Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Checking Bodhgaya Off the List

One evening in Varanasi, after a bonding session over some paan with some guys in a café, I walked into a bookstore (the city has a couple of very good book shops, all along the same road from Dashaswamedha to Assi Ghat) and walked out with Diana Eck’s Banaras- The City of Light. I always tend to be a little wary of books written by foreign writers on a 3-6 month sojourn in a city, passing off as authoritative studies on a place. But Eck’s book is definitely one of the best researched books I have ever read, about any place. It is a sociological/historical/religious study of the ancient city and cites from dozens of books, mythologies and field visits.

Last night I was reading a section on the time when Lord Shiva had to leave Varanasi and live in Mount Mandara for a while. It quoted from Vedic literature on how much Shiva missed his beloved Kashi, how he longed and suffered, likening it to separation from a lover. All the Gods he sent back to earth to drive away Divodasa (who was appointed by Brahma to restore peace on earth and who had in turn asked that all Gods leave Kashi before he began his rule) try various means and fail to disrupt Divodasa’s rule. They fail in their mission but so enamoured is everyone with Kashi that none of them return to the heavens. Meanwhile, Shiva suffers and longs.

When the city had supposedly charmed even the Gods, what chance do mortals have? With a very heavy heart, we leave the city to board a train to Gaya, in Bihar. Neither of us can get Varanasi out of our head. Maybe it is the faith in the river. Maybe it is a manifestation of a lifetime of cultural, religious references to Kashi that lends the city a halo, an aura. Maybe we just unconsciously want it to be all that. We seem so determined to like it that nothing—filth, traffic, congestion—can stop us from feeling something for the city. It is too much of everything, an extreme form of all that you find in small doses elsewhere and still think is too much. Yet, there is an unexplainable something.

The train journey isn’t too long but we decide in an instant it isn’t going to be a nice phase of the trip. I am terribly sorry to be such a regionist/ racist here but the Bihari men are all that they are said to be. Almost every generalization is true from our limited interaction with them. All through the train journey, someone is constantly trying to take a picture of us with his camera phone, something that we see for the rest of the trip as well. It is incredibly irritating, to say the least. More so because they are too crass to want to get into an argument with.

We are deposited in a swanky hotel in Bodhgaya, about 17 kms from Gaya. Bharg’s friend has made all the arrangements. After the chaos of Ganpati Guest House, it is almost a culture shock to be in an air conditioned room with our own bathroom!!! We take a full half hour to adjust to these basic amenities and realize that not once had we missed any of them.

Every guide book warns you not to be out alone in the night in Bihar, all the more so if you are a girl. I am told the situation is much better after the current government came into being but we would rather not risk it. We order not too great hotel food and I finish Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, an unusual book. It felt like Dyer was mighty off it when he took notes for the book. Maybe you ought to have been equally off it too for it to make any sense. It is the evening of September 12, 2011.

Next morning we hope it is a better day and hire an incredibly cheap cycle rickshaw to take us around. It is hot, not quite as humid as Varanasi, which is a huge relief to spoilt-by-Bangalore-weather us. First up is the Buddha Temple, quite a nice structure housing a small room with a golden status of the Buddha. All around are stones and structures where monks meditate in the mornings and evenings. The gardens are very well maintained and though the causeway leading to the temple is bustling with people selling cheap jewelry, hats and such like, the temple itself is quiet. The few monks inside move their lips silently in chants. After the chaos in Varanasi, this is our other re-adjustment phase.

Behind this structure is the famous Bodhi tree where Buddha got enlightenment. This present tree is said to have grown from a branch from the original Bodhi tree. There are monks meditating, their gowns and clothes a beautiful contrast against the mono-colour temple. There are many other temples we hop in and out of. All the temples here are closed between 12 noon and 2 pm and stay on till 6 pm then on. It is a good thing, because the afternoons are too hot for us to try walking out.

Every country that practices Buddhism has a temple here at Bodhgaya, maintained or patronized by the respective governments. When you see all the temples at one go, you appreciate the changes in architecture and in the arts on the inside walls. So also the different colours and clothes of the monks and pilgrims from the different countries. There are monasteries as well from different countries, we don’t go to any. Most of them have rooms that they let out to pilgrims and organize short and long term courses in meditation, Buddhism, etc at very nominal rates.

The Tibetan temple is nice, but then after seeing the ones in Bylakuppe and Dharamsala, there are no surprises there. The Thai temple is the one that most impresses me with its fantastic architecture and gorgeous interiors. There is an evening prayer and soothing chants by monks when we are inside. I love that place. The Bhutanese temple, at first glance, looks similar to the Tibetan style, but the paintings on the walls are raised structures and there are many other subtle differences. The Chinese temple isn’t too great, or we don’t notice much in the heat. The Japanese temple is bare and cool and quite beautiful with nice lawns and welcoming interiors.

Bodhgaya, to be honest, doesn’t impress either of us much. It feels like being in a bigger version of Bylakuppe closer home. We stop saying so and not be miserable, but both us feel we should have stayed back in Varanasi instead. I tell myself I am checking these places off the list. We get some souvenir shopping done and are happy when two days are up. Another day is a visit to Vishnu Gaya, a place where Hindus come to offer food and pray to their ancestors. It is the Pitr-paksha month, a time when it is most favourable to pray to the ancestors, so there are throngs of pilgrims everywhere, along with the mucky smell of rotting flowers and stale food.

The temples are again many, small and crowded. At Sita Kund, across the Falgu River, is a shrine where there is a stone hand protruding from the earth. It is said that when Rama was away in his 14-year exile and heard the news that his father had died, he came to this place to offer pinda, food and prayers. His father’s hand rose from the earth to take the offerings, the local story goes. Too many shrines, too much of a pilgrimage this has become!

There isn’t much of a public transport system in Bihar. So we are forced to hire a taxi to most places. At least the taxi driver, the young chap Kush, plays old Bollywood songs from the 1990s, songs that we hadn’t heard for two decades since. It is sad that this was the only thing nice about our Bihar trip.

We get to Patna, stopping at the ruins of the world famous Nalanda University on the way. They are just that, ruins, but again the gardens are well maintained and there are many cool corners. We are not in the mood to be bored by a guide in a monotonous voice and skip the history. There is a light shower and we pose for pictures pretending to teach students, perched up on one of the collapsed walls.

There is a terrible traffic jam near Patna and we reach a government guest house much later than we were supposed to. At least the staff is very friendly and the room big, air conditioned and nice. The next day we struggle to make ourselves understood, most people can speak only Bhojpuri here and Hindi doesn’t get us by. 

But my mission in Patna is to see the Didarganj Yakshi, a prize possession at the Patna Musuem. The tall statue, bearing a fan, is said to be the finest example of Mauryan art and is at least 2000 years old. We see her and find her charming, a perfect woman, very pretty, almost stately, though she was probably just a lowly servant. A gigantic granary nearby has a winding staircase that offers a view of the entire city, crammed like all others with concrete and too many cars.

We are glad to be flying out that evening from Bihar. When we land in Bangalore four hours later, there is a cool breeze, a miniscule nip in the air, all that you would demand from the weather here. I allow myself a smile for the weather, but that apart, there is little else that makes me feel like I am coming back home.

And here are the pictures. Again, very low resolution ones.

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