Eating food in India is no joke.
On one hand there are high-end coffee cafes that have prices that could only make sense to the gainfully employed. High-end coffee needs to be carefully metered out as it is too comforting and familiar a western experience to eat in such a cafe. Not only does it take you away from your local-encounters in this mighty country, but also takes a large amount of Indian coin from your purse and that directly affects how much you have to spend on the fun things.
On the other hand there are the types of restaurants that Indians eat in themselves. Entering one of these is the classic story of India – the locals stare at you, the menu is in Hindu script, you have no idea what the food is and your loud shouting for Poppadum’s doesn’t go over well. For these places, the average (read lowest common denominator) English person might make the classic mistake that acting like one would act in an Indian restaurant in one’s own country (where Indian immigrants are very supplicating to asshole western dinners) is perhaps not the best idea when there are a million people in the surrounding two miles all of the same culture. Basically, I wonder if the English causal racism played out abroad is not the cause of many of the poisonings you hear about (just wait until this blog gets to Agra for a story of tourist poisoning that will make your hair stand on end). However, treated with respect, and a little bit of savvy regarding the menu, these “true” Indian restaurants serve generally fine if basic fair.
No, the really bad places to eat – the places where one should just walk on – are the for-tourists cafes. This isn’t because they are all bad – some are great and should be cherished like diamonds in the rough – it’s because when they are bad… they try to kill you.
We walked around Bodh Gaya looking for somewhere to eat. Near our hotel was two tourist cafes; plastic chairs, tables and western menus. We sat at the first and was descended on by a platoon of flies. I’m not talking about the usual amount of flies in India. No, this was a shit ton of the buggers. This is normally your first clue to leave since flies are attracted to unclean “cafe-restaurants” with bad sanitation. Cesca and I had been travelling for long enough to take one look at each other, get up and move to the next door cafe. We sat down and perused the menu. It was identical to the first place and was all western fair: Omelettes, toasties, peanut butter and burgers. I took a look at the food being eaten by the other tables and then at the diners. They were all western. This is the second clue. We got up and left. I don’t mind dicing with death in ignorance, but I draw the line at ordering it in a restaurant simply because I am uncomfortable in eating real Indian food. We went back to the hotel and visited the empty restaurant in the basement. After talking to the waiter and surreptitiously checking out the kitchen through the doors, we ordered blindly some local fair and crossed our fingers. It arrived and was of course excellent. We ate there from that moment on. Even when we left the hotel for a new one we came back for the food. Better that than to exchange health for perceived comfort. I suggest to you that you do the same when you are India. After all, Thali is wonderfully tasty.
The delights of Bodh Gaya are more than can just be found at the Mahabodhi Temple.
The surrounding lands contain a large collection of Buddhist temples of all denominations. As this is considered the heart of religious Buddhism many sects want their presence felt in the area. A short walk leads you passed many beautiful temple grounds stacked full of priests. From the the calm and serene temples of the Japanese (I think Pure Land rather than Zen, but I am still not sure)
to the strange and amazing temples of the Tibetans arrayed with many colourful flags, which have since quite taken my fancy as an image; blowing in the wind with their prayers wafted to the skies.
I have a photo of those flags above my bed today.
The highlight of the temple complexes is an enormous Buddha statue that towers high above all the roofs and demands attention. I have walked around such giant symbols before, in Vietnam for example, but never a monster of this size and in this condition. It was beautiful. The sun was dipping in the sky and so we waited and took photos of the statue with the sun at its back. Very nice.
In the high season I expect that you can’t move for pilgrims in this town. At those times I suggest you pre book your visits or you may find it a very crowded and uncomfortable experience. That’s just a guess, but considering that seemingly half the world’s Buddhist schools and “Retreats” are in the area (which were all closed for the “winter” during our visit) and that the Dalai Lama often stays nearby, it is probably on the money.
The background to this place is all part of the Buddhist myth. I shall reiterate that to you now:
Siddhartha, the Indian mystic prince had renounced his birth rights and left to walk the Earth. He did this after seeing death, illness and old age for the first time and deciding it was his mission to find an answer to their suffering. During his travels he learned from Indian mountain mystics who used self-mortification (not eating) to enable them to seek oneness with the Universe and find the self within – the true part of you indivisible from your essence. Siddhartha learned the ways of these men, but eventually left them all and walked on. In a forest he meditated under a tree for months. During this time he hardly ate and became thinner and weaker than could be stomached by less determined men. This fast became notorious and various followers started fasting under trees nearby. Eventually Siddhartha realised that this wasn’t working and he painfully got to his feet and walked on. A few nights later he sat under another tree and mediated. In that night, various demons tried to tempt him and delay his Bodhi – his awakening, but in one night he finally managed it, he broke through the barriers that separate the reality from the conscious and through his mastering of meditation managed to see all realities. This awoke his mind and he became a Buddha – a perfect master with a mind aware in all multiverses and completely without any mental baggage. As he woke from his trance he touched the ground and called upon the Earth itself to witness the new Buddha’s birth.
I remember telling my mum that story and the face she pulled at me. When I was young she had encouraged my mind to wakefulness by discussing philosophy nightly with me. Her philosophy is profoundly sceptical, realist, revisionist and slightly anti-capitalist new age stuff. To spout religious myth to her, to tell her – she thought – that I was a “believer” and a sceptic no more was somewhat horrifying. In actual fact I didn’t become a “blind believer” in Buddhism during my trip and I see the above tale for what it is; a myth. That the man existed and was a Buddha I don’t doubt, but what that means in real and not mythical terms I am not sure. It is true that Buddhism considers him only a man, but he is worshipped like a god by some and his story repeated as if fact. This is not what he taught, he admonished that nothing should be taken on faith (see the Kalama Sutta), but rather one’s own experience was key. This is an issue present in many religious experiences, where the myth has taken over the true story underneath and the message is twisted around it and cannot be easily untwisted. Christianity for example. I told my mum that I saw the Buddha as an ideal to live towards, a state obtainable by anyone and that he was very much just a man; a remarkable man – probably the most remarkable – but not a “god” and not here to setup a celestial hierarchy.**ASIDE** Have you ever noticed that all the ancient religions setup celestial hierarchies of man below gods who were like Kings? God as a king is a trope of 90% of the ancient religions. Could it be because that modern style societies were not around then? Such a society knew nothing of democracy and so saw all structures through the mantle of kingship as the way things are arranged.
Now consider those 10%. They are the religions capable of modern re-interpretation (those that for one reason or another don’t have strict mandates of owning the truth by faith alone. Buddhism, Jainism, Daoism and even very modern types like Scientology. These don’t setup such structures. If you take the God king myth from Christianity then what is left is that which we would know if we were writing the books of the faith today. Would we imagine God as a king? Or a “force”, would we imagine him as a Gestalt? Computer intelligence? As the universe itself or Gaia? I would be surprised, in this age of Twitter, Democracy and the Internet, that we would imagine him a king. It’s just so old-fashioned. It explains to me why the Gospels have “stopped” being written. What would we say that fitted with such out of date thinking? **END ASIDE**
Nevertheless, the myth continues:
After awakening he went for another walk. He came across a deer park and in that park he found the group of men that had been mortificating with him all those months before. They took one look at him and knew, simply knew, that here was the Buddha. They sat and he spoke to them, the first words of the new religious experience that would become Buddhism. He spoke of Four Noble Truths about life, of the impermanence of existence (Anicca), of the interconnectedness of the things in the Universe and of how true happiness (Nibb’na) comes from a Middle Path of eight vows know as the Dharma.
This deer park is in Sarnath.
We arrived by taxi and pulled up by a large white and immaculate temple. This was the Thai temple near the main park and we took a look. It was closed up, but the man guarding it let us in for a few moments. It was exceedingly well kept and had a large and interesting statue of the Buddha at one end. Cesca took a good few photos of that and then we moved on.
A few hundred meters down the road there is the main event; the deer park. Inside there are the remains of temples built by Asoka that were destroyed by the invading Muslims from the north and they remain like that today. All the treasures have been moved to the nearby museum (which I will come to) and the structures reminded me of discarded giant bricks of red stone. At one end of the park a couple of very large stupas sit, squat against the trees and surrounded by Buddhists of all types.
It is a lovely place to come and visit.
We walked around and came across the stone tablet depicting the laws of Asoka, which has been preserved in a cage in the middle of the park. In the distance the green goes on into trees and many deer roam with a wary eye on the tourists.
It was here that we saw some interesting priest chats. That is where a local priest shares his knowledge of the Dharma with the public. The priest had a large amount of listeners and it was quite soothing to watch (even though we didn’t understand the language).
After a couple of hours of chatting with the priests and watching the chats we strolled to the nearby Sarnath Archaeological Museum, which is one of the very best and most impressive museums I have ever visited. Chock full of vital Indian history and fascinating finds from the ancient Indian nations of the past. Inside was one of the highlights of our trip to India: The Lion Capital pillar of Asoka. This large carving of lion heads is the National Emblem of India and the national symbol on the flag. Seeing it in the flesh was a great sight.
Also interesting was the strong features on some of