emanate from the temples and monasteries.

The Thai Monastery stands out among all the international monasteries. With its stunning architecture and golden roof, it is home to a Thai temple and a 25-meter-high bronze statue of Lord Buddha. The Bhutanese Monastery is another landmark and is known for its rich decorations, photographs of the kings of Bhutan and some unique 3D frescoes. The Tibetan Monastery, which lies just across the Mahabodhi Temple houses an ornate statue of the Maitryi Buddha (Buddha of the future) and known for its massive "Dharma Chakra" or "wheel of law.". Another place to stop at is the Tergar Monastery that has been built in Tibetan-style and belongs to the Karmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Sujata Garh is an ancient stupa, believed to be the place where Lord Buddha meditated, following severe penance of fasting before he attained enlightenment. According to legend, a lady called Sujata, a cow-herder, offered Buddha a bowl of rice when she saw him emaciated from all the meditating. Buddha realised the futility of self-deprivation and accepted the lady's offer. Thus, the place has been named Sujata Garh after the lady. It is believed that the meal not only gave Buddha strength but also inspired him to follow the Middle Path. After this incident, Buddha went to the Bodhi tree under which he was enlightened. While visiting here, one can also head to Sujata Kuti, lying along the Falgu river, which marks the house of Sujata.

Indosan Nippon Japanese Temple (15 kilometers from the city center was built in the year 1972 with the help of international Buddhist communities, It is beautifully carved out of wood and looks very much like a Japanese shrine. It is a fine example of both Japanese architecture and Buddhist culture. Lying at a distance of about, it is one of the most popular temples of Bodh Gaya. The temple was built to preserve and propagate Buddhism and the beliefs of Lord Buddha, and its walls have inscriptions of the teachings of Buddha. The gallery of the temple houses Japanese paintings that depict important events of Buddha's life. It is a must-visit place for all those who wish to learn more about Buddhist culture.

Vishnupad Mandir is a Hindu temple so called because it house a 40-cm-long footprint in basalt rock said to belong to of Lord Vishnu. The story goes: Lord Vishnu killed demon Gayasur at this place by stamping his foot on his chest. After Lord Vishnu pushed the demon under the earth with his foot, his footprint was retained in a rock. Though the origin of the temple is unknown, it is believed that Ahilya Bai Holkar, the queen of Indore, had the present octagonal shrine built in 1787. The temple is located on the banks of Falgu river and draws devotees from across the country. Within the courtyard of the complex, lie other temples dedicated to Lord Narasimha and Lord Shiva in the avatar of Phalgwisvara. These temples are significant places of Hindu worship.

Museums and Giant Buddha Statues in Bodh Gaya

Bodhgaya Multimedia Museum presents the Buddha's life in a visual format with the help of 3D animation movies. The show, divided into four sections covering history, geographical coverage and thoughts of Lord Buddha, is comprehensive and is presented in an engaging manner. It was set up with an aim to give a glimpse of the life of Buddha in the most interesting way possible. It covers his journey from childhood to the time he attained nirvana (enlightenment).

Archaeological Society of India Museum houses an excellent collection of various Buddhist and Hindu relics, mostly related to the Pala period (8th to 12th centuries). Established in 1956, the museum has two galleries and an open courtyard, along with two verandahs that boast various antiques. One can find exhibits of bronze statues, terracotta items, images of Lord Buddha and stone sculptures, along with pillars, railings, panels, rods, plaques etc. It is located inside the Mahabodhi Temple complex. The second gallery of the museum houses an idol of the varaha avatar of Lord Vishnu and visitors can also learn about the dasavatara (10-avatar) incarnation of the deity.

Great Buddha Statue is an awe-inspiring sight, standing at a height of 19.5 meters (64 feet). It is believed to be one of the largest statues in India and shows Lord Buddha sitting on a lotus in a meditative pose. It was unveiled and consecrated on November 18, 1989, and the ceremony was attended by the 14th Dalai Lama who blessed the site. The statue is a symbol of Bodh Gaya and draws pilgrims from across the world. It is said that the statue took seven years to be built and about 12,000 masons were involved in its construction. The foundation stone of the statue was laid beside the Mahabodhi Temple in 1982. Made of red granite and sandstone blocks, the entire structure is 24.3 meter (80 feet). The lotus on which statue sits is two meters (six feet) high and the lower pedestal is three meters (10 feet).

Near Bodh Gaya

Pragbodhi (seven kilometers from Bodh Gaya) is a hill where it is believed that Lord Buddha spent seven years living an austere life in a cave before he attained enlightenment. His belief during his stay was that one can find the truth through asceticism. However, sometime later he realised he was wrong. Now known as Dungeshwari Cave, it has a small temple at the spot where Lord Buddha meditated. A short hike to the top of the hill offers stunning views of the land around and the ruins of a few stupas. One can also catch sight of the Mahabodhi Temple from here. Pragbodhi is generally a three-four hour trip from Bodh Gaya. Pragbodhi means “prior to enlightenment.”

Dungeshwari Caves (12 kilometers northeast of Bodh Gaya) contain the cave where Lord Buddha is believed to have meditated in this place for six years before he went to Bodh Gaya to attain enlightenment. Also, known as Mahakala Caves, one cave is home to a temple with a golden emaciated Buddha sculpture commemorating his rigid penance. Another cave houses a large statue of Lord Buddha, about two meters high, to pay tribute to that phase of Buddha's life. There is a popular myth associated with these cave temples and it is said that during his self-mortification, Gautama (as Buddha was earlier called) became emaciated. A cow-herder by the name of Sujata was moved by his weak appearance and offered him food and water. Later, Gautama realised that enlightenment cannot be attained by self-abasement and carried on with his journey to Bodh Gaya. One of the cave temples is dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Dungeshwari.

Barabar Caves (40 kilometers from Bodh Gaya) refers to a cluster of four caves: Karan Chaupar, Lomas Rishi, Sudama and Visvakarma. Carved out of very hard granite rock, these are supposed to have been constructed by emperor Ashoka for the use of Ajivaka ascetics. The most unique cave is Lomas Rishi, whose façade is an exact replica of the wood and thatch huts of monks. The interior of the cave has a remarkable glass-like polish. One can also find a few Hindu and Jain sculptures in these Buddhist caves. Another cave called the Nagarjuni Cave lies about 2 kilometers from Barabar Caves. Since both of them are believed to be from the same time frame, together they are called 'satghar'.


Rajgir (75 kilometers north east of Bodh Gaya) is where the Buddha came to mediate during the monsoons and the place of the second turning of the Wheel of Dharma, where The Buddha subdued Nalagiri, the angry elephant. Rajgir was also a major city in ancient India and was the site of the first Buddhist Council. Rajgir was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site as one of the Silk Road Sites in India in 2010 .

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Buddha spent five years at Rajgir after having attained enlightenment, and many of the remains at Rajgir commemorate various incidents related to life of Buddha, the hill of Gridhrakuta being perhaps the most important, as this is where the Buddha delivered most of his sermons. Bodhgaya is the spot where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, with the Mahabodhi Temple marking the precise location. Ongoing excavations have uncovered temples, monasteries and lecture halls. Rajgir, ‘the royal palace’, 12 kilometers south, was the venue for the first Buddhist Council. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]

Nestled in a verdant valley guarded by five hills, and hot springs with medicinal properties, Rajgir is a scenic town located in the modern Nalanda district of Bihar. A complex of temples and monasteries, this hill town was once the capital of the Magadh Mahajanpad (state) when Patliputra was not formed. It was called Rajgrih then, meaning home of royalty. This naturally fortified destination is one of the most ancient sites of learning in India and finds a mention in Mahabharata too. Legends say that it was here Lord Buddha set in motion his second wheel of law and spent several seasons meditating and preaching.

During the time of Lord Buddha, Rajgir was renowned as place for congregation of spiritual leaders and scholars. So when prince Siddhartha renounced his royal life to become an ascetic, he too came to Rajgir. It is said that here he met king Bimbisara, who was so impressed by the young man that he offered him half his kingdom. But Siddhartha left the city, promising the king to return after he had found the answers to his questions.

“The Jivekarmavan Monastery is considered the favorite residence of Lord Buddha. One of the most visited locations in Bihar,Nalanda's Archaeological Museum houses thousands of antiquities. The museum was established in 1917 and prides itself as being one of Rajgir's earliest university-cum monastery complexes. The main attraction of the museum are the well-preserved statues of Lord Buddha, along with a beautiful collection of Buddhist and Hindu bronze items. The museum also has two enormous terracotta jars that date back to the first century. Tourists can also find displays of copper plates, stone inscriptions, coins, pottery and other antiquarian objects. The museum has four galleries that display around 349 antiquities dating back to 5th-12th century. The first gallery showcases 57 sculptures and images while the second gallery presents miscellaneous objects like stuccos, terracotta products and iron implements. The third gallery is entirely dedicated to bronze items and the last gallery displays stone images and sculptures.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website (, India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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