Buddha’s Bodh Gaya by Dusk
We reached Bodh Gaya at about 6 in the evening that same day. The drive from Varanasi was about 3 to 4 hours and the roads were in a fairly good shape. As you move eastward from UP the surrounding greenery deepens and multiplies abundantly. Bodh Gaya seemed like a small, largely underdeveloped town. Yet it is one where grand temples and monasteries built by the Burmese, Taiwanese, Japanese and the Thai among others are conspicuous and numerous. Tired and hungry, we fortified ourselves with a couple of coffees and sandwiches at the Barista Café nestled in the decrepit main market before heading towards the Mahabodhi Temple Complex. Dusk was giving way to night and farther ahead we could make out a soft light hallowing peepal trees. As we ambled near, the full picture came into view. The Mahabodhi temple complex, a UNESCO world heritage sight, is as religiously significant as it is ancient. As the UNESCO webpage states, it is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th or 6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, from the late Gupta period.
The pyramidal structure of the main building, the detailed stone carvings on which were eclipsed at night-time, bore more than a passing resemblance to major Tamilian temples. The environs came visually alive at this hour with the uplit stupas that speckled the surrounding lawns. A riot of chirps interspersed the rustling of leaves. I walked down the pathway leading to the temple’s doorway.
As I entered I was instantly struck by the complete, almost meditative silence inside. It was a total contrast to my experience earlier in the day at the Kashi Shiv temple. On the floor of the outer chamber red-robed monks were sitting round chanting verses, fingers working through bead necklaces, faces both austere and beatific. A long queue of devotees–mostly Indian, but a few westerners too–inched forward to pay their respects to the golden, upright idol of the Buddha. The general atmosphere was similar to what I’d previously seen in Japanese and Thai temples. Calm, sober. Reverential. But as I was about to exit a curious sight caught my eye: a Hindu priest making banter with one of the praying Buddhist monks.
My interest piqued, I went up and asked,“Namaskar panditji, aap yahaan puja karte hain kya?” (Hello Panditji, do you pray here, too?)
“Yes, of course. Buddha is an avatar of Vishnu so we have to pray”, he replied.
“Sure, but I didn’t know priests actually performed Hindu rituals in this temple.”
The priest smiled. “You didn’t do a proper darshan then. Because if you’d go right back inside you’d notice that bang opposite the Buddha statue there is a Shiv Ling embedded in the ground”.
And so I did go back inside, and sure enough there it was- a Shiv Lingam set into the stone floor of the Mahabodhi temple. Under the direct gaze of the Buddha himself.
Intrigued, I then asked of him, “to aap yahaan abhishek karte hain shivling ka? Lekin sab pooja path ka saamagri kahaan se behta hai? Yeh shivling par bhi koi sajavat nahin dikh rahi hai.” (Do you do the shiv ling’s ritual bath and prayers then? From where does the water egress? I could see no room allowing for that. Nor did I see any religious decoration on the shivling.
“We do a pooja with milk, flowers, Ganges water and ghee everyday and after we’ve completed the ritual we wipe the shivling clean with a piece of cloth. This is Buddha’s temple after all. Shiv is here only in attendance.” He seemed pleased with his response.
I then walked round the back to the rear end of the structure. It is here that the ancient Bodhi peepal tree (under which Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment) is gloriously rooted, its branches splendidly spread out overhead. Monks and followers were sat in a posture of meditation. For some reason both Mr. White and I also felt compelled to sit there a few moments in uncharacteristic contemplation. Maybe the aura of the place is such? Later we had a dinner of cheese–really, paneer– momos at an eerily lit restaurant which also had Okonomiyaki scribbled on its menu. We ate without complaining. Mostly.
A Bihari Odyssey
Coming from the India of smart phones, shopping malls and corporate offices as both Mr. White and I were, like many city-dwelling educated Indians we harboured our own misconceptions about Bihar, brief prior visits notwithstanding. It took traversing the breadth of the State by road, during which time, owing both to necessity and impulse we made occasional-though-not-short sojourns into dirt tracks cutting through off-beaten settlements, to disabuse us of our ideas, in the end rendering a much revised and positive picture of the place. Really, we agreed we could have been driving anywhere in UP or Haryana or MP and that our mental images had been informed more by mass brouhaha than the reality. The reality as perceived by its own residents that is, and not the urban, relatively privileged and judgmental kind. We continued eastward from Bodh Gaya, more or less alongside the course of Ganga as we had been doing previously through UP. Going by Begusarai and then turning duly north adhering the trajectory of NH31 on through Poornea we finally entered Bengal after which we went on to take the road leading upto Siliguri and Darjeeling. A couple of nights later we made our return by much the same way save that that time our port-for-rest was Patna, (a city which to tired Delhi guys at night-time resembles a Lajpat Nagar multiplied by Bhogal to the power of many Chandni Chowks and Sadar Bazaars). If I were to sum up my lasting impressions of Bihar in a word such would not be “squalid” or “decrepit” –although there were no doubt many areas like that- but “fertile” and “verdant” and “peopled” and “lived-in”. For the hinterland flanking the Ganga abounds in vegetation and crops, and so too in human settlements. In fact I do not recall having travelled through any other rural part of India which seemed so densely populated. Not even UP. Random Impressions/Observations/Anecdotes
We passed by maize and rice fields that widened flatly and thickly under the syrupy stare of the August sun. One time we went through a particularly striking open-air bazaar of maize farmers squatting on the road tarmac, their florescent orange produce dispersed, green fields spreading behind them: a spectacle which was at once poignant and sublime. Far and near, villagers worked their land and shepherded their livestock: buffaloes, goats and sheep. Cows. Even on broad and empty stretches we had to be careful not to overspeed lest an errant animal, or herd, be grazing on the patchy-grassed strip running through the road’s middle. When, at times, the sky bloated grey our path quickly filled with excited kids waiting to release their stifled thumkas just as the first drops lashed the hot earth. When we rolled our windows down afterwards, the downpour having ceased, you could taste the scent of damp vegetation confecting on your tongue. During one segment around 150 kms east of Gaya, as far as you could see fields and villages were all but submerged in stagnant, 3 or 4 feet deep water so that the elevated highway we were driving on served as refuge to homeless residents; Tents had been put down and livestock freely roamed about. Driving by the Gaya region I observed villagers doggedly chewing on datuns. For some, this cleansing ritual seemed to go on for hours on end. People could be seen working at it till well into the afternoon! Like in UP the more urban and semi-urbanised men had a liking for gumchas but what one saw most commonly in rustic locales was thick thread armlets strung on taut armed, bare-chested farmers. Whilst like their urban counterparts village men had no compunctions about peeing in public, they, unlike city-wallas, preferred easing themselves in the crouching position. A typical village had one or two motherly, sheltering trees adjoining the main road under which men gathered in gossip, to play cards, or just to drink chai. Women huddled together similarly, their kids and male relatives often squatting besides. One recurring and lovely scene was that of a line of three or more girls sitting behind each other on the front steps of a house meticulously braiding the hair of the one sat in front. As in UP, trooping school-uniformed boys and girls were a familiar sight. At one point I saw a couple of chatting girls, perhaps in their late teens, saunter down a gully; as they turned into the main road they casually yet carefully slipped their dupattas over their heads. At a rather protracted traffic jam a group of boys no more than 12 came round to our window selling a live pair of enormous, colourful ducks they’d caught in a pond nearby. A truck driver bought one for his dinner. Another time, on a crater-ridden track fit enough to be on the moon, we saw a middle aged man, whose legs below the knees were entirely missing, cavalierly crossing the road, his shoes stuck over his knee caps so as to make the truncated legs usable. He did not look like a beggar. A group of wizened farmers standing amid crops brandished a contraption hanging from a pole over the highway barricade. On approaching, we saw they were holding a chai-vending stand; piping hot chai-glasses had been lodged into net-sockets attached at the end of a pole. On our returning drive it fell dark long before we were able to reach our destination, Patna, leaving us little choice other than to carry on slowly in the dark. This was the only time in our journey I became slightly afraid; my concern arose not so much for our safety as due to the utter night. Except for our headlights the road was totally unlit, and to either side ran a dense, interminable segue of villages all of which housed thousands of loosely running children! It was sad if predictable to pass villages, along the main road no less, lacking in power supply. Our trail however was enlivened by droves of villagers tottering about flashlight-in-hand, as their other one jovially swung on the handle of a metal dabba (used to carry food, milk or water). Families spilled naturally onto charpoys and platforms in the open courtyards facing the road as members resumed their evening chores and chats, spirits not in the slightest dimmed by the faded light. In every such village the one place that unerringly projected some feature of illumination was the main temple. Later that night we got stuck in a 6 km long truck-jam between Begusarai and Patna. Seeing that the parallel road was empty, we cut out of the gridlock and began moving gingerly on the wrong side. In no time the cops pulled us over. Our put-on pleadings- “we are from Delhi, we didn’t know the rules, we thought that cars could go ahead….”– were sternly met and flatly rebuffed. “You educated people from Delhi should know better than to break traffic rules….all these village folk aren’t educated like you are”, (aapko to neeyam ka palan karna chahiye tha…) the cop admonished, before he let us pass, or rather break bad, all the way through……..