Today is Christmas, and the hotel management has made an effort to adorn the foyer with Christmas decorations. These seem out of place. Hidden amongst so many devotees of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and the Jain religion, Christianity would appear to have little relevance here, but I am relieved of the jibes concerning the shared visual appearance with Santa Claus that I am sometimes made to suffer at home. I will revisit Christianity later.
A newspaper has been pushed under my door, the ‘Hindustan Times’, or something of like name. The front page is preoccupied with coming elections and the continuing deaths from exposure of New Delhi’s homeless. The back pages are preoccupied with India’s trouncing at cricket by Australia. There was even an ‘Oz Down Under’ column on the third last page.
I am greeted with a ‘Merry Christmas’ by the hall porter, but no ‘ho, ho, ho’ as has been the common custom of my fellow countrymen. I thank the porter for his civility, but I decline the hotel’s offer of breakfast and decide to find a meal elsewhere. My driver is waiting at the hotel entrance with a look of consternation upon his face. Our vehicle has a tyre puncture. Unknown, yesterday a large bolt penetrated a rear tyre and it was only through the fortune of a slow leak that we had made it safely to Bodh Gaya. Lord Ganesha was evidently there for us, the offending bolt proving no obstacle to being delivered safely to my destination. The driver is optimistic about getting it repaired but must leave me to myself so that its repair can be effected. We part and will meet tomorrow. There is a street vendor at the entrance to the lane, and he is obliging in my attempts to place my order. He does not speak English, and neither he nor I understand Hindi. I resort to sign language, although concerned that my pointing of fingers and the waving of my hand will give offence. Though he has street-cooked fare on offer, delicious as it looks, I purchase tea only. My stomach and I are not fully on talking terms yet and I am wary of the dangers of street food. Further down the road are several ‘hole-in-the-wall’ restaurants. They are situated side by side, and all look well patronised. Breakfast is obviously on the menu. Of the three, I choose the ‘Om Restaurant’, but for no particular reason that I can remember. The ‘Om’ is about the same size as my office, except half as wide and maybe half again as long. Several Buddhist monks are already at their meal. At other tables sit a number of young Germans, or maybe they are Austrians, and a sprinkling of races of a miscellaneous nature, no Australians or Americans among them; the only ‘non-others’ being the staff. The price of the food was a fraction of what I had payed last night at the hotel. I bought a ‘Special Thali’ and a potato curry, which combined cost less than two dollars in Australian currency. They did not serve cereal. I left a tip. Outside activity is increasing, more monks are walking past, and a line of white coloured police vehicles pass in and then out of my view. By the time I leave the restaurant the street life is hectic but this has now stirred the road dust to action, and I can feel grit between my teeth. For all its teeming activity the dust of Varanasi’s streets was of a different type; fine, not coarse grained. Maybe the passing of so many extra feet had ground the dust of Varanasi to a finer consistency. Thus I understood why many of the monks walking past had cloth masks over their faces. Fortunately I had purchased a scarf in Varanasi, and though meant for the cold it now served to filter the air.
The Tibetan monks are conspicuous by the deep maroon coloured robes they wear and their clean shaven heads. There are many Tibetan women here as well, resplendent in their gowns, their long dark hair braided and with coloured ribbons entwined in decoration. Some wear spectacular amulets and jewellery. Many, many thousands are expected to throng to the town in ritual celebration, and in expectation of their visit large tents are being erected. However, there is an orderliness on the streets. Bodh Gaya, even with the anticipation of the Dalai Lama’s arrival, lacks the overpowering madness of Varanasi.
Now replete with sustenance I commence the day’s exploration. There are numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries built recently in Bodh Gaya. They represent the many foreign cultures who pilgrimage here; Bhutan, Sikkim, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Japan, and particularly Tibet. In the morning I visit those of Bhutan and Tibet. These buildings reflect the architectural styles of their respective cultures. Their grounds are well maintained and planted with flowers and ‘False Asoka’ trees, Polyalthia longifolia, these pruned to resemble narrow poplar-like shapes seemingly without branches. The False Asoka is a member of the family Annonaceae, and can be easily confused with the true Asoka tree, Saraca asoca, a member of the Fabaceae and whose name literally means ‘sorrow-less’. The former has greenish coloured flowers, the latter has flowers that are yellow-orange in colour. Saraca asoca is also planted as an ornamental tree, but in the wild this species, one native to rainforests, is increasingly rare and is classified as ‘vulnerable’. In the Ramayana it is in a garden of Saraca asoca trees that Hanuman first meets Sita.
In India and Sri Lanka especially, Saraca asoca is considered sacred and is closely connected in folk-lore with mythical male and female beings known as Yaksha and Yakshi. These semi-divine, protective beings are associated with natural phenomena such as vegetation, especially trees, and are also associated with wealth. Sculptured voluptuous representations of Yakshi sometimes ornament the entrance to temple grounds. Ambivalent towards humans, these beings have the ability to be invisible but can take on various forms. Though the object of village fertility cults they appear in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology, but are probably of non-Vedic origin.
Wherever there are clusters of trees there are squirrels. There is a park, a small botanical garden, adjacent to the main thoroughfare as its location conveniently is. Few people seem to take pleasure in its quiet grounds. The trees there are painted with ochre-red and white bands around their bases. No one can inform as to the reason for such visual embellishment. I am constantly beset with young Indians wanting to engage me in conversation but again this usually ends in a request for money. There are also gypsies and they assault my gullibility with every opportunity. But I give nothing as they show neither courtesy nor thanks. It seems more like a career option than destitution. One gypsy girl was so persistent in her aggression that my only means of escape was to adopt my John Cleese persona and effect flight by manner of a ‘silly walk’. ‘Faulty Towers’ and ‘The Life of Brian’ fans would have applauded the gay abandonment with which I goose-stepped, and ducked and dived amongst the astonished onlookers. All in my attempt to elude that woman. I think I did Mr Cleese and the ‘Monty Python’ team proud. I’d obviously been rolling in too much cremation ash, and inhaling the street odours more liberally than was wise. The young girl didn’t see a sad old man’s pathetic impersonation of the best of BBC comedy. She saw the manifestation of the demon Vritra, but unlike heroic Indra of the RgVeda she did not stand to kill me. Fearing for her life, she was off. She fled. I couldn’t see her for dust, and there was plenty of that to stir in that street. Reverting to my normal leisurely gait, I sought the safety of the crowd, which for once swallowed me up and hid me rather well.
Then I encounter my first butterfly, cool as the days are, for I thought no butterflies would be present at this time of year. It lands on my hand. It is coloured red, yellow, black and white, but mainly white. The species is of the family Pieridae, a group commonly called ‘whites’ and ‘yellows’. I am certain it is a member of the genus Delias, a genus that is also found commonly in Australia. But this species is distinct. It had barely flown away when I saw another species, maybe a Euploea, a ‘crow’ as I commonly call the genus, but this of the family Nymphalidae. Then another pierid, but closely resembling the swift-flying ‘Lemon Migrant’ Catospilia pomona that flit swiftly about the flowers of my garden in summer. I see no more.
I had been advised to bring something ‘Australian’ with me on this trip, for a friend had mentioned that there was a particular fondness for Australia amongst many Indians. So I brought a small quantity of old copper pennies; the pre-decimal coinage ones with a kangaroo prominent on one side, and examples of which proved especially popular with two very young Buddhist novices. Their denial of worldliness did not obstruct their happiness in such an acquisition. Or maybe they were just gracious. For some minutes a family of domestic pigs kept me company in a back alley, but otherwise the day was spent loitering about the streets, my street loitering only to the modest benefit of roadside stall vendors. One in particular, Nepalese I think, all a joy and bubble at my regular passing, sold me an ancient Tibetan barrel lock. He managed also to sell it to me at the ‘tourist’ price not the ‘local’ price. A fact neither of us were unhappy about, for I figured it was great lock of remarkable design, and no one in Hometown to my knowledge had anything like it.
Again I pose for photos. These impromptu street-side recording sessions tend to start out with one family group, but all too often others join in. It is just so totally spontaneous, so crazy. But actually this brings up a point I had, until this moment, overlooked. When it comes to wanting a photo no one holds back at asking. They just walk straight up, grin affectionately, ask where you are from, and then request that they take your photo. Audacious, but it works.
In the afternoon I visit the large Mahabodhi Temple in the centre of the town. Along the way, a vendor of sugar cane juice, his crushing machine all resplendent in a fresh glossy coat of bright green paint, politely urges my patronage. I point to my stomach, suggesting it and I have seen better days. Understanding, he wishes me well.
Thousands of pilgrims walk silently about the paved concourse that surrounds the Mahabodhi Temple’s tall structure and grounds. No we didn’t, neither ‘them’ nor ‘I’. The dominating atmosphere was one of loud chanting, incomprehensible mumblings, and me being interrogated at machine-gun pace by an Indian father and his teenage son on the finer points of English grammar and pronunciation. “Hey, I’m from Australia. My forefathers got off a convict ship, gibbering on in Welsh, and refugees from English oppression. Don’t use me as an arbitrator of eloquent pronunciation!” I had conveniently overlooked the Anglo-Saxon side of my ancestry. Off to the side rows of monks and novices are immersed in devotional ritual. We shuffle close-packed, rarely able to stop for the surging numbers of devotees press us onwards. I circle the temple twice. Outside the temple hawkers encourage sales from the throngs of people passing in and out of the entrance gate. Before the gate children seek to sell packets of notes of Indian currency, these of low denomination intended as individual offerings to beggars and ascetics. Of beggars, there were many, their presence kept from out the grounds of the temple complex solely by the attendance of khaki uniformed police, of both genders. I make the mistake of not buying a packet of currency of small denomination. So armed, I might have more readily satisfied the demands of those whose open hands were shoved towards me in ceaseless appeal; acquiescence by exhaustion.
I look for the American actor Richard Gere, Buddhist devotee that he is. My free hotel newspaper informs me Mr Gere is due here too, right along with the visit of the Dalai Lama. I wished to tell him how much I loved his performance in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’, and how it was sad that the career of his co-starring actress, I’ve forgotten her name, had subsequently been lost to oblivion.
Daylight ended, but the street vendors showed no sign of packing up.