From Ajanta Caves, we took a bus north to the city of Jalgaon and booked into a small but pleasant hotel. It was cheaper than the government run ‘resort’ we’d stayed in on the outskirts of Fardapur, and a much nicer place to stay. The owner had proudly renovated the original building in a white minimalist design in keeping with the original Art Deco styling. Having the homely feel of a boutique hotel and a level of comfort better than anything we’d experienced since leaving Delhi, we could easily have stayed for longer than one night.
The next morning we boarded the Mahanagari Express to Mumbai which took just over eight hours. The train, 22 carriages long, had begun its journey in Varanasi and for the next 27 hours slowly made its way across the country to Mumbai on the west coast, travelling at an average speed of just under 60 kilometres per hour. The Indian rail network is one of the largest in the world operating under single management, with some twenty thousand trains plying the tracks each day. Despite the network’s size, there are no high speed train services. Even the fastest express train in India has an average speed under one hundred kilometres per hour.
Quite remarkably the train pulled into Jalgaon more or less on time. We each had a sleeper bench inside a compartment we shared with quite a large family. The interior of the compartment, with its walls, floor and ceiling made of steel, looked a bit like sailors’ quarters on a naval ship, but without the attention to cleanliness. Throughout the journey there was a never ending procession of salesmen moving through the carriage selling everything from cups of tea to children’s toys. Within the first half hour, one of the family members had bought a noisy plastic toy for the small child in our compartment. Within the next half hour the mother was changing its nappy. When she finished she got up and threw the soiled nappy out the window and none of the other passengers batted an eyelid.
Thankfully, the train would stop at certain stations for extended periods, during which time we could get off and stretch our legs. Most of the men used it as an opportunity to stand on the opposite side of the platform and take a leak onto the neighbouring track.
In Mumbai we booked into one of the best hotels we’ve stayed in so far. It was reasonably priced in an early Victorian-style building in the beautiful old Mumbai waterfront district of Colaba. Located in a quiet street in an area with lots of large trees and grand old architecture, it was within walking distance of the Gateway of India monument and the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. We could only stay one night as we had a flight booked the next day, yet we still got a sense that for its architecture alone, Mumbai would be a place worthy of a much longer visit.
One of the most significant symbols of Mumbai’s architecture was its International terminal which to our surprise was where we had to board our domestic flight to Gaya in Bihar State. The terminal had been designed by a renowned Chicago based architectural firm, with a long history of airport terminal design. Ironically, Mumbai’s architectural district sits side-by-side with Dharavi, the largest slum in all of India, and the third largest slum in the world. We had travelled past it on the train on the way in and at our hotel’s reception I had noticed an advertisement offering walking tours inside it.
Our early morning flight left on time and included a two hour stopover in Delhi before arriving in Gaya just after midday. There was something refreshingly austere about Gaya’s airport that told me this would be a place to stop and breath for a while. Rather than a typical airport where all kinds of vehicles are going here, there and everywhere, at Gaya there were no other aircraft in sight and any airport vehicles were neatly parked off to one side. The tarmac surrounding the terminal was like a blank grey field. It was airport minimalism at its best. Once we left the airport though, the surroundings became anything but minimal.
We were picked up by a pre-arranged car that took us to the sizeable town of Bodhgaya, around 15 kilometres to the south. We’d decided to visit because of its renown as the birthplace of Buddhism. It was at Bodhgaya, Buddhists believe, that the Buddha attained enlightenment under a fig tree around 2500 years ago.
Bodhgaya is one of four major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists world-wide. The first is the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini in Nepal. The second and most important site is the place of his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, representing the founding moment of Buddhism. Sarnath, near Varanasi, where he delivered his first sermon is the third site and last is the place where he died at Kushinagar, also in India.
As we drove through Bodhgaya’s streets, I was surprised by the state of the town. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but being the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the world, I guess I’d assumed something more developed.
The buildings in the area where we were staying were mostly three or four stories high in various states of disrepair. They were either apartments or guest houses and dispersed amongst them were vacant blocks that had either become refuse dumps or stagnant ponds. The streets were bumpy dirt roads lined with open drains and everything in the vicinity of the road was covered in a thin layer of dust. Cows, goats and mangy dogs wandered the streets and families of hairy pigs rooted around in the empty lots. The smell of dust, burning rubbish and farm animals pervaded the air.
Our accommodation was the Rahul Guest House in a quiet dirt road backstreet. We had a nice room compared to what I was expecting from the taxi ride to get there. Although small and basic, it was clean, freshly painted a pale lime green, had comfortable beds and a fantastic shower.
The owner of the guest house suggested we eat at the Be Happy Cafe, about 5 minutes walk from the hotel. The Canadian woman and her husband who ran the restaurant did not have an extensive menu but the food they prepared was fresh and Western-styled. That evening I had a serving of hummus and raw vegetables which seemed to really hit the spot. It felt good to be eating fresh food again. Everything at the cafe was homemade. They specialised in pasta, pizza and salads but had some excellent cakes and desserts and served good breakfasts with proper coffee. A bunch of Indian lads dressed in purple shirts provided an efficient and satisfactory level of service. It was always the same lads working and it didn’t matter what time of day it was. Clearly they were willing to work very long hours.
There were only a few places like Be Happy in Bodhgaya. They often didn’t look much from the outside, sometimes barely indistinguishable from the harshness of the landscape around them, but inside they were like an oasis from the mayhem, a bit like a space pod on a Martian landscape.
Just outside the cafe, several mothers and their children would sit throughout the day on the side of the road. They weren’t exactly begging for money but seemed to be living a subsistence lifestyle. After a tasty breakfast one morning, I was walking back to the guest house when I noticed one of the children, dressed in grubby clothes, climbing up the side of an even grubbier skip bin. Before I knew it he had disappeared inside. I was repelled by the thought of even touching the skip bin let alone climbing inside it and scavenging for food.
Bihar is one of India’s poorest states in terms of economic and social development. Along with neighbouring Utter Pradesh, it hasn’t achieved the same level of growth as the rest of India since the upward trend began in the 1990s. The reasons are many, but attributed mainly to structural, historical and economic policy decisions. The result is a State with poor infrastructure, weak institutions, low human development, political instability and social conflict rooted in sectarian politics. A great majority of the population live in rural areas and a relatively high percentage of the population are under the age of 25.
Bodhgaya is visited by pilgrims from across the world including monks, nuns and lay people from all schools of Buddhism. The focal point for their pilgrimage is the Mahabodhi Temple and the large fig tree, a descendent of the original, that according to legend, sits at the very spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment. We were both keen to explore the temple complex and to get a glimpse of why so many people travel long journeys to pay homage to the founding moment of their faith.