So, our train from Jorhat (the gateway to Maluji Island) was long, slow and entertaining – the way most things are in India. In the 30 odd hours on board we made it into a whole series of Indian photo albums, received a handful of new Facebook friend requests, and entertained the less talkative but more curious of locals that swung by our compartment just to have a look at us… for an hour.
Fast forward to Patna, a shithole at the best of times, but worse when you arrive tired, hungry and fed up, six hours later than you thought you would. We spent a further three hours walking through the seething, stinking mess of a capital to try and find a hotel that would take us for the night. It would be normal to think that a large city would have plenty of places to stay – and Patna does – just not for foreigners. That old game. In the end, we settled for luxury, spending a whopping $40 for clean sheets and complimentary breakfasts. Outrageous, but bloody nice.
The next stop on the agenda was Bodhgaya, a preeeetty important pilgramage site for all Buddhists due to the fact that this is where Buddha obtained enlightenment. We made it to the train just in time – thanks also to the fact that in India there are “Ladies only” lines for tickets at the stations, allowing us to go right to the front – and made ourselves comfortable, and by comfortable, I mean any space available. For Angelo, this meant sitting on the baggage rack above our heads.
Bodhgaya is a truly tiny town centered around the giant Mahabodhi Temple complex. Numerous smaller temples and monasteries are also dotted around the place that have been constructed by other Buddhist nations, to cater to the pilgrims visiting and studying here. However, despite the assumed peace and serenity, Bodhgaya is still an Indian town with all the tricks and antics – even more so, due to the touristic numbers that visit here.
There is a huge number of beggars here, despite the small population size (30,000), and there wasn’t a day in which we weren’t approached numerous times by kids wanting us to pay for their schooling or buy them some books. Other old men would stand next to us if we were around food, and motion with shaky hands that he wanted a freshly squeezed orange juice, too. I don’t know if it’s irony or misfortune that Buddha teaches people to abandon their wealth and these poor people do so, having never had another choice.
We found a great place to eat and, as was becoming a habit, we would eat here for the rest of our time in Bodhgaya. Not only was the food and chai great and cheap, but every afternoon three Thai monks would come in and order a kilo of icecream and some Indian sweets to split in three. As is customary, monks are not supposed to eat after midday – except for dairy – of which I’m unsure if there is a limit… Anyway, I’ve never seen a monk look so happy.
When it was time for us to actually visit the inside of the temple grounds I was intrigued and excited. I mean, this was a place of incredible historic value. For those who don’t know the story of Buddha, I’ll cut it short and sweet: he spent years shedding all former princely belongings, even non materialistic things such as body hair, and eventually even meditating for weeks without food. When he finally reached the point of enlightenment (practically, the state of perfect harmony and peace without desire nor misery) he was sat meditating beneath a Bodhi tree. The tree that grows there today is a 130 year old-fourth generation plant of that very same tree.
I spent half an hour sitting beneath this tree quietly watching the people meditating here and those coming and going. It’s hard to explain the feeling of this place without inducing eye-rolls and groans, but there is an incredible vibe here – a sort of gentle humming – that is both intoxicating and calming. Monks and nuns dressed in the simple robes – each a different colour depending on the style of buddhism and the country – moved about in quiet meditation, their shaven heads bobbing slowly up and down as they pressed foreheads to the ground in silent meditation.
In complete contrast to the quiet, non-moving style of Theravada Buddhism, behind the tree was a large garden area set up with hard wooden boards for the more robust and exhausting practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The large, burly Tibetans are noticable not only for their rather distinctive high-altitude-adapted figures, but also for their energetic form of prayer: a form of burpy, if you will. The practicioner stands at the foot of the board, places his or her body flat down using the hands to guide the movement outwards before pushing themselves back upwards again, to their feet. Upon watching these dedicated, maroon-robed, muscle men, I made a silent vow that if I was to ever convert to Buddhism I’d be sure to choose that other, quiet one. This looked way too exhausting…
The next morning I decided it was probably time for me to go to see a doctor as I had developed large, raised red bumps around the itchy bites on my legs. He had no idea what it was, so prescribed me every possible cure – antibiotics, antihistamines and antifungal creams – in the hopes that it might go away. Naturally the pharmacy tried to overcharge me, so I argued the price down from ₹1300 to ₹300 ($6). That extra $20, they claimed, was for ‘insurance tax’ in case I wanted to claim a refund. I tell ya, India is a daily struggle.
We visited another sacred site – a hill top temple – but it was crawling with people wanting to put the powdered dots on our foreheads and asking for a donation of upwards of ₹100 ($4). Donations of this kind from locals are never more than ₹10 (20c). We had a couple of cute little girls accompany us (more like drag us) up the hill, but the adventure soon turned sour as we couldn’t look anywhere without being told that we had to pay a ‘donation’. It was about time to leave Bodhgaya and head to Varanasi… Although this is the same as jumping from the pot into the flames when it comes to scams in India…
Nevertheless, we jumped in a rickshaw and headed towards Gaya. I made a start for the ‘Ladies only’ line again, and despite there being a barrier between me and the other men, they were still trying to lean over the bar and push their money through the small cashier’s window in front of me. I had about had enough of everything by this stage, and dealt with the situation in the most controlled and mature way I could possibly manage: I started hitting all the men in my way, and yelling loud obsenities at them. Hands retracted fast and eyes were wide as a fairly large group of shocked Indian men tried to fathom what some small, blonde, blue-eyed western woman had just done to them. Well, that was that done. Now all we had to do was miss four consecutive trains in a row (because we physically could not get on with 20 Indian people hanging from each of the doorways), and then catch the really, really, slow passenger train to Varanasi.
God, I’m glad that was easy.