Hitting the holy hotspots...

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
Trip End Jul 23, 2004

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Flag of India  ,
Thursday, January 8, 2004

To continue our exploits...
So we got from Pelling (and the relative solace of Sikkim) to Siliguri (second biggest city in West Bengal) by another share Jeep, this one "shared" by 11 adults and 2 kids, with all of the luggage strapped to the roof. Siliguri is an insanity to navigate, and finding the train booking office was quite the urban adventure. Once in the booking office, we had the standard Indian queue: every person mashed as tightly as possible towards the counter, all waving their ticket reservation slips madly. We had the fortunate bulk advantage of our 30 lb backpacks and were moved toward the front in a rather mosh pit-like way. Tickets bought, we decided to walk to the train station rather than take a cyclo-rickshaw; the sight of the rickshaw-wallah straining to inch us (and our formidable backpacks) slowly forward is painful and embarassing for us, although intensly interesting for the locals we pass. I think they're taking bets on whether the rickshaw-wallah will rupture some vital organ on a block-by-block basis. So, after a brief assessment of our trusty guidebook map, we set off for the quick walk to the New Jaipalguri station. Much, much later, upon a further look at our now doubted and much cursed guidebook map, we discovered that the distance from Siliguri and New Jaipalguri was "Not To Scale", and not the quick 1 km walk we thought. This was made even more exciting (meaning: "much more swearing") by the fact that we thought the train left 45 minutes later than it actually did, AND it was the first train we've been on that was on time. We made it with 4 minutes to spare.
We arrived in Patna train station at 5:30 am, and it was another post-apocalytic movie scene: heavy dark fog, shrouded figures, most barefoot, lurking next to stained concrete pillars, unidentifiable shrieking sounds from next to the train tracks. It was creepy. Stuck there until 9, we waited in vain for the sun to appear. Add to this the fact that Patna is in Bihar state, which is the poorest province in India; that's quite a distinction for a country with poverty everywhere. We had been warned that the crime rate is high here, and Phil had the honor of two pickpocketing attempts in two hours, as well as a guy who followed us onto the train and was very insistant in his offer to "help" us with our bags. Still, we landed in Gaya unscathed, and had an amusing autorickshaw ride to Bodhgaya with seven people riding inside and six hanging off the back on a vehicle only a little bigger, and no more powerful, than a riding lawnmower.
Bodhgaya is the biggest pilgramage place in India for Buddhists, as it is the place where Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. The actual tree is long gone, but a sapling from that original tree was planted on the sight, and it is a very holy place for Buddhists, regardless of what school of Buddhism they follow. While we were there, a puja for the Kagyu Tibetan lineage was being held, so the town was filled with maroon and saffron robed monks and nuns, who spent anywhere from 8 to 16 hours in the main temple complex, chanting prayers and doing prostrations to gain merit. It was an incredible display of devotion; some Buddhists are waiting at the temple gate even before they open at 4 am, they are so eager to get in and start the day's prayers. We stayed for 5 days, not only soaking up the incredible atmosphere, but I was trying to connect with an organization called the Root Institute who, in addition to being a Buddhist retreat center, also runs free medical clinics for the Bihari people. Although it didn't work out for me to do any nursing (they were all a bit frazzled as their Lama was visiting and doing teachings, and also they really preferred a 6 month committment), it seemed like a really wonderfully run group and I would recommend anyone going to Bihar to check out their website. Bodhgaya was cold and foggy every day, so we decided to push on to Varanasi, the holiest city in India for Hindus.
Varanasi is known amongst travellers mainly for the prevalence of cremations at the burning ghats, where the dead are first doused with water from the Ganges River and then burned on open-air platforms. We are here during "low season" and there are still at least 150 bodies burned every day at just the ghat by our guest house. There are other ghats along the river that are used for bathing or washing clothes or for Hindu ceremonies, but the burning ghats are the most lively (excuse the choice of words). We have only been here for one full day, so I will write again when we have explored more.
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