Bodh Gaya, the first of the great pilgrimage sites

- through Fabrice Groult

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Le Mahaparinirvana sutra and some other texts report that the Buddha himself, requested by his disciple Ananda, would have instituted four places of pilgrimage associated with the four great original miracles: birth, enlightenment, the first sermon and the Mahaparinirvana. Place of Awakening, Bodh Gaya could not fail to occupy a privileged place.

Having renounced asceticism, the future Buddha chose, to continue his practice in another way, to live near the humble village of Uruvilva, which had sheltered the rigorous austerities to which he and his five companions were delivered for several years.

It was there that he experienced awakening. He also spent the seven weeks following the event there before going to Varanasi, where he was to deliver his first teaching.

The multiple structures that today make up the Bodh Gaya site are divided into two enclosures. The outer enclosure notably houses the pond of Mucilinda, serpent king who protected the Buddha from a torrential rain during the sixth week after the Awakening, a large platform for the prostrations of the faithful, as well as a multitude of stupa votives and small temples built over the centuries. But it is obviously in the inner enclosure that the most important buildings are grouped, starting with the Mahabodhi temple.

Founded, it seems, in the 54rd century BC, during the ambitious work undertaken on the site on the initiative of King Ashoka, the building was then the subject of numerous reconstructions and embellishments. Its current state is the result of a masterful renovation carried out in the XNUMXth century. Its silhouette conforms to the architectural style of North India, with a pyramidal superstructure culminating at XNUMX meters in height. Rites involving Pali recitations and offerings take place there daily.

The Tree of Awakening

In the immediate vicinity of the temple, object of all devotions, stands the majestic pipal, tree of Awakening. The oldest references to the presence of pilgrims date back to the reign of Ashoka. The sovereign himself, a fervent protector of Buddhism, visited the site several times, showing the greatest respect for the sacred tree. He donated 100 gold coins and initiated the construction of a temple prefiguring the Mahabodhi.

A tradition related by the Mahavamsa has it that one of the royal wives took umbrage at Ashoka's repeated visits to the scene, convinced that the sovereign was moved by a tender feeling for the tree nymph and not by any devotion to the Buddha's teachings. She would then have tried to kill the tree by sorcery. In vain, one suspects, and his misdeeds would have earned him a quick and just punishment. It was also during the reign of Ashoka that a cutting was taken to be sent to Sri Lanka.

In the XNUMXth century, the famous Chinese pilgrim Xuan Zang made an amazed description of the tree he saw during his long journey in India.

A legend, probably resulting from an interpretation of real events, would also say that later, a Saiva king tried to kill the tree by all means. He would have been punished by a terrible skin disease.

The tree, which a British archaeologist found in very poor condition in 1862, would in fact be, in the eyes of botanists, the latest rejection to date of a long series which succeeded the original tree on the site.

Place of all devotions

Not far from there, sheltered by the foliage of the pipal, the "diamond throne" materializes the very place of Awakening. It is in fact a large slab of stone that its carved decoration allows us to date from the XNUMXrd century BC. This also connects him to the work carried out during the reign of Ashoka. It is now surmounted by a canopy of gilded bronze and covered with a saffron-coloured cloth on which the offerings are placed. Prior to its establishment, the tree alone marked the place of Awakening.

Called “Mahabodhi” for a long time before the term Bodh Gaya took hold, the site experienced its golden age between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. The rulers of the Pala dynasty, who then reigned over a good part of northern India, offered unfailing support, supplemented by generous donations from Sri Lanka and Burma.

An inscription also indicates that the offering rituals in the temple were carried out until the XNUMXth century by monks from Sri Lanka.

More than fifty years of struggle and sometimes tense negotiations will be necessary for the management of the temple to be entrusted to a committee in which the two communities (Buddhist and Hindu) are equally represented.

Despite the damage caused by the Muslim invasions of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, pilgrims continue to arrive. But at the end of the XNUMXth century, the temple was in ruins, a Hindu ascetic settled there and the site was almost deserted by the Buddhists. It was not until the early XNUMXth century that renewed interest from the kings of Burma marked both the site's revival, culminating in a large-scale restoration led by the British, and the beginning of a marked hostility between the Hindus, who had appropriated the place, and the Buddhists who could not accept the transformation of the most sacred place of Buddhism into a Shivaite sanctuary. A very regrettable hostility, given the past of great religious tolerance that Bodh Gaya could boast of, which is not far from Gaya, a center of Vishnuite devotion. More than fifty years of struggle and sometimes tense negotiations will be necessary to lead to the management of the temple being entrusted to a committee in which the two communities are equally represented.

Bodh Gaya has now regained its splendour, and in addition to the daily rites, specific festivals and ceremonies take place there each year, bringing together devotees from all over the world and representing the many branches of Buddhism.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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