Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rich Heritage Memories of Bihar

Bihar, the very name still paints a picture of corruption and crime in our heads. All thanks to the infamous Laloo Prasad under whose leadership, this Indian state earned much of its bad name. And, while much has changed and improved with change in the state's leadership, it is unlikely Bihar will ever make it to different publication's list of places to see before you die, but Bihar surprised me, BIG time. It charmed me with its nothingness. Its vast empty lands brought me peace. It gave me a break that I needed. And, for these reasons and more, Bihar has made it to my list of places to visit second time, around.

Our first stop enroute to Bodh Gaya, Nalanda is historically known for being an important centre of learning for Buddhists. It has been said that Nalanda University during its heyday housed more than 10,000 students, a fact difficult to believe for today nothing much of the glorious university remains except for its red brick ruins. Nevertheless, Nalanda as seen in the morning is a sight to savour.

Distance: Approx. 24 hour bus ride from Kathmandu.

Note: The university site opens only after 9 so it is pointless to reach Nalanda in the wee hours of the morning. An entrance ticket is required, which shouldn't cost you more than IRs 10.

Breakfast: Puri and choley, at a roadside stall. IRs 30


Rajgir is about two hours away from the site of Nalanda University. The first capital of the Magadh Empire is famous for its hot springs. The main temple where the hot water springs flow is always crowded so unless you are religious or a history buff, there's nothing much to do and see here.

Note: When a Pujari/priest kindly offers you hot water and blesses you amidst all the chaos and crowd, know that they are looking to be paid for their kindness. Anything less than 10 bucks won't be accepted. So, unless you want to go around distributing your tens, refrain from accepting their paid kindness.

Lunch: Veg Thali IRs 60

The place where Buddha attained Parinirwana or was laid to rest, Kushinagar is located in Uttar Pradesh (U.P). It is best to visit this place on your way back as it is close to the Sunauli border. Buddha's cremation site among other temples and vihars are what attracts many to this town. It is ten hours away from Varanasi.

Note: The road from Varanasi to Kushinagar is said to be a dangerous one, full of thieves. It's best not to stop unnecessarily in between.

Final Destination: Bodh Gaya
The main purpose behind my trip was to attend the 32nd Kalachakra, which many speculated was going to be the last one. Bodh Gaya, where Buddha is said to have attained his enlightenment was the venue. Never did I think, I would eat, pray, love, Elizabeth Gilbert style, in Bihar of all places, thankfully, unlike Ms Gilbert I didn't have to break a bank to do so.

Amidst all the chaos that comes with mass of people gathered at a single place, (over 3 lakh people attended the teachings) it was amazing to see how Bodh Gaya managed to remain serene. A visit to the 80 feet Buddha statue early in the morning is all you need to do to experience the beauty of this spiritual town. There are also many temples and vihars built by different Buddhist nations, similar to the ones in Lumbini. The Thai temple stands tall among all and bedazzles at night. Have a glass or two of tea near the road side dhaba; engage in a conversation while taking in the view.

To be honest, Bodh Gaya seemed like a mini Tibet, that moment. With a majority of the attendees being Tibetans, with shops selling Tibetan goods lined at every street corner, and with the latest Tibetan music blaring out from every DVD player, it was impossible not to feel so. There were more Tibetan dialects being spoken than I had ever heard in my lifetime. It was Shapta, Tingmo and Thukpa that was being served in all the hundred something make-shift restaurants that had opened right before the teachings were to begin. A feeling of nationalism and patriotism seemed to fill the air at Bodh Gaya. Maybe it was the power of mass assembly.

A more relaxed air set in with the sun down. Invitations to different concerts, dramas and discussions blared from speakers. Young, enthusiastic Tibetans and monks hurrying towards the venues was a common sight at night. From 'Waka Waka' to 'Kongpo dance', these concerts had something for everyone.

It is not difficult to see why today Kalachakra has become more than just attending another religious teaching for Tibetans. It has become a meeting point for the Tibetan diaspora spread the world over. It has become a perfect place for families and friends to reunite and most importantly reconnect with their roots. One publication rightly put it "Kalachakra is like an extended picnic." It is indeed. The two weeks flew by in a wink. I can say I ate. Ate whole heartedly. I prayed. Prayed with sincerity. And, I loved. Loved selflessly.

Best time to visit: November to February (Different monlams (prayer service) take place in the winter season)

W.O.A: Bargain, bargain. If they say 10, you say 5, and then they'll say 5.

Budget: IC 500 per day excluding accommodation costs. If you are adventurous, you can get your own tent, and get permission to camp in one of the monasteries. While some charge for borrowing their land, some will only charge you for water and bathroom facilities.

Bus Fare: Round bus trip will cost you around 5000 NRs.

Being a bigger town, Varanasi has more to offer. There are more places to see, and more activities up for grabs. Its prime gem, the Ganges sits beautifully, in all its glory despite all the amount of waste that gets dumped into it. Sitting by the banks of Ganges ushers in a sudden calmness; a feeling that can only be beaten by boating in it.

Don't forget: To try Varanasi's famous Paan and Benarasi Aloo Dum

Shop: For Benarasi Sarees and silk fabrics

Thailand gives USD 100,000 for Nalanda varsity revival project

Efforts to revive the Nalanda University got a major boost today with Thailand extending USD 100,000 to the project and pledging more funds from the Thai private sector. "The Government of Thailand has been delighted to present USD 100,000. One Thai company made an initial investment of USD 5000. I have informed the university vice chancellor that four other companies have followed suit," Thai Ambassador to India Pisan Manawapat told PTI here.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, during her recent visit to India, had, in fact, encouraged the Thai business companies here to donate for the project, said the varsity's vice chancellor Gopa Sabarwal. She said the Thai government has opened a special account for the Nalanda University and money has come in there. Piloted by the Ministry of External Affairs, the Nalanda University revival project has been gaining steam in the past few years with the enactment of a law to give the varsity a stand-alone status with special provisions. "We would like to remain engaged in our contribution in our support of the Nalanda University because we believe that this is a wonderful project to revive one of the oldest universities," the Thai Ambassador said. China had contributed USD 1 million last year to the Nalanda project in Bihar, where constructed work has been initiated with erection of boundary wall.

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