I arrived safe and well in Kolkata, India on Thursday, 3 December 2009. I stayed my first night at a reasonably good hotel – Dee Empresa Hotel. http://www.deeempresa.com/ The room rate was about US$50 per night including breakfast. It was relatively expensive for my usual budget but I felt it was necessary to help me adjust to being in India. I don’t regret this at all. It was the right decision. The streets of Kolkata are quite confronting for a newb in India. It was a relief to enter the hotel gates and be welcomed by the smiling neat guard and the hotel staff at reception. The food in the hotel restaurant was great and the service was good too.
I went to the India Museum on the first afternoon. It is very grubby and not well maintained. There are many Buddhist statues and most important of all, there is a relic of the Buddha on display in a small room called “Minor Antiquities”.
ABOVE: Display of Lord Buddha’s relics in the Minor Antiquities Annex at the India Museum, Kolkata. The relics are visible and contained in a small pottery container. The surrounding structure appears to be a scale model of an ancient stupa that may have existed at the time of Asoka.
Just outside the Minor Antiquities room on the balcony there is a large stone box with a broken lid which apparently once held Lord Buddha’s relics. The box is not labelled as such though. I paid respect to the relics and felt odd with three security cameras focused on the relics and a security guard in the corner of the room staring at me. These relics should be in a Buddhist temple.
Kolkata airport is terrible. The staff I interacted with were unfriendly, unhelpful and didn’t seem able to help much. The facilities are basic. There were no signs on the check-in counters indicating which flights they were servicing and I wasted time at the wrong counter for Indian Airlines. The domestic flight from Kolkata to Gaya was surprisingly departing from the International terminal rather than the domestic terminal. There was no explanation on the ticket or any e-mail from the airline after the internet booking etc. The departure lounge had no wall clocks and there were no screens indicating the current status of departing flights nor which gate to wait at etc. The staff were grumpy and unhelpful. The upside was that despite being late departing, the flight to Gaya had only 9 passengers so I had plenty of room and a quiet short flight.
Kolkata, Gaya, Bodhgaya, Rajgir and other towns and cities I have visited so far are very dirty, dusty, smelly and extreme poverty is everywhere. Most of the roads are very narrow, many have pot holes and some are so bad, I was surprised that we could pass.
Gaya is a regional city of about 350,000 people, and its roads and environment are appalling. There is a pall of smoke created by cow dung fires lit by very poor people on the sides of the roads. Litter, dung, ashes and other filth lie strewn about. People spit on the roads and paths. There are no proper pedestrian paths. Where paths may have been provided, these are taken over by street vendors so that pedestrians must use the narrow roads and avoid 10 wheel trucks, auto rickshaws, coach buses, motor cycles, bicycles, cycle rickshaws, four wheel drives, and other cars etc. It is extremely chaotic. Vehicles beep horns continuously to try and make their way through. A pair of ear plugs to deaden the sound is essential. A dust mask to block some of the smell, germs, dust and smoke is also essential.
I stayed one night in Kolkata and then flew to Gaya, Bihar state in the afternoon. The flight was delayed so I arrived in Bodhgaya, about 8 km away after dark.
In Bodhgaya I slept at Deep Guesthouse for 500 Indian Rupees – about A$12. It has an ensuite, a fan and is clean. It is cool at night and I need to wrap warmly in a blanket. There is a restaurant with Nepali/Tibetan style food on the roof and I’ve eaten there for most meals.
ABOVE: Deep Guest House, Bodh Gaya, Bihar State, India, December 2009
I went to the Mahabodhi Mandir to pay respect to the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha sat and attained enlightenment. It would have been more pleasant if there were less than 10,000 (a wild guess…) other pilgrims there at the same time. Most seemed to be Tibetan Buddhists. There were large factions from other countries too. Many of the Tibetans were doing full body prostrations on boards. Large groups of Thais and Cambodians were chanting the Tipitaka. It was very very noisy. There were signs saying, it is forbidden to wear shoes in the temple area but many pilgrims/visitors were wearing shoes. There were signs saying that visitors should maintain absolute silence when near the Bodhi tree… but chanting was loudly blasting from speakers which must have had power sources officially supplied… I felt confused, disappointed, awed, peaceful, loving, patient, tired, etc. There were many boxes for donations which I passed by. I donated only to the official Mahabodhi Society.
ABOVE: The west side of the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, Bihar, India. The Bodhi tree is on the east side and not visible in this photograph.
ABOVE: The north side of the Bodhi tree on the eastern side of the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, Bihar, India.
ABOVE: The railing on the east side of the Bodhi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, Bihar, India. The Bodhi tree is behind this railing.
I went again another day and chose the time around 11am when most of the chanters and prostraters where away eating lunch. It was very peaceful and I enjoyed a quiet sit close to the current Bodhi tree. I wouldn’t mind doing that again one day. I left just as the chanters and prostraters were arriving back after their lunch break. This time I took time to observe the “South East Shrine” which Ven. S. Dhammika notes is the spot where Brahmā Sahampatī asked Lord Buddha to teach the Dhamma for the sake of “those with little dust in their eyes”. After enlightenment, the Buddha wondered whether anyone would understand his teaching and benefit from it. The shrine is quite modest and there are no signs in English to mark its significance.
Through Middle Way Travels, I hired a driver and small diesel hatchback car (Tata Indica) for 1500 rupees to take me to Gaya and two Buddhist places nearby – Gayasisa (now known as Brahmayoni) and Dungeshawara Cave.
Gayasisa is the place where the Buddha gave his third discourse and in some English translations of suttas it is called “Gaya’s Head”. Siisa is Paali for head. Lord Buddha converted 1000 fire worshipping wanderers who were previously followers of the Kassapa brothers (not related to Maha Kassapa) to Buddhism and helped them to realise full enlightenment as arhants. It was interesting to sit in the place where this happened. I used my MP3 player to listen to the English translation of the discourse whilst sitting there.
The Dungeshwara Cave (known as Pragbodhi at the time of Lord Buddha) is reputed to be one of the places where the Bodhisatta (training for enlightenment) practised austerities, such as fasting, holding breath and so on. The Bodhisatta gave up this practice and went to Bodhgaya (then known as Uruvela) where he ate food, gained his strength and practised meditation for full enlightenment – became the Buddha. If you are interested to read more about this period of the Bodhisatta’s life, please read the Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36), translated from the Paali by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
ABOVE: The path leading up to Dungeshwara Cave. You can see the some of the beggars waiting for pilgrims and the temple at the site of the cave (white colour building in the centre of the photo).
I did not like this cave much. Over 100 beggars and hawkers of all ages pestered me on the way up. At the site there is a Tibetan style monastery with two men dressed as Tibetan style monks (maybe they really are monks?) seeking donations. I gave them only a warm smile. Outside the cave on a concrete veranda were a group of about 10 Thai men and women dressed in white led by a Thai monk chanting. I waited for 10 minutes but they kept chanting so I walked in front of them and entered the cave itself. It was dark and oppressive. I didn’t realise for a moment that there were at least two beggars in the cave. I prostrated three times in front of the skeletal Bodhisatta image and left the cave with loud protests from the beggars for not donating. I can imagine that the Bodhisatta suffered a lot in that cave. It had a really bad feeling. I don’t recommend it for anyone.
ABOVE: The veranda outside the Dungeshwara Cave. I was told the cave itself is the rectangular opening on the left in between the two groups of Thai chanter pilgrims.
When I climbed down from Dungeshwara Cave, I was hassled again by many beggars. I didn’t give any donations until I was in a secluded spot where I could give to two children and one blind youth without being seen by the others. This has been my tactic in most places I visit. I am trying to avoid being mobbed and surrounded. If I gave to one or two within in sight of others I would soon be surrounded by 30 or more others. I understand that some of the beggars are addicted to alcohol, tobacco and Bollywood films. I suppose they seek some relief from the poverty with these distractions. It is better to give food, medicine and useful items rather than money which can be spent on addictive substances and bad habits. It is also good to give money to charities and social workers who are trying to improve the lives of poor people.
I am gradually acclimatising. I was a bit low on the first two or three days. India has changed a lot in the past 2500 years, many conflicts and cultural changes. Now the population is huge. Bihar state where I am now is the poorest state in India, whereas at the time of the Buddha, the Ganges basin was a very prosperous region with many parks and excellent environment.
I went to Rajgir (previously known as Rajagaha) by hire car (Tata Indica) early this morning and returned late this afternoon. It was very exciting because I visited many famous Buddhist places including Indasala Cave, Sattapana Cave, Phipali Cave, Velavana Pleasure Park (now called Venuvan), Jivakambavana (Jivaka’s Mango Grove), Vulture’s Peak (Gijjhakuta), Bimbisara’s Goal, Kalasila Stream, old Rajgir’s walls and Isigili Hill (now known as Sona Hill). People who read the suttas will come accross these names all the time. It is excellent to have actually been to these places in person. Now when ever I read these suttas or listen to others read them I can visualise the scene a little more accurately despite the many changes to the environments since the time of Lord Buddha.
After passing through “old Rajagaha” which is now mostly scrub land, my driver (Mr Jagbinder Singh) and I passed through “new Rajgir” turning eastwards along the northern base of Vipula Hill, Ratana Hill and other hills for about 7 km. We passed a very large ordinance factory which had high walls and many lookout towers. I say large, it seemed to be around 3 km long on the side close to the road. The road was mostly unsealed and the little diesel hatchback had to move slowly to avoid the potholes etc. We passed around the eastern end of the ridge of hills and drove about 1 km north, passing a dam and then a small farming village.
As we came closer to Indasala Cave, some village girls saw us and ran away. They had been carrying bundles of sticks on their heads. Mr Jagbinder said that they may have thought we were police looking for “baksheesh” or worse. I late speculated that the practice of harvesting young trees has led to the decimation of forests in Bihar and in particular around Indasala Cave. However, poor people probably use the sticks for fuel and as building material. We drove until we reached a small building among a clump of small trees. We could see the cave on the south face of the hill. Mr Jagbinder, my driver, had been talking about how lawless this area had been until a change of Bihar government four years ago. Apparently Naxalite insurgents would rob anyone who dared to venture to remote areas such as this and even raided Rajgir town itself.
ABOVE: The Indasala Cave, 7km east of Rajgir (Raajagaha). The cave is the dark spot in the centre of the photo. The other dark spot on the left centre is a crack in the rock and not a cave.
Mr Jagbinder stayed with his car and I climbed through thorn bushes and scrub over shale and narrow overgrown rough paths that may have been created by goats or cows. It was difficult to climb up the steep base beneath the cave at Vediya Hill and I was scratched by thorns on my hands. My white jacket which had been laundered the day before was dirty and quickly embedded with seeds. At first I was fearful of falling and hurting myself but continued with energy and enthusiasm. I felt the presence of non-human beings, maybe demons and peta. I remembered devas and brahmas and lost my fears. The last part of the climb was very steep and difficult. My hands and feet found perfectly placed hand and foot holds. It seems that others had been here before and made it easier for pilgrims to climb this last stage.
Indasala Cave itself was small and visibly inhabited by bats. There was a long dark tunnel at the back of the cave which I could have explored if I had a flash light and more courage. My mobile phone torch was not powerful enough to see inside. The floor of the cave appeared slightly moist with bat dung so I stepped on rocks. I saw one shoe print on the floor which may have been made by another recent pilgrim.
ABOVE: Looking out from the entrance to Indasala Cave.
I sat near the entrance and read the Sakka-pañha Sutta: Sakka’s Questions from Maurice Walsh’s translation of the Digha Nikaya. Here is a link to an excerpt of the Sutta translated by Thanisaro Bhikkhu. It is an excellent Sutta. However, the excerpt misses out an important and very interesting back story of a gender changing deva who was a female human, died and became a male deva son of Sakka, King of devas in the Tāvatimsa realm (trans. Heaven of the Thirty Three – the second out of six sensual pleasure heavens). I’ll leave it to you to find and read about this in the Digha Nikaya. Even so, the excerpt in the link above is excellent and essential reading for all Buddhists. Enthusiasts may want to read a commentary on this sutta by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw.
ABOVE: A view looking south west from Indasala Cave.
ABOVE: A view looking south east from Indasala Cave. The car and a small neglected Hindu temple is behind the clump of trees in the lower centre of the photo.
After reading the sutta and reflecting on the significance of its meaning, the physical location and the beauty of the surrounding landscape, I took some photographs and then descended to the car and Mr Jagbinder.
We drove back along the road we came by and stopped at the Rajgir market for a cup of chai, then went across the road to the Veluvana Pleasure Park, now known locally as Venavana. Mr Jagbinder told me he had visited this place as a school boy but had not known any of its history or significance until I told him some stories. I suppose very few current residents of Rajgir know anything about the ancient history of the town where they live. We were charged 50 rupees (about A$1.20) to enter the park. It seems well maintained and contained a large pond. There was an area with two or three small buildings sign posted as meditation huts. The ancient peacocks’ feeding ground, squirrels’ feeding ground, were not apparent. There were strands of bamboo growing around the edges of the park.
After the park we drove a few meters south towards the olden northern gate and headed up the path to the Hindu Lakshimi Narian Temple which is now located on the ancient site of Tapodarama at the foot of Vibhara Hill. There were many Hindu pilgrims happily enjoying the natural hot springs. We walked up the path through this temple upwards until Mr Jagbinder and I were both exhausted and needed to rest.
ABOVE: A view looking east at Sattapana Cave, Rajgir, Bihar, India.
We finally reached a small white painted Hindu temple and took a right turn on a path leading downwards to the Sattapana Cave, the site of the First Buddhist Council, a meeting of 500 Arahant bhikkhus to confirm the contents of the Tipitaka three months after the Parinibbana of Lord Buddha. It seemed a small area to accommodate 500 people. I supposed that the area had changed a lot in 2500 years and perhaps since the time of the Council, there had been many man made alterations to the site and maybe even some vandalism. [Later an elderly Indian man who worked as a guide at the Sonbhandar Caves in Rajgir told me that the Sattapana Cave was originally much larger but had collapsed and the rocks fallen down the slope of the hill. According to that guide, the two small caves on the site now may have been two rear corners of the cave 2,500 years ago.]
ABOVE: The entrance to one of the caves at the Sattapana Cave site, Rajgir, Bihar, India.
Mr Jagbinder and I walked back along the path and found the Pipphaligūhā apparently once a favourite residence of Maha Kassapa Thera who led the First Buddhist Council. There were three small caves in the base of a rough rock tower located just above the hot springs temple. Rubbish was strewn all around the ground at the base of the tower. We went back to the car and drove south through the old northern gate and turned right to visit Bimbisaara‘s Goal. It seems that someone has recently constructed this ruin or at least repaired it. The footings did not look ancient. Even so it is probably the right location for the historic place where Ajatasattu imprisoned, tortured and assassinated his own father in order to take over as king.
ABOVE: The supposed site of King Bimbisaara’s Goal, Rajgir, Bihar, India.
After Bimbisaara’s Goal we took a chair lift up to a Japanese made stupa and then walked a path downwards towards Gijjhakuta – Vulture’s Peak. We passed by two small caves, one of which may have been Sūkarakhatalena (sometimes translated in English as the “Boar’s Grotto”). This is the place where the Dighanaka Sutta was delivered by Lord Buddha and Ven. Saariputta Thera attained Arahant path and fruit.
ABOVE: The chair lift going up to the Japanese Stupa and Gijjhakuta, Rajgir, Bihar, India.
All the time I was reflecting on how much the environment has probably changed during the past 2500 years. The caves and the peak itself may not be recognisable to people who knew these places long ago. Since then, many monasteries have been built and destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed on these locations. It is doubtful that much remains of the original surface rocks. The larger landscape may be similar, the shape of the hills, for example. I suppose that 2500 years ago there were many tall trees, jungles and forests in the area that are now depleted.
ABOVE: One of the caves alleged to be the Boar’s Grotto, Gijjhakuta, Rajgir, Bihar, India
Many Indians were visiting all these places but seemed to have no idea of their significance for Buddhists or for their own heritage. I also noted that in the caves, people, perhaps Mahayana Buddhists or Theravada Buddhists who are preoccupied by rituals and ceremonies (many Thais are like this), have lit candles, incense and left white scarves, fruit and other offerings at small alters. I don’t understand this type of practice. I prefer to meditate, read suttas, practice generosity and restrained moral conduct. I wonder if the devotional practice is reproducing ignorance and delusion.
The Hindu caretakers of Gijjhakuta platform insisted I remove my shoes before walking closer to the footings of the ruins of a small kuti (cottage). I did so but wondered about the difference in protocol between Buddhists and Hindus. When I visited museums displaying the relics of Gotama Buddha there was no requirement to remove shoes. In my mind, the relics were infinitely more worthy of respect and veneration. I spontaneously removed my shoes when close to the relics in the museums. It felt unnatural to do so while walking around on the Gijjhakuta platform.
ABOVE: One of the platforms at Gijjhakuta, Rajgir, Bihar, India. This location has the remains of several kutis used by ascetics in the past 2500 years. This location in the photo had the most ribbons, gold film, scarves, candles and incense etc. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was the precise location of Lord Buddha’s kuti. The local men were there to sell water, incense and other paraphernalia.
On the way down from Gijjhakuta, I bought a grape fruit from a stall at the side of the path. I will eat it for breakfast tomorrow morning before leaving the hotel for my early taxi ride to Gaya to catch the train to Varanasi/Sarnath. Then we drove back along the side road toward the main Rajgir-Gaya road. We stopped again briefly to look at Jivakambavana (Jivaka’s Mango Grove). The site was similar to the nearby Bimbisara’s Goal site. I doubt the brick footings on site were genuine. They also seemed to have been recently laid. The last place we saw was Kalasila. I took photos of the old walls on Sona Hill (once known as Isigili (translated as “Gulf of Seers”). In this area, Maha Moggalana Thera is supposed to have been assassinated.
Sarnath (known as Isipitaana at the time of Lord Buddha) is where the Buddha gave his first discourse after enlightenment at Bodhgaya and converted 5 wanderers to Buddhism. After one or two days at Sarnath, I will go to Kushinigar (known as Kusinaaraa at the time of Lord Buddha) where the Buddha passed away and may spend one night there before travelling on to Lumbini/Nepal (the birthplace of the Buddha).
I will try to join a meditation retreat there led by Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw. I’m not sure if I can join or not. If not, then I’ll go south again, maybe to 2-3 more Buddhist places, more west of the previous places but not as far west as New Delhi. Then I’ll probably fly down to Colombo/Sri Lanka to retreat at Na Uyana Monastery.
I researched this trip by reading English translations of the suttas in the Paali Tipitaka and Ven. S. Dhammika’s Middle Land, Middle Way. I recommend pilgrims obtain this book well before beginning their journey to northern India. I also read Ven. S. Dhammika’s abridged version with notes on accommodation and transport on Buddhanet.net. I downloaded this and have stored it on my Cowon MP3 player for ease of transport and access. Other useful references are the Lonely Planet guide to India and the Rough Guide to India. I have also read many relevant articles on Wikipedia.
I have many photos which I’ll try to post on this blog soon. I’m usually tired every day. The noise, dust and germs are getting to me. I need 8 hours sleep now whereas before I could manage on 5-6 hours a day. After Rajgir, I feel as though I may be getting a cold. I may rest longer in Sarnath to recover quickly.