Bodh Gaya : Buddhists, Bugs, Beggars, Beauty (and probably some other things.)
Bodh Gaya Travel Blog› entry 233 of 268 › view all entries
December 20th, 2009 – by: Stevie_Wes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* Memory and Creation : The View from Fifty contained with other travel thoughts and essays of praise-worthy excellence in Fresh-Air Fiend.
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