Travel in Footsteps of Buddha in Bihar across Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, and Patna
Almost a year and a half ago, on one of my trips, I spent a few days in the state of Bihar, which I have never written before. Bihar is a state located between Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Few people include it in their routes. Those who travel usually do so only to visit Bodhgaya, one of the holy places of Buddhism where Siddhartha Gautama reached enlightenment.
However, in addition to Bodhgaya, there are many things to see in Bihar. Important temples of the Jain and Sikh religions abound here. More famous than these are the ruins of the ancient university of Nalanda. Finally, there is also the city of Sonepur, where annually one of the largest animal fairs in the world is celebrated.
We went in December, after the fair and with just the right time. So we focused our attention on the surroundings of Bodhgaya and Nalanda. I could talk about these places in an informative, practical or descriptive plan. But the truth is that when I think of them, the memory that precedes everything I saw and learned is that of great happiness. And in the end, the important thing, when you travel and when not is to be happy.
I admit it despite having a good couple of months to prepare things for the trip, I left the hat. I arrive at the departures terminal, with the assurance that I will find a travel store. But apparently, I am very wrong. After a couple of laps, I give up and choose to have a beer. Soon I am on a plane bound for Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar.
The plane is half empty. Although the flight is comfortable, I cannot sleep. The obligatory delay of 30 minutes becomes effective and then the apathy of the luggage dispatchers joins in. So I ended up arriving almost two hours later than the poor taxi driver had foreseen. However, he takes it with good humor, as you might expect from a man who is used to circumventing the system.
It leaves me in an unexpectedly comfortable apartment, which I will have for myself only for the next few days. I also remember our lodging, run by a nice boy, and his great shower, the first one with hot water for weeks, something that we appreciated so much because we were in winter. After a much-needed shower, I enjoy a cheesecake and toast, but the lack of sleep has left me without much, so I'm happy to be able to return to the apartment for a good nap.
In Bihar, I was happy for many reasons. What left me the least trace in that stage of the trip was the part, let's call it, "cultural". India is a country with a long history and a lot of cultures but what makes me fall in love with it is what it transmits to me, what makes me feel, and that is what I like to talk about. This is my personal vision of a fairly typical trip to the state of Bihar.
We start early in the morning towards Bodhgaya. After a journey of 5 hours, we finally reach the station. The taxi driver takes me to the hostel of the Bhutan temple recommended by my guide. There I find that all the rooms are already full, so I take a hand-rickshaw to the other side where there are another one of the guesthouses recommended by the guide. It has several free rooms, simple but clean rooms, with TV and attached bathroom.
The receptionists and the staff are really kind and nice. And I always find them in a good mood, despite working 12 hours a day (or night, depending on the shift). After leaving the backpack at the guesthouse I sit down to get up with a delicious chai. As soon as I get back on my way towards the center and finally, passing through a flea market and many people asking for alms, I arrive in sight of the great temple of Mahabodhi. Its 55-meter spire soars over the surrounding greenery.
Bodhgaya is today a place of pilgrimage where people from all over the world come for religious reasons or mere curiosity. Everything in Bodh Gaya revolves around the Mahabodhi Temple. It is erected next to the tree under which Prince Siddhartha sat for weeks until he attained spiritual enlightenment and became, therefore, a Buddha or illuminated.
I loved the visit to the sacred site. I could get lost by listing each of the details and scenes of devotees and non-faithful that can be seen in it, but I will not do it. I cannot show pictures either because entry to it is forbidden with a camera, although I managed to squeeze the phone and take the next snapshot for Instagram.
Around the Mahabodhi other temples rise from different countries and Buddhist currents. But these are not the best memories I have of Bodhgaya. But, among others, I remember the taste of food, which has remained etched. I go out and return to the restaurant where I had taken the chai, this time to have dinner with a very good and abundant thali. There are the chapati and the mixed vegetables and curries (including the ubiquitous dal).
I then go back to the hotel happy and already look forward to the days to come, which will be full and much more beautiful and interesting than what I feared. Since the sun has set, the temperature has started to drop a lot.
The next morning I wake up in shape and rested and I go to have breakfast in the restaurant the day before. Then I head back to the Mahabodhi, this time to buy a ticket that allows me to bring my camera inside. And so I return to the large enclosure of the temple. Here I can finally admire and calmly enjoy all the beauty and spirituality of that sacred place, now a UNESCO heritage site.
I spend a lot of time admiring the Mahabodhi, a huge spire full of bas-reliefs with a small temple inside, surrounded by an ancient stone fence dating back over 2000 years. And just behind the temple is the tree already mentioned, under which I sit down to meditate with other pilgrims. I cannot believe it, I'm right under the Buddha tree!
And before leaving again I still do many meditations down there, besides those in my room. They were incredibly long and deep. Being alone in that place without other distractions except for the various books I brought with me evidently predisposes me to introspection and makes me feel good. The anxiety of the first afternoon is already completely forgotten.
One thing I like very much is that the Mahabodhi is in a kind of depression surrounded by a large garden full of vegetation and small stupas many people, especially Tibetan monks arrived from the Himalayas. They recite the mantra and prostrate themselves, that is, extending completely to the ground innumerable times.
And then there is the temple of Animesh Lochana, erected on the hillock from which it is said that the Buddha stopped to admire the Sacred Fig under which he had just obtained the understanding of the world and liberation.
After going out of the temple, I go for a ride around. I buy a jacket to better withstand the cold that will return in a few hours, and then I go to lunch. Later, after a break of relaxation and reading in my room, I go back to the Mahabodhi to take more pictures in the light of the sunset.
I have chai together with a few locals. Then I go in an internet cafe and then, before going to dinner, I do another walk around the temple in order to take some night photos using the same ticket for the camera bought in the morning.
Meanwhile, the temperature continues to fall. That night I sleep with two woolen blankets. The next day I buy some socks and a yak wool cap and start shooting with two cotton t-shirts under my shirt and shorts under the long ones! Before I go back to my reading, I watch a bit of television. I find that there are a lot of channels dominating the classic Bollywood movies, music programs, sports programs (but only cricket and hockey).
There are various reality shows and even an animated cartoon that teaches yoga to children! The reality shows, however, are very different from the typical American ones. There is, for example, a group of blind acrobats, a dancer without legs and two other dwarf dancers.
The next morning at breakfast, I meet a very nice half-American boy who teaches English in Korea. He is a smart person, who comes here very open. After a week in Bodhgaya he plans to make a ten-day retreat for the Buddhist vipassana meditation. After a long chat, we decide to meet again the next morning and rent a hand-rickshaw to go and visit the caves of Mahakala which are 12 km from Bodhgaya.
My program for the day includes a tour of the various Buddhist temples in Bodhgaya, representing various Buddhist countries and schools. First of all, however, I go to the International Meditation Center to ask for their courses in meditation. Then I head to the area to the southwest of the center where there are various temples and the great Japanese Buddha, but they are all already closed (all temples close between 12 and 2 pm).
So I decide to go and eat some good momo in an Indo-Tibetan restaurant and then return to the temples. It is not something strange to me. I usually remember the flavors of my happiest moments. I remember the momos that we dined in a little street stand, whose salesman did not appear on some nights leaving us disappointed (and hungry).
I also visit the Bhutanese temple, one of the many colorful Tibetan temples, the great Buddha in meditation, 25 meters high and the austere Japanese Zen temple. In front of the latter, I come across a few whom I had seen the day before at the Mahabodhi, who tell me they are followers of Sai Baba. Inside the temple, I hear an announcement that explains that every afternoon from 4 to 8 there are Zen meditation sessions open to all. Late afternoon I go back to the Mahabodhi to meditate and enjoy the atmosphere, and then back to the internet cafe before having dinner.
The next day, I find myself with a few locals, whom I had met the day before. They join me for the visit to the Mahakala Caves. It is famous for being supposedly the place where Buddha underwent harsh mortifications and fasts that almost killed him until he realized that all this was not taking him anywhere and that the right path could only be in the middle, between the extremes of mortification and indulgence to the pleasures.
Arriving at the base of the hills where the caves are located, we keep the auto-rickshaw waiting. We go for a short climb to the side of which there is a long line of people asking for alms or trying to sell something. At the top, we enter the enclosure of a small Tibetan temple inside which there is the Buddha's cave, which has now been walled up and is entered by a low door.
In the cramped cave, there is a statue of the 'skeletal' Buddha, very thin after the fasts. It is dimly lit by various candles. Near the temple, we also see lemurs, local monkeys, with beautiful white fur and black snout, which they tell us to be very sweet. At the exit of the temple, I buy some cookies to give to the children and then we return to our means of transport.
Perhaps even more interesting than the caves is to see India outside the city. We see the countryside. There are the fields cultivated with wheat, rice, and many other crops. There are the small villages of brick and mud houses, with the dung on the walls that will serve to light the fire in the evening. There are the people, the markets, and the women.
The afternoon instead I go back to the Japanese temple for the meditation session. After a long talk sitting near the temple and some general explanations, at five we enter the building. Seated on cushions in front of the Buddha, we begin to recite Japanese sutras (which we read on transliterated booklets) for half an hour. Then we settle for the actual meditation, which, as in most Buddhist schools, is based on attention to breathing.
And so, sitting on the ground in the half lotus position, we end up doing three half-hour meditation sessions. There were pauses of 'walking meditation' around the temple, which help us to stretch our ankylosed legs. Interesting is the Japanese monk who turns between the meditators with a wooden stick in his hand, ready to hit (gently) on the back who requested it with a bow.
According to the Zen tradition, this should help the meditator stay awake and more alert. After meditation, we gather around our monk who tells us a little about the life of a famous Japanese master, with various anecdotes in pure Zen style.
The following morning, I was thinking of continuing the visit to the temples, but I decide (wisely) that it will be much more interesting to visit the countryside again. And so we take a long tour of the countryside around Bodhgaya, skirt the now dry river Phalgu, and from there to the Korean temple.
After the Korean temple, we continue our tour until we reach the Vietnamese temple with its beautiful seven-story pagoda. But we find it closed for work. Then we enter the big Tibetan temple nearby, the temple of Karmapa. It is really beautiful and is full of devotees and monks. After the visit to the temple, we finally return to Bodhgaya through a large field. From here we can see the Mahabodhi spire emerging among the low buildings of the town.
The day after, another ride again! We take another long tour around the countryside around Bodhgaya. This time we cross the Phalgu river until we reach three gigantic Banyan trees that have joined together, hugging each other, a real show. Unlike the day before, there is no sign of the city. There beside another river flows, with a little more water and much cleaner than the Phalgu.
Beyond it, we still see the countryside and the profile of the hills where the caves of Mahakala are located. Next to the river, we visit a small temple dedicated to Saraswati, in which an elderly lady marks us on the forehead with red color. It was wonderful to walk in the middle of this countryside along the cultivated fields, through other tiny villages of brick and mud.
And so comes the last day here. Now I have a desire to stay, to continue the journey to know a little more about this incredible place. For the last day, I want to take some more photos, go back to visit some temples that I saw only in passing, like that Tibetan of Gelugpa and the Sinhalese one.
After Bodhgaya, we went to Rajgir, our base to visit Nalanda. The chickens the goats everything is slaughtered depending on need directly on the roadside. I moved on and am now in the Bihar state in the small tranquil town of Rajgir. Again, of course, there is the big action again the whole place is like a big market again. A difference can be seen at first glance, here there are no Tuk Tukś but horse-drawn carriages.
Of course, I start walking again on the way 6 km out of town to the cable car. This leads up to the Ratnagiri Hill where we can find the Peace Pagoda built by the Japanese. It is relatively modern but still imposing and shows its full Buddhist splendor. The descent is then recommended again on foot because after a short time we come across the Saptaparni cave. Here was the first Buddhist council which recorded the teachings of Buddha after his death.
In addition to the ruins of the famous university, Rajgir is surrounded by holy enclaves for Buddhism. But the city itself has nothing special, except the Tonga, horse-drawn carriages that run along its streets to the sound of rattles.
I also remember fondly a lovely area that we discovered taking a walk in the outskirts. The "zone" basically comes down to a street of little houses, full of animals and pure rural life, which made me think of the idealized image I have of the Christmas nativity scene. My mind makes very rare associations. Maybe it was because we were on those dates. It was December 24th.
Near Rajgir, there are also hot springs where the locals flock because, in addition to being warm water (something that not everyone has at home), it is a sacred place. We visited them at least a couple of times, being invited to take a bath (which we did not do) and talking to each other, happy that we were there. Even if we had not talked to anyone, I could have spent hours observing that place.
The next day I decided to take the local bus to Bihar Sharif. With the destination "Nalanda" at 10 km distance. There is the in my opinion not a mega spectacular but very powerful old Buddhist university. Unfortunately, for the most part, there are only the foundation walls. Its heyday ended in the 12th century when Afghan invader Bakhtiyar Khilji plundered it. But it is a peaceful place, of course, a place to stay and enjoy.
Xuanzang was a Chinese monk who made a pilgrimage to India and, among other things, spent several years studying the yoga doctrine in Nalanda. In any case, the visit was more than interesting at least for me, that before going I had not heard of such a Chinese, nor of that university in which in his time some ten thousand monks lived. Going through its corridors and entering the tiny cells where the students lived produces chills.
However, the most beautiful memory I have of Nalanda was our "trip to China", long before planning or even thinking that someday this country would also be in our focus. The "trip to China" is nothing more than the little walk from the archaeological site of Nalanda we gave to see the memorial erected in honor of the aforementioned Xuanzang.
I suppose that if any conclusion I want to get out of all this, is that there is another trip outside the trip itself, beyond the monuments or recommended visits, which fills me much more. In the case of India, what fills me is the smile that is drawn on my face every time some children assault me, or every time a family asks me to take a picture, or whenever I find something unusual that I had never expected to find.
In short, what makes me fall in love with India is the joy that a people transmits to us. People know how to take advantage of life, and they fill my soul.
I left the best for last, the day we went to the Vishwa Shanti Stupa, one of the Peace Pagodas built in different parts of the world from the World War II to spread a message of non-violence. Obviously, I will not talk about the pagoda. What I liked was the transportation that leads to it.
One day later by bus again this time I reach in 1 hour to Bihar Sharif. From here I change bus and move for 3 hours to Patna. There I arrived at about 2 o'clock. Now it was time to wait for my train to Siliguri until 1 o'clock tonight.
Unfortunately, Patna has lost its old splendor long ago and does not have much to offer for the eye. Nevertheless, I walk away and after a short walk, I came across a Buddha museum with a modern stupa, where I stayed until sunset. I visit the Gurudwara Patna Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh was born and as a child threw his golden bangle into the Ganges.
Back at the station, I received the message that my train is already 5 -6 hours late and therefore not expected before sunrise. That's why I did not hesitate long and spontaneously sought again a hotel where I could sleep very relaxed. The arrival of my train was now delayed hour by hour. At 9 o'clock I decided to return to the station and wait and wait and wait. They announce that it would arrive at 2 pm. So, I drove to book an air ticket.
Then I go packing and shortly after 12 am I take a self-rickshaw to the airport where my plane leaves at a quarter to three. I'm really sorry to leave, but I'm so happy for the wonderful experience. The plane makes a first stop in Varanasi to take up other pilgrims, especially Thai monks coming from nearby Sarnath and then resumes the flight again passing over northeastern India.
So this is my little tribute to those days, to that trip to Bihar where India filled my soul once more.