A memorable afternoon… in Bodhgaya, northern India

| February 13, 2019

On Wednesday after breakfast, having distributed another pair of sandals and shirts to the homeless, Richard began to find the heat and the persistent beggars overwhelming, so we returned to the hotel. Later in the day I went for a walk, returning to the giant Buddha statue with my camera. On the way, a young man joined me in conversation.

Great Buddha Statue near Mahabodhi Temple

Bikhram Kumar was a college student on exam leave, awaiting his results in Business Studies. Keen to practise his already fairly fluent English, I learnt that he volunteers at a local school for the blind. He told me that the school was run by a Buddhist monk and offered to show me. Always alert to danger, the school was just a short walk from the main thoroughfare. Another world of tarpaulin-roofed shacks, open sewers and one public water pump, the school consisted of a small room with the Buddha image on one wall and pictures of the Dalai Lama’s visit on another.

On the floor, four blind boys of varying ages sat with a row of younger, shy orphaned boys. The boys practised their English by introducing themselves, giving their age and school class, then offered to perform a well-known Hindi song. Each blind boy accompanied with drums, castanets, accordions or bells. I offered to teach them an English song, hoping to involve the blind boys keeping the beat on their instruments and the shy ones in the actions, copying me. As Richard wasn't there, my performance of the hokey cokey will fortunately not appear on YouTube any time soon! It was a joy to see the youngest boys grin with enjoyment. The next day, they were to become monks and I was invited to join the ceremony in the temple at 8am, but I declined. This is not a lifetime commitment, although some choose to make it so. It provides these orphans with a hostel to live in, food and an education – just as so many British charities, like Barnardo’s, began.  

They mentioned that donations were gratefully received in any currency, but there was no pressure. As I never carry much money on me when out, I offered to return with a UK sterling donation, which I did, and I was given an official written receipt of my donation by the monk in charge. The following morning, I returned with Richard. We gave them clothes and some of Richard's leftover coffee, dried milk, shampoo and a straw hat! The youngest boys gave us a warm greeting, heads shaved and now dressed in their junior monks' saffron coloured robes.

An afternoon's jaunt had given us such a privileged glimpse into their everyday life.

What’s changed between 2004 and 2018?

My first opportunity to visit India was in 2004. My parents had died, leaving me the gift of travelling money. This offered me the means and the determination to fulfil a long-held goal of visiting the holy sites of three world religions. Earlier in 2018, having retired from a lifetime teaching Religious Education, the opportunity arose to introduce a much younger teacher to the same sites. How much had changed in fourteen years, apart from me?

Flying to and from Delhi, we experienced the first of our train journeys to Amritsar. This was the first of several delayed arrivals – "India standard time" continues!

The central streets of Amritsar are now pedestrianised and covered with street art. The traders' stalls are gone and even a vegetarian McDonald’s has arrived. I was prepared for the scale and beauty of the Golden Temple, the self-control of those queuing to enter it and the operation of preparing, serving and clearing food for every single visitor. I noticed the difference in numbers; the world's population has risen in the past fourteen years.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

Our first visit had been on Christmas Day. Never had lunch seemed more fitting than that simple dahl – traditional Indian meal of pulses – and chapatti – Indian flatbread – served to us on the floor, amid humanity from all over the world. This time we declined: others need it more. Hopefully the arrival of shopping malls in India with KFC, Starbucks and Dominos won't seduce shoppers into fast food and accompanying patterns of obesity.

There was no 15-hour train journey to Varanasi in 2018, as we flew. With the arrival of several new airlines offering online deals, professional Indians now fly to reach their destinations, therefore avoiding traffic jams, horn-honking and hair-raising driving techniques. How will this affect air pollution? It was certainly smoother and faster.

Varanasi remains a riot of colour and filth – life and death juxtaposed. We floated on Mother Ganga at dawn, accepting the gift of a new day. Others immersed themselves, washed their clothes and cremated their dead. The ghats on the Ganges are still sacred and after a night of early monsoon rain, the rank detritus of animal and human waste seemed shaming. I wondered how we are caring for our own environment.

We waited for the train to Bodhgaya in the supervised and air-conditioned ‘Women only’ room at the station. Our local agent had to wait outside and was only able to come in to speak to us. This is designed to reduce harassment of women in public places. Any man who entered, even if by error, was given his marching orders immediately by the female supervisor. Although I admired her tigress approach, I still wonder if segregating females with ‘Women only’ sections in the station or on the tube educates men to change their attitudes or just enhances the allure of "the other".

A bomb exploding at the Mahabodhi Temple in 2013 changed Bodhgaya. Now, only cars with permits can enter the town. The Buddhist Monastery Guest House of 2004, where I had requested to stay, has been closed by the government and is now a mediocre hotel. It is within walking distance from the temple complex where Siddhartha Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree, until he gained enlightenment as Buddha.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

In 2004, visitors were able to meander freely into the temple grounds, meditation and praying was self-patrolled and relaxed. Replacing the Welcome Gate, there is now an airport-style security check point. All electric items (tablets, phones and chargers) must be deposited and signed for at an office. Gender queues are formed for frisking before entry and the number of international pilgrims has fallen.

Population increase; environmental pollution; terrorist attack and subsequent increased security – our world has changed since 2004. I have visited India several times since, and I certainly hope to return. To all those unnamed who have shown us hospitality, kindness and graciousness on our way, may those qualities of India continue and be our lasting memory!

Cox & Kings can organise tailor-made travel to Bodhgaya, Amritsar and Varanasi. Please speak to one of our India experts for more information.

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