Mahabodhi Temple: Architecture, History & Complex

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many important religious sites in the world, but the Mahabodhi Temple is unique. In this lesson, we'll explore this complex and see what makes it one of the most important religious sites in the world.

The Mahabodhi Temple

Buddhism is one of the top five religious doctrines in the world, in terms of number of followers. How did this ideology spread from a small corner of India to become so dominant? One of the first people we can thank for this was the ancient emperor Asoka. Asoka was a third century BCE ruler of the Maurya Empire, one of the first states to unify nearly the entire Indian subcontinent. He was also the first Indian emperor to convert to Buddhism, and put massive efforts into spreading the religion across India.

So, how'd he do it? Asoka's favorite tactic was to put his resources into the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines across the subcontinent. In fact, Asoka has been connected to tens of thousands of Buddhist sites in India. None, however, would rival the significance his first project: the Mahabodhi Temple. Located in Bodh Gaya, India, this is one of the most sacred sites in all of Buddhism, and one of Asoka's greatest achievements.

The Mahabodhi Temple
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History of the Mahabodhi Temple

There are four major temples associated with the various stages of the Buddha's life. The Mahabodhi Temple marks one of the most significant. According to tradition, it was in this place that the Buddha sat under a fig tree and meditated, ultimately achieving enlightenment and becoming the Buddha. That means that this site is essentially the birthplace of Buddhist ideologies and beliefs. Buddhists also hold that this exact spot is the navel of the entire universe. It's the only spot strong enough to hold so much spiritual weight: will be the last place destroyed in the end of time and the first place reborn in the new world.

Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment back in the 6th century BCE, which means that the site was essentially bare for a few centuries before Asoka came around. The emperor visited the site and the pilgrimage town of Bodh Gaya, and decided to build a temple and monastery in honor of the Buddha sometime between 260 and 250 BCE. The first thing he constructed was a raised platform known as the Diamond Throne, said to mark the exact spot where the Buddha was sitting when he achieved Enlightenment. Several stupas (Buddhist mound-shaped temples) were added to the site as well.

What you see at the Mahabodhi Temple today, however, actually dates to a different era. Later Indian rulers of the Gupta Empire rebuilt the site in the 5th and 6th centuries CE. This is when the towering temples that define Mahabodhi today were built. They are designed in the Gupta style of Indian architecture (not a Buddhist-specific style) and are recognized for their superb brickwork. True to Gupta style, the temples are plastered in ornate decoration and ornamentations, featuring numerous statues to Buddhist figures, reliefs and carvings of Buddhist (and some Hindu) scenes, and other Buddhist symbols. Lotus blossoms, a symbol of purity and detachment, can be found all over the site.

The Mahabodhi Temple complex is covered in statues and religious symbols
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After the 12th century CE, the Mahabodhi Temple fell into disrepair. Islamic interests threatened Buddhism in India and the temple site was nearly abandoned. It would later be restored in the 19th century, and worked back into its former grandeur. Today, it continues to function as one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism as well as a monument to India's architectural and cultural heritage. As a result, it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.

The Bodhi Tree

As such an important religious site, its not surprising that the Mahabodhi Temple is packed with Buddhist artifacts and relics. Aside from the Diamond Throne, there are seven other spots within the entire temple complex that are also directly connected to a moment in Buddha's life and teachings.

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