BODHGAYA: The Great Buddha Statue erected by the Buddhists Daijokyo sect, is located some distance from the famous Peepal Tree under which the Buddha became enlightened.
Greetings from the Bodhi Tree.
A Peepal is not an Indian public toilet! It is the specie of tree under which Prince Saddartha sat and waited for an answer to the vexing question which had been troubling him. The Bodhi Tree refers to the historical tree under which he sat. What is in Bodhgaya (pronounced Bo-dee-gai-a) near the Mahabodhi Temple is a sixth generation planting of the original Peepal tree.
My good luck in getting a last minute standby seat on the flight from Dhaka to Kolkata could not be repeated for the link from Kolkata to Patna near Bodhgaya. So, with no available flight that day I holed up in the close by $55 Airport Hotel and caught the same flight the next day. Naturally, the Indian Airlines plane left late again and we arrived in Patna after dark. Arriving so late, the good hotel I'd heard about had no rooms left. The suggested alternative offered inflated $69 room rates and poor quality, but for one night anything is tolerable.
The next morning at 07:00 I caught the rattle-trap government bus south for Bodhgaya. The only seats left when I got there were in the back of the bus, dirty and broken. Half way through the trip a scruffy guy got on and occupied the seat next to me. He spent the rest of the five hour trip cleaning his nose... with the fingers of his left hand... which he then proceeded to wipe on his right hand. So much for keeping the right hand clean in this part of the world!
Along the way I watched as people took early morning cold baths with water pumped from public wells. Some were scrubbing one another in a sort of communal ritual. At another place away from town I could see a guy having a bowel movement in the middle of a field not far from the road, everything perfectly visible. Later, in one of the villages we passed I saw several women at work making cow dung patties, slapping them on a wall to dry. Piles of already dried patties stacked in neat towers waited to be used as fuel for cooking fires, a common practice throughout rural India. Burning cow dung creates a unique aroma, something one smells everywhere people are cooking. The smell is not that different from the smell of Indian cigarettes! Makes me wonder what they put in the cigarettes. At our "breakfast" stop I could hear the jingle of tricycle bells on bikes and rickshaws scurrying around the bus. These are the same bell contraptions I remember we had on our tricycles as little kids. Actually, anywhere there are bicycles or tricycle rickshaws one hears the jingle of the bells warning people to get out of the way.
The bus arrived in Bodhgaya (pronounced bo-dee-guy-a) around noon and I immediately started hotel shopping, remembering the luxurious looking Royal Residency operated by Indian Airlines I saw as we came into town. The room rate of $73 per night sounded high until I checked out the room: deluxe in every way. However, they could only guarantee a room for one night. A planned dedication of the Mahabodhi Temple complex by the World Heritage Foundation scheduled two days later meant most of the upscale hotels in the area would be fully booked, something I personally confirmed. Two partial days turned out to be enough. Like Governor Ronald Reagan said when touring the California Redwood Forest: "When you've seen one tree, you've seen them all."
In reality, seeing "the tree" must not be trivialized. Buddhist monks and nuns from all over the world make pilgrimages to this holiest of shrines year round. The pending dedication ceremonies swelled their ranks even more. Purple robes, saffron robes, pink robes, mustard robes, and at least one "un-robed" American monk traveling incognito gave the monument grounds a decidedly sanctified, peaceful ambiance. Even the usually noisy foreign tourists were respectfully quiet.
"The" tree is undistinguished except for a placard and the ritual platforms surrounding it. Others of the same specie on the grounds are much more impressive, even monumental. This is not the original tree under which Siddhartha Gautama sat waiting for a bright idea to hit him, of course. But, it does mark the spot where the original tree stood some twenty-six hundred years ago. Records establish that off-shoots of the original tree were replanted in the area and the actual spot where The Buddha sat marked by early devotees for posterity. As the years went by, the centuries, the millennia, the original tree continued to be propagated. It is said the present tree is the fifth or sixth generation. Even today, cuttings tracing their lineage back to the original tree are in big demand.
Initially, I felt underwhelmed looking upon the giant tree casting cool shade over the grounds surrounding the Mahabodhi Temple. On my first visit I walked slowly around the temple three times, each time passing the Bodhi Tree. On one circuit several nuns in gray robes spent the entire time of my leisurely passing picking up ants from the stone walk. They seemed to approach the task as an imperative, quickly grabbing the scurrying insects and wiping them on a handy leaf out of harm's way. Multitudes of monks occupied themselves with continuous meditation or devotional rituals in the shade of several Peepal trees during my every passing.
Slowly, an awareness of the enormous significance of this spot grew in my mind. One man had figured out the answer to a problem which had perplexed humankind from the beginning of its ability to engage in symbolic thinking: "Why is there so much suffering, and is suffering a necessary part of being human?" The first time someone understood the nature of suffering, as distinguished from pain, must have been mind boggling. While flesh is heir to pain, the psychological response of suffering is something we unwittingly choose for ourselves. People who heard Saddartha explain the illusions which grip human-kind, quickly grasped the significance of his discovery and helped spread the word. The new understanding eventually took on the fervor of other religions movements, but required no particular dogmatic beliefs or exotic rituals... those would be added later by devotees who felt the need to embellish the simple ideas taught by the Buddha.
An afternoon and a morning; I visited the sacred precincts twice. My hotel kicked me out after only one night in preparation for the hoards arriving for the World Heritage Foundation dedication. Buddhist monks from all over the world as well as an army of Indian politicians and tourism promoters were on their way in their hundreds to this little pilgrimage town.
With my personal pilgrimage at an end and time getting short for crossing into China from India, and no confirmed strategy yet formulated, I decided it would be best to hurry on toward the capital. I am debating a stop in Agra to see (for the third time) the awe inspiring Taj Mahal. It is not far from Delhi and might be a good place to work on logistics. My plans suggested I should expect to spend a week or two in the capital for working out travel details.
As I prepared to leave Bodhgaya, I noticed that Varanasi lay only a short distance away, so decided to stop there on the way to Delhi. Several fellow travelers had described a unique city next to the Ganga River where people both bathed themselves and burned their dead. I let the hotel work out the arrangements for onward travel to Varanasi. The hotel taxi got me to the train station well ahead of departure time. During the several hour wait for the train in Gaya town located some twenty kilometers from Bodhgaya, I walked a bit.
At one point I stopped to watch the way people steal electrical power... even here in this most holy of places. A long bamboo pole is fitted with a metal hook at the end, from which an insulated wire is wound down the pole to the appliance needing power. Then, the hook is lifted with the pole over the bare power line above the street and left hanging. The earth serves to complete the circuit. The arrangement makes it quick and easy to get rid of the evidence should the power theft police show up. I've seen several billboards warning power thieves of the high fines and jail terms given anyone caught using power stolen in this way. Still people do it and it must be a big problem for the power companies judging by all the power outages.
At one point I stopped at a hole-in-the-wall advertising Cadbury products to buy several chocolate bars and some mineral water to take with me on the train. Two little neatly dressed girls who did not look like street beggars, discreetly watched as I filled a plastic bag with the goodies. Continuing to walk at a leisurely pace I suddenly heard two tiny voices at my side chirping, "Chocolate? Chocolate?" while looking nervously around for anyone watching their behavior. I suspect their mother had scolded them numerous times for begging, but the tasty temptation overcame their fear of mother's reproval.
Naturally the train did not make the scheduled arrival time in Varanasi and we were dropped after dark at a station about 20 kilometers from the actual city. Plenty of taxi touts and drivers wanted our business, so I and three other stranded travelers joined forces and hired a single cab to take us the distance. An Australian mother and her daughter had reservations at the $100 Raddison and out of desperation I chose to stay there the first night. More about Varanasi in the next postcard.
PS: No FrontPage available here in Bangkok where I finally finished this draft, so must revert back to the simple e-mail method of reporting. FB