Episode 4: In search of the sacred Bodhi Tree

Coming from one of the most important cities for Hindus, Varanasi, I decided to ride to one of the most important Buddhist sites in India. Bodhgaya. The place where Prince Siddharta sat underneath a Bodhi tree, reached enlightenment and became the Buddha.

But riding out of Varanasi proved a lot harder than expected. A mere 20 meters after leaving my hostel, I ran into a very persistent obstacle. A cow.

I’ve had several close encounters with stray cows in India before, but this one just did NOT want to move. As always, locals rushed to my rescue. Which was great, except that everybody is slightly petrified of the cows here.

I understand why. Cute and cuddly as they look - they can be seriously aggressive. I’ve had cows swing their heads (including horns) at me while trying to walk past them in alleys. And let’s face it. They are massive animals.

After several minutes and plenty of gentle nudges and pushes, the holy animal finally stepped aside and I could pass and ride out of Varanasi.

Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary

Chandraprabha National Park - close to Varanasi, India

Just 60 kilometers south of Varanasi lies the Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary. When planning my route from Varanasi to Bodhgaya I noticed this green spot on the map. Craving some nature after busy Varanasi, I decided to make a detour and ride through the park.

Spread over some 78 km2, the park supposedly has leopard, hyena, wolf, wild board, nilgai (kind of antelope), sambar deer, chinkara (some gazelle) and chital (small deer). Just quoting Wikipedia here.

I didn’t see any of those animals. But that might had something to do with the customised exhaust on my motorbike. Let’s just say I made my presence known while blasting through the park.

And the animals that I did see, were not even on the Wikipedia list. How about that. A troup of grey langurs (monkeys) and a Bengal fox were all crossing the road within seconds of each other. Needless to say my GoPro was not recording at the time. Obviously.

Bodhgaya - reaching enlightenment

A long ride later, I reached Bodhgaya. Bodhgaya is to Buddhists what is the Jerusalem or Mecca to the other great religions in the world. It was here, where prince Siddharta, while sitting underneath a Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening), became the Buddha.

Some 2600 years later, it is one of the most visited Buddhist pilgrimage places in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mahabodhi Temple Complex consists of the temple, a Bodhi tree (grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree and replanted in the same soil) and several other sacred spots.

Besides its religious importance, the Mahabodhi Temple is also extraordinary for its architecture. It is one of the first and best preserved temples completely made out of brick.

Many believe that this temple will be the last site to go down during the end of the universe. And it will be the first one to reappear again with new beginnings.

All these facts aside - what an incredible place. The energy was vibrant and it was buzzing with monks, nuns and pilgrims. All here to meditate, chant, practice rituals, make offerings and doing endless prostrations around the temple.

From the youngest monks (I am guessing the youngest was perhaps 4 years old) to the oldest monks. From orange robes (Theravada monks), maroon robes (Tibetan monks) and white robes (buddhist pilgrims) - it was a colourful mix of all sorts of people.

The Bodhi tree which is growing there now, and is kind of a ‘descendant’ of the original tree under which Buddha reached enlightenment and looked stunning. It was surrounded by devotees in silent meditation and the smell of incense filling the air.

Good to know

Security is tight since recent years. Just outside the temple complex there are several counters where you have to deposit your shoes, cellphone and (large) bags. Small handbags are allowed, as well as cameras. For bringing in a camera you’ll have to pay (100 rupees for a regular camera - up to 500 rupees for a proper videocamera).

The temple is open from 05:00 until 12:00 and again from 16:00 until 21:00 hours.

Vaishali

Patna, the capital of the state Bihar, would be the next logical stop for me en route to Myanmar. For reasons I shouldn’t need to explain by now, I wanted to skip that chaotic, noisy, congested and polluted city.

I rode to Vaishali instead, some 55 kilometers north of Patna. Another Buddhist pilgrimage site and rich in temples, ruins and history.

But when you are traveling by motorbike - things don’t always go as planned. On the way to Vaishali, I wanted to visit the ruins at Nalanda. Nalanda was one of the ancient world’s great universities and historically a thriving academic buddhist centre.

Some say when foreign invaders set the university on fire in 1193, that the library was so extensive - that it burnt for 6 months. Definitely a place worth visiting. Not so much by motorbike though.

The entrance to the ruins and museum was right at a busy market with the typical crowds, vehicles, animals and the like. As I had all my luggage on my bike, I couldn’t just park it somewhere in the middle of the market.

I rode around for a bit trying to find a safe parking spot but it was a mission impossible. And this was only the beginning of a not-so-successful-touristy-day. Because when I finally arrived in Vaishali, I had to do some maintenance on my bike.

My chain was a bit loose, and even though I was thought I knew how to tighten it - it took me AGES.

And I’m still not sure I did it correctly.

When I finally got the job done, it was getting dark and I was getting tired. So I did not went to see ONE SINGLE sight in Vaishali. Bummer, but such is life. Sometimes I’m a terrible tourist.

— TO BE CONTINUED —

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