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Bodh Gaya is the holiest site in the Buddhist world. It was here the Buddha was enlightened under the bodhi tree. He spent the next seven weeks here before heading off to Sarnath to begin his teaching. Buddhist pilgrims from all over the ancient world also visited the site, including Hsuan Tsang, who visited the site twice during his pilgrimage to India between 630 and 644 A.D and he great Buddhist king, King Asoka, who arrived in 252 B.C.
The outstanding feature of Bodh Gaya is the famous Mahabodhi ('Great Enlightenment') Temple, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was King Ashoka who first built a temple near the bodhi tree. In the second century A.D., the original Ashoka's temple was replaced. The present temple, which has gone through many alterations over the centuries, dates from around 600 A.D. The last full account of the temple was written by the Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin, who arrived in 1234 to find only four monks there and the place deserted. Sri Lankans did much to restore the temple, in 1286 and again in the 15th Century. The modern history of the Mahabodhi Temple begins with the remarkable Sri Lankan Theosophist, David Hewivitarne, better known throughout the Buddhist world as Anagarika Dharmapala. Dharmapala visited the site and found it in a deplorable condition. For three hundred years it had been used as a Hindu temple and many of the Buddhist carvings in the niches around the temple had been pilfered or destroyed and the ancient Ashokan pillars and much of the magnificently carved stone railing around the bodhi tree had been looted. In 1891 Dharmapala founded the Bodh Gaya Maha Bodhi Society with the determination to return the temple to the hands of Buddhists and restore its glory. This was his life's work until he died in 1931. Largely through the efforts of the Mahabodhi Society, the Indian Government created the Bodh Gaya Act in 1949 and set up a committee of five Hindus and four Buddhists to run the site.
The main feature within the 52-meter high temple is the magnificent Mahabodhi Buddha image in the bhumisparsha mudra (earth-touching gesture) which sits behind glass in a relatively small shrine room. In the ancient world, it was believed that this image was a true and exact likeness of the Buddha himself. This original image has disappeared and the current image dates from about the 10th Century and was found in the ruins of the site.
Behind the temple, on the western side, is the large bodhi tree, said to be a descendant of the original tree. A stone railing protects the tree and steel posts hold up the spreading branches. When the wind blows and leaves fall, there is a mad scramble by pilgrims to gather the fallen sacred leaves.
Between the tree and the temple wall is the Diamond Seat (Vajrashila) where it is believed the Buddha actually sat. A small jewel-encrusted Buddha image sits on the spot. It is believed that the Vajrashila was created by King Ashoka. Close by, on the southern side under the tree is the Buddhapada, the carved image of the footprints of the Buddha.
On the northern side of the temple is the Ratanacakmana Chaitya (Cankramana), the Jewel Promenade Shrine which marks the place where the Buddha walked up and down in meditation (J. kinhin) for seven days after his enlightenment.
Surrounding the whole temple is a concrete railing which is a copy of the original railing. Parts of the original railing can be seen in the small Bodh Gaya museum.
The entire site has a number of ruins of stupas and shrines. To the south of the temple is Muchalinda Tank, now a small lake with an image of the Buddha being protected by the great Muchalinda naga. A sign at the tank says the Buddha spent seven days here but Dhammika refutes this and places the Muchalinda Tank some distance from the site. The site also includes a large meditation park but special permission must be obtained (and the payment of a fee) to enter.
When we visited Bodh Gaya it was the 2550th birthday of the Buddha and the full moon of March and the site was decorated with flowers and lights and many pilgrims from around the world. The Dalai Lama visited and many Tibetan monks were present to pay homage. A month-long chanting of the Tripitaka was taking place by monks from many Buddhist nations.
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