More Kolkata Plus Bodgaya and Shantineketan
11.10.2014 - 22.10.2014 33 °C
Buddhist meditation is all about thinking positive thoughts. So why did I have to think about burning butterfly's wings?
The benign presence of Buddhism can be felt all over India in especially in the Northern states, in places like Sikkim and Darjeeling. Buddhism is indeed effectively an off-shoot of Hinduism. Sam identifies herself with this religion. Although I am a card carrying atheist (I knock on people's doors and preach "don't believe") it is a religion that I respect as there do not appear to be many fanatical followers or indeed radical instructions passed down from the leaders. Can you imagine if the Dali Lama ordered death threats on those who did not laugh jovially or incarcerate people for not being able to follow the chosen path (for heaven's sake it is signposted well enough).
So we took 16 + hour train journey (the train was 4 hours late) from NJP (gateway to the Darjeeling hills) to Bodgaya. This is the most sacred pilgramage destination for Bhuddists in India. It is apparently were Gautama Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment under the Banyan tree. This relatively small town is dotted with temples and Stupas representing much of the Buddhist world including China, Japan, Taiwan,Thailand etc. The focal point is the Mahabodhi Temple Complex . Even as a non believer you can still loose yourself for half a day wandering around the temples and man made ponds, observing meditation practices of monks and followers. Especially with all the chanting that takes place, it has the same vibe as the Golden Temple in Amritsa (for Sikhs). It is obviously more low key though.
Whilst wandering around the inner core of the complex, admiring a sacred cutting of the tree of enlightenment (you will not get that at the Chelsea flower show), we were collared by an elderly monk. Together with a very earnest looking Italian guy we took place in a meditation session. With my eyes closed and ears open I deduced that a main thrust of this type of meditation was breathing. The monk demonstrated with rapid breathing in and out through his nostrils. Now I was just recovering from a cold (a souvenir from the mountains) and was fairly snotty. He instructed us to follow. I tried to concentrate hard. Any mucus accident on my part could have caused a diplomatic incident and required a hot boil wash for the monk's robe. I opened my eyes and glanced at Sam. "Eyes close" the monk shouted as if addressing a naughty school boy. I was expecting Sam to be already drifting half away to Nirvana. No instead of this she let out some uncontrollable giggles. Unfortunately it was more instantly contagious than Ebola. I was off tittering too. Horrible images of burning butterflies were traversing my mind as an attempt to curtail this childishness. To no avail. I had a brainwave though. Like the sickly child excusing himself from Games I pretended that I had asthma. The monk with a degree of concern agreed that I could sit the breathing out. The giggles abated slightly. As far as Sam was concerned however the laughter persisted. I had visions of her getting existential detention.
After 2 full days in Bodgaya it was time to leave on the night train. A tail end of a hurricane had hit parts of India. Certainly we did not witness any extreme weather, although although when we arrived at Gaya stations at 10.45 pm travel caos had hit typhoon proportions. The omen could be seen straight away like extras from an end of the year saga. It was difficult walking without stepping on the families strewn at every available corner of the filthy platform. This could only mean severe delays! To our horror we find that our train had been diverted to one of the bottomless catacombs of hell: Patna. This is only 100 km away but only 2 1/2 hours on a ridiculously slow, tatty and filthy local train. Apparently most people jumped on this train without paying the 30 p fare. Clearly there were no funds available to clean the filth ridden, rickety, rusty carriage. Apart from an inexplicably weeping local lady, Sam was the only woman on board. For the duration of the journey she was stared at like a 5 headed green alien. This coupled with the lack of toilet facilities introduced Sam to travel hell Indian style. Travel is notoriously unreliable in India although to encounter such hell only her second train journey was very unusually unlucky for Sam. The gods were clearly sleeping on duty!. The day was not over. We left Putrid Putna station at about 1 am and tiptoed across the medieval cesspit outside into the refuge of a 0 star hotel. Fortunately we established that the train was now running and would intercept us at 4.30am. We boarded the to be honest fairly clean and cose sleeper and arrived in Kolkata shell shocked and 7 hours late.
We made our way to the clean, calm and comfortable oasis of my cousins house. He introduced us to the new family member a 45 day old Rotweiller pup called Mojo. Security Bunty says is the reason. OK he is adorable and cute if fairly incontinent. He also very playful and is clearly at the teething phase. He has a particular fondness for my toes. He cannot pierce my skin yet. I will shortly be away in Bangladesh for 3 weeks. As he will be considerably bigger by the time I get back I will be wearing chainmail armoured socks to protect my digits.
Hopefully the traumatic night for Sam was partially remedied by an excellent continental meal at Buntys' cousins posh restaurant. It would have been worth visiting without the food (best meal of the hols so far). This is a no licence restaurant, although the hilarious parading of the plastic bottled water by the waiters as if it was a 63' bottle of Lafite had to be seen to be disbelieved.
Prior to our Darjeeling trip we had already visited the school that Sam's Grandmother studied. We also returned to Park Cemetery to establish the family plot in which an ancestor Abraham the printer had been buried. So after a bit of souvenir shopping it was time for Sam to depart and status as a solo travel was to start again. She had certainly been a fine traveling companion although next time should gem up on the scrabble rules.
My first taste of solo traveling on this trip was a mere 21/2 hour train journey to Shantinekten (means peaceful abode). Such a brief journey although I was still able to get a front row seat into the poverty through the window. I could see could see scrawny old men on the fields ploughing the land with the aid of cattle. At one of the stations we passed through I could see 2 little boys of about 10 earning a meagre living by collecting discarded plastic bottles from the railway tracks. We had been taken to an orphanage in Bodgaya although the demand for such care seems depressingly endless. Apart from the usual poverty, the town itselfis leafy and sleepy little place in which for the main cars are banned in favour of cycle rickshaws. This is where one of India's most celebrated citizens set up university. Rabindranath Tagore was a writer of novels, poetry, music, articles. He was a political activist and advocate of peace. He was an architect,an artist and a horticulturist. He no doubt even made a mean Masala omelet.
From Eggs to existentialism (oh look it up) I think I've covered enough of this. I must crack on. To be continued....... Bangladesh beckons.