The Buddha attained complete and perfect Enlightenment while seated on the diamond throne (Vajrāsana) under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya:
Also called the Seat of Enlightenment (Bodhimaṇḍa), this throne is said to be located at the Earth’s Navel, the only place on earth that rests directly on the primordial layer of golden earth supporting the Cosmos:
Only there can the Earth support a Buddha undergoing full Enlightenment without breaking apart.
The Bodhimaṇḍa numbers among the numerous invariables in all Buddhas’ biographies, which have only 3 distinguishing features:
These are the genus of their Bodhi trees, and the places of their births and deaths.
Hence, individual Buddhas are identified with and by their particular Bodhi trees, Śākyamuni’s being the Sacred Fig at Bodh Gaya.
The Enlightenment is further ritualized and solemnized by its being embedded in an elaborate sequence of actions, beginning with Siddhartha’s decision to abandon physical austerities and to follow the Middle Way.
Despite the site’s extent, the ground is thick with sacred traces of the Buddha performing these actions:
According to the Chinese pilgrims Faxian (ca. 337-418 C.E.) and Hsüan-tsang (ca. 600-664 C.E.),
individuals hailing from different places and eras erected Stūpas, pillars, railings, temples, and monasteries to memorialize deeds and places reminding of Buddha’s deeds:
An example is the Jewel-Walk, one of the 7 spots where the Buddha spent one week of his 7- week experience of Enlightenment.
In approximately 250 BCE, about 200 years after the Buddha attained Enlightenment, Buddhist Emperor Aśoka visited Bodh Gaya in order to establish a monastery and shrine on the holy site, which have today disappeared.
Though the emperor Aśoka probably established Bodh Gaya and the Bodhi tree as Buddhism’s most sacred Buddhist Pilgrimage site and object,
the earliest extant remains and inscriptions are from times of Śuṅga Empire (c. 187 to 78 BCE):
Recording three Śuṅga noblewomen’s donations to the King’s Temple, its railing and the jewel-walk posts, these inscriptions inaugurate an on-going domestic and foreign tradition of donations and repairs.
Early inscriptions also record Śrī Lankan, Burmese, and Chinese pilgrimages to Bodh Gayā:
For example, Śrī Lankan donative activity began with King Meghavarman’s building of the Mahabodhi Monastery (ca. 4th century C.E.) to house Sinhalese monks.
Beginning in the 11th century, the kings of Burma sent several expeditions to repair the temple.
Muslim invaders vandalized Bodh Gaya, probably before the last Burmese repair in 1295.
The site remained desolate until the 17th century, when a Śaivite Mahant settled there:
Gaining ownership of the site, he salvaged its archaeological remains to build a Śaivite monastery near the Mahabodhi Temple.
The place-name, Bodh Gaya, did not come into use until the 18th century CE. Historically, it was known as Uruwela, Saṁbodhi, Vajrāsana or Mahabodhi.
The 19th century saw the resurgence of foreign Buddhist pilgrimage and Burmese reparative expeditions. They inspired British interest, resulting in colonial excavation and rebuilding in the 1880s.
In 1891 Anagārika Dharmapāla founded the Mahabodhi Society in Śrī Lanka to re-establish Buddhist ownership of the site. A lengthy legal battle ended victoriously in 1949.
Today, Bodh Gaya is a thriving centre of international Buddhism, attracting millions of Buddhist pilgrims every year from all over the world.
Continuing a long-standing tradition, Buddhist schools throughout Asia (Śrī Lanka, Burma [Myanmar], Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan) have established flourishing missions and built and repaired monasteries and temples there.