Have you heard of Bodhiraksita? He is the first ‘documented’ pilgrim in Indian history. According to local inscriptions, he travelled from Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE, to Bodhgaya, in Bihar, located a 100 kilometres from modern Patna, to see the famous bodhi or peepal tree under which the Buddha got his enlightenment. Of course, during his visit, he would not have seen the 180 feet tall pyramidal Mahabodhi temple, full of images of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, fierce gods, and goddesses such as Yamantaka and Vajravarahi who are part of later Mahayana and Tantrik Buddhism. This brick structure was built only five hundred years after his visit, in Gupta times.
Today, when we visit Bodhgaya as part of the Buddhist tourist trail and encounter people from China and Japan and Korea and Thailand, and Europe, and America, we assume this pilgrim spot was always there, since 2,500 years ago, when Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan attained enlightenment here. But that is not so. In fact, in the early 19th century, no one in India had any idea about Buddhism. The Buddha, at best, was an avatar of Vishnu mentioned in some Puranas. The Mahabodhi temple and the lands around had been since the 16th century under the control of a Hindu mahant.
It was British historians and archaeologists who played a key role in the re-discovery of Buddhism. Sir Edwin Arnold wrote the Light of Asia that told the story of Buddha’s enlightenment. Sir Alexander Cunningham played a key role in identifying the Buddhist nature of the dilapidated structures in Bodhgaya. And Anagarika Dharmapala of Sri Lanka played a key role in restoring the site to his glory. He initiated a legal process to enable Buddhists to reclaim the site in the late 19th century. He died in 1933 and it is only in 1949 that the Government of India, acknowledged it as a Buddhist shrine. Over the years, there are claims and counterclaims in matters of its administration, with some Hindus claiming it is also a Hindu shrine, though increasingly the management is being given to Buddhists, not just those from India, but from all over the world. Now Bodhgaya is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Two thousand five hundred years ago, when Siddhartha, a Nepalese prince of the Sakya clan, from Kapilavastu, came to this region he described it thus, “There I saw a beautiful stretch of countryside, a beautiful grove, a clear flowing river, a lovely ford and a village nearby for support. And I thought to myself, ‘Indeed, this is a good place for a young man set on striving.’” Nearby was the village of Uruvela on the banks of the Neranjara (Phalgu) river. Later this village was reamed as Sambodhi, Mahabodhi, and finally, by the 18th century, as Bodhgaya.