Bodh Gaya – The Buddhist Theme Park

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)
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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

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all posts from this trip – ‘North India in 23 Days’ can be found at
https://kevollier.com/category/north-india-in-23-days/

and for other Yoga and Buddhist related posts as well as general randomness see
kevollier.com/

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Tuk Tuks – avoiding death and scam

“Stop this tuk tuk right now or I’ll grab your keys” was one comment I screamed at a driver. There were many others. I estimate that we took more than a hundred tuk tuks in the few weeks travelling through South India and were treated to a plethora of scams and dishonest practices – but there is no better way to experience the towns and cities than to put you life into the hands of a tuk tuk driver.

Especially this driver – as it’s yours truly

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A tuk tuk which is known by the less colourful name of ‘auto rickshaw’ is basically a dirty two-stroke motorbike with three wheels with a hard plastic hood over to seat, well you’d think to seat two people but I did count seven in quite a few of them. Some are the driver’s pride and joy which is evident in its adornments and cleanliness and some are simply a means to an end aka death traps. There are millions of them on the roads in India.

They are without doubt the cheapest and most exciting way to get about the urban areas and you can pretty much be getting into one, only ten seconds after thinking you might need one because in India a western tourist is simply a very sweet and sticky jam and the tuk tuks are extremely hungry wasps. However jumping into one and saying ‘home James and don’t spare the horses’ might leave you disappointed because there are so many pitfalls and stresses once you step over the threshold to taking a ride, that it’s worth knowing some of the latest dupes and scams that you can find yourself involved in and/or the victim of.  It can be a great game to play of psychology and wits as long as it’s not hot and you’re not slightly tired or distracted otherwise you may fall folly to their little games – which seem to vary from city to city. We stayed in three cities and each one had its own unique scam amongst the universal ones.

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In Mysore, it wasn’t too bad. One day you could pay 100 rupees and the next 50 for the exact same journey of 3 miles but as it was 85 rupees to the £1, one at first feels no pressure to grumble but that will inevitably wear off.  ALWAYS ask how much it will be to wherever you’re going and when they tell you a price that you think is ok, repeat it back to them and get confirmation at least three times. Two times isn’t enough. Tuk tuks have meters yet we only saw them in use on two occasion in all the tuk tuk journeys undertaken.

Once in a tuk tuk, most drivers will ask you where you are from. This is not asked to discuss your life or cricket but to know what language they need to scam you in. They are of course very low paid, work very hard and have enormous competition and they will try to sell a journey to every tourist spot in the area – which can be much cheaper and very useful if you actually want to see the places they are offering and in Mysore there are some wonderful places (watch this space for an upcoming Mysore guide blog) but most tuk tuk drivers haven’t yet learned the English for ‘no’. It is good to talk in a slow east European accent naming exactly where you want to go and then answering every question they broach at you with ‘capotski’ and a big smile.  You’ll get to your destination quicker. Always know where your destination is as they don’t.  Whilst in Mysore we were staying near the Pattabhi Jois yoga centre yet it was surprising to us how many drivers asked us where it was and when I explained to them that they in fact were the driver and we the western tourists they would pull over and ask locals who always checked us out and then had a chuckle with the driver in Tamil or Hindi or maybe it was east european but nonetheless it’s a wonderful endeavour for anyone who has or  is recovering from paranoid tendencies .

The driver stopped to run an errand

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In Cochin, they have a  different approach. On the whole they are friendlier here and speak much better English but will offer you a free trip or a very cheap one, at say 20 rupees, if you would only do them a favour and visit this shop or that shop as they get a petrol token from ‘the rich Kashmiri owner’ and all you have to do is look around whilst they wait outside. We did this the first time and the idea is that you are pressured into buying something to which the driver gets a percentage that adds up to much more than any fare he would have received. I assume he gets a little something for just taking you there. We were in Cochin nearly a week and virtually every single driver tried to get you into some shop which are always full of westerners trying their very best to say no as they delve for their purses and wallets.

In Bangalore, and I have to assume all bigger cities, it’s a whole different ball game. They don’t even hide behind friendliness. But above all they tell bare-faced lies and even go close to what could be construed as kidnapping in some countries.

One morning we decided, from our city centre hotel, to go to the huge Hare Krishna temple of ISKCON seven miles away but still in the centre of the city – Bangalore is huge and sprawling. I asked a tuk tuk driver how much it would be to go to the ISKCON place and he looked at me as if I was a talking cat. I said it slowly several times and added other words like K R I S H N A   T E M P L E  but to no avail. We were then ambushed by an astute, silk shirted, much younger driver who spoke perfect English and knew Mick Jagger who pulled us from this ride to his own tuk tuk admonishing the older guy in Hindi. He then explained that ISKCON is closed until 2pm. I said that the lonely planet guide says it’s open all day, he assured us it was not but offered us a tour for only 100 rupees to see various temples. This he did – at first – but then it became a pressured set of stops to various emporiums. I had to demand quite strongly that he returned us. The ISKCON temple, of course, had been open.

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The next day we decided to walk for a while before asking a kerb-crawling tuk tuk how much it would be to the botanical gardens, he said 20 rupees, we got in and off we went. Whilst driving, he told us that the gardens was closed until 2pm and he’d take us on a tour. I told him that it’s OK, just take us to the gardens anyway at which point he stopped the tuk tuk on what can only be described as a six lane inner city motorway with cows and turned to me and said, ‘no it is closed’, I assured him that it was open to which he got a tad annoyed and so we exited the tuk tuk to his fury.

We were then immediately picked up by another one at 20 rupees. I explained that I don’t want to go any shops, we just want to go to the gardens, he agreed then took a turn at speed and in totally the opposite direction before explaining to me that he was just taking us to his friend’s shop. This was the point where the calmness my yoga training has brought me left the tuk tuk and was replaced by my training from the streets of Northern England. It could have got hairy but I didn’t fancy a Bangalore prison so we left him still with his keys to his auto, shouting apologies back at us. I genuinely think it was the first time that he’d been challenged like this.

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But now we were in the middle of nowhere and so we flagged another tuk tuk down as we were determined to see some bloody flowers before the day was out. He told us it would be 100 rupees. And here’s a tip – a tuk tuk is cheap for a reason. This 100 rupee tuk tuk was intending to take us to our destination without us having to look first at wooden elephants and brass Buddhas. I did however, ten minutes later, utter, under my breath, ‘for fuck’s sake’, when he flew past the entrance to the botanical gardens. I told him but he assured me he hadn’t. Two miles further on and for the third time in an hour I forced a driver to stop. This one however was not, it turned out, scamming us, he was just completely clueless and realising his mistake and the time he’d now lost randomly pulled over and said, ‘we’re here’ pointing to what was simply a front lawn in front of an average sized government building.  This time I refused to leave the tuk tuk to which he hailed over a policeman and we both explained our disagreement with me having an ace card commonly known as a city map. The policeman gave him short thrift and 15 minutes later (the time it takes to do 2 miles in Bangalore) we were at the gates.

The gatekeeper mistakenly short-changed us, I say mistakenly in that he had deliberately short-changed us and that was his mistake.

I promised myself there and then that I will never return to Bangalore on purpose – though the gardens were lovely.  They even had spit bins dotted about to stop the paths getting too gooey.
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Hello India!

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Our trip was blessed from the start because, although unbeknown to us at the time, we were met in the Bangalore arrivals hall by Lewis Hamilton very cleverly disguised as an Indian taxi driver.

If you only do one thing on your travels to India, make sure that you pre book a taxi to greet you with a sign with your name emblazoned upon it on arrival, otherwise the very first thing you will be subjected to the second you step through those airport doors is 3500 taxi drivers who all want you in their cab and all have a hotel that you must stay in, whether you’ve booked one ahead or not.

Our driver had driven 4 hours from Mysore, had waited over an hour at the airport and then driven us back to Mysore which took 5 hours because of a serious road accident, that we thought he might have caused on the way to get us, and it cost us a total of only £28!

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You will hear people say that the Indians are crazy drivers but there are hardly ever any accidents and it’s all perfect chaos. This, you must understand, is complete balderdash. India is the number 1 country in the world for road traffic deaths with an astounding 15 % of those killed being pedestrians – though not so astounding really as pavements don’t really exist in a way we would expect them to, such as being able to walk more than two metres before having to circumnavigate a huge tree or climb over a parked car, limbo under a parked lorry, hurdle endless motorbikes, avoiding the taut, metal neck high cables whilst falling down a pothole.

170,000 people were killed on India’s roads  in 2010.  The injured are in the millions.

Luckily I hadn’t researched this before we went there and so was surprised when after only an hour being in India to have witnessed a horrific crash when 4 un-helmeted people, two of them small children, and all riding on the one motorbike were nudged off by a passing 4X4 at speed.  However, we never saw anything else in the three weeks we were there, though we were involved in approximately 18000 near misses.

It is true what Judi Dench says in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that you either fight the wave and risk near drowning or you dive through it and rise above and float along which I assume is code for you either let go or go mad. Perversely the accident we witnessed and the revelation that there was nothing whatsoever we could do made us face this choice at the very start and we took the former.

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I fell in love with India within an hour. It was like coming home and the only thing I could compare that to was the coming home feeling that shrooms had instigated when I was a young man. The colours, the vibrancy, the sheer lifeforce was astonishing and breathtaking and it never left me once – nor of course did the noise, the rhythmic beating of the countless and constant horns. They even beep at red lights, so much so that local governments have started erecting countdown signs at junctions to assure drivers that the lights will go to green.

On the 5 hour trip in the back of the taxi to Mysore I successfully managed to decode the beeping system. They don’t beep in anger and I never saw one inkling of road rage. It works like this – as the car or tuk tuk or lorry or bus or motorbike your riding in or on approaches another vehicle, they beep to warn of their approach, they again beep as they are about to pass and again if they think the vehicle ahead wasn’t listening. The vehicle ahead will beep acknowledgement of your beep whilst at the same time beeping ahead to the ones in front and to the sides of him. Once passed, another beep says thanks.  Also beeps are made at any approaching hazard whatsoever, be it a junction, a pedestrian, goat, dog, elephant, drunk or cow of which there is one or the other about every two metres. Each and every vehicle will also add its own beep approaching any one of these hazards and all hazards will ignore all beeping as if it wasn’t occurring – indeed after only three days I was wandering across roads oblivious myself.  So the only word one can realistically use as an adjective is ‘cacophany’

This new car owner took his vehicle to the local temple to be blessed. I saw this a few times and think it a very good idea

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Our driver, presumably delayed by the accidents went faster and faster and demonstrated great skill in multi tasking as he drove at 80 ( I was watching from the back seat), talked constantly on his mobile and all the while partaking in the pastime of the afore mentioned beeping.

By the time we arrived at our first weeks digs I felt as if I’d been strapped in an unstoppable dodgem at Disneyland for 5 hours with the only difference being that the dodgem would have had a seatbelt.

But we’d arrived, I’d fell in love and after a few hours sleep we would experience our first of what would be a hundred plus tuk tuk rides (Think the vehicular equivalent of bungee jumping without the rope bit).