It seems that most people haven’t even heard of the Mahabodhi temple or the town of Bodhgaya. You won’t hear referenced with the likes of Jerusalem or Mecca. India is full of incredible monuments, temples, and natural wonders. You probably won’t see the site listed on top 10 lists for India. I couldn’t find it on any. But it should be! It’s worth your time to visit the Mahabodhi Temple. It’s where one of the world’s major religions began, and visiting the temple is a special experience. You’ll get wrapped up in a whirl of pilgrims and marigolds, ancient stupas, incense, and candlelight, or peaceful quiet meditating under a descendent of the bodhi tree.
Why is the Mahabodhi Temple important?
The Mahabodhi Temple (Great Awakening Temple) was built on the site where the Buddha meditated under a fig tree and experienced awakening (bodhi). Many Buddhist temples will hold special meditation retreats (Japanese: Rohatsu Sesshin), around the first week of December, often with an overnight meditation period, in commemoration of the Buddha meditating at this site and experiencing awakening as Venus twinkled in the early dawn.
A descendent of the original tree grows at the base of the massive stone temple. For some traditions of Buddhism, a pilgrimage to the Mahabodhi Temple to perform prostrations is an important milestone on their spiritual journey. You’ll see many monks performing prostrations repeatedly on plywood boards, with knee pads and squares of cloth for their hands to help slide along the board. Their few worldly possessions beside them. Maybe a dog curled up there, too.
What you often don’t see in photos of the Mahabodhi Temple, is that the grounds are alive with crowds of people. It’s full of energy and practice. Groups of monks and pilgrims travel from all over the world to practice on the temple grounds.
When was the Mahabodhi Temple built?
Some parts of the temple complex have been dated to the reign of Ashoka (240ish BCE). The towering temple in the center of the complex dates from the 5th or 6th century, but earlier artifacts from the 2nd century illustrate a similar building. So the current temple is a reconstruction or renovation, but it’s still 1500 years old.
As you walk around the complex, it’s noticeable that different parts of the infrastructure, stupas and platforms surrounding the main temple, have been constructed at different times. So give yourself time to explore. There are so many details to appreciate. You can see the history of Buddhism and the history of the world, all there in a moment while you give your attention to a marigold floating in a paper cup, resting on a carving from the 800s.
The main temple building is built out of stone blocks with carvings of Buddhas and bodhisattvas and stories from Buddhist tradition. The entire complex is really layers of sculptures and nature laid down over centuries, creating an intricate narrative of symbolism. You can spend hours walking in circles around the temple and still find moments of awe and wonder.
If that’s feeling overwhelming, there is an area by the Bodhi tree that has large wooden platforms set down for meditating. It’s a quieter place where you can pause for a moment.
Tips for visiting the Mahabodhi Temple
No phones allowed. The photos above are all ones I licensed from Shutterstock, captured by people with actual cameras. There’s a photo below I took from the gate, before handing in my phone. You also need to leave any backpacks or large bags. No plastic bags are allowed in the complex. There is a camera fee of 100 rupees ($1 USD).
Give yourself time. The complex is big. There will likely be a lineup to get into the main temple or to pass by the bodhi tree and diamond throne. In terms of the best time to go, I went as the sun was setting and it was a beautiful time of day to walk up to the temple, past the stalls selling food and religious paraphernalia, and then circle the temple as dusk settled and lights twinkled on. I imagine morning would be an equally special time.
Explore Bodhgaya. You’ll want to make time for exploring the other temples in Bodhgaya if you’re interested in Buddhism (and art, architecture, spirituality, and food). The reason for leaving time to explore the town is that all of the different traditions and branches of Buddhism established temples in Bodhgaya, some for a very long time, and they all reflect the architecture and practices of their origin. You can tour much of the world in Bodhgaya. You can feel like you’re in Japan one moment, then walk by the Mongolian temple to admire the dharmapala murals, swing over to Bhutan (which might be as close as you’ll ever get to Bhutan). Bodhgaya is small, but unique.
As close as I got to the Mahabodhi Temple with my phone camera. Somebody did decide to decorate the complex with flashing LED lights, some of which depict scenes from the Buddha’s life. It’s not the decoration choice I would’ve made, but I like to sit and stare at concrete walls.
The Mahabodhi Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but...
Many people around the world can identify the Vatican, the Dome of the Rock, the Wailing Wall, the Kaaba, or the Golden Temple in Amritsar. You probably immediately recognize Kinkakuji in Kyoto, and that’s just a tea house. I knew all of those in high school. But I had no clue the Mahabodhi Temple existed or what it looked like until a few years ago. A perfect example of how little awareness there is of this important site, is that UNESCO has it identified incorrectly on the Mahabodhi Temple’s World Heritage Site page.
As of June, 2022, do not follow the satellite map on UNESCO’s website to find the Mahabodhi Temple complex. Their map will take you to a different temple: the Shiv Mandir Bodhgaya Math. You’ll also be at the back of the Mahabodhi complex. A long walk from the entrance where you need to drop off your phone before entering.
I hope you find your way well to the Mahabodhi Temple if you have the opportunity to pause there for a moment on your adventures. Be sure to share about it if you visit so others can learn about this special place.
This Guide attended a seven-day intensive, silent meditation retreat led by Zarko Andricevic, in the tradition of Chan master Sheng Yen, at Dharma Drum Mountain