Post 14 – Day 7 ‘Mr Toad Rides Again; onwards to Bodh Gaya’ (Pt 1)

Post 14

My last morning by the Ganges, and my last breakfast in the little restaurant above the hotel, my stomach still undecided as to its state of mind. I eat well, but choose carefully. I pack my suitcase, take one last look about my room in case I have left something of importance behind, put my day pack on my back, return my room keys to the concierge, bid the door of the ‘Baba School of Music’ a final farewell, sigh at the thought of ‘sitars not meant to be’, momentarily consider the ‘other-worldliness’ of the dozing watchman, greet my waiting driver at the entrance to the alleyway, delicately tread the path that gives access to our parked car, and I am off.

We are driving to Bodh Gaya. Up the road one will find the teaming cities of Allahabad, Kanpur and New Delhi, down the road one ultimately finds the mega-city of Kolkata, but long before then we will turn north off the highway at the town of Doddi. In leaving Varanasi I also leave the state of Uttar Pradesh for Bodh Gaya is in Bihar state, just a stone’s throw away from the border of the new eastern state of Jharkhand. Beyond this is West Bengal. These states of Eastern India cover the lower reaches of the Ganges Plain and delta, and two and a half thousand years ago this region developed a distinctive culture that dominated most of the subcontinent and profoundly influenced Asia. Here lived Siddhattha, the ‘prince’ who became Gautama Buddha. He was a contemporary of the philosophers Lao Tzu, Pythagoras, and Thales of Miletus. Central Bihar also saw the rise of the Kingdom of Magadha which became the base of the later Mauryan and Shunga Empires, but this cultural and political dominance was to crumble in the face of Muslim invaders from Afghanistan in the late 12th Century. It is a region that produces distinctive textiles and saris, though many of the region’s indigenous saris have since disappeared, for the business practices attendant on the entrenchment of the British East India Company during the 18th Century reduced once comfortable peasants and artisans within this industry to poverty.

Poverty. In the ‘Simhasana Dvatrimshika’, a collection of stories extolling the virtues of the Hindu monarch Vikramaditya, it is related how the king happened upon a brahmin of impoverished means. The brahmin proudly proclaimed that “poverty has made me a magician. For I can see everyone, but no one at all sees me”. I take the brahmin’s point, but in India poverty screams in my face, its outcry tearing aside any and all pretence at invisibility. Unlike Hometown, here poverty is neither relative nor conditional, but absolute.


The Dalai Lama is soon due at Bodh Gaya. I hope to reach Bodh Gaya and leave in advance of his arrival. Anticipating his presence will be a multitude of Buddhist devotees, for Bodh Gaya is the place of Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment. As travel by car will now be my normal means of adventure, one Indian Rail journey, a couple of short interconnecting domestic air flights, and a lot of walking not withstanding, from this point on I suppose this 7th day is really the beginning of my road trip.


The highways of India! I was to soon find that ‘Mr Toads’ in great numbers drove upon them. Enormous herds of Tata trucks, and their slightly more robust but less numerous cousins of the Ashok-Leyland variety, amble along the highway. Each one is unique in its choice of bright-coloured ornamentation, each one trailing talismans and other spiritual accoutrements to ward off the evil eye and to favour safe passage to their destination. And in large letters on the tail gate of each truck the words ‘Sound Horn’, or words to that effect. It was not an invitation, it was a polite command. The trucks drove along at speeds of between 40-80 kilometres an hour, but they gave no indication of knowledge of the art of ‘tail-gating’: a habit so well practiced by massive semi-trailers speeding down the Pacific Highway late at night into Sydney. Yet they pass at mere centimetres from one another, oblivious to the possibility of disaster. They are sauropods of a kind, and when packed tight together they reminded me of computer generated images of migrating dinosaurian Campsosaurs, or herds of some more recent mammoth, sauntering off to find fresh pickings in spring pastures. However, there was no road-kill, hardly a dead animal on the whole trip through India as it was to turn out. This would never do. Australian highways are littered with animal carnage, kangaroos, lizards, possums, parrots, tortoises; none given sympathy for shared right of way, all either squashed, severed or maimed, with birds of carrion at constant feast; though these also risk falling prey to the onrush of vehicles, sometimes carrion and would-be predator held in partnered death on the roadway.

In between this matrix of commuting trucks ducked and dived, quite literally, a myriad of cars, light commercial vehicles, motorbikes and bicycles, the latter sometimes with a young woman perched side-saddle on the pushbike’s pillion seat, the woman dressed in the most resplendent sari, her hair glistening from oil, plaited and perfect in its presentation. All these seemed to co-exist in a precarious environment to which I was totally unaccustomed.

My companions, who had continued to patiently suffer my company, express concern as to my comfort, cramped as they saw me, between all our luggage on the rear seat. Taking a leaf out of Gandhi’s habit of forthright civility I belatedly explain to my companions that in the event of a serious frontal collision with on-coming traffic that my companion sitting alongside the driver was the most likely of us to die, and those between he and me, in effect served as secondary safety buffers to the benefit of my survival. In effect they were ‘padding’ and, hopefully, any colliding vehicle would dissipate its kinetic energy before reaching me. So I explained that my choice of position within the tour vehicle was a selfish one, though intended without any thought of malice on my part. And as a consequence they should give no further concern as to my perceived discomfort. However, I did point out that my voluntary position on the rear seat should not be construed as a wilful tactic to sacrifice my compatriots to the mortal uncertainties of the Indian highway system. What was ordained to happen, would happen. Death would only visit if it was their ordained time.

I should, at this timely point, take the opportunity to make two minor diversions from the main trust of my journey’s tale. First, one needs to be fully aware of issues of etiquette and procedure with respect to the use of Indian roadways, and Australians in particular should not be lulled into a false sense of security simply because Indian and Australian drivers are required to drive on the same, left-hand, side of the road. All similarities end there. There are certain rules and contingencies upon which antipodean tourists might be ignorant. Some of these are as follows; give way to all livestock as one way or another they do have right of way, even if they are in the wrong. Cows are sacred, and of this reality and status cows seem self-aware. They are unlikely to stop for bicycles and motorbikes, rarely even for trucks or trains. In Australia’s Northern Territory, where trucks, sporting massive steel bull-bars and hauling three wagons at speeds in excess of 100 kilometres an hour, are commonplace, this tranquil bovine ambulation would be an unwise decision.

But this is India, and cows operate within a significantly different world cosmos. To progress: when confronted by any form of road sign suggesting one should not enter, disregard ‘and enter’; when driving through villages expect agricultural produce displayed for sale to be actually displayed on the road; expect to encounter food stuffs purposefully being sun-dried upon the road’s surface; and do not be surprised if the surfaces of sealed roads are being used by a builder to hand mix concrete for whatever structure he is at work on. One may also encounter wedding parties, obligatory decorated elephant and brass band included, joyously occupying all traffic lanes; this to the complete impediment of traffic. It is unlikely that Lord Ganesha will intercede on your behalf to remove all or any of these potential obstructions. In Australia there is an expression called ‘pull over’, the inference of possible reasons being well known, and so the vehicle’s driver obligingly slows, and positions the car off the roadway. Whenever I used this command in India, the car was usually parked partly on the road, or completely on it, often for many minutes, with the engine turned off, approaching traffic thus needing to divert to either side to avoid collision. Oddly, to me at least, all of whom did so without complaint. There was no ‘road rage’ and there were no traffic police to charge offenders with infringements of the highway code, if in fact there is a code to infringe. My most critical advice relates to traffic etiquette and driving strategies on multi-lane highways. When being confronted by numerous trucks bearing down on you, most likely those of the Tata variety, and all alternative lanes are occupied, it’s probably best to remind the driver to move to his side of the highway where, I must be honest, even when this is done, one may still encounter vehicles heading towards you. Such idiosyncratic events and episodes probably explain why a good friend, regular traveller to the diverse realms of India as she is, never consigns herself to travel by road.

My second diversion is to relate a little of the story of India’s Tata trucks for they are iconic in their decorative display and more than a little episodic in the frequency with which they dominate the experiences associated with Indian road travel. Tata is an Indian multinational automotive manufacturing company based in Mumbai, the old Bombay of the days of the British Raj. They produce a range of medium and heavy sized trucks, light commercial vehicles, buses, military vehicles and family cars. Although Tata now boasts assembly plants in Argentina, South Africa, Thailand and the United Kingdom, the company was originally a manufacturer of locomotives. In 2008 Tata acquired the emblematic British car maker Jaguar Land Rover from the Ford Motor Company, and has more lately acquired manufacturing interests in Spain as well as entering into joint development and production ventures in Italy and Brazil. Dismiss Tata trucks if you will but the company reflects the wider and burgeoning emergence of India as a First League player and power on the world scene. It was in this context that I was surprised not to find a realistic model of a Tata truck for sale in shops or stalls anywhere.


Each side of the highway are meticulously tended rectangular gardens and fields, each one bounded by low raised walkways, with rows of green crops standing atop carefully mounded strips of soil. I can see no weeds of cultivation. There is no hint of dereliction, and each neat parcel of land is tilled and cropped without waste of purpose. Everything is optimised, there is no neglect. The narrow spaces between each field support trees and shrubs, sometimes tall palm trees. I am not used to the economy with which this land is utilised, almost devoid of native vegetation though it is. I am used to agricultural landscapes that through their vastness and intensity of production find little room for vegetation that cannot pay its way. Paddocks, after being cleared of trees, are then left idle and weed-bound, as if their clearing without further intent was some post-colonial right of passage. Someone once said, I do not recall who, that in our hunger for wealth we have reduced the planet to a garden. I like the bit in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah about not putting house to house and field to field; as in “leave something for Nature’s wildness and the creatures and plants that are dependent upon it”. My Hometown landscapes reflected waste due to an over abundance of it – land. This landscape reflected agricultural use predicated by dire necessity. However, the view of the horizon is constantly diluted by brown haze, thus there is no clarity to anything distant, be it far peak or telecommunication tower. It is as if the soil is too easily disturbed, and then is carried aloft and suspended day-long by air currents.

Two things project dysfunction onto the vision. Plastic again permeates the roadsides. It is at its worse when you pass through towns and villages, far less so away from constricted human habitation. I am too new to the magnitude of its presence to be able to see past it, …… though I will learn later to mask it. When so much else is so carefully attended to, it is difficult to explain why such disregard happens. It is as if it is not seen. I fear its intrusion. So said, I confront the second displeasure that regularly comes into view. Imposed across the landscape are many high chimneys, each one emanating from small local kilns built to manufacture endless quantities of bricks. Plumes of dark smoke issue from each one, and each kiln is presumably fuelled by wood, yet trees are little in evidence. I saw no forests. I had already seen villagers cut down the last shade tree in their village, the six men at the task with axes in hand attacking its slow yielding trunk with callous fervour. Many woody shrubs, meant to landscape the highway’s median strip, were being actively pillaged and villagers openly piled the severed limbs atop their heads and proceeded to their homes. “It is illegal”, said my driver, but police were nowhere to be found. Yet all around are buildings and walls in a state of abandonment and ruin, each one built of bricks, but no sign of their reuse, no attempt to recycle the bricks from which they were constructed. The scene brings to mind the fictional writings of H. G. Wells, particularly ‘In the Days of the Comet’, where he bemoans the unsustainable impact and increasingly ugly imprint of pot-kilns as their furnaces consume the English countryside: “The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was grey oppression through the day became at sundown…”. Maybe I was overplaying it, and maybe I unwittingly combined images of untold thousands of acres of clear-felled native ‘brigalow’ woodland and open cut coal mines in Central Queensland, with the industrial wasteland of the Australian city of Newcastle’s outer suburbs, and threw the whole lot, irrespective of which country I was in, into one big pot of environmental destruction. But I had not come here with rose-coloured glasses. I did not cloud reality with mystery.

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