On a cold December evening in Bodh Gaya, I find myself seated a few feet away from the Bodhi tree inside the Maha Bodhi temple compound. A blanket would have been nice, I think to myself. Not just to keep me warm but also to ward off the swarm of mosquitoes that are circling over my head.

The air is saturated with smells from incense sticks, burning butter lamps and fragrances emanating from the bodies of the devotees seated and passing near me. Since it is peak tourist season, the temple compound is filled with visitors and practicing Buddhists from various countries; many sitting cross legged right under the tree, many around the compound wall, many outside and many walking around. 

The temple is well lit with lamps and decorated with flowers—mostly lotus and marigold. Buddhist chants of different tempos rise and fall as groups of devotees walk by. I take a deep breath and close my eyes—readying myself for a meditation session. 

Though I have been trying to learn meditation for a few years now, I have never been able to get into a true meditative experience that people keep talking about. Today, I am determined to crack it. At least the setting should help this time. After all, it was here that the Buddha attained enlightenment some hundreds of years ago. 

I take a few breaths, raise my head, try to blank out my mind and start chanting “Om… Om…" 

The world I see through my inner eyes is all dark, barring a vague light formation. A few seconds pass by. The ebb and flow of the chants from Buddhists nearby and my own “Oms" are the only sounds I hear. 

Hmmm… this feels good. Maybe I am getting this finally…the elusive art of meditation. 

My chest heaves as I breathe in and out. 

“Om… Om… Nom… Om... Nom… Om… Om… Momo… Momos... Momos..." 

Hmmm.. those momos I had earlier were good... I must go there again… 

“Momos?!" 

Realizing my mind had wandered off again, I shake myself up, frustrated that the beast had managed to wander off even in such settings. I decide to try again. 

I think to myself: “Concentrate on your breath." 

“Feel the breath going in through your nose… through your windpipe…" 

“Through your stomach… stomach… stomach!" 

“My stomach’s so large… what could I do to reduce my stomach… I must renew that gym membership…" 

“Nooo!" 

I give up. I don’t think I can be a true meditator... the only thing I can meditate on is food. With this realization, I get up from my spot and decide to walk around the temple. 

*** 

I was in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. My friends Ganesh (the master planner behind this trip), Deepak and I were here for a few days to experience the peace and calm that Bodh Gaya has to offer. We checked into a room in Hotel Lumbini International, an old heritage sort of hotel located near most of the main monasteries in Bodh Gaya. 

In stark contrast to the impoverished village scenes that we saw while taking a bus ride in from Nalanda, Bodh Gaya appeared to have much better infrastructure, and an urban feel to it. Credit must be given to all those countries setting up monasteries in Bodh Gaya, I assume, since they have helped improve the economic activity around here as well. 

I noticed that Bodh Gaya is undergoing gentrification—a fact confirmed by the presence of outlets of modern-day coffee chains. We skipped the templatized brews and visited a newly built, chic-looking café named Nirvana– The Veg Café. Looking out from inside the café, I found it hard to believe I was somewhere in the middle of Bihar. The place had the ambience of an upscale coffee joint you would find somewhere abroad. The food turned out to be terrific as well. Another food place that I had visited earlier and liked was the Siam Thai restaurant. Though not the best of food I have had, it served the best Thai food I could get under the circumstances. 

The streets of Bodh Gaya were lined with shops selling Buddhist merchandise. Prayer beads, yak bone bracelets, prayer flags, wheels, Buddha statues in wood and bronze, and all kinds of clothes were sold in these shops. Having bought similar items from Nepal a few years back, I found the prices a bit too steep. I bought a few wooden Buddha statues as memorabilia, while my friend Ganesh got a complete five-piece Buddhist monk’s clothing. He planned to turn up in this attire on one of the casual Fridays in his office, he said. 

Back inside the Maha Bodhi temple, monks sat in meditation all around the temple, wherever they could find a spot. Most were seated inside little tents to keep away the mosquitoes. It was late into the night now. I took one last look at the temple and turned away. Strains of fast-paced Buddhist chants streamed into my ears as I walked away from the temple, soon to rejoin my family, back in the real world. 

***  

To get to Bodh Gaya, we flew into Patna from Bengaluru. Sorry to say this Bihar, but your airport needs some serious work. It reminded us of Cochin airport. From some 15 years back. But I digress. So, as I was saying, we landed in Patna and checked into one Hotel Fort. Thankfully the room we got was slightly bigger than the Patna airport, and so we could sleep well after a long flight. 

When in Rome, eat like the Romans. When in Bihar, eat litti chokha. Ganesh educated us about this traditional Bihari food (knowledge he had gained Googling a few minutes earlier, I suspect). The name sounded interesting, and so we decided that we would have it for dinner. 

Soon, we found ourselves enjoying some hot littis from a streetside cart named DK Litti Corner. The owner apparently was a well-travelled man; the cart featured photos of him in various parts of the world, sticking littis into customers’ mouths.  

An early-morning passenger train took us from Patna to Nalanda. We checked into a Bates motel sort of guesthouse. Food was arranged from nearby homes, and hence tasted fresh and great. For the next one hour, the food delivery ladies had the workout of their lives, running up and down fetching freshly prepared rotis and curries for three gluttons while we kept emptying our plates, crying 'More... more!'    

The statue of Mahavira in Kundalpur Digambar Jain temple, Nalanda.
The statue of Mahavira in Kundalpur Digambar Jain temple, Nalanda.

An old guide forced his services upon us when we entered the ruins of Nalanda University. I must mention here that his dedication to his job was unparalleled—to ensure maximum customer satisfaction, he spewed out stories, philosophy and his own interpretation of the benefits of vipassana meditation to his ensnared listeners. But his stories were indeed intriguing, and transported us to an era when India was a coveted place for studies. 

The following morning, we took a bus from Nalanda to Bodh Gaya. The bus ride was interesting, for, just like the train ride, it gave us a glimpse of the countryside of Bihar. We checked into Hotel Lumbini International—a fine old, cozy hotel located centrally in Bodh Gaya. A little later, we got out to explore the streets. A wrong turn took us into an alley of colourful houses.

Over the course of the trip, we saw a great many Buddhas (of course).

The images above show (starting from the top) the Royal Bhutan temple, the Metta Buddharam temple, the 64ft tall Great Buddha statue and the Tergar temple. That last one had an Italian bakery set up inside its compound. The cakes, muffins and coffee perked us up nicely.

Speaking of coffee, have a gander at the Nirvana café...

... and contrast with the standard-issue Barista Lavazza.

Now for a few sights from the streets of Bodh Gaya. Monks zipping up and down in rickshaws and e-rickshaws, shops selling Buddhist merchandise and a salon that has the Dalai Lama as model!

And now we come to the famed Maha Bodhi temple (the photo on the left below shows the Buddha inside).

We found what must be the slot machine of the monks. Myth is that if you manage to land a coin on top of the Ashoka Pillar in the photo below, your wish will be fulfilled.

More sights from the Maha Bodhi temple.

I am always uncomfortable photographing people, since I am not sure what their reaction would be. So, I either do it from a distance, without calling attention to myself, or like I have done below, ask for permission before shooting (in which case the photo turns out “posed"). The sadhu did a good job as a model, brushing up his beard before the shot and giving me an intense look. I gave him Rs50 as alms—hope I will get some karma points.

The Maha Bodhi temple was especially beautiful at night. Sitting under the Bodhi tree was a peaceful experience—one that you’d want to experience more often. It was difficult to leave this place, but then we had to.

Sampath Menon is an IT industry veteran, entrepreneur, travel addict, foodie and occasional blogger (he blogs at sampathmk.com).  

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