The date of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment is not known for certain — even the dates of his birth and death are difficult to pin down. However, Buddhists and historians alike recognize the Buddha as a historical figure who lived in the 6th or 5th century BC and it is likely that Bodh Gaya is indeed the site of his enlightenment. (See Bodhi Tree for more on this event.)
Emperor Asoka (3rd century BC), the first Buddhist ruler of India, marked this important site with one of his trademark inscribed pillars, with an elephant capital. A stone rail was put up around the perimeter in the 1st century AD, part of which still remains. The uprights have representations of the Vedic gods Indra and Surya, and the railing medallions are carved with mythical beasts.
In the 2nd century, the shrine was replaced by the present Mahabodhi Temple. Around 400, the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien recorded that the site contained several statues and monuments.
The temple was refurbished in the Pala-Sena period (750–1200), but after that it was deserted and fell into ruin. Mahabodhi was claimed by Saivite Hindus for a time, was heavily restored by Sir Alexander Cunningham in the second half of the 19th century, and finally restored by Burmese Buddhists in 1882.
In 1891, the Mahabodhi Society was founded with the aim of reclaiming Bodhgaya and the Mahabodhi temple from Hindu to Buddhist control. The 1949 Bodhgaya Act recognize the site as a Buddhist holy place.
In 2002, UNESCO declared the Mahabodhi Temple a World Heritage Site and recommended “the Indian authorities to develop an overall management plan to protect the values of the World Heritage site. Such a plan should include a provision for regular monitoring of conditions at the site, including the impact that tourism may have on the religious and spiritual significance of the place.” The Mahabodhi Temple is overseen by the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee.
The Mahabodhi Temple is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built in brick that still survives today. The ground level of the temple is 45 meters square, stretching up in a pyramid shape that ends in a smaller square platform. The central tower of Mahabodhi stands 180 feet (54 meters) tall. The brickwork on the outside of the temple depicts scenes from the life of the Buddha.
Inside the temple is a colossal image of a seated Buddha touching the earth with his right hand (a gesture known as the earth-witness mudra). In this posture the Buddha accomplished the supreme enlightenment. The statue is of black stone but it has been covered in gold and dressed in bright orange robes.
The courtyard of the temple is studded with many smaller stupas and Buddha statues, some of which are several hundred years old. Parts of the railing that surrounds the area are among the oldest elements of Mahabodhi Temple that survive today.
Immediately next to the Mahabodhi Temple is the Bodhi Tree, a descendent of the very tree under which the Buddha was enlightened, and the Jewel Walk, marking the place where the Buddha is said to have practiced walking meditation for seven days after his enlightenment.