I am still in search of nirvana. Though my friend found it last year at a spa in Bangkok, I believe I will have to tread through the Buddhist circuit. So says my instinct as I board the Mahaparinivan Special, a train launched for ‘would-be monks’ caught in the rut of deadlines. It’s an eight-day trip designed around the itinerary of Lord Buddha’s life. And I have with me on board a motley crew of journalists (cribbing about everything) and travel agents from Southeast Asian countries (working on the logistics of potential customers).
Day one, we spend sleeping overnight in the coach. Day two, I have my first brush with Lord Buddha under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, a city in Bihar’s Gaya district. “Peepool, this is bhear Lard Budda attained enlightenment some 2,540 years ago,” says our veteran guide in his ‘glowbell’ accent. I hide my grin looking squarely at the heart-shaped leaves of the Bodhi tree that make for huge business here. I am told that they are haggled for, sold and preserved in the name of sanctity around the Mahabodhi temple.
Who is this ‘Meditating Michael’?
Enough soul pill for my day’s appetite, I think. Until I discover Lord Buddha’s evening snacks — Appy Fizz and flavoured sweets are the offerings made by devotees.
Now, what really surprises me is ‘Meditating Michael’. Who’s He? An American who has been sitting under the Bodhi tree for the past 17 years in search of nirvana. I ask him why he left his work and he replies emphatically, “I am working 24x7 at transforming my mind and heart here.” Long way to go as I see queues of maroon and white robed monks waiting for enlightenment. Meanwhile, the divine sounds of Buddham Sharanam Gacchami wafting in the air continue to lull my senses.
The guide quickly takes us to the neighbouring Thai and Japanese monasteries explaining the art of story telling in their paintings and scriptures. I feel like Lilliput standing in front of the 80-feet tall Buddha statue built by the Diajokyo Japanese sect. Terribly confused between Mahavira and Buddha, I apply the theory of ‘God is One’. To this, the guide says, “Remember Mahavira’s ears touch his shoulders while Buddha’s don’t.”
Day three, I wake up feeling like a monk. I declare myself a vegan for the day. Now as our noisy group makes its way to Nalanda, we touch the Falgu river en route. And, instead of catching glimpses of colourful fish and boats, I see a tractor taking wild turns on the dried up riverbed. “Where’s the river?” It is said that the river lost its water due to a curse hurled by Sita, the guide pronounces, cobbling together some sketchy facts.
The history lessons I had crammed in school do not come anywhere close to what an architectural marvel Nalanda is. It’s only when I feel this sixth century AD ground under my feet that I learn this place accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers in its campus. The guide tells us, “Every student had to give an IQ test to enter Nalanda. It was the most global university of its time that attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey.”
By the time we touch Rajgir, most of us know by heart the five precepts of Buddhism: don’t kill, don’t indulge in sex, don’t drink alcohol, don’t lie and don’t steal. Rajgir was the place where Buddha spent many years and converted emperor Bimbisar to Buddhism at the Gridhakoota hill. To reach the hilltop where Vishwanath stupa is located, take the ropeway to test your nerve.
Way past my spiritual quest, by day four, all I am yearning for is mamma’s cooking. Varanasi is just the place to be. Besides golgappas and desi mithai, there is a huge flea market of junk jewellery to feed my soul. Flanked by mandirs of all kind, I enter into the one that gives me customised prayer services based on my marital status and parents’ nomenclature. The pujari categorically tells me to give my offerings to God. Like a lost lamb, I bow down in respect and he continues to chant the mantras waiting for reverence. Brainwave! I fish into my pocket and his chants get louder.
But as luck would have it, I discover, “Sorry I just have a 500 rupee note.” He takes it from my hand and offers to return the change. “Kitna (How much)?” he asks and I fumble, “A a.. Ikettees (31).” Meanwhile, my Hindu friends are overwhelmed by the arati at the banks of Ganga.
Day five is the fact sheet day. I religiously collect data on the Mahaparinirvana, Mata Kutir, Matha Kuar temples and the Rambhar and Nirvana stupas in Kushinagar. But it’s when I see the nirvana statue of Lord Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana temple that I know what no fact sheet can capture. See the statue from the front and it seems Buddha’s smiling, from the centre it seems he is tense, and from behind it seems Buddha’s sleeping.
Life is a box of chocolates
Day six, I am woken out of my holy slumber on our bumpy bus ride to Lumbini in Nepal, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. It is a touch-and-run trip, failing to leave any imprint in my memory.
Day seven is spent exploring Sravasti, which is rather a soothing experience. After Enlightenment, this was the place where Lord Buddha taught — or “tout” as our guide says — his disciples. And for all our good karma, we get to spend the last day romancing the epitome of love, the Taj Mahal.
“Mamma always says life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get,” reads the T-shirt of one group member. And I completely agree. Who knew I would have so much of soul curry to imbibe in just a week? Burp…