Places of Buddhist Pilgrimage
by Jeremy Russell
- "... here at Bodhgaya he attained elightenment
|"Here on this seat my body may shrivel up,
my skin, my bones, my flesh may dissolve,
but my body will not move from this very seat
until I have attained Enlightenment,
so difficult to attain in the course of many kalpas."
of the Buddha
The bodhisattva, having renounced the luxurious life of Prince
Siddhartha, now as Gautama the ascetic, walked in a south-easterly direction from
Kapilavastu and came to Vaishali. Here he listened briefly to the teaching of Arada
Kalapa, an aberrant samkhya, but left dissatisfied. Crossing the river Ganges he once
again entered the kingdom of Magadha and came to Rajgir, the capital, where he listened to
the yogic teachings of Rudraka. Again dissatisfied, he left followed by the five ascetics.
Together with them he came to the village of Uravilva on the banks of the Nairanjana
river, which is close to the place now known as Bodhgaya. Here they engaged in long,
austere practices. For the first two years Gautama ate but one grain of rice a day, and
for the next four years he ate nothing at all. He remained sitting in continual meditation
despite the almost complete degeneration of his body.
Six years after his initial renunciation he realized that extreme mortification does
not yield liberation. He arose and broke the austerities. The five ascetics were disgusted
and departed to Benares.
As his former garments had perished, he took a yellow shroud from the corpse of a
servant girl awaiting cremation nearby. To help him wash it, the god Indra struck the
ground and produced a pond. A local brahmin's daughter, Sujata, approached and offered him
a golden bowl filled with rice prepared in the essence of the milk of one thousand cows.
Renewed in body and mind, his complexion brilliant as the lustre of burnished gold,
the bodhisattva bathed and then walked to a nearby cave to continue his meditation.
However, the earth shook and the voices of previous buddhas resounded in the air, telling
him that this was not the place of his enlightenment and advising him to proceed to the
nearby bodhi tree. The sites of all these events were seen by the Chinese pilgrims in the
fifth and seventh centuries, and they record that stupas had been constructed at each.
None of these exist today.
As he walked to the tree the graincutter Svastika gave him a bundle of kusha grass. A
flock of birds flew around the bodhisattva three times. When he entered the area about the
tree, the earth shook. He made himself a seat from the kusha grass on the eastern side of
the tree and after seven circumambulations sat down facing the east. He made the great
resolve not to rise again until enlightenment had been attained, even if his skin, bones
and flesh should crumble away. Sending forth a beam of light from the hair-treasure
between his eye-brows, he invoked Mara, who came to challenge him. Mara dispatched first
his horrible armies and next his enticing daughters, but the bodhisattva remained unmoved
and defeated him, calling upon the earth and her goddess as his witness. He continued in
profound meditation through the three watches of the night and finally realized supreme
enlightenment at dawn. The air filled with flowers and light, and the earth trembled seven
For seven days the Buddha continued to meditate beneath the tree without stirring from
his seat and for six weeks more remained in the vicinity. During the second week he walked
up and down, lotus flowers springing from his footsteps, and pondered whether or not to
teach. This was later represented by the chankramanar jewel walk, a low platform
adorned with eighteen lotuses, which now runs close and parallel to the north side of the
Mahabodhi Temple. For another week he sat gratefully contemplating the bodhi tree; this
spot was later marked by the animeshalochana stupa, now situated to the north of the
chankramanar. Brahma and Indra offered a hall made of the seven precious substances, in
which the Buddha sat for a week radiating lights of five colours from his body to
illuminate the bodhi tree. Hsuan Chwang describes this site as being west of the tree and
remarks that in time the precious substances had changed to stone. However, ratnaghara is
now identified by some as a roofless shrine again north of chankramanar.
During a week of unusually inclement weather, the naga king Muchalinda wrapped his body
seven times about the meditating Buddha, protecting him from the rain, wind and insects.
Hsuan Chwang saw a small temple next to the tank, thought to be this naga's abode. He
described it as being somewhat southeast of the bodhi tree and it is now identified with
the dry pond in Mucherim village near Bodhgaya.
While the Buddha sat meditating beneath the ajapala nigrodha tree, Brahma came and
requested him to teach the Dharma. Hsuan Chwang saw this tree with a small temple and
stupa beside it at the southeast corner of the bodhi tree enclosure. It is thought that
the site is now within the Mahanta's graveyard near the present eastern gate.
Buddha spent the last of the seven weeks seated beneath the tarayana tree. Hsuan Chwang
placed this some distance south and east of the bodhi tree enclosure, near the places
where the bodhisattva earlier had bathed and eaten Sujata's offering. All were marked by
stupas. Here two passing merchants, Trapusha and Bhallika, offered the Buddha the first
food since his enlightenment. Seeing that he needed a vessel to receive it, the four
guardians of the directions each offered precious bowls, but he would only accept one of
stone from each. He pressed the four bowls together to form one, which survived, and when
Fa Hien saw it in Peshawar four rims could be seen in the one.
After thus spending forty-nine days meditating close to the seat of enlightenment, the
Buddha left Bodhgaya on foot to meet the five ascetics at Benares in order to turn the
first wheel of Dharma. This accomplished, he returned briefly to Uruvela and introduced
the three brothers--Uruvela, Gaya and Nadi Kasyapa--to his teachings. They developed faith
in the Buddha and, together with a thousand of their followers, became monks and
accompanied Shakyamuni to Rajgir.
Thus far we have described Bodhgaya only in connection with Shakyamuni Buddha, but that
connection is in no way exclusive. In the same manner as Shakyamuni, all the buddhas who
show enlightenment to this world eat a meal of milk rice, sit upon a carpet of grass at
Vajrasana, engage in meditation, defeat Mara and his forces and attain supreme
enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree (although the species of tree differs with each
The present bodhi tree is a descendant of the original, for the tree has been destroyed
deliberately on at least three occasions. King Ashoka, initially hostile to Buddhism,
ordered it to be cut down and burned on the spot, but when the tree sprang up anew from
the flames his attitude was transformed. In deep regret for his destruction, Ashoka
lavished so much personal care and attention on the new tree that his queen became jealous
and secretly had it destroyed once more. Again Ashoka revived it and built a protective
enclosing wall, as had previously been done by King Prasenajit of Koshala within the
Buddha's lifetime. Later, Nagarjuna is said to have built an enclosure to protect the tree
from damage by elephants and, when in time this became less effective, placed a statue of
Mahakala upon each pillar.
Records of the third destruction of the tree are given by Hsuan Chwang, who reports
seeing remains of these walls, and states that in the sixth century a saivite king of
Bengal by the name of Shasanka destroyed the tree. However, even though he dug deep into
its roots, he was unable to unearth it completely. It was afterwards revived by Purvavarma
of Magadha, who poured the milk of one thousand cows upon it, causing it to sprout again
and grow ten feet in a single night.
In addition to human destruction, the tree has perhaps perished naturally several
times, yet the pipal is renowned for growing wherever its seeds fall and the direct
lineage has continued. General Cunningham offers an example. After showing severe decay
for more than a decade, the remains of the old tree fell over during a storm one night in
1876. Young sprouts were already growing within the old tree (which grew into the one we
The origins of the Mahabodhi Temple, which adorns the site today, are shrouded in
obscurity. Various traditions hold that Ashoka erected a diamond throne shrine, which
seems to have been a canopy supported by four pillars over a stone representation of
Vajrasana. When General Cunningham was restoring the floor of the present temple he found
traces that he took to be the remains of the shrine. It is his opinion that the temple may
have been built between the fifth and seventh centuries, but this would seem to be based
on Hsuan Chwang's detailed description of it, while Fa Hien mentions it not at all. Others
propose that because of its resemblance to similar structures in Ghandhara, Nalanda and so
forth, as well as other archaeological evidence, its founding could have been as early as
the second century AD-- Nagarjuna is reputed to have built the original stupa upon the
roof, which is more consistent with the latter theory. However, from Hsuan Chwang we can
be certain that the temple existed before the seventh century.
Accounts of the builder are no longer clear. Some legends attest that he was a brahmin
acting on the advice of Shiva. The statue in the main shrine of the temple, famous for its
likeness to Shakyamuni, is said to have been the work of Maitreya in the appearance of a
Monastic tradition seems to have been strong in Bodhgaya. Fa Hien mentions three
monasteries and Hsuan Chwang describes particularly the magnificent Mahabodhi Sangharama,
founded early in the fourth century by a king of Ceylon. Both pilgrims make special remark
of the strict observance of the Vinaya by the monks residing there. Some accounts tell
that the great master Atisha, who later emphasised pure practice of the Vinaya, received
ordination in Bodhgaya.
As elsewhere, neglect and desolation followed the muslim invasion of northern India.
However, extensive repairs and restoration of the temple and environs in the fourteenth
century by the Burmese and their further attempts in the early nineteenth century are
recorded. In the late sixteenth century a wandering sanyasi settled in Bodhgaya and
founded the establishment which is now the math of the Mahanta. When in 1891 Anagarika
Dharmapala, inspired by appeals in the press by Sir Edwin Arnold, began the
Mahabodhi Society and sought to restore the site as a buddhist shrine, he was obstructed
by bureaucracy. The British Government of India decided that the temple and its
surroundings were the property of the saivite Mahanta, who only then began to take an
interest in it. Nearly sixty years of judicial wrangling followed until the Mahabodhi
Temple was legally recognized as belonging to buddhists.
Since the inception of the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee and the beginning of
its active administration in 1953, vast improvements have been made to both the temple and
its grounds. Existing structures have been repaired and new stupas are being erected. With
the reintroduction of gilded images in the niches of the Mahabodhi Temple, it begins to
regain some of the splendour described by Hsuan Chwang.
The establishment, in the surrounding district, of beautiful temples and monasteries by
the people of Tibet, Japan, China, Thailand, Burma and others has brought back to Bodhgaya
the varied traditions of buddhist practice that have evolved in those lands. By contrast,
the headless, mutilated statues in the local museum present a disturbing reminder of past
Pilgrims abound in Bodhgaya and in recent years thousands have had the fortune to
listen to the Dharma there. Many buddhist masters are again travelling to Bodhgaya to turn
the wheel of Dharma. For example, the Kalachakra empowerment given by His Holiness the
Dalai Lama in 1974 was attended by over 100,000 devotees. The Tibetan monastery now offers
a two-month meditation course annually for the international buddhist community, and
meditation courses and teachings are given occasionally in the Burmese, Thai, Japanese and