As I promised myself in the last line of the previous post, I have just returned yesterday afternoon from another three-day, 800 km-plus road trip in my own car, with Firoz (and at times myself) at the wheel. This time it was to Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Nalanda.
When I left home at 6:30 in the morning, it was still chilly, though things heated up rapidly after nine. I was armed with cold water and Coca Cola in a styrofoam box, as well as paper cups and a thermos full of hot tea. The air conditioner had been recharged lately, and the road being mostly in good condition – excellent in places, actually, though the planned six-lane superhighway is still a work in progress – we did the 300 odd km to Bodhgaya very comfortably in less than six hours, despite breakfast and one big traffic jam on the way. After checking into the hotel (booked online, all by myself: I am getting ‘smart’ in the currently popular sense), we freshened up, lunched at the Bihar State Tourism facility (overpriced), then went sightseeing around town.
There is a small airport nearby, and there are foreign tourists in large numbers, Buddhists from all over Asia, many of them obviously well heeled, and for their sake Bodh Gaya is maintained much better than the average Bihari town. It has helped that most of the visit-worthy places are monasteries, built and maintained by various national governments, and frequented by big people like the Dalai Lama and gora celebrities of Richard Gere’s ilk. Also that the biggest draw, namely the Mahabodhi Temple, is now an international attraction. Incredible to think that it had been quite forgotten for six centuries since Bakhtiyar Khilji’s devastating invasion, and the decaying ruins had been taken over by a Hindu mahant and his cohorts, until Sir Alexander Cunningham rescued it, and began the work of restoration and research. Anagarika Dharmapala and the then king of Burma did their bits to turn it into the Mecca of Buddhists once more. I sat in the compound on a mattress at sundown alongwith thousands of other praying pilgrims, and despite myself it gave me goosebumps to see the Bodhi tree under which the Master meditated until he attained nirvana… shameful to learn that it was a Bengali, King Sasanka, who had burnt the original tree.
The temperature fell swiftly at night. My hotel was located somewhat afar from the town centre, so there was a lot of dark open space around, with paddy fields and lakes and date palms, interspersed with brightly lit temples which made for a fairyland scene. We dined simply and cheaply at a roadside eatery which was named – predictably – Buddha Café. A walk in the quiet chilly night, then early to bed. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that I was asleep before my head hit the pillow, though it was barely past ten o’ clock!
Early rising next morning, and we drove off to Rajgir, eighty km away. The road is beautiful in parts, especially when it is passing through hills, though the little towns we passed through were choc a bloc with noisy and totally chaotic traffic – nobody wears helmets, nobody obeys rules, autowallahs bicker with truckers like equals, and nobody pays the slightest attention to the police (we were joking about how utterly irrelevant Modi and his government is to this real India). We stopped at Gehlaur to see the handiwork of Dashrath Manjhi the ‘mountain man’, who worked singlehandedly for 22 years with hammer and chisel to carve a pass through a hill, reducing a trip to the nearest hospital by 40 km, after his injured wife died for lack of medical attention because he couldn’t carry her to a doctor in time. Feminists should think about this. It is both stupid and gross to take note only of men who beat their wives. And it says everything one needs to know about India that we worship creatures like SRK and MS Dhoni, while this man has not yet got a posthumous Padma Sree as recommended by the Bihar government, not even after the movie about him.
Rajgir was hot and crowded and dirty, though they have maintained a lot of little places of historical/mythical interest to pull crowds. The Vishwa Shanti stupa atop a hill, best reached by ropeway, is a nice place to see: it reminded me strongly of the almost identical shrine at Dhaulagiri in Odisha. I looked up all sorts of places – Venuvan the bamboo grove where the Buddha lived for some time after the Enlightenment, the Saptaparni caves where the First Buddhist Council was held, the Brahma Kund, the fabled treasury of King Bimbisara, and even older places, such as the akhara where Bhima of Mahabharata fame wrestled and killed king Jarasandha of Magadha. This place, after all, has very ancient antecedents: as Rajagriha, abode of the king, it was a large and flourishing city even in the seventh century BC, and it began to decline only after Ajatashatru moved the capital to Pataliputra near modern Patna.
It was a ten km drive to the ruins of the ancient university of Nalanda. Apparently some new discoveries have been made during excavations by Archaeological Survey of India experts even after Independence – housed carefully in the museum opposite the ruins – and now that UNESCO has made it a World Heritage Site, they are maintaining it very carefully. I wish I did not have to saunter around under a pitilessly blazing sun, and I consoled myself with the thought that it would be quite impossible a month from now. Any thought of Nalanda (or Takshashila, or Vikramshila for that matter) makes me wonder and sigh that there used to be a time when India was not just fabled for her material wealth, but for the kind of deep and diverse knowledge that drew scholars (including the likes of Fa Hsien, Xuanxang and I Tsing) from near and far. Art, science, education, breaking down social barriers like caste, spread of vernaculars and caring for flora and fauna – India has much to be grateful to Buddhism for. And though I have read all about the revival of Hinduism and the Muslim scourge, I still cannot fully figure out why it virtually vanished from India, nor why Babasaheb Ambedkar’s mass conversion to Buddhism in the mid-20th century, followed by its worldwide revival, has so far failed to usher in a new golden age for Buddhism here. Their stress on simple living, silence, cleanliness and social welfare work would have made a huge change for the better in this country.
It was a nearly eleven hour round trip, for about five of which I was on my feet in the hot sun, climbing up and down stairs and scrambling over uneven ground, so my legs had started playing up, and I was dog tired. A quick bath, dinner and I sank into eight hours of the dreamless again. Next morning, a quick roadside breakfast, followed by a visit to the last of the monasteries – the Mongolian this time – and the museum, where I was the first arrival of the day. They have preserved a lot of late Buddhist and Pala era (‘Nalanda style’) artwork there, though much of it has been vandalized and damaged, as much by centuries of Hindu neglect as by the Muslim depredations. Pathetic that museums attract virtually nobody in this country: we are all for cinemas, shopping malls and circuses. And yet our parents are drumming it night and day into the ears of their children how wise they are, and how the kids ought to learn about civilization from them. Without the British, who started by calling us monkeys, we would not have had any civilization to boast about, only ‘sacred traditions’ like burning widows and shitting in the open and flattery and bribery to get jobs…
Then it was the long drive all through the afternoon back home. My poor car, though performing admirably all the way, had suffered a broken seal in the steering assembly, so we had to keep topping up with hydraulic fluid every now and then. Still, we were neither stopped nor delayed. Lunch at Khalsa Hotel in Dhanbad, and we were home by 3:30 p.m. Summer has arrived, and some early birds in Bihar have, I noticed, started playing Holi already. Thus ends my holiday season – for now.
For photos, click here. I shall be glad if some people write comments, perhaps mentioning highlights of their own travelling experience.