Our train to Bodhgaya left Jaisalmer at 1am – thankfully the guy from our hostel dropped us off in his jeep again. It was RIDICULOUSLY hot for the middle of the night.
Here’s Jay melting on the platform:
We’d been really lucky with our second class tickets, rather than sharing a berth of 4 beds with two other people, we had the two beds at the end of the carriage, so it was like being in our own berth. A curtain at the end gave us a little privacy, although people would randomly draw it back, either in confusion at where they were or sometimes just to stare at us!
The two nights we had on the train were very peaceful. We went to sleep on the first night gazing out the window, watching moonlight on the desert. From the train the dark shapes of the trees and scrub looked like they were mounted in snow, the desert floor appearing pure white, so that your mind would try to fit it to something more familiar. We imagined the feel of the still night and moonglow on our skin if we were sitting out there watching the train rush past.
The mornings were not so peaceful! At around 6am the vendors started passing through, including our favourite, Chai Guy* who walks up and down the carriage continuously chanting “chai chai, chai chai”. Frustratingly the urn he carries is full of hot milk, so he can’t dispense black tea. We’ve had about a 50% success rate in requesting hot drinks without milk on trains, it is entirely at the whim of the man (all the staff are men) who we ask on any particular occasion.
We had a full day on the train so were very grateful for the little berth to ourselves; playing cards, writing in our diaries and watching catch up TV on our little tablet screen. At one station we saw something truly awesome and deeply unsettling. All the platforms here have long sinks with rows of taps for drinking water. As well as drinking directly and filling water bottles, people use these sinks for brushing teeth, washing faces and general ablutions before/after the epic train journeys. This station was no exception, however at this sink a continuous stream of bees poured from the taps! They formed huge clumps dangling from the apertures, and we gazed horrified and transfixed. A man, seemingly oblivious, went to one tap and blasted out a swarm of bees. Then, when water came out he just stood there drinking while they rotated about him angrily. As he walked away he blasted another tap of bees, but they almost immediately reformed. They appeared to be drinking rather than nesting. It was truly incredible to see.
There is something magical about such a long train journey, crossing such diverse landscapes. To watch the sun rise over desert, pass at lunchtime through an urban sprawl, then see the sun set over water buffalo bathing in pools in lush green paddy fields; all whilst going about your daily life in a little cabin.
As the train swept east into Uttar Pradesh, the green fields were deep with water, people busy at work within the crops. Small dirt paths wound amidst the fields and people traversed these among the dappled shade of the myriad trees. The different colours were striking, almost overwhelming after the diminished range of the Thar Desert. The abundance of water felt wasteful, an extravagance. As evening settled in, smoke from small cooking fires drifted into the heady sky. Among the tall crops the tops of huts – circular, made from mud and thatch – emergerged brown in the rippling greenery. They protruded between trees, in fields, and sometimes between stone and brick buildings. In the fields people carried freshly harvested plants on their heads, weaving lines homeward at the end of their working day. We wondered what they’d been up to, where they were going, if the plants were for them or to sell. We wondered what life was like in these lush lands: was it any easier than the desert, or just challenging in different ways?
The sun set, thick and rich with dust in the air, deep red and full. The curtain of deepening darkness fell across our window.
So we ordered pizza.
One of the greatest innovations we’ve seen from the Indian Railway Catering and Transport Corporation (IRCTC) is an app called Food on Track. All rail bookings have a Passenger Name Record (PNR): a unique booking number that is linked to both your specific train, and your seat on that train. Vendors at/near train stations register with the app, you order something for delivery, and then they can track the progress of the train so they can prepare and deliver your order – to your seat! – regardless of whether the train is running early or late. We discovered that one of these vendors is Dominos, and they have WAY more veggie options than in the UK.
Towards the end of our journey, on the second morning, we crossed the Ganges. People all along the banks were washing themselves and doing laundry. The water was cleaner than most we’ve seen, but astonishingly there was still litter visible on the banks. An estimated 2,958 Crores (£340m) has been spent since 2014 in various efforts to clean up this sacred river, but most initiatives have been declared failures due to corruption, lack of will in government, poor technical expertise, and lack of support from religious authorities.
We finally arrived into Gaya Junction at lunchtime on Friday 21st, only about four hours later than scheduled! After the relative solitude of our train berth, and the quiet of the off-season in the desert, Gaya was an affront to all the senses. The dust and fumes hurt our throats like the Delhi spice market. Crammed into a large tuk tuk with other shared taxi passengers, our views were limited and we were just aware of the smells of Gaya and the hot sweat of the other passengers. Our driver was a man with a death wish, even by tuk tuk driver standards, and the half hour journey to Bodhgaya was pretty terrifying. The chaos of Gaya eventually gave way to a long straight road which resembled a whacky races cartoon. After playing chicken with various lorries and buses, we somehow made it to Bodhgaya alive.
We checked into our guest house and had a quick shower, which is a pointless endeavour in the humidity as you don’t really have a chance to get dry before being drenched in sweat and atmospheric moisture.
The first place we visited in Bodhgaya was the ancient Mahabodi Temple; as with the huge tourist attractions in Delhi we were requested to leave all our electronics at the entrance, herded along gender-segregated walkways and subjected to multiple security scans and searches. Luckily few other people were there so we passed through quickly; in tourist season the queues must be enormous.
The temple dates to the 7th century CE, although there was a monastery and shrine as early as 250 BCE, about 200 years after the Buddha attained Enlightenment under a bodhi tree on the site. The temple fell into disrepair over the centuries and has undergone major restorations, however some original features remain on site and in the tiny local museum. The main structure is 55m of towering tiers forming a steep and almost pyramidal shape. It looks like concrete, although most of it is far older than that. The whole exterior is a gallery of intricate carvings, with the many mudras of Buddha in relief around the base. The scale of the structure is awesome, and we were excited to see whether it was one enormous cavern inside or if there were internal levels. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see, as after going through yet another metal detector to get inside, we were confronted with a tiny, albeit beautiful, shrine room. The rest of the interior was roped off, although stairs leading away from each side gave a suggestion of the rest of the structure accessible to the resident monks.
At the back of the temple, in the beautifully maintained gardens, we found the Bodhi tree; the 5th generation of the one Siddhartha meditated under to attain Englightenment. As we approached bits of bark fell from the tree and we looked up to see a chipmunk was stripping it for insects and throwing the bark on the ground, discarding its peelings. Light cascaded through the heart-shaped, shifting leaves. There was a barely audible rustle as a breeze stirred the ancient limbs. Next to the bodhi tree, an altar of marigold garlands was alive with Africanised honey bees, like a buffet laid out to honour them. In many ways the temple and its pilgrims were revering nature, not just a deity. A monk handed us a sheaf of bodhi leaves, instructing us to give them away.
The next morning started with an epic search for breakfast; in such a tourist-oriented place, almost nowhere was still open in the off-season. We ended up at The Hotel School, a functioning hotel that provides hospitality training for local youngsters. We had lots of very polite young men being super attentive waiters! The food was great too, all of which made up for getting absolutely drenched in a monsoon downpour on the way there.
Once the rain stopped we went to look at the 80ft Buddha Statue (exactly what it sounds like) and ended up hiding in the security hut with a load of other people when the heavens opened again.
We visited eight temples during the day: different Buddhist sects have come to this sacred place to build temples inspired by their local architecture and religious practice.
The one that really stood out for both of us was the Bhutanese temple. Inside mandalas adorned the ceiling and Buddha Shakyamuni rested on a golden throne, but it was the walls that were breathtaking; carved in 3D relief, painted scenes and sculpted narratives, utterly glorious to consider.
On our final day we were up at 6am to attend the Puja (prayers) at the Tibetan temple, only to find that we’d been given the wrong information and they weren’t being held that day. Overall it contributed to a feeling of disconnect from the religious aspects of Bodhgaya: the town feels structured around tourism. We’d seen these beautiful temples and statues, but from behind ropes and barriers, there didn’t seem to be any way of interacting with the spirituality of the places we’d visited, or with the Sangha (monks and nuns) who’d been almost entirely absent from the parts of the temples we were allowed access to.
We took a far less terrifying tuk tuk back to Gaya and passed a huge wedding procession on the main road. A large crowd of brightly dressed people were singing and playing instruments, with the children dancing along at the front. The children all smiled and waved at us, and screeched with excitement when we waved back.
*he’s the kinda guy, who’ll only be mine