Friday, April 16, 2010

The path to enlightenment - Bodhgaya, India


Destination:  Bodhgaya, Bahar State, India

Number of days spent:   4 days

Where we stayed:  Root Institute – 900 Rupees per night.  On the outskirts of ‘town’, Root is a little haven of western ran peaceful tranquility.  Set up mainly for meditation retreats, which we had came for until it was cancelled, the grounds are well kept and the rooms are simple but clean.  The cheap communal style meals are all vegetarian and delicious – we had the best samosa here, but it is, of course, luck of the draw. 

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Best Restaurant:  Even after a month in India and multiple samosa samplings we’re still dreaming about the awesome samosas they had for dinner one night at the Root Institute.  Even their takes on Western favorites like pizza and burgers (both vegetarian) somehow came out excellent as well.

Best of:  The Mahabodhi temple, aka. ‘the stupa’, one of Buddhism’s holiest sights is a delight to visit at anytime, especially at sunrise/sunset.  Perhaps a stretch to call it ‘the best of’ but going out with the mobile health clinic to a poor village gave us a new perspective on the struggles of Indian villagers in Bahar.

Worst of:    No public transport from the airport?  We didn’t plan ahead and they wanted 500 rupees (over $10 to drive the 10 minutes from the airport).  Thinking we could jump on a friendly Burmese families tour group’s bus, we asked but they didn’t have any more room.  After getting rejected, we luckily had an offer to split the taxi with another man.

Most memorable:  Wonderfully intellectual chats in the gardens of Root Institute with Buddhist (Swiss) monks/nuns.  Their insight and perspective on life gave us a deeper understanding of what perhaps every religion needs – tolerance and acceptance.  As Anita succinctly puts it, “The world has enough Buddhists.  What the world needs is more kind and accepting people.”

Useful Tip:  Instead of taking the main road filled with diesel belching trucks, take the path from Root to ‘the stupa’ through a couple of villages offering a unique look at varying degrees of poverty.

Born Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the last Buddha walked this patch of the earth a mere 500 years before Jesus and nearly 1000 years before Mohammad.  It was here, sitting in the shade of a Bodhi tree that it is said he achieved enlightenment, or nirvana – freedom from life’s suffering.  From here, the Buddha spread his message of ending internal strife and leaving footprints and strands of hair all over Asia for generations to later enshrine and worship.  The original bodhi tree was destroyed by a jealous wife of a king around 200BC, but not before a cutting was taken and planted in Sri Lanka.  The current tree is a cutting of that tree somehow surviving despite the temple itself suffering razing and destruction a couple of times.  The current temple was most recently restored in the 1800’s with a few of the stone fences somehow surviving from the original temple built here over 2200 years ago.

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The temple and the tree are merely a diversion however from the real site.  Daily, hundreds of pilgrims from all sects of Buddhism descend on the temple.  From saffron robed monks to western clad…umm…westerners, simple white clothes to bright yellow hues, all walks of life pray and worship in various ways.  Some do countless prostrations on a prayer board in the lush lawns surrounding the complex.  Others join in reading scripture from Buddha’s teachings as they slowly turn prayer beads over and over in their hands.  Many simply pray and meditate on their own terms.  It’s a fascinating look on humanity and gives some insight on just how one person’s teachings can be interpreted in so many different ways.

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Of course, there is one other type of visitor to the temple – the tourists both local and foreign.  This was our first of many encounters with the “Take photo?” question so prevalent in India (although to be fair, we have received this question in other places as well).  No, not to take their photo with their camera, but rather, can we (by we, I mean Tracy 90% if the time) join them in the photo about to be snapped with a cell phone camera.  Also prevalent in India, perhaps due to the oversized population, is how personal space means nothing.  See how uncomfortable Tracy looks in the photo as the lady just throws an arm up on her shoulder? 


As how auspicious sites in religion tend to go, everyone needs their own unique places to worship.  To get a sense of the different forms of Buddhism and the architectural style associated, a wander around the town is in order.  From Tibetan to Japanese, Thai to Sri Lankan, Vietnamese to Mongolian they all have temples here.  While it certainly does not replace actually going to these places, you can still get a sense of style and society and how they differ.  Built in 89 and unveiled by the reigning Dalai Lama, a 25m statue dominates the end of one of the main roads in town.  It is said to be partially hollow and contain another 20,000 smaller bronze Buddha statues.  




Buddha talk and holy temples aside, you can’t escape the fact that you are now in India.  Perhaps one of the more bizarre, but all too common sites in India are its cows.  Considered to be sacred, or holy, cows wander about the streets in towns small and large grazing on trash and whatever else they can find.  This would be the first of many cow photos.

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Speaking of Holy cows there were also ‘Holi’ dogs.  Dogs are not considered sacred, but are found all over the place, vying with the cows for prized niblets in the trash strewn streets.  The markings on this dog are from Holi, a festival where brightly colored chalk is thrown by thousands of crazy Indians all over the country to usher in the spring growing season.  We had missed the festival by a mere day or two so not only were dogs and cows covered, but many shirts, hands and hair were still bearing the marks of a crazy time.


Going beyond the meditation center, Root Institute also runs a health clinic.  The clinic is free, as is all health care in India, but is necessary due to the local government’s lack of funding and resources to care for everyone in need.  On Friday’s, Dr. Sanjay, founder of the clinic and the one who speaks English the best, goes out with the mobile clinic to the poorest of villages in Bihar – the state that is the poorest in India.  Crawling into an old land cruiser we drive about 45 minutes from Bodhgaya armed with one doctor, a driver, one ‘pharmacist’ and two curious Americans.  We arrive in a tiny village and the two professionals get set up with the help of a local woman.  Every village they visit has a contact person who provides assistance – mostly in the form of letting everyone know the day the doctor is coming and providing a table and chair for the doctor.  Even with most village homes little more than mud covered straw, the community tries to have one concrete community building and a temple.  If they do not have this, then a school is used.  That’s it.  No waiting rooms, no old copies of Golfer’s Digest or cheesy elevator music helping to sooth your nerves while you wait.  The only forms you find consists of a quick checkup they have filled out since the last visit – no insurance cards, co-pays, or bureaucracy.  It’s four concrete, open breeze walls, two plastic chairs and a makeshift table offering hope to people just as well forgotten. 

The pharmacist sets up on the floor, and the doctor begins seeing patients one by one while everyone else looks on.  No privacy here, this is India…rural India at that.   The medicine dispensed is of the homeopathic variety – both cheap and trusted by most people as it is all natural.  He is armed with a stethoscope and a blood pressure kit that looks like it belongs in a medical museum highlighting equipment used in the 20’s.  The doctor will see around 200 people in a normal, 6 hour visit.  Most common ailments – children with ear infections from playing in bacteria ridden water and hypertension in the older people from a poor diet rich in fatty and cheap oils.  Anything too serious and he refers them to the hospital.  One patient comes in wielding x-rays she had taken since the last checkup. 


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One thing that you have to get used to in India is their lack of visible emotion.  They are rarely so excited or happy that they smile and “Please” or “Thank You” are reserved for only the rarest of occasions.  Yet beneath all that gruff exterior lies some genuinely welcoming people.  They have nothing and yet you get the sense that if invited into their home, they would give you the last morsel of bread they had.

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One mistake perhaps that we made was opting to take the 6am train – before daylight and travel options are more widely available.  We had arranged a taxi the day before and were supposed to meet him at the end of the road from Root.  After getting the guard to let us out, we waited patiently looking up the drive think he will be here any minute.  15 minutes pass and there is no sign of him and we begin to panic a little thinking that we had perhaps miss communicated the need to leave at 5am for 5pm.  The guard makes a phone call and five minutes later a guy on a motorbike shows up and motions to a parked car just across from the gate to Root.  He had been there the whole time – asleep in the backseat.  Apparently the instructions to knock on the window and yell “Driver.  Hello.  Driver.” had escaped us.  The driver arises from his slumber, and proceeds over to the local urinal – i.e. any wall, bush, side of the road, pond, rock or tree that is semi or somewhat semi out of plain sight.  Relieved, both us and the driver in slightly different ways, we made our way to the station at breakneck speed.

We had heard stories of how confusing the train stations in India can be but nothing really prepares you for them.  After spending time in India now, we have since realized that the train stations in Bihar, or at the very least, Gaya are the worst of the lot.  Entering the building you are greeted with literally a sea of humanity sprawling about in front of you across the floor.  Stepping over bodies as if they were dead, and perhaps a few were close to that, we tried to decipher the handful of computer printouts on the wall looking for our names.  Nothing.  The board that tells you which train is on which platform?  Not here.  And the English speaking info desk?  Do you even need to ask?  Luckily there are only a couple of platforms so we rushed to where we thought it might be and started to ask.  After getting a couple of opinions, it was finally determined that Platform 1 was the right place to be, which was currently being occupied by a freight train. 

Meeting the afore mentioned definition of a semi or somewhat semi out of plain site, the parked freight train also serves as a convenient urinal for that first of the morning relief for men.  Thinking to myself, “just because God gave us the ability to pee standing up does not mean that we have to use that ability at every opportunity” I turn to see an old woman, mid stride, skirt hiked up, underwear pulled to one side letting a stream fly right there on the platform.  As the warm pool formed, the train arrived and we hopped on headed out of Bihar and on to Varanasi.  I turned to Tracy and muttered, “Welcome to India!”   

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