I hesitated to make this post, but I finally felt the need to share the other side of this area that doesn’t make it to the “Incredible India” tourist posters.
Bihar is considered one of the poorest states in India. And if one ventures further than the markets and the temples in Bodhgaya, one will see that this village is one of the poorest areas in the state.
This is my third time staying in Bodhgaya, and yet this is the first time I’ve become aware of the magnitude of poverty here in this area. By chance or karma, I landed in a guesthouse that’s right in the middle of village life, so to speak. The guesthouse itself is better than some others I’ve stayed in, and is spotless. I feel safe enough here as well, and would even use the guesthouse again if I return.
But staying here and walking around the back streets has really opened my eyes. I’ve seen slums and other poor areas in India before. Yet here on a daily basis I’m now walking along streets with open drainage, trash, houses without solid doors or roofs, and probably without plumbing. I’m cold enough to be bundled in a fleece over-shirt and scarf, yet there are kids running around without shoes, and sometimes without pants.
All the tourist money coming into the area is obviously not reaching the people that live here, and my heart goes out to them. They seem so resilient, and still friendly, returning the smiles of the strange gori walking through their midst. I realize how very, very fortunate I am.
I’ve read some reasons why the poverty continues here despite the town garnering impressive incomes. I’m not from here, and given the state of politics in my home country, don’t feel qualified to propose any reasons or solutions. There are some charities that seem to be doing great work here, but help for most seems to be slow in coming.
My aim in this post is just to share some of the other side, and let you see what’s behind the tourist curtain.
Over 2500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama came to Bodhgaya after several years of study under various teachers, and self practice with austerity. Realizing that the extreme austerity hadn’t brought him to the end of suffering, he recalled a time of peaceful meditation he had experienced as a child. He decided to return to that practice, and after meditating for some time under a local ficus tree, he experienced enlightenment. At that moment, he became the Buddha, meaning the awakened one.
While the original tree was destroyed, a cutting from it was planted in Sri Lanka. The large Bodhi Tree that stands today has grown from a cutting of that Sri Lankan tree, and spreads over peaceful grounds where visitors all over the world come to visit. There is a temple near the tree that was constructed in the 6th century, at the site of a previous temple that had been demolished. Various stupas surround the grounds, and offerings are placed around the complex. Monastics in various colors of robes sit and meditate, chant, circumambulate, and perform prostrations around the temple. While I was there, there were Buddhist monks from all over the world participating in chanting the original Buddhist teachings. It made for a lovely space to meditate in.
Outside the temple complex are international temples built in the style of the countries which built them. I visited a few, although the main draw for me was the main temple with the Bodhi tree. Some of the monasteries here are really amazing to see, and are quite ornate, complete with all the finery.
The Thai Temple:
Thousands of people flock here to Bodhgaya, and especially at the main temple, the spirit of devotion is palpable. Bodhgaya is still probably my favorite of the Buddhist holy sites, and I’m quite content to just sit under the tree as well.
However, there is another side to Bodhgaya beyond the temple walls and the paved main streets. And that will be the subject of my next post.
Since my last post, I feel like I’ve spent just as much time in transit as I have in the destinations. It’s all about the journey, but I’m happy to be slowing down a bit now. Here’s a brief synopsis of the last week or so….
Haridwar: spent the evening with a friend visiting the Har ki Pauri ghat (sadly, we missed the Ganga Aarti ceremony), dodging beggars and eating some great and affordable food. Har ki Pauri sits on the bank of the Ganges River and is a major center of Haridwar. It was lovely in the evening, and seems like it would be a very peaceful place during the day. We found a great restaurant and had a very flavorful dinner of sweet lassis, dal makhani, and aloo gobhi that left us too full for dessert.
I left Haridwar on an overnight train to Lucknow, and managed to get a general ticket to Gonda Junction, landing after dark with no hotel reservations. The three hotels that seem to exist in Gonda think quite highly of themselves. The first I went to was full, the second wanted a ludicrous amount for a room that was downright scary, and the third slightly less scary and expensive. Deal. The next morning I set off in a taxi for…
Sravasthi: the Buddha spent many years here, and half of his teachings seem to have been given from here. Yet it has mostly escaped the hordes of tourists that come to the other holy places, making it a quiet escape. The main draw is Jetavana, a park that was purchased for the Buddha by an ardent lay supporter. There are monastery remains there, and a quiet pleasant feel to the grounds.
My taxi driver may have had less peaceful intentions. First he drove to a temple that was closed. I explained in my limited Hindi that I wanted to go to Jetavana. He played dumb, and started getting a little friendly, putting his hand on my arm a few times. I went outside to do walking meditation. After a while he came out to talk to me and noticed the sprinkling of white in my hair. Once he found out my age (he was in his early 20s), that put the fire out on his amorous intentions, and he behaved like a gentleman for the rest of the trip, even bringing me to meet his family at the end. Age does have its privileges!
Next I was off to Varanasi, but couldn’t get a direct train. I managed to go to Gorakhpur, but then spent the night in the women’s waiting area while waiting for a 5:30am train for the final leg. I discovered the next morning that I had been locked in the room, but no one bothered me during the night! After being let out, I took the train to Varanasi, then quickly escaped to the nearby town of…
Sarnath: the city of the Buddha’s first sermon, the turning of the wheel of Dhamma. Also named Deer Park in history, and there are still deer (although enclosed in pens). It’s now a beautiful park in which to contemplate the Buddha’s first teachings. The first sermon is chanted daily here, near the statues of the Buddha teaching the group of five that were previous followers.
Varanasi: My capacity for tolerating crowded cities is limited, and I had been here before. But there’s so much history here that it’s hard to stay away. So the next day I returned from Sarnath, roamed the ancient labyrinthine streets and ghats, and watched the mesmerizing Ganga Aarti – a ceremony with incense, bells, fire, and chanting that draws hundreds if not thousands of people each night.
The next day I went to the station to catch a 10:20 train to Gaya. The fog outside was like pea soup, and I soon discovered that the fog was keeping all of the trains from being on time. My 10:20 departure became 1. Then 5. At eight o’clock we finally left. But in the meantime I found a great nearby chai shop, got to chat with some locals, elbow my place in an enquirey “line”, sing lullabies to a baby, read a book, and just be, watching humanity in front of me. It was all good.
I made it to Bodhgaya, where I’ll stay put for a while. It deserves its own post, so stay tuned.