So I continued through Bihar, sometimes passing trucks piled impossibly high with goods, only the straightness of the highway, and the consequent absence of bends, saving these from toppling over. By Indian standards we drove at break-neck speed, past tricycles, cars and miscellaneous large conveyances. Of the need to ‘Sound Horn’ my driver was ever attentive. He did not slacken in his application of the device, and my warnings of his risk of suffering repetitive strain injury fell on deaf ears. Like ‘Toad’ we hurtled on, our wagon less precarious in its construction than many a flimsy vehicle we passed, our roadside stops compelled only by the need for regular cups of sustaining Indian tea, the ubiquitous spiced ‘chai’.
It was just past one such roadside tavern that I saw my only Indian snake in the wild. It was swimming across a pond quite close to a cluster of huts. No villagers seemed in evidence, the manifestation of the reptile held only to the eyes of my mind. At this particular moment in my experience of India I had yet to acquire sufficient alacrity and determination in the application of the command ‘pull over’ so we drove on, the driver heedless of my desire to stop and as a consequence, me oblivious to the species of the reptile. At home snakes are commonplace, most are poisonous, often they are very poisonous. One accepts the frequency with which Red-bellied black snakes are found, but of Death Adders and Rough-scaled snakes encounters are considered with dread. In truth though, snakes just do what they do. I just try to keep them out of the lounge room when they are doing it. In fact I accommodate regular populations of carpet pythons and brown tree snakes in my house ceiling. I learned long ago to generally leave them be, for in trying to dissuade them from their purpose most were inclined to get upset, and in removing them I did little more than create a vacant ecological niche, which one of their relatives quickly filled. Besides, snakes are efficient at keeping the populations of noisome rodents in check and, unlike other tradesmen I knew, they did not charge me for the service.
The relationship between man and reptile is not always so ambivalent. Nearchos, the admiral of Alexander the Great, relates how in the ‘Land of the Five Rivers’, essentially India and some lands to its north-west, snakes abound in such multitudes and in a state of such malignancy, and that at times of flood they retreat to villages which have not been inundated. Nearchos further notes that though the villagers raise their beds to a great height from the ground, snakes can abound in such numbers that the inhabitants are forced to abandon their own houses. Other chroniclers at Alexander’s side record the keeping by certain rulers of India of snakes of great length, and that the King of Abhisara (the hill tract south-west of Kashmir) in particular, kept two serpents, one of 80 and the other 140 cubits in length; a cubit being roughly equal to the length of a person’s forearm, the measurement somewhat liberal in its interpretation owing to the inconstant proportions of the human anatomy. Sadly I had chosen to visit India during the northern winter, thus most local snakes were asleep somewhere out of sight. Apparently some, such as cobras, like ant nests to over-winter in, warm and snug within their depths. Though I found several auspicious-sized holes in a number of ant nests, my prodding and poking with sticks did nothing to entice any residents of my target taxon group to emerge. Maybe they had found alternative accommodation.
Called ‘naga’ or ‘nag’, the former term for a snake not to be confused with certain Indian tribal peoples, snakes and snake deities loom large in Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu folklore, for in many parts of India they are considered sacred; the book ‘Indian Serpent-lore or The Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art’, written by J. PH. Vogel, Ph.D. and published in 1926, being most efficacious and insightful for one’s appreciation of their place in Brahmanical and Buddhist literature. Indigenous repositories of serpent lore include the Bhuridatta-jataka, the Kakati-jakata, and the Rajatarangini, but most Australian libraries do not carry these scholarly works. Students of naga-lore will soon ascertain that the winged and bird-beaked deity Garuda is the sworn enemy of all snakes, whether of the mortal or immortal kind, but my own familiarity of their sworn enemies is limited to that of Australia’s Wedge-tailed eagles and iconic kookaburras. Naga deities are usually portrayed with human torsos and heads, these often framed with cobra hoods, and with that of their lower bodies being snake-like in form. Nagas are associated with water bodies, ponds included; strange that I should see my lone example of an Indian snake upon such a place. Their association with water reflects their association with fertility. But they abide in their own subterranean Nether Worlds (Patala). It is difficult to tell true snakes and Naga deities apart, unless the latter choose to take upon human form, thus exposing their real nature.
In the great epic, the Mahabharata, the Ocean is accorded ‘the Abode of the Nagas’. Buddha denotes the ocean as the dwelling place of mighty beings, among which are counted Nagas. In Buddhist tradition the sea gods Varuna and Sagara convert to Nagarajas, kings of the serpent world. In the rock carvings and sculpture of India Naga beings in human aspect are represented with multiple snake crests, these arising in the form of cobra-like adornments. Buddha himself, and the images of particular Bodhisattvas, are so represented. Powerful Nagas, such as Elapattra, are sometimes depicted giving homage to Buddha. Notable Nagas developed in Hindu mythology include Vasuki, Kaliya and Sesha. Hindu sculptures sometimes depict Vishnu resting upon the great coiled body of the world serpent Sesha.
The allurements of the serpent-world are great, for therein reside the snake maidens, the ‘Nagakanya’, seductive snake-deities of great beauty. In the Ramayana, when the monkey general Hanuman, Lord Rama’s loyal champion, in search of Rama’s wife Sita enters the harem of the giant demon king Ravana, he sees “Naga maidens with fair hips, and faces resembling the full moon”. The maidens had been ravished by Ravana. In myth and legend many a fully transformed Naga princess has found love and comfort in the embrace of mortals. The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan-tsang relates the story of a king of Udyana who married a Naga maiden, and that every time he went to lay with her, from her head issued a nine-fold crest of the Naga. In the collection of popular Indian fables known as the Panchatantra there is the tale of a snake-child, the divinely-manifested Naga son of a Brahmin couple, who married a human girl. The father, when his son in human form lay with his young wife, was able to find and destroy the Naga’s cast-off snake hide in a sacred fire, and in so doing the Brahmin’s son permanently assumed human form.
In Buddhist tradition Nagas are generally represented as devotees of Buddha, and although these had converted after falling under the grace and influence of their Master, in their earlier lives they were fierce and rebellious. Though there are stories that relate savage ways, most Nagas in Buddhist scripture are presented as possessing human qualities of moral virtue. For example, the Naga king Muchilinda who sheltered Guatama Buddha during seven days of rain and wind by spreading his snake hood like a protecting canopy over Buddha’s head. In the Divyavadana it is related how Buddha, in the company of the venerable friar Ananda, crossed the Ganges atop a bridge formed by the hoods of suppliant Nagas. And in the Vinaya-pitaka, one of the three main divisions of the Pali Canon, is the story of the Naga who assumed the shape of a human and was ordained as a monk so as to escape from the state of his serpent birth. Unfortunately his Naga nature was discovered and he was expelled from the monastery by Buddha himself.
It is a long drive and the predictable sameness of the landscape’s general flat relief, fragmented with details of new interest as it is, reminds me of the endless kilometres spent driving across the Hay plains of New South Wales, or those west of Cobar in the same state where dead rabbits and kangaroos seem the only inhabitants. The highway gives oft cause for pondering of many matters, events and people. One of whom was Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma means ‘one having a great soul’, and though he did not give himself the title, and did not particularly welcome it, he gracefully suffered the appellation throughout his life. Gandhi had earlier peacefully campaigned successfully in South Africa against the injustices he hound there, but it was in Bihar that he undertook his first Indian campaign – in defence of farmers who were being forced to grow indigo for European business men.
Before turning off the highway at Dobbi for Bodh Gaya we make one more wayside stop. It is clean, the marsala chai is hot and tasty, and the rest rooms are worth a visit. There are also sociable people to exchange smiles and a little conversation with, for English is a language commonly encountered throughout the subcontinent. Three Tata trucks are lined up outside, sporting wild and colourful decoration for comparison and competition. I inspect the detail and design of their paintwork, and the knotted pieces of black coloured cord that are appended to their superstructure. The drivers look on quizzically. But this little establishment by the side of the highway is unusual, for it occupies the remnants of a large service station. The petrol bowsers are inoperative and the vast awning meant to cover buses, trucks and cars from inclement weather is derelict, missing many of its components, whole sheets of its original cladding thrown against fences or strewn across the ground. The scene belongs amongst news images of war-torn Beirut or Iraq, against which the ambiance of this happy little cafe is imposed.
Finally I am at Bodh Gaya. The roads are bustling with traffic and pedestrians and police are already in evidence directing cars and trucks away from the town’s centre. We must detour and the driver is uncertain as to how we might reach our destination via such a round about way. It is all new to me so I am thankful for the diversion, but the driver is apologetic for the inconvenience; needlessly so. We reach the main thoroughfare, turn off to a side lane, and I am at my new place of residence, temporary as this address will be. The ‘Sacred Flower Hotel Bodh Gaya’. I am greeted with light refreshments, the manager inspects my passport and takes down all required particulars, and I am escorted down silent empty corridors to my room; Room 103. It is spacious beyond my need, distinguished only by two quirks of plumbing; these being that in showering you turn the tap handles on as if you were turning them off, and to operate the cistern you pull up the flush knob, not push it down. Apart from that and a few details of interior decoration the hotel was like that of New Delhi. Again, I could have been anywhere. All new, all spotless, and all sterile. Not at all like Varanasi, there was no bustling activity of the comings and goings of backpackers. This was to be my experience for the rest of the road trip. I had totally misinterpreted the definition of ‘3 star’. On the plus side the hotel was only a short walk from Bodh Gaya’s main street, the staff members were friendly and engaging, and breakfast was included in the cost. I was mindful that my overly precious response to the standard of accommodation needed to be balanced with an awareness of their dependence on my patronage. But then I guess I was not a typical tourist, others probably would have loved it. I was also aware that my driver would likely be sleeping in the car. I could do nothing about this, but did not like what I saw as his poor predicament.
It is 6.20 pm, darkness is falling, and I walk to the town centre. Parked in the lane that leads from hotel to town are two large tour buses. There are several full-grown eucalypt trees, of all things, growing close by. Three men sit near the doorway of one of the buses. They have made a little fire, are warming their hands round about, and are cooking a meal of some sort in a metal pot placed over the flames. They are deep in conversation. It looks like a ‘camp out’, a gathering of friends. One is my driver. All three wave as I pass.
I wander the streets for an hour or so. The autobicycles are painted black. My companions aside, I appear to be the only ‘white’. There are lots of Tibetan tourist trinkets for sale in the wayside market stalls; beads and malas of every length and colour, brass bric-a- brac, all sorts of stuff, most too heavy to carry about on a long journey. There are also beggars in attendance, one of whom displayed an amazing ability to contort his body as if Life’s misfortunes had mangled his bones into a condition like that of a knot. But I was forewarned of such adept contortionists and persisted in side-stepping his determined obstruction, there below me, of my evening’s stroll.
I dined at the hotel. The chai was terrible, the meal prices greatly exaggerated. Tomorrow I will eat on the street. Tomorrow is Christmas.