Annapurna Circuit, Nepal – 5: A Life Less Lived?

It could have happened.

Everybody needs a challenge.

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Sunset on Everest and Nuptse from Tengboche, Nepal.

Well, most do. I guess there are a few people who are so content with their lot they have no wish to stray out of the round of their day to day life, but I think they must make up a tiny minority.

And while it is a great achievement to be satisfied with your life, and not to constantly want a more expensive car, or clothes or jewellery, we all need something to strive for, otherwise we tend to stagnate.

Even the most altruistic, who might strive to eradicate poverty, or bring justice where there is none, need a more personal challenge sometimes.

For some it might be speed – the need to have a go on a fast motor cycle or racing car somewhere. Maybe to try a bungee jump. To feel the adrenaline surge that comes with the mixture of excitement and fear.

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On Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir, India.

For others it might be the very opposite. Many of us need the opportunity to spend time away from the 21st century. Those of us who do not like the noise and speed and intensity of our modern life, need to find respite in places like the mountains, or deserts, or somewhere else remote from modern life. Woodlands at night, perhaps, or a windswept beach on an island. The challenge is frequently to find these places or to access them. Perhaps even to make the time to do so.

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Monks on their way to morning Puja, Bodhgaya, India.

Those are the sort of places I need, and where I often feel I can do my best creative work. The only places I feel I can really relax.

And the reason I had to walk the Annapurna Circuit.

Just while putting together this set of posts, at times I have looked around the room at the photographs of the Annapurnas, the maps, then at my rucksack in the corner, and felt an almost irresistible urge to just…go.

This sense of adventure is frequently in conflict with the other strands of my life, though, because (like most people) my lack of money and the demands of work and family, and other commitments, prevent me just scooting off for a week or month away whenever I feel like it.

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A track through fields and woods a mile or so from where I live.

But I have always tried to take the opportunity to go off to these places when I could, as I reasoned that I couldn’t know how long I would still be able to.

What made me determined to do this was a missed opportunity when I was working temporarily in Peru. I knew that when I finished my six week stint and returned to UK, I might no longer have a job. So when I was offered the chance to stay on for a week to visit Cuzco and Machu Pichu with friends I declined, even though it would only have cost about a hundred dollars for the whole trip. And I regretted it ever afterwards.

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Little Adam’s Peak, Ella, Sri Lanka.

I have no intention of looking back on my life later and wishing I had done these things when I had the opportunity.

4th February 2017

I was reading through my travel journal for 2005, yesterday.

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The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

On 16th March I arrived at Bodhgaya, for my second visit to this lovely small town. Because I was going to be away from England for my eldest daughter’s birthday, she had asked me to write and send her a poem. I wrote this in the evening after visiting the Mahabodhi Temple, and after meeting with Indian friends I had not seen for a year, and thought it entirely suitable to dedicate to her and to send her.

There is a crazy wisdom here;

I am at the heart of all things Buddhist.

Good friends make life bearable.

Gentle people give me hope.

An unexpected friend gives me unlooked-for joy.

I am here,

This is the eye of the hurricane.

The still point in the centre of the universe.

My hope for the world,

My hope for you.

Unquenchable love.

I don’t write a great deal of poetry, because I don’t feel it is really my forte, but in the light of current events around the world, it seems worth posting here. I revised it a little before I sent it, but this was the original draft.

Sending everyone hopes and thoughts of friendship, peace and tolerance.

 

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.

Varanasi and Sarnath

The city of Varanasi is probably the most important place in India to Hindus, whilst the ruins of Sarnath, some 10km away, mark the remains of a site of great importance to Buddhists. I stayed there for three days, some 8 years ago.
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Dasaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi. Taken from the top of the steps (ghats). The River Ganges is the holiest river to Hindus, and Varanasi is the one of the holiest cities. Previously named Benares (and often so still called) and Kashi (City of Life), it is visited by Hindus in their millions who come to bathe in the Ganges to purify their souls. In a final journey, many are cremated here and their ashes cast into the river, believing that this will help to achieve liberation from rebirth.

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The river Ganges from Dasaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi.

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Stalls on the ghats at Varanasi. Varanasi never seems less than vibrant and colourful.

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And another stall near the ghats.

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Down at the ghats I was trailed by this cheerful young rogue demanding money to have his photo taken or to show me the sights or sell me souvenirs or lead me to stalls where I could purchase to my heart’s content or…whatever.

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Street scene in Varanasi. The church in the middle distance is Saint Thomas’. This was taken quite early in the morning when I was on my way to the ghats. Early afternoon as I was returning, it was packed solid, traffic completely unable to move.

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10km outside Varanasi lie the ruins of Sarnath. After the Buddha had achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya, he came to Sarnarth – a walk of some 250kms or so, through what would have been highly dangerous country then – to seek out his former companions and in the Deer Park there he gave his first sermon, on the turning of the wheel of law. This comprises the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and the Middle Way. In the 3rd century BC, the emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism after witnessing the terrible carnage of a war he had unleashed, built stupas and monasteries here as well as an engraved pillar. These survived until the end of the 12th century when they were destroyed during the Muslim invasions and not rediscovered until 1834 by a British archaeological team.

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This altar stone in the ruins of Sarnath) is still being used by pilgrims for pujas.

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Dhamekh Stupa at Sarnath . This solid cylindrical tower, 33m in height, supposedly marks the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon. The base is stone, covered in delicate carvings, and the upper part brick.

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Carvings adorning the base of the Dhamekh Stupa.

How India Changed an Englishman

I wrote a piece for The Good Men Project, about my time in India and how I came to write Making friends with the Crocodile’. Sushi Menon kindly edited it to make it readable, and gave it a title, and you can find it here:

How India Changed An Englishman

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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 (7) – the Final Installment!

It was much warmer down in Kalimpong. Indeed, I would be inclined to describe it as hot, although I have no doubt that most Indians would say ‘Pah! You think that’s hot?’ Possibly I wouldn’t think so either, if I had just come up from the plains, but coming from Sikkim, it definitely felt hot.

The first morning, as soon as I had finished breakfast, I took a long, hot, but extremely beautiful walk up hill through mixed forest to the Durpin Gompa, or, as it’s properly called, the Zang Dog Palri Fo Brang Monastery. It was a morning of flowers, trees, sunshine and butterflies, and for some reason I felt especially euphoric.

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The road to the monastery runs through an army checkpoint and lots of army land, and from the checkpoint I was helpfully taken partway by an extremely polite and friendly redcap and shown the correct junction. As I continued my walk, I was passed by a number of soldiers who all smiled and wished me a good morning. It was slightly unnerving, since most soldiers I had come across before had tended to adopt their special stern and unfriendly faces for me as soon as I neared them.

Later, on the way back from the monastery, I was stopped at the same checkpoint by a soldier who decided that he wanted to chat. So for some ten minutes or so, I was standing there, with him holding my hand and asking me where I came from and about my family and what I thought of India and yet, after two months in India, it all seemed entirely natural.

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What else did I do in Kalimpong? Well, I virtually overdosed on lassis, especially mango lassis. The fancy just took me.

I had a haircut.

I got some of my films developed. There was no real reason why I should, but I felt impatient and for some reason wanted to look at the ones I had taken of Bodhgaya.

I watched the last of the India / Pakistan cricket series on the TV. India won the test series as well as the ODI’s. It seemed that the whole series had been played in a fantastic spirit, and I found myself hoping that this might, in some small way, lead to improved relations between the two countries.

But I feared that I was being hopelessly naïve.

I looked around the market, which was fun – as it usually is in India. And I took a number of photos. And here I must admit to a strong loathing of the tourists and travellers that shove a camera lens in someone’s face and take a picture, totally oblivious of any offence they may cause. You see it so often. And I think it is so often a kind of western arrogance, an idea that they somehow have a right to do it.

Once, waiting for a flight at Dubai airport, I witnessed two young Japanese tourists who approached an Arab gentleman who was looking splendid in white dishdash and keffiyeh, sitting and drinking coffee. After poking the camera lens into his face and taking a couple of photos, whilst the gentleman sat impassively ignoring this rudeness, the girl had the effrontery to pull a chair right up next to him and lean into him, as the boy continued taking photos.

I cringed. I felt the entire room cringe.

The gentleman concerned drained his cup and slowly stood up, bowed without smiling to the young couple, and walked off.

So I walked around the market stalls, asking people if I could take their photos. Some said no, but most said yes.

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Late afternoon, and thick cloud was quite literally sitting on the top of Kalimpong. The ground level was warm and dry, whilst the tops of the buildings and trees disappeared into the clouds. I remember seeing this also in Kathmandu, once. It’s a kind of inversion, but I think there’s a special name for it when it occurs in urban areas.

I returned to the plains by share jeep again, and flew back to Delhi the following day.

Delhi felt very different to how it had felt a couple of months before – much hotter, now, and the lighter evenings gave it a very different feel, too. Other than buy books and walk around a lot, I didn’t do a great deal with my two days there.

In my mind, I had already left to go home.

 

 

My First Long Trip to India (5)

I picked up my bus ticket from the travel agent, and went for lunch. Whilst I was eating, I looked at the newspaper and noticed that the ‘People’s War’ (Naxalites) had blown up the railway line near Jehanabad again. It was a good job that I had decided to get the bus to Patna.

And so, the following morning, after packing, having breakfast and attending to a few final tasks that I had promised I would do, I went off to the Project to say goodbye. I knew it would be difficult! It seemed as though everyone came up for a hug, and then I went off with the manager back to my guest house to pick up my pack, and then off to meet the bus. One final, slightly teary, goodbye, and I was on the bus and off.

Four and half hours later in Patna, I was set down amidst total chaos. There were flashing lights, seas of red flags, loud music blaring through countless loudspeakers,millions of people, it seemed, singing – another Hindu festival. I found the station, with a little difficulty, and then the nearest restaurant and bar, for some sustenance.

I learned that the chaos had a name – Ram Naumi.

As I ate, it felt quite odd to know that outside was Patna, and that the Project and the open countryside weren’t just around the corner. It rather felt as though I had just left home.

My train left roughly on time, and I slept well until the morning. We then trundled along gently, getting in about one thirty (two hours late) to New Jalpaiguri. It was slightly cooler, and felt almost refreshing. I hadn’t expected a temperature drop then, I must admit. Presumably it was because we were that much closer to the mountains. Soon, I found myself and my rucksack jammed into a bicycle rickshaw heading north through the long streets of Siliguri, at the foot of the Himalaya, during what should have been lunchtime. There followed a three hour jeep ride in which we immediately began to climb up away from the plains as we left Siliguri, through farms, tea gardens and jungle that gradually began to look more typical of Nepal than of the India that I had lived in for the previous month and a half.

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I arrived in Darjeeling at dusk, found myself a room and settled in to enjoy a week’s rest. I then proceeded to explore the temples, markets and surrounding countryside, make plans to move on to Sikkim and dropped into Joey’s Bar for the odd beer.

Later, I decided to have afternoon tea at the Planter’s Club, a hangover from the tea planting days of the Raj. It’s something that I felt I ought to sample.

I wasn’t disappointed. Inside, I was the only customer and it was much as I had imagined that it would be; dark wood floor and ceiling, brick fireplace, piano in the corner, trophy heads high up all around the walls. I was served tea by a Nepali who wanted to talk politics. That morning there had been a strike that had closed the town down for several hours, over the irregularity of water supplies. We agreed that it was down to the government. And when that’s finally solved, he added, then there’s the electricity…

He asked if I wanted music and I said yes, almost immediately regretting it, but was surprised when it was classical music. Looking around, it really did look as though the Colonels and their ladies had gone home and everything was still waiting for them. Outside, it was raining gently and just above me a couple of lights glowed yellow in the afternoon gloom. The shade of Miss Haversham from Great Expectations seemed to hover at my shoulder. All that was needed was a thick layer of dust over everything and the image would have been complete.

Also, it was strange that there was nothing Indian in there, and if it was in the UK, then it would look really ordinary, yet it had a powerful atmosphere there. Only, I suppose, because I knew that I was in India. And then, as Fur Elise played softly in the background, I was suddenly, utterly and helplessly homesick. Nothing like the continual yes, it’ll be nice to get back and see everyone once I’ve finished here, but I could picture myself strongly, sitting in an old stone inn somewhere in Wales having a beer with friends, or perhaps sitting around a log fire with close family. Seeing my family! As the music continued, I sat at the table with my tea, unable to think of anything but home.

It finished, and another piece started. I forget now what it was, but I had to literally shake myself to break the spell. I sat a while longer, paid the bill, and left.

A couple of days later I went and had tea again at the Planters – this time there were several Indian families in there and some Hindi pop playing – a decidedly different ambience! Although the afternoon was again gloomy, the piano still in the corner and the threadbare heads staring balefully down, I was unable to conjure up anything like the same feelings. It seemed impossible that I should have felt so differently here a couple of days before. I felt that I had re-joined India.

Darjeeling still retains much of its old colonial character, in places.

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The Oxford Bookshop, on Chaurasta, where I spent far too much and had to have my purchases shipped home.

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A sea of prayer flags on Observatory Hill. Darjeeling has a large Tibetan population and many gompas (monasteries) both in the town and surrounding hills. Observatory Hill is the site of the original temple of Dorge Ling , long destroyed, but after which the town was named, once the British had persuaded the then ruler of the area, the Chogyal of Sikkim, to lease them the land to build a hill station. the hill is now home to a Hindu shrine, with the British-built church of Saint Andrew close-by.

But no gompa.

After a week in Darjeeling, I moved on to Sikkim. After a really cold night, I left Darjeeling in a share-jeep for Gangtok on a lovely sunny morning, with clouds ebbing and flowing across the horizon and in the valleys. I got there about two, and then got a room in the travel lodge. It was big and clean, with lots of hot water, and the rest of the day I spent looking around the town.

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.