Bodhgaya, is the holiest of the four holy places of Buddhism. Situated by the river Niranjana, it is where Lord Buddha left his footsteps nearly 2500 years ago while travelling in the quest of enlightenment. It was here under a banyan tree, (the Bodhi Tree); Siddhartha Gautama attained supreme enlightenment to become the Buddha, (the Enlightened One).
At the age of twenty-nine, Siddhartha abandoned his luxurious existence and spent six years as an ascetic attempting to overcome the inborn appetites for food, luxury and sex by practicing various yogic disciplines. In this quest for knowledge he reached out to all famous religious preachers. They all showed him various methods of meditation (samadhi). But in all this Siddhartha did not find the answer to the true knowledge or peace. Siddhartha along with five fellow companions then started to lead a life of extreme asceticism. They thought that the answer to enlightenment was by discarding all food, worldly goods and by practicing self-degradation. In course of time his five companions became tired of the hard austerities and lost faith in him and abandoned him. Siddhartha however continued the search for truth. After five or six years of self-mortification, he still could not find an answer to his fundamental problem and realised that if he kept on that way he would probably die before finding one.
Siddhartha then discovered the Middle Way, a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. In a famous incident, after becoming starved and weakened, he accepted a bowl of milk rice pudding from a maiden named Sujata near the banks of the Niranjana river. Having eaten the offering, Siddhartha seated himself under a pipal tree and vowed never to arise until he had found the truth. Mara, the demon, fearful of Siddhartha’s power, tried to distract him by sending beautiful women, an army of devils and attacking him with terrible weapons. But all this went useless, and the motionless monk sat in meditation. After 49 days in meditation, he attained Enlightenment. It was on a full moon day of Vaishaka (May) in 528 B.C.
He was only 35 yrs old then. At the time of his enlightenment he realized in complete detail the causes for all our sufferings and the ways in which the same can be eliminated. During the first hour of that wonderful night he acquired the knowledge of his past lives in various places of existences and realized the law governing the causes of suffering. In the second hour he acquired supernormal divine vision and understood the law governing the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. In the third hour he fathomed the law of overcoming the cause and effect of suffering. Then at sunrise he attained Supreme Enlightment. From that time, Siddhartha became known as The Buddha or "the Enlightened One” or “the Awakened One". Later on he also came to be known as Sammasambuddha (the Perfectly Enlightened One); Shakyamuni (Sage of the Sakyas); Tathagata (the Perfect One); Sugata (the Happy One or the Accomplished One). The pipal tree under which he sat came to be known as the Bodhi Tree (Tree of Awakening) and the area as Bodhgaya or Buddha Gaya.
ATTRACTIONS IN BODHGAYA
The Mahabodhi Temple
To commemorate the enlightenment of the Buddha, Emperor Asoka built the first temple at the site of the Bodhi Tree around 260 B.C. This temple was replaced in the 2nd century C.E. which in turn went through several alterations. The present temple which has been through layers and layers of restoration dates from the 6th century C.E. The Burmese monks contributed a lot towards the restoration and renovation work of the temple when they found the temple neglected and overrun by squatters in 1882. In 1883, British Archaeologist Sir A. Cunningham and J.D.M. Beglar along with an Indian Archaeologist Dr. Rajendra Lal Mitra undertook a very detailed scientific renovation of the Temple. The temple has been last thoroughly repaired in early 1998.
The site consists of the main temple and six sacred places that are inside an enclosed area, and the seventh one, the Lotus Pond, lies just outside to the south of the the enclosure. The central tower of the main temple, standing on a high plinth, is about 55m high and is a straight-edged pyramid, relieved by pilasters and chaitya-niches, substantially agreeing with the descriptions left by Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim. The remaining shrines and stupas mostly belong to the Pala period (9th to 12th century). The temple houses a gilded statue of the Buddha made of Black stone built by the Pala kings of Bengal. The Buddha here is seen seated in the Bhumisparsa Mudra or the Earth touching posture. This classical gesture signifies enlightment.
The Bodhi Tree
At the back of the Mahabodhi Temple is the sacred Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa). This tree is a distant descendant of the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment and spent his First Week. There is an abiding serenity surrounding the tree. By just sitting under the tree with closed eyes one can feel a spiritual solitude and inner peace. The tree still radiates an aura of holiness. Those, who prefer an ambience of serenity, would appreciate this place's surroundings to be perfectly suited for meditation.
Vajrasana In the platform between the Bodhi Tree and the Temple is a large rectangular stone slab thought to be placed exactly where the Buddha sat and attained enlightenment. This seat of Enlightenment is called the Vajrasana or the Diamond Throne. Built in the 3rd century B.C. by Emperor Asoka, it is made of red sand stone.The outer dimensions of the Vajrasana are 143 x 238 x 13.5 cm. This is the oldest object that can still be viewed at Bodhgaya.