My 300 rupees (US$7.25) fan-cooled room overlooked the lawn. There’s a nice balcony. There’s the usual not quite right feel as with almost everything else here. The bed is a double made up with 2 single grey-white sheets. The tap drips terribly. The floor though not quite clean, is marble. I’ve noticed that in general people move dirt around spreading it evenly rather than actually clean it up. Nevertheless, the Hotel Surya and its garden is a haven from the insanity and chocking fumes of Varanasi. I could not keep my eyes open in traffic for the dust flying into them.
Human nature is such that one appreciates “having” best when one is “not having”. Not having broadband in Bodhgaya was necessary for me to enjoy broadband here at the oasis of hotel Surya in Varanasi. The tranquility of breakfast on the lawn is a refuge from the craziness outside the gates. Surrounded by the exuberance of lush dahlias bursting with colour, and the bougainvillea heavy with blossoms, the India train station madness and bumper car traffic seems very far away. I reflect on the concepts of duality and polarity. Where is left if there is no right? How do you appreciate non-toothache if you’ve never had a root canal?
The elderly waiter brings the menu and nods approvingly at my breakfast order – paratha and India chai. “You buddhist, madam?” I think the Lonely Planet is dead right about women wearing the Salwar Kameez. It’s a badge of respectability. Many evil and badly dressed western women venture into Varanasi alone it seems.
At the next table the raucous bunch of English students discuss the previous evening’s activities and congratulate one another on having done the sunrise tour of the river Ganges this morning. The main character, taking up way too much air-time, appears to be the ungainly chap in orange travel pants and non-matching strip shirt who proclaims that he shall spend all of his 200 pounds . Their Indian friend, who’s wearing a pair of white terry-cloth bedroom slippers (on the lawn) look worried.
Varanasi was old when Rome was founded, but most of it’s buildings are only a couple of hundred years old. The Mughals and other infidels had sacked much of it’s old glory. Tomorrow or thereafter I shall bravely venture out to the famous river at dawn and do my tourist’s duty.
A very flustered Japanese man with a small towel slung round his neck came to ask if I was “nihonjin-deska?” I said “sorry, no” and he nodded apologetically and strode off. He went up, down and across the platform several times, his face getting redder. The Japanese tourists I mused, as I stand there with Amrish guarding me, are so abused. In India there are always 4 price levels: an Indian price, Isreali price, western price and Japanese price. Even in Singapore there is a special Japanese price at tourist places. In Bodhgaya I was routinely asked by young men in the streets if I was Japanese. By my lack of politeness, they get that I’m not. “Korean? Taiwanese” They would ask.
All in all I spent 10 days in Bodhgaya with very good memories of the kids, and a few ideas of what I can do for them. Something with craft, folk art, fund raising, sponsorship…. But whatever it is, they gave me more than I could ever give them.
The train was late so Amrish and I chatted sparsely about the India-Pakistan cricket matches and his family. Amrish was a taxi driver in Patna before he came to drive for the Maitreya Project in Bodhgaya in 1997. His English is surprisingly good. He’s a medium built guy with olive skin and enigmatic eyes. Blue-jeaned, ear-ringed and a George Cloony haircut, he would look at home from London to La Pas. The Indian ethnicity is really quite varied. The cook who is a Sherpa from Darjeeling, even though technically there are no Sherpas from Darjeeling, Dick tells me, looks Chinese. He serenades us with Hindi songs when he’s working in the kitchen.
The Gaya station is not a very nice place. A number of beggars approach us, but not quite as many as if I were to be standing here alone. Ahead, a man is waving a red kerchief at a cow that’s gotten on to the tracks. She’s serenely eating the garbage that’s been tossed down. I watch her swallow 2 plastic bags. She missed the papaya peel that the papaya-wallah had just thrown, stupid cow. At 4.50pm the impossibly long train pulls in and there was a general scramble. My coach was of course at the other end.
Amrish finds my seat and evicts the portly chap who was occupying it. The train begins to pull away. Who but the flustered Japanese should have the seat next to mine? He too was going to stay at the Hotel Surya. I decided to adopt him. It later transpired that it was his third trip to Varanasi and he was the one adopting me. We managed to pay only 10 rupees (US 25 cents) to the auto-rickshaw wallah to get to the hotel. I am pretty sure that that was the Indian price.
Kylie and Kathryn decided that they were walking down despite it being 1.45pm in the blazing sun. Mezz and I went for another ride. There were a few families launching about, in an orgy of post luncheon expectoration. The ground at our feet is full of lunch leftovers. There were some ingenious little biodegradable plates made of leaves usually used by street vendors. They should have stuck to those leaves. India is drowning in disposable plastics. The chairlifts would start up again at 2pm said the sign. Promptly, at 2.19pm, a commotion erupted. After much gesturing and shouting “one line, one line”, the attendant was peeved to see people form themselves in to 2 or 3 lines. The chairlifts began to move.
Somehow we found ourselves at the end of the longest line as whole families of queue cutters blatantly shoved passed. It was quite entertaining to watch the boarding. This time the chairlifts appear to be moving even faster. Coming down is made more interesting as the margin for error decreases. If you can’t co-ordinate all your bits and pieces, or you are wearing an elaborate and fluttering sari, you could very well fall off the platform and go splat off the precipice.
I receive some looks of disapproval. Indian modesty requires that respectable females wear an additional sort of fabric across theirs bosoms, like the top part of the sari or the long dupatta (scarf) of the Salwar kameez (Punjabi Suit). LLBean travel pants, a Migros t-shirt and an IMD baseball cap appear to be beneath contempt. Respectable Indian women are appropriately dressed, groomed and accessorised. And they don’t walk; they swish, jingle and sway. As I later learnt, they also pluck, wax and peel with religious regularity. Personal appearance is regarded highly, notwithstanding the unwashed impoverished multitudes. It’s no wonder that the Goans despised the “freaks’ as the hippies who descended on the beaches of Goa were called.
Soon it was our turn, and luckily it was without incident. We descended to the other 2 ladies behind surrounded by a bunch of curious Indian guys at the chai stall.
Rajgir – Bamboo Forest Monastery was 100 acres of land accorded to the Buddha by the King Bimbisara of Rajgir in the 6th century B.C. It was the first Buddhist monastery. Budhha lived and taught there for 1 2 years. The site Vulture’s Peak was a favourite place where he enjoyed numerous sunsets. We visit the Japanese Peace Stupa on top of Ratnagiri Hill via the precarious chair lifts. They cost 25 rupees return. The stupa is not really that interesting unless you have never seen a Japanese stupa before. The view from the top is good on a clear day. The chairlifts, however, is an experience not to be missed.
First, the elaborate contraption one had to go through to get to and from the chairlifts seemed pretty extreme. It’s a cross between a waterwheel, a revolving door and some gates for sheep going to slaughter. Only one person could go through this contraption per revolution. And it takes about 10 or 12 seconds for each person. Then there’s the one second hesitation before stepping in. Soon a long line of people build up. We joke about the genius of Indian engineering thought who thought this up.
At first glance the chair lifts were deceptively similar to those commonly found in the Swiss Alps. Stepping up to the platform, the adrenaline levels go up pretty quickly. In Switzerland, these contraptions slow down to a crawl on the long embarkation platform, pick up the passenger and then speeds off again. Not here. The chairlifts here move along at the same speed on a short platform. You step on to a marked spot with your knees bent and you bum sticking out. You clutch your bag / small child / lunch tightly. The chair comes and swoops you up from behind. In case you hesitate the attendant shoves you into it. At this point you retract all you limbs (and your bag / small child / lunch if any). In the next half second, another attendant drops the cross bar in front of you and you are jerked upwards.
Shariputta (One of the Buddha's principal disciples) stupa
At the ruins of Nalanda University, 12 km away from breakfast, we engage the services of Mr. Anil Kumar, who is name-tagged and licensed by the Department of Archaeological Survey of India. It turns out to be an entertaining and educational hour. Mr. Kumar has a well rehearsed script with each paragraph prefixed by an address to me. “Sister, this was built in the 5th century. It was excavated in 1915. Sister, look here the start of the stairs for the 9 storey building.” I take it to mean that I am responsible for ensuring he gets a good fee. “The government rate is 100 rupees, sister, but this rate is since 1995. So if happy you pay as you like, sister.” He was a studious looking fellow, a bit rumpled. He used ‘sister’ effectively when he thought my attention was wandering. “Sister, there are 108 monasteries buried by the earthquake and here 11 identical monasteries are excavated, main entrance not yet discovered. Now excavation at a complete standstill by the department. Because sister, over there villages are.”
Stairs built over 3 different dynasties - that is a LONG time
In truth, Nalanda is pretty awesome. Some of the engineering are quite clever. The drains, for example become progressively deeper, from 6 inches to about 3 feet. “Here the monks bathe, sister. Toilet, outside.” So they were mooners back then too. The monastery was built and used between the 5th and 12th centuries. It was then sacked by the Afghans and subsequently buried in an earthquake, thus Nalanda faded into obscurity. In 1861 an English archaeologist discovered evidence of it in the diary of 7th century Chinese monk, Xuan Zhang. It was not until early 20th century that Nalanda was finally excavated. This is the possibly the world’s largest excavated university. It was also established 700 years before Paris, Cambridge and Oxford. The grounds are well planted and very pleasant.
Kylie on a bed of stone where monks used to sleep
As we leave, a bevy of old ladies and one young girl pursue us to the jeep. Ashok irritably snapped at them and they coolly ignored him. The young girl kept up a pitiful wail while her eyes darted around watchfully, presumably for a more receptive audience.