Around 2,500 years ago, a Samana (a wandering ascetic) accepted a bowl of rice from a young girl. This simple act made him realise that austerities alone could not lead to Nirvana. Gautama Buddha left the life of an ascetic and sat meditating for days under a Peepal tree. This is where he attained enlightenment.
One man’s awakening changed the course of history. It was at this moment that the ‘middle way’ was born.
Today, 17 km from Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar, stands the 5th succession of the Peepal tree under which a wanderer became a Buddha—the awakened one. Even though Gautama Buddha left the place later and set out to teach people the middle way, Bodh Gaya became the birthplace of Buddhism.
In around the 3rd century BC, Emperor Asoka visited the Bodhi tree and built the earliest Buddhist temple which would later be known as the Maha Bodhi temple, one of the four major sites on the map of Buddhism. Legend has it that one of Asoka’s wives had the original tree cut down out of envy as Asoka would spend most of his time under it.
Bodh Gaya is considered one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Buddhists—visited by a steady wave of tourists from all over the world. In fact, Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Thailand, Japan, and Bhutan, have built temples and monasteries near the Maha Bodhi temple complex.