A Travellerspoint blog

India

Pilgrimage to the Seat of Enlightenment

By Becky, Nov. 8-10

So far, we have made one foray out of Bhutan and into India, Nov. 8-10. DrukAir flights to Bangkok stop in Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar. The tiny airport serves pilgrims on their way to Bodh Gaya, the town that has sprung up around the site where Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. We took advantage of this to make the trip our selves. The nearly empty, four-gate terminal may be the only airport in this predominantly Hindu country with a large Buddha inside the main entrance (also the exit) of the terminal. The music from their loud speakers is a very haunting chant; I never was able to figure out what it was.

The tree at the centre of this UNESCO World Heritage site is a Ficus religiosa, or sacred fig, commonly know as the Bodhi tree. A temple complex has grown around it over the years. The first temple was built here about 250 BCE, about 250 years after Buddha, by the Emperor Asoka. Some of the railing around the tree date from this time. Asoka’s daughter is said to have taken a branch from the tree and planted it in Sri Lanka, where another famous temple complex was built. Asoka also placed a stone seat beneath the tree on the spot he thought Buddha sat, which has become known as the diamond throne. Legend says that Asoka’s wife grew jealous of the time Asoka spent at the tree in prayer and meditation and killed the tree by stabbing it with a knife. A cutting from the tree in Sri Lanka was sent for and planted on the same spot, which is believed to be the navel of the world by some Buddhists and Hindus.

The current temple was built on the site of Asoka’s temple in the 6th century and fell into decline in the 12th century when Muslims invaded the region. Although some repairs were attempted, the largest and last renovation occurred in the 1880s. The temple is built of brick and rises to an impressive height of 55 meters. Words really can’t do it justice, so here's a picture:

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Although we had to take our shoes off at every temple, they didn't bother to prevent picture taking because of the large numbers of tourists and pilgrims.

Inside the Mahabodhi Temple

Inside the Mahabodhi Temple

Today both Hindus and Buddhists revere the spot and come on pilgrimages. Flocks of monks are in constant attendance, some chanting around the tree, other doing prostrations in the gardens that surround the temple.

Every Buddhist country in Asia has built a temple or monastery nearby. These are fascinating in themselves, reflecting the culture and style of their home country. We found the Veitnamese temple to be the most peakceful.

Vietnamese Temple courtyard

Vietnamese Temple courtyard

The population of the town includes many Tibetans, who have their own market at one end of town. At the end of the street down from the Tibetan temple, the Dalai Lama built a giant Buddha statue, 25 m high, containing inside 20,000 smaller Buddhas, and surrounded by statues of Buddha’s disciples.

Tibetan Temple

Tibetan Temple

Giant Buddha

Giant Buddha

To see more of my pictures from Bodh Gaya, visit https://www.travellerspoint.com/gallery/users/rsherry/

Posted by rsherry 05:29 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Further Travels in India

The United States-India Educational Foundation http://www.usief.org.in recently held a Fulbright Conference from November 24-26, 2009 in the seaside and French influenced city of Puducherry, India for the approximately 50 U.S.-Nehru and other Fulbright Scholars in India and Bhutan. I was the only U.S. Fulbright scholar from Bhutan at the conference.

The conference included informative and interesting presentations on all of our research findings as well as panel presentations on our Fulbright experiences. I was a member of a panel entitled: Fulbright Fellowships: The Essence is Promotion of Mutual Understanding. Needless to say being the first U.S. Fulbright to Bhutan, I had a lot to report on how this effort has been going in Bhutan. For instance, I provided an overview of my recent discussions with the Prime Minister of Bhutan on Gross National Happiness. I also reported about Becky's separate discussions with the Prime Minister on global climate change. Later, I also presented a short Powerpoint presentation on my newly released monograph on Bhutan tobacco policy and administration.

Not all of my trip was business though as I was able to also tour some very interesting and important sites in India. My first tour with a group of my fellow Fulbright scholars included a six hour round trip bus ride to Thiruvannamalai, India. Our first stop was the famous ashram of Sri Ramanasramam.

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India is famous for its mystics and charasmatic religious leaders. The Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi is definitely one of them and you can view his picture and see his teachings particularly all over southern India. The ashram that we visited is quite well known and modern day devotees of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi visit this Hindu religious site to meditate and for spiritual insight and enlightenment. The web site of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi has much more information (and meditative Hindu music on the home page): http://www.sriramanamaharshi.org/

Our next site was the architectually elegant and important Hindu temples of Thiruvannamalai, India. As our Fulbright group toured one of the largest Hindu religious sites in India, several large and remarkable temples came into view.

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As is true for Buddhist monasteries and temples in Bhutan, all who entered these temples were required to remove their shoes and no photos were allowed. The inside of the largest temple contained very high ceilings and etched pillars with Hindu deities such as Shiva and Ganesha and contained numerous statutes dedicated to Hindu Gods and Godesses. Very interesting and quite amazing.

My next stop over the weekend while I waited for the Drukair flight back to Bhutan on Monday was a trip to the important city of Agra, India where the Taj Mahal and Red Fort are located. The Taj Mahal, which has been called one of the seven wonders of the world is located on the right bank of the Yamuna River. The building is made of white marble. The structure is a merger of Indian and Persian architecture. The structure was built in loving memory of the then Empress of India--Arjumand Bano Begum. I did not know this--but this famous structure is actually a giant mausoleum and the then emperor and empress now lie side by side in this mausoleum seven meters below the structure. A tribute to true love if there ever was one. Below are some pictures I took of the Taj Mahal.

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Apart from the Taj Mahal, Agra also contains the famous Red Fort constructed by Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great.

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The large structure is located on the right bank of the Jamuna River. The structure was constructed of thick walls of red sand stone. Construction began in 1565 A.D. and was completed in 1573 A.D. The fort is surrounded by two moats and was populated with crocodiles. The purpose of the fort was to preserve Mughal rule.

On the way home, we were stuck in a traffic jam for about an hour. At one point, I was able to snap this night photo of a large Sikh temple. Lots of people were milling about in and out of the temple for a religious ceremony.

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In New Delhi, I also visited the memorial grave site of Mahatma Gandhi and the Gandhi Smriti Centre which is a memorial and museum of this advocate for non-violent political tactics and founder of modern India. Gandhi's philosophy is quite important in modern political discourse particularly with respect to non-violent movements for political change such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

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The Gandhi Smriti Centre is high quality and well worth visiting and includes a very informative book store. The memorial monument to Gandhi is simple much in the spirit of Gandhi's later life. The site is also quite solemn and peaceful.

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I think that when I return to the U.S., I am going to explore with my students Gandhi's important philosophy, history, and tactics in appropriate class settings. Modern students need to learn about this world leader who along with his social movement brought about independence in 1948 and ushered in the dawn of modern India.

Posted by mgivel 04:15 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Becky and Noah's Travels

By Becky

overcast 86 °F

The Delhi airport is very clean and modern. We changed money and paid 610 rupees for a government-approved air-conditioned taxi. Several policemen in tan uniforms were coming in and out of the airport exits, some with small rifles slung over their shoulder. Some of the policemen wore dark blue berets, others tan berets, and others bright blue Sikh turbans. Outside, the airport was very dusty, even in the dark. Two large cranes dominated the view. The airport is undergoing massive expansion. It was warm and humid, but only in the 80s.

Our driver was very good. He knew when to cross to the other side of the street to pass ten cars at once, and when to sneak left to pass just one or two. (They drive on the left here.) The horn is used as commonly as the gas pedal. The brightly painted trucks even say on the back “Blow Horn” or “Use Dipper (sic) at Night.” Lane lines mean nothing. At one point I thought of the dramamine buried somewhere in my luggage. At 9:30pm the roads were still crowded with cars, ice cream carts, and especially trucks. Most buildings were dark, just a light here and there, but occasionally we’d pass a restaurant pouring light and people (men) onto the street. Not many women around at this time of night. Near our hotel the streets were almost empty. From the window of our 18th floor hotel room, the city lights seem to stretch on for miles.

In the morning we can see what’s out there. One very tall smoke stack, four unfinished and abandoned concrete sky scrapers, a school with domes, sports fields, and a large swimming pool, a few domed white temples with minarets, and buildings as far as the eye can see. DlehiFromHotel.jpg DelhiFromHotel2.jpg
A thin brown line hangs above the city, about at the level of the smoke stack; it disappears later in the day. There must have been a short rain earlier that morning, the streets and the streets and sports fields are wet. Later, I find a newspaper headline declaring “Monsoons Arrive but Miss West Rajasthan.”

The hotel restaurant has a highly varied breakfast buffet. There is ham, turkey salami, cheese, bread, rolls, a variety of pastries, toast, watermelon juice, mixed fruit juice, cereal, yogurt, eggs prepared to order, French toast, potatoes, baked beans, oatmeal, peach pudding, ginger rice, sweet and sour vegetables, and several Indian dishes including curries potatoes, steamed tomato bread patties, and a vegetable soup. The fruit spread consists of sliced tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, pineapple, papaya, musk melon and cherries.

We stay in our room all day and sleep. It is looking much better in the afternoon when we go down to lunch. There is another large buffet which is just closing, so we have to order off the menu. Noah gets hot chocolate and chicken fried rice. I order vegetable momos, described as Tibetan steamed dumplings. They are good, but salty, as is Noah’s rice, which was prepared “unspicy” for him. Breakfast the next day is similar, with several items swapped out. Today there is lichi juice, Burmese noodles, raisin pancakes, chickpea curry, and a lamb hotpot.

On our un-air conditioned ride back to the airport, we see that there are also pretty parts of Delhi, and monkeys! and horses! We don’t see any cows, though. The streets are even more crowded mid-morning than at night, with cars, buses, motorcycles, three wheeled blue and yellow mini-taxis, but no trucks.

There are no signs to direct one to the different airline counters in the Indira Gandhi International Airport. I ask a couple of young women in airport uniforms where the Druk Air desk is and they direct me to the other end of the terminal. There’s no Druk Air desk in the last row of counters. I ask another uniformed woman and she says, “Well, it’s not here.” We walk along the next row of counters, no Druk Air. On our way to the next set of counters, I see a man in a traditional Bhutanese gho and black socks and shoes. I wave, saying “Excuse me, sir,” but he waves me off, turning to his cell phone. In the next row I ask the first uniformed personnel I see and am directed right across the aisle to the end of the row of counters. Finally, Druk Air!

We have to pay for overweight luggage, so I have to go find a currency exchange. When we get back to the Druk Air counter, 24 bags are being checked in at the first class desk. Another man in a gho is counting the bags and putting “Fragile” stickers on them. The young woman behind the counter giddily tells me that the Prime Minister of Bhutan is on our flight! Could I have tried to flag down the Prime Minister of Bhutan to ask for directions? No, more likely just one of his entourage.

On the plane, we are seated with a group of older French women on a tour. The passengers on our flight are pretty much half Asians and half Westerners. Noah has a left window seat on the plane, but it will prove too cloudy to see the high peaks. Above the haze of Delhi, the sky is bright blue.

Nepal is green! no skyscrapers. Katmandu lies in a broad valley bounded by green and blue mountains. Disembarking and embarking in Katmandu is via the rear of the aircraft so as to not disturb those in first class. The people getting off all look Indian or Nepali, those getting on are other Asians. A mist descends on the tarmac and I can no longer see the mountains but it is gone by the time the airplane turns around for takeoff. Then we get a better view of the city, which completely fills the bottom of the valley. Lots of five story apartment buildings, white cement or stucco, red brick or tile, and rusted corrugated roofs. We can see the gold spire of the famous Bodhnath stupa rising out of the buildings, not far from the airport.

The Paro Valley in Bhutan is narrow, with emerald green fields and blue-green mountaintops. On our descent we turn a corner in the valley and skim the treetops. The wing tips almost touch the trees on the far side of the valley shortly before we reach the runway. Stepping off the plane in Paro, I am momentarily blinded by green. Well, ok, it was probably really the sunlight, and the very fresh, clean air.
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I take a number pictures of the airport buildings and the billboard of the five kings of Bhutan before going in to customs, a health check and Mike.
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Posted by rsherry 07:57 Archived in India Comments (1)

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