January 24, 2005
The Method of Moving Air
Moving air will move the immovable. It will dissolve entire traffic jams as well as individual trucks, buses, cars, rickshaws and pedestrians - whether parked, jammed, moving, oncoming, overtaking, being overtaken, or crossing, whether in sight on the plains, around a bend in the mountains, or in thick fog at night - no matter what the circumstances. Relax. Indian drivers will always avoid collision, that is as soon as one is eminent. They will apply the one and only effective method for that, which can be read on the back of every taxi, bus and truck: BLOW HORN! Moving air always does the job. The proof is that I am here now and not stuck somewhere else.
MANDI & REWALSAR
So, that’s how I made it to Mandi, through the hills and mountains of Himachal Pradesh and on to Rewalsar. Strongest impression about Mandi, a middle sized market town in between Kangra and Kulu valley, is the fact that it is 100% Indian and not a tourist destination. No Tibetans and no western tourist in sight. No hassle, no touts. Even no staring. I am truly amazed and it is so relaxing that I stay for two days just to enjoy this experience of near-nothingness. And at the same time there is so much going on. It’s still a busy town, lots of traffic, noise, Hindu temples, street markets, open shops, dirt, roadside fires, cows, dogs – India! Apparently it can even be dangerous, as to my surprise the guard at the hotel asks me somewhat worried if I am sure to still go out when I am about to leave the hotel at 8pm.
After two days I proceed by bus to Rewalsar, just little over a one-hour drive. All the way we are going up, up, up into the mountains again. The bus is packed with Indians and Tibetans, but no westerners except me. The driver cranks the vehicle around every bend and corner, vigorously applying the method of moving air. We jerk past gorges and depths in a way that inevitably invokes a brief meditation on death. Even more so, when at some point the bus stops to let some passengers out and I notice that their luggage consists of two 20-liter jerry cans filled with gasoline, presumably for their generators.
During this trip, for no apparent reason I feel extremely happy. I am so glad just to be here, to be traveling, to be in India and to go to Rewalsar although I’ve never been there before and have no clear expectation about it. The views of the mountains, the valleys and the Himalayan range in the distance are incredibly beautiful. The depths of the gorges no longer bother me. Some passengers throw up from motion sickness. My backpack is on my lap in its full weight, I am squeezed between other passengers and the window, on the rear bench of the bus, being jerked around in all directions – but I am completely happy with it. I just can’t stop smiling. From somewhere deep within, I am overflowed with happiness. It is crazy. I almost cry.
Rewalsar, a tiny village with a small mountain lake. All together about four streets, a few shops, a handful of little restaurants and one Internet café. The place is sacred to the Tibetans as well as Hindus and Sikhs. Around the tiny lake there are three Tibetan monasteries, three Shiva temples and one large Sikh complex. To my estimate, I would say about half the population is Tibetan. And then Tibetan pilgrims come every day; the monasteries have rooms to stay for the night. For the Tibetans this place is so sacred, because it was here where their Guru Rinpoche (Skt. Padmasambhava) was meditating in the 8th century, before leaving for Tibet and introducing Buddhism to the country. It is said that the lake came into existence through one of his miracles. In the mountain top above the village there is a number of caves in which Guru Rinpoche has been meditating and in one of them a huge statue of him is created by a Lama who has also been meditating in one of these caves for over 35 years and still lives there. An ocean of colorful prayer flags covers the mountaintop. Against the vast blue sky and the white Himalayan mountain range in the background, it is a breathtaking sight.
RISHIKESH via CHANDIGARH
Then, on to Rishikesh. A long bus trip, so I stay for the night in Chandigarh. Chandigarh is a completely newly created town as the new capital for the Punjab, after the state was divided between Pakistan and India and the previous capital ended up in Pakistan. Less than 50 years of age, entirely under the architectural design of Debussy. Since I stayed just for one night I haven’t seen much of it, but it looks like one big Buitenveldert (for those who know this Amsterdam neighbourhood).
Rishikesh is beautifully situated on both sides of the Ganges (Mother Ganga), which at this point is still a fast streaming mountain river. Two hanging bridges for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles only, connect the two shores. This is a “Hinduism-only” place, with numerous Ashrams and Yoga places. And numerous Saddhus living on the shores of the river and in the streets, always blessing any passing obvious tourist with a heartfelt “Hari Om”, expecting a financial donation in return. I attended to one Hindu lecture in one of the Ashrams, since I promised myself to visit these places with an open mind to all religions and faiths, willing to discover whatever unexpected simmering wisdom inside of me might be woken by it, but somehow it doesn’t do the trick. Enough similarities with Buddhist wisdom, no doubt, but the subtle differences are there too, and apparently by now I am too struck with Buddhism to still change my orientation.
From Rishikesh I decided to make a big leap to Bodhgaya, to attend to another Buddhist teaching & retreat that would start shortly after I discovered it. Since it was less than one week before Christmas, all trains were fully booked for days to come and the distance was just too big to make it an acceptable journey by bus. Therefore decided to take an overnight bus to Delhi and fly from there to Patna, Bihar and continue to Bodhgaya by car. That sounds simple enough. However, since most of northern India was now covered in a dense smog induced fog that lasted for days, the overnight bus was a frightening experience with visibility less than 40 meters and still making the journey to Delhi ahead of schedule. Then air traffic was completely mixed up, with some flights being cancelled for days in a row. I was relatively lucky with a delay of just over 24 hours; in the airport I met people who had been stuck for no less than three days.
Also in the airport I met with two sisters from Taiwan & Hong Kong, who were heading for the same teaching, so I ended up in good company. In addition to my fortune these ladies had a pre-arranged car ride from Patna to Bodhgaya in which I was kindly invited to participate. The arrival in Patna and trip through the state of Bihar had been worrying me somewhat, since Bihar is about the poorest state in India and it has a bad reputation for its known occurrences of banditry. As a matter of fact the Dutch government advises against traveling in Bihar (see http://www.minbuza.nl) and the “Root-institute” organizing the teaching advises in any case not to travel after dark and when arriving after dark by plane or train, to rather check-in to a hotel and continue traveling the next day. So here we are, due to the delays arriving in Patna around 5pm and there is our car and there is our driver and here is a three-and-a-half hour road trip ahead and darkness setting in around 6pm. “Is it safe to go?” we investigate with the driver. “Yes, it is safe! It is really safe before seven o’clock”. Sure, but we know we won’t make it to Bodhgaya before seven. Still we decide to go; after all we met with this nice lady from Bihar, who was also about to take a taxi, simply commenting “it is safer to go then to stay in Patna”. Right. That’s all very encouraging, isn’t it?
Trusting our good karma, off we go. Most of Bihar is covered in darkness – when darkness sets in Bihar, it becomes really dark, since most of the villages we pass through have no electricity. Often I think we are driving through abandoned villages, but at second glance I notice that most broken down buildings, huts and tents are actually lit by candles. The roads are in such a condition that they don’t allow for high speeds, more so with the improvised speed bumps in the villages that force us to practically stop before driving over them. Later I learn that we must have had quite a bit of luck not being held up at least at one of these locations by men demanding “toll-money”, for such thing did happen on a later trip from Bodhgaya to Rajgir. I startle when suddenly there is a large group of men standing in the middle of the road, thinking that this is going to be “it”, but they stand there for just no reason at all, they move aside without hurrying to let us pass. There is simply so little traffic that the road is usually theirs. Apart from quite many trucks, about the only or two cars that we come across happen to be driving with an armed police escort – unfortunately they are going the other way. This must be the Wild East. The fields between and around the villages seem completely empty in the dark. Later I learn that most of it consists of rice fields, where the landowners have the resources to irrigate the land. Other than that it is desert and swamps. By 9pm we make it safe and well to the Root Institute, Bodhgaya (http://www.rootinstitute.com/).
The next three weeks I spend almost entirely in retreat, with a few breaks between courses to visit town. To our luck, during the first course, His Holiness the Karmapa happens to be teaching in town, so in the evenings we attend to His teachings. The Karmapa is the highest Lama and leader of the Tibetan Kagyu sect – compare to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is the leader of the Gelugpa sect. The current, 17th incarnation of the Karmapa is only 19 years of age and fled from Tibet at the turn of the millennium. (See http://www.kagyuoffice.org/)
The morning of new-years day we spend the first light of the New Year under the Bodhi tree. What is the Bodhi tree? To put it simply: The Bodhi tree is the reason Bodhgaya exists. It is the very spot and (the offspring of) the very tree under which Gautama the Buddha attained enlightenment, some 2500 years ago. Next to the tree, a giant stupa-temple is build and surrounding it is a large park-like area with marble paths, hundreds of little stupas, smaller and bigger shrines and permanently populated by thousands of monks, nuns and faithful lay-people from each and every Buddhist country (and some from non-Buddhist countries ;-)) who circumbulate either the stupa or the entire area, reciting mantras and prostrating themselves. Constantly, some group or another is carrying out ceremonies and constantly light, incense and flower offerings are being made. The whole scene creates a vibrant atmosphere and an energy that one can completely sink in to, first getting high on the spot and later becoming very, very calm, just wishing to stay there for ever. And it’s just not me thinking so; an English girl walking next to me at some point suddenly remarked: “This place is like a drug”. I may assume she knew what she was talking about. In Bodhgaya you’ll find temples and monasteries from each and every Buddhist country and the place is flooded with monks and nuns on their pilgrimage. It is no less than the “Mecca of Buddhism”.
At the end of the stay at Root Institute we make a one-day pilgrimage to Vultures Peak at Rajgir and the ruins of Nalanda University, respectively the places where the Buddha taught the Sutra on the “Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom” (the Heart Sutra) and one of the most important Buddhist universities in history, where many great Buddhist scholars studied and taught. Among which the 8th century’s great master Shantideva, author of “The Way of the Bodhisattva”.
On January 14th, just a three-hour train ride back west, brings me to Varanasi. It is love at first sight, or rather first feel. The energy is extremely peaceful and relaxing, despite the business of traffic and people, for it is a crazy, large and polluted city. But the area of the “ghats” on the shore of the Ganges is a scene out of a different world. Specially seen from a rowing boat at sunrise, the morning after my arrival, together with some friends I met in Bodhgaya. It's a special festival day, resulting in the ghats being overpopulated with Hindu pilgrims, bathing in Mother Ganga. Hundreds of kites flying and fires and fireworks in the evening complete the scene. The pujas (ceremonies), bathing, clothes washing and teeth brushing go on from before sunrise until after sunset. After changing hotels twice we stay the last couple of days in a guesthouse right on top of one of the ghats, providing for a very direct experience of the scene. However, I am a tourist here.
Varanasi is again one of the places I promised myself to visit and I far from regret doing so, but I feel no great involvement from within. After a week I move on and back to Delhi.
MAJNU KA TILA, DELHI
Back in Delhi I immediately move into Majnu Ka Tila, the Delhi Tibetan colony that came into existence since the Chinese occupation of Tibet. It looks and feels very similar to Dharamsala and Rewalsar, with the same type of architecture, a monastery and a Gompa (temple) and the mainly Tibetan population. It is full of guesthouses and restaurants, being the main economical resource, since it is a hub for all Tibetans (and sympathizing others) traveling via Delhi. On the morning of my arrival I sit in the dark and wait for the guesthouses to open their doors and talk to Chok, a young Tibetan who happens to be there to defend his thesis on Tibetan Buddhist studies at the Delhi University. He invites me to attend to it and I do so. Again I learn more about Tibetan Buddhism and history. For instance that the number of sects of Tibetan Buddhism is not restricted to the four well-known, bigger lineages, but that there are at least four more, smaller but significant sects. One of which, the “Bodong” is Chok’s subject of research. When people from the area in Tibet where Bodong was practiced, arrived n India in the early sixties, they were immediately requested by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet and save as many as possible of the original Bodong scriptures. When doing so these scriptures were divided in sixteen parties, ten of which made it to India. The other six eventually ended up being burned by Chinese during the cultural revolution.
I would really like to go back to Dharamsala for a while, but the weather conditions are somewhat risky. Temperatures have dropped below zero and heavy snowfall disrupts traffic. Areas not far from Dharamsala (Manali, Shimla) have become isolated and from people currently in McCleod Ganj I have heard that the jeeps don’t make it all the way to the village anymore. The last couple of kilometers uphill have to be done by feet. Also in Himachal Pradesh recently some cars have slipped of the road, with fatal consequence.
For the time being I will keep it in consideration from where I am, hoping it will get better. If not, I have a plane ticket to Bangkok that expires on January 28th, so going back to Thailand would save me the money of buying a new ticket, since I have to go there anyway to take the concluding flight from Bangkok to Amsterdam. There is still a lot to do and discover in Thailand, specially the northern areas, which I haven’t visited yet.
With Love, Hans