Buddhism, Bodhi Trees and Bandits

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As we’d had company since Varanasi, we’d started to grow confident in our bargaining power for lower cost transport. This small condolence was ripped from us, when in Bodhgaya the fact that we are always at the mercy of our drivers sense of fair play, came back to the forefront of our minds.

Whether I’d always known, or politely chose to ignore the fact that the road between Gaya and Bodhygaya was famed for bandits late at night, is unclear. Naturally we found ourselves an unknown distance from our accommodation, at 2am (late train), with a rickshaw driver refusing to take us the unexpected additional kilometre to our dorm, unless we payed him the extra money he demanded. Even threatening to disembark, calling his bluff with bags in hand, couldn’t shift his will of steel, and we faced either being released into the pitch black town surrounded by dogs, or pay the extra money. He knew as well as we did that there was only ever one choice; and boy did he relish it.

Bodhgaya is synonymous with the origins of Buddhism, but signs reading, “be happy, you are in the land of the Buddha” are contrasted against rifle-wielding men and high walls guarding the semi-monastic retreats. It was slightly strange to say the least, and this was only heightened by the rules of our residence including; no lying, no talking about alcohol and that golden rule – please refrain from killing, even insects… We even instantly and unknowingly broke the rule of no talking in the dining hall. In fact there was no talking anywhere in the grounds for fear of disturbing people’s silent meditation.

That said, the place was very relaxing, safe and boasted the cleanest dorm rooms I’d seen in India; despite the anti-social rules. We passed our time looking at the famous Bodhi Tree, under which the only enlightenment I gained was the knowledge that monks apparently use high tech cameras and iPhones too. There’s nothing like renouncing the material world with a few high definition photographs.

The population of monks at any time was high, peaking at a procession of 500 single-file young monks making their way down the busy main road (pictured above). Not only was there a population of bandits and monks, but also beggars. On the road up to the cave which was said to be the site of Buddha’s failed attempt at ascetism, we were inundated with a stream of tiny, outstretched persistent hands – it took a heart of steel to shut them out. Sam acted as the pied piper, handing out sweets to the children until the situation descended into a chaotic feeding frenzy, that continued until long after the bag of sweets was empty.

I still haven’t found an effective way of managing my response to this kind of poverty and I wish the answer was as simple as giving out boiled sweets. Until then, I will have to become as hardened as the beds in sleeper class.

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Varanasi – the Caretaker of Death

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My first impressions of Varanasi were not favourable. It had all of the characteristics of Indian cities that I had grown to hate; that damned beeping, the filthy streets and touts constantly on the look-out to con as much money out of you as possible. We instantly got helplessly lost trying to find our hotel down the labyrinthine streets – as an offer to help here is as good as a declaration of intent to do you wrong.

There were parts of streets that you had to wade through thick smogs of flies and were populated with the frequent procession of chanting men, carrying aloft their deceased loved ones wrapped in orange and gold. And if the people weren’t dead, then they were near to death. Elderly Indians flocked to Varanasi to live out their last days, ready to achieve instant enlightenment if they snuffed it within the city walls. It felt like by just being present within the city, my life was slowly being sapped from my body. And no, this isn’t the set of some apocalyptic nightmare. It is in fact a city, in which all manner of people manage to live their lives and even come to revere.

The presence of these hordes of dead bodies can be explained by one of the most thriving businesses in Varanasi; the burning ghats by the river Ganges. This 24-hour cremation service rakes in over £100,000 per year for the family whose solemn duty it is to run it. As always the Ganges exercises a spiritual pull, and also lures pilgrims to bathe in it’s refuse filled depths – and all of these fascinatingly shocking rites can be viewed by boat trip on the river itself.

Initially, as the rickety wooden boat was rowed towards me, I thought there is no way in hell I am getting in there. And this fear of capsizing into the watery graveyard of humans, animals and wastage, stayed with me for the entire boat trip. For as we made our slow way along the river, our guide relished telling us of the dead holy men, children and pregnant women that were awarded the special honour of being thrown ‘straight in the Ganga’ – no cremation necessary. As the sun set, the rhythmic sploshing of the rowing and the fact that the main source of light was now the burning pyres of the deceased, gave a deeply unnerving and forbidding atmosphere. Being suspended between the murky water and these burning beacons was a spine-chilling experience I won’t easily forget.

And you may ask yourself, why then did we take up the offer of a sunrise boat trip (the short answer was that it was free with the hotel) but the experience was completely different. The steady change of light from grey to orange and the warmth of the sun, made the pyres seem less austere, and they faded into the back of my mind as the sight of hundreds of families, clad in multicolours, bathed together happily in order to cleanse their souls. The fact that these people’s beliefs led them to bathe in this filthy, cold water – and even enjoy the experience, in the full knowledge that floating only metres away were the ashes, if not corpses, of their fellow country men – was quite wondrous to me. The living accepted, lived alongside and even bathed with the dead here. These scenes were enough to make me question my attitude to death. What is taboo in the West, is embraced and part of the everyday here. Why should we accept the fear instilled in us from an early age? And why shouldn’t we laugh merrily as our children gulp down a hearty breakfast of sewage water? Oh wait, too far.

Varansi is a city of many moods – catch it in a bad one, and you’ll wonder why you’re here, wading through a landfill to get to your hotel. Catch it in a good mood, and you can experience one of the most unique cities on earth. Varanasi is a must-see for those who wish to gain a full picture of India. Just as death is an inextricable part of life, Varanasi is an essential part of India.

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The Weird and Wonderful Khajuraho

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Let me start this post off with no apology for the lewd images seen above; it just wouldn’t befit the free-spirited and somewhat cheeky atmosphere of Khajuraho. From some highly entertaining bartering banter with local shop-owners, to being told about the Karma Sutra by an old temple guard – you can see that not only does this place not take itself too seriously, but it’s also a place you can relax and get your shoulders out.

There was something quite liberating about staring up at all of the ornately erotic temple carvings (dated c.900 AD) whilst surrounded by giggling old Hindu women and slightly confused, and potentially scarred, young children. It was like in the confines of Khajuraho, the often straight-faced and conservative feel of India had been lifted, and the people here were easier going.

But talk of x-rated carvings aside, the temples were pretty fantastic in their own right. In the absence of bright sunshine and snickering tourists, the damp-smelling inner sanctums, still bearing these token carvings, were actually quite eery. The cavernous chambers are deafeningly silent and contain black stone effigies upon altars, with mysterious, twinkling jewel eyes that seem to follow you.

Without going into too much history (I’ll only embarrass myself), the temples were found hidden amongst over-grown jungle in 1838 in remarkably good condition. This alluring mystique has sadly been stripped away. They are set in trimmed parks that wouldn’t go amiss at an English summertime tea party or the set of the Great British Bake-off, and the stone is so over-polished that they look like they’d just been built. If only the temples were allowed to be a dirty as the carvings that cover it!

Despite the temples being the main reason most tourists visit, the town itself has it’s own appeal. It’s the first place in India I felt like I could walk down the street alone (don’t worry Mum I didn’t). Also, as Khajuraho is so focussed on tourism, there is a lot of competition between the over-abundance of hotels, shops and restaurants – which meant greater bargaining power and lower prices for all (for once). However, this friendly competition has been exploited by several fake shops springing up and packaging pebbles to sell as green tea – which I definitely didn’t buy…

We’d liked to have stayed longer as it was a very pleasant place to be, but there’s only so long you can trawl around temples and buy elephant patterned souvenirs (and pebbles), before you forget why you’re here – and we wouldn’t want to get too comfortable now would we!

Orchha – the ‘hidden gem’

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Sam and I both wanted to see somewhere a little off the beaten track and perhaps more peaceful. So Orchha – meaning ‘hidden place’ – seemed a very attractive option.

After another white knuckle ride into the hills, we met a small charming town – with the bustling rural atmosphere we’d yet to meet in India. We had decided to stay in a homestay organised by a charity. The place was so peaceful and welcoming and we had the sounds of chickens and cows instead of that incessant beeping.

But this wasn’t just an ordinary town, as ordinary as it must seem to it’s inhabitants. Growing out of hills and sprouting out of the river banks were the evocative ruins of palaces and temples, so long a part of the furniture here, that they almost felt like a natural phenomena, like volcanoes or glaciers.

Always in the distance you can pick out the tops of these structures, raised above a foundation of ordinary rural life in India. They’d even built the market into the base of one of the dilapidated temples. It’s a strange sight to behold, like some weird inverse of London. The lifestyle of the people is a polar opposite and instead of the Shard or the Gherkin piercing the sky-line, you have the ruins of a once magnificent kingdom, which you can use as landmarks to navigate around.

We were able to fully appreciate Indian indifference to health and safety in it’s full majesty, as we had the rare opportunity to explore each elevated walkway, tower and hidden staircase with complete freedom. Steps were crumbled and walkways ended in sheer drops, but always with that spectacular view of rolling hillside and ornate ruins hidden amongst the market town. All of this was open to explore as you wished. I felt like a child, giddy of the excitement of adventuring this colossal palace. It had retained enough of it’s shape and traces of the rich blue tiles, that you could imagine the place in all it’s glory many years ago.

Our temple spotting led us down to the river, filled with families bathing happily and a quick stroll down the ghats led us to complete seclusion (a first and hopefully not last experience in India). We climbed the rocks across the river to sit and watch the world go by and congratulated ourselves on a successful day.

We then met the romantically crumbling Cenotaphs (around 14 in total), towering by the sides of the river. However those nearest the water were heaving with huge mutant wasps, so we dared not venture in. Some of them had been thoughtfully restored and were surrounded by lush and beautifully maintained gardens – yet the insides still had a waspish presence and Sam even spotted a family of vultures nesting in the tall towers.

Orchha was a definite highlight of the trip so far and I truly have no idea why this place doesn’t have the fame it deserves.