Bharati Motwani boards the Mahaparinirvan Express, joins Buddhist believers from across East Asia on their spiritual quest, and learns that it is for the most part an authentic pilgrimage and not mere sight-seeing
The thing about a Buddhist pilgrimage in India is that it truly is an article of faith, in that there really is not much to see. For the most part, it is mounds of broken brickwork. So, in order to experience, the pilgrim must shut his eyes and sense with the heart.
The IRCTC runs a special train, the Mahaparinirvan Express, on India’s Buddhist route through Bihar and Eastern UP. It isn’t an opulent tour like the Palace on Wheels and other Royal India circuits — which is entirely befitting for a monastic religion — but it isn’t austere either. You are cosseted by a small army of bearers who materialise little folding tables covered in snowy white cloth and loaded with good food. At night, when you get back on the train after a long day of sightseeing, the bedcovers have been turned down, the pillows plumped and a hot-water bottle slipped in. All night under a yellow moon, you thunder across the Naxalite badlands of eastern India, protected by a contingent of wakeful Railway guards, rocked gently in a dreamless nirvana, swaddled in a cocoon of laundered linen and fat pillows.
A train journey forces you to slow down in a way a flight never can. The absence of cell-phone signals for hours on end ensures you engage with your fellow passenger in the opposite seat. Road journeys usually take you past the depressing, unsightly urban shanties that frill all state highways like a dirty, grimy collar. But a train journey, on the other hand, takes you deep into an otherwise unseen hinterland, past an India that appears little changed since the time Gandhi undertook his Bharat-Darshan by train 80 years ago. The Railways too haven’t changed much in these last 100 years — they still have a warm, vintage patina, a certain sepia-toned period romance. The eight-day train tour ex-Delhi takes in Bodhgaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Varanasi, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Lumbini, Shravasti and Agra.
In the past
What makes the parikrama even more special is that it is for the most part an authentic pilgrimage and not mere sight-seeing. Most of your fellow passengers will be Buddhist believers from across East Asia. Buddhism in India has a more complex story. It is a religion that was all but wiped out in India for several reasons, primarily the shifting of political power and influence into the hands of the priestly Brahmin caste and the co-opting of the Buddha into mainstream Hinduism. Buddhism experienced a revival with the mass conversion of Dalits in the 19th century, but this neo-Buddhism was a political and social statement rather than a religious one. The conversation was and is more about ‘equality’ than ‘liberation of soul’. But now an urban middle-class — affluent and English-speaking, is responding keenly to new-Age variants of Buddhism — the Japanese Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai, Vipassana and the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. The Bharat Soka Gakkai has some 60,000 members including Priyanka Gandhi attending its chanting sessions held in private drawing rooms across 300 Indian cities.
Pankaj Mishra, author of the book An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, sees this second coming of the Buddha as being in the fitness of things, because Buddhism has found an audience similar to the one the Buddha originally aimed his message at: a modernising society and its rising commercial classes. “Buddha was conveying his message at a time of huge social upheaval when close-knit societies were falling apart, and with people migrating to cities, traditional bonds were being weakened.” Today, post-liberalised India, with its spiritual and emotional exhaustion, is exactly the right audience for forms of religion that provides spiritual sustenance. My co-passenger in our shared coupe was a well-known published writer from Delhi and a practicing member of Soka Gakkai.
Moment of truth
Our first stop was Bodhgaya, axis mundi of the Buddhist world, the place where Gautama found his moment of shining truth. Unlike most other sites on the circuit, Bodhgaya is a living, contemporary pilgrim centre filled with modern shrines, rest houses and monasteries, built by devotees from all over the Buddhist world — Japan, Thailand, Burma, China, Tibet, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, each with their own distinctive architectural styles. The gleaming, painted pagodas are set in beautiful flower-filled gardens but immediately outside their gilded gates is the filth and mire of small-town India — garbage, toxic drains, human and animal excrement. The monasteries are like the proverbial lotus that bloom unsullied in dirty waters — an appropriately Buddhist metaphor. The broken door of a shanty we pass is patched together with a Coca Cola hoarding that says, “Life Ho To Aisi” — now, is that irony or is it inscrutable wisdom? The Zen Master replies, “Depends who is asking...”
Buddhism dwells on the interconnectedness of all beings, and here in Bodhgaya, amid the multilingual, multi-sectarian and social diversity, it is interesting to look for those connecting threads. Processions of Thai pilgrims wearing dust-masks; a group of Japanese tourists all dressed in yellow wind-cheaters and orange caps, looking like elderly school-children; a young Indian television anchor and her crew of two, filming a travel show — a comely wench, all pert and dimpled, she clambers happily over a sacred stupa to address the adoring camera — her world, a film starring only herself. Near the legendary peepal tree, an offshoot of the original under which the Master awoke to Enlightenment, a shaven-headed European girl deep in meditation, pours grain onto a plate over and over again, fervently polishing the shining disc of the mind.
We visit Rajgir where the Buddha preached, stopping for a nimbu soda at the Sanghamitra Lassi Corner (but there’s also a Tathagatha Wine Shop that the Lord of Renunciation would probably have frowned upon). Ahead is Venuvan where He bathed and where robed monks feed the schools of enormous carp in the pond. It’s a Naxal bundh that day and armed gunmen stand guard over the bathing site of the Apostle of Non-Violence. Not far from here is Munger, a small town that regularly makes headlines for its flourishing cottage industry of illegal arms manufacture. Settlements along the Ganga, on river islands and even floating manufacturing facilities on the river, churn out millions of firearms and bombs that find their way to the Red Corridor, to the underworld and to small-time thugs in Delhi. Accidents are common at these factories, for the labour is underage, and understandably, quality control is not a priority. When accidents happen, the bodies are easily disposed off into the holy Ganga. A one-shot desi katta can be purchased in these parts for as little as Rs 300, available as easily as paan, says a paan-wala. India is a country that broadens the mind.
Our next stop is Nalanda, site of the legendary University. Far removed from guns and from the complexities of the world, it lies rapt in an inward trance under a healing sun. Pilgrims walk quietly among the brickwork, sitting to meditate and to chant, or to pose for Instagrammed pictures for Facebook. A Japanese artist sketches a portrait of mine — I learn later that he is a very famous artist. Somewhere in a far away land, there possibly hangs a portrait of mine that’s worth a lot of money.
Each morning on the train, we are pleasantly awakened by the deep bass intonation of Buddham Sharanam Gacchami over the PA system. Sarnath, our next stop, is where the Buddha preached his first sermon. It is said that after his Enlightenment, the Buddha at first did not want to speak of his vision. What he had experienced was so vast, so fathomless, so beyond human intellect, that it would be futile to attempt to communicate it in words. And yet human suffering was so deep that he was moved to compassion and tried then to teach that which cannot be taught. Buddhism at its birth was clear and lucent, proceeding logically step by step through an analysis of the human predicament, and culminating in the remedy. Buddha said, “I show you suffering, and I show you the way out of suffering”. The Deer Park at Sarnath is a peaceful, orderly place with the low contours of stupas rising out among the flower beds. The coloured robes of lamas and lay monks ebb and flow around the monuments in a cadence of devotion. Occasionally, tour leaders will violate the peace by bellowing out the story of the Lord of Silence through a megaphone.
As he lay dying at Kushinagar, the Buddha spoke to his disciple, “Do not weep, Ananda, for decay is inherent in all component things. And the cause of death is birth.” It is this cool, lucid, irrefutable logic that remains the hallmark of pure Buddhist doctrine. Logical, yet comforting and compassionate towards the human condition. Kushinagar is the site of the famous statue of the dying Buddha. It appears to be made of gold, but it is actually sandstone that is covered with the sticky gold foil that devotees have pressed onto it. For believers, it is an emotional moment, and some Thai women begin to weep and beat their heads against the stone.
Lumbini, where he was born, is across the Nepal border and we are taken there by bus. A bone-rattling ride through north-eastern UP takes us past old bungalows of British era, railway colonies with old spreading trees in large misty and overgrown compounds. As the gun-shops of Gorakhpur give way to the snooker parlours of Nepal, we arrive at Lumbini where Gautama’s mother gave birth to him standing under a tree.
The tour takes you deep into the mofussil countryside, past Gonda, Bahraich and Balrampur — places richly described in old British Gazetteers compiled by diligent district officials of the time. We arrive at Sravasti where Buddha spent the monsoons, and Sahet-Maheth, where he ascended to heaven to meet his mother in dazzling fire-water manifestation in the sky. Buddhism is a piquant mix of spare, rationalist reductionism and an almost hallucinatory cosmology and iconography.
In a twist that is uniquely Indian, our Buddhist tour culminates at an Islamic monument — the Taj Mahal. And it is here that I find my soul silenced finally by the towering, flawless beauty of the monument. I am moved beyond words at its inner symmetry that cannot but have been divinely forged. No photograph ever comes close to communicating the Taj’s peculiar alchemy — the stone that seems to be spun from the substance of the sky, the colours that shift with the hour, the delicacy despite the soaring dimension. It is here finally, that I glimpse the Buddha’s shining disc, the 1,000-petalled lotus emanating light and love.