Bodh Gaya: where the Buddha was Enlightened
Body Gaya from 500 CE to 1420
Exactly when the Mahabodhi Temple was built is something of a mystery [ 22. VIEW IMAGE ]. Guesses have have been made which range from the 2nd to the 10th century AD. The temple itself is little help in determining its age as no inscriptions concerning its construction have been found and few temples from prior to the 6th century AD, which could be used for comparative dating, have survived. In any case, any evidence as to the temple’s age that might have been derived from its style has been rendered unreliable by both ancient and modern renovations. Literary records are equally unsatisfactory. The only certainty is that the temple already existed substantially the same as it is today when Hsuan Tsang visited Bodh Gaya in about 637 AD.
Two hundred years earlier Fa Hien reported seeing a stupa (Chinese, ta ) marking the place where the Buddha was enlightened. Opinions differ as to whether this refers to the Mahabodhi Temple or some earlier structure. Another possible piece of evidence is the so-called Bodh Gaya Plaque. This small clay disk found at Kumrahar and now in the Patna Museum, depicts a square inwardly sloping tower with a chattravali-like pinnacle on its top and an arched chamber at its base. Within the chamber is a seated figure that seems to have its right hand in the abhayamudra. The tower is surrounded by a railing beyond which is a collection of smaller structures. At the gate of the railing is a pillar with an elephant capital. Towards the bottom of the plaque is a barely discernible inscription in Kharosthi script [ 23. VIEW IMAGE ]. Some have argued that the plaque depicts the Mahabodhi Temple and others that it does not. The main arguments against such an identification are that Kharosthi was not used in northern India after the 3rd century AD (meaning that the plaque must predate this period), and structures like the Mahabodhi Temple had not evolved at that time; moreover, if the plaque does depict the Mahabodhi Temple one would expect the Bodhi Tree to be shown, which it is not, and also the statue within it to be in the bhumipassamudra rather than the abhayamudra. However, the evidence that the plaque does depict a temple at Bodh Gaya outweighs these objections.
A relief from Bharhut shows an early temple flanked by a pillar with an elephant capital. This temple is identified as being at Bodh Gaya by its accompanying inscription. Whether the relief depicts the temple as it really was or only the artist’s conception of it, the pillar would not have been depicted unless there actually was one. A similar pillar is shown on the plaque. There was known to have been a railing and subsidiary shrines at Bodh Gaya from an early date and both these features are depicted on the plaque. In fact, five structures are more pronounced and these, together with the oblong structure to the right of the railing gate (the Ratnacankama Chaitya?) and the tower itself, could well represent the sattamahatthana shrines marking the Buddha’s seven weeks at Bodh Gaya. Further, the plaque shows not just a Buddhist temple but one revered enough for a pilgrim’s souvenir, which is undoubtedly what the plaque should be considered to be. As for the objections to the plaque representing a temple at Bodh Gaya these can be satisfactorily answered. The plaque seems to be an attempt to represent Bodh Gaya’s shrines in the proper perspective and, as such, the Bodhi Tree should be hidden behind the temple. Again, there are good reasons why the figure in the chamber is in the abhayamudra. All the earliest Buddha statues have their hands in this gesture as indeed does the earliest statue found at Bodh Gaya. The bhumipassamudra does not appear in Buddha statues from Bihar until about the 6th century AD.” All this points strongly to the Bodh Gaya Plaque being a depiction of a temple at Bodh Gaya.
However the temple it depicts cannot be the structure seen by Hsuan Tsang in the early 7th century and which, much repaired, is still seen today. Firstly, the plaque shows a simple tower whereas the tower of the Mahabodhi Temple rises from a terrace. This terrace could not be a later addition, as Mitra discovered when he cut through its top and found it to be bonded to the tower.” Secondly, the Mahabodhi Temple represents an architectural genre that evolved from tower shrine like that shown on the plaque and only after the period from which the plaque comes. Therefore the Bodh Gaya Plaque must depict a tower shrine built at Bodh Gaya after Asoka’s temple was destroyed or demolished and before the Mahabodhi Temple was built. Dating from perhaps the 1st or 2nd century AD, this tower shrine was still standing when Fa Hien saw it at the beginning of the 5th century. Sometime after that, and before the 7th century, it was either demolished to make way for a more grand and up-lo-date temple or more likely was overthrown by an earthquake.
Being destroyed in this way, something that would have been considered most inauspicious, would explain why Hsuan Tsang was not told about what had happened to the temple that preceded the one he saw. According to what Hsuan Tsang was told, a small temple had first been built over the Vajrasana by King Asoka, while the Mahabodhi Temple had been built at a later time by a brahmin. This Brahmin, accompanied by his younger brother, had gone to the Himalayas to request a boon from Mahesvara. The god told him that to have his request granted he had to perform a meritorious act and suggested that he built a temple at the place where the Buddha was enlightened. Consequently the Brahmin erected the temple while his brother excavated the nearby tank [ 24. VIEW IMAGE ]. Soon after this, the brahmin’s wish was fulfilled when he was appointed minister to the king. As unconvincing as this story is, it is the only one we have concerning who built the Mahabodhi Temple.
The most revered object at Bodh Gaya was the statue made to be enshrined in the newly built temple. Placed as it was over the very spot where the Buddha was enlightened and believed to be his exact likeness, it was to gaze upon this statue that was the highlight of the pilgrim’s visit to Bodh Gaya. The Mahabodhi image, as it was called, is continually mentioned in epigraphical and literary sources for more than a millennium. Baladitya’s magnificent temple at Nalanda had a copy of the Mahabodhi image in it. The Chinese monk, I Tsing, who visited Bodh Gaya in the 7th century wrote; “Afterwards we came to the Mahabodhi Temple and worshipped the Image of the True Face of the Buddha. I took bolts of thick and fine silk which had been given to me by the monks and laymen of Shantung, made a robe of it the size of the Tathagata and myself offered it to the Image. Many myriads of small canopies which were entrusted to me by the Vinaya master Huien of Pu’, I offered on his behalf. The meditation master teacher An Tao of Ts’ao asked me to worship the Image and I did this in his name. Then I prostrated myself completely on the ground with my mind undivided, sincere and respectful. Firstly I wished that China might experience the four benefits and that those benefits might prevail throughout the whole universe. Then I expressed the desire to be reborn under the Naga tree so that as to meet Maitriya and practice the true Dhamma and realise the knowledge not subject to rebirth”.
A Chinese inscription found to the north of the Temple written by the monk Ko Yun in 1022 says of the Image; “The great hero Maitreya out of compassion for all beings left them the real likeness… The Image is respected by the heterodox, cherished by the discerning and although 2000 years old its face remains new”. The inscription also tells us that Ko Yun and his companions draped the Image with a robe made of silk that they had bought with them all the way from China for the purpose [ 25. VIEW IMAGE ]. The Chinese envoy Wang Hiuen Ts’c made four separate journeys to India, visiting Bodh Gaya during two of them. When he returned from his last trip with a facsimile of the Mahabodhi image he was swamped with requests for copies of it.
While in Tibet Atisa sent a message back to Vikramasila in India asking that three painting be made, including one of the Mahabodhi Image, and sent to him. Powa Tsuklak Trengwa ( 1504-1566 ) who records this piece of information says the paintings were still preserved in the Nyethang Monastery in his day. The Tibetan monk Chag dGar-bcom (1153-1216) is said to have made a copy of the Mahabodhi image, although it is not known in which temple he enshrined it. He first saw the original during a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya when each day he would buy flowers from the market and strew them on the statue. A Buddha statue of the same dimensions as the Mahabodhi image was installed in the great stupa at Gyantse in Tibet in 1421. The measurements for the statue had been obtained from Sariputra, the last abbot of Bodh Gaya, when he was in Gyantse on his way to China in 1413 [ 26. VIEW IMAGE ]. Nor was sculpture the only art form influenced by this famous statue. The origin of one ancient Indian style of painting pictures of the Buddha was traced back to an impression made by smearing the Mahabodhi Image with yellow sandalwood paste and pressing a cotton cloth on it.
It is not surprising to find that legends should have grown up around such a revered statue. The story concerning the statue’s origins, that was current in the 6th century, is as follows. The Brahmin who had built the temple wished to enshrine a statue within it but for a long time no suitable sculptor could be found. Eventually a man appeared saying that he could do the job. He asked that a pile of scented earth and a lighted lamp be placed in the temple chamber and the door be locked for six months. This was done but, being impatient, the Brahmin opened the door four days before the required time. Inside was found a statue of great beauty, perfect in every detail, except for a small part on the breast which was unfinished. Sometime later, a monk who spent the night in the chamber had a dream in which Maitreya appeared to him and said that it was he who had moulded the statue.
A thousand years later miracles were still being attributed to it. In 1300 the Tibetan tantric adept Man-luns-po travelled to Bodh Gaya and made a vow before the Mahabodhi Image to neither eat or drink until it spoke to him. After waiting eighteen days he got his wish when the statue said, “Oh son of noble family! Proceed to Mount Potala and there practice in the manner of bodhisattvas in the presence of Avalokitesvara”. The details of Man-luns-po’s subsequent journey suggest that he did actually go to the sacred mountain in Kerala. According to Hsuan Tsang, the Mahabodhi image was 11 feet 5 inches high, 8 feet 8 inches wide at the knees, 6 feet 2 inches at the shoulders and its hands were in the bhumipassamudra. Apparently a detachable crown and necklace, both magnificently wrought and bejewelled, adorned the statue. The chamber in which it was placed was so dim that, despite torches and lamps burning within, a mirror had to be used to reflect light on the statue so that its details could be seen.
The Buddha statue that is now placed in the Mahabodhi Temple was found in the Mahant’s compound and moved to its present position at the suggestion of Alexander Cunningham in 1880 [ 27. VIEW IMAGE ]. Dating from the 10th or 11th century, it cannot be the statue seen by Hsuan Tsang or later pilgrims. In 1811, Francis Buchanan Hamilton was told by local people at Bodh Gaya that the original statue in the temple had been made of gold and had been destroyed by the Muslims.
The Mahabodhi Temple was the biggest, but by no means the only, temple at Bodh Gaya. Over the centuries, pilgrims and devotees built other temples in the sacred precincts and, when that became cluttered, beyond it. Concerning these other structures Hsuan Tsang wrote:
“The kings, princes and great personages throughout all India, who have received the bequeathed teachings as handed down to them, have erected these monuments as memorials”.
The donationary inscriptions found in the ruins of these subsidiary temples give some idea of what they were like. They are described variously as pavilions (mandapa), mansions (vimana) or more usually as temples – literally ‘fragrant huts’ (gandhakuti). Some were built to house statues, some to earn merit for the departed and some as sanctuaries for meditation. During the Gupta period, a monk named Bodhisena from Dattagalla built a “most ornamental, excellent and lofty temple” and enshrined a statue within it [ 28. VIEW IMAGE ]. The Chhindha Purnabhadra built a shrine big enough to house three Buddha statues. During the reign of Devapaladeva, a monk named Viradeva from what is now Afghanistan built a shrine near the great temple. He first went to Bodh Gaya “to worship the Vajrasana” after which he returned to his homeland. Many years later, after being appointed head of the Sangha at Nalanda, he revisited Bodh Gaya and built a shrine “lofty enough that the celestial chariots might mistake it for Mount Kilash”.
In about the 10th century, King Tunga of the Rashtrakutas built a temple which was “lofty like a stairway to heaven”. Panegyrics aside, these descriptions give the impression of tall, beautifully decorated structures and fortunately we have more than just written accounts of these now vanished monuments. A model of the Mahabodhi Temple and its surrounding shrines dating from about the 10th century and preserved in Tibet’s Narthang Monastery allows us to actually see what they were like. The model shows a veritable cluster of pinnacles and spires of which the Mahabodhi Temple is only the tallest [ 29a. VIEW IMAGE ]. What a sight Bodh Gaya must have presented to weary pilgrims as they approached it in the distance! The last we hear of Bodh Gaya’s subsidiary temples is in about the 15th century when they were all renovated by Cingalaraja. By the 19th century, most had been destroyed – first by the Mahant who demolished them for their bricks and then by the misdirected zeal of the Burmese. Today, other than the so-called Animisa Chaitya, cemented-over foundations and a few richly carved stone door frames, nothing of them remains.
An inscription dated the year equivalent to 588 is evidence of the continual influx of pilgrims to Bodh Gaya from Sri Lanka. The inscription is one of two by a monk named Mahanama and was found in the ruins of a small shrine near the north gate of the wall that surrounds the temple. The language of the inscription is Sanskrit and the letters, together with the small picture of a cow and her calf nibbling at a bush that appears at the bottom of the inscription, are beautifully inscribed. In the first part of the inscription, Mahanama traces his lineage back to the Buddha’s disciple Maha Kassapa. We are told that Kassapa’s disciples wandered over the “pure land” (India?) until they came to “the feet of Lanka’s mountains” and “in succession from them were born disciples and disciples of disciples by the hundreds.” This pupillary succession passed from Bhava to Rahula, to Upasena, to Mahanama, then to another Upasena and finally to Mahanama, the author of the inscription.
This list of names shows that even in the 6th century there were communities of monks in Sri Lanka who could trace their lineage right back to the Buddha’s disciples. It also shows that in a particular lineage there was a tradition of naming pupils after their grand-teachers. Pride in one’s lineage and one’s predecessors created strong bonds of affection between monks of a particular lineage and between a pupil and his teacher. Mahanama eulogized his teacher Upasena as having “affection of the kind that is felt towards an offspring and which was extended, as one would expect of a kinsman, even to the cruel person who might do him harm (how much more) to any person in distress who might come to him for protection or to any afflicted person whose confidence had been destroyed by the continuous flight of the arrows of adversity.” The inscription continues:
His disciple, greater still, is he who has the appropriate name Mahanama, an inhabitant of Amaradvipa, a very ocean of a mighty family, born on the island of Lanka, delighting in the welfare of others, by him this beautiful mansion to the Teacher of mankind, who overcame the power of Smara, dazzling white like the rays of the moon, with an open pavilion on all sides has caused to be made at the exalted Bodhimanda.
If indeed Mahanama did come from a powerful Sri Lankan family, this would explain why he was able to erect his shrine on such a choice site, right next to the gate that led from the Mahabodhi Temple to the Mahabodhi Monastery. Pilgrims from Sri Lanka lodging at the monastery would have to pass the shrine and read the inscription or, more likely, have it read for them, thereby enhancing Mahanama’s and his lineage’s renown. The inscription concludes:
“By means of this appropriate action may mankind, freed from attachment to worldly things, with mental darkness dispelled, and like a torch clinging to nothing, enjoy the great happiness of perfect wisdom. As long as the sun, the dispeller of darkness, shines in all directions with its diffused rays, as long as the ocean is full of waves that are curled like the hoods of cobras and as long as Mount Semeru, the abode of Indra, has its summit beautiful with various jewelled slabs so as to be full of lustre, so long may this temple of the great Sage be everlasting. The 7th day in the bright fortnight of the month of Chaitra in the year 200 and 60 and 9”. [ 29b. VIEW IMAGE ]
During the second decade of the 7th century, the fanatical Saivitc king of Bengal, Sassanka (603-620), conducted a brief but savage persecution of Buddhism. Monks were harassed, temples were looted and the famous stone with the Buddha’s footprints on it at Pataliputra was thrown in the Ganges. He also gave orders that the Mahabodhi image at Bodh Gaya was to be destroyed and replaced with an idol of Mahesvara.
The officer having received the order was moved with fear and sighing said, “If I destroy the figure of the Buddha then during successive kalpas I shall reap misfortune; if I disobey the king, he will put me to a cruel death and destroy my family; in either case, whether I obey or disobey, such will be the consequences. What then shall I do?” On this he called to his presence a man of believing heart to help him, and sent him to build up across the chamber and before the figure of the Buddha a wall of brick. The man, from a feeling of shame at the darkness, placed a burning lamp in with the image, then on the interposing wall he made a figure of Mahesvara.
The Bodhi Tree was less lucky. It was cut down, its roots pulled out and everything was burned. Soon after this desecration Sassanka died which, not surprisingly, pious Buddhists attributed to his evil deeds. On his death the wall that had been built to protect the Mahabodhi image was removed and the lamp that had been placed inside with it was found to be still burning.
In 629, the most famous of all pilgrims, the Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang, left his homeland for the long journey to India [ 30. VIEW IMAGE ]. Almost two years later, he arrived in northern India and, in 637, visited Bodh Gaya, although he came again some years later in the company of the lay meditation master Jayasena to participate in an eight-day festival. Hsuan Tsang was not just an intrepid traveller and superb scholar; he also took a deep interest in the world around him, and during his travels made extensive notes on everything he saw. On his return to China in 645 he used these notes to write an account of his travels that remains even today the most important source of information about social, religious and political life in late medieval India.
His description of Bodh Gaya is the most detailed that exists from pre-modern times. Hsuan Tsang describes the Mahabodhi Temple as being about 170 feet high and made of brick coated with a layer of plaster. There were niches on the temple, each containing a gilded statue and beautiful plaster-work ornamentation. On the east side of the temple was a three-storied pavilion with gold and silver ornamental work inlaid with pearls and precious stones. On either side of the temple’s entrance were statues of Avalokitesvara and Maitreya, 10 feet high and made of silver. At the back of the temple, the Bodhi Tree stood within a walled enclosure about 20 feet high which had been built by King Purnavarma of Magadha.
Like all places of pilgrimage, Bodh Gaya had a host of shrines, images and monuments that were believed to mark important events or to have miraculous powers. Apart from shrines marking the Buddha’s seven weeks at Bodh Gaya, there were also numerous stupas including one built by Asoka, one built over Sujata’s house and another where the Kassapa brothers had been converted. Near the Mucalinda Tank was a small shrine containing a statue of Prince Siddhattha practising austerities. People believed that scented earth rubbed on this statue would cure sickness. In another shrine was a statue of Kassapa Buddha that was believed to sometimes emit light. Near the Bodhi Tree he saw what must have been a very ancient statue of Avalokitesvara that had sunken up to its breast into the earth. The belief had developed that when the statue finally disappeared so would the Buddha’s teachings. One of these secondary monuments noticed by Hsuan Tsang, which can still be seen today, was the stupa commemorating the Matiposaka Jataka. According to this beautiful legend, the bodhisattva was reborn as an elephant. His mother was blind and he used to look after her by bringing lotus roots for her to eat and pure water to drink. Once, a man became lost in the woods, and just as he thought he might perish there, the young elephant appeared and offered to lead him out of the forest. Having done this, he asked the man not to tell anyone where he and his mother lived. The ungrateful man went straight to the king and told him where he could find the young elephant, who was then captured and tied up in the royal stables where he refused to eat. When the king asked the elephant why he would take no food, he told him he was worried about his blind mother. Impressed by such filial piety, the king returned the elephant to his forest and declared that he and his mother should not be disturbed.
The stupa and nearby pillar marking the place where these events happened still existed at the beginning of the 19th century until a British officer in Gaya decided the stupa would be a good source for cheap bricks. While digging, a large stone box was found that contained many images made of lak. The pillar was moved to Gaya although three fragments, one with parts of an inscription on it, still lay near the stupa until 1830. The remains of the stupa can still be seen in the small village just across the river from Bodh Gaya while the pillar was moved from Gaya and placed near the tank at Bodh Gaya in 1955.
Hsuan Tsang noticed two main festivals at Bodh Gaya both of which attracted many thousands of pilgrims. The first was at Vaisakha and involved the worship of the Bodhi Tree:”On this day the princes of different countries and the religious multitudes from different quarters assemble by thousands and ten thousands unbidden, and bathe the roots with scented water and perfumed milk, whilst they raise the sound of music and scatter flowers and perfumes, and whilst the light of day is continued by burning torches, they offer their religious gifts”.
People would pluck leaves from the Bodhi Tree and take them home as cherished mementos, much as they still do today. The second of these festivals took place just after Kathina and went for seven days:
“Every year, when the monks end their yearly rains retreat, religious persons come from every quarter in thousands and myriads, and during seven days and nights they scatter flowers, burn incense and sound music as they wander through the area and pay their worship and present their offerings”.
In about 656 Hiuen Tsiang and his teacher Jayasena went to Bodh Gaya to witness an exhibition of the Buddha’s relics, the third great annual festival held there. “They (the relics) are both great and small. The large ones are like a round pearl, bright and glistening and of reddish white colour. There are also flesh relics, long as a bean and shining red in appearance. An innumerable multitude of disciples offered incense and flowers ; and after ascribing praise and worship they take the relics back and place them in the stupa”. The Chinese pilgrim had been told that during this festival mysterious lights sometimes appeared and that it sometimes rained flowers and indeed he later claimed to have witnessed one of these wonders. Late at night as the pilgrim and his teacher sat talking, the conversation turned to the relics they had seen that day. Jayasena commented that all the relics he had ever seen or heard about were minute which only seemed logical for things so precious and rare.
These relics however, were so large and there were so many of them that he had doubts as to their authenticity. Hiuen Tsiang agreed and expressed similar reservations. Suddenly all the lamps flickered and then went out and a supernatural light became manifest, “On looking out they saw the temple bright and effulgent as the sun, whilst from its summit proceeded a lambent flame of five colours, reaching to the sky. Heaven and earth were flooded with light, the moon and stars were no longer seen, and a subtle perfume seemed to breathe through and fill the courts and precincts”. Crowds of pilgrims flocked to the temple staring in wonder and offered even more fervent worship. Gradually the miraculous light faded so that “the heavens and earth were again wrapped in darkness and the different stars once more appeared” leaving no one, including the two sceptics, in any uncertainty about the relics’ genuineness.
The Mahabodhi Temple must have required constant minor repairs and occasional major renovations. At some period during the 6th or 7th century, such renovations were made by an unknown pilgrim who left a record of the work he did and the endowments he made on the railing around the temple. The first part of the inscription is missing depriving us of the name of this pious and generous donor. It reads:
… has been made where the great Vajrasana Gandhakuti is. The temple has been adorned with a new coating of plaster and paint at the cost of two hundred and fifty dinaras. In the temple a lamp of ghee has been provided for Lord Buddha by the gift of a hundred cows, for as long as the sun, the moon and the stars shall endure. Also (from the income) of another hundred cows, in addition to the cost of small, perpetually recurring repairs to the temple, provision has been made for another lamp of ghee to be burned before the statue inside the temple. By the gift (of the income from) yet another hundred cows provision has been made for another lamp of ghee to be burned before the brass image of Lord Buddha in the monastery … a perpetual endowment of a lamp of ghee has been made for the benefit of the monastery. There also … a large water reservoir has been dug for the use of the noble congregation of monks and to the east of it a new field has been laid out. Whatever merit may have been acquired by me from all this, may it be firstly to my parents [30a. VIEW IMAGE ].
If we examine exactly what this unknown pilgrim did it becomes clear that his repairs and endowments were the most extensive of any known to have been done at Bodh Gaya since the building of the temple. The 250 dinaras (the well-known gold coin of Gupta mintage), the 300 cows, the land for the reservoir and the cost of its excavation plus the fields must have amounted to a very sizeable expenditure. While the produce from the fields could have been consumed by the inmates of the monastery, only a small amount of the ghee could have been used in the lamps and the kitchen. The rest would have had to be sold and the income from it invested, as would the income from the calves born each year. Some of that would go for wages for cowherds and agricultural labourers and some, in keeping with the stipulation of the endowment, would be used from time to time for repairs to the temple. The rest, no doubt a large and growing amount, would have been used at the discretion of the abbot. It seems likely that the monastery referred to in the inscription was the Mahabodhi Monastery, and its opulence, commented upon by Hsuan Tsang, was due in part to the wealth it accumulated over the centuries from endowments like this one.
This inscription highlights an aspect of Buddhist monasticisim often overlooked – its economic function – and indicates that some monks at Bodh Gaya were as involved in the management of property as they were in spiritual pursuits. It has been pointed out that the paradox of monasticism is that it creates the very wealth that it originally set out to reject. This observation is as true of Bodh Gaya as it is of Buddhist monastic centres throughout Asia. Little information about Bodh Gaya’s economic life has survived, but if what is known is combined with what is known of other monastic centres in northeastern India we get at least a glimpse of what it was like. The basis of Bodh Gaya’s wealth was the donations it received either in cash or in kind. Only the large endowments given by princes and magnates have been recorded, but the few coins that each of the many thousands of humble devotees gave, when added up, would also have been significant. In northeastern India, evidence of land grants to Buddhist monasteries only becomes available from towards the end of the Gupta period. Typically, kings would grant land or villages or sometimes a whole district to a monastery, usually in trust to the abbot. I Tsing mentions that Nalanda owned 200 villages. These holdings were not allowed to be entered by royal officers and were exempted from taxes and dues. In some cases, kings would simply transfer all the rights they enjoyed over a village to a monastery, leaving the task of collecting taxes and produce to the monks.
One inscription urges tenants on land owned by the Mahabodhi Temple to be submissive and obedient to the monk who administered the land, while another reminds tenants “to bring to the donee at the proper time the due revenue …” Monasteries had an interest in improving the land they owned and the resources to do it. The tank dug at Bodh Gaya in the 10th century at a cost of 3000 drammas was probably used for irrigation. It was normal practice in ancient India for kings to grant the revenue of villages to monks who had achieved academic distinction or those deemed particularly holy. The famous lay meditation master Jayasena was assigned 20 large towns by King Purnavarman. Although no records of such grants to Bodh Gaya’s numerous scholar monks have survived, it is safe to assume that they were similarly rewarded. Land grants were generally considered to be perpetual or, to use the phrase found in many inscriptions, “for as long as the sun and the moon shall endure.” They also usually included dire warnings of what would befall anyone violating the grant. Sometimes, instead of land, money was given to be invested or loaned so that the monks could live off the interest. Donors stipulated how they wanted the money given to be utilised. The repair and maintenance of monastic buildings are often mentioned, as are the provision of the requisites to monks, the copying out of scriptures and the maintenance of almshouses for the poor (sattra sala) that were attached to some monasteries. Just as frequently, donors wanted their money used to provide “incense, lamps, oil and flowers” (dhupa, dipa, taila, puspd) for pujas done on their behalf or to keep perpetual lamps burning.
Atisa gave a quarter of the gold he received from Tibet for regular pujas to be performed at Bodh Gaya. The monks who performed these and other ritual services for pilgrims must have received remuneration. There seems to have been an awareness that such monks could sometimes abuse their position and attempts were taken to prevent this from happening. In the 13th century it was decided to build a chapel over the Buddha’s footprints at Bodh Gaya. But when senior monks pointed out that the door-keeper / attendant that such a chapel would require might demand money from devotees, the plan was dropped.
Bodh Gaya, like other monastic centres, maintained a large staff of lay servants and workers. As well as cooks and watchers, there would have been accountants, musicians, garland makers, grooms, labourers, etc. Hsuan Tsang mentions that during his stay at Nalanda he was given personal servants to wait on him. When there were almsgivings at the homes of lay devotees, monastic servants had to carry the necessary utensils from the monastery to the host’s house and back. There were builders and brickmakers to construct and repair buildings, stonemasons to carve the stupas and statues that pilgrims commissioned and scribes to write inscriptions on them. These tradesmen must have been freemen, as they sometimes wrote their names on the bricks they made or included them in the inscriptions they wrote [ 31. VIEW IMAGE ]. Apart from these workers, there were also slaves at Bodh Gaya to do menial tasks and to operate the water clocks.
Another source of income at Bodh Gaya was the manufacture and sale of souvenirs to pilgrims. Models of the Mahabodhi Temple made at Bodh Gaya have been found in several countries [ 32. VIEW IMAGE], as have a particular type of clay tablet [ 33. VIEW IMAGE ]. During excavations at Bodh Gaya in the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of small clay votive stupas were found [ 34. VIEW IMAGE ]. It seems likely that pilgrims either paid to have these stupas made or hired the moulds used to make them. Daily pujas at the Mahabodhi Temple and the smaller shrines around it, the regular flow of pilgrims and the annual festivals must have required a large and steady supply of flowers. Being perishable they would have had to be grown nearby and brought each day. The cultivation of these and the provision of large quantities of ghee and rice needed both for Bodh Gaya’s inhabitants and the pilgrims who flocked there on special occasions must have been a significant factor in the economy of southern Magadha. Bodh Gaya’s wealth allowed it to flourish for centuries as a centre of art, learning and religion, but it also had a negative side. Protecting and maintaining such wealth distracted some monks from their proper vocation and the attacks that Bodh Gaya suffered from kings like Sassanka and later, the Turks, were probably motivated as much by the desire for easy loot as by anything else.
Another inscription written on the stone railing close to the one discussed above, and in almost identical characters, has been thought by some scholars to be a continuation of it. This inscription, in contrast to the last one, is more indicative of the thousands of pilgrims who visited Bodh Gaya through the centuries. It does not record any lavish gifts but rather tells of one person’s devotion to the Buddha and his hopes for himself and the world in which he lived. It reads:
The virtuous monk Prakhyalakirtti being the descendant of the rulers of the island of Lanka is a moon in the filament of his family. This monk, out of devotion, and desiring to attain Buddhahood, caused to be performed acts of worship at the (place of) The Three Jewels for the peace of all mankind. Whatever merit has been acquired by me because of this let it be for the enlightenment of…. Let that auspicious reward be shared by….[ 35a. VIEW IMAGE ]
Yet another inscription from around the same period, and again by a pilgrim from Sri Lanka, but this time a layman, has been found on the broken pedestal of a Buddha statue. It records that one Udayasri set up a Buddha statue at Bodh Gaya and “worshipped it as he would the Lord himself. Carved on the pedestal is a kneeling figure holding a garland, probably a portrait of Udayasri, and a woman with a child. It is possible that Udayasri was accompanied on his pilgrimage by his family.
At the top of the stairs that leads to the north side of the terrace of the Mahabodhi Temple is a huge Buddha statue flanked by Avalokitesvara on one side and Maitreya on the other. There are three inscriptions on the statue. The first, around the head, is the usual Dhamma Pariyaya verse used to consecrate statues. The second inscription, near the right shoulder reads:
Om! Since the Lord of the World realized the path of purity, the path to enlightenment shows us the way to liberation.
The last inscription is on the base of the statue:
A gift of the senior monk Viryendra, a knower of the Vinaya and an inmate of the great monastery of Somapura, an inhabitant of the Samalata country and a follower of the excellent Mahayana school. Whatever merit has been derived from this gift may it be for the enlightenment firstly of my teachers, preceptors and parents and then for all sentient beings.
The characters in these inscriptions are from the 10th century, and we can safely date the statue from this time. Beside the last inscription is a small kneeling male figure with its hands in the gesture of worship, obviously a portrait of the donor. Viryendra hailed from what is now Bengal and must have been a person of some standing, perhaps a senior administrator monk at Somapura, to be able to commission such a large and fine statue [ 36. VIEW IMAGE ].
In the hundred years after 950 AD, the last wave of Chinese pilgrims visited India, and the numbers known to have come is impressive. In the year 964, 300 monks set out. Two years later, when the emperor asked for volunteers to visit the sacred places in India and worship at them on his behalf, 154 monks responded to the call. All these monks carried letters requesting the Indian king to provide them with guides to the various sacred places. Although Chinese had been coming to Bodh Gaya for centuries, their visits are known only from Chinese sources. However, the pilgrims who came during this twilight era of Sino-Indian intercourse actually left traces of their visits at Bodh Gaya.
The earliest Chinese inscription from Bodh Gaya, and indeed from anywhere in India, is found on a piece of carved stone now in the Indian Museum dating from 1000 AD. The stone shows the seven former Buddhas and Maitreya standing in a row and each with his hands in different gestures. [ 37a. VIEW IMAGE ]. The inscription is in three lines along the bottom of the stone. It says that the monk Chi Ye had taken a vow to exhort 300,000 people to practise conduct that would assure their rebirth in heaven and also to distribute 300,000 copies of a particular scripture. Then, together with a group of other monks, he had arrived in Magadha to gaze upon the Vajrasana. Chi Ye and his companions had then worshipped Maitriya and written a record of their devotions. Apparently it was Chi Ye’s second visit to Bodh Gaya.
The next inscription, also now in the Indian Museum, is written on a large stele with three arched niches on its upper edge. The middle niche has an image of the Buddha in it, while the smaller flanking niches contain images of Marici, the Buddhist personification of the victory of light over darkness [ 37b. VIEW IMAGE ]. The writer of the inscription, Yun Shu, says he had come to India to see with his own eyes the footprint of the Buddha. Having done this, he collected what money he could spare and raised a monument to the 10,000 Buddhas some 30 paces north of the Bodhi Tree. Yun Shu proceeds to praise the Trikaya and then ends with a postscript:
“There went with me to the land of the Buddha the two monks I Ching and I Lan from the Monastery of the Established Doctrine in the High Street of the Eastern Capital who each took with him a gold embroidered robe to be placed in the shrine of Mahabodhi and each set up his own memorial tablet in memory thereof”.
By remarkable coincidence, the inscriptions written by the two monks mentioned in this postscript have also been found. The last of this group of inscriptions dates from the year 1033. From it, we learn that a stupa had been erected under the Bodhi Tree in memory of the Emperor Tai Tsung (976-997). Tai Tsung, the second emperor of the Sung dynasty, was a devout Buddhist, and in ordering a monument to be built for him at Bodh Gaya, his successors were probably following his personal wishes. The inscription reads:
“This stupa was erected by the Emperor and Empress of the great Sung dynasty in memory of His Imperial Majesty Tai Tsung. By command of His Imperial Majesty, our divine enlightened, most glorious, most virtuous, most filial sovereign of the great Sung dynasty and Her Imperial Majesty, our most gracious, most virtuous, most compassionate Empress, I, the Buddhist monk Hui Wen, have been commanded to proceed to the country of Magadha and to erect on behalf of His Imperial Majesty Tai Tsung, now deceased, the humane, the orthodox, the deserving, the divinely virtuous, the wise, the supremely filial, this stupa besides the Bodhimanda at Vajrasana”.
In 1011, Dipankara Srijana, better known as Atisa, one of the last great Indian Buddhist masters, was ordained at Bodh Gaya. He studied the Vinaya for two years under Silaraksita of the Matavihara before leaving for Sumatra where he stayed for 12 years. On his return to India, he again went to Bodh Gaya, this time staying at the Mahabodhi Monastery where “he thrice defeated the tirthika heretics in religious controversy and thereby maintained the superiority of Buddhism over all other religions in Magadha”. Shortly after this he was appointed abbot of Vikramasila. Towards the end of his incumbency there war broke out between King Nayapala of Magadha (1038 – 1055) and King Karnya, whose realm lay to the west of Magadha. Karnya’s troops were involved in several skirmishes, looted some monasteries and killed four monks. When Nayapala’s troops finally got the upper hand, Atisa counselled him to have mercy on his adversary and helped to negotiate a treaty between the two parties.
Unmindful of his health and even at the risk of his own life Atisa again and again crossed the river that lay between the two kingdoms and thereby brought peace to all living beings.
In 1040, Atisa set off from Bodh Gaya on his epoch-making journey to Tibet, where he helped in the re-establishment of Buddhism in that land and where he finally died in 1057. His frequent sojourns at Bodh Gaya and the fact that one of his works, the Caryagati, begins with a salutation to the Vajrasana indicate that Atisa had a special fondness for the place.
It was around the beginning of the 12th century that what was to be a long and close connection between Bodh Gaya and the Buddhists of Burma began. By this time the Mahabodhi Temple was at least 700 years old and once again in need of repairs, which King Kyanzittha of Pagan (1084-1113) undertook to carry out. An inscription found at Shwesandaw Pagoda in Prome and dating from approximately 1100 reads, in part:
“King Kyanzittha got together jewels of diverse kind and sent them in a ship with intent to build up the holy temple of the glorious Vajrasana… The great temple built by King Dhammasoka, which had fallen into utter ruin, His Majesty proceeded to build anew, making it finer than even before”.
This is the first evidence of repairs being done to the temple by parties from outside India and reflects the gradual decline of Buddhism in the subcontinent and its ascendancy in other parts of Asia. The Shwesandaw Pagoda inscription raises several interesting questions. What prompted Kyanzittha to undertake what must have been an expensive project in a land beyond his own kingdom? It is true that Burmese pilgrims returning from Bodh Gaya could have told him about the state of the temple. But could their entreaties alone have been enough to arouse his interest and get him to open his treasury? One is tempted to speculate that the Sri Lankan monks at Bodh Gaya had something to do with it. During this period, Burma was enthusiastically absorbing Sri Lankan Theravada, and monks from the island were held in great esteem in Burma. Likewise, there had been a century of political turmoil in Sri Lanka, and the king of the time, Vijayabahu I (1055-1110), was preoccupied with trying to rebuild his country. Vijayabahu himself had sent “costly pearls, precious stones and other jewels to the Bodhi Tree” but he probably was not in the position to do anything more ambitious. This might have compelled the monks at the Mahabodhi Monastery to take advantage of their compatriots’ influence in Burma to appeal to Kyanzittha for help.
Another point of interest in the inscription is its claim that the Mahabodhi Temple was in a state of ‘utter ruin’ (patikard) and that it was virtually rebuilt. The temple could have been damaged by war or perhaps even by an earthquake, but there is no record of this. Short of such catastrophes there is no reason to believe that the temple needed anything more than a good renovation like that done in the 6th or 7th century. Kyanzittha was a monarch very much given to bombast and self-aggrandizement. Several of his other inscriptions are written in the form of fictitious prophecies in which the Buddha foretells his reign and the supposed golden age it would usher in. Other inscriptions described him as a bodhisattva and praise the numerous grandiose building projects he initiated. All the records we have of Kyanzittha give the impression of a man who would have been loath to admit to merely repairing something originally built by another. That thorough renovations were carried out on the Mahabodhi Temple we need not doubt, but that it needed rebuilding or even major structural repairs is improbable. That need arose and was ably undertaken by another Burmese king two centuries later. Evidence of Kyanzittha’s mission from Bodh Gaya itself comes in the form of two sealings found there by Cunningham. The sealings have inscriptions on their backs in Mon script from about 1100 AD that say: “This is the Buddha of Mahadeva”
Another inscription from towards the end of the 12th century likewise suggests the decline of Buddhism in India but also renewal – at least at Bodh Gaya. The inscription, first discovered by Cunningham, is in Sanskrit in beautifully incised Nagari characters of the 12th century and resembles the Sarnath inscription of Kumaradevi. As the first words of the chronogram are missing it is not possible to give the inscription’s exact date, but it must fall somewhere between 1183 and 1192. When Niradbandhu Sanyal translated the inscription in 1929 based upon a reproduction of it, he was unable to locate the original and its whereabouts today is unknown [ 34a. VIEW IMAGE ]. The inscription records the excavation of a cave at Jayapura and the setting up therein of a statue of Simhanada Avalokitesvara and three statues of Tara “as fair as the morning clouds”. This act of piety was undertaken by a monk named Srimitra who, we are told, “was always quick in giving away without attachment even what did not cross the mind of the receiver, so that the wish-fulfilling gem, famous for giving what is desired, became dull with shame.” We are further told that Srimitra converted to Buddhism many kings including King Jayacchandra of Benares and that he had “restored the discipline and recovered numerous collections of lost scriptures and others of the same kind, belonging to the illustrious Mahabodhi”. Exactly where Srimitra excavated his cave is difficult to imagine. The nearest rocky areas to Bodh Gaya are Gayasisa to the north and Pragbodhi to the east, neither of which has artificial caves. I suggest that Srimitra’s cave was a construction like the caves housing statues of the Virgin that are often seen in the grounds of Catholic churches. [ 35. VIEW IMAGE ].
Jayapura, the City of Victory, is almost certainly another name for Bodh Gaya. King Jayacchandra (1170-1194) was a Gahadavala, a dynasty usually thought of as being Hindu. However, we know that his grandfather, Govindachandra (1114-1154) patronised the Buddhist monastery at Sravasti and that his grandmother Kumaradevi was a devout Buddhist. That Jayacchandra followed in his grandmother’s footsteps indicates that there was a strong and enduring Buddhist influence in the family. The description of Jayacchandra as a king of Benares, a fact confirmed by Muslim sources, is also of interest. Chandradeva, the founder of the Gahadavala dynasty, made his capital at Kanauj, but most of the grants issued by his successors were issued from Benares. It would seem, therefore, that at an early date the capital was shifted from Kanauj to Benares, and it is almost certain that increasing Muslim pressure from the west necessitated this move. Srimitra’s mention of restoring destroyed scriptures at Bodh Gaya may be evidence of a brief but destructive raid by Muslims that had recently taken place.
Srimitra’s inscription is the first epigraphical evidence of the worship of Tara being practised at Bodh Gaya. As the earliest statue of Tara found at Bodh Gaya dates from about the 7th century, this is surprising. About 50 years after Srimitra built his cave, the Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin saw a temple at Bodh Gaya called Taravihara and three celebrated statues of Tara. The first was called “Tara of the Turned Face”. The pilgrim was told that once a savaka had made disparaging comments about the statue, after which it turned its head and spoke to him. The same statue was supposed to have spoken to Atisa. The second statue was called “Laughing Tara” and represented the deity laughing at Mara’s attempts to frighten the Buddha [ 35b. VIEW IMAGE ]. The third statue was called “Tara of the River”. According to legend, a savaka had fallen into the river and as the current swept him away he cried out to Tara in desperation. The deity suddenly appeared to him and said: “When all was well you never gave me a thought. Now when you are in trouble you shout ‘Tara! Tara!’ ” The water subsided, and the previously sceptical monk was saved. The deity then changed herself into a stone image which was then installed in a temple. These stories of Tara miraculously confounding doubting savakas probably reflect Tantrayanist annoyance at being unable to convince the Theravadins of the reality of Tantric deities. Although Dharmasvamin does not say that the three statues he saw were all enshrined at the same place, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that they were the same statues raised by Srimitra. The florid imagination so characteristic of the Tantrayana could well account for the legends growing up around the statues so soon after their installation. Before the 1880 restoration what is now identified as the Animisa Chaitya was called Tara Devi Temple, and the image inside it, a statue of Simhanada Avalokitesvara, was worshipped as a Hindu goddess. It is also interesting to note that the village which borders Bodh Gaya on the southwest is called Mastipur Taradi, a contraction of Tara Devi.
In the spring of 1234, the Tibetan monk Dharmasvamin left Svyambhu Stupa just outside Kathmandu, where he had been studying for five years, and set out for India. His aim was to visit Buddhist sacred sites and to finish his education at Nalanda before returning to Tibet. He had picked a particularly bad time to go. Parts of the country were already subdued by the Turks, while in other parts native princes still held out, or even mustered enough strength to win back some territories – at least for a while. Brigands and highwaymen took advantage of the chaos to loot at will. Dharmasvamin would have already heard about or even met monks and other refugees fleeing the fighting. But despite being fully aware of the very considerable dangers of travelling in India, he nonetheless set out. When he reached Pata in northern Bihar, he was told that Turks had attacked the town earlier in the year but had failed to capture it. However, the townspeople were taking no chances, and the bridges in front of all the town’s gates were guarded by archers. He joined up with a group of travellers, 16 of whom like himself were headed for Bodh Gaya. The party arrived in Vesali to find the panic-stricken population preparing to flee an attack that was expected at any time. Dharmasvamin stayed in the town overnight, and the next day it was announced that the soldiers had gone. Continuing south, he crossed the Ganges, which was eight stages from Bodh Gaya, a stage being about eight miles, and eventually reached his goal.
At the time of Dharmasvamin’s arrival at Vajrasana, the place was deserted and only four monks were found staying there. One of them said: “It is not good! All have fled from fear of the Turushka soldiery.” They blocked up the door in front of the Mahabodhi image with bricks and plastered it. Near it they placed another image as a substitute. They also plastered the outside door of the temple. On its surface they drew the image of Mahesvara in order to protect it from the non-Buddhists. The monk said: “We five do not dare to stay here and shall have to flee.” As the day’s stage was long and the heat great, they felt tired and as it became dark, they remained there and fell asleep. Had the Turushkas come they would not have known it.
Early the next morning the monks fled north but were able to return 17 days later, and Dharmasvamin spent the next three months doing his devotions, seeing the sights and, because he could speak Sanskrit, acting as an interpreter for other visitors. Dharmasvamin’s account of his stay at Bodh Gaya is of great interest, not only because it is so full of details, but also because it is the last eyewitness account we have of the great temple and its institutions before they ceased to exist. Dharmasvamin described the Mahabodhi Temple as being 35 cubits high, painted white and clearly visible from a distance of two stages. He described it as shaped like a stupa on the outside but like a monastery on the inside. On the east there were three chambers. According to what he was told, the temple had originally been built by a Brahmin and then, about 180 years after the Buddha’s Nirvana, King Asoka had enlarged it and built an enclosure around it. Inside the temple was the famous Mahabodhi image, some two cubits high.
“One is never satiated to behold such an image and has no desire to go and behold another. Dharmasvamin said that even people with little faith when standing in front of the image felt it impossible not to shed tears”.
He was told the legend concerning the image’s origins. Three brothers fell into an argument as to which religion was best. On being told by the others that Buddhism was inferior, the youngest brother went crying to his mother. She called the three boys together and told them to go to the Himalayas and ask Mahesvara for his opinion. Mahesvara of course confirmed the youngest brother’s belief in the superiority of Buddhism, and all three brothers became monks. The eldest brother built a monastery at Veluvana in Rajagaha, the middle brother built one at Isipatana and, so as not to be outdone, the youngest decided to make a statue of the Buddha at the Vajrasana. In a dream he was told to get material consisting of one part precious substances, one part fragrant substances and one part sandalwood paste, place it in the temple and to keep the door closed until a particular time. This was done but he opened the door before the appointed time. Inside he found the statue completed except for the little toe on the right foot. The mother of the three boys, who had known the Buddha when she was a young girl, declared the statue to be exactly like the Buddha except in four respects. Whereas the Buddha’s usina was invisible, it could be seen on the statue, unlike the Buddha the statue did not move, it did not expound the Dhamma and it did not radiate light.
This legend is reminiscent of the one that Hsuan Tsang was told about the Mahabodhi image, but differs from it in detail. Obviously the story had evolved in the 600 years between the two men’s visits. Dharmasvamin was also told that formerly the Mahabodhi image had two beautiful gems in its eyes that emitted light so bright that it was possible to read by it. During a raid by Turks just prior to his visit a soldier had put a ladder against the statue and prised the eyes out. As he was climbing down he slipped and fell, dropping the gems and smashing them after which their light grew dim. At the back of the Mahabodhi Temple surrounded by a wall was the Bodhi Tree. At the base of the two trunks that the tree apparently had at that time was a trench for offerings.
“Devotees worship the tree with curd, milk and perfumes such as sandalwood, camphor and so on, they bring offerings from afar in vessels and pour them into the trench. Thus they worship the Bodhi Tree and keep it continually moist”.
The temple itself was surrounded by a stone railing which by this time had come to be attributed to Nagarjuna. One of the many precious relics preserved at Bodh Gaya during Dharmasvamin’s time was one of the Buddha’s teeth, which was occasionally displayed in the temple courtyard:
On auspicious occasions the relic casket with the tooth was brought to the courtyard and placed on a large flat stone which had the shape of a lotus leaf. They sprinkled it with sweet water mixed with the three white ones (i.e. milk, curd and butter) honey and sugar. The water which accumulated below the stone was collected below the courtyard into numerous brass vessels and was then used both for bathing and drinking.
At the end of the courtyard, near the stone with the Buddha’s footprints, was a large stone gateway which was said to have been erected by Acariya Hayaghosa. [ 36a. VIEW IMAGE ].
“People going to fetch water for the washing and anointing of the footprints with medicated perfumes used to touch the gate with their foreheads and thus secure blessings and there was a mark left on the stones”.
Just beyond the gateway was a large offering lamp:
“A flat stone the size of a door was placed on a stone pillar, on top of it was placed a smaller stone, and on top of it another smaller stone, the arrangement being similar to the steps of a stupa. On top of the pyramid was placed a row of offering lamps. At the head of the row of lamps stood a large offering lamp which used to burn day and night and could not be extinguished even by a strong wind. The sound made by the flickering of the flame could be heard from a distance. This offering lamp, which was in line with the stone footprints, the courtyard, the Mahabodhi image and the eastern gate, was an object of worship”
The whole temple complex was surrounded by a square wall, at a distance of about an arrowshot from the temple itself, and with its main gate to the east. There were two other gates, one to the north that lead to the Mahabodhi Monastery, and another to the south. No one was allowed to sleep within the compound except the Sri Lankan monks. Dharmasvamin described their monastery thus:
“In front of the central north gate is a monastery. In all there are twelve monasteries. In each of the monasteries there are about ten, or about six, or seven, or fifteen monks. Dharmasvamin said that the monastic cells had from the outside the shape of a stupa and from the inside that of a dwelling. They are painted in a bright white colour and there are a great many of them”.
After his three-month stay at Bodh Gaya, and later, a period of study at Nalanda, Dharmasvamin managed to return to his homeland where he later went on to become a renowned scholar.
Throughout nearly a quarter of the 13th century, Bodh Gaya benefited greatly from the munificence of the kings and princes of what is today the mountainous region of southwest Nepal and Garhwal in India. Evidence for this comes from three inscriptions, two found in Bodh Gaya itself and one from Gaya. A king named Asokavalla is mentioned in all three inscriptions, once as a donor. He is described as king of Sapadalaksha (Sivalik Hills), “a follower of the excellent Mahayana school and a lay devotee of pious heart”. The first of these inscriptions is written in incorrect Sanskrit like that commonly found in Buddhist manuscripts from Nepal and has a picture of two animals in coitus carved below its text.
In the year 1230, at the prompting of his preceptor Pandit Mushala and Chattopadhi, a teacher from Kashmir, Asokavalla built a monastery with a Buddha statue at Bodh Gaya. He also arranged for the cook Mamaka and the retainer Harichandra to prepare daily offerings of food, incense and lamps to be offered before the Buddha statue by the Sri Lankan monks. The second inscription was found by Cunningham cemented into the walls of the Temple of Sun near the Vishnupada Temple in Gaya. The temple is a late construction and has obviously been partly built of masonry from Bodh Gaya. We are told that Purushottamasingha, the king of Kama, built a temple “as graceful as a hall of emancipation and bliss” in memory of his daughter’s deceased son. To accomplish this, he had to call upon the help of both Asokavalla and the Chhindas. This would indicate that Purushottamasingha’s realm was near Asokavalla’s and perhaps under his suzerainty. The Chhindas were a minor dynasty that ruled parts of northern Uttara Pradesh and probably originated in Sindh. Purushottamasingha may have had to seek their permission and co-operation to move funds through their territories to Bodh Gaya. The construction of the memorial temple was supervised by a monk named Dharmarakshita, who is described as a royal preceptor of Kama. The inscription goes on to say that “the religion of the Sage is decaying” (bhrashte Muneh sasane) and that the king had taken steps to reverse this lamentable trend.
There is ample evidence from other sources that Buddhism in India was in decline at this time, and paradoxically enough, Purushottamasingha’s inscription offers more evidence for this. The king had commanded that three times a day worship was to be offered in his temple, not with the resonant and dignified chanting of monks, but “with music in the fifth and highest pitch together with Rambha-like bhavinis and chetis performing wonderful dancing and singing like that offered to Ananga”. Rambha was the divine prostitute of Hindu mythology and Ananga another name for its god of love. Bhavinis and chetis are other terms for devadasi, and in Hindu temples such women usually doubled as prostitutes.
While we need not assume that the odious practice of temple prostitution had been introduced into Bodh Gaya, the presence of such women does indicate that Mahayana Buddhist worship had taken on an increasingly Hindu form. Purushottamasingha’s inscription is dated the year 1813 of the Buddha’s Nirvana, probably equivalent to 1253, and is one of the few inscriptions found in India using this era. The third and last inscription in this series was found on a fragment of stone near the Mahabodhi Temple in 1835. Later, James Princept published a facsimile of it, but where it is today is not known. It records a donation made by Sri Sahanasana “in conduct firm like a bodhisattva, an observer of truth and vows, who is treasurer and dependant of Prince Dasaratha, the younger brother of King Asokavalla…” This inscription is dated in the year equivalent to 1270. [ 37. VIEW IMAGE ]
The last epigraphical evidence of the Sri Lankan monks at Bodh Gaya comes from an inscription found in the village of Janibigha, some eight miles east of Bodh Gaya. The inscription is carved on a pillar of stone and has two pictures on it, one above the inscription and another below. The upper picture is of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree in the bhumipassamudra surrounded by a halo and flanked on either side by a sun and a moon. The lower drawing is of two animals in coitus and illustrates the curse mentioned in the inscription. This rather interesting stone is now in the Patna Museum, but not on display. It reads:
Om! I hail the illustrious, ancient and traditional city of Mahabodhi at the foot of whose Bodhi tree the Conqueror who walks the path attained enlightenment. The village of Kathata in Satpaghatta, its land and water together with its plough tax is hereby given without reserve, to the illustrious Vajrasana for as long as the sun and the moon shall endure. The charter is placed in the hands of Mangalasvamin of Sri Lanka, versed in the Tipitika by the king, the son of Buddhasena. Having granted the village, King Jayasena who is truthful and has the title ‘Pithipati’ and ‘Teacher’ spoke thus: “If any king of my line, good, bad or worthless, violates this grant let his father be a donkey and his mother a sow”. The 15th day of the bright half of Karrtika, Lakshmanasena Samrat 83 expired. [ 38. VIEW IMAGE ]
The date of this inscription probably corresponds to the year 1262. Two kings are mentioned, Jayasena the donor and his father Buddhasena. Dharmasvamin met a King Buddhasena at Gaya in 1234, and a king of the same name helped the Burmese mission in 1295. We can conclude from this that Jayasena was succeeded by his son who, like his grandfather, was also named Buddhasena. The first of Jayascna’s titles, meaning “Protector of the Throne” refers to the Buddha’s throne, i.e. the Vajrasana, and indicates that Bodh Gaya was within Jayascna’s realm. His second title, “Teacher” (acarya), is an intriguing one as it is more indicative of a religious rather than a political personage. It is quite possible that the dynasty to which Jayasena belonged had been founded by a senior monk at Bodh Gaya. The decadence and disruption of the 11th and 12th centuries would have been conducive for a powerful prelate to switch roles and while retaining his ecclesiastical title declare himself king, set up his capital at Bodh Gaya, and legitimise his rule by claiming to be “Protector of the Throne”.
Sometime after Dharmasvamin’s visit the Mahabodhi Temple was once again in need of repairs, but whether this was due to vandalism or just general decay cannot be said. A Burmese inscription cemented into the wall of the Mahant’s compound, and found by a delegation sent to Bodh Gaya by the king of Burma in 1833, records major repairs done to the temple between 1295 and 1298. The inscription begins with a potted history of the temple as understood by the Burmese. First built by Asoka, it fell into decay after a long time and was repaired by a great pansukula monk (i.e. a rag-robe wearer). Who this monk was is not known, but the fact that he was remembered by the writers of the inscription points to him being Burmese. After the temple fell into ruin again it was again repaired by “our beloved king” (satuiw man). This is obviously a reference to Kyanzittha’s mission. The inscription continues:
Later still when it fell into disrepair yet again Dhammaraja, the Lord of the White Elephant, sent his teacher Siri Dhammarajaguru (to India) to represent him. The teacher took his pupil Siri Kassapa with him. When the provision made for expenses proved to be insufficient for the work, he invited a forest dwelling monk to receive donations from King Buddhasena who said: “Let it be done.” So saying, he granted permission to the junior monk and the elder monk to proceed (with the repairs). On Friday the 10th day of the waxing moon of Plasuiw, in the year 657 (between December 1295 and January 1296) they commenced the repairs. On Sunday the 8th day of the waxing moon of Tanchonmhum in the year 660 (October – November 1298) the dedication was held and the following offerings were dedicated to the temple. Flags and banners, 1,000 bowls of rice, 1,000 lamps, two boys in substitute of the donor’s own children, gold and silver flowers, and cloth hung on bamboo framework. So as to provide for the daily offering of rice at the shrine at all times, land, slaves and cattle were purchased and likewise dedicated. May this meritorious deed of mine lead me to Nirvana! May I meet Metteyya, the future Buddha! [ 39. VIEW IMAGE ]
Exactly which king dispatched this mission has not been determined. It was probably King Klawcwa (1289-1297) although he is not known to have used the title “Dhammaraja, Lord of the White Elephant”. Alternatively, it could have been his son, crown prince Klawcwa, who is called Dhammaraja in one of his inscriptions dating from 1293. But whoever it was, the size of the mission and the time it spent at Bodh Gaya indicates that major repairs were done to the temple at that time. There has been endless debate about which mission did what to the temple and when. One or the other is usually thought to have built one of a series of buttresses on the west side and to have rebuilt the ground floor and upper chambers on the east side. But as the buttresses were demolished and the two chambers and the porch rebuilt in the 19th century, these questions can never be settled with certainty.
A Tibetan work, the Mkhas-pa’i dga-ston, mentions a yogi named Ugyen Sangge who, during one of his frequent trips to India, made contact with the king of Sri Lanka and repaired the temple with his help. This is said to have happened around the year 1286. Because this date is only an approximation it is not possible to know which king might have undertaken these repairs. It could have been Bhuvanaikabahu I who died in 1284 or his successor Parakramabahu III who came to the throne about two years later. Although both monarchs had to face considerable political difficulties at home this did not prevent them having overseas contacts. Bhuvanaikabahu had sent an ambassador to the Sultan of Egypt and Parakramabahu went in person to the Pandyan court in India to plea for the return of the Tooth Relic which had been taken there as war booty some years earlier. Either king could have thought that the merit earned by repairing the Mahabodhi Temple might make their thrones more secure. The Mkhas-pa’i dga-ston adds that while the work was being done Ugyen Sangge stayed to the north of the temple with 500 other yogis. This must be a reference to the Mahabodhi Monastery and its inmates and there can be no doubt that it was they who put Ugyen Sangge into contact with the Sri Lankan king in the first place and that they had a major role in the repairs.
By the end of the 13th century, the Turks had been in north India for just over a hundred years and were subduing the last pockets of native resistance. The damage that they had inflicted on Buddhism in their hatred for what they perceived to be idolatry was complete. Hardly a single Buddhist temple, shrine or monastery survived their passing. We have only brief notices concerning the fate of Bodh Gaya during this terrible period. The first is the mention by Taranatha of a fire in the temple. This incident is related in connection with a monk named Jnanasrimitra:
He was born in Gauda. Earlier he was a pandita of the savakas and a scholar of their Tripitaka. Later on, he had reverence for Nagarjuna and Asanga … He attained unlimited psychic powers. Once, while he was residing at Vikramasila, he had told a novice monk, “Start immediately so that you can reach the city of Gaya tomorrow noon. A brahman has invited there all the monks with the priests in charge of the temple of Vajrasana to a seasonal feast. The tower containing the Mahabodhi will be damaged by fire. Take them along to put the fire out.” He went to Gaya and, as predicted, met the residents of Vajrasana. He said, “My teacher has predicted this. So please return (to the temple).” Half of them did not believe him and stayed back. When he reached Vajrasana with the other half of them the tower of Vajrasana had already caught fire. Both the interior and exterior were aflame. They extinguished the fire with prayer to the deity and then the temple was saved from further damage. The acarya arranged for the restoration of the damaged paintings and the renovation of the wooden structure.
The second notice is Dharmasvamin’s account of the desecration of the Mahabodhi image which occurred just prior to his visit. The third notice, again from Taranatha, is a brief account of the damaging of the temple and its repair by a king named Cingalaraja:
About a hundred years after the death of Pratitasena, Cingalaraja become very powerful in Bengal. He brought under his control all the Hindus and Turuskas up to Delhi. He was originally a devotee of the brahmins but under the influence of his queen he changed his faith and became a devotee of the Buddhists. He made lavish offerings at Vajrasana, renovated all the temples there and properly rebuilt the upper four stories of the nine-storied great pinnacle which had been destroyed by the Turuskas. He established there a centre for the Dhamma under pundit Sariputra.
When did these events take place? The date of the first incident, the fire, can be fixed with relative certainty. As it is said to have occurred while Jnanasrimitra was residing at Vikramasila, and as the great monastery is known to have been destroyed by the Turks in about 1201, it must have happened just prior to that date. The second incident, the desecration mentioned by Dharmasvamin, took place just before 1234 and seems to have happened during a smash and grab raid by a few soldiers that did little other damage. These incidents must have disrupted life at Bodh Gaya, but they were not serious enough to cause its abandonment. There seems little doubt that the great temple and at least some monasteries were still functioning in 1298. This is confirmed by the Burmese inscription of that same year. King Buddhasena was still on the throne and still secure enough to lend the Burmese money to complete its repairs. There must have been someone at Bodh Gaya, perhaps Buddhasena’s officials but more likely some monks, to administer the land, cattle and slaves offered by the Burmese.
Dating Cingalaraja’s attempts to restore Bodh Gaya is more problematic because of lack of information about this monarch. Writing in 1608, Taranatha says that Cingalaraja had died 160 years before, that is, in 1448. He also says that he was a very long lived monarch. If Taranatha is right and if Cingalaraja ruled for, say, 30 years, which would have been quite an achievement for a non-Muslim king at that time, his restoration could have been carried out during the second decade of the 15th century. The destruction which necessitated these repairs could have taken place at that time or even a century or more earlier. The problem is that Cingalaraja is not mentioned in any Indian records. The only king who could correspond to him is the shadowy Raja Ganesh who seized power from the Muslims and ruled Bengal between about 1406 and 1414, although he is not known to have been a Buddhist or to have been particularly long lived.
However, we do have some definite dates concerning the prelate Sariputra who Taranatha mentions in connection with Cingalaraja. Sariputra is known to have passed through Kathmandu in 1412, and Tibet the following year, on his way to China at the invitation of the Ming court. Accepting an invitation from such a far-off land could only mean that he had decided to leave Bodh Gaya with the intention of never returning, and one can only presume that he did this because it was no longer possible to live there. If this is so, it means that Bodh Gaya was probably finally abandoned, for whatever reason, shortly before the year 1412. So we can say that at the beginning of the 15th century Bodh Gaya finally and tragically ceased to be a living centre of Buddhism. It might have endured several attacks before being given one last coup de grace, but more likely it just slowly died, like a lamp that grows dim as its fuel is spent, then flickers and goes out.
Copyright 2007 © Ven. S. Dhammika. All rights reserved.