Thursday, June 01, 2006


Living in Transition and Stasis: Bodh Gaya

In the past few days, we have transitioned geographically from Khajuraho to Varanasi. Now we have arrived in Bodh Gaya. We have traveled across the parched land by Jeep and train and motor rickshaw, passing the time by playing games, offering each other “top three” best songs of all time or catching a few zzz’s when we can. In Varanasi, we waited on a train platform for hours, melting from the heat and drinking overpriced bottled water and soda and Lays brand potato chips. Now that we are in Bodh Gaya, a feeling of calm has crept over the group. We know we’ll be staying here for a few days and we are glad to make whatever stasis we can find feel like home. This afternoon, Many of the students went off to see a matinee in Gaya. I have asked them to deliver a full report for the blog when they return.

Today is “Indian Dress” day. Nathan and James reported they received a few snickers from the hotel staff when they came downstairs this morning for breakfast. “It’s probably the equivalent of an Indian coming to America and wearing a full-garb cowboy suit,” Nathan joked. Many of them have fully embraced Indian music and clothes. Lynda, Dani and Ashley have bought saris or salwar kamiz. In addition to their kurtas (long shirts), a few of the guys, inspired by the two evenings of Indian Classical music in Varanasi, have bought sitars, tablas and a lone wooden flute. Nathan bought a pair of spiffy orange flip flops that gave him blisters. He’ll break them in yet.

It’s amazing to me how each place we visit has its own personality. Khajuraho, in spite of its beautiful temples, had the somewhat seedy feel of a beach town during the off-season. The tourist district around the temples relies heavily on people like us, and so to have 16 people drop in during the Hot Season was a boon for business. Varanasi, aside from the handful of touts and rickshaw drivers outside our hotel, felt too large and ancient to take any real notice that we were there. We were mere blips on its radar screen, just another group of people coming to see the famed Ganges River and to walk through its maze of colorful, narrow streets. In Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and home to the Mahabodhi Temple, there is a calmness unlike any other place we have visited. There are monks of many disciplines, with shaved heads and a range of colored robes, from saffron yellow of the Southeast Asian monks to the deep red hues of the Tibetans. There is space here for contemplation, and each of us in our own way welcome it fully.

I had the opportunity to visit Bodh Gaya in 1995 and it was interesting for me to see how much it had changed. There are certainly more shops around the Mahabodhi temple, and Internet stores are on every corner. But the Burmese Vihar (where I had stayed) is still operating. The streets are still dusty and made of hard-packed dirt. There are a great many new monasteries that have been built, including the stunning hundreds of feet high Buddha at the Japanese Temple. Yesterday, we visited sites very important to Buddhists. One is Vulture Peak in Rajagir, a place where the Buddha and his followers would stay during the rainy season. There we saw two caves, one where Ananda lived (the Buddha’s cousin) and the other where Sariputra lived (a chief disciple of the Buddha). The peak area is where a rather famous sutra, known as the Heart Sutra, was first expounded. It offers an outline of the key concepts of “nothingness” in Buddhist philosophy.

When we arrived, there were little shops and trinkets and wastebaskets in the form of penguins and rabbits. This was not as I remembered Vulture Peak. There was a brick-paved walkway, and a few meters away, a colorful ski-lift that would bring you to the top of the mountain (but not to Vulture Peak). To my surprise, the entire path to both caves and the peak was paved. Touts with mallas and books and postcards followed us on our walk. A pack of dogs did as well. These were the most relaxed dogs I have ever seen. I think they dug our “pack” and liked being part of it. They didn’t beg or call attention to themselves in any way. They simply liked the company; they liked going for a walk like any other dog might. When we reached Vulture Peak, instead of the natural plateau that overlooked the valley, there was a brick-constructed shrine area, and a brick wall that served as a sort of observation deck. There a man in a dhoti offered each of us a stick of incense and a silk lotus flower to place on the shrine. The shrine was too intricate, shiny gold and white silk and platters of offerings and flowers and money. In the center, right before the Buddha, was a good old American Ben Franklin. It kind of set the tone for me, even though I placed the incense and flower and a money offering somewhere on the shrine. Where was the open, natural space? Why were people demanding offerings and trying to sell us things? Why had the road to this sacred place become so accessible?

After a half hour, we walked down the path and there we found our little pack of dogs waiting for us. We descended to the foot of the mountain, past the postcard salesmen and Limca soda vendors, past the beggars and penguin wastebaskets and men selling Kit Kats and into the refuge of our air conditioned bus. It was hard not to feel disappointed by the change in the feel of Vulture Peak. But many religious sites in India now have a tourism edge to it. On the one hand, making these sites family friendly is a feasible way to build tourism and the economy. Many Indians who go on vacation oftentimes visit religious sites in their own country. There is no Disneyland equivalent here. On the other hand, the question of how attempts to modernize and upgrade changes the tone and feel of these spaces cannot be ignored. Just by being here, we are in a way contributing to it.

But I have to wonder: What would have happened if the path to Vulture Peak was always this easy?

I'm glad you all are having a good trip. It was great to be a part of it, in Delhi with all of you.

Wish you all a very pleasant and a safe rest of the trip.

Gaurav (now in Virginia)
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