There are four places which are important and the ultimate pilgrimages for Buddhists. There is his birthplace which is Lumbini in Nepal, his death place at Kushinigar, India, his first sermon at Sarnath, Varanasi (more about this in later blog) and the place where he sat under a tree for a bit, as steady as a tampon, before attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in the lawless state of Bihar. (lawless today that is). The exact spot where he did this is now a shrine to Buddhists and spiritual seekers worldwide wanting to visit the tree where he battled off Mara. It of course is not the original tree but a descendant of it, but the spot is still the spot.
Scholars have often debated what Mara is. It is commonly known as a demon who came to tempt Buddha back into worldly attachments, copied some 500 years later by Bible writers when their own version of Mara, S*tan, similarly tempted Jesus in the wilderness. The difference in these stories is that the Buddhist one is known and understood to be symbolic. Well the spot at Bodh Gaya is where that all happened though I think Mara was not the worst thing for Mr B, it must have been the mosquitoes because they seem to like it here better than anywhere else in India. One can only assume that the Buddha, when he eventually got up, was rather spotty.
It’s not an easy place to get to, Bodh Gaya. We had to grab an internal flight to Patna which at first experience reminded me of Philip Pullman’s description of Hell in ‘His Dark Materials’. We stayed overnight at one of Patna’s better hotels – comparable to a bad Travelodge that has been taken over by a biker gang. We were on the top floor but luckily we were still able to hear, as if it was happening in the en-siute bathroom, the Indian rave going on in the function room three floors below. And this was a Wednesday!
Leaving in the morning, we tested our patience at the railway station to try to get a train to Gaya, 5 hours away. We had two hours to wait and became a curiosity to all other travellers because one guy could speak English and wanted to know everything about us. Our answers were translated to the 600 people circling us at a distance of 6 inches. When the train came in, some kids ran in and jumped on to seats and said they were for us – and a pleasurable journey was had.
Once at Gaya though, things got a bit scary. We needed to find a tuk tuk to take us the remaining 12 miles to Bodh Gaya itself and it was then that three young lads, doing a credible impression of a pack of hyenas, began stalking Alison, right on her tail. I nodded to my son James that we have a problem and we turned and faced them off. I gave them my best show of teeth and emitted a little growl and they backed off. This was noticed by approximately 10,000 other locals and then I remembered, from all the travel guides, that the state of Bihar should be avoided, if at all possible. I have learned, in my life, three tactics to ward off violence – the most drastic and risky being an actual teeth bearing growl. The other two are to either suddenly become very gay and very camp (people say I’m *too* good at this) or to cock one’s head, point randomly into the sky and begin slobbering. It is my experience that guys don’t generally hit you if you adopt one of these.
However, this incident marred our arrival into Bodh Gaya – which was met by a guy riding alongside our tuk tuk on a motorbike offering accommodation for only £3.50 a room per night. In exhaustion we instructed the tt driver to follow him and so began what would turn out to be the worst sleep or more accurately wake I’ve ever had. Apart from the room being bereft of air conditioning – just a wobbly ceiling fan -our bedrooms were a meeting place, if not the meeting place for mosquitoes, the likes of which I’ve never seen, the new mattresses were bedecked with plastic sheets, so when the power goes out, which is about every hour, the ceiling fan stops, the 90 degree heat mingles with the plastic sheet and the mozzies come out to play, and as there is no power, you can only hear them, and hear them everywhere – and when the power does eventually come back on you catch yourself in the mirror, soaked with sweat doing a wonderful impersonation of a lunatic with rickets repeating words like ‘for fucks sake’ and ‘bastard’s at an unacceptable volume.
The next morning, bleary eyed, wandering around the town it becomes very obvious that Bodh Gaya is a Buddhist theme park. Each country has it’s own monastery, even China, vying to be the most impressive.
It was so much like the Epcot Centre only with added cows and stray dogs. The Tibetans are currently constructing one which rivals a football stadium.
We visited several and marveled at the architecture and artifacts, we visited the Big Buddha statue before going to the Mahabodhi Temple, where the tree is.
Security was tight as there had been a bomb explode not too long ago but once inside the grounds, it was all very impressive. Shoes off, we headed for the tree. Fenced off, overhanging a courtyard in front of the temple, there it was, or there the spot was, and we sat with many others contemplating the significance of the spot and watching monks trying to out-monk each other with the best meditation posture, and then it happened – a gust of wind! And so began the best entertainment so far. Each gust dislodged a few leaves, and fortuitously one fell near my feet, but looking up, I witnessed Buddhist mayhem. When the leaves came to the ground the monks didn’t actually fight, but ‘withdrew’, when another had beaten them to a leaf. It was akin to a rock idol throwing plectrums into a crowd. One tattooed Burmese monk had a whole bag.
I think they were learning about attachment.
There was also a meditation garden which you had to pay admission to enter if you didn’t intend to meditate but it was free if you were to meditate or, I guess, pretend to. The irony of this was not lost on me.
That evening on the street we met some lovely teenagers who spoke good English who walked with us for an hour or so and couldn’t grasp that most English people can’t stand cricket. They asked me to buy them a football and I did and they are now facebook friends (Hi guys!)
But it was time to arrange transport to get to Varanasi – the jewel in India’s crown and on inquiring I was whisked away on the back of a motorbike to a man who knows a man who can – and Varanasi is a whole new story
all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see