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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

Searching for India's Sacred Heart (ive)

INDIA | Tuesday, 27 October 2009 | Views [3592] | Comments [4]

Hindu deity, Shiva, holds court over the aarti on the Ganges in Rishikesh

Hindu deity, Shiva, holds court over the aarti on the Ganges in Rishikesh

We've been out of blog touch for a while, we know -- but this quickly thrown together, yet astoundingly comprehensive (would you expect any less from us???) account of our weeks exploring India will detail why much time for documenting has been lacking. We are about to leave for three weeks of trekking in the Himalaya in Nepal -- and will get photos up of the end of the India journey when we get back. Our best and all of our love to all of you!!


After my month volunteering in Ladakh and Miral's month volunteering in Kolkata, the plan was to meet up in Dharamsala – a town in the foothills of the Himalaya that has become the home-in-exile to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government, and scores of Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese oppression. As a result, it has also become a mecca for spirituality-seeking Western tourists. The original plan was for Miral to fly across India, from Kolkata to Delhi and then Delhi up to Dharamsala -- and for me to complete a two-day jeep ride from Ladakh to Manali, over spectacular Himalayan terrain including the second-highest drivable mountain pass in the world, and then hop a bus from Manali to Dharamsala. But after a month apart that was after seven months of near inseparable travels, a three-day wait felt too long as August came to a close. I bought plane tickets to arrive in Delhi ahead of Miral with a plan to surprise her as she walked off the plane – and got ticketed on her same flight from Delhi to Dharamsala. It was to be a great reunion – and it would have been if not for the first thick fog to roll into Leh on just the day I was leaving. With only two daily flights out of Leh, both happening in the early morning (because the two-gate airport closes by 11am each day!), the fog quickly cancelled all flights. It ended up that Miral successfully flew from Kolkata to Delhi, but the fog also prevented her flight into Dharamsala. So, she was stranded in Delhi and I was stranded in Leh. Luckily the reunion was delayed only one day. We met at the Delhi airport the next day, the surprise having been revealed by email. After a lot of hugs and kisses and smiles and beginnings of stories, we hopped our flight to Dharamsala.


DharamsalaAfter doing a lot of research from Kolkata, Miral had booked several days at the Norbu Guest House at the Norbulinga Institute in the valley that is the outskirts of Dharamsala (located midway up a small mountain) and McLeod Ganj (the touristy neighborhood of Dharamsala that tops the mountain). The grounds were beautiful – serene and expansive gardens for strolling and sitting, buildings (including a  huge Buddhist gompa [temple] that are a modern take on traditional Tibetan style, and a garden cafe serving up excellent momos (Tibetan dumplings), thukpa (Tibetan soup), and tenthuk (soup with homemade broad noodles). We lingered on the grounds for a few days, sharing stories and photos of our month apart, and rejuvenating for the push into the second half of our 14-months of travel. We also explored the Institute workshops – the main mission of the Institute is training young Tibetan refugees in traditional Tibetan craftsmanship, like woodworking, sculpting metal statues of religious icons, and painting thankas (traditional iconic wall-hangings). We loved our time there. Nearby, we also spent some time at a Tibetan monastery and a Tibetan nunnery. And up in McLeod Ganj, we wandered around the Dalai Lama's Tsuglagkhang monastery that was built to replace a beloved monastery in Tibet, cried our way through museums documenting the violent destruction of the Tibetan culture by China, and took in the beautiful mountain views. And, of course, we ate lots and lots and lots of momos – of every flavor, shape, and size – and when we felt we had tried every momo in town, we took a momo cooking class so that we will never have to be momo-free again!


After a week or so in Dharamsala, we boarded a pre-dawn bus and made the eight hour ride west to Amritsar in the Punjab. We weren't quite sure what we'd find there, but I had read that the city boasts a Sikh Golden Temple that “rivals the Taj Mahal in its stunning beauty.” Sounded like something worth seeing. Despite the sizable Sikh population in Seattle and some vague awareness that the tradition attempts to “merge” Hinduism and Islam, I felt embarrassingly ignorant about the Sikh religion. So this would also be a chance to learn.


After arriving and a bus-recovering nap took us through sundown, we walked the few congested and active streets from our hostel over to the Golden Temple. We deposited our shoes in a downstairs repository as required. At the entrance to the temple, we washed our hands in a porcelain sink and walked through a trough of moving water to cleanse our feet and climbed a few steps to the entrance. We watched the people around us bend, touch their hand to the raised floor archway, and kiss their hand before climbing over, so we did the same to show our respect and walked through the entrance hall. We found ourselves about twenty steps above a marble floor and a body of water shimmering in the night lights. We began to walk down the steps. Only later did we find out that the descent into the temple, rather that the typical ascent into a temple or church, is meant to symbolize God's immanence in this world. And that temple entrances from each of the four directions are meant to symbolize the temple's openness to people of all religions and all castes.


We watched people drop into prostrations as they arrived at the marble floor below the steps. Even as we knew their prostrations must have specific religious significance, the scene made prostrating seem like a completely organic expression. Under our feet was smooth, perfect marble with beautiful geometric designs inlaid that lined a huge courtyard; in the middle of this walkway was an equally huge tank of sparkling water (Amrit Sarovar, or Pool of Nectar); the walkway was filled with pilgrims – most walking around the water, some sitting on the edge and gazing out at the water, and a few bathing in the water; at one end of the tank was a walkway over the water that led to a stunning, mind-stopping golden temple; and from that temple were emitting beautiful kirtans (chants) that filled the air throughout the temple with incredible sweetness. In fact, the entire scene can only be described as sweet. A very soft sacredness permeated the place and instantaneously overwhelmed both Miral and I.


Over the course of the night, we circumambulated the courtyard with the pilgrims, followed them into the Golden Temple where they/we filed past the kirtan musicians and made our way to a platform where the pilgrims took handfuls of the tank water, sacred to them, and sipped it (we skipped the sipping!) and washed it over their head, and exited as we were handed a very sweet paste to accept as a blessing from the experience. We sat at the edge of the walkway, staring at the water, and soaking in the ambiance. And after we were befriended by some Indian boys, we went with them to the langar for a community dinner where, in silence, lines of pilgrims sat on the floor with plates and servers passed through the lines depositing delicious vegetables, rice, dhal, and chapattis. The langar is an essential feature of all Sikh temples offering meals to any and all comers who need or want – an overt rejection of the Hindu caste system in which only certain people are allowed to dine together. And with 400,000 daily visitors to the Golden Temple, it doesn't take long to realize the enormity of the task of having food on hand for all.


We left that night filled with an amazed joy at this incredible treasure we had found. Our time in Amritsar brought a few other finds – exploring a nearby Hindu Silver Temple, wandering through the market streets, and having a long conversation with an American Sikh from Espanola, New Mexico, who is a part of a thriving western Sikh community there. But we couldn't resist returning each day to the Golden Temple. We returned during our second day to experience the Temple in daylight and to explore its museum – and returned one last time on our last night in Amritsar as dusk settled in, hours before we boarded a train for Haridwar, so that we could leave this Holy Mecca of the Sikhs with a full taste of its sweetness in our mouths.


HaridwarLeaving Amritsar, we boarded our first Indian train with excitement for the first taste of this “must-do” experience. We'd planned to travel “First Class A/C” the first time and then ease our way into lower class train cars for more of the true Indian experience, but the universe pushed us in the pool when First Class was sold out. We ended up in a “Second Class Sleeper” car that we were only able to find with the assistance of a kind Sikh man who decided it was his mission to get us to our seats. We arrived to find two benches facing each other, each seating three people. Each bench had another bench high above it and a middle-height bench that could be folded out, so that all three of the people could lie down to sleep. Miral quickly climbed up into one of the top bunks and was out like a light. I mistakenly decided to read and allowed the other top bunk to be taken. The problem is that the middle bunk can only be folded down once the person in the bottom bunk has agreed to go to sleep because when the middle bunk is open there isn't enough room to sit on the bottom bench. And the three other Indian guys in our section decided that this night was the perfect night to catch up on the last few decades of life, or something. Clearly losing something in translation (because they were friendly enough guys), each time I asked them if we could go to sleep soon, they replied, “No. No sleep.” So I sat reading until about 3am before we finally opened the benches and I fell asleep to the classic nasal cries of “Chai? Chai?” from the tea boys circulating the train. If not for the 3am bedtime, both Miral and I agreed that Second Class Sleeper was surprisingly comfortable and  would suit us fine on the journey ahead.


The next morning we finished our eastward journey and arrived in Haridwar, where the Ganges River leaves the Himalaya to spread its holy waters all over India. It is one of the holiest Hindu cities in India. We had read that most Westerners quickly depart Haridwar for nearby Rishikesh, also a holy city and much more tourist friendly. In fact, a Westerner quickly approached us at the train station to ask about sharing a ride to Rishikesh. When we told him we were staying in Haridwar, he replied, “Good luck with this place!” In some ways, the response was understandable. Haridwar is not an easy city for tourists. Its streets are classic Indian chaos – with full sized taxis, two sizes of auto rickshaws, and bicycle rickshaws all trying to share the unpaved and potholed roads with hundreds of pilgrims on foot – not to mention meandering cows and scampering monkeys! Its people seemed happy to take full advantage of the few ignorant Westerners (as well as the thousands of Indians here for Yatra, a traditional pilgrimage period), charging exorbitant prices for hotel rooms, taxi rides, food, and internet use.


But underneath all of the discomforts of Haridwar, we found a vibrant city that provided us a wonderful first introduction to Hinduism. On one day, we set out for a distant area of town along the Holy Ganges River (called “Maa (mother) Ganga” or simply “the Ganga” by Indians) in search of an ashram where we hoped to spend a few days doing yoga and learning more about Hinduism. The ashrams ended up a disappointment, but the area was chock full of temples and wandering pilgrims, so we spent the day wandering ourselves. We viewed temples ranging from ornate candy-colored spires, to simple white boxes, to giant carved-stone buildings and walking with pilgrims wearing clothes that ranged from typical Indian attire, like men in kurtas (long shirts) and dotis (fabric wrapped in a skirt-like way), to bright orange kurtas and dotis, to men wearing loin cloths, caked in ash, with elaborate face paints. We completely loved the day – but also felt incredibly ignorant about Hinduism and what we were seeing.


We spent another day wandering around the temples in the city proper – including the Mansa Devi Temple on a high hilltop above the city that was reached by a Disneyland-style cable car, in which our prasad (traditional offering of various items, like incense, flower petals, a coconut, rice puffs, etc., usually in a container made of leaves) was methodically disassembled and sorted into piles of items by workers in front of the shrine, and from which we had to avoid food-stealing monkeys on the climb back down the hill.


And each of our two nights in Haridwar were spent on the Ganga at the Har-Ki-Pairi ghat (a ghat is a platform or steps allowing access to the river) aarti ceremony. Aarti is a fire offering celebration held at dusk that involves fire lamps, chanting, releasing prasad (offerings to the Ganga of light, flowers, and incense held in little boats made from large leaves) and, for most of the locals, bathing in the Ganga – which is not easy at a spot where the currents are very strong as the river rushes out of the Himalaya. The first night, we were inadvertently snookered into being “helped” to offer our prasad and then “blessed” for a long life of health and happiness – all for a slightly exorbitant charge. Still, we loved the experience and the incredible level of excitement and joy that filled the massive crowd for a ceremony that occurs every night. As the ceremony ended, the skies opened and the rain fell – and we made our way, soaked, for dinner at Choti Walla – an Indian food institution that would be our source of delicious thalis (meals of small portions of a variety of Indian dishes and breads) throughout our days in Haridwar and Rishikesh. Somehow, we also ended up being interviewed by a TV reporter from Chennai about why we attended the aarti at all. We returned to the aarti again the next night, savvy to the blessing touts, and found a space in the crowd where we could more fully take in the scenes and feel the wild and chaotic jubilance.


RishikeshAfter a few days in Haridwar, we finally made the inevitable trip north to “the yoga capital” of Rishikesh – and quickly discovered that it is a more popular tourist destination than Haridwar for reasons beyond its fame as the site the Beatles discovered Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and wrote the White Album. It is more of a town than a city, spread out into several neighborhoods that line the Ganga with a string of restaurants, souvenir stands, bookstores, and, of course, ashrams. On our first night, we attended the aarti ceremony at the famous Parmarth Ashram, sitting on steps leading to the Ganges with many locals and plenty of photo snapping tourists, listening to an hour or so of sweet chants before people released their prasad into the Ganga. It was a much calmer and somewhat more serious scene than the raucous Haridwar aarti. We spent some of our early time in Rishikesh exploring the ashrams, still hoping to find a place to do some yoga – but nothing was really grabbing us. Then, sickness set in. After months of travel with not much more than a cold or a mild tummy ache to slow us down, Miral went down with a flu/stomach virus. Luckily, we were in a pretty cozy hotel and Miral rested her time away.


On one of the days that Miral rested in bed, I made a beautiful pilgrimage to Neelkantha Mahadev, a temple to the god Shiva located 14 kilometers high in the hills above Rishikesh. It was a beautiful walk that included being befriended by many, many Indians along the way who all wanted to know who the lone white guy making this very traditional pilgrimage was. As is tradition, I carried with me a small jug of water collected from the Ganga and poured it over the Shiva linga (a rock that symbolizes Shiva) at the temple. The highlight of the visit to the temple was being walked through the appropriate worship rituals by several elderly Indians at a tree enshrined in the temple – they helped me to rub vermilion on the tree, showed me how to circle it with a fire lamp, and helped me to recite the appropriate chants – and then smiled with deep joy at watching their millennia old practices being performed by someone for the first time. The next day, though, the flu/stomach virus claimed me as its next victim – and Miral and I spent the next few days lying around at the hotel, watching re-runs of Friends and mediocre movies. At least one of the movies was Slumdog Millionaire, which was not out yet before we left the US – and seemed to be the perfect movie to watch in India.


As the bug symptoms dissipated and we slowly returned to the world outside the hotel, we stumbled upon advertising for a week-long yoga retreat at an ashram on the Ganga a few kilometers outside of Rishikesh. We looked at the ashram's website and decided that the Chatti Phool retreat would be a great chance to experience ashram life. So, with about ten or twelve Western tourists and a handful of  fairly Westernized Indians, we spent the next week enjoying mornings of silence that included meditation, physical purification practices (most especially, use of a netti pot to clean out our nasal passages by pouring water into one nostril and allowing it to drip out the other), Pranayama (breathing exercises), 90 minutes of yoga asanas (the physical yoga most Westerners are familiar with), and a contemplative walk to one of the many nearby spots of incredible natural beauty. We spent the afternoons and evenings in discussions about Hinduism and yoga practices, completing another 90 minutes of yoga asanas, more  Pranayama practices, singing kirtans at an evening temple service, and finishing the day with more meditation. Meals were served, in silence, in the style we had discovered at Amritsar's Golden Temple, with us sitting on the floor in rows and thalis served to us by servers walking down the rows and pouring the food from large pots onto our plates. For me, most of the retreat was a really welcomed chance to more deeply explore Hindu practices and traditions – and the yoga asanas were a chance to see how incredibly inflexible this almost forty-year-old body has become.


Having spent two weeks in Rishikesh, about five days more than originally planned, we decided to abandon our plans to visit the pink city of Jaipur  and decided to head directly to Agra and our chance to visit the must-see Taj Mahal. We took a cab from the ashram back to Haridwar, where we got a little sleep before an early train to Agra. We arrived in Agra mid-day and after a rare disappointment in a Lonely Planet hotel recommendation, settled into a guest house – splurging on one that had much needed air conditioning! After a week in the ashram, the stifling heat was definitely getting to us. We dropped our bags and immediately made our way up to the hotel's rooftop restaurant for our first glimpse at the famed Taj Mahal. And it is as beautiful as everyone says – somehow emanating energies of both sweetness and strength. It was a bit boxier than the picture in my imagination – in fact, it is exactly as wide as it is high. We stood marveling at the white marble beauty and the huge red gate that leads to it, both standing high above the meager Agra skyline.


We spent the entire next day at the mausoleum built by a Moghul king upon the death of his favorite wife that is the Taj Mahal, wandering through its halls ornately decorated in marble carving and marble inlay and exploring the small museum, but mostly just admiring the building from every angle and, as they day ended, watching the marble change colors as the sun set. We topped the day off with drinks at Agra's finest hotel and an attempt at a traditional Moghul dinner – until we realized that, as Muslims and not Hindus, all of their food included meat. The next day we explored the massive Agra Fort – another incredible testament to Moghul architecture and wandered through the old town's Kinari Bazaar, eating amazing samosas and watching the chaos of sari sales.


We realized only after arriving in Agra that we would overlap there with my parents, who were finishing up a two-week organized tour of India before meeting up with us for an additional two weeks of travel. We had planned to meet them in Varanasi a few days later, but since they arrived in Agra that evening, we surprised them at their hotel and enjoyed a great dinner sharing stories of our various adventures in India. Then Miral and I ended our quick stop in Agra and, after realizing we had missed the train we had bought tickets for, caught another overnight train east to see the famous city of Varanasi.


The train we caught at the last minute was sold out of Second Class Sleeper tickets, so we rode General Second Class, which meant no fold down bench to stretch out on, which meant sleeping sitting up, which meant not much sleep. We arrived in Varanasi the next afternoon. We wound our way through the alleys of the old city, led for twenty minutes by a taxi driver looking for an extra tip, only to find out later that the walk should have taken five minutes. Anyway, we were content with our hotel, close to the famous Varanasi ghats where Hindus bathe in the Holy Ganga and cremate their dead. We ate some food and quickly crashed. We were not yet aware of the wild holiness that the city would unveil to us in the days ahead.


The next day we took a walk along the ghats at midday, where we met more people trying to sell us a massage than Ganga bathers. But we did make our way down to Manikarnika ghat (also known as the Burning Ghat). Between the attempts of touts to sell us a tour of the ghat or sell us seating in a viewing area, we watched covered body after covered body being brought down, laid onto carefully arranged piles of wood, covered with more wood, and lit ablaze. If not for the occasional limb being revealed in the flames and the apparent mourners who sat and stared at the pyres (all men, by the way – women now rarely attend cremations in an effort to end the age-old practice of widows throwing themselves onto the funeral pyre of their husband), it would not be clear what was happening. Body after body. An endless flow because in traditional Hindu belief, to die in Varanasi, the Holy City ruled by Lord Shiva, is to instantly achieve moksha, or liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. Many Hindus travel in their old age to Varanasi so that they will die there. Others take vows from an earlier age to never leave the confines of the city so that whenever death arrives, they will die in Varanasi and achieve liberation.


After wandering the streets of Varanasi for the rest of the day, we returned to the ghats for the evening aarti. The steps of the ghat where it took place were jam packed – mainly with Indian pilgrims there for yatra, but also with locals who attend such events whenever possible, as well as a few scattered tourists and tour groups. In addition to the ghats, the Ganga around the ghat was filled with onlookers sitting in boats. The Varanasi aarti was very much distinct from the aarti ceremonies in both Haridwar and Rishikesh. It included the Hindu chants characterizing the others, but here six or seven men stood on platforms that each included a shrine and engaged in a synchronized waving of their fire-lamps that was really beautiful. The night was made more fun by being joined by a few Indian boys – two young local post-card touts and one adolescent pilgrim from another town – who talked to us about Varanasi and their life in India – and only at the end of the night tried to get us into a tea shop where they would probably get a commission on any purchases we made.


But for sure, the most amazing experience in Varanasi was taking the famed dawn boat ride up and down the Ganga while literally hundreds upon hundreds of local people performed their morning ritual of bathing in the Holy Waters of the river that is believed to descend directly from heaven. The whole scene was incredible – the soft glowing light of sunrise, the feeling of being out on the water, the mammoth steps and steeples of the endless line of ghats, and all of these people joyfully bathing. Baths that began with eyes closed, prayers on the lips, and cupped hands pulling and then pouring water from the river – that then turned to soap suds and furious skin and scalp scratching. A beautiful mix of the so-called  “sacred” and “profane” that makes clear that the profane is, in fact, sacred.


On a side trip from Varanasi, we spent one day in Sarnath, one of four pilgrimage sites Buddhists visit in re-tracing the life of the Buddha, for this is where he first turned the wheel of dharma, offering teachings for the first time after achieving enlightenment. The first highlight of the day, actually, was unexpectedly running into my parents' tour group as we entered the town's museum. So we got to tour the museum together, which included an ancient stone rendition of the Buddha with his hands in the teaching mudra which was unearthed in the town. After saying goodbye to my parents and their friends, we walked around the brick stupa that some say marks the spot where the first sermon was offered; it was in fairly poor repair, with only small portions of the original detail still visible. We also walked through the ruins of a temple beside it, built by Ashoka, an ancient emperor of India who adored the teachings of the Buddha, ruled the nation based on the Buddhist way, and oversaw a period in which Buddhism flourished in India. Of course, that didn't last and Buddhism was all but driven out of India by Hindus and Muslims alike. In fact, if not for the diligent work of the Mahabodhi Society, based in Sri Lanka, to return to glory the great Buddhist pilgrimage sites of India at the turn of the last century, even the decayed stupa and temple ruins would not be able to be visited. Their work is honored at a beautiful Sarnath Temple which houses a golden version of the ancient stone teaching Buddha we saw at the museum, The temple is set beside a Bodhi tree that is a relative of the one under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment – for a  fifty rupee bribe, the guard allowed me past gates to touch the tree and retrieve a leaf that had fallen from it. The plaza around the tree beautifully displays the Buddha's first sermon in twenty or so languages, and the gates are decorated with prayer flags from many countries. The Mahabodhi Temple and plaza around the Bodhi tree are just a few of the signs that Sarnath is a thriving pilgrimage site again – just about every country with a Buddhist population has built a monastery and temple in the town. So we spent the rest of the day meandering from temple to temple, enjoying the different ways of depicting the Buddha and of honoring shrines to him in each nation. At the final temple we visited, the Japanese Zen temple, a huge crowd of adults and children were being blessed by the priest. We spoke to them later and found out that they were a small community of Indian Buddhists on pilgrimage. With such communities  – and with the influx of Tibetan Buddhist refugees – it seems possible that the Buddhadharma will make a comeback in India someday.


After about five days of taking in Varanasi, the final day of my parents' tour finally arrived. We left our pleasant, but simple and mildly run-down hotel in the old city and made our way to the 'fancy part of town' and the much more typical Western hotel my parents had arranged for us to meet at. We spent a few days there, catching up with one another on life and our various adventures on the road, especially comparing notes on our experiences in India. Miral and I also took advantage of the relative luxury of our new digs – especially enjoying some time around the swimming pool! We hadn't been in a swimming pool since Melissa and Scott's wedding in Colombia way back in January. It was great.


But after a few days of luxuriating, it was time for some real adventure to begin. The plan my parents had devised for visiting India – a place nearly every friend they have said was crazy for them to visit – was to spend their first two weeks on an organized tour to take in the basics of the country and get acclimated to the Indian ways. But when they met up with us they wanted to try their hand at traveling a little more like the way we typically do. So, we started them off with a pre-dawn visit to the train station and a proper ride on the Indian railway. (Of course, the ride in the SUV from the hotel to the train station and riding the train 'First-Class/AC' was not our typical style – but we had to start slowly!) As much as they loved the train ride, they really seemed to have fun when the four of us crammed into a motorickshaw and bounced our way in the open air for the thirty-minute ride from Gaya, where the train station was, to Bodhgaya, site of the Buddha's enlightenment.


Again, with the hope of doing things more interestingly and spontaneously, we all agreed to stay at one of the monasteries in Bodhgaya that provides a guest house on their grounds. The Lonely Planet description of the Bhutanese monastery sounded great, and as a country I have dreamed of visiting but will not get to this year, it seemed perfect. Well, perfect except for the status of the accommodations that were even a little dirtier and inhospitable than most places Miral and I had been staying. But my brave parents were gung-ho to give it a try anyway. After one pretty sleepless night on the rock hard mattress, though, they became more sensible and we agreed to change locations. Before we left, though, we were invited to a delicious lunch by the Head Lama of the monastery, Lama Dorje, where we enjoyed traditional Bhutanese curry over a really delightful conversation about Bhutan and the lama's life.


We explored a few standard hotels in town, but my parents' adventurousness got the better of them again, and we agreed to give a try to a Buddhist retreat center run by a Gelukpa Tibetan Buddhist group, called Root Wisdom Institute. The rooms were simple but clean – and they even had a room with AC. It worked out perfectly and we stayed there the duration. Each day Miral and I awoke to an early morning meditation session in the gompa (temple) and my parents awoke admiring the beautiful gardens and grounds, dotted with Buddha statues and stupas, outside their window. Each day we also ate a retreat-style simple breakfast in silence in their outdoor dining area. I think we all fell in love with the morning ritual that began our daily explorations of the town.


Much of our time in Bodhgaya was spent in Sarnath-like temple-hopping since, again, nearly every Buddhist nation on earth has a monastery at the site of the Buddha's enlightenment – another of the four great Buddhist pilgrimage sites. We were all especially blown away by the Thai Temple. And my parents braved the temple-hopping by walking, motorickshaws, and bicycle rickshaws – no more tour buses for them! We also made an interesting journey out to some nearby caves where the Buddha is said to have attempted extreme asceticism and bodily deprivation before realizing his Middle Way between indulgence and denial was more appropriate – and did our best to manage the most persistent and mildly harassing group of beggars that followed us most of the way up to and down from the caves.


But the highlight of Bodhgaya was definitely the World Heritage site Mahabodhi Temple -- the grand temple built on the spot where the Buddha sat beneath the Bodhi tree, meditated, fought threw the demons within him, and came threw realizing the nature of the human mind and the nature of human reality. The temple was built in the 6th century AD on the spot of a destroyed temple built by Ashoka, but stone railings around it are original and date back to around 100 BC. It apparently fell into disarray and was at one point manned by Hindu Brahmins (priests), but, again, the work of the Mahabodhi Society has returned the place to amazing glory. The temple is completely surrounded by stupas and other monuments honoring the Buddha and his dharma in the styles of all nations from all times. The walk up to the temple is lined with ancient shrines – and the temple itself houses a beautiful golden Buddha of an early Indian style.


But the center of everyone's attention is the Vajrasahn (Diamond Throne), a decorated slab marking where the Buddha sat in meditation, and the immense Bodhi tree that shades it. The tree is a relative of the original as, at least legend has it, Ashoka's wife burned the original in jealousy of his love for the Buddha. The spot elicits incredible devotion – robed monks and lay people of every nation sit and read sutras (teachings) or prostrate or meditate or just sit and stare and contemplate the importance of the insights that were gained by one man on that spot. At one point, my father and I sat and watched a thirty-something Asian couple (maybe Japanese) helping a 90-something woman (probably their grandmother) shuffle in her walker to circumambulate the temple in traditional style – and then stopping at a gap in the fencing around the Bodhi tree – and helping her shaking hands to rest on the trunk. The look on her close-eyed face emanated the sudden relaxed joy that comes from a sacred, life-long desire finally fulfilled – and my mind flashed back to my days at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where that same feeling had overwhelmed me so long ago. Whether it is all in the mind of the believer or whether certain places on the earth really do possess holy magic, I am still amazed at the capacity of such places to elicit what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called I-Thou experiences – where the sense of self melts away into the infinite net of interconnection of all that has ever been. I left after our second visit to the place, feeling very lucky and very blessed, especially in the incomprehensibility that I had somehow shared this unlikely experience with my parents.


Yes, my parents. Our tale of Bodhgaya is definitely not complete without a recap of our return to Varanasi. Due to a mistake in booking, Miral and I had bought tickets on an overnight train back to Varanasi. We had no problem with overnight trains – but it seemed like it would be a nightmare for my parents who seem to rarely get a good night sleep these days even within the comforts of their own bedroom! But, being the adventurous troopers they are, they insisted on keeping the tickets. So, we asked the Root Wisdom Institute to arrange for us a motorickshaw to pick us up at 8pm to take us to the train station. When we arrived at the gate, the guard said that the rickshaw had come at 7 and left because we were not there. He agreed to call again – and as long as he was doing so, I asked him for a full taxi rather than a rickshaw – it was dark and that seemed more sensible. He assured us a taxi would come in ten minutes. Well, forty minutes later no taxi arrived, but two rickshaws did. We loaded into one and sped off for the train we were beginning to feel late for – only to have the driver stop a few blocks later for “phone call.” “No phone call!” each of the four of us yelled out. We explained we were late for our train and must go. He asked, “Railway? Gaya?” as if he had no idea where we were heading – then nodded – then sped off – and then proceeded to ask again every ten minutes or so, “Railway? Gaya?” leaving us all fairly convinced he had no idea what he was doing. The twenty minute ride seemed to go on for thirty minutes, then forty minutes, and in the darkness of the night I struggled to read street signs to make sure we were heading in the right direction. And then we hit a massive truck convoy that had us stuck motionless in the traffic, while all of the noises and chaos of an Indian street at night encircled our rickshaw – and the visions of an awful night in a Gaya hotel began to run through all of our minds.


The rickshaw driver finally got us to the railway station and somehow we had not missed our train. Although we almost did when the train arrived, and it took us most of the train's stay at the station to find and walk to the correct car, and then found the door locked! We pounded and pounded on the train until someone finally opened the door to the next car over and let us into our car internally, where we found a sleepy attendant as the train began to leave. We settled into our compartment to put the chaos of the ride behind us and settle in for some comfortable sleep – until the Air Conditioning went on – full blast – and after some time our luxury compartment literally turned into a refrigerator car! Miral and mom slept under a few blankets, and Dad and I sat up talking and shivering under another blanket. The attendant seemed shocked when we asked for more blankets and had only one more to provide. As the train finally rolled into Varanasi at 3am, an hour later than scheduled, we couldn't believe that we were desperate to get back into the heat of India that had plagued all of us for weeks, just to escape the bitter, bitter cold of the compartment! Had driver requested from the hotel, who was scheduled to meet us at 2am, left under the assumption we didn't make it, leaving us to another autorickshaw ride through the night to get to the Varanasi hotel, I would not have been surprised if my parents disowned me. But lucky for all of us, the driver was waiting on the platform for us – and as we stepped over the throngs of people sleeping on the sidewalks around the station and back into that SUV, I finally felt content that I had returned my parents to the life they are more used to. This was just another night on the road for Miral and I, albeit a more adventurous one. But this was utter craziness for my parents to go through! And, yet, they pushed through the whole experience without the slightest complaint and, even as parts of it were occurring, were already laughing and joking about their wild adventure! It ended up being a night we will all treasure. From there, it was a short night sleep at the Varanasi hotel and a morning flight to Katmandu and the beginnings of our Himalayan adventures in Nepal. Stay tuned... 



If any of my friends read this, they for sure will think we are out of our minds! You really made me laugh while reading of our crazy, fun adventures with the two of you. It is difficult to get accustomed to the fact that we are home, but the memories we created both with you and our fellow travelers on tour, will be forever in our hearts and minds.

  Ckruh Oct 30, 2009 8:13 AM


Hey ivan_miral,

We like your story and have decided to feature it this week so that others can enjoy it too.

Happy travels!

World Nomads

  World Nomads Nov 3, 2009 4:19 PM


Wow! You guys are famous (see above comment). Or will be soon.

I will write more when I actually READ this chapter. Take care.

  Gus Nov 15, 2009 4:40 AM


Great; You guys fantastic and I will be waiting for your further details. Thanks

  Wheelz India Sep 7, 2013 8:09 PM

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