Aboard the Mahabodhi Express
Northern India: Along Pilgrim's Paths
FEB. 2008 • TEXT & PHOTOS BY AUSTIN R. PICK
Sunrise fanned through the shrinking sky and patina of window grime, shuffling the spectrum of light like a great peacock's tail slowly unfurling somewhere beyond a horizon near-hidden by all the stretching dusty miles of inner India as we, still mostly sleeping, rumbled eastward from Jaipur by early morning train. Our arrival in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, was almost startlingly uneventful; all guide books, and most of the travelers we'd met, warn of underhanded, overbearing, ill-intentioned scam-artists in great numbers, harassing tourists from the train station to the gates of the Taj, but we found the tight-quartered, predominantly Muslim town to be quite mild-mannered, and for the most part enjoyed our day there. Because we'd been warned away from Agra before arriving, and because the Taj itself was the only site of interest for us there, we'd booked an overnight train departing that evening, and simply took a cheap room at a guesthouse for afternoon rest and baggage storage. Not harassed, and for the moment not requiring any sort of medical attention, Shauna and I found ourselves feeling like rather accomplished tourists, and embarked upon an exploration of one of the so-called wonders of the world.
There is truly something wondrous about the seventeenth century Taj Mahal, said to be the greatest monument ever created in honor of love. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the mausoleum as a memorial for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth. Seemingly afloat amongst ornamental gardens, the Taj overlooks the sacred Yamuna River to the north, and is flanked to the east and west by two identical red sandstone structures —one a mosque, the other, the jawab, a former rest house for pilgrims— which anchor and accentuate the visual impression of the tomb's central soaring white dome, as do the four slender white decorative minarets.
We entered the grounds through the South Gate, another complementary structure of red sandstone, inscribed in enormous, elegant stone inlay with verses from the Quran, perhaps the same verses adorning the octagonal tomb's inner chamber. The mausoleum itself is constructed of semi-translucent white marble decorated with carved flowers and repeated geometrical patterns, carrying the Taj's formal splendor from inspired design to intimate detail. One thing the designers probably didn't anticipate, however, is the more-or-less permanent miasma of foot odor Most Foul that hangs about the entrance where visitors are required to park their shoes. And while strolling in the shadows of that great tomb, we paused for a moment to enjoy the cool stone of an alcove, where Shauna was promptly shat upon by an unseen pigeon far above— I quickly moved to help her, sliding back further into the alcove, and planted myself in another pile. It seems that even among India's greatest monuments, it is impossible to avoid the shit and stink of everyday life. Still, when regarding the Taj Mahal from any angle, from any distance, there is something uncanny about the proportion and scale of the structure that suggests, for lack of a better word, perfection.
From the rooftop of our guest house we were graced with an excellent view of sunset upon the Taj, red sandstone and white marble blushing in the soft light as calls to prayer sounded from Agra's many mosques, somber and sung scratchily thru antique speakers. A few hours later we boarded a sleeper train for the journey to Varanasi, and after an idiot's ballet of too many people struggling to get situated in the cramped compartments, settled into the gently rocking rhythm of travel by train. Hunkered in our narrow bunks, Shauna above and I below, we passed thru the night from central India eastward into the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and the very heart of the Ganges River valley, sacred lifeblood of India's most populous region. Worshipped in personified form as the goddess Ganga, the Ganges has been of enduring importance in Hindu traditions for millennia. Believed to wash away sin and carry the soul to salvation, a pilgrimage to the Ganges, particularly as one nears death, is the lifelong desire of millions throughout the subcontinent. And no place along the river's 1,500 mile course holds more religious significance than the holy city of Varanasi (formerly Benares), one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet.
The ghats or riverside bathing steps of Varanasi stretch for some seven kilometers along the western bank of the Ganges, forming the only reliable source of orientation from within the labyrinthine asymmetries of the Old City, a beguiling tangle of narrow alleys, tiny shops, temples, shrines and hotels that seems to shift and slide, rubik's-cubing at the corners of one's perception, never quite the same at second glance. Ringing and echoing with footfalls, devotional music, the shouts and sing-song of vendors, funeral processions, barking dogs and the clopping of cow-hoof on cobbled stone, the back-streets of Varanasi whisper continually as if over-full with the city's collective memory, with prophecies, portents and promises. We stayed within the mazeway for more than a week, and became fairly well oriented within a short radius around our slouching old guesthouse, where we paid about three dollars a night for a passable and quiet room. But if we ventured further into the Old City, or tried to re-enter along some other route, we would inevitably become bewilderingly and absurdly lost, so much so that it's now quite easy to imagine people arriving one day and remaining lost for a lifetime, absorbed by the enveloping city—which is precisely what I suspect has happened to a great many of the supposed holy men who wander there, half-naked and smiling oblivions thru a penumbra of hashish smoke.
Like the ghats, the buildings of the Old City descend steeply and stepwise to the Ganges: haphazard and historied, their varicolored stories like layers of sediment, the buildings there interlock in an incidental multi-dimensional jigsaw where windows look upon walls, doorways gasp in stairless air, and the roofs of some form the terraces of others. On our first night in Varanasi we watched, from one such vantage, as a lone woman performed puja in the gathering dusk. By the erratic light of ghee butter candles arranged in a sort of mandala along her crumbling brick-and-mortar balcony, the woman made a complex series of offerings and prayers to the goddess Ganga, sprinkling flowers and oil, scattering spices and turning to bow in the four directions, her movements so practiced as to seem casual, like cooking a familiar dish. As with other Indian gestures this nonchalance initially appeared to be perfunctory, even dismissive, but as we watched it became evident that this solitary ritual was a kind of meditation. Through a series of focused and repetitive acts this woman was gracefully steadying and centering herself within the coordinates of known space, making explicit an awareness of her place in the present moment, and giving thanks. Simply observing this private day's-end peace, we found ourselves calmed as well, and introduced, for the first time, to the living heart of the ancient city by the river.
We were taken in by Varanasi's charms, by the protective sense of relaxed timelessness that permeates the Old City; we made other excursions, but always returned. One daytrip took us to nearby Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first discourse after attaining enlightenment, instructing the men who would become his first disciples in the wisdom he had realized thru meditative practice. For several centuries following this first discourse, the practice of Buddha's teachings spread widely and became the predominant religious discipline in northern India. During that time, Sarnath was an important center of learning and practice, but with the decline of Buddhism in India and destruction by invading Muslims in the twelfth century, Sarnath essentially disappeared until its rediscovery in 1835. The site, now a park and pilgrimage place for Buddhists, is marked with the remains of an ancient stupa and the ruins of a monastery. We meditated there amongst Tibetan and Korean pilgrims, western dharma students, visiting monks and a few interested tourists, enjoying the relative calm and quiet of that simple place, but were struck by the poverty and disrepair of the surrounding village, seemingly at odds with the serenity we might have naively expected, though unsurprising on the subcontinent.
Continuing on Buddhist pilgrim's paths, we traveled north by train to the clamorous transit town of Gorakhpur, just a few hours south of the Nepal border, then journeyed east a jostling two hours by jeep to Kushinagar, where the Buddha breathed his last. Also a sacred site for Buddhists, Kushinagar is marked by a long winding avenue linking a handful of monasteries and temples representing the Buddhist traditions of several nations, as well as historical parks and meditation gardens—a peaceful, slowly developing place that reflects the gradual reemergence of Buddhist teaching and practice in India. It was here that Buddha uttered his dying words: "All things must pass. Work out your own salvation with diligence."
Once again, our experience of Kushinagar was out of accord with our expectations, another lesson in letting go. A peculiar thing happened to us there as I, yet again, became suddenly and seriously ill. It was a brisk early morning ride in the open-air jeep, but after arriving and having hot tea in the sunshine I could not get warm, shot thru with deepening fever chills that led to uncontrollable shaking. Fortunately we'd crossed paths with a group of kind Canadians we'd first seen at Sarnath, who directed me to the Thai Monastery's clinic, which sent me to a pharmacy for treatment. I was made to lie on my side and was given shots of both malaria medicine and antibiotics in hopes of addressing my mysterious affliction. Feverish and disoriented, I laid there on a bunk in the pharmacy's courtyard for most of our only day in Kushinagar, my body's position incidentally similar to that the Buddha is said to haven taken for his death in that very place. No profound spiritual visions followed in my hours of fever, but I did apparently say some pretty funny things to Shauna.
With the help of the compassionate people we met there, Shauna and I survived the place of Buddha's death and returned safely to Varanasi and eventually, after getting impressively lost in the mazeway again, to our hotel. Things were perhaps unusually quiet for tourism and it's accompanying hassles while we were there in the Old City because the river boatmen were on strike in protest of new tax imposition. Fortunately the strike ended just before we were to leave, and on the morning of our last day we were graced with a dawn boat ride on the Ganges, the strange city shimmering and seemingly orderly, its mythical power fully apparent when seen from that vantage in the diffuse light of sunrise, where fading fog blends imperceptibly with the smoke and ash of burning bodies along the cremation ghats, shrouding the forms of morning bathers and those washing their clothes in the sacred waters, scores of ancient stone temples leaning in as if to look on approvingly.
We took pains to avoid those waters, however; the holy Ganges is filthy. Most of Varanasi's sewage is discharged untreated directly into the river, and the water there is actually septic, meaning that no dissolved oxygen exists. Ever since visiting the first derelict, mud-splattered shrines of Kathmandu, we have struggled to understand this apparent disconnect between religious veneration and actual care and concern, between ritual purity and hygienic cleanliness. Though a distance between articulated values and embodied experience is to be found everywhere, in every tradition, India is often a land of incredible extremes, and this distance was continually reiterated for us as we followed her pilgrim's paths further...
For his entire life, Buddha journeyed, practiced and taught throughout the Ganges River plains of northern India and southern Nepal, and is said to have advocated that "followers of conviction" visit the four main sites connected with his life: place of birth (Lumbini in Nepal), place of enlightenment (Bodh Gaya), place of first teachings (Sarnath) and place of death (Kushinagar). Pilgrims also visit numerous other sites associated with various events in the Buddha's life, but none holds more centrality in the Buddhist traditions than Bodh Gaya, the place of enlightenment, now a rural village and Buddhist community in the present-day state of Bihar, several hours east of Varanasi.
After the Muslim invasions of the twelfth century, Buddhism all but disappeared from India, and those sacred sites that weren't outright destroyed were abandoned, some scrapped for building materials. The Mahabodhi Temple Complex is one of the oldest surviving brick structures in eastern India, and marks the spot where Siddhartha Gautama sat under the Bodhi Tree, vowing not to rise until he had attained realization and become the Buddha, or Awakened One. For much of the sixteenth century onward, the neglected Temple was transformed into a Hindu shrine, and wasn't fully restored as a Buddhist monument until the mid-twentieth century. The restoration efforts at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar were lead by the Mahabodhi Society, founded by a Sri Lankan Buddhist leader in 1891 after he observed the deplorable condition of those sites.
Today the revitalized Mahabodhi ("Great Awakening") Temple and surrounding garden complex is an active center for Buddhist contemplation and practice, visited by thousands of people from around the world, who come there to meditate, chant, or engage in other practices toward the development of inner peace. Though Tibetan monks and nuns are predominant, the complex is open to people and practices from all traditions, and its not uncommon to see Hindu yogis, Indian tourists and Jesuit priests among the crowds there, all drawn to this "navel of the earth," this center-place of remarkable spiritual insight and attainment. To the vexation of many visitors, the surrounding town is noisy and polluted, like many in India, though at Bodh Gaya this is actually due in large part to the number of pilgrims and tourists who travel there.
Throughout the surrounding area, temples, monasteries and retreat centers offer various programs on Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice, and Shauna and I found ourselves much-needed at Dhamma Bodhi, Bodh Gaya's under-staffed Vipassana centre, where we served a ten-day course. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to support students from a dozen countries, many of whom were sitting their first meditation course, and were happy that our ability to speak Japanese, though rudimentary, was helpful for the nine students from Japan. And during the course a Korean girl came down with the same symptoms I'd had at Kushinagar, which her friends knew quite well: its something so common to travelers from Korea that they call it "the India disease." Yeah, I've had that.
After the course we returned to the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya to meditate under the Bodhi Tree one last time, and a leaf from the auspicious tree —much coveted by monks and nuns, who watch the ground with what seems misplaced attention— fell into Shauna's lap while we were sitting there! Though she had a sense that the leaf only came when she'd given up hoping for one, Shauna's excitement did prove a little distracting for the time we remained there, meditating under the sweeping boughs of that sheltering tree.
From the byways of the ancient Indian Buddhist region we traveled far north into the high mountains of the modern Buddhist world, leaving the Ganges River behind us and arriving, after long journeys by train and bus, at Dharamsala, seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. Situated in the Kangra Valley of the Dhauladhar Mountains, Dharamsala was a sleepy hill station until 1960, when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and many followers were offered refuge there by the Indian government, after escaping from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. McLeod Ganj in Upper Dharamsala has since become an important center for the study of Tibetan Buddhism and culture. We arrived just a few days before the Dalai Lama was to begin giving public teachings in time for the Tibetan New Year, and the little mountain town was crowded with throngs of red-robed monks, Tibetan traders and teenagers, and a diverse gathering of tourists and students.
Dharamsala is also the nerve center for Tibetan political activism, and while we were there in February it was evident that many people had become dissatisfied with the path of non-violent resistance advocated by the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist leaders, and had started seeking a more aggressive approach in response to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, catalyzed by the coming Olympics in Beijing. This desire for a new movement is certainly motivating some of the recent protests that have made headlines, and suggests a dangerous new direction for Tibetan activists. But the sense of injustice caused by the Chinese is almost palpable in Dharamsala: many of the people living there are refugees from their homeland, survivors of that brutality.
We stayed in Dharamsala for more than a week, and began to notice something surprising: Tibetans were mistaking Shauna for a Tibetan! We'd become used to people speaking to us in strange languages, but it became evident that the Tibetan vendors and monks actually expected Shauna to understand. The monks, in particular, took a definite shine to Shauna, all too enthusiastic to shake hands with her and gaze, lets be honest, longingly, casting their supposed monastic vows into serious doubt. While we don't consider ourselves Buddhists in any formal sense, Shauna and I both feel tremendous affinity with the practices, people and places associated with that venerable tradition. But we were a little surprised with the particularly relaxed and festive air around McLeod Ganj; the energy in town surrounding the Dalai Lama's teachings felt a lot like the lead up to a rock concert.
The Teachings themselves, however, weren't nearly as exciting. Seating for lay students in the temple courtyard is limited, so the dedicated claim a small patch of ground weeks in advance, taping down a scrap of cloth or cardboard with their name on it. And because the teachings are primarily intended for the thousands of monks and nuns who gather there, the Dalai Lama speaks in Tibetan; simultaneous, and sometimes questionable English translation is provided but requires that one listen through a private headset. We attended the teachings for a few days, and had the honor of seeing the Dalai Lama in person, but so distantly that it wasn't possible for us to get any real sense of his vitality and presence. It was nonetheless a satisfying end to our time traveling the subcontinent, where we have learned again and again that most popular places are often the least fulfilling, and that insight can occur anywhere, usually when we least expect it, but always, if we are open in acceptance, as a gift from the gamble we make by leaning a little into the wider world.
We braved an overnight bus for the descent from Dharamsala, and arrived in Delhi with a safe margin before our flight home, where we took a room near the airport and packed our bags one last time. While there we met a kind shop-owner from Nepal with an incredible enthusiasm for international exchange. He invited us, on our last night in India, to join him and his wife at a friend's wedding party. Flying down Delhi's crisp new interstates, we traveled south through the night to the boomtown of Gurgaon, one of the Capital's four major satellite cities.
Having missed seeing Bangalore, India's so-called silicon valley, Gurgaon was our first glimpse in four months of any suggestion that India might be a rising world power. Gurgaon, also an important city in Hindu mythology, is now a place where multinational companies come and pay homage to India's resource wealth and growing consumer market; along that illuminated stretch of high-rises, we could have been, for all appearances, cruising the beltway around Washington, D.C., the same corporate logos in neon relief against the tall glittering glass fronts of the New India.
The wedding party, held in Bollywood style, introduced us to the modern and manicured Indian middle-class, though the marriage, like most on the subcontinent still are, was arranged. India, it can be said, is a vast land, an ancient land, a culture of considerable continuity and dynamic contrast. Our experience there, filled with that tremendous diversity and often unsettling reality, was enough to last us a lifetime, and has fostered an entirely new appreciation for America's own idea of civilization, however bizarre that idea may often seem.
Such were the months of January and February.
Yours with Love, A
One is all for religion, until one visits a really religious country. There, one is all for drains, machinery, and the minimum wage. ... Western observers, disgusted, not unjustifiably, with their own civilization, express their admiration for the 'spirituality' of the Indians, and for the immemorial contentment which is the fruit of it. Sometimes, such is their enthusiasm, this admiration actually survives a visit to India.