January 24th, 2008 (part 1)
I woke up early in the morning as we passed through a desolate landscape, still in the grip of thick fog.
There was very little commotion on the train, adding to the bleakness of the journey. Sitting up from against the wall of the seat, I swayed back and forth with the motion of the train I gazed out the window and the faded green landscape.
Eventually, a man came in selling milk-chai, breaking the monotony, and I chatted a bit with the my friend, who said it wasn't much further.
Not long before we pulled into Gaya station, a few children came in looking for bottles and what ever else they could scavenge. They were excited by the sight of me sitting there and got a kick out of having their picture taken. Unfortunately for them, they should have just grabbed their bottles and run, because as we pulled into the station and I grabbed my bag and headed to the door, another man came on board to collect the trash, and wasn't too fond of them. He screamed at them to get away and tried to take their bottles away but they stood their ground. He walloped one of them so hard on the side of the head it knocked him to the floor and he finally dropped the bottle, only to get up and try to grab it back from the man, who again knocked him to the floor. These were tough kids, I would have already been bawling after the first strike.
I was a little confused by the situation. I was warned constantly to fully crush water bottles when I'm threw so that children won't collect them, fill them with tap water and sell them to foreign travellers. Just a sip of water was enough to make me sick for half a day before, I image drinking a whole bottle could be serious. As the man crushed the bottles, I wondered if that was the issue of if he was just after the deposit money, himself. Something about the kids' reactions told me this was a common occurrence.
My friend lead me to the rickshaws and we hired one to bring us the 30 minute ride down into Bodhgaya. He showed me to his little tailor shop around the corner from the Mahabodhi Temple and sent someone to fetch us some tea. I was relieved that he just wanted to be hospitable and didn't once pressure me to buy anything.
There's pleasant atmosphere around the temple. I couldn't really tell where the temple actually was, but a buzz of energy lead the way as people flowed up and down the street. The temple obviously wasn't in the little square by the road, so I followed the flow up along a stone wall painted red until it opened up too to a stairway over looking the Mahabodhi Temple.
The temple is built to resemble mythical Mount Meru, with one tall central peak and its four slighter peaks on each corner. It actually reminded me a little of Angkor Wat, except a simpler, thinner design. My first impulse was not to go straight up to the temple, but to continue around its grounds, circling around to the back, admiring the bodhi trees that grew around it, and the many more monks strenuously performing full prostrations on sliding boards around at the side and back of the temple.
I entered the temple ground from the back,wondering how I would figure out which bodhi tree was the sapling Ashoka's daughter brought back from the bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, which was a sapling from the original tree Buddha sat beneath at the time of his here in Bodgaya. Once I approached the temple, it became obvious, though, as I stepped beneath the massive canopy of a bodhi tree, its branches reaching far into the sky, its roots enshrined by an elaborate stone gate, decorated with carved lotuses, gold leaf, and gold drapes. Stone carved lotuses marked the spot where Buddha's feet rested as he walked back and forth for three weeks in deep meditation following his enlightenment.
I tried to sit and meditate beneath the tree but the swirling, nearly volcanic energy of the place overwhelmed me. I could feel why prostrating is a much more common practice here, though it just might be there energy stirring up the storm!
I continued around the temple, checked out the inner shrine, then went down the side to a small pond with a statue of the Snake King protecting Buddha from the storm as he sat in meditation during his sixth week after enlightenment.