Bihari Door

I paint quite a few doors – they are a favourite subject of mine. Although if you mention that to my wife, she will sniff ‘You’re joking! I can’t even get him to paint a shelf!’

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Bihari Door – Acrylic on canvas, 18ins x 24ins.

 

Pictures available on my Etsy shop site here

Bodhgaya (2) – A Special Place

About six months ago, I put up a post on Bodhgaya (which you can find here if you wish to read it again), and promised I would find a few more photos to post another time.

This is another time.

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My first picture is of the entrance to the Mahabodhi Temple, which is built on the site where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Ashoka, in the third century BC, and the present one was erected in the fifth or sixth century AD. Visitors remove their shoes (or face a one hundred rupee fine) and descend the steps from the garden that surrounds the temple.

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Just before reaching the entrance itself, they will pass this small chorten – one of dozens surrounding the temple – garlanded with marigolds.

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Many more chortens surround the temple and can be found around the gardens themselves, these ones beside a carved sandstone balustrade.

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But the Mahabodhi Temple is by no means the only Buddhist temple in Bodhgaya. As the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment, it has naturally been the focus for many Buddhists from around the world, and there are many other temples built by those from the various different branches of Buddhism. This one is one of two Tibetan temples.

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On the edge of Bodhgaya, this twenty five metre tall statue of the Buddha was erected in the grounds of the Japanese Daijokyo temple in 1989.

But Bodhgaya, naturally, is more than simply its temples. Although it is quite naturally a major tourist attraction, it is also home to many people, and daily life is not much different from other towns in Northern India.

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As you approach the temple areas from the northern side of the town, this is a fairly typical scene. In the distance, the share auto that plies between Bodhgaya and Gaya is filling up with passengers, and men and women shop for essentials.

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A woman carries a basket of dried cattle dung, which will be used to fuel the cooking fire.

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And on the edge of the town, the scene quickly becomes rural once again.

From Thursday I shall be away for a few days, but will catch up with comments and other blog posts once I am back.

A random bit of Delhi for the weekend

‘Once I leave, I am back out in noisy, smelly, confusing, squalid, hassling, bright Paharganj. When I first came here, it seemed very strange and exotic, had an unusual, exciting feel to it that was difficult to identify but was certainly the strange, unfamiliar sounds, smells, sights and feel of an unknown culture. Even the bits that were new, still seemed dirty and somehow old, as if something about them owed their existence to the distant, Indian past. This has gone and I miss it most keenly, since I keep getting a hint of it, floating unexpectedly on the breeze with sounds and smells that remind me of when I first came out here. This has been replaced, however, by something almost as precious…I feel completely at home.’ 13th November 2009
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Crowds near the Ajmeri Gate, Old Delhi

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Turkman gate, Old Delhi. One of the gates in the city walls at the time of the Indian Mutiny / 1st Indian War of Independence, it dates from the seventh city of Delhi, Shahjehanabad. More recently, in 1976, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi’s government, it was the scene of another infamous episode, when crowds protesting about the bulldozing of their houses in an effort to clear slum areas and force them out of the city were fired upon by the police, killing several of them.

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Tenements near the Turkman Gate, Old Delhi

 

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Mihrab, or Arch, in a building in the Lodi Gardens, Delhi

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Delhi Gate, in the old city near Chandni Chowk. This photo was taken in 1989. When I passed the same gate in 2009, the traffic was a whole lot worse!

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The great tower of Qutb Minar. The first of the Moslem invasions was by Muhammed, Sultan of Ghur in what is now Afghanistan, in 1192. Having overrun a large part of the Northern Indian plains, he returned to Ghur, leaving his new territory in the hands of his army commander and favourite slave, Qutbuddin Aibak. Qutbuddin decided to leave a monument to his religion that was designed to overawe his new subjects and inspire his own people, and set about building a mosque with a massive tower nearby. The tower itself is almost 73m high and is 15m in diameter at the base, tapering to 2.5m at the top.

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Decorative details of the stonework. Most artistic decoration is, as usual with Islamic craftwork, patterned work and verses from the Koran. At Qutb Minar, there are also plentiful stylised, and sometimes surprisingly realistic, depictions of plants with flowers and buds and long, winding stems and tendrils. To construct the mosque, artisans used stone from Hindu and Jain temples and many stones and panels still depict the original carvings, frequently defaced but still recognisable.

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The famous ‘non-rusting’ iron pillar. This stands in the courtyard of the mosque and was here long before the mosque was built. It was made in the reign of Chandragupta II (AD 375-413), is composed of almost pure iron (99.72%) and shows only the slightest sign of rusting. A sanskrit inscription on the pillar indicates that it probably stood originally outside a Vishnu temple, possibly in Bihar, and was moved later to this site. It would probably have had a garuda, the vehicle of Vishna, on the top. 

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Squinch-arch in Iltutmish’s Tomb. A squinch is a ‘bridging’ structure, used here to support a dome (now gone). Iltutmish was Shamsuddin Iltutmish (ruled 1211-1236), 3rd ruler of Delhi (after Qutbuddin and Aram).

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Brahminical motifs on the columns of the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. These pillars were originally part of the Hindu and Jain temples that were razed in the area when Qutbuddin built his capital. It is chronicalled that 27 temples were destroyed. They would have been reassembled by Hindu craftsmen, Qutbuddin using local labour.

 

Bodhgaya (1)

I spent a total of 2 months in Bodhgaya, Bihar, but I seemed to end up with surprisingly few photographs of the town and surrounding countryside. Here are a selection of them, though, and I may put a few more up sometime soon. Hence the somewhat tentative ‘part one’ in the title.

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 Bodhgaya is a world heritage site, because the Mahabodhi Temple was built at the site where the Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment, some 2500 years ago. The original temple was built by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. The current temple dates from the 11th century AD, and was restored in 1882 by the Burmese. Surrounded by the usual frenetic Northern Indian crowds, and visited by a huge number of pilgrims and visitors, the temple and grounds still manage to somehow achieve an unbelievably peaceful ambience.

 

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The Bhodi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple. It is a third generation descendant of the tree under which the Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment.

 

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Thai temple, Bodhgaya. As well as the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya also has temples built by virtually every country with a sizeable Buddhist population. As befits the place where the Buddha originally achieved enlightenment, it is an active Buddhist centre with many charitable projects set up and running.

 

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Dawn over Sujata Village, Bodhgaya. This was often the view that greeted me when I walked across the dry bed of the River Phalgu from Bodhgaya to the village of Sujata, in the cool of the morning. A rich reward for getting up early!


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Hindu temples on the edge of Sujata Village.

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Fields in Sujata Village. In the vast majority of Indian villages, fields are still worked by hand or with animal labour. here is no exception.

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Farms at the edge of Bodhgaya. Although Bihar is the most corrupt, poverty-ridden state in India, sitting at the bottom of the table in almost any set of statistics that you may care to consult, the land appears lush and fertile, supporting a strong agriculture.

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And whilst we’re on a rural theme…a street corner in Bodhgaya.

 

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Monks heading for morning puja (ceremony) in Sujata.

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Temple door in Bodhgaya.

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Dawn in Bodhgaya. The moslems are heading for the mosque, whilst most of the others are heading for work, for puja at Hindu or Buddhist temples, or to find breakfast.

I was after breakfast.

My First Long Trip to India (4)

What did I do whilst I was in Bodhgaya?

On my first day at the project, I left my guest house at 6.30 and walked over the bridge that crosses the wide, dry and sandy riverbed, into the village. At that time of morning, the air is still cool and the light is beautiful.

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When I arrived school was well under way, with over two hundred children and five teachers sitting or standing under the trees, looking at blackboards, writing in exercise books, and reciting out loud. The school day ran from around six thirty until nine or nine thirty, and involved the children who lived there, plus another couple of hundred from the village and surrounding area. At nine-ish the couple of hundred went home – for many of them it was the only schooling that they received; and they were only able to attend because the Project provided it for free. The Project kids then ate quickly, washed and changed into uniforms, then went off to another school, which the Project paid for – partly in rupees, and partly by the manager doing some regular work for them.

Two other volunteers and myself made ourselves useful by preparing and washing vegetables, making chapattis, cleaning plates and bowls and manning the pump (there was a well, so at least there was a good supply of fresh, clean water). I found the cleaning process fascinating. Ash from the kitchen fire is always saved and pots, pans and bowls are all cleaned using a handful of ash as a scourer, and then rinsed. It helps that all of the utensils are stainless steel – cheap, light and hard-wearing. They come up a treat.

At the end of the morning, I went off to town for lunch, and also to buy a bottle of Indian rum from the Foreign Liquor Store; you have to go to a locked grille and pay for your purchase, where it is then placed in a brown paper bag and passed out through the grille. It all seems most furtive. I had been sleeping badly, and someone suggested that it might help, so I was happy to try it!

Then to the drug store and Ayurvedic (traditional medicine) shop to buy medical supplies for the Foundation, and then finally a water heater, cups, spoon, coffee etc. for myself.

I was gradually making myself at home.

Whilst I was in Bodhgaya, it was decided that I would act as a sort of secretary, which would take a lot of pressure off of the manager (who took about an hour to compose a short email, in any case). There was another volunteer arriving in about six weeks, who could then take this over, so that would give some continuity. I would also do a little English and maths teaching to some of the children.

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The Muslim festival of Muharram was one event that happened during my stay. One afternoon, another volunteer and I found ourselves watching a mock sword-fight, held at a Muslim tomb, where at the culmination some ashes were symbolically buried, representing Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson. All of the village were there, and a jolly time was had by all. Or at least a noisy one, which probably amounts to the same thing.

Once this was over, we wandered back to the Project in the half light, trying to keep an eye on all of the children (who knew their way back far better than us), where we were treated to yet another meal. We all sat around the courtyard on a tarpaulin, sharing plates of vegetables, rice, chapatti and, for the meat eaters, goat, since it is a special occasion (certainly for the goat, it is!). Lit by the light of a single hurricane lamp, surrounded by shadows, we stuffed our faces – adults first, and then the children.

We then meandered back quietly through the fields in the moonlight, listening to distant fireworks and drums from the town and nearby villages; although, other than the soft scuff of our feet in the dry, dusty soil, we seemed to be walking in an oasis of silence. Above, the night sky was a deep, vibrant, velvet blue and the Mahabodhi temple glowed in the distance, lit up by the dozens of lights surrounding it. We agreed that we were privileged to be able to experience all of this, and expressed astonishment that there are people who will pay thousands of pounds to go to India to spend their time sitting on beaches and living in plush hotels on the seafront.

To each their own, I guess.

One final snapshot from Bodhgaya:

The temperature and the humidity had been gradually rising, and I had reached the point where I was finding it difficult to cope and was desperate to get away. Eventually, I made up my mind to go to Darjeeling at the first opportunity and, suddenly, everything was different:

‘I investigate flights and trains, and start deciding on days. Strangely, I now start finding reasons for postponing my travel date, rather than bringing it forwards, as though the decision has given me permission to enjoy the place. Bodhgaya has become so familiar to me, that I start getting those ‘leaving home’ feelings.

‘After I have eaten, I head back in the night along the road that runs around past the site of the Tibetan market, now empty since the Tibetans have long-gone by now, largely by the end of February, most in January. It’s far too hot for them now.

‘To my left, in the darkness, I can feel the open, flat market area, sense the emptiness by the sudden silence and the moving airs; it is now merely hot, the sun long gone down and the breeze gives almost a feeling of coolness. I walk around the corner and know to a metre when I shall see the soaring Mahabodhi temple, floodlit, through the trees behind the darkened stalls; filled by families already settling for the night. On the other side of the road the familiar pattern of lights on the low hillside. I walk on, to the sound of the frightened cries of chickens in small cages on the corner by the clinic. I know where I am by sounds alone.

Down, then, to join the Gaya road and a maelstrom of traffic. Dust lies thick beside the pot-holed road and I kick it up with my footsteps to join the thick cloud hanging heavily in the air and churned about by the traffic, so thick that the few cars or buses with lights merely illuminate the confusion. The dust settles on your head, your clothes, in your mouth, in your nostrils, your eyes. The glow of headlights merely hurts eyes already smarting.

In the darkened area beside the police compound (they have to keep them somewhere), I await the point where I am suddenly assailed by the strong scent of flowers, heady and unexpected from some low, unobtrusive and nondescript blooms that give off a sweet, pungent odour remarkably powerful for their size.

Almost immediately I pass the Burmese monastery, where rickshaw wallahs pounce, then home.’

I left about a week later.

My First Long Trip to India (3)

I had read a little bit about Bodhgaya before I travelled out to India, and if I had taken any notice of what I had read, I don’t suppose I would have gone there at all.

The place was crawling with bandits.

I was likely to be kidnapped.

I was certain to be shot and robbed.

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Sitting in the autotaxi as it bumped its way through the countryside between Gaya and Bodhgaya, with the sun shining on the fields and trees, this all seemed most unlikely. Yet, for those who lived there, these fears were very real. Later on in my stay, I travelled with another westerner and two Indians by jeep to Patna, which was a four hour drive.

We were delayed in Patna as the jeep broke down, the result being that we were several hours late in setting out on our return journey. It was beginning to get dark soon after we left Patna, and the two Indians on board were clearly very fearful of being stopped. They said that if we encountered a roadblock, it was quite likely to have been set up by bandits, and that we would veer off of the road and drive hell for leather – anywhere – to avoid them. They were less worried about crashing the jeep in the darkness somewhere than they were of the bandits. I used this as the basis of an incident in my forthcoming novel ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’. *shameless plug*+.

+Well, why not. It’s my blog, after all.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself, and so back to the autotaxi. My driver had no idea where the guest house was that I wanted to go to, but cheerfully said that would be no problem. Once we reached Bodhgaya, he asked a few people where it was, and I was soon offloaded on the doorstep.

Once I had checked in, I walked into the town to explore and, more importantly, track down some supper.

By the time I reached the Mahabodhi Temple Park, it was dark. The temple looked absolutely stunning lit up by a number of spotlights, but I deliberately decided not to go in until the next day. I felt that I should wait until I felt a little cleaner and fresher. There was no rush; I was there for some time. I was looking forward to getting to know Bodhgaya better and treating it as home for a month or so.

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The road outside, which was the only one in Bodhgaya that was well-paved (and pedestrianized, no less!) was, not surprisingly, full of various vendors and supplicants. But they were not overly pushy, not overly expensive, and interesting. I bought some incense, partly just to help to drive the mozzies out of my room! Just standing outside the park gates I got a great feeling of well-being and pleasure.

The following morning, after breakfast, I visited the temple.

Stunning, I had thought the previous evening, and, yes, stunning it was.

Not stunning in the sense that the Taj Mahal, for example, is stunning, although the architecture is interesting; there was just a massive sense of place, of solidity, and the thought came into my head that Hindus and Buddhists alike ascribe the centre of the world to Mount Meru, but this felt like the centre to me. As I was walking around, several times I just felt an unexpected urge to burst into tears.

All around the temple, there were pilgrims and tourists. At one side, there is an old Neem tree, supposedly a 4th generation descendant of the one that the Buddha sat beneath to achieve enlightenment, two and half millennia ago. When it is grown at a Buddhist temple, it is referred to as a Bodhi (which literally means ‘enlightenment’) Tree.

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The reason that this site is so special, however, is that this was the actual site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. For a Buddhist, places just don’t come more special than this.

Everywhere, groups of pilgrims were conducting pujas (ceremonies); there were large numbers of Japanese and Korean pilgrims, but also many from other countries. This is reflected in the large number of Buddhist temples built in other places around Bodhgaya. There are a dozen or so temples built by Buddhist orders from all of the countries with substantial Buddhist populations, such as Thai, Chinese, Tibetan, Vietnamese…lots to visit, I decided. Outside the gates, a CD of chanting monks was playing. Despite the swarm of visitors, the whole place exuded peace, and I found myself just gently strolling around, sitting, watching everything…

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It was lunchtime, I found with surprise, when I left the temple grounds.

The presence of so many Buddhists in Bodhgaya has led to the setting up of a number of ‘projects’. These take many forms, but there are a good number of medical projects, schools, and orphanages, all set up to provide these services free to those that would otherwise not be able to afford them. Bihar is the poorest state in India, with higher levels of poverty, lower life expectancy and lower rates of literacy than any other state (the last time I checked!).

Human nature being what it is, a few of these are scams. I had checked out the project that I had volunteered for as well as I was able to beforehand, and was reasonably certain that it was genuine. I was volunteering my time, rather than donating money, so I was fairly sure that I would be able to see what was happening on the project as I worked, and if I was helping to (for example) improve the English of a few children, then that would be beneficial regardless of anything else.

I made contact with the project organiser and told him I had arrived in Bodhgaya.

The next morning I was at the orphanage.

My First Long Trip to India (2)

And so, fifteen years after my first trip to India, I was back again in Delhi.

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Eventually I felt brave enough to leave the café and go off to do my tasks. First of all, I had to sort out my train ticket, so I headed off to the Tourist Bureau (The Official One!) at New Delhi Station. But as I headed up the steps towards the office, I was stopped by a friendly chap who told me it was closed. ‘But no bother’ he said. ‘You come with me and I take you to Tourist Office where they sell you ticket’.

Before I realized what I was doing, I turned to follow him. By the time that we were out of the station and threading our way through the taxis and crowds on the concourse I had remembered that this was a common ploy to get people to ‘Tourist Offices’. Nowadays I have no problem with using them – in fact I will often seek them out to buy me tickets, but more of that later. I glanced up at my new best friend, who was a few steps ahead of me, and peeled unobtrusively off and headed back into the station.

I went back up the steps towards the Tourist Bureau. The first thing that struck me was the silence. Downstairs, all was noise and smells, colour and chaos, but up here was a big, gloomy, echoing corridor, empty as far as I could see. After wandering up and down for a while, I found the Bureau which was, naturally enough, open, and fairly crowded. Inside, whilst I awaited my turn at the counter, I chatted to a fellow traveller from England who decided that it was his task to lecture me at length on how to approach getting a ticket out of Indian Railways. Foremost amongst this advice, he said, hectoring me sternly, was keeping your cool amidst all the provocation, bureaucracy and hassle.

Eventually, he was called to the counter. They went through his application form and documents with him, seemingly finding fault with something. He lost his cool with them, and left without a ticket.

I chortled quietly to myself.

When it was my turn, I found the process fairly straightforward, although long-winded. But I left with my ticket to Gaya stashed securely in my wallet.

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Why Gaya? Gaya is certainly not a tourist destination, but it is the nearest town of any size to Bodhgaya. When I had decided to come to India, instead of limping around Britain in pain, I had come to the conclusion that instead of just travelling around for three months or so, I should at least spend some time doing something worthwhile.

We all like to think that we’re having an existential crisis at times. Okay, that’s probably not true. But lots of us do. What is an existential crisis, though? Is it simply that we are going through a time in our history when more and more of us question our role, our place in our society? Or could there be more to it than that? It certainly would now seem to be a time when many people in the west have come to doubt whether the values that they are taught are actually of any importance, and indeed whether they really have any value at all.

On the other hand, there are just as many members of that society who feel that the whole subject is just bunkum, and that those who complain about these things are merely whinging, work-shy degenerates. Sod your existential issues, mate, I’ve got a family to feed.

Is it really, then, just so much nonsense? Maybe our situation is such that we can afford to have these crises now; that we now have the opportunity to address them. When life is simply a struggle to keep a roof over one’s head and to put food on the table, then one’s priorities are very different from those with the leisure to ponder ‘life’s imponderables’. In past times, we would have had to just carry on regardless, although there were writers then who recognised and explored them, such as Hermann Hesse and Somerset Maugham. The only other realistic option, other than becoming a vagrant, would have been to completely renounce the world and to join a monastery or become a hermit.

India, though, handles these things rather differently. Hindus have a duty to seek pleasure and success and to accumulate wealth, but also, eventually, to renounce the world and seek moksha; liberation, after the discovery that the other three paths give no lasting satisfaction. This is seen in the persons of the many ascetics who wander the land, or live alone or in ashrams, having given up all worldly possessions.

Bodhgaya is in Bihar, the poorest state in India. It is also the place where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. For this reason, there are many Buddhist temples there, attracting a goodly number of Buddhist pilgrims, and, naturally, not a few tourists, and also a number of charitable projects.

And a few rogues.

I was attracted to the idea of spending time there, both to experience the temples and atmosphere, but also to work for a while on one of the projects. I did some research whilst in the UK, and arranged to help out at a project that comprised a school and orphanage in a village on the outskirts of Bodhgaya.

Smugly pleased with myself for obtaining my ticket to Gaya, I then went to find an Internet cafe and e-mailed everyone, then meandered back to a café for lunch.

Two days later, I was in Bodhgaya.