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Following the Buddha’s Footsteps

Our visit to Varanasi also signalled our return to the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit. In Nepal we had spent time in Lumbini, the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who later became Sakyamuni Buddha and travelled northern India teaching his doctrine. Just outside Varanasi lies Sarnath and the Deer Park, where the Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. Following a dusty ride through local villages, we arrived to a huge queue of Indians on the main road. The area is also a major Jain pilgrimage and the devotees appeared to be gearing up for a celebration of one of their gurus. We sidestepped the crowds and entered the main park of green grass and ruins, slowly making our way to the large Dhamek Stupa, which marks the spot where the Buddha is thought to have given his first sermon.

Buddhist or otherwise, the park is a peaceful place to stroll through and imagine past kingdoms. We weaved between the brick ruins of monasteries and stupas, joined by pilgrims from Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Japan among others. I watched as members of the Buddhist community from different countries eyed each other up with curiosity, joined by common teachings but very different in custom. I couldn’t help imagining what might be running through their minds, “Ooo, I wish we were allowed to wear that colour. Look at his bag though, it clashes terribly.”

We circumambulated the main stupa with a group of mischievous young Tibetan monks, treading on each others robes as they scurried clockwise. Sitting on the grass we were joined in the sun by other pilgrims, some reciting prayers, some meditating, while others simply looked on in awe. For many of these individuals, this visit will be a once in a lifetime event and is of huge importance. We felt privileged to share it with them and my imagination ran wild picturing the events here many centuries ago. My train of thought was broken only by frustration at seeing Indians dropping litter, beggars hassling devotees, and the owners of the ceremonial elephant outside the main temple smoking some home grown. I certainly didn’t want to carry anger around with me so I let it go, a technique that is vital for survival in India.

From Varanasi we journeyed eastwards to Kushinagar, the sight where the Buddha died and attained Parinirvana, the final release from rebirth. A long, bouncy bus ride took us to the border between the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, a challenging area to travel due to underdevelopment. The old man on the bus next to me warned of frequent cases of theft, while his wife shared her roasted ground nuts with me and pointed out the only landmark on the route, a sugar factory. A baby stared at me from the seat in front, certain that there was something different about me, but still keen to play peekaboo.

We jumped off at the entrance to the historical site and set off to find accommodation. The first hotel was full, as was the Chinese temple, and the Tibetan temple; it was turning into a “no room at the inn” situation, though I hoped Hazell wasn’t carrying anything biblical in her belly. We ended up at the Sri Lankan pilgrims guest house, and they very kindly gave us a room for the night. While waiting for the manager we were greeted by a large group of pilgrims dressed in white, each of them beaming at us with delight. We communicated as best we could, (the ’English Teacher’ spoke surprisingly little English), and informed them we were due to visit Sri Lanka soon. This was met with wails of approval and two full pages of addresses and phone numbers in my diary. They also informed us that Jaffna was now accessible to tourists, which we were excited about, but Hazell was a little less enthusiastic about my suggestion to swim from Tamil Nadu in India to the Sri Lankan peninsular.

Kushinagar is a quiet place with a similar landscape to Lumbini in Nepal, which resides nearby. Large, open fields are punctuated by palms and hillsides bathed in dry heat; all services are basic with little in the way of comfort. We enjoyed walking under the impressive Burmese stupa, where events from the Buddha’s life are depicted on the walls and pilgrims took shelter from the sun. Many countries where Buddhism is the principle religion are represented at the main pilgrimage sites; various temples and monuments of differing styles adorn the landscape, with only the poorest countries such as Laos being conspicuous by their absence. The Mahaparinirvana grounds are well kept by Indian standards, and I found the atmosphere in the main shrine very affecting. A gold leafed Buddha image lies in reclining position to mark the spot where the former prince passed away. We joined with the other pilgrims in silent meditation, inspired by the sense of history and connection to a location so important to so many. The energy was palpable.

We grinned as a maintenance man entered and gave the statue a bit of a facial. The gold leaf on the Buddha’s face needed a touch up and on completion he looked like a new man. We turned to look at the shrine on exiting and in all honesty it’s rather an eye sore; a questionable design which owes much to drainpipes and submarines. We also visited another effigy nearby, where I was nearly struck on the head by a live hornet being consumed by maggots. We moved quickly onwards. It was once again disheartening to see the grounds being used as a playground by children on a school outing; litter was strewn across the grass and the crumbling remains were utilised as climbing frames. Once again India was proving to be a consummate teacher of patience, a lesson which continued into the evening’s events at the Uttar Pradesh State Guest House, our new dwelling.

Late afternoon was marked by a sound system check for the imminent Indian wedding party. Our room happened to be directly behind the bass bins. The hotel was full to capacity with party guests, hence we were unable to move rooms, but we were reassured that the noise would be short lived. If you have been even remotely close to an Indian wedding celebration, you will be well aware that the chances of things ’quietening down’, even in the preparation, are about as likely as the Ganges drying up. We sat in our room bouncing up and down as the bass from the latest Indian techno tracks reverberated. Others in the guest house complained, as well they might in a supposedly peaceful place of pilgrimage. Every hour we were told it would soon finish, but the hotel staff became tired of lying and eventually just said, “C’monn, it’s a wedding party. No problem.” Well, if you can’t beat them, join them I thought, upon which I introduced myself to the DJ and asked if I could play my iPod on his system. Though a little reluctant at first, he found the appropriate cables and soon the wonderful sound of Source Direct’s 1996 Drum and Bass classic, “Secret Liason”, was pounding out across a perplexed group of Indian onlookers. I sat back and grinned while a man who must have been the bride’s father stared at me disapprovingly. One young Indian shouted ’more, more’ on completion of the track, but I felt gratified and moved away to reception.

I informed the young man behind the desk that I expected the noise to go on well into the night, a prophesy which proved to be accurate, and that the best solution I could offer was that we stay the night, but the cost of the room be charged to the party. He looked at his feet and agreed reluctantly, clearly not relishing the prospect of informing the benefactors. Hazell and I bounced around in our bed for most of the night, but found some consolation in leaving for Bodhgaya in the morning without paying a penny.

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