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Monday, January 30, 2012

Random Act of Posting

Sarasvati catches a ride

I'll be offline at least until 11 February beginning tomorrow and I'm just sort of in a gabby mood right now.

I do have to admit that coming back to Bodhgaya was like coming home. I spent the day with Mahendra the day before yesterday (Sunday), discussing the school and checking out the various shrines to Saravasti, for whom Saturday was a big puja day. I had planned to be available; Mahendra and I had discussed this while I was in Varanasi, but my little Indian phone is a capricious fellow, so I didn't get Mahendra's call. As it is, the shrines were really something and the last one we went to was in a village where a new college was being opened.

This last note is huge. I spoke to the founder (via Mahendra and another fellow as translators) who had begun with a high school and had apparently gotten the paperwork through for a business college. If I understood correctly, the initial student body will be comprised of about 130 pupils. What I find exciting about this is that this is the first institution of higher education not found in a city like Patna or Gaya. And once again, the initiative came from a private citizen, not the Bihari government.

On this last note, I've held my silence, though I've certainly hinted at – okay, I've actually come out and acknowledged – the errant corruption in Bihar. At almost every step, there is some form of pay-out to this or that official to get something simple done. It's galling to think that the government functionaries can only see their own gain; with every “gift” (bribe), they rob kids of that much education and perpetuate this culture of grift. I was speaking with a young man today who said that the biggest issue is that people have just gotten used to this form of “business as usual.”

In fact, it was quite eye-opening, talking to him; I knew Bihar was big, but I wasn't aware that it is home to 120,000,000 people. The literacy rate across the state is around 52% and the mortality rate is so high that sixty is considered a long life. I knew things were bad, but hearing it from a young person who just wanted to practice his English and learn more about the states was pretty devastating. He himself would like to go to the U.S., but doesn't see that happening. It's frustrating that a young man this bright is stuck so.

In fact, that's one of the telling things about many of my friends here in Bodhgaya; they're all pretty savvy, know very well the corruption, and yet, really feel like making a change. Mahendra's in his thirties, I think, but Kapil and Dinu (about whom more to follow) are in their mid-twenties. In any event, these guys are college educated, have remained in the area and are working to effect some kind of change.

Additionally, today I hung out in Kapil's and Dinu's villages and met the current guru of the God Ray foundation. I asked him what continues after death and he reminded me of the three gunas and five tattvas that comprise/control the mental stirrings that need to be tamed; in many ways, I think we agreed that what is paramount in gaining and maintaining stability of awareness. He and another guru I met in Varanasi spoke of “soul power”. As far as I can make out, this is a term for atman and its manifestations as/through us and that this can be tapped for further growth and development (and perhaps siddhis, powers of attainment). Be that as it may, I shared with guruji the words of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche from last year, “there's not my mind, not your mind, there's only Mind”. I wish now that I had stuck around for his teaching but I had to get back to town to pay for my ticket(s) for Delhi/Dharamsala.

On this last, when I told Kapil what I had paid I thought he was going hit me! I was about to pay a total of 10,000 rupees (a bit more than $200 US) for a car and plane from Patna to Delhi. Kapil told me that Middle Way Travel (and bookstore, very good collection of books, by the way) overcharges ridiculously. I'd only paid $6,000 rupees and went back and had him cancel the car which shaved off four thousand EXCEPT he said he owed the guy a thousand rupees as compensation. Now whether that's the case or not, I don't know, but I got the feeling that that 1,000 rupees is for him, primarily. The long and the short of it, is that rather than jeopardize anything with my flight, I elected to pay him the thousand just to ensure smooth sailing. Kapil's handling the car. For five hundred. Lesson learned: don't go to Middle Way Travel in Bodhgaya. Unless you want to be hosed.

If, by the way, you do want a terrfic guide and someone who can actually arrange cheap travel for you, do get in touch with Kapil! In addition to working as the secretary for the LBWF, his bread and butter is travel and lodging. He arranged (and I'm sure very much more cheaply) Leigh's departure back to London and helped me find a cheap hotel after the Kalachakra ended (however, when I told Deepak at Heritage I was moving elsewhere, he put me on the phone to Sanjay who said no way and was kind enough to just about match the cheaper hotel's rate...and I got a much nicer room than the one I would have wound up with)! At any rate, it was Kapil's urging that precipitated this and it all worked out quite well.

So my remaining time in Bodhgaya is going to be two weeks over all, but it's going to be quite short. Tomorrow I head for checking in at Dhammabodhi for the ten day Vipassana course and then I'll have one day to hang out before hitting the road to Patna and catching my flight to Dehi. Once in Delhi, I'll have a few hours to chill before heading to the Tibetan Refugee Camp to pick up the overnight bus to Dharamsala. To be sure, I'm looking forward to going back to Dharamsala, but I have to be honest in that I'm really, really going to miss everyone in Bodhgaya (“the maddest town in India” as Leigh wrote me).

So Dinu has gone somewhat under the wire here. Kapil, Mahendra, and Dinu are the LBWF. Dinu is attending university, though currently he's on sabbatical and is also a terrific resource for travel and lodging. Most of all, he's pretty brilliant. Between all these guys, there's no lack of intellectual clout. Leigh, Kapil and I were hanging out at a chai stall one night with Dinu and a friend of theirs who was accompanied with a fellow I took to be Tibetan but found out was Japanese and the next thing Dinu is speaking Japanese. More recently, my jaw dropped when I listened to him hold his own in a Chinese conversation. Well, it is what he's studying, after all. But the key thing is that he doesn't make a big thing out of it.
Dinu, the Great!

I should also add that he's got the cutest niece! She's a little over a year and one more kid I'd love to take back to the states with me. It was also through Dinu that I met Gautam who did the translation honors between guruji and myself. I'll be frank; if you do go to Bodhgaya, do contact Mahendra, Kapil or Dinu. Really. Mostly for supporting the foundation and the school, and certainly for any travel arrangements you might want to make (much better than getting bilked by Middle Way...) and at the very least, if you just want to say hi for me.

I've posted Mahendra's and Kapil's contact information already for the foundation and the school but oddly haven't for Dinu. I'll correct that here:

He has two email addresses: or (he wrote this with a space, but gmail doesn't recognize spaces, so alternatively try,

Also, while hanging out in Kapil's village, I watched the dissolution of the Saravasti shrine I'd seen Saturday. I post pictures here because, sadly, I didn't have my camera with me. I also got my formal initation into being Indian.

Today, I got slapped with green pigment this time, but figured I'd save the photo op for others. The night photos, by the way, are from the top of Kapil's house. I swear, I would love to live in one of these villages.

As Gautam said, it's very peaceful and people are satisfied with very little. He asked me what I thought India needed to do to be stronger and I simply said, invest in the kids, invest in the future, their future. Gautam also said that gatherings like the satsang with guruji were important and I agreed that spirituality is a huge component of Indian culture and life, but part of me really wanted to go all Krishnamurti on him and ask him if the spiritual traditions haven't also been used for keeping people in the same impoverished state. Naturally, I decided against that. I'm not Krishnamurti and I am a guest. But sometimes I question myself on whether spiritual practice is as valuable as hands-on working for education, healthcare, and improving standards of living.

I bridle when I hear rinpoches tell people that building a school or a hospital is valuable, but practicing dharma is more important. Seriously, I could slap some of these guys. So working to ease the misery of the world through providing education, access to healthcare and/or any number of social services isn't dharma? Yeah, the Slap Palace is open for business...

Lastly, here are two shots of the Ganges at dawn (and then my camera's batteries died...pffft.)

Here are some shots off Kapil's rooftop at night. 

But wait, there's more (or...I'm not done yet, not by a damn sight...)
Tibet Om Cafe

For the most part, the restaurants in Bodhgaya are all right. I don't get terribly excited by them, but a lot of the stalls are amazing and in the villages, you may find two or three women frying up samosas for a rupee a piece and I'll telly you what: it's damn good food.

But in Bodhgaya, there is a restaurant that is dear to my heart: The Tibet Om Cafe. The ingredients are actually fresh, the people are friendly and the vibe is just extremely chill. After being out in the hustle (and I do mean “hustle” in all senses of the word) of Bodhgaya, Om Cafe is a wonderful oasis. You can sit inside, which I usually do because it tends to be quieter inside (although on a sunny day, you may find it too dark, but I still like it) and hunker down to some ting-mo, thuk-pa or momos. Man, I've never had ting-mo with peanut butter and honey, but I recommend it for a snack for sure.

There's a lot more to choose from, too.

I can't remember (and I'm too lazy to look) if I mentioned Bona Cafe in Varanasi. While my room at Hare Rama Guesthouse was passable (the toilet seat that kept sliding around because it was only provisionally attached by two double-sided adhesive pads was a sign I should have maybe gone elsewhere), upstairs on the top floor was another oasis. Bona Cafe is a cafe owned and run by, well, Bona, a wonderful, gentle soul from Korea who has created a little bit of heaven atop a mediocre hotel.

The Bona Donkas were phenomenal; basically a kind of large vegetable pancake smothered in an amazing sauce served with rice, side salad and I've drawn a complete blank on what else. The kimchee is awesome and she has a set breakfast to start your day with right. Oh, the salads: yes, they're safe. I think everything is practically cleaned in mineral water and for that matter, I know the ice cubes are mineral water. But more than just the food, she's set up a great ambience with some wonderful music, usually pretty low-key jazz, lots of world beat and some classical. Although she surprised the heck out of me one evening when I came in (for dessert: a warm pudding with fruit! MMMMMMMM!) and listened to the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack from beginning to end!

Other places of note; in Varanasi, do check out the Brown Bread and for Bodhgaya, while they're pricy, if you do want to eat at a restaurant, head for Saffron at the Hotel Heritage and Fusion. Actually, Saffron's not that pricey, but Fusion definitely is. Sai International is pretty good, too. I like it mostly for the peace and quiet it offers while I'm surfing the web (wi-fi is 30 rupees for the whole day); it's over off to the side of the Kalachakra grounds. If you head toward the Vietnamese temple and bang a right, you'll eventually come to Sai International (just pass Kusum Guesthouse). The food's passable, but it's the people that make it work. In fact, I have to say that for all the rascals, touts and con artists you might run into, there's nothing quite like Indian hospitality.

The beauty of it is meeting people who are genuinely interested in where you're from and they want to know what you think of their land. I've been invited into many a home while I'm here and the conversations have been warm and lovely. Sure, you may get burned by this or that rickshaw driver, you might get hosed by this or that travel agent, but if you can keep your sense of humor about you, these are small prices to pay for the very genuine warmth of the people you'll likely meet who do want to know you.

Oh, yeah, on Indian cuisine: the stalls are great. Trust me on this. Fresh chappati, chaat, samosas, and just about anything you could possibly want, right off the stove or out of the pot. And no, I've not gotten “Delhi belly”. I'm willing to bet that what Viki said a while ago might have an element of truth to it; the roadside joints are constantly in use, constantly being scrubbed down and cleaned. My friends tend to shy away from the restaurants because the kitchens are scary. I've seen two kitchens and I can attest to that. Still doesn't keep me from eating in 'em, but there you have it.

“Yes, but have you drunk the water?” Yep. I have. So far, so good. Though to be sure, I've been pretty cautious. I tend not to drink a lot of it and to not touch the metal glasses water is usually served in. For the most part, I stick to bottled and I have my Lifesaver bottle that has a sophisticated filter system; so sophisticated, in fact, that you could probably use stagnant pond water and it would be okay. I just fill the bottle up with tap water and pretty much use it for water to brush with and the odd sip here and there if I don't have bottled water around.

Oh. And how much is a bottle of water? Average is between 20 and 30 rupees. It's infuriating, though that the average Indian lives on about $1,100 a year. In Bodhgaya, one of my young friends was telling me that a days wage comes to about sixty rupees... a little more than a buck. “We have water, but people can't afford it, we have agriculture but still people starve....” This is what I think about when I sit back and eat a meal or buy a bottle of water...or a Coke (between 30 and 40 rupees). As this same friend of mine said, “you'll appreciate what you have and how great your country is when you go back”.

I really, really hope that there is an “Indian Spring” at some point. This same young man was really interested in hearing about Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs and I told him that I didn't see why this can't come to India. He said the hardest part is that people are complacent and so acclimated to the way things are that he didn't see much change in the air.

Again, folks, if you're at all interested in making a small dent in the issue, consider helping out a little. Get in touch with Mahendra/Kapil/Dinu or for that matter, check out Seva or any of the other, larger organizations that focus on fighting poverty in third world and developing nations or that work for building schools or bolstering education in these same countries.

I was walking into town and watched a little girl squat and pee in the middle of a cracked earth, garbage strewn area a few meters from the road. What struck me is that it didn't strike me as odd. I'd gotten pretty use to this kind of sight early on; but on reflection, I asked myself “is it right?” I heard a thousand replies to the effect that, “well, she's probably used to it”, “hey, it's not your country/culture”, “oh, look, come on; it's India, for chrissakes”. On further reflection, the question didn't go away and is more emphatic: is it right that a little kid should be used to voiding herself in the midst of filth (garbage, dog feces, cow shit, etc.)?

You start to notice that while everyone's a bit dusty around here (I'm hard pressed to think of a more dust-ridden area; maybe Rajasthan), it could be argued that the better off are the least dusty and the worse off far more so. I'm not sure what to make of this all, but you have to ask “is it right?” I posted earlier about the lepers, the disabled, the poliotic, the beggars, and there's nothing romantic about this, there's nothing here that should be valorized or taken complacently as part of the landscape. It's amazing that the politicians, the civic leaders don't stop in their tracks and start to work as if their collective hair is on fire.

I'm under the impression not many people ask “is it right?”

Sunday, January 29, 2012


I don't have words to describe the feelings I've had at different sites. At Pragbodhi, at Bodhgaya, Varanasi and Sarnath, I've been overwhelmed by an intense awe that seems to fit the classical description of hair standing on the skin and the eyes welling. I don't expect any of the photographs to transfer that to the viewer, but at the very least, maybe people will be willing to do more research based on what the encounter here.

Additionally, since my camera was kaput (I couldn't find any reliable batteries in Varanasi), I used my iPad and have a Photobucket account that you can log into here to view the photos:

I don't quite get why, after renumbering them Photobucket doesn't reset the order. The photos seem to be stored for viewing in last to first order. That said, you may want to view these as a slideshow.

For the record, I like Photobucket. I'm thinking that if my posts start to feel top-heavy with images, I'll rely more on posting images to PB and point people that way.

On a completely different note, but perhaps one of interest to people who wonder about this sort of thing, yes, H.P. Lovecraft wrote a story called "The Doom That Came To Sarnath" (on page 430 of the download, compliments of the Internet Archive!). Upon being told that there actually was a place named Sarnath, Lovecraft was taken aback; he said he made up the name. I actually have no reason to doubt him; though I wonder if he had stumbled across the name in his reading and it just stayed with him subliminally.

And lastly, I point you in direction to "The Family Sarnath", a work of utter brilliance.

Lastly, I realize I have only a couple of days before I'll be maintaining radio silence. I'll be on a ten-day vipassana meditation retreat, so there won't be any updates from February 2 through 11. I'll post a couple of more things tomorrow and maybe on Monday or Tuesday. But don't worry, I won't have been swallowed by Cthulhu!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Varanasi: Part Two

Turns out I had more photos than I thought. Here's the wrap up for Varanasi.
The hotel room at Hare Rama Guesthouse was so-so at best, but I liked this window.

And I have a weak spot for grates.

This and what follows are pictures of the beach across the Ganges. I took a horseback ride at sunset and as I shot, I couldn't help but feel the aforementioned cliche aspect of "pretty pictures".

The remains of an effigy of a god or goddess from a ceremony.

And monkeys, just because...
These little guys came to try to join us at a great  rooftop restaurant! I was sitting with a delightful Dutch couple when our primate cousins came to say hi.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Varanasi: Part One

As with so much else, it's difficult to put Varanasi into words. It's the spiritual pulse on the banks of the Ganges. It's the home to Benares Hindu University (BHU), jewel in India's diadem of education. It's a center for the arts and has been home to painters and writers and musicians since time immemorial. It also houses wonderful restaurants and twisting alleyways.

Varanasi is ancient and is not the original name of the city. It's home to about a half million people, but you don't feel it until you're out in the streets. On every corner is a shrine. Krishna, Vishnu, Hanuman and especially Shiva are ever-present. Shiva with his trident (and lingam) rests side by side with his wife Ganga Ma and she is beautiful. As I write this, I well up with a huge sense of love for her, too. It might be, as some have said (Krishnamurti and His Holiness the Dalai Lama) that a place imbued with centuries (millenia, in this case) of love and reverence cannot help but evoke that feeling in others.

Traveling up the river on one side, you see history before your eyes - the ghats, built by royal devotees from all around India to ensure their acceptance into heaven; some by Moghuls, a couple by the British. Many have temples incorporated to their schemes. Then there are the cremation ghats; these I do not photograph for the same reasons that certain temples I don't record: they are sacred and private in ways that we perhaps have forgotten with our automatic reflex to upload, post and share.

Varansi and Sarnath close by have captured my heart in a way different than Dharamsala or Bodhgaya; each place has its distinct allure and sense of home, sense of welcome.

What follows are a handful of photos. Not many because I'm finding limitations on beach shots, on river compositions, on scenic twists and turns of said alleyways. The actual experience is a treasure; the photo, a cliche. But I share them with you because I want to share something of the visceral experience of where I've been, what I've seen.

The Ghats
The seated fellow is a snake-charmer. I was in a hurry brought about  by hunger and  so didn't avail myself of the pleasure (I believe there's one of his colleagues here in Bodhgaya, so I can still hang out with a man and his cobra) but I wanted some reminder that this tradition still lives.

The ghats are well labelled. Once you get oriented, you can find your way around pretty well. Walking back to the alleys from the ghats and finding my way was much easier than coming in from the street.

The main ghat is replete with festivals, a bazaar and temples. 

In the background is a shrine to Lord Shiva that is in a state of collapse. My boatman remarked that no one is allowed inside for more than a minute, otherwise they go mad. And non-Hindus are not allowed at all.

Normally, I try to avoid snapping pictures of people in the middle of doing something private, but this struck me as a quintessential part of Ganges life. People bathe in the Ganges, drink the water and don't die from it. It's pretty wonderful to see elderly folks come down these steep stairs, lather up and dip into what by all accounts is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and then hike back up the stairs on their way. Early in the morning, it's quite peaceful and the banks come alive slowly. Early in the morning, you can hear the devotional singing of prayers and the bells at puja. It's a beautiful way to wake up.

This is in front of Gay (Hindi: "Cow" - Sanskrit "go") Ghat. For all that people unwittingly and unwittily make fun of what they call "cow worship" in India, they might think twice if they consider that to the Hindus, the cow is identified with Aditi, the mother of the gods. As my boatman Papu said, "she holds the gods in her belly, so you do not cut her or open her up". Other associations are with the earth, the giver that takes so little.
The Alleys

Facades and random finds: