Last days traveling India - Bodh Gaya, Kolkata, Sunderbans
Bodh Gaya – the sprititual epicentre of the Buddhist world
We spent almost a week in Bodh Gaya which was planned from the beginning as a ‘resting’ point. We were staying in a beautiful Buddhist monastery, which rents some of its rooms to tourists (probably to get some money to support their activities). Every day we could hear the monks recite their mantras just below our room and watch craftsmen redecorating the colourful exterior of the temple. It was really special!
Our very first shipment during this trip, and also the most curious one (since it had to be packed in a "tailor-made" bag):
Bodh Gaya turned out to be a very peaceful village with lots of Buddhist temples from every Buddhist country in the world. There was nothing exceptionally remarkable in this village except that geographically speaking it contained the very spot where Buddha (prince Siddharta Gautama) attained Enlightenment. The legendary tree under which it happened is no longer there but pilgrims and tourists are just as happy with the tree which claims to be its ‘grandson’: according to a story the original one was destroyed by the jealous wife of a king who became a keen follower of Buddhism and was taking too much care of the tree (instead of his wife), but some branches of the original tree were saved by the king’s daughter, taken to Sri Lanka and afterwards the branches of that new tree were successfully planted at the spot of the original green celebrity.
The Bodhi Tree:
Not that we thought that Bodh Gaya is some kind of highway to Nirvana, but because we had so many days there it seemed logical to ask about an opportunity to do a meditation course. We asked around and an International Meditation Centre was offering flexible courses. A bored looking monk fully immersed in a newspaper seemed a little annoyed when he saw us, but reassured us that it would be no problem to start tomorrow. Surprisingly enough the meditation technique was Vipassana which I had already studied back in Belgium a few years ago. The surprise element was that normally Vipassana courses are 10-day minimum, especially for those who have never tried it before (like Jordi). Despite our mutual and immediate intuitive dislike of the monk we decided to give it a try, only to find out the next day that (1) we should always listen to our intuition; (2) a detour to this road to nirvana was not meant to fit into our round-the-world itinerary.
What happened was that next day the monk greeted us in the same bored/annoyed way as we distracted him from the same newspaper, and as he was explaining to us the idea and technique of Vipassana he couldn’t help yawning. Even better, a couple of minutes after we started with our first sitting meditation session, he left never to come back! An hour later after he shouted at us (“You two late! Haven’t you heard that bell? You are not walking as meditators!”) it was obvious that he belonged in a sanatorium to fulfill a function of a sick person instead of a guru in a Vipassana centre. We left the place immediately, and funnily enough the guy didn’t look surprised at all at our decision. I guess he was really relieved that he could go back to his newspaper…
Despite this, our stay in Bodh Gaya was very happy: for the next days Bodhi tree and in fact all the huge trees in the garden around it would provide comfortable shadow for us as we would sit, chatting or meditating – in this very special place. With Vipassana aura all around us, it was an especially funny coincidence when a Buddhist pilgrim approached us asking if we had ever tried Vipassana. He turned out to be a monk who gave up his worldly life in Mumbai 10 years ago and was now traveling India, sometimes staying and helping in Vipassana centres along his route. At that moment he was doing a pilgrimage through the four important Buddhist places but afterwards was hoping to find a quiet village somewhere in the south with friendly villagers and settle down there in order to meditate for the rest of his life in the hope to attain Nirvana. We had long conversations with him about different things like the life of Buddha, the practice and meaning of Vipassana, Hinduism and its modern distortions, the Vedas, Jesus being a supreme yogi but no Buddha etc. etc.
Kolkata and West Bengal – city, tigers and rainy fairwell
After Bodh Gaya, Kolkata was the only place left on the route for India. But Jordi was desperate to see some Bengal tigers so instead we squeezed in a visit to Sunderbans Tiger reserve in West Bengal. After almost a whole day of trying to find out the way to this remote place and switching between boats and rickshaws, we finally reached the place at dusk and wanted to ask for information at the main ticket office for the next day. But the locals in a synchronous choir told us that we couldn’t go to the ticket office as “the tiger was right there”. Of course to us – the seasoned India backpackers – this sounded as one of those tell-tales that they always give us when trying to divert us from our original intention. However while we were talking with the villagers and checking into a hotel, it got very late and we had to wait till tomorrow anyway.
Next morning we were up very early ready to meet the tiger. As we were asking on the pier how to get there, we met some very friendly Indian guys who were spending their weekend in the reserve and that day were planning to do a boat tour again. Luckily for us, they had a whole boat hired all for themselves and they generously offered to take us along. So we got on the boat and crossed the river. However, as we approached the reserve we were stopped by the guards who instructed our captain to go back. The reason… To our enormous surprise they did confirm that the striped beast was indeed chilling out right in front of the main ticket office at the park entrance!!! So being something like 300 m away from him we couldn’t see him. But despite that we enjoyed very much our trip to West Bengal – the landscape of this biggest river delta in the world was really gorgeous, with rice fields interspersed by ponds and dikes (oh, how it reminded us of Zeeland!), which gave the local villages a look of neat isles of lush vegetation.
First views over Kolkata:
On the (never-ending but really beautiful) way to Sunderbans:
Sunderbans - finding generosity and beauty while looking for tigers:
On the way back to Kolkata:
Saying "bye" to Kolkata and to India
Next day we said good-bye to India from Kolkata – it reciprocated the farewell by flooding the streets of the city up to our knees. Luckily, our taxi was able to swim us to the airport. To be continued…
Our last days in India:
The rainy fairwell: