I don’t call myself a Buddhist, but in recent years, I have found much to admire in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the northern Indian prince who became the Buddha). About 2600 years ago, he famously found enlightenment in a specific place in India: sitting under a fig tree in what is now the small town of Bodhgaya. When I learned that a direct descendant of that tree was roughly on the path between Kolkata and Varanasi, I wanted to see it.
From my clean, orderly desk in San Diego, this seemed reasonable. The Indian Railway website said several days a week a train left Howrah Station in Kolkata at 8:15 am that would arrive in the city of Gaya around 2:50 pm. From Gaya to Bodhgaya was supposed to be only a 30 or so-minute ride in a taxi or auto rickshaw. Lonely Planet said if there was space, we could stay at the peaceful Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, located in “a tranquil, tree-shaded part of town.” A double room with a private bathroom would cost about $20 a night, and we could join in the daily 6:45 am meditation session. As soon as I could, I made a reservation for two nights.
Our journey started off so well! The previous week, Steve and I had walked to Howrah Station to scope out the place. It’s a vast, churning complex, but we managed to find the platform we would depart from. On the actual departure morning, we checked in at the “Enquiry Office,” where the English-speaking clerk scrutinized my printed reservation and instructed us to board at Platform 9. We found our compartment (C in coach H1), took our seats, and chugged out of the station exactly on time.
Just two weeks into our Indian travels, we’ve identified a pattern in our interactions with the locals. We’ll take our seats next to someone on a train or a plane, and at first our seat mates are circumspect. We wonder if they even speak English. (Many people do, but more do not.) After a while, someone will ask one of us a question (often “What is your country?). We answer, and we’re off on a long, entertaining, invariably eye-opening gabfest.
This has happened over and over, and the Poorva Express to Gaya was no exception. One of our compartment mates was Swapan Chakraborty, a 43-year-old entrepreneur (clothing manufacturing and small hotels, among other things.) Another, Deepshri Bhattacharya, was a beautiful and perky 24-year-old who worked as a communications manager for a company off-sourcing customer service. (A third passenger, a 60-year-old business associate of Swapan, didn’t appear to speak any English.) For hours, we chatted happily about everything from the Bihari coal-mining industry to Deepshri’s dreams of graduate study in Canada.Sometime in the early afternoon, Steve noticed on our maps app that the train seemed to be headed away from Gaya, but we guessed it would take a turn south at Patna (the capital of the state, Bihar), and arrive at Gaya probably hours late. It was only about 3:30 that an announcement in Hindi caught Deepshri’s ears. “This train isn’t going to Gaya!” she exclaimed! “It’s going to Patna instead!”
“What?!?” I croaked.
After consultation with one of the conductors, who early in the trip had taken our ticket printout, scrutinized it carefully, and checked us off his own list, everyone agreed that sometime between when I bought the ticket (back in July) and now, the railway authorities had changed the routing. But no mechanism appeared to exist to let us know this, including the conductor’s reading of our ticket just a few hours earlier.
If there was a silver lining to this little travel tornado, it was the time we spent brainstorming with Swapan and Deepshri about what we should do. We could catch one of the local trains in Patna and arrive in Gaya before 10 pm, Swapan insisted. Or we could hire a taxi to drive us directly to Bodhgaya (but that would be expensive; it would involve driving for 3-4 hours in the dark, and we had no idea whether the Root Institute reception desk would even be open whenever we arrived.)
Here I should mention that while in Darjeeling, I had decided maybe we shouldn’t stay at the Root Institute for two nights. Our train to Varanasi on Saturday morning would be departing from Gaya at 5 am. From my orderly desk at home, I’d figured we’d have to get up at an ungodly hour (3:30 am?) but we could then take a taxi from the Root Institute to Gaya in time to catch the that pre-dawn Varanasi train. After our nightmare ride on the toy train, however, I began to think maybe it was insane to assume this would work. So I’d made a reservation online for a hotel in Gaya after our one night near the famous bodhi tree.
With the news of the routing change, and knowing that we had a hotel in Gaya for the next night, Steve and I finally came up with this plan: get off the train in Patna, find a hotel there, then catch a morning train to Gaya. We’d miss the Root Institute entirely, and this made me sad. But with luck, we reasoned, we might arrive by noon, drop off our suitcases at the Gaya joint I’d booked, and have most of the afternoon at the Buddhist holy site.
This is mostly what we did. Pulling into Patna, we exchanged tearful goodbyes with our new best friends for life, Deepshri and Swapan. Then we disembarked into pandemonium; if you told me 50,000 people were crammed into the station and its immediate surroundings, I’d believe it. Somehow we dragged our suitcases up and down multiple sets of stairs — 14 stories worth, according to my iPhone’s Health app), and shouldered our way out of the throng to check in at the City Centre Hotel, included in our guidebook and within sight of the train station. To say it lacked charm is an understatement. But we walked from it to a good South Indian vegetarian restaurant we found with the help of Google Maps, slept well enough…Dawn in beautiful downtown Patna, from our hotel window.
…and the next morning, in the madhouse of the station, miraculously secured tickets to Gaya.This was a big challenge for our puzzle-solving skills; we missed catching the 6:45 am express train, but we caught the express at 11:15, which not only left Patna on time; two and a half hours later, it also arrived in Gaya right on schedule. En route we were entertained by a wide-ranging conversation with a banker from Patna (to which about 6 other Indian guys in our immediate vicinity raptly listened.)The banker and I
The Gaya hotel was even worse than the one in Patna, but we didn’t linger after dropping off our bags. We were on a mission.
The auto rickshaw rides to and from Bodhgaya were jarring, terrifying, indescribably loud; by the time we reached our destination, I felt like blood should be running from my ears from the audible assault. But I’m happy to report the main temple complex, a pedestrian-only zone, is lovely. Steve and I strolled down a broad clean pathway along with hundreds of other pilgrims under rows of fluttering flags.The mood was calm and serene. Outside the main entrance to the most sacred buildings, we had to deposit our cellphones in a locker and pass through a metal detector. (Apparently some wacko set off a bomb a few years ago.) We also hired a guide who turned out to be excellent.
He showed us the highlights: a beautiful meditation garden, numerous shrines, a dramatic, enormous temple structure — and growing next to it, the famous tree. It is a massive, tangled creature but only 140 years old, our guide told us, the fourth generation of the tree that sheltered the Buddha-to-be..Devotees had prepared this offering to the tree.
Buddhists from all over the world shuffled past it and congregated near it. We noted Tibetans doing their bizarre prostrations; acetic looking Japanese, Burmese Buddhists, Indian Buddhists, others meditating in groups. It was a bit chaotic, and I longed to instead meditate in the lovely garden or some other peaceful spot…Like this…Or this…
Or to stay until dark, when our guide said the grounds were most beautiful.But it was growing dark, so we took another auto rickshaw back to the ugly Gaya flophouse. There we got to bed as early as we could. We knew we had to set the alarm for 4:15 to catch the train to the holiest spot in Hinduism.