Open Learning Buddhist Studies
Bodhgaya News
Founded: March 15 2002
Last updated: Wednesday, June 26, 2002
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Maitreya Statue
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Bodh Gaya has a history which stretches back into the mists of antiquity. Archaeological excavations have revealed that the earliest traces of human habitation stretch back to at least as early as 1100 BCE.

For convenience you could divide the history into the following phases, the dates are often approximate, they are just so you can get a handle on the periods in the history.

Chalcollithic Age (1100-600BCE)

During this period there was already settled agriculture, hunting and fishing in Bodh Gaya. People were living in reed and bamboo or wattle and daub buildings and were skilled in making pottery, stone implements, arrow heads, fish hooks, etc. The pottery of his period is referred to as Black and Red ware, and features decorations in slips on red and black surfaces. The presence of rice husk impressions in pottery indicates that rice was already being cultivated in this area at this time as well as cereals. They did not use iron implements but were familiar with copper and there is evidence for the smelting of copper goods in Bodh Gaya. (Ansari, A.Q, 1990, Archaeological Remains of Bodh Gaya, Ramanand Vidya Bhawan, Delhi, pp: 44-51)


Iron age (600-200 BCE)

This period is marked in archaeological excavations not only by the introduction of iron implements but by the adoption of new techniques in pottery making which produced a kind of pottery called Northern Black Polished Pottery (NBP), a remarkable mirror like light ceramic. This era also saw the introduction of coinage which is found in excavations from this period.

It is of course also the era in which Shakyamuni Guatama Buddha lived and attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya. From Buddhist and Brahminical textual sources it can be gathered that Gaya and Bodh Gaya was already a place of pilgrimage by this time and the present day village of Bakraur was a significant market town.


Mauryan Period (200BCE-100CE)

In this period Bodh Gaya became a major place of Buddhist Pilgrimage. All the evidence points to the Emporor Ashoka having made a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and built some sort of monument at the tree where the Buddha was enlightened, probably of railings around the tree and a monumental column. In subsequent generations the initial railings were extended.


The Kushana Period (100 - 400 CE)

It is likely that during this period the first temple was constructed at Bodh Gaya. It seems that the tree was moved back from its previous position and the alighnment of the shrine was changed. It is due to this that the 'Jewel walk' the ancient monument that marked where Buddha did walking meditation after his enlightenment has a slightly different alighnment from the temple.


The Gupta Period (400 - 800 CE)

This period marked the construction of the temple in a form probably akin to that of its present day appearance. The temple was also associated by this time with numerous other monuments and monasteries.


The Pala Period (800-1200 CE)

During this period Bodh Gaya was a major centre of Buddhism patronised by the Pala Dynasty of Bengal. It seems likely that at some point during this period the four subsidiary shrines on the main temple were added. Buddhism flourished in Bodh Gaya and there are a number of accounts by pilgrims of the wonders that they saw at this place.


The Medieval Period (1200-1800 CE)

In the late 1100's the Bodh Gaya area came under the rulership of the Islamic Sultanate of Delhi and state patronage for the temple and monasteries stopped. The lands of the monasteries and temples were taken over by the new rulers and it seems that gradually the temples and monasteries of Bodh Gaya fell into decay. During this period wandering Buddhist Siddhas, and Shaivite Nath Siddha ascetics continued practice in Bodh Gaya and Shaivite asectics established a permanent monastery, or Math, in Bodh Gaya. This Math gradually became the major landowner in the area and the Abott, or Mahant, the local ruler.


The Colonial Period (1800-1947 CE)

Early colonial accounts of Bodh Gaya depict it as a rural village where the principal landlords were the Abotts of the Hindu monastery and the temple was in a state of disrepair and falling down. The British were spurred to action over the temple in the 1880s when a Burmese mission to repair the temple was in action at the same time as the British annexed Burma. Due to this the Archaeological survey of India took over the rebuilding of the temple under the direction of Alexander Cunningham. The present form of the temple complex is that of this 19th century reconstruction.

In the late 1800s Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist leader from Ceylon, began what became a long campaign to take the management of the temple into Buddhist hands.


The Modern Era (1947-)

On independence the management of the temple became a controversial issue. Eventually, the temple was taken out of the hands of the Hindu Abotts and put into the hands of a management comittee. The Temple Management Committee was made up of Buddhists and Hindus, but with a statuary majority of Hindus.

In the 1990s campaigning by the followers of Ambedkar, Indians who became Buddhists after 1956, led to the handing over of the management of the temple to Buddhists.


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Texts and Translations © Peter G. Friedlander unless otherwise indicated.