Sunday, November 11, 2012

Final Reflections on Yatra to Northern India

* Now I've had time to review the trip, I think the highlight remains meditation time under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya.
* The lowest point was throwing up in the space between two carriages of the train.
* The happiest time was meeting fellow travellers, particularly those exploring Buddhism. Erin was my main travel buddy, since we sat next to either other on the train (actually, she was meant to sleep on the bunk above me) and the bus. Others included an incognito Catholic priest, a Zen student priest, a retired Westerner living in Thailand, and many others also from Taiwan (mainly Taipei and Kaohsiung).
* One unfulfilled wish is to see Lumbini in Nepal.
* I would have liked more meditation time also, but I now realise that even short distances in India take time to reach, particularly on country roads.
* I learned about the loss of Buddhism in India, particularly after the 11th century, and about the rediscovery and unearthing of many remains since the 19th century, thanks to mainly British and Burmese exploration and the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). It is a sad loss for the country where the Buddha spent most of his life.
* I also learned that King Ashoka (crowned around 270 BCE) took seven of the original eight sets of relics of the Buddha and re-distributed them into 84,000 portions throughout his kingdom.

* I am grateful to the tour staff (especially Abhay Pandey, Vjiay Kumar and Mr Prateek) who looked after us and our security so well, to my wonderful travel companions (all of whom got on so well together), and to those who have been re-discovering the sites of Buddhism throughout India for our benefit today.
* I thoroughly recommend the Buddhist Circuit Special Train, also called the Maha Parinirvan Express, which is operated by IRCTC (the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation).

Yatra - the Day After: National Museum of India

Sunday 29th January, 2012:
This was my final full day in India. I had a leisurely breakfast, and then took a motorised rickshaw to the National Museum. They had a magnificent Buddhist collection, including a display of more than 12 bone fragments from the Buddha's body. I had to sit quietly and take it in, since it was the first time I have seen actual relics of the Buddha himself. It was mind-blowing to realise the time gap between his death and my seeing his bones over two millennia later.

Yatra in India - Day 8: Agra to Delhi

Saturday 28th January, 2012: (Tour Day 8)
Our final tour day was for sightseeing at the Taj Mahal in Agra. Again, security at this world famous place was very tight – metal detectors, personal pat downs, no candy or gum, no sharp objects, no religious items, etc.) and we had to wear special shoe covers in the main building. Strangely we also had to take a battery bus for the last 500 metres. It was an anti-pollution measure, but the local residents were exempt. Really, for such a short distance, it would have been simpler to walk.
Another minor disaster stuck - my camera's battery was dead, so I couldn't take any photos of the Taj. At least I'll be able to share ones from other travel buddies.
The Taj Mahal is truly amazing. It deserves the accolade of one of the seven wonders of the modern world. It took 22 years to build, having been completed in 1653 CE on the banks of the Yamuna River. It is finished in marble, and features inlays of semi-precious stones, rather than paint, to provide colour. We got a group photo taken to recall the day. I spent as much time as possible walking around the British-planned gardens, the mosque next to it, and the main mausoleum (which houses the tombs of Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal).
From there, we took the train back to Delhi, arriving around 17:30. There were lots of hugs and kisses as we parted company and we received our earlier group photo from the tour leader. Since I hadn't arranged anything specifically and Erin was taking a complimentary cab to her hotel (which was within 500 metres of mine), I shared a lift with her. I will miss Erin. She was a great travelling companion.
This time I got a better quality room which faced the side street, so it was much quieter as well. After dinner in the hotel, I had a short walk around and dropped into an Internet café to check my email, mainly out of curiosity. There were 96 items in the inbox and about 11 spam messages, so I just closed it and left.

Yatra in India - Day 7: Gonda to Agra

Friday 27th January, 2012: (Tour Day 7)
After arriving at Gonda train station, it was another long 65 km bus trip to Shravasti. Here I saw:
* the Jetvana Vihara (where the Buddha gave most of his discourses and spent 24 rainy seasons in residence) within Jeta’s Grove
* Pakki Kuti (a stupa commemorating Angulimala)
* the Anand Bodhi tree (an offspring of the Bodhgaya one) and
* Sehat Mahet
Following lunch, we visited the local Vipassanâ centre run by Buddhist nuns from Thailand. They were very strict - no photos inside, a very long barefoot walk to the main building, washing the feet on arrival, etc.). However, they had a beautiful meditation hall and I was able to sit for about twenty minutes in peace.
We then spent two hours returning by bus to the train for dinner and a sleep ahead of the 450 km trip overnight to Agra.

Yatra in India - Day 6: Sick in Kushinagar

Thursday 26th January, 2012: (Tour Day 6)
Disaster struck today (India National Day). I was too sick to travel to Nepal, so I missed seeing Lumbini (where the Buddha was born), staying at the hotel instead. Sadly they charged me 4,500 rupees for the room and another 1,200 rupees for the taxi back to the train station that night (totalling US$154). Since I didn't have enough cash, and they didn't accept credit cards (how strange is that?), they took me by car to the nearest ATM machine several kilometres away. I also attempted to see the same doctor later, but the clinic was closed for the holiday.
My taxi got me to the train station at 20:00 and the driver rang the tour contact to advise this and confirm where I should wait. By 22:00 I was getting worried that I might miss the train (it was scheduled to leave then). Fortunately, at 22:30 someone turned up and got me on board - the last passenger to do so.

Yatra in India - Day 5: Kushinagar

Wednesday 25th January, 2012: (Tour Day 5)
I didn't sleep much on the train, so I felt quite weak after arriving at the hotel in Kushinagar. As there was some free time in the morning, I slept a couple of hours and then went to see a doctor at a local hospital. It is a charitable Thai Buddhist centre run on donations and offering free treatment to all. The doctor gave me four different tablets to take, including antibiotics, and charged only 45 rupees (less than US$1). I managed to walk around the Matha-Kuar Shrine (housing a 10th century bluestone Buddha statue from Gaya) and the Mahaparinirvan temple (where the Buddha passed into nirvana) - thinking I was almost ready to join him! – and then walked back to sleep for the rest of the afternoon. The temple, built in 1956, houses a great 1500-year-old statue of the Buddha resting in the lion’s pose. At dinner I had a small meal and gave in my papers for the Nepal visa. I was really hoping to feel better the next day.

Yatra in India - Day 4: Varanasi & Sarnath to Gorakhpur

Tuesday 24th January, 2012: (Tour Day 4)
The train sped overnight to reach Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world, and one of the major pilgrimage sites for Hindus. From there it was a short bus ride of 13 kms to Sarnath (now considered an outer suburb) where the Buddha gave his first sermon (turned the wheel of Dhamma), and where the Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. I enjoyed seeing:
* the deer park (with authentic 2,500 year old deer! just kidding)
* the Dhamekh Stupa (built between 4th to 2nd century BCE)
* the Sarnath Museum (photos not allowed inside) which included the Buddha statue removed from the nearby ruins)
* the Ashokan pillar (broken into four pieces, with the top carved lions missing) and
* the Chaukhandi Stupa (1 km away, built in 1588, which apparently marks where the Buddha first encountered his five companions and convinced them that he had become fully enlightened, and where in 2012 we took a group photo of our tour)
On the way back to the hotel for lunch we saw an interesting procession through the streets - a Seik celebration – of dancing, singing, carrying large water vessels, various dignitaries on horse-drawn carriages - as well as a car ferrying a dead person on its roof to the Ganges. As I was not feeling well, I did not join the group going to the Ganges River that evening for Aarti. Apparently there were three cremations on the nearby ghats at the same time. That night we took the train 224 kms to Gorakhpur and I vomited twice.

Yatra in India - Day 3: Rajgir and Nalanda

Monday 23rd January, 2012: (Tour Day 3)
Thankfully I did sleep quite well. After breakfast we checked out and left at 08:00 for the 85 km bus trip to Rajgir. Before leaving Bodhgaya we went past many Tibetan refugee spots set up to assist them survive in India. Due to poor road conditions, including railway crossings and single-lane bridges, the trip took 2 1/2 hours.
Rajgir is an amazing place. Rather than take the skyway, we took the many, many steps leading up to Vulture's Peak (Griddhkuta), which also includes some smaller caves and scenic views over the surrounding hills. The Peak was one place the Buddha meditated and delivered some of his famous sermons. Later we passed Bimbimsara's Jail (where the King was imprisoned and later killed at his son’s hand), the hill (Vaibhar Hill) where the first Buddhist Council was held (sometime between 543 and 483 BCE) shortly after Buddha’s death to compile the teachings, and walked through Venuvan (bamboo grove) where the first monastery was built, thus allowing the monks to settle in one place, and where the Buddha spent three rainy seasons delivering many important discourses. The original monastery is yet to be excavated due to a dispute, and only the pond remains of the earliest features.
We returned to the hotel for lunch and to freshen up. I noticed a nice statue downstairs.
Another 1 1/2 hours or so on the bus took us to the remains of Nalanda University. It was founded in the 4th century C.E. and thrived until the 12th century when it was ransacked by the invading Turks, who killed hundreds of students and teachers, torched the huge library (over 9 million volumes) and destroyed most of the buildings. It rests in a wonderful 35-acre park, and includes Sariputta's Stupa which is now a World Heritage Site. Nalanda was one of the world’s first residential universities, and there is now a new one not far away. The Buddha visited the area several times, and here Sâriputta uttered his “lion’s roar” of faith in the Buddha.
After refreshments at the same hotel we took a bone-jarring three hour bus ride back to Gaya train station. Around 22:00 we finally ate dinner, and just after midnight the train departed for Varanasi.

Yatra in India - Day 2: Bodhgaya

Sunday 22nd January, 2012: (Tour Day 2)
I had a rough first night on the train, with little sleep due to the almost constant rocking and some heavy breaking of the train. At least the breakfast was nice. Since we arrived 1 1/2 hours late at Gaya station, the tour leader took us straight to the hotel by bus where we checked into a nice room with bath, I washed my clothes, showered and had lunch.
We then took the short trip to Bodhgaya. The places visited were:
* the giant Japanese Buddha statue and temple
* the Bhutanese monastery
* the Tibetan temple
* Niranjana River (now mostly a dry river bed, which I crossed onto) in which the Buddha bathed
* the Sujata Stupa (apparently the spot of Sujata’s home – the girl who fed the Bodhisattva rice pudding before his Awakening) and
* the Kusha Grass Temple (where an old buffalo herder offered Siddhartha a bundle of grass to use as a cushion before his enlightenment)
By far the biggest highlight was the Mahâ Bodhi Temple (the place where Siddhartha reached enlightenment) which includes an Ashokan pillar, the Mucalinda Lake (recalling where it is said a giant cobra sheltered the Buddha from the first rains some six weeks after becoming enlightened), and the Bodhi tree or “ficus religiosa” (a descendent of the original brought back from Sri Lanka). The temple was built around the 4th century CE. It was very busy, with many monks chanting, hundreds of people showing devotion by circling the grounds three times clockwise, and lots of hawkers outside. For me, being able to sit under the Bodhi tree and meditate undisturbed for almost 30 minutes was truly superb - among the best moments of the entire journey, in fact. Of course, the Buddha, after achieving enlightenment, spent one week standing nearby simply gazing at the tree out of gratitude, so I couldn’t match that.
In the evening we had dinner back at the hotel and an overnight stay. I did my best to dry my washing (sat them on the bed under a ceiling fan) and to have a decent night's sleep.

Yatra in India - Day 1: Delhi to Gaya

Saturday 21st January, 2012: (Tour Day 1)
After another disturbed night at the hotel (due to internal and external noise) I checked out and took a taxi to meet the Buddhist Circuit Special Train, also called the Maha Parinirvan Express, which is operated by IRCTC (the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation). The driver had never heard of the station (Safdurjung) before (it was only used for specialised, private trips, not local ones), so he stopped four times to ask for directions before finally arriving on the wrong side of the tracks. Fortunately there was a pedestrian overpass to cross, so I made it in good time.
At 14:00 I was met by some of my fellow passengers (mostly from the US, Canada, Thailand, India and other Asian countries), a 3-piece traditional band of musicians (playing drums and horns) and officials from the tour company. The latter gave me a red bindhi on my forehead and a fragrant, orange floral wreath around my neck.
The waiting train seemed quite pleasant, though aging somewhat. It was air-conditioned, with good food and snacks. Best of all, it was less than half full, meaning I wasn't limited to my small bed. So I could put my baggage on the top bunk and sit/sleep on the lower one.
We set off at 15:00 on schedule. I enjoyed seeing the countryside (after two days in the city). I saw many contrasts between rich and poor, many green fields under cultivation, and the quieter and simpler lifestyle of the villages. There was no sightseeing as the night was spent travelling some 990 kms to Gaya, which was the furthest most point of the trip.

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