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Bodh Gaya: A spiritual hub, place to find love, and plenty of business

Foreign pilgrims settling down with locals are among the newer residents in Bodh Gaya that attracts many who come to see where Buddha gained enlightenment.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2017 14:37 IST
Ruchir Kumar
Ruchir Kumar
Hindustan Times, Gaya
Bodh Gaya,Gautam Buddha,Bihar
Yuki Inoue (left) and Krista Whailey (right) are among those who found love and settled down with locals in Gaya. Niranjan Kumar (centre) opened up a cafe with his wife Whailey’s help and now has a booming business to boast of. (Ruchir Kumar/HT Photo)

Life has been nothing less than a rollercoaster ride for Niranjan Kumar, the 31-year-old son of a chowkidar (watchman) who owns a bustling cafe at Bodh Gaya in South Bihar.

Kumar can’t help but recall the frustrated youngster he was seven years ago, before he met Krista Whailey – a Canadian pilgrim – at the Dhamma Bodhi Vipassana Meditation Centre in the renowned Buddhist pilgrimage hub. Penury forced him to enlist at a private charitable school in Gaya. After graduating from there, he took private tuitions to finance his college education. A string of unsuccessful attempts to crack the IIT entrance exams left him high and dry. A dejected Kumar decided to enlist as a volunteer at the meditation centre, where – one fine day – he chanced upon his ‘lady luck’.

Whailey was one among the thousands who visited Bodh Gaya in 2009 to catch a glimpse of the UNESCO world heritage site where Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi tree centuries ago. Having worked at cafes in Canada, she not only encouraged Kumar to open one such establishment in Bodh Gaya but also helped raise funds for the same.

“I always wanted to open a café, but never had the money. But we managed to raise Rs 2 lakh through loans, donations and aid from friends, and established a small set-up with a coffee vending machine, four tables and chairs,” said Whailey.

A lot has changed since then. The two tied the knot in 2012, and the 1,500 sq-feet cafe now boasts of a rooftop garden and an annual turnover of Rs 50 lakh.

A ticket to the good life

Kumar’s story, however, is not unique. There are as many as 20 people in Bodh Gaya who witnessed a sea change in their fortunes after marrying foreigners or entering into live-in relationships with them.

Take, for instance, Sudama Kumar and his Japanese wife, Yuki Inoue. Kumar was an interpreter-cum-guide with Cox & Kings in New Delhi when he married Inoue in 1998. Her Japanese connections helped procure funds from a Japanese religious organisation for the construction of a temple in Bodh Gaya nearly 10 years ago. Though the religious structure is still being built, the construction of the Hotel Mahamaya Palace and Conference Centre – which began around the same time – was completed in 2015. Its owner, Kumar, now identifies himself as a successful businessman running two hotels in Bodh Gaya.

Deepak Kumar Agarwal and his friend, Dharmendra Kumar Yadav, were both tour guides fluent in Japanese but struggling to eke out a living. However, having married Japanese women, they have now gone on to become successful businessmen. While Agarwal runs the Sakura guest house, Yadav owns Hotel Kanako in Bodh Gaya.

Though many similar stories abound in the Buddhist city, not all pertain to Buddhist Japan. Bablu, an unemployed man whose father ran a tea stall in Gaya, married an American. Sadab Sultan of Gaya, who owns a travel agency in New Delhi, found marital bliss in J Kim of South Korea.

Tourist guides aplenty

Incidentally, the Bodhgaya Temple Management Committee (BTMC) has not issued operating licences to guides at the holy shrine. “We only allow 40 camerapersons on the temple campus. However, we are given to understand that there are over 50 freelance guides operating through hotels, monasteries and tour operators in Bodh Gaya,” said BTMC member Arvind Kumar.

The Bihar government’s directorate of tourism has 23 registered guides as well as English, Japanese, Chinese, Sri Lankan, French, Thai and German interpreters in Gaya, said district magistrate Kumar Ravi.

Gaya sees the most foreign tourists in Bihar. Magadh divisional commissioner Jitendra Srivastava said the number of foreigners visiting the religious site doubled from 17,425 in 2016 to 36,850 until November this year. “This is a positive indicator of state tourism,” he said.

Interpreters in demand

Meanwhile, the lure of a translator-cum-guide’s job at Bodh Gaya has heightened the desire among the local youth to learn international languages – prompting Magadh University (MU) officials to introduce two-year self-financing diploma courses in Spanish, French, Korean, Japanese and Mandarin in 2008.

Saurabh Sharma, an engineer from Delhi, admitted that he enrolled for a Japanese course at MU this year to make some quick money. “I decided to learn Japanese after a less qualified friend who had taken Mandarin classes mocked me for earning just Rs 25,000 a month as an engineer while he was making as much as Rs 75,000 by simply taking tourists around. Before long, I ditched my Delhi job and came here,” he said.

According to placement records available with professor M Neshat Anjum, director of MU’s Academy of Foreign Languages and Cultural Cooperation, as many as 23 of their 109 graduates since 2008 have become freelance interpreters in Delhi. Others have joined establishments such as HSBC Bank, Alliance Francaise, Delhi University, Oracle, IBM, Oppo, TCS, Wipro, Accenture, Hewett Packard, iGate, Samsung, Delhi Metro and Tata Steel in various parts of India for annual packages ranging between Rs 3 and 5 lakh.

MU vice-chancellor Qamar Ahsan said the intent behind launching the language courses was to train local youth in jobs pertaining to tourism and interpretation. “Enrolment in foreign language courses has steadily gone up. Languages like Mandarin are more in demand because they are significantly linked to local career prospects.”

Anjum agreed. “This year, there were more applications for the Mandarin course than the sanctioned 30 seats,” he said.

MU is the only varsity in Bihar that imparts training in foreign languages. The Academy of Foreign Languages and Cultural Cooperation, affiliated to the institution, enrolled 125 students against the sanctioned 150 seats in five language courses this year.

First Published: Dec 25, 2017 11:13 IST