Bodh Gaya : Buddhists, Bugs, Beggars, Beauty (and probably some other things.)

Bodh Gaya Travel Blog

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An Aside : At the time of writing I am in Hampi, Karnataka state mid-south India.  It's 22nd January 2010 and I'm suffering from 'Writer's Blockage'.  Very similar to writer's block in its effect; an inability to commit anything worthy of publication to paper.  But differing slightly in its cause.  It's not for want of material that my journal is currently months in arrears and in critical condition but rather it is suffering from an over abundance of thoughts and stimuli that whilst they bubble up in colours so bright and wild and beautiful in my mind, curl up and die totally when I try to pin them to the page.
Ceiling of (I think?) the Chinese Buddhist temple in Bodh Gaya
  Most frustrating.  Particularly as the chief victims are my writings on the incredible city of Varanasi.  So many inspirations and images and thoughts provoked by this incredible destination that when they all tried to rush out of my brain at once they caused a creative log jam in my ability to order my thoughts and render them in ways that do justice to their well-spring of inspiration and might be vaguely engaging to a third party.  A blockage in the system.  Writer's Blockage.  I am inching ever closer in understanding and fondness to a statement contained in an essay by Paul Theroux I read recently that 'the very things that stimulate writing are frequently obstacles to the writing process.
A Buddhist amongst the Bamboo - preparing for upcoming prayer celebrations
  Travel is a great stimulant, as I said; but it is hell to write while you are travelling.'
  I have been doing so for nearly 18 months now.

So if the following couple of entries feel a little work-a-day in form and content it's merely an attempt to write something, anything!  Just for the sake of it.  For the sake of stopping the journal from flat-lining.  And to try to flush out my blockage.

Bodh Gaya :  When I arrive in Bodh Gaya there's a sense that the circus is about to do so also.  There's a buzz of people and activity about the place.  Decorations are being raised high over the main high street.
Marigolds awarded to Stevie by the kids of Bodh Gaya - I later played badminton with them using a marigold as a shuttle and bits of waste for rackets :)
  Banners and temporary mock-prayer wheels.  Colour everywhere.  Large numbers of Buddhist novices and monks are pouring into this, their most holy of towns.  Their many shades of burgundy and saffron robes bright under the sun.  Garlands of marigolds are being sold in profusion and one is kindly strung around my neck by some children for the sake of a photo that at the end of the day will be my memory to treasure, not theirs.  How kind.  It will play out as a crass observation but there’s no helping the feeling of an element of the Freak Show about proceedings too as beggars in all the cringing and contorted forms that India seems uniquely able to sculpt out of the clay of human suffering (be it through inherent disability, polio, malnutrition, self-inflicted or play-acted deformation) have flocked from all the lands around.
Prayer wheels for sale "Geeeeeet your merit 'ere! Four for the price of one!"
  There’s even a Big Top Tent under construction.  A vast marquee structure presently just a gigantic skeleton of bamboo poles and rope lashings.

So what’s it all about?  Well, turns out my arrival coincides with that of someone equally esteemed and venerated by those of Buddhist persuasions as the 17th Karmapa is in town.  Yeah, I hadn’t heard of him either, but suddenly there are lots of people around me excitedly waving laminate passes to the upcoming days of his discourses.  From what I can gather he’s a pretty important member of the top incarnate holy teachers of Tibetan Buddhism.  Nominal head of the Kagyu sect, whose chief monastery is Rumtek, near Gangtok in Sikkim.  The current Karmapa is mired in political discord and is officially a ‘disputed’ incarnate, his Kagyu sect having recognised one individual as the ‘correct and true’ 17th incarnation of Karmapa and The Dalai Lama and China (for once agreeing) having recognised another.
  I think?  It’s complicated.  As usual.  Kagyu means ’Black Hat’ and refers to some bonkers sounding ceremonial headgear said to be woven from angel hairs that the Karmapa wears during ceremonial events and must hold down otherwise it will escape and fly back to heaven.  Sounds like a neat circus act to me!  

The Karmapa’s presence coupled with the arrival in about three weeks time of the Big DL himself (the Dalai Lama) means that this normally beautifully serene spiritual epicentre of international Buddhism is about to go ’Bang!’ along with the price of that ’cheap’ hotel room you were hoping for.  I finally manage to find somewhere for 400 Rupees ( £5 per night or 1 Rupee for each mosquito I will be sharing my accommodation with) but this rate, already a sting, will probably triple or quadruple come the arrival of the Big DL.
The throng at the Mahabodhi Temple
  But I’ll be long gone by then.  Missed him again.  No offence DL.

Bodh Gaya is arguably the most important of the four principle sites in the life of Buddha, all but one of which are to be found in India.  Lumbini, his birth place is just over the border in modern day Nepal - well okay, that one‘s pretty pivotal I guess.  Sarnath in Varanasi is the site of his first sermon following Enlightenment and Kusinagar is where he achieved Mahaparanirvana in passing away.  Bodh Gaya or Buddha Gaya though is named after the Bodi Tree under which 2,600 or so years ago Prince Siddartha Gotama sat down for a truly bum-numbing amount of time without sustenance and with an abundance of patience to eventually attain Enlightenment.
  ‘Yippee!’  Buddhism was born.  A one-generational-step-away off-cut descendent of the original Bodi Tree (the original carted off to Sri Lanka and eventually destroyed) still stands tall, venerable and magnificent in its arboreal spread and adornment of coloured scarves besides the Mahabodhi Temple.  

As the heartland and main magnet for Buddhist devotional acts and pilgrimages, over the years Bodh Gaya has seen many temples funded by spiritually sympathetic national governments and international communities spring up in gloriously coloured and constructed profusion from its spiritually fertile land.  Within a one hour circumambulation of the town you can visit, amongst others, Buddhist temples of China, Bangladesh, Burma, Vietnam, Nepal and two Thai temples, the main one of which on Bodh Gaya Road is probably the most beautiful of these in exterior qualities and possessed of fabulous interior painted narrative friezes too.
Mahabodhi Temple (detail)
  There’s also a 25 metre high seated Buddha statue lurking on the town centre’s periphery.

But the Mahabodhi temple with its venerated tree is the main event and the lightening rod for wave after wave of Buddhist meditative adoration.  It’s one of the most idiosyncratically sculpted temples I’ve seen to date.  It’s four sided facia cut in lines and shapes of sharp geometric clarity.  Nothing florid or floral or overly ornamental hear.  Not above the base layer anyhow.  Crisp lines and cool symmetry.  The effect is beguiling nonetheless.  Long tapering strips of symmetrical jigsaw pieces with ‘holes’ in the middle coursing up to a large conical ‘golden‘ point peak.  The markings and form that might have appeared upon the side of a space rocket built by the Aztecs and Incas had they done so - and many probably think they did.
Aztec Rocket!!!!! - the wonderfully unique form of the Mahabodhi Temple
  Its present form though dates no further back than the late 19th Century though it history, previous architectural incarnations and foundations stretch as far back as 200 years BC.

In keeping with the carnival theme and appearance of Bodh Gaya during my stay the carefully cropped hedges and grounds around the Mahabodhi Temple are strung heavily with fairy lights for several days before being coiled and packed away.  This suits me perfectly five days ahead of Christmas, imparting to the aptly fir-shaped temple and its own famous tree a genuine feel of colourful, seasonal cheer.  A daily stroll around the temple grounds, bare foot, puts me in good spirits every day.  Best after dark with lights thrown onto the temple structures and quarter moon crisp white above.  Even more the appearance of an imminent take-off rocket at these times.
Tones of Prayer 1

Whilst the sun still shines, in the areas immediately at the feet of the temple Buddhist monks and novices worship all day long pouring strange waterfalls of corn grains, cowry shells and semi-precious stones over brass rings and containers with their hands breathy mantras into the air with their lips.  Laying oneself as low as possible before a focal point of sacred value is of great importance in both Buddhism and often Hinduism too.  Flat on your belly in supplication is the greatest show respect or honour one can convey.  To this end hundreds of what I shall term ’prostration platforms’ surround the Mahabodhi, all angled to face its form and permit the Buddhist faithful to prostrate themselves before it, like a physical mantra, time and time and time again.  It makes for a quite wonderful sight.
Tones of Prayer 2
  Not least the beautiful play of colours as the shaven headed monks in their robes undulate up and down in gentle waves of veneration.  But to me as they stand and raise their arms high, palms pressed together and then lunge downwards and forwards, arms sweeping out straight and flat, fingers together, sliding along the wooden platform surface smoothed to the texture of glass by a million prostrations, and then arcing around to the body’s side and ’whoosh!’ pushing the prayerful to their feet again, they look like people endlessly diving into water and performing breaststroke.  Diving headlong into the enveloping watery depths of spirituality, and then surfacing for air once more.  I like it.  Don’t lose count though!  A lot of the monks have little clicker-counters at the head of their platforms that one hand flicks across to press at the apex of each prostration.
'Swimming into the divine' - Buddhists prostrate themselves over and over in waves washing up towards the Mahabodhi Temple
  A record of how much merit credited to the great spiritual bank account in the sky today.  ‘997... 998... 999... 1,000 dives into the sublime for me today!  How much is a ticket to Nirvana these days anyhows?’  Like collecting Greenshield Stamps.  (Remember those?)

Getting away from the burlesque of Buddhism that’s unfurling by the day on and around Bodh Gaya main street ( Young monks roaming in packs, prattling and playful and most materially attached to their mobile phones) I’d recommend a stroll out into the several village settlements that are the rural and residential heart of the area.  Bihar has been for some long time India’s poorest state and the subsistence agriculture of the low level two-chicken and one cow mud and wattle hutments that cluster together to loosely form hamlets so small that their names even slipped through the cracks in my notebook I’m sorry to say, are some illustration of this.
'Man and Tree make Divinity'
  In fact, having barely for one second managed to lift my toes from the tourist trail in India thus far, this is probably my solitary half day smiling and cack-handedly communicating with ‘real’ rural India which still, by a long chalk, is the majority way of life in this vast and hungry nation.  Buses and trains rarely drop one in rice paddies or rural communes and regrettably I don’t/ can’t ride motorbikes.

The kids with their dust-matted hair and scabs and sores and permanently snot encrusted noses seem happy to see me.  Young girls given over to the daily washing turn away shy.  The men wish to shake hands ‘Namaste.  Namaste’.  The women pause in their sifting of dhal, threshing and winnowing of corn husks or stacking of hay for a momentary stare of general indifference.
Clicker-counter - used to keep a count of prostrations for the many enthusiastic Buddhists keen to keep a check on their merit balance :)
  Lazy dogs lie across all available paths.  I’m a little nervous after my Varanasi episode (yet to be published) and give them a wide berth despite the sun having knocked them out for the count.  Bihar has many schools run on a volunteer supported basis for its seemingly endless supply of poor children and orphans, the latter created by social phenomena in addition to poverty that I am unaware of.  You will come across some of these and their chattering swarms of ’hello hello photo ten Rupees’ children as you pick your way along the low thin walls of earth that form paths and barriers between the various crop areas and paddies.

I like many aspects of my time in Bodh Gaya.  I am always happy and content around areas of a Tibetan, Buddhist leaning.  I guess I must admit to myself one day that some of the serenity born of this particular theological path rubs off of on some as yet unexplored, forever ignored quadrant of my soul.
  But I am often irritated whilst here too.  

The circus show of imminent and entirely un-Buddhist celebratory fervour is a little depressing really as I can’t help feeling that the religion, swelled to bursting at grass roots with a massive youth generation of novices and monks whom I suspect don’t have the foggiest and possibly don’t care anyway ‘what it’s all about’ and are patently prone to materialism and idolatry ( ’How dare they!’ ;) may over time and generations be somewhat losing its way.  Which would be shame.  Friends that attended the Dalai Lama’s five days of lectures to audiences in the tens of thousands three weeks hence were profoundly moved by his carefully deliberated words and philosophies eschewing the path of calm, and peace and reason but profoundly shocked and, again, depressed at the riotous mosh pit of adulation, insanity and physical carnage that erupted at their conclusion as masses of monks tried to ‘get a feel’, some darshan and a photograph of the Big DL.
The glorious arborial spread of the (descendant of the) Bodi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

And then there’s the mosquitoes and beggars.  Both seeming to swell in their number, persistence and capacity to irritate me by the day with their unwanted attentions.  G*d I’m sounding like a callous b**tard today aren’t I?!  It’s that Writer’s Blockage cramping my soul I tell ya!  The beggars, okay, their presence and needs are understandable.  They’re just the victims of an impatience in me fed too full with two weeks of importuning for my money in Varanasi and India in general.  But I brook no forgiveness for the mosquitoes.  There are f**king tens and tens of them in my hotel room every time I step back in.  And in what is a shocking act of sacrilege in this most Buddhist of towns where no harm should be wilfully inflicted on any living thing - I smack, swat, splatter, spank and generally murderise every one in reach.
'Make my magic carpet fly!'
  Every time.  And then their numbers only redouble the next day!  

By the time I pack my bags to leave Bodh Gaya the previously pristine canary yellow walls of room 402 resemble a slaughterhouse abattoir.  Endless small black crumpled forms and blood - my blood no doubt - streaked in gory flashes over every surface.  Sh*t!  This doesn’t look good.  So I spend half an hour with damp toilet roll trying to wash away the evidence of my crime.  My sins.  Mass murder.  Over 100 mozzies.  I kid you not.  I’d best be careful the body count doesn’t get too much higher on my travels lest I be reincarnated as one of the blood-sucking little f**kers in my next life.
  Lucky I’m not a Buddhist! ;)   

* Memory and Creation : The View from Fifty contained with other travel thoughts and essays of praise-worthy excellence in Fresh-Air Fiend.
Stevie_Wes says:
@ Divvea : Thanks matey! Ummm, I honestly can't recall the name of where I stayed in Bodhgaya. (names of accommodation were strangely one of the key details I almost always failed to note in my diary - weird!). Depending on the time of year Bodhgaya can be more expensive than your average Indian town thought there are plenty of hotels. Many people tell me the best way to stay in BG is to go online and try and trackdown a homestay opportunity. Worth a look maybe? Sorry I couldn't be more specific. For great breakfasts and other meals search out the well-renowned Tibetan compound/ cafe.
Posted on: Apr 27, 2012
divvea says:
Loved your piece of writing and all the pictures. Could you please tell me where did you stay in Bodhgaya and also maybe if you have the contact number or anything. Will be a great help. Thanks.
Posted on: Apr 26, 2012
justasimsim says:
Feels like am wandering with the wanderer :) thanks for the nice blog!
Posted on: Jan 28, 2010
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Ceiling of (I think?) the Chinese …
Ceiling of (I think?) the Chinese…
A Buddhist amongst the Bamboo - pr…
A Buddhist amongst the Bamboo - p…
Marigolds awarded to Stevie by the…
Marigolds awarded to Stevie by th…
Prayer wheels for sale Geeeeeet y…
Prayer wheels for sale "Geeeeeet …
The throng at the Mahabodhi Temple
The throng at the Mahabodhi Temple
Mahabodhi Temple (detail)
Mahabodhi Temple (detail)
Aztec Rocket!!!!! - the wonderfull…
Aztec Rocket!!!!! - the wonderful…
Tones of Prayer 1
Tones of Prayer 1
Tones of Prayer 2
Tones of Prayer 2
Swimming into the divine - Buddh…
'Swimming into the divine' - Budd…
Man and Tree make Divinity
'Man and Tree make Divinity'
Clicker-counter - used to keep a c…
Clicker-counter - used to keep a …
The glorious arborial spread of th…
The glorious arborial spread of t…
Make my magic carpet fly!
'Make my magic carpet fly!'
The gathering crowds of colour.  W…
The gathering crowds of colour. …
Market Women
Market Women
In Green
'In Green'
Beautiful coloured textiles and wo…
Beautiful coloured textiles and w…
Mahabodhi at night - Aztec Rocket …
Mahabodhi at night - Aztec Rocket…
Christmas lights for Stevie in Bod…
Christmas lights for Stevie in Bo…
Mahabodhi Temple complex beautiful…
Mahabodhi Temple complex beautifu…
Rural Moment
Rural Moment
Stevie & the Bodhi leaf
Stevie & the Bodhi leaf
Bodh Gaya
photo by: Stevie_Wes