Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bodh Gaya and Banaras: Of Travel Tales and Chronicles

Part 1:
“Arey O Babua! Barabar pahad ke liye yehi roadwa jahat hain ka?” asked the driver of the auto rickshaw to the man clad in a soiled dhoti peacefully smoking his chillum. He nodded in agreement. After traveling for some 30 kilometers in what seemed like a roller coaster ride, which could have even put the one in Disneyworld to shame, we were left wondering whether the man nodded approving the awesomeness of his chillum or to the rickshaw driver’s pointed question? Welcome to Bihar, said a distant board erected by Bihar Tourism. 

It is not every day that one develops an interest to visit Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Arguably two of the most densely populated states in the world, they live up to their reputation. While Hampi in Karnataka sees over a million visitors each year, Barabar in Bihar would hardly see about 10,000. Bihar, known as the land of Viharas had a colourful and glorious past but the present is equally dull and beaten. The state has a long and an interesting story to tell- Bihar in recent history came under the Bengal province. Since Bengalis for God knows why, substitute B for V, Vihara became Bihar.  Bihar has always interested me. Its people, sharp enough to crack IIT and IAS spend to watch Ravi Kishan chewing paan on the big screen. So this year Bihar topped my list of places to visit for my annual March trip. The photograph of Buddha on my study table said Bodh Gaya and minutes later after a quick search on the IRCTC website, I had booked 2 seats to Gaya on the Mahabodhi Express.


In what seemed like an endless routine of work, the excitement for the trip had taken a backseat. Finally when the day arrived, the sight of sheer amount of people waiting for the train at the New Delhi railway station brought the feeling of adventure back. Yogi, my friend who agreed to accompany me on this journey, wasn’t impressed seeing a sea of humanity. But then, we were going to Bihar in a train. We braced ourselves for the reality. Aboard the train, we saw people carrying bricks to chemicals to TV sets. Yes, we were in a reserved compartment. “Thoda adjust keejiye na”, came as a reply for any and all of the questions asked. Mid way through the journey, we buy a packet of chips and are struggling to tear open the packet. The old man next to our seat, who probably couldn’t withstand the combined show of 2 adults struggling to open a chips packet, pulls out a Rampuri knife from under his shirt and hands it to us. In a moment of shock and disbelief, I take the knife and tear open the packet to save ourselves from further embarrassment. I look around to see if anybody else is surprised and clearly there was none. It was an interesting lesson for us- Rampuri knives sometimes help you to add good karma points too.


The train took us to Gaya 4 hours late, which is on time by the standards of Indian Railways. Gaya being the second largest city in Bihar doesn’t live up to its name. We hired an auto rickshaw to take us to Bodh Gaya and decided to stay there. Bodh Gaya has been developed into a satellite town and provides visitors with all the required amenities. The Mahabodhi temple, dedicated to the enlightenment of Buddha is the primary attraction of the town. The temple itself has had its share of ups and downs over the past 2500 years. Bihar tourism is celebrating that milestone this year. The temple houses the Bodhi tree under which the Sakhya Muni became ‘The Buddha’. The temple at the site was first built by emperor Ashoka who took to Buddhism after he oversaw large scale death and destruction in Kalinga, present day Odisha. He also donated his diamond throne (Vajrasana) to the temple. As the cycle of time turned, the temple fell into disregard and disrepair. A certain king Shashanka, cut the Bodhi tree into half. Later, the Turkish invaders brought upon further blows to the temple. It was only in the recent history, with the generous support of the Burmese and the Thai governments the temple is restored to its glory. When Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra and son Mahindra went to Lanka to preach Buddhism, they took along essence of the Bodhi tree and planted it there, in what came to be known as Ashoka Van. Later the same tree was brought back to Bodh Gaya and planted it there. The Bodhi tree that we see today is in fact a reincarnation of the original Bodhi tree under which Siddharta Gautama became The Buddha. 

The Mahabodhi temple Gopura (Central tower)

The Buddha sitting in Bhumisparsha Mudra

Ratna Chakrama- Jewel Walk of The Buddha

The Mahabodhi Tree, truly breathtaking!

Animesha Lochana

Buddha's meditative posture in the lake situated in the temple complex

Bauddha Bhikkus in evening prayer at the temple complex

It is said in the Jataka tales that the site of the Bodhi tree represents the navel of mother Earth. Nowhere else could the Sakhya Muni become Tathagatha, because of the sheer weight of the tree when the Buddha attained enightenment. It could have split the earth into 2. The Bodhi tree sprang up in the year of Buddha’s birth, 623 B.C. and waited for him to come there. When the world goes into apocalypse, the site would be the last to get destroyed and when the world takes a rebirth again, it would be the first to come to life. Such is the magnificence of this place. When we entered the temple complex, it was a hot afternoon. We met an ascetic who was lost in meditation until the point we reached his place and offered our pranams. He was kind enough to tell us the history of the temple and walk us through the Buddha’s life. The temple houses the statue of the Buddha in the Bhumisparsha mudra (the fingers of his right hand touching the ground). He is believed to have attained enlightenment sitting in that posture. 


The evenings in the temple are serene and peaceful. There are monks who sit and sing in the verandah. There are devotees tucked in their mosquito nets meditating and reading. There are groups of visitors who silently go and join the prayer groups and are lost in their divine charm. It is an awe-inspiring scene. The temple complex is huge and adorned with various stupas and a lake, each one of it, if you are patient enough tell you a story. The town of Bodh Gaya is filled with monasteries of various countries where Buddhism is prevalent. All of them are an architectural wonder in themselves. An 80 feet statue of Buddha is another major attraction situated near the Japanese monastery. Everything in this town is named after The Buddha. Buddha Market, Buddha Hotel, Buddha Restaurant and even Buddha "Sailoon". 

Get a hair cut here for free enlightenment
The next morning we set out for the caves in Barabar, in hope of some adventure. Oh! What adventure was it?! In an auto rickshaw where the driver probably sold the shock absorbers in the Sunday market in return for a DVD of Pepsi Peeke Lagelu Sexy, heading to Barabar pahad, as the driver called it was one hell of a ride. The nearest railway station is called ‘Barabar Halt’. What a nicely coined name for a place as esoteric as this, I thought. The caves are scattered in a large land area. That is why our auto rickshaw driver lost the way and had to depend on and disturb people happily smoking their chillum.


There are 4 caves which have inscriptions of the early Buddhist period- Karan Chaupar, Lomas Rishi, Sudama and Visva Zopri. These have an amazing echo effect and can be fun ground of experiments for any sound engineer. Some of the locals call them with different names. It is nearly impossible to visit all of them without a guide who has the requisite knowledge and experience in showing around people. 

Bewitching!

In search of Sudama Kund- Took a photo break :)

The rock-cut, quite literally.

Entrance of the Karan Chaupar cave
The guard who showed us around the gave posing at the backdrop of rock inscriptions dating back to 3rd Century B.C

If you want to cover all of them, it needs a lot of stamina plus a lot of free time. Not every cave is safe enough to be visited. Such a waste of tourism treasure! The rock cut caves, if properly developed and marketed to tourists can compete with the ones in Ajanta and Ellora. The longish route which goes along the Gaya- Patna National Highway 281, is a better roadwa to travel to Barabar. The next time you visit, insist on your driver to take this routewa (in the local lingo). Your spine and lower back will love you, in return.


The visit to Vishnupad Mandir in Gaya, on our way back was another uphill task due to an ongoing Bihar Bandh. Somebody killed somebody and somebody else called for a Bandh. End of story. We finally made way to the temple after a lot of hardships and an unexpected drizzle. A monk narrated the story of river Phalgu, a dried river which once flowed near the temple. Bowing down to the temple deity, Lord Vishnu and the Vata Vriksha, we went back to our hotel rooms and called it a day.


Early next morning, the Jallianwala Bagh Express took us to the ancient city of Varanasi...


(To be continued in Part 2 of the Travel Tales and Chronicles)