Monday, January 16, 2012

Bodh Gaya

The 80ft Buddha
We decided to head for Bodh Gaya the next morning. It's a short (150 miles) ride on the highway that runs between Delhi and Calcutta, so the journey sounded promising. We enjoyed the serenity of Sarnath and really hoped that Bodh Gaya would be at least equally so. We were on the road by 7:45 am after speaking with a group of American tourists who must have just gotten off a train or bus that morning. They had taken a taxi, which dropped them off at the guesthouse where we stayed and asked us questions about the town. We told them how we enjoyed it, that it's on the Buddhist trail, and one of the men in the group asked if we'd seen them burning any bodies here. Um, no... that's in Varanasi, about 8 miles back. They didn't even know where they were. I have no idea how they ended up in Sarnath instead of Varanasi, but I hope they found their stay to be pleasant in any case! 

Tibetan prayer flags at Maha Bodhi Temple
The ride to Bodh Gaya was on a smooth divided highway, but in many areas, the road was choked to one lane by the continuous string of trucks parked in the other lane. We made good time anyway and got to Bodh Gaya by 1:00 pm, where we were greeted by an absolute mass of humanity, most of them in monks robes of saffron and maroon. The road entering town was filled with people and vehicles trying to get into town. We pulled off the road and got out the book to call for a room someplace, and everyone said the same thing- we're full. When I called the local tourist office, we discovered why. We knew that December and January are high season in Bodh Gaya because many Tibetan monks and nuns make pilgrimages at that time of year. What we didn't know was that at this time, the Dalai Lama was also in town for the 32nd annual Kalachakra Initiation and was to give his teachings the following afternoon. So every room in every hotel everywhere in the area was full, the tourist office informed me.

Monks at Maha Bodhi Temple
I relayed the good news to Colin, and we decided to head for the much larger city of Gaya (about 7 miles away) to look for accommodation. On the way back out of town, Colin spotted a hotel that didn't seem to have a full parking lot, so on a whim, he stopped. I went in to inquire about a room and was told that it would be 5,000 rupees (a hundred bucks). I said thank you, turned around, and walked down the stairs and got on my bike. A young man came running after me and asked what our budget was. I told him 1,000 rupees. He smiled, told me to wait, and ran back inside. The gentleman returned a few minutes later and asked me to follow him. We walked to a building on the dirt road behind the hotel, went inside, and he showed me the one room that could be had in our budget range. It was small, but it was en suite with hot water, and we could pull the bikes inside the gate at night. I asked if it would be 1,000 rupees, and he said 1,500. I thanked him and walked back toward the bikes, and he said okay, okay, okay 1,000 rupees. Sign me up! 

After we got checked in and unloaded, we walked toward all the activity, stopping at a busy street vendor's stand for two plates of vegetable momos and chai for lunch. The momos were 20 rupees for a plate of ten, and the chai was 10 rupees, so for the equivalent of about $1.20 for both of us, we sat and ate a delicious and filling lunch. The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering through the crowds in the bazaar and the Tibetan refugee market, looking at their wares, and people watching, since it was virtually impossible to get anywhere near the temples. When dinnertime rolled around, we decided against finding a real restaurant and instead hit another of the popular street vendors' stalls for some veg fried noodles and chai, sitting amongst a group of Tibetan monks who were also enjoying their dinner of boiled eggs and noodles. As the cook pulled the eggs from the pot, he spun one on a plate. The monks looked puzzled, so the man took a raw egg, spun it, then spun the boiled one again so they could see the difference. The entire row of monks smiled and laughed (I guess they learned something new that day). Then, since our momos were so delicious, we split another plate of them for dessert!

Two very professional chapati bakers
The next morning we stopped at the noodle vendor's stand for breakfast. He was dishing up some perfectly fried eggs for a monk along with a pair of fresh, hot chapatis as we sat down, so we decided to ask for two of the same and two glasses of chai. While the man cooked the eggs, his wife (?) and daughter (?) who appeared to be about 10 years old made the chapatis. The little girl would pull a piece of a large ball of dough, flour it, and roll furiously before handing it off to the woman, who then cooked them one by one on a tiny griddle. Oh, were they delicious! I asked the girl if I could take her picture, so she let me snap a couple photos of her working. I showed them to her for her approval, which she gave in the form of a great big smile. Once our hunger was sated, we walked to the Maha Bodhi Temple, which is the place where Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. The atmosphere in town was more carnival-esque than we expected. And they have some small, sad rides set up for the kids. We stopped to look at a merry-go-round with horses made out of slabs of wood hung from chains that was operated by a hand-crank and noticed the Sri Rama Break Dance, a“tilt-a-whirl” type ride in the background with a group of very grubby little kids looking longingly as one well-dressed little boy paid for his ticket. One girl in the group stepped up to the counter to pay and the others all hung back.  We often think we are simpatico, but at the very moment Colin was pulling money out of his pocket, I leaned to Colin and asked, “Do you wanna make some kids' day?” So we walked up to the ticket counter and asked a little girl if she wanted to ride. She smiled and nodded, so we asked the man at the counter how much for a ticket. This got the attention of the other kids, and Colin asked each if they wanted to go on the ride too. All nodded yes with great excitement. When all the tickets were bought and handed out, we had spent 160 rupees (about 3 bucks), and eight very happy kids selected their seats. We watched them spin and whirl and smile and cry and hide their faces for a couple of minutes before we reentered the crowd. That was the best money we spent in all of India. The level of poverty in India is unbelievable, and seeing the children having to beg is especially hard. To do something that for us is no big deal, to give them something they certainly didn't ask for but obviously wanted, and just, out of the blue, offer to pay for a turn on a crappy carnival ride, it made us both smile and feel pretty good.

Flower offerings line every hedge in the temple grounds
We continued our walk toward the Maha Bodhi Temple, and all along the way to the temple, the streets were packed with people sitting down, listening to the Dalai Lama's voice over the loudspeakers and watching him on the giant monitors. As we neared the temple, the walkable area of the street was narrowed by all the people sitting down. The lines of people trying to get through slowed to nothing, and then, someone started pushing. Colin and I were standing at the left edge of the walkers, right behind the last row of sitters. When the pushing began, I was nearly lifted off my feet and almost fell on a seated man. Colin's experience was similar. Nobody could go! A group of very tiny, elderly people were pushed through the crowd, and we followed in their wake (since it was the only open space). We finally made it to the temple grounds and went in to find another festival type atmosphere. 

We made our way through the grounds, sitting next to the lake where Buddha meditated, walking along the path he walked and meditated, and stood under the massive bodhi tree which is a descendant of the bodhi tree he sat beneath and achieved enlightenment. It would have been quite moving but for the thousands of other people around us. Even though we both had hoped for it to be a more thoughtful and peaceful experience, it was still pretty amazing to be in the same place where Buddha was over 2,500 years ago. Once we made our way around the temple, we headed out to see some of the many Buddhist temples that have been built by other countries in Bodh Gaya. It was interesting to see them back to back to note the stylistic differences between them. We immediately recognized the Thai Wat from its steep roof (even though it wasn't covered in mirrored tiles like many in Thailand are). The interior of the temple was painted in watery scenes with koi and mythical sea creatures. It was stunning. The Bhutan Temple more resembled a pagoda and had a more vividly painted and carved interior. I think the Japanese Temple was my favorite. From the outside, it looked very plain, painted a pale, sage green, with natural wood. On the inside, it was also very simple, but the ceiling was covered in paintings of cranes and various flowers, including irises, peonies, and roses. The walls had painted scenes of Buddha's life, from his birth to enlightenment. It was stunning. After we'd toured the temples, we rejoined the crowd and did some more people watching for a while before making our way back to our favorite spot for some more noodles for dinner.

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