For about 700 years a Buddha statue sat on the altar in the sanctum of the Mahābodhi Temple at Bodh Gayā. Known as the Mahābodhi Image or the Image of the True Face, it was believed to be an actual portrait of the Buddha and was the most revered of all the many statue to be seen at Bodh Gayā. It is not known when this statue disappeared, possibly at some time during the Islamic conquest of Bihar or in the subsequent decades. On the other hand, in circa 1413 Sāriputra, the last abbot of Bodh Gayā, gave the dimensions of the statue in the temple to the Tibetans and if these were from the original, not a copy, them the Mahābodhi Image must have still existed at least up till that time. When Buchanan visited Bodh Gayā in December 1811 there was a statue in the temple which he described as made of stucco and “so vastly crude in comparison with all the other images” that he correctly assumed that it was from a very different period than the other sculptures scattered around Bodh Gayā.
Who made this statue and when is unclear but it was probably either the Burmese mission mentioned by Buchanan that came some time before 1795 or the one sent by King Bodawpaya which came just prior to Buchanan’s visit. As a drawing of it shows, it was a squat rather ungainly statue and clearly of Burmese workmanship. King Mindon Min’s mission gilded this statue as a part of their efforts to repair and renovation of the Mahābodhi temple.
Another object within the temple sanctum was a four-sided stone pillar with a shallow arched niche on each side containing a standing image of the Buddha. The top of the pillar gives the appearance of having been a stupa dome and a hole in its top probably once contained the stupa’s pinnacle. This pillar was situated in the middle of the sanctum and worshipped by local Hindus as a Siva lingam while the Buddha image was worshipped as Bharion (i.e. Bhairava, i.e. Siva). The pillar is now displayed in the museum at Bodh Gayā.
The statue in the sanctum of the Mahābodhi Temple today and which appears on the frontispiece of this book, was made sometime during either the 10th or 11th century. Carved out of black chlorite stone as are many sculptures from this period it is particularly fine example of Pāla art, capable of evoking admiration in the tourist and devotion in the Buddhist pilgrim. Rather than the usual double-lotus throne the statue sits on a patterned cushion similar to those found on several other Buddha images from Nalanda and Hasra Kol. On the plinth below this are five niches divided from each other by small pillars. The two outer niches contain lions and the next two elephants. In the central niche Paṭhavī, the Earth Goddess, is shown rising from the ground, holding a vase of jewels and witnessing the Buddha’s victory over ignorance. All these figures and the pillars are in high relief.
Directly below the niches is a partly damaged inscription in two lines providing some information about the statue. The first line is the usual Dhamma Pariyāya used to consecrate images. The second part says the statue was donated by one Śrī Pūrṇabhadra, son of Samanta and grandson of Dharma of the Chhinda family. It seems he had constructed a temple and installed three statues in it, no doubt including the one now under discussion, with the assistance of Āchārya Jayasena. The Chhindas were feudatories who ruled the area around Gayā the in about the 10th and 11th centuries. Jayasena is mentioned in the Janibigha inscription as having donated land to the Sri Lankan monks at Bodh Gayā. There is no way of knowing exactly where at Bodh Gayā Śrī Pūrṇabhadra built his temple.
Joseph Beglar visited Bodh Gayā three times; during the cold season of 1872-73 when he stayed for about a week, in early 1880 on instruction of Alexander Cunningham to assess what would be needed for the conservation of the temple, and some months later to supervise the conservation. It was during this last visit that he first saw the statue now in the temple sanctum.
When the time came for Beglar to repair the temple sanctum he realized that to do this thoroughly would require removing the four-sided Buddha pillar in the centre of the sanctum and the masonry Buddha image on the altar. Concerned that this might offend the religious feelings of the locals who worshipped the pillar and the image Beglar asked the Mahant for permission to make these changes. The Mahant agreed to the removal of the pillar but asked that the image be temporarily moved rather than dismantled. When Beglar explained that this would not be possible the Mahant agreed for this to be done too. Thus the Buddha statue constructed by the Burmese was destroyed.
After this had been done and the repairs completed it became clear that the now empty sanctum needed a statue to grace the altar. Accompanied by the Mahant Beglar examined statues around Bodh Gaya but all were either damaged or too small but eventually a suitable one was found. Beglar does not make it clear where this statue was but Mitra saw it in 1875 and described it as being “in a small temple in the [Mahant’s] monastery, where there are two other figures of different kinds.” The Mahant was reluctant for it to be relocated to the temple although he finally consented on condition that the vermillion tilak on its forehead not be removed. The image was disfigured by whitewash and lime plaster which required a great deal of effort to scrape off. With the cleaning completed the majesty of the statue became apparent, its surface smooth and shiny and its facial features serene. The tilak mark was accidently washed off during the cleaning although Beglar does not record what the Mahant said about this.
Beglar gives no details concerning how the statue was moved to the temple but it must have required a great deal of manpower and considerable care; it is a large sculpture, over three meters high and may weigh a ton or more. It was finally maneuvered into the temple, winched up above the alter and suspended exactly above the position where it was to be placed. Beglar then invited the Mahant to supervise the lowering of the statue into position and to consecrate it with the appropriate rituals.
Today Śrī Pūrṇabhadra Buddha is covered with gold paint and its facial features painted in Tibetan style. While this obscures the statue’s original character it does not detract from its majesty.