Monday, January 29, 2007

Go Gaya

Travel tips for the "land of enlightenment"
Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India

A., an Indian viewer in Singapore, writes:

I would love to see the Bodh Gaya temple, marking the spot where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2550 years ago. But it's in Bihar, the most lawless state of India. Is it safe, and is it worth risking Bihar for?

Yes, Bihar can be like the Wild Wild West without the cowboy hats. But you are among thousands of pilgrims and tourists each and every week, so you will not be alone. There are hassles, but most arrive and depart Bodh Gaya in complete safety.

The main pain-in-the-asana is the fact that the train does not go directly to Bodh Gaya itself - only to the sort-of nearby town of Gaya. Other than the train, there is virtually nothing in Gaya to keep you and everyone wants to get out ASAP. The local transport barons know this and capitalize on it.

In my case, literally about 200 western Buddhists, Tibetans and monks from all countries had been in UP for the Dalai Lama. En masse, we took a train from Varanasi to Gaya. The train was meant to depart VNS at 5.15 and arrive around 11am. Thanks to fog conditions, we ended up leaving VNS at 11.30 and arriving in afternoon!

Needless to say, after six hours we really got to know our fellow travellers on the platform.

At Gaya station, we descended on the auto-vultures who immediately tried to overwhelm us with exorbitant demands - taking advantage of the coming darkness. You should never travel from Gaya to Bodh Gaya after dark! even with other people).

Fortunately the Tibetan monks go all the time and knew the score. So I took a share auto with a bunch of monks who got the correct price. (They all speak Hindi and Tibetans do not bargain. Even the drivers are respectful to them.)

How much safer could a woman be?

We managed to get to Bodh Gaya by 4.30pm. Whew!

Once in Bodh Gaya you are home-free - it is quite the oasis, with lots of clean guest houses, good vegetarian restaurants and holy people from all traditions swanning round in their robes.

Sure, there is dust, some dirt and beggars. But it's a town quite well adjusted to travellers and foreigners. Women can move about freely there, but most stuff shuts at 9-10pm. My guesthouse gate shuts at 10pm. There is even an all-night cyber cafe with excellent speed - the Solar Cyber, next to the OM Restaurant on the main drag. Ask for Venu.

The BodhGaya temple is amazingly clean and peaceful, even while being continually used for worship. And - no entry fee for anyone! Open from 5am till 9pm every night.

The many international monasteries have cheap clean guesthouses - Burmese, Bhutanese, Thai, Bangladeshi, Japanese, Chinese and so on.

Enlightened eateries
Best eating bets: the aforementioned OM Restaurant is always uncomfortably crowded, but the food is unfailingly clean, excellent and cheap - and they are open late (10pm).

The (confusingly named) Tibet OM Restaurant, in the back of the Gelugpa "white monastery" near Kalachakra Maidan, has everything in terms of peace and quiet that the original OM does not. It's run by "Mama," the wonderful Tibetan woman and her son and daughter. Everything is made with lots of love, and you can chill out there in peace.

In early March, Mama packs up and heads north to see the Dalai Lama's teachings in Himachal. In fact, many of the Bodh Gaya activities and places are seasonal this way.

Kalyan Restaurant, entrance directly opposite the main temple and back down a lane, has excellent and clean food, including South Indian, and one of the only peaceful outdoor terraces in town.

Mohammad's on "Restaurant Row" near Kalakchakra Maidan has great food and is extremely popular, but I found it to suffer in atmosphere.

"Restaurant Row" is a bunch of half-tent, half-bricks and mud "buildings" that look temporary but in fact have been there for years. I think they were set up hastily for the 2003 Kalachakra and never dismantled. The Thai restaurant has been recommended.

Check out what I call the "Korean Embassy" in the group of shops just inside the temple gates. It's a mini Korean temple that offers traditional Korean yoga classes every morning at 8.30 for donation only! Leah, the Israeli girl who lives there, will serve you herbal tea.

Safety First
Bodh Gaya is a real haven and worth going through Bihar for; just take a few precautions.

--don't travel outside of Bodh Gaya, or between Bodh Gaya and Gaya, at night.

--Neighboring sites and villages such as Sujata, Dungeshawari Caves, Nalanda, Rajgir and NayaTaredhi are fine for day trips but get home before dark.

--I was advised by resident Tibetans not to even take the auto between Bodh Gaya and Gaya alone in the daytime - there are too many staged "accidents" and robberies.

--Take the plentiful and cheap cycle rickshaws round town. The autos (motorized, noisy rickshaws) tend to be more expensive and run by antisocial elements (advice from a local Indian).

--Shared autos (aka "Tempos") between Bodh Gaya and Gaya - safer because of the crowd - are 80Rs for the entire car, though the auto-sharks will always ask for much more. Pay no more than 20Rs per person.

--The best public toilet in town is the Reception Center just inside the temple gates. It's clean and always empty!

--Flat, highway-less Bodh Gaya is perfect for a bicycle. Rent one for 25Rs (about 50 cents) a day at Kundan Bazar, next door to the Hotel Embassy on the main drag. Kundan and his European wife Beatrix are a great source of local information and advice. The bike rental is just one of their many services, including new/used books (and book rental!), many foreign language books, a CD copying service, taxi booking, and cotton clothing. "The Kundans" also contribute to a number of local charities, such as a winter project to collect blankets for local street people - see more on their website here.

--After March, the weather becomes unbearably hot. Unless sweating is your sadhana, try to go in the winter time.

--Don't forget to check your shoes at the Shoe House by the gates - it's only 50paise (less than 2 cents). And, circle the Temple in the traditional clockwise direction - otherwise, you will be going against the current of dozens of pilgrims making the rounds!

--And last but not least, check the ground under the tree for fallen Bodhi leaves. They make a great free souvenir.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Let It Bihar

The long and potholed road
Patna, Bihar

Two days of driving/bus riding through rural Bihar villages (Vaishali, Lalganj, Chakiya, Deoria, Keshariya and lots of nameless ones) was alternately enthralling in its simplicity, and scary.

The villages themselves are quiet, clean, and immaculate with their neatly swept mud houses. No horns, no traffic (at least no cars - only bicycles, pedestrians and ox carts), no pollution, no sewer smells, and if you are looking for the one place in India not yet invaded by Coke and Pepsi - this is it! No corporate logo signboards for hours at a time, nor any bottled water for 12 hours! I ate lots of oranges and drank lots of tea instead.

But, every couple hours, a gang of youths at a crossroads would blockade the car (cars are a definite occasion in those parts - a real novelty), even forcing it to stop with a bamboo pole and loudly, forcefully demanding god knows what from the terrified driver (who spoke not a work of English, and my Hindi is restricted to about 3 dozen words). Maybe they just wanted a lift, maybe baksheesh, but I really did not want to find out.

We managed to push through gangs like this three times - and that's just daytime travel. Shiva knows what night travel would be in rural Bihar!

The good news is that there are Buddhist ruins and sites still being excavated - significant ones. In 5-10 years Vaishali and Keshariya will be crowded with pilgrims.

Keshariya in particular is home to what appears to be the world's 2nd tallest, or possibly even tallest, stupa - originally 10 storeys high in mandala shape! At one time this was a truly awesome work, like a pyramid. It was originally built by Emperor Ashoka about 2000 years ago to commemorate the spot where the dying Buddha. surrounded by weeping disciples, gave away his only possession - his begging bowl.

It was a very loooooooonngggg drive there on potholed roads. Excavation appears to be moving at the proverbial snail's pace. The day I was there, not one archaeologist or worker was in evidence. Only1/3 of the structure has been revealed - the rest is still covered in about 2000 years of dust, mud and fully grown trees, which gives it a sort of romantic Jungle Book-Lost City appeal (while the tree roots are probably destroying it).

Photos to come, but Tawanda (my beloved Compaq Presario) is not recharging. Let's hope and pray that it's just a battery problem. I guess that means Delhi is the next stop, to get Tawanda revved up again.

State of the state
Bihar state is synonymous with kidnappings, banditry, poverty and corruption. Every week, the paper has an account of a prominent person's child, or even just successful middle-class person's, kidnapped and held for ransom. The headlines of the "Bihar Digest" section sometimes defy belief ("Child's fingers chopped off for stealing spinach"; "Son hacks mother to death").

The local government seems too busy with esoterica to do much about such things. When the most recent Chief Minister left office, he conducted a puja to exorcise spirits, and nailed all his ghosts to a tree in the front yard of the official residence. (This is not an allegation - these are his own words.) Last week the paper carried allegations, made by a rival, that a local politician was performing black magic ceremonies at the town's most prominent Hindu temple.

You can't make this stuff up. But it's after 9pm, which is late here. Maybe before I leave town, I can go peek at the Ghost Tree (in the yard of #1, Anne Marg).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dust in the wind

Masking the truth
Bodh Gaya, Bihar (India)

Why did the Buddha choose to manifest in such a dusty, polluted, nasty place?

The answer is obvious: Because the place and its people really, really needed it.

Or, maybe not so obvious: at the time of the Buddha's historical life (about 500 years before Christ; that is, historical life, as opposed to his many thousands of other lives), perhaps Bodh Gaya, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were not the dusty hell-holes they now are.

I have not written much lately; carpal tunnel syndrome keeps me off the computer for more than an hour a day (barely enough to answer emails). I'm in the middle of a trip to Buddhist India - first Sarnath, to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama teach and wander among the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastic complex; then Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, Rajgir and possibly Sanchi; then finally, the Dalai Lama's teachings in Dharmsala (March 3-14).

It is weird, considering that Muslims destroyed the place about a thousand years ago, to sit among the peaceful ruins with chanting monks, and hear the local mosque's call of "AllahuAkbar." It's even weirder to encounter Muslim beggars (less common than Hindu beggars, but still to be found). I feel like saying, "Hey guy, why are you asking ME for money? I'm an infidel, the devil incarnate, a member of the degenerate West. You've got the one true way, the only true religion! How could an unbeliever like me possibly help you? There's the mosque, go talk to the big guy and tell him your problems."

Besides, your ancestors knocked down all the nice architecture in the area....don't blame me for the town being a smoggy, dusty pile of beggars. Enjoy the piles of rubble and your superior faith.
I have noticed that, at none of the ruins destroyed by the invaders - Sarnath nor Bodh Gaya nor Nalanda (at the time the largest university in the world, with 10,000 monk students) - at none of these is the truth about their demise told on the plaques or sign-boards. The origin, the rediscovering and reconstruction, yes - but the signs are strangely silent as to why these places (immense complexes of beauty) had to be restored in the first place. It was not natural decay, by a long shot.

In fact it's hard to imagine how the invaders (some Turkish, some Persian, some Afghani), without benefit of a modern wrecking ball, even managed to decimate such massive stone complexes. They must have had tremendous energy, and tremendous hatred, to tear down what amounts to a small city devoted to the study and worship of another faith.

What kind of PC history-rewriting campaign is going on, that no one is allowed to mention (for the public record) the destruction of temples, monasteries and Buddhist universities?

I understand that in early February a nearby small town has a Sufi festival with ecstatic saints, lots of singing and joyful music. Maybe I can catch some a different side - a more mystical one - of Islamic tradition there. At any rate, after Karmapa's departure there was an immense energy vacuum and I am ready to see a few local Buddhist sites, then push off to new horizons.