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Light of Asia

Light of Asia

The Government of India has proposed to UNESCO that the Mahabodhi Temple
at Bodh Gaya be declared a World Heritage Site, reports AJAY AHUJA

The Statesman (New Delhi)
August 18, 2000

The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, Bihar (popularly referred to simply
as Bodh Gaya) is a site of immense significance to Buddhists and
tourists on the spiritual itinerary. It is one of the most important
places in the world's spiritual heritage.

It is the place where the ascetic prince Siddharth attained
enlightenment to become the Buddha. The Buddha (566--486 BC) attained
enlightenment when he was 35 years of age in the year 531 BC. Thus, it
marks the most important event in the life of Buddha, which was to
change the shape of human thought and belief.

The Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha sat in meditation and attained
enlightenment, is located behind the temple. It is known to be a direct
descendent of the original Bodhi Tree (botanical name 'ficus
religiosia', commonly called the pipal tree in India).

The Mahabodhi Temple complex comprises, apart from the temple, six other
sacred spots associated with the Buddha's enlightenment. The Buddha,
following his enlightenment, spent a week each meditating upon the
wisdom he had attained at seven different spots in the vicinity. Of
these, the first was the Bodhi Tree. The other six, including a lotus
pond, are also located here.

It was at the initiative of Emperor Ashoka, who made a pilgrimage to the
place in 260 BC, that the first temple was built at the site of the
Bodhi Tree. The existing temple, estimated to have been built in the 5th
century, stands at the same spot. Some of the important accounts of the
temple were written by the Chinese pilgrim-travelers Fa Hien (who
visited Bodh Gaya in 409 AD) and Hieun Tsang (637 AD).

>From early times, rulers of Buddhist countries including Sri Lanka,
Thailand and Myanmar, apart from India, built temples and viharas at
this complex. After the 12th century, when the Muslim conquests began,
there was complete silence about this temple. Finally, in 1861 Sir
Alexander Cunningham and J D M Beglar excavated the temple, buried under
a mound of earth, and restored it.

Some years later, the ownership of the temple, then in the possession of
a Hindu mahant, became and important issue for Buddhists, largely owing
to the efforts of a Sri Lanka Buddhist, Angarika Dharmapala. To further
their cause, he established the Mahabodhi Society in 1891. However, the
dispute continued for 69 years until, in 1953, the government finally
entrusted the management of the temple to the Bodh Gaya Management

The earliest account comes from Fa Hien. He writes: "The sites of the
great Pagodas have always been associated together from the time of the
Nirvana. The four Great Pagodas are those erected on the place where he
was born (Lumbini), where he obtained emancipation (Bodh Gaya), where he
began to preach (Sarnath) and where he entered Nirvana (Kusinagar)."

Hieun Tsang writes: "Thus, on account of its association with the signal
event in the Buddha's life, that of his attaining enlightenment and
supreme wisdom, Bodh Gaya may be said to be the cradle of Buddhism. To
the devout Buddhist there is no place of greater importance and
sanctity. The holy spot of enlightenment attracted pious pilgrims from
far and near.'

The Mahabodhi Temple is the most revered place of pilgrimage for
Buddhists from the world over. It is the only ancient Buddhist temple
that exists today. It far surpasses Lumbini in Nepal, where Prince
Siddharth was born, in terms of architectural and artistic excellence.
Also, it is the only grand structure of the late Gupta period (also
known as the 'Golden Age of Indian Culture') still in existence, and
thus of immense historical significance.

Normally, and average of more than 1000 tourists visit the place daily.
On special occasions such as Buddha Jayanti (it is believed that the
Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and left his worldly life on the
full moon date in the month of May) and other auspicious days, more than
25,000 persons visit the temple on a single day. This year, in fact,
there were about 60,000 visitors on Buddha Jayanti.

The Government of India has recently sent a proposal to UNESCO for the
declaration of the Mahabodhi Temple complex as a World Heritage Site. At
present, there are 16 manmade and natural sites in India which enjoy
this listing.

Already, Lumbini in Nepal enjoys such a status. The proposal was drafted
by Benoy K Behl of Delhi's Cultural Documentation and Conservation

Speaking as an art historian, Behl claims that an entire monastic city
lies buried around the Mahabodhi Temple site. "All other grand temples
of that period have been destroyed, but this one still stands.
Obviously, it has survived because it was buried under a large mound of
earth." Even today, tourists have to walk down about 20 ft to reach the
level of the temple floor.

Ruling out a natural calamity, like an earthquake or a flood, as the
cause, he says: "The religious importance of this site made the Buddhist
community hide this complex under the earth, to protect it from
invaders. An excavation here will reveal a magnificent ancient city."
CDCF, which has already structurally restored two monasteries in Ladakh,
has taken up scientific investigation with the objective of excavating
the area around the Mahabodhi Temple.