Buddhism is one the oldest and most venerated religions of India. It is a clear, profound set of beliefs, which appeals to people even today because of the simplicity and hope of its outlook. It was patronized by several dynasties in ancient India, most notably so by King Ashoka. According to Buddhist texts, it was established by Prince Siddhartha, a young man of privileged birth and pure ideals. In order to protect him, his childhood was sheltered and his education conventionally styled. In adulthood, the knowledge of life’s many tragedies such as old age, disease and death shook him so much that he renounced his material life and turned to asceticism, thereby transforming from the cosseted prince Siddhartha to Gautama Buddha.
Lost in deliberation and exhausted by his search for the greater good, he came to rest under a peepal tree near the site of the modern Indian city of Gaya, on the banks of the Phalgu River. After meditating at that spot for three days, he attained the enlightenment he sought. The tree later came to be known as the Bodhi tree.
The Mahabodhi Temple was built at this spot, which according to Buddhist scriptures, is the navel of the earth, being strong enough to bear the weight of his enlightenment.
The temple was built around 7th century C.E, though restoration and rebuilding work was carried out in various other centuries as well. Most of the modern structure is credited to King Ashoka. It was added by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 2002.
King Ashoka is a famous character from India’s history, brought to life by modern retellings of his battles. According to legend, King Ashoka was a battle hardened and violence driven king, who would wage destructive battles to conquer new territories. After a particularly gruesome battle at Kalinga, Ashoka was overcome with remorse at the amount of carnage and violence, which he felt victory could not compensate for. He renounced violence entirely and embraced Buddhism and started to propagate it.
The Mahabodhi Temple is built to the east of the Bodhi Tree, which is said to be a direct descendant of the original Bodhi tree.
The architecture of the Mahabodhi Temple is unique and of a refreshingly unadorned splendor. Most of the ancient structure was made of bricks, which makes of one of the oldest surviving brick structures. It is covered with designs of honeysuckle vines and flying geese, as well as depictions of Buddha’s life. The older structure also has paintings of Hindu deities such as lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and surya, the sun god. The temple complex has six important sites, and another, the Lotus pond, outside it.
The Diamond seat, or the Vajrasana, is the seat where Buddha attained enlightenment. It was built by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century to commemorate the place where Budhha had meditated. It is carved out of red sandstone and is etched with delicate carvings of lotuses.
The prayer hall is another important place, where Buddha is believed to have spent a week, in prayer.
According to legend, Buddha walked along a certain path in the complex, which led bright cerise lotuses to spring up as he walked. The area is known as the Rantaparichrama or Jewel walk. Stone lotuses have been erected here to mark his steps.
There are several engraved balustrades and stupas throughout the complex, which depict scenes of Buddha meditating, or answering the questions of Brahmins. The original columns have been removed to a museum for preservation and replicas have been installed. The stupas are a mixture of styles, having been built by various kings and dynasties over different periods of time.
The disparity in the styles, along with all the other elements however, emphasizes the grace and magnificence of the structure, as a whole, portraying the unique yet age old idea of harmony and peace through divine teachings and the eternal message of peace and non violence which Buddha spent his life propagating, can be felt intently in the atmosphere.