I am a highly unpredictable man. I decided then and there that I’d go on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya the next day. I applied for the leave to my boss, locked my office, and exchanged a crispy bundle of ten thousand rupees from the Bank of Bhutan, which was located just next to my office.
This would be my first trip to the holy place where Buddha attained enlightenment more than two thousand and five hundred years ago. I also wanted to attend the annual World Peace Prayer Ceremony led by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, who was the supreme head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Besides, I had a deep longing to see His Holiness in person and to receive his blessing.
Early next morning, I walked down the long flight of stairs from the staff quarters, towards the road to catch a taxi to Phuentsholing. I met Sakten Sangay, an old friend.
“Where are you going?”
“Bodh Gaya,” I said.
“Bodh Gaya? Like this?”
“Yes, of course. Why? What’s wrong?” I said, pretending not to understand him. But I knew what he meant. He was hinting at my casual outfit – old jacket, faded jeans and a pair of old slippers.
“Dhah wai… this man” Sangay said, breaking into a condescending smile.
I ignored his remark and quickly paced down to hail a taxi for Phuentsholing, forty-five kilometres away from Gedu. When I reached the town, I crossed the India-Bhutan border gate, entered the bustling town of Jaigaon and strode towards the makeshift ticket-counters which displayed the ticketing signboards for Sikkim, Kalimpong, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar.
“Where do I get a ticket for Bodh Gaya?” I asked a Nepali man who was sitting at the Sikkim counter.
“On the second floor,” the man said, pointing to the steps of a building behind me. I walked up the stairs and entered the ticketing office. A Bengali boy was scolding someone over the phone.
“Excuse me, friend, do you have tickets to Bodh Gaya?” I asked him.
The young man nodded, shouted into the phone that he was busy, disconnected the call and turned towards me.
“For today or tomorrow, sir?” he asked, forcing out a smile.
“For today,” I said.
“Oho!” he said. “One vehicle left just a while ago. It shouldn’t be too far from here. Shall I call it back for you?”
“Yes, yes. Please do so,” I said, delighted. “What vehicle is it?”
“It’s an Innova,” he said, “Very comfortable, sir. It’s travelling almost empty from here because we have an advanced booking to collect some passengers from there. The vehicle left with only two passengers.”
The young man dialled the driver’s number and asked him to return. I bought a bottle of mineral water from a nearby paan shop and waited for the car to arrive.
The silver-coloured Innova arrived in ten minutes. The driver was a tall man with short beard and wearing a white cap. He looked half-Bengali and half-Nepali.
There were two passengers inside, one of them a short Bhutanese man and the other, a lean and tall Tibetan guy sitting behind him on the passenger seat. I handed him seven hundred rupees to the young man at the counter and got inside the car.
The time was half past three in the afternoon.
“What time will we get there?” I asked the driver.
“By noon tomorrow, if there is no dense fog on the way,” the driver said.
The driver started the engine, scanned the area quickly, and got the vehicle across to the main road struggling in the relentless rush with Maruti vans, cars, motorbikes and auto-rickshaws fighting for space.
“Where are you from?” the Bhutanese man asked me in Dzongkha.
“Pema Gatshel,” I said. “How about you?”
“I am from Kurtoe” he said, now speaking in fluent Sharchopkha, my mother tongue.
Our vehicle sped past the Toorsa Tea Estate, leaving behind the Nepali-dominated roadside settlement of Manglabari and Dalshingpara. The driver fired up the stereo system and the vehicle was filled with a shrill number from a recent Bollywood film.
My seatmate, the tall Tibetan who was dressed in a white kurta-shirt over blue jeans smiled at me and said something in his language.
“La?” I asked him respectfully, not understanding what he was saying.
“Where do you stay?” he repeated in Hindi.
“Gedu,” I said. “Aap… What about you?”
“Jaigaon,” he said.
“Achcha…” I said. “What do you do?”
“I sell rosaries. Mala business.”
“Are you on a business trip?”
“Yes,” he said.
The Bhutanese man in the front turned around with a sudden interest in his eyes.
“I am also on a business trip” he said proudly.
“What sort of business do you do la?” the Tibetan asked him.
“I supply Bura clothes,” the Bhutanese said, “I am just back after selling some in Sikkim.”
What a sinful job, I thought, boiling silkworms alive to obtain silk, and shuddered over the thought.
The two gentlemen got into a long conversation in Tibetan, ending every sentence with the exchange of ‘rey’ and ‘marey’ (yes and no).
“You speak fluent Tibetan,” I told my Bhutanese friend.
“Yes, I do,” he said, flattered. “I can speak five other languages.”
The Innova cruised through the dark shades of broad-leaved forests, towards Siliguri. I imagined terrorists hiding behind the bushes, ready to open fire. What if they ambush us? This thought haunted me whenever I travelled between Phuentsholing and Samdrup Jongkhar via the Assam and Bengal plains in India.
When it grew dark, the driver stopped his car near a roadside restaurant which had a variety of fruits and vegetables – apples, oranges, mangoes, and tomatoes – stacked up in beautiful rows in front of the kitchen. The walls were painted ivory cream and the tables neatly arranged with glasses, spoons, forks and napkins on it. Beyond the kitchen, the hotel extended to a beautiful park with marble-studded canopies and flower gardens. The driver and the Bhutanese man went there and sat under one of them. They began to smoke and drink beer, while my Tibetan friend and I ate chapatti inside the hotel.
After the dinner, we continued our journey. Huge trucks in lines zoomed past us as we sped through the dark Indian highway.
As we travelled further, the weather turned colder and foggy. My friends fell into a deep slumber. I too felt numb and sleepy. The driver played different Hindi songs, occasionally increasing the volume. I woke up abruptly upon hearing the driver say, “It is too foggy. We will rest here for a while.” He stopped the vehicle near two huge tankers that were parked beside a tree. Just then, two men, wrapped in shawl, emerged from the dark, with suspicious and hostile looks on their faces.
“There is a hotel nearby. Go there,” one of them said. They were the tanker drivers, obviously suspicious and afraid of us.
This was India. Everyone suspected everyone, especially on the roads at night. Our driver drove us about a mile away and we reached an old restaurant, where a group of labourers wrapped in blankets stood in an open area outside the restaurant gazing intently at a small TV screen mounted inside a pan shop near the restaurant. A local video song blasted from the speakers and the labourers were clapping in appreciation. I checked my watch and it was 2 am.
The pan shopkeeper, a thin young man, was dozing off occasionally, totally oblivious to the loud song coming from the television mounted near him. A jagged labourer wrapped in a shawl approached him and tapped the lid of the glass window with a coin and asked for something. The shopkeeper woke up, handed him something, put the coin in his cash box and dozed off again. Poor man! I thought. He is suffering to earn every coin to make a living, perhaps in the hope of becoming a rich man one day.
“The fog is still heavy,” the driver said again, yawning and folding back his seat, “I can’t see properly. The fog will be worse in Dalkhola. Let’s sleep here for a while.”
The driver lay upon his seat, buried his face with his cap and dozed off. I looked at my companions. Both of them were sleeping.
I opened the window on my side to let in some fresh air but it was piercingly cold. I shut the window, and after a while, fell asleep.
When I woke up and checked the time, it was four in the morning. The TV in the paan shop was still on, but the volume low. The paanwalla was sleeping peacefully, curled up in a blanket.
The restaurant next to the paan shop had opened for the day. A grim-faced man with a muffler around his neck was preparing tea – scooping the content of the pot into the air, pouring it from a height, scooping and pouring it again – a typical Indian style of preparing their heavily sweetened tea.
I didn’t imagine India to be so cold during the winter. I got out of the car and walked towards the restaurant, which smelt of burnt coal from the oven.
“Chai milega?” I asked the man. “Can I get a cup of tea?”
The man nodded, and without saying a word, he poured the tea, half the level of a tiny glass, which I finished in three sips. Then I asked for another cup, paid him and went back to the vehicle, feeling the warmth curl pleasantly inside my stomach.
My friends woke up when they heard me open the door. The driver straightened his seat upright and switched on the wiper to clear the frost on the glass. Then he wiped the glass from the inside with a piece of cloth.
“We have overslept,” he said, starting the engine. He lit an incense stick, placed his hands on the steering wheel and touched his forehead with it thrice in quick succession, evidently praying to overcome any mishaps on the way. Our journey continued into the cold and misty morning. I began to worry that I might miss the last day of the great prayer ceremony.
“Have you been to Bodh Gaya before?” my Bhutanese friend asked me.
“No,” I said. “This is my first time. Will you help me find a hotel room?”
“Sure, I will,” he said. “First we’ll wash our face at the hot spring in Rajgir.”
I thanked him and the vehicle moved on.
“We are nearing Rajgir,” the Tibetan said after what seemed like years since he last spoke to me.
“That is Jagoe phungboi ri (vulture peak). Do you see it there?” he said, pointing to a distant mountain top that resembled the beak of a vulture.
I folded my hands in deep veneration and prayed. At last I was seeing the famous vulture peak whose mention I had come across many times when I recited the Prajnaparamita Sutra. It was here that the Buddha spoke these famous lines on emptiness:
Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form
Form is no other than emptiness; Emptiness is no other than form.
It was midday when we passed a huge rocky hill that was dominated by Hindu temples and numerous advertisements and other billboards painted on the surface of the rocks. We stopped in front of a hotel in the small town of Rajgir.
My friends and the driver escorted me to the other side of the road, to the hot spring temple. The busy and vapoury temple was crowded with devotees walking in and out of it.
At the courtyard of the temple, people bathed under the warm spring water that gushed out of the concrete water conduits shaped like the head of crocodiles and lions and various statues of Hindu gods. We took off our shoes and walked barefoot, balancing our feet carefully on the warm slippery floor. Jingling of bells and chanting by the sadhus filled the air. There was a rush of devotees into the basement of the noisy and crowded temple. A half-naked sadhu suddenly caught me by my arm and led me to a corner where water from an array of stone conduits flowed freely.
I looked around for my friends but they had disappeared into the crowd.
“SOAK YOUR HEAD FIRST AND SAY OM NAMAH SHIVAYA THREE TIMES!” shouted the man, holding my arm with a tight grip. I knew at once that the man was taking me for a ride.
“I am not a Hindu!” I protested nervously.
“OKAY THEN, SAY THIS” he said, “BUDDHAM SHARANAM GACCHAMI!”
This was a Buddhist mantra. So I said, “Buddham Sharanam Gachami”.
“DHARMAM SHARANAM GACCHAMI!”
“Dharmam Sharanam Gacchami”
“SANGAM SHARANAM GACCHAMI!”
“Sangam Sharanam Gacha mi”
“OKAY NOW. TAKE OUT THREE HUNDRED RUPEES!” he demanded, “QUICK!”
I handed him two hundred rupees.
“THAT’S NOT ENOUGH!” the man protested.
I reluctantly took out another hundred rupee note and gave it to him.
The next moment, another Sadhu pushed me from behind and quickly forced me to walk downstairs where a dozen devotees were bathing in stone basins which looked like small ponds.
“HERE, DRINK THE WATER FIRST!” the man shouted, pouring water from a brass bowl onto my palm. I shrank away from his foul breath, which was the kind that toothpaste can’t cure. I drank the water nervously until I realised that it was the same water from the pond, which was saturated with dirt from people bathing in it.
“ACK!!!” I said and spat it out. My throat itched and I felt like vomiting.
“HOW MUCH MONEY WILL YOU GIVE A POOR MAN?” the man demanded, “FIVE HUNDRED? SIX HUNDRED?”
I wanted to give him a big punch on his face. But I had to get out immediately or else there would be more trouble awaiting me. So I quickly handed him two hundred rupees and just as I was about to flee the place, two old men suddenly sprang up from the pond and blocked my way.
“Please give us something too,” they pleaded, spreading their sticky arms.
I had to take out another 100 rupee note. “Here, share between the two of you,” I said and ran up the stairs quickly to escape.
Once outside, I looked out for my friends but they were gone. I quickly put on my shoes and ran down the stairs. Three more charlatans followed me like mad men. They clang around me making innocent gestures and begged me for money. I flung a hundred rupee note in the air and without looking back, ran towards where the car was parked. While the two charlatans stopped chasing me, one of them still followed me up to the vehicle where my friends and the driver were waiting for me.
I closed myself inside the vehicle and sat there, feeling a little relieved. The last sadhu stood by the window and kept on pestering me to give him some money.
I ignored him but he wouldn’t leave. I was furious with my Bhutanese friend.
“Charo! Friend,” I told him. “You could have told me about these things happening here. The sadhus have robbed me of all my money! I have lost more than one thousand rupees.”
“I am sorry,” my friend said. “I had forgotten to tell you about that.”
I shook my head in disbelief and said nothing.
I must have owed these robbers some karmic debt, I thought. I have finally repaid the debt. They must have waited a very long for this moment. Perhaps this was destined to happen. Should I not feel happy now? This question helped calm me down. The last charlatan was still waiting for his share. I opened the window and stared irately at him.
“Here! Take it,” I said and handed him a 100 ngultrum note. He gave me a big smile and backed off, curiously studying the back and front of the foreign currency note in his hand.
The driver started the engine of the car and we continued our journey. As we moved closer and closer towards Bodh Gaya, the pale afternoon sun light and the sight of the white rocks, the shrubs, stretches of red soil, and the distant hills all induced an ecstatic feeling within me and made me imagine how, centuries ago, the Buddha and his disciples must have set foot on these places and practised dharma in peace and silence.
After crossing the Gaya town, our vehicle finally arrived at Bodh Gaya. I bade my friends good bye and entered the street that was lined with numerous shops and stalls with Tibetan, Bhutanese and Nepali names on the signboards. I stepped into a Bhutanese restaurant and approached a young man who was sitting behind the counter.
“Sir, is the prayer ceremony still on?” I asked him.
“It must be over by now,” the man said.
“Could you tell me the way to the main temple?”
The man gave me the direction. I sauntered through the dusty streets that sold clothes, fake gemstones, Buddhist ritual objects and myriad other things, and reached a big gate from where I could see swarms of beggars on the other side of the road. The banner on the gate said: ‘Welcome to the 25th Nyingma Moenlam Chenmo. World Peace Prayer Ceremony.”
As I feasted my eyes upon the great Mahabodhi temple looming in front of me, my whole being felt like it was bursting with an unusual sense of joy and devotion.
Inside the gate, the scene opened into a crowded little market place which sold a variety of food and drinks, books, red and golden yellow cloth pieces and flowers of different types and colours – marigold, roses, lotus and lily – posters of Buddhist masters and rosaries, and varieties of fruits. A loud musical song called ‘Namo Namo’ dedicated to His Holiness the Dalai Lama came blasting from the loudspeaker of a hawker who was selling CDs and DVDs of Buddhist chants, movies and documentaries. Bodh Gaya was evidently the melting pot for Buddhists of all nationalities.
Hundreds of devotees were circumambulating the outer circle of the great temple. I bought a bowl of rice and some fruits and flowers and entered the inner circle of the great Mahabodhi temple.
At the large stone-paved courtyard below, Buddhist monks in red robes prostrated diligently on wooden planks; some of them were reading scriptures and some offering mandala – pouring saffron rice with exquisite gemstones and coins onto a plate with the right hand, wiping it off with the wrist and repeating the process again. The Theravadin monks in saffron robes walked slowly around the temple serenely, meditating; some Japanese monks were meditating in deep silence, and a group of Thai or Taiwanese devotees were chanting prayers in their language and being escorted by one of their tour leaders or masters. A Tibetan woman, who was carrying her baby on her back, said her prayers aloud and smiled at me as she went round the great Mahabodhi stupa, her forehead gleaming with a scrap of golden paint stuck over her forehead from hitting it on a Tara statue engraved on the temple. A huge man of American or European origin in a white robe, his long hair tied in a knot like a typical Tibetan Yogi, was sitting peacefully in front of the Bodhi Tree, his eyes neither open nor closed, like the eyes of a statue in a fresco, gazing straight towards the Bodhi Tree. Beside me, a Tibetan man dressed in dust-covered robes tapped his wooden hand shields and prostrated along the stone pavement, murmuring prayers as he lay flat on the floor, rose up again and repeated the process.
I bought the fruit and flower and entered the temple. The shrine room was packed with devotees, some making offerings and some sitting in corners and reciting prayers in front of a beautiful golden statue of the Buddha with a glittering diamond on its forehead. I made three prostrations, placed the offerings before it and sat there for a moment.
In spite of the hustle and bustle, the atmosphere inside was so peaceful that I felt like I had fallen into a deep trance. It was the most powerful and blissful moment of my life. I closed my eyes, joined my palms together and thanked the Buddha. Emotionally spent, I rose up and left the shrine room to circumambulate the great Mahabodhi temple.
This story appeared in the September 2016 issue of Himal Southasian