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Published: January 8th 2010
A Hindu favourite. Soap anyone?
It was the night before Christmas Eve after all. Quite appropriate to be knocking on inn doors looking for a room. We didn’t have straw on the floor, the donkey stayed on the street and the adoring multitudes were gathering at Mahabodhi. A sea of maroon and saffron robes. All converging to participate in the 27th Kagyu Monlam festival of prayer.
Accommodation being generally full we were paying top dollar for a mediocre room. Security was obviously a top priority with the air conditioner hole in the wall sealed with a piece of newspaper! We couldn't strike lucky with everything but we had enjoyed an early morning ride with the secretary of the Mahabodhi Temple Committee's wife who was travelling down to visit from Sikkim. Having been our pleasant companion on the train she offered for us to squeeze into the jeep (very new and very shiny) which had been sent up for her from Bodhgaya to Patna. A godsend or a Buddhasend? Her companions, two of her staff we think, accompanied her. One lovely gentleman was deaf and dumb and his sight was none too good but we laughed and gesticulated as the morning sun rose over a dusty day
Touts and beggars abound. Two particularly likeable but persistent young men shadowed us constantly. Of course they were studying at school, they just needed money for fees! Short classes at their schools as they popped up at any time of day! An affirmation of friendship and English language practice was not sufficient. As we ducked and dived into temples, internet cafes, shops and restaurants, breathing sighs of relief at their disappearance we would emerge an hour later to find their grinning faces sidling up once more.
Veeru, our tour guide, warned us, ‘If you give them books they will sell them, if you give them pens they will sell those too. Do not give them anything.’ Santos miraculously changed his name to Raymond for his email address and said he could give me his bank account details. We declined his offer and visited the Sakya Sujata Children Welfare Trust close to a stupa constructed by Ashoka in recognition of yet another of Buddha’s places of meditation. In an effort to take begging children off the street a small staff teach 150 children, provide food and healthcare. At the time of our visit the co-ordinator was soliciting donations for
warm clothing for all the children to withstand the chilly nights. We listened to a rendition of Twinkle, twinkle little star by the kindergarten class delivered with great solemnity more suited to the national anthem sung by the oldest class distinctly smaller in number. www.sakyasujatachildren.org
The sheer diversity of deformities, the orchestrated snivelling of dirty children and the pleading eyes make it hard to deny a distribution of relatively little. But supporting begging as an occupation is not acceptable; at the back of every beggar lurks a beggarmaster, someone making money from deforming young children wringing out the hearts of every passerby. Beggars lined the uphill climb to Dungeshwari kept in check by a uniformed guard with a very big stick. Buddhist pilgrims purchase bags of sweets or coins to distribute earning themselves karmic points. A wonderful cycle! Sweets instead of causing severe dental decay can be collected and repackaged. Worthless coins, carefully resold to the unsuspecting pilgrim. Resisting the temptation we viewed the Bihar countryside and listened to another story of Buddha’s meditation whilst enjoying a cup of Tibetan butter tea.
Trying to enjoy a silent moment’s meditation at the base of the Bodhi tree amongst the tumultuous
throng proved impossible. Assailed by a well dressed young man who wanted us to buy a video, which would of course help bolster his studies, I retreated under my scarf and refused to participate in any exchange of pleasantry. Prostrations I say. That’s what he needed. A cross between a yogic sun salute and the invention of a sadistic personal trainer intent on having floors so polished you could eat off them. These were performed on a high sloping board with karmic determination at the base of the temple. Graeme had thought a purchase of a prayer wheel from one of the numerous Tibetan refugee stalls would help his soul - until he heard the price! There’s only so much you can do to assist so we consoled ourselves by retiring to the excellent Tibetan Om Cafe and consuming yet another plate of delicious momos.
In another attempt at enlightenment we completed our pilgrimage around the illuminated temple and entered the quiet confines of the Mahabodhi Temple Committee to give our thanks to the lovely lady from Sikkim. She was delighted to see us; we partook of a carefully prepared meal and met her mother on holiday from Haslemere
in England where she settled many years ago. Ascertaining that she did not know my friends who lived in Spring House, the conversation dwindled and we took our farewells with the hope that I could forge a link between Mrs Deorgie’s school and one in Oz or England. Photos of kangaroos and koalas were promised.
Standing on the ruined walls of Nalanda university it was hard to comprehend how immensely vast in size and influence it had been. The Turkish raider Bakhtiar Khalji decided to take no chances and burnt the library in AD 1199. The collection being so huge the books took six months to burn. Scholars had attended from near and far and accounts abound from Chinese scholars of the life and times. A cloistered almost monastic life governed by academia and order, a far cry from Brahmakund the hot sulphur springs we had visited earlier in the day. Ebullient bodies, seething, smiling, laughing, possibly enjoying a grope, bathing in the recuperative and holy waters. Veeru told us he had taken the waters once but very early in the morning before the madness began.
Crowds and masses = Bodhgaya. The sea of saffron robes threatens to
become an ocean by the time the Dalai Lama makes his appearance on the 4th January. For the rest of the year Bodhgaya is apparently quiet, perhaps still surrounded by the gauntlet of beggars all the more insistent as the number of pilgrims diminishes and the dust settles.
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