Bodhgaya: Buddhism’s most sacred site

The November seminar focused on textual, epigraphical and archaeological sources concerning Bodhgaya, the most sacred site in Buddhism where the Buddha was believed to have attained enlightenment.

The first presentation, by Sam van Schaik, concerned written accounts of the site by Tibetan pilgrims from the early 11th century to late 13th century CE, and the later revival of interest in the site. The earliest account is from Rinchen Zangpo who is said to have brought back the rituals of the Dharmapāla Mahākāla from Bodhgaya. Another account from later in the 11th century by Ra Lotsawa gave a more detailed account of the architectural arrangement and features. The final account from this period, in the early 13th century, by Chag Lotsawa Chojepal’s biographer reported that the Mahābodhi statue had been bricked in and presented as Maheśvara (an epithet of Śiva) to save it from destruction by the Karluks.

mahabohdi
Plan from Cunningham, Mahâ-bodhi, plate XVII

 

In the 18th century, Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims once again took to travelling to Bodhgaya. The first of these was Garshapa Sonam Rabgye who was sent to investigate the present condition of the site in 1752, with more to follow later in subsequent decades. Rabgye’s description suggests drastic deterioration: “But everything except the central gandhola temple was destroyed. We were depressed! The entry vestibule was three-tiered, and about half of the first story was extant; the upper two had fallen and were not there.”

A point of particular interest at Bodhgaya is the Vajrāsana, the stone throne in the Mahābodhi templebuilt at the precise site where the Buddha was believed to reached enlightenment. Copies of the temple in wood and stone were photographed by Cunningham in the 1930s and initially thought to be souvenirs, but in fact would be better thought of as mobilised worship sites that could be exported elsewhere for worshippers who could not make the pilgrimage.

woodentemple
Wooden model of Bodhgaya in Narthang monastery, photographed in 1936 by Rāhula
Sāṅkṛityāyana and published in “Second Search of Palm-Leaf Mss. in Tibet” Journal of the
Bihar and Orissa Research Society, 23.1 (1937): 1-57.

 

The second presentation, by Daniela De Simone and Daniel Balogh, considered some of the archaeological and epigraphical finds in and around the Vajrāsana in more detail.

The iconography which it bears is similar to that of Amarāvati in the 2nd century CE. It is also repeated at other significant sites from the life of the Buddha, including Saṅkīsa, Bansī, Rāmpūrvā, Sāñcī and Sārnāth. The slab that forms the seat of the throne is made from grey sandstone and covered in geometric patterns reminiscent of the façade of the Lomaś Rishi cave built in the 3rd century BCE, though the slab is considered much later.There are inscriptions in the southwest and northeast corners which would appear to read “seat established for the sake of worship of the Buddha,” likely made in the 1st century BCE – 1st century CE.

The Vajrāsana is clearly old as Aśoka’s VIII rock edict indicates he visited it in the tenth year of his reign. The Mahābodhi temple which surrounds it however must be a later addition with many modifications over the century. As also suggested by the Tibetan textual sources, the slab was likely to have been covered up from the 13th century when the site came under attack.

vajrasana
The Vajrāsana, from Cunningham, Mahâ-bodhi, plate XII

 

The third presentation, from Michael Willis, looked in more detail at archaeological finds from the site unearthed by Cunningham which are now at the British Museum. One of the more peculiar of these is a bottle labelled “coral fragments mixed with mud plaster of Buddha’s throne.” A new investigation has subsequently been undertaken of precious stone finds from the site.

Archaeological evidence from excavations of the site, combined with textual and epigraphical sources, reveal numerous changes over the centuries. One of the older finds is a 7th century CE Nepali coin. The outer Vajrāsana statue of the Buddha dates from c. 11th century CE, however an older statue located behind it is more likely the 8th century CE. With the outer statue was also found an inscribed copper plate, the epigraphical script variant of which would date from 900-1150 CE.

With reference to religious practices at the site, evidence again comes from tantric deities and vajras beneath the other Buddha statue. One other interesting fact is the question of the position of the original bodhi tree. Cunningham writes that during their excavation the tree was struck by lightning and a new one had to be replanted.

bodhgaya
Pen and ink drawing, of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, by Sir Charles D’Oyly, (1781-1845), dated 27th December 1824. (The British Library, WD2060).

 

The final presentation, by Marc Miyake, Michael Willis and Tilman Frasch, looked at a tablet inscribed in Old Mon which was donated to the British Museum by Cunningham. Dated at possibly 1086 CE, it is shaped like a tree leaf and bears an image of the Buddha performing the bhūmisparśamudrā (earth witness gesture). It is also engraved with 108 small stupas and the pratītyasamutpāda gāthā in 2 lines at the bottom. The inscription is written in Old Mon, the literary language of Burma at that time. It reads wo’ kyāk mhādew: “this sacred being, Mahādeva.” There is a parallel to this short, unstressed /m/ syllable in the Pyu language, also from Burma, in mhaṭhe, “Mahāthera” from c. 1112 CE.

According to Cunningham, the tablet was found in one of the small votive stupas around the main temple; another two were given by him to the India Museum in Calcutta. He said many more were found at the stupas but these are now unaccounted for. The tablet was made by rolling raw clay on a piece of cloth, as can be seen on the reverse of the tablet which preserves the patterned mark of the fabric. The easy mode of production and reported number of them found at Bodhgaya suggests that the tablet were made on-site for worshippers to offer. The tablet, along with the iconography depicted in the frieze around the Vajrāsana, and the textual accounts from Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims, all point to a rich and complex array of religious practices at the site for over two thousand years.