Excavations at Bodhgaya, the Site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment: The Mahabodhi temple, Taradih Monastery and Bakraur Stupa

Bodhgaya in eastern India is the site of the Mahabodhi temple and it has long been recognised as the place where the Buddha sat in meditation under the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. Bodhgaya is located 110 km south of Patna, the state capital of Bihar, in the middle section of the Gangetic Plain on the western bank of River Phalgu.

Alexander Cunningham, a British Army engineer and Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1871 to 1885, started excavations at the Mahabodhi temple in 1878. The structure he excavated date to the 10th-12th century CE, an enlargement of an older brick temple dating to the 4th CE. Excavations revealed an earlier shrine (3rd century BCE, enlarged in the 2nd-1st century BCE). This enclosed the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha sat to meditate, and the so-called ‘diamond throne’, a stone slab marking the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The campaign of restoration that ran alongside the excavation led to the remodelling of the fabric of the Mahabodhi temple and the reconfiguration of its precinct. A Buddhist monastery built in the 4th-6th century CE and enlarged in the 8th-12th century CE was excavated at the mound of Taradih, 100 m south-west of the temple, by the Bihar State Directorate of Archaeology between 1981 and 1999, and a stupa (a Buddhist monument containing relics) dating to the 8th-10th century CE was excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India at the mound of Bakraur, 1 km north-east of the temple, in 1973-74 and then again between 2001 and 2006. A coherent appraisal of the archaeological evidence from Bodhgaya is, however, still wanting. This represents an astonishing lacuna at the heart of Buddhist history and Buddhism itself with this publication making a substantial start at filling this gap.

Prof. Daniela De Simone, an archaeologist specialising in the Gangetic Plain region of the early historic period and Assistant Professor of Indian Studies at Ghent University, is the lead researcher of this publication project funded by the Shelby White and Leon Levy Program. Prof. De Simone will work in collaboration with the two co-applicants, Prof. Abhishek Singh Amar, Associate Professor, Hamilton College (Clinton, NY) and Dr. Vishi Upadhyay, Curator, Bihar Museum (Patna).

The Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya (Photograph: Daniela De Simone, 2019)
The Mahabodhi temple at Bodhgaya before excavation and restoration in the 1870s (Joseph David Beglar, 1870s, Archaeological Survey of India, Patna Circle)
Post of the stone railing that surrounded the early Mahabodhi shrine excavated at the Mahabodhi temple by Alexander Cunningham in 1878 and held at the Archaeological Museum in Bodhgaya, 2nd-1st century BCE (Daniela De Simone, 2019)
Bodhi tree leaf-shaped terracotta plaque depicting the Buddha inside the Mahabodhi temple excavated at Bodhgaya and held at the Archaeological Museum in Bodhgaya, 10th-11th century CE (Serena Biondo, 2019)
Stone image of the Buddha in the earth-touching gesture depicting the moment when he calls the earth goddess to witness his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya engraved with inscription in Sanskrit on the base and the pedestal excavated at the Mahabodhi temple by Alexander Cunningham in 1878 and held at the Indian Museum in Kolkata, 10th-11th century CE (Daniela De Simone, 2019)