Buddha With Everything – Bodh Gaya

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November 11th 2017
Published: July 2nd 2018
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What could have induced Buddha to settle in a spot as unprepossessing as what was to become Bodh Gaya is not easy to fathom. Even 2,500 years ago, it couldn't have been less dry, dusty, windswept in the cold season, and scorching hot before the arrival of the soothing monsoon. The landscape is relentlessly flat, and water is hard to come by.

Barely two months after the close of the rainy season, the Falgu River, which marks the eastern boundary of the town, seems to have vanished. A quarter of a mile wide, it is no more than a vast expanse of yellowish sand with clumps of grass growing here and there and a trickle of silty water a few feet wide meandering hesitantly down the middle. To Hindus and Buddhists, this is a sacred river, mentioned in the Ramayana, no less, though not on par with Mother Ganga when it comes to seek a favorable rebirth. Under the bridge, a man beats his laundry against the water’s placid surface and then spreads it out on the riverbed to dry in the sun. Nearby, an equally scrawny colleague is washing some prosperous citizen’s enormous SUV.

My guesthouse is on the edge of the town, well away from the uproar. I am woken up at daybreak by scratching sounds on my window: a squirrel, gray, with black stripes along its arched back and prone to sudden dashes along rooftops and up and down trees.

I rent a bicycle from the guesthouse owner, a mild-mannered man with excellent English and a mine of information on Bodh Gaya and India in general as every few years, his military father hauled the family from cantonment to cantonment all over the country, leaving him with insider information on every possible destination. He seems grateful for the company as his sari-clad wife bustles about her vast kitchen, kneading dough for the family’s daily ration of chapati and preparing a delicious chutney of ground peanuts and mustard seed to accompany breakfast. A 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son wander in and out, their smiling, open faces showing that seeing a complete stranger seated at their breakfast table is the most natural thing in the world.

The bike is top heavy and none too stable, and the brakes seem to have been added on purely for decorative purposes.
Potholes as well as competitors with as good a claim to road space await the over-confident. To paraphrase Kipling, a fool lies here – or soon will– who tried to hustle the Indian traffic.

There is a chill in the morning air. Bodh Gaya lies just north of the tropic. Winter is a brisk affair at this latitude. But the energy needed to propel the heavy machine and the brilliant sunshine soon remedy the situation. Before long, honest sweat replaces goose pimples.

Cows come into view. Some are tethered to trees or stakes, evidently the private property of local residents and fed, watered, and milked regularly, while others wander the streets freely. Much smaller and less likely to survive a collision with a speeding rickshaw, goats seek sanctuary in side lanes, where ducks march with military precision or squabble over scraps.

Men urinate against walls or trees or in open ground in full view of passing crowds. On the side of the road is a yellow school bus, its cab wrecked almost beyond recognition. The impact with whatever caused destruction on this scale must have been formidable. Poking out through what was once the windscreen is a
broken motorbike. Was it part of the original fracas or dumped here later, where it could go almost unnoticed in the tangled mess? A sign in bright red lettering on the side of the bus informs trusting parents that "Admissions are Open."

Schoolchildren in blue and white uniforms wave and call out “Namaste” or “Hello:” boys mostly; girls are more diffident and avoid eye contact. As I stop to take a photo of a street scene, a small boy runs up to me, saying: “What's your name?,” then pings my bike’s bell and runs back to his father who is sitting on a stool outside his shop, as if to verify that this is the correct English expression for requesting permission to ping a stranger’s bicycle bell. Then, beaming all over his alert face, he runs back to me and repeats the procedure all over again. "This is so much fun," his smiling eyes tell me; "I could do this all day."

Near my guesthouse, the courtyard of the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture looks serene. High walls shut out the world and its follies. This is a perfect setting for holding the mind still. At the gate
stands a young Westerner of gentle appearance, his head clean shaven, his round glasses suggesting a reincarnated John Lennon minus the mane.

References to the Enlightened One are as ubiquitous as the cows. Visitors can stay at the Siddartha Hotel and take their meals at the Gautama Restaurant. For everyday supplies, the Buddha General Store looks a good bet. If you fall off your bike and need patching up, head for the Buddha Hospital. Need a new vehicle? Buddha Cars and Parts will be happy to oblige. Bodh Gaya may be a holy site and Buddhism’s answer to Mecca, but this never was an austere religion. The town effuses vitality, and commerce is on everyone's mind; even Buddha had to eat, occasionally.

Where Bodh Gaya’s main drag meets the road to the bridge over the Falgu River, vendors of all descriptions gather. Fruit are in short supply, except for apples, neatly stacked in tall pyramids, and bananas. That’s about it.

Where abundance lies is in vegetables: cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, eggplants, cauliflowers, oversized peas, giant green beans, okra, carrots, bell peppers, white radishes with bushy leaves, thick bundles of coriander, fat bottle gourds, and of course
onions, garlic, and ginger. In between are stalls heavy with those essential ingredients of a healthy vegetarian diet: green, yellow, and red lentils, chick peas, kidney beans.

Neatly arranged on the ground are open bags of spices: bright yellow turmeric, brilliant red chili, jet black mustard seed. Customers place their order. Squatting in the dust, the vendor scoops a measure out of the bag, weighs it on iron scales operated by adjusting a slider along a horizontal rod, wraps it in a bag made of newspaper or a child’s old school exercise book, and hands it over to the customer in exchange for a few coins.

Clustered together opposite the vegetable merchants are stalls selling snacks: onion bhaji, potato fritters, stacks of crisp, spicy samosas, all deep-fried in oil that looks as if it's been used once too often. But in small doses, these delicious titbits probably won’t do much harm to the constitution.

Negotiating the obstacle course that is Bodh Gaya on a bicycle is thirsty work; strong, invigorating tea is called for. The samosa vendor will be happy to oblige. He pours fresh milk into a pot and brings
it to the boil over a charcoal burner. To this he adds a measure of piping hot tea, stirs vigorously with a wooden stick, and pours the mix into a small glass. On request, he’ll even brew you a pot without sugar if that's your preference. I drain the first glass, and order a second. At 5 rupees a shot, this won’t break the bank.

Not surprisingly, the town is dry. There is no liquor store, where, Indian-style, you might stand outside and point through a grille at what looks good on the shelves at the back, agree quantity and price, push your money through the bars, and wait for a bottle to be handed to you discreetly wrapped in old newspaper. Being wise to Indian ways, I anticipated this and smuggled in a modest supply of 43.8%!&(MISSING)lt;em style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal;">Officer’s Choice, “mature and rare” and “the world’s largest selling whisky.” How a tipple can be both rare and best-selling eludes me. But some mysteries are better left unexplored. To paraphrase Pascal, this time, India has its reasons, which reason knows not.

Feeling refreshed, I point my bicycle in the direction of the town’s outskirts. Gradually, paved streets
turn into lanes, then paths, wide enough for a motorbike, a cow on a diet, or an average-sized goat, and deeply rutted in the dry season: constant vigilance is essential if these byways are to be negotiated safely.

Built of sandy yellow bricks and looking none too sturdy, most houses are connected to the power grid. But water still means a trip to a communal pump. Next to that is a flat stone surface where women come to do their laundry and chat.

In a country where most buildings rarely see any upgrading or upkeep, a floor is being added to a house. A man is in charge. He mixes cement, sand, and water on the side of the road, then scoops up the result with a shovel and loads in into a metal basin a woman in a yellow sari carries on her head balanced on a grimy string of cloth shaped into a ring to serve as cushioning. A colleague in a pink sari emerges from the house, picks up a dozen bricks from a stack, and loads them onto a wooden board she balances on her head, with a similar cloth ring making the load stable as well as bearable.

Next to another house is a watery space covered in green vegetation and strewn with plastic junk. The plot is divided into two sections, one slightly lower than the other and separated by a low ledge. Two boys are working on irrigating nearby rice fields by raising water from the lower section to the upper one. Standing on opposite sides of the pond, they swing a container recycled from a rectangular oil can attached to two lengths of rope. In perfect synchrony, they swing the can backward until it comes to a halt in mid-air and then guide it as it skims the surface, picking up a quantity of water they then release in the higher section on the other side of the ledge. The boys are surrounded by half-a-dozen of their friends, some watching with the air of irrigation inspectors making sure the job is being done right, while others, incongruously given such primitive technology, giving their full attention to their mobile phone.

Before every house is a stack of dry feed, and next to that a cow or a goat tied to a stake, perhaps dreaming of the freedom to roam their urban cousins enjoy. The smell of dung is everywhere.

In an open space between two houses, a woman squats next to a stack of greenish, half-dry dung. She scoops up a portion with her bare hands and presses it into a flat patty by swapping it from hand to hand like a housewife making chapati for the family dinner. Every house on the outskirts of the town keeps a stack of dung by the front door, next to the family cow, that inexhaustible supplier of the commodity, which is used as cooking fuel: abundant, sustainable, and free. If the cow has been especially productive and there is a surplus, it will be carried away by the owner in a shallow wicker basket balanced on her head and sold to neighbors in need.

The afternoon heat relents, and the light fades. Wispy blue smoke rises from every house. On a patch of dusty ground between two half-finished houses, a cricket game is underway. The players are boys, some barely in their teens. There is not a girl in sight: this is man’s work. A dozen fans sit on a low wall, cheering every run as wildly as if their side had just beaten Pakistan with an innings to spare. In the distance, an imam’s gentle call to prayer is heard. Bodh Gaya may be home to one of Buddhism’s holiest shrine, but it's a tolerant town.

To help me find my way back to the guesthouse through the evening chaos, what light there is comes from motorbike headlights. The dusty lanes are pitch dark, except at a few intersections, where arc lights pierce the growing murk. An eerie stillness envelops the town. Time to put away the bicycle for the night, reflect on the day’s impressions, make plans for tomorrow, and wait for the squirrel to signal the start of a new day.


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