In the 19th century, when the English poet and journalist Edwin Arnold called on Buddhists everywhere to help restore their religious shrines in India, a young Sinhalese man decided to take up the cause of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya. Anagarika Dharmapala was just 26 then and had a religious status that lay between a monk and a layperson. In 1891, spurred by Arnold’s exhortation, he decided to go on his first pilgrimage to the Mahabodhi Temple and pray at the spot under the Bodhi Tree that is believed to be where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

The temple in Bodh Gaya was originally built by Emperor Ashoka in 3rd century BCE, according to the cultural agency of the United Nations, Unesco. It was restored several times over the centuries, but fell into a state of ruin after 13th century Turkic invasions of the region. Many parts of the temple complex were buried by elements of nature and remained there until they were excavated between 1879 and 1885 under the leadership of Alexander Cunningham, a British Army engineer who founded what would later become the Archaeological Survey of India.

The official website of the temple says a wandering Saivite Sanyasi named Mahant Ghamandi Giri, who arrived in Bodh Gaya in 1590, laid claim to the shrine. Before long, the control of the temple had passed to him and his successors.

In his book titled The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined the Buddha, politician Jairam Ramesh corroborates the story of the mahant. “In August 1727, a Mughal prince gave the Sivaites a deed to establish ownership rights in the area (although it was unclear whether the deed covered the actual temple or not),” Ramesh says in the book that is a tribute to Edwin Arnold. “The Sivaites took control of the temple and its surroundings following the grant of the deed and from then on, both Hindus and Buddhists had access to it.”

Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. Credit: Santosh Kumar/Flickr [Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)].

When Arnold, who authored The Light of Asia, travelled to Bodh Gaya in the 19th century, the temple was still under the control of the mahant’s successors. By the 1890s, it had become a pilgrimage spot for both Southeast Asian Buddhists as well as Indian and Nepalese Hindus, many of whom considered the Buddha a reincarnation of Vishnu.

Anagarika Dharmapala (born Don David Hemavitharane) first visited the temple in January 1891 during a two-month stay in Bodh Gaya. A few months later, Dharmapala, Arnold and Sinhalese monk Weligama Sri Sumangala co-founded the Maha Bodhi Society of India with the aim of reviving Buddhism in India and restoring holy sites in places like Bodh Gaya and Sarnath.

Tensions rise

Although the Mahabodhi Temple was controlled by the Hindu mahant, Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims prayed there until late 19th century without much conflict. The first signs of tensions emerged when Dharmapala, who believed that Buddhism was a distinct religion from Hinduism, noticed Hindu rituals being performed on the main Buddha statue at the temple.

In January 1895, Dharmapala took his mother and 44 other Sinhalese Buddhist pilgrims to Bodh Gaya. What he saw displeased him:

“When I visited the Temple in January last, I observed that the image [the Buddha statue] had undergone alteration – in particular, that paint of red colour had put on the forehead and the whole body covered with cloth so as to conceal its Buddha appearance, and flowers placed on its head. When I saw the image four years ago, it had no paint on its forehead, no flowers on the head and it had only on a cloth occasionally and that of plain yellow colour, such as Buddhist Bhikshus (monks) wear. The cloth I have now seen on is not a mere cloth, but a regular dress for the image and of orange colour – a little lighter than the colour which the Sanyasis accused wear (points to a bright orange colour a spectator is wearing on his puggree). All these changes are certainly such as defile the image of the Buddha.”  

Dharmapala made the above statement to the Gaya Magistrate in 1895 in a case he filed against a group of Saivites for disrupting his prayers. He alleged that the Saivites, supported by the deputy magistrate and sub-registrar of Gaya, prevented him from installing a 700-year-old Japanese Buddha statue in the temple in February of that year. As a remedy, he requested the magistrate to hand over the temple’s control to Buddhists.

Both the plaintiff and the defendants were represented by English lawyers, and it was in this case that the subject of the rightful ownership of a temple was first discussed in a court of law. The proceedings of the case were transcribed and compiled by Dharmapala in a book titled The Budh-Gaya Temple Case: H. Dharmapala Versus Jaipal Gir and Others, (Prosecution Under Sections 295, 296, 297, 143 & 506 of the Indian Penal Code).

After many depositions, the English magistrate partly ruled in favour of the Sinhalese missionary and convicted three of the defendants for disturbing the worship of Dharmapala and other Ceylonese Buddhists. The trio was handed a fine and a prison sentence of one month.

“The case is one of importance, as the disturbance in sought to be justified by the defendants on the ground that their superior, the Mahant of Bodh-Gaya, claims the right, though a Hindu, of regulating what worship shall be performed in this famous shrine, known as the Great Temple of Mahabodhi, and regarded by the Buddhists, that is, by about one-third of the human race, as the most sacred spot on earth,” the magistrate said.

However, the magistrate did not agree to hand over the control of the temple to Buddhists.

Anagarika Dharmapala at age 29. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The verdict was challenged before a sessions judge, who suspended the prison sentences but kept the fines. Not content, the three Hindus approached the Calcutta High Court, which struck down the convictions and virtually maintained status quo on the control of the temple.

In the ruling, one of the High Court judges who heard the case, Justice Macpherson, said, “The Government has had no occasion to interfere in the internal management, even if it could do so, and that is not a question which need be considered in this case. If the control and superintendence of the temple is not vested in the Mahant, it does not appear to be vested in any one.”

The other judge on the High Court bench, Justice Banerjee, agreed: “I deem it right here to observe that the question what the exact nature and extent of the Mahant’s control over the temple is, the evidence adduced in the case does not enable us to determine.”

Gandhi and Tagore

Dharmapala continued to unsuccessfully fight legal cases until 1906. Although the issue of ownership rights of the temple stayed close to his heart, he did not approach the courts again. “During the remaining 27 years of his life, he ceaselessly agitated for his cause, having the issue brought before the Indian National Congress on three occasions petitioning the government and mobilising public opinion,” Australian-born Buddhist monk Shravasti Dhammika wrote in his book Middle Land, Middle Way: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Buddha’s India. “In India public opinion gradually moved in favour of Buddhist control and eminent intellectuals and scholars began to speak out on this issue.”

Among the intellectual elite who spoke about the rights of Buddhists to claim the temple was Rabindranath Tagore. “I am sure it will be admitted by all Hindus who are true to their own ideals, that it is an intolerable wrong to allow the temple raised on the spot where Lord Buddha attained his enlightenment to remain under the control of a rival sect which can neither have the intimate knowledge of or sympathy for the Buddhist religion and its rites of worship,” Tagore said. “I consider it to be a sacred duty for all individuals believing in freedom and justice this great historical site to the community of people who still reverently carry on that particular current of history in their own living faith.”

In 1922, when Gaya hosted the Indian National Congress Session, members of the Maha Bodhi Society approached Mahatma Gandhi on the issue of the control of the temple. The leader of India’s freedom struggle expressed sympathy with the Buddhist cause. Dhammika’s book carries a quote from the Mahatma: “There is no doubt that the possession of the temple should vest in the Buddhists. There may be legal difficulties. They must be overcome. If the report is true that animal sacrifice is offered in the temple it is a sacrilege. It is equally a sacrilege if the worship is offered, as it is alleged, in a way calculated to wound the susceptibilities of the Buddhist.” According to Jairam Ramesh, Gandhi delegated this responsibility to Rajendra Prasad, who would later become the first president of India.

Meanwhile, Dharmapala went on to become a full-fledged Buddhist monk and took the name Devamitta Dharmapala. He died in 1933 at the age of 68. It would take another 16 years after his death for the Bihar government in independent India to pass the Bodh Gaya Temple Act, under which the ownership of the temple passed from the mahant to the state government. The Act, first amended in 1955, provided for the setting up of a committee of four Hindus and four Buddhists to manage the affairs of the temple.

“This arrangement was far from satisfactory, but was better than what had prevailed previously,” Shravasti Dhammika wrote. One contentious part of the law was Section 3(3), which called for the district magistrate to be the ex-officio chairman of the committee. Under that section, if the district magistrate was non-Hindu, the government had to nominate a Hindu to the post. It was only in 2013 that the Bihar government amended the law to allow a non-Hindu to head the committee. The temple’s advisory board comprises of the governor of Bihar and 20-25 members, half of whom are from Buddhist countries.

The Mahabodhi Temple became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2002 and is now the centrepiece of a Buddhist Circuit project that aims to enhance religious links and encourage tourism to India from Buddhist-majority countries.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.