From Calcutta to Bodh Gaya

In Cal­cut­ta, I wake to the news that my teacher and friend Rod­er­ick West has died, tear­ing a hole in my heart. Yet such was the man’s intel­lect and spir­it that he always seemed eter­nal, so it is not so dif­fi­cult for me to believe that he is. I will keep thoughts of Rod close to me through­out the jour­ney ahead.

I arrive at Howrah Ter­mi­nus in Cal­cut­ta, after cross­ing the Howrah Bridge, a mar­vel of engi­neer­ing, to reach anoth­er mar­vel of engi­neer­ing: the Indi­an rail­ways. As in all the great rail­way ter­mi­nals of India, there are lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of pas­sen­gers embark­ing and dis­em­bark­ing, eat­ing and greet­ing and wait­ing (often sleep­ing), wait­ing for trains that may take twen­ty-four hours or more to reach their destination.

Like an iron Ganges, the rail­way is the sacred artery of the Indi­an nation, unit­ing those who might oth­er­wise be divid­ed by dis­tance, as well as lan­guage, reli­gion, caste and class. At least until they divide into their var­i­ous car­riages and tiers, Snow­piercer-style.

Indeed, the rail­ways are as seg­re­gat­ed as any sub-con­ti­nen­tal insti­tu­tion, if along eco­nom­ic lines, albeit lines that large­ly mir­ror the more tra­di­tion­al strat­i­fi­ca­tions of caste.

Pre­fer­ring, when health and tem­pera­ment per­mit, to eschew lux­u­ry, I buy a tick­et on sleep­er class. Although non-AC — what bet­ter way to get to know a place than to taste its air? — a sleep­er tick­et means I will indeed have an allo­cat­ed berth, yet far from guar­an­tees it won’t be occu­pied – often by more than one per­son – along with their babies, tele­vi­sions, sacks of grain, sand or cement, and enor­mous quan­ti­ties of tif­fin packed snacks. These snacks are washed down by a steady stream of hot masala tea from the chai-wal­lahs, who run along the car­riages to ply their trade, along with bel­low­ing ven­dors sel­l­ling samosa, vadai, nam­keen, water bot­tles, news­pa­pers, children’s games and knicks-knacks.

Trav­el­ling India by rail is vast­ly more enjoy­able – and safer – than the exas­per­at­ing (and often sick­en­ing­ly per­ilous) expe­ri­ence of trav­el by long dis­tance bus. Of which more lat­er. Yet even the rail­ways may prove exhaust­ing, espe­cial­ly if one’s seat with a per­fect­ly good view of the coun­try­side rolling along out­side is already occu­pied by a flat­u­lent baba. If, how­ev­er, like all oth­er aspects of trav­el in India one is sim­ply pre­pared to relax and sur­ren­der to the flow then the rewards are infinite.

Despite the end­less strug­gle for legroom, Indi­ans — par­tic­u­lar­ly low­er class Indi­ans — will go out of their way to accom­mo­date new­com­ers, even if that means inhab­it­ing each other’s per­son­al space like sweaty puz­zle pieces. But best of all is the way that, over the course of any giv­en jour­ney, a car­riage full of strangers becomes famil­iar, and by the time one’s des­ti­na­tion is reached, many will have become firm friends. Often the odd­est and most intim­i­dat­ing char­ac­ters will prove the nicest. On that first trip alone I got to know a genial Thai monk also on his way to Bodh Gaya, along with a young Ben­gali intel­lec­tu­al who was the first per­son I met in India to open­ly crit­i­cise the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. And then there was the cheer­ful Gujarati engi­neer who sim­ply want­ed to show me videos of his favourite heavy machin­ery on his mobile phone, lov­ing­ly edit­ed togeth­er and accom­pa­nied by a thump­ing dance track.

As I say farewell to my new friends – the excitable monk hav­ing already dis­ap­peared – my train sidles into Gaya. Gaya is a grim and unin­spir­ing city in the still pover­ty strick­en north­ern Indi­an state of Bihar. The con­trast with West Ben­gal and Cal­cut­ta is stark, and like most of the strangers on the train I am mere­ly pass­ing through, and am soon speed­ing through the traf­fic-choked city to Bodh Gaya. My tuk­tuk dri­ver paus­es to buy cig­a­rettes and peanuts from an old man on the side of the road, stretched out on a rug with an ancient pair of scales. Tak­ing a drag on the first of many cig­a­rettes, the dri­ver hands me the peanuts. “A gift,” he smiles. “Wel­come to India.”

Bodh Gaya is one of Buddhism’s most sacred places. It was here beneath the Bod­hi Tree that the Bud­dha attained Enlight­en­ment, and there­by changed the course of his­to­ry. Here a Unit­ed Nations of pil­grims gath­ers from across the world, most obvi­ous­ly from South and East Asia, but also from the West, joined by those – like me – sim­ply curi­ous about the his­to­ry and cul­ture of the place. This inter­na­tion­al­ism is reflect­ed in the tem­ples clus­tered around Bodh Gaya, built by Bud­dhist groups from Tibet, Bhutan, Japan and Tai­wan, among oth­ers. (Bodh Gaya’s inter­na­tion­al flavour is also reflect­ed in its food, and here it is pos­si­ble to eat momos to one’s heart’s content.)

Most extrav­a­gant of all is the Thai tem­ple, built with the impri­matur of the Thai King him­self. It is beau­ti­ful, but per­haps just a lit­tle gauche to eclipse the his­tor­i­cal tem­ple com­plex in opu­lence and scale. The Thai tem­ple even has a cof­fee shop and hos­pi­tal, includ­ing mas­sage clin­ic. Still, the staff at the Thai tem­ple were the kind­est I encoun­tered in Bodh Gaya, and I spent time chat­ting to the head gar­den­er. She pass­es half of every year main­tain­ing the tem­ple gar­dens, and the oth­er half back home in Thai­land. With­out doubt, it was one of the loveli­est gar­dens in India.

Drawn by the sacred atmos­phere — and the momos — Bodh Gaya is a bustling place, with thou­sands of vis­i­tors arriv­ing on pil­grim­age and pack­age tours, or on pack­aged pil­grim­ages. Smil­ing and laugh­ing, they fill their bags with jan­gling reli­gious tat, and pose for self­ies in front of the tem­ple com­plex and the Bod­hi Tree. Despite this car­ni­val atmos­phere, Bodh Gaya is also, com­pared to most places in India, a supreme­ly peace­ful and uplift­ing place, par­tic­u­lar­ly when one has sur­vived the queues and strict secu­ri­ty checks to enter the cen­tral tem­ple com­plex itself. There, peo­ple from the four cor­ners of the world con­verge to sit and won­der, walk and wan­der, bow or med­i­tate or pray, and I join the throng encir­cling the tree, before tak­ing time out to sit beneath that incense scent­ed place and sim­ply lis­ten to the sound of chant­i­ng in per­haps a hun­dred lan­guages, maybe more. The Bod­hi Tree itself is not the orig­i­nal, rather grown from a cut­ting of a cut­ting of the orig­i­nal, sourced from Anu­rad­ha­pu­ra in Sri Lan­ka. It is the grand­child of the tree under which the Bud­dha gained Enlightenment.

As the sun sets and the world bathes in pur­ple the sound of prayer fills the air, per­fumed with the mem­o­ry – and the hope – of good lives, well lived. As I mourn my depart­ed friend and teacher, here seems the best of all places to remem­ber the impor­tance of walk­ing on, as best we may, along the path towards Enlight­en­ment, wher­ev­er it leads us.