[I realize this post may seem confusing and/or redundant if you are following the other Varanasi blogger, considering we are both named Lydia and both went on a spring break trip together]
Rather than being based around Easter as American spring break often is, our spring break was planned around the Hindu festival of Holi. I have never been one to “go crazy” over spring break, and this year was no different. I took a three-day trip with my friends Jackie and Lydia to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Having done no research on Bodh Gaya prior to my arrival there, I didn’t have many expectations for my spring break. My initial impressions on our first evening in the town did not thrill me; it seemed like just a busy tourist hub isolated from the reality of harsh Bihari village life. On our first full day there, however, my feelings toward the place changed.
Our first main activity was going to the Maha Bodhi temple, the main temple in the town which contains the ground from which the famous Bodhi tree has grown and under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The place definitely exceeded my expectations. I almost dreaded having to see a cliché replica of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and thought the Bodhi tree would seem like just another giant tree to me. When we entered the grounds, though, I felt as if I had been cut off from the rest of the world and transported into a peaceful land full of Buddha devotees.
We ended up sitting underneath the Bodhi tree for about an hour, meditating and watching all of the other people there interact with the space. The tree is not the original tree that the Buddha sat underneath, but it is a direct descendent from the original tree; a sapling of the original tree had been planted in Sri Lanka, and the current Bodhi tree was grown from a sapling of the tree in Sri Lanka. The migration of the original tree’s parts itself reflects the migration of Buddhist philosophy around the globe. While we sat, monks, tourists, and pilgrims from all over the world circumambulated the temple. We were sitting next to a cute, small old man who didn’t speak English or Hindi. Each time we tried to stand up, he would look at us eagerly and pat the area next to him; apparently he didn’t think we had spent enough time underneath the Bodhi tree. We wanted to talk to him, however had trouble with the language barrier. Eventually we concluded that he was Nepali. After we left the temple, we ended up seeing him 3 more times that day in the town, and each time he flashed his adorable old-man smile and made the “Namaste” gesture toward us.
He was not the only character we observed under the Bodhi tree. Each time a mild breeze would blow, half the people in the area would bolt up from their seats and chase after the leaves that fell, trying to catch them so they could take home a piece of the Bodhi tree. Not only pilgrims but also the monks fought to grab the leaves before someone else did. It was possibly the most good-natured battle I had ever witnessed; usually whoever won the race for the leaf would give their prized possession to the person who lost. In the temple area there was a group of monks performing puja (a prayer ceremony); among them were monks of almost all ages. Apparently bored, some of the young monks meandered away from the prayer, instead running after all the leaves. One of them then shyly walked up to me and handed me a leaf.
It was fascinating to see the diversity of the people who were gathered at that single spot. Although the Buddha spent his life in one small area of India/Nepal, 2000 years after his death his devotees were travelling from thousands of miles away to commemorate his enlightenment. During the Buddha’s life, his philosophy had not developed into different practices or sects as it is observed now. Yet even among the monks at the Mahabodhi temple there were so many variations in the robes they were wearing and the languages in which they were speaking and chanting mantras. People had so many different ways of expressing their devotion—fingering prayer beads, kneeling before the tree and chanting mantras, circumambulating, prostrating. Despite the variations in the manifestations of Buddhism, everyone was there in reverence of the same Buddha’s teachings. The people gathered there reflected the long history of Buddhism’s spread and the infinite number of forms it has taken on.
The idea of Bodh Gaya as a Buddhist pilgrimage place contrasted with the Hindu population of the surrounding area. Despite the Buddha’s presence in Northern India/Southern Nepal throughout his life, Hinduism “won” over Buddhism—yet it somehow managed to spread across countries and even across seas, ultimately becoming the predominant religion in many Southeast Asian countries and also widespread in East Asia. Even though King Ashoka, as a powerful and well-respected leader, heavily advocated for the spread of Buddhism throughout his empire, Buddhist practices for the most part eventually dissipated in India.
I had nothing but peaceful and happy experiences in the Buddhist temples we visited; however, when taken out of the context of Bodh Gaya’s pilgrim centers, the reality of Bihar’s poverty struck me. Bihar is the poorest state in India. We spent 1 hour in a rickshaw from Bodh Gaya to some caves where the Buddha meditated. During the trip, I watched the happenings of Bihari village life. What immediately struck me was how their clothes reflected their social class; in comparison to Uttar Pradeshi villagers I have seen, their clothes were very worn and tattered. The amount of hard labor they do was reflected in their noticeably tougher and drier skin and hair. Bodh Gaya has become the main tourist attraction of the state, but beyond the town’s walls lives a population of people who, being Hindus in rural Bihar, are far from what they might view as the ideal pilgrimage spot.
Another interesting juxtaposition was the immense commodification that surrounded an area that represents ideas of simplicity and non-attachment. Like any tourist towns, Bodh Gaya was swimming with trinket-shops, roadside stands, and restaurants geared towards foreigners. On the one hand, the tourism must support the local economy; on the other hand, it seemed so paradoxical when put up against traditional Buddhist ideals. Many of the monks we saw, as well, were chatting away on their cell phones and taking pictures with iPads. We even talked to a monk who was showing us his facebook page. The presence of modern technology even in renunciate life reflected the inevitable changes that Buddhist practice has gone through in the last 2000 years and how it has been influenced by technology.
The greatest part about our trip was that we had no definite plans for our time there. Our days were filled with temple-seeing, momo-eating, and relaxing. What better way is there to spend spring break than at the place of Buddha’s enlightenment?
I returned to Varanasi into the buzz of Holi festivities. Holi is one of the more famous Hindu holidays, since it involves (as you probably know) throwing powdered colors on and squirting squirt guns at everyone in sight. It was my second Holi celebrated in India (the first being during my gap year), and I have to say that this time the pre-Holi hype didn’t live up to its name for me, at least. Varanasi is notorious for its rowdy Holi celebrations, and people get so wild that over the years it has become unsafe for women to even go outside during the day. I stayed at home and “played Holi” (as it is said in Hindi) with my family in the courtyard of their house. Though the color-spreading itself was kind of a let-down for me since the adults in the house weren’t into it, it was still great to spend time with my family during Holi and the surrounding days.
As Holi wound down, so did our vacation, and we went back to school to face only a month left of time in Varanasi and, between now and then, a history exam, field methods exam, and a 25 page research project to complete. It will be both a busy and stimulating next couple of weeks!