The elegant single spire of the Mahabodhi Temple rises to a lofty height of 55m, and is visible throughout the surrounding countryside. Within the temple complex, which is liberally sprinkled with small stupas and shrines, the main brick temple stands in a hollow encircled by a stone railing dating from the second century BC. Unlike most popular temples in India, this UNESCO World Heritage Site exudes an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Extensively renovated during the nineteenth century, it is supposed to be a replica of a seventh-century structure that in turn stood on the site of Ashoka’s original third-century BC shrine. Inside the temple, a single chamber holds a large gilded image of the Buddha, while upstairs is a balcony and a small, plain meditation chamber.

At the rear of the temple to the west, the large Bodhi Tree grows out of an expansive base, attracting scholars and meditators, but it’s only an off-shoot of the one under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Many legends surround the destruction of the original, but it is generally thought that Ashoka, when he sent his daughter Sangamitra to Sri Lanka as an emissary of Buddhism, had sent a cutting with her. This was planted at Anuradhapuram, and a cutting from that was later brought back to Bodhgaya and replanted. Pilgrims tie coloured thread to its branches and Tibetans accompany their rituals with long lines of butter lamps. A sandstone slab with carved sides next to the tree is believed to be the Vajrasana, or “thunder-seat”, upon which Buddha sat facing east.

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