At the beginning of this year I had an inspiration to undertake a short pilgrimage through India. I had not returned to India for over 15 years. I wanted to go on this pilgrimage not just for my own sake but for my deceased father and sister.
Rinpoche in Tso Pema.
I flew out of Melbourne on the 2nd February and landed in Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, Kolkata. I arrived there late at night and had to take a taxi to the hotel which I had pre-booked. The hotel as it turned out was located at the other side of the Hooghly River which is where the old quarters of Kolkata are located. The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel reintroduced me to the sights, smells and sounds of India which I knew so well as a young man. By the time I checked into the hotel it was quite late and the hotel did not resemble its promotional photographs that I had seen on the internet! At one point perhaps during the British Raj rule of India it may have been a charming hotel but now although the room was clean enough the building is hard to describe! I was thinking of staying in Kolkata for a few days but after venturing out into the streets the dust, shear number of people crowding the streets and the harassment one is subjected to compelled me to purchase a railway ticket to New Jalpaiguri and make my way to Darjeeling. Since I am no longer living in India and being a citizen of Australia I needed to catch a ferry to the other side of the Hooghly river where they had a special ticket office just for foreigners.
From New Jalpaiguri I took a taxi to Darjeeling which was quite horrid but finally I arrived in Darjeeling and booked myself into a Tibetan -run hotel called The Belview Hotel. It was very nice to be back in Darjeeling having spent all of my formative years there. I was also able to rest and recuperate and do a bit of sightseeing. I also had the opportunity to visit the monastery where I spent several years. Walking on the same paths that my sister and father had walked hundreds of times brought back many memories. Even though these memories made me miss them more acutely, in a strange sort of way I found them comforting as well.
Having rested well I ended up staying in Darjeeling a few days longer than planned. I then caught the 'Toy Train' which runs from Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri and from there I took a train to Gaya. I shared the sleeper compartment with an Assamese family who were travelling to Gaya on a Hindu pilgrimage. One of the sons was quite talkative and kept me company during the night journey. Even though winter was coming to an end by that stage still the nights can be very chilly. When I arrived in Gaya it was early morning and I had to find a taxi for a short trip to Bodhgaya. When I arrived in Bodhgaya I was fortunate enough to speak to a rickshaw wala about a hotel where I ended up staying. It was well located being very close to the stupa, very clean and well priced -- even though the woman who ran the hotel always had a sour look on her face! Every day I went to the stupa making offerings and doing circumambulations reciting prayers. It was an extraordinarily moving experience. I had seen the stupa only once in my childhood when I went on a pilgrimage with my father and sister. Unlike in the old days, perhaps due to greater prosperity in Asia and air travel becoming more affordable and easier, there were pilgrims from many asian countries: Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Bhutanese, Sri Lankans and of course Tibetans. There were a large number of people doing prostrations on the stupa grounds. I saw quite a few western men and women doing this practice as well. One evening a puja was held by one of the Ningma monasteries and hundreds of monks were gathered and I was able to join in discretely. It was a wonderful experience to be able to do puja with so many monks in front of what is probably the most sacred stupa in the world. Since I am addicted to books, I ended up making quite a purchase at the local Mahabodhi Society bookstore.
Surrounding the stupa there were monasteries from all traditions and buddhist countries. I spent two days visiting them, making offerings and paying homage. Each building was unique to its tradition. There were monasteries built by the Tibetans, Bhutanese, Japanese, Burmese, Sri Lankans, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese to name but a few. When I first arrived there I enquired about a good place to eat again and one of the rickshaw walas recommended 'Om Restaurant'. However it turned out there were three 'Om' restaurants, one run by a Tibetan family. Yet even the tibetan restaurants didn't serve meat dishes despite all the restaurants being independently run. One of the Indian restaurants served Tibetan momos however! While I was in Bodhgaya I took a day trip to Nalanda, Gridhakutu or Vulture Peak and the Mahakala cave. I left Bodhgaya very early in the morning in a taxi I had reserved at the local Gelukpa monasteryI arrived at Vulture Peak at around seven o'clock but already there were a number of Thai pilgrims at the top. It was quite a climb but they had built a very nice paved footpath leading from the taxi stand to the top. At Vulture Peak there are several caves where Buddha is said to have meditated and there are some remnants of building structures that were monastic compounds to be seen as well. When I reached the top I was able to join in with the Thai pilgrims who were guided by some monks. Since they were chanting the refuge in Pali I was able to follow the monks’ recitations, which I thought it was auspicious. After drinking a couple of cups of tea at the base I hopped back into the taxi and took a short journey to Nalanda University. Nalanda University was very impressive but unfortunately the ruins and the various decorative designs are being eroded away by wind and rain. The grounds are well kept and there seems to be further archaeological diggings going on nearby although I did not have the opportunity to find out what they were. Some of the older sections were not accessible to the general public but a security guard allowed me to see some stupas with beautiful engravings carved into them.
By the time I left Nalanda it was about midday and I was in a hurry to get to the six -armed Mahakala cave as I was told it was not safe to be travelling in the dark. I reached the cave at three o'clock after a steep climb to get to the top. The cave is guarded by Tibetan monks so there is a small Gelugpa temple near the entrance. The monk caretaker was very friendly and welcoming, offering me cups of tea. The cave itself is very awe- inspiring. Even as a child I remember it having a tremendous effect on me. I felt very fortunate to be inside it again. In the old days no candles were allowed so it was pitch dark but these days you are allowed to make butter lamp offerings so you can see the inside of the cave. I was able to spend a bit of time in the cave before returning to Bodhgaya. I returned to Bodhgaya around six o'clock. The following day I went to see the place where Buddha had meditated for six years on the bank of the Narajana river. It is quite a short trip in an auto-rickshaw. Even though there are no ancient ruins to be seen nevertheless I had the sense that it was a special and sacred place. The surrounding landscape was very beautiful and I am sure it has remained practically unchanged since Buddha's time. The same could be said about the surrounding areas at Vulture Peak. Even though I would have liked to have stayed on in Bodhgaya for a few more days I only had a limited amount of time so I took a train from Gaya to Varanasi. I arrived in Varanasi in the evening and I had to hire a taxi to Sarnath. I was travelling from where the Buddha attained enlightenment to where the Buddha turned the Wheel of the Dharma.
I booked into a guest house for one night and the next day I moved in with a Jain family who rented rooms out to visitors. The old couple who ran the guest house were very accommodating and helpful. They also made delicious vegetarian food. I was again able to visit the stupa everyday to make offerings and do circumambulations... and so forth. While there I also took the opportunity to visit the Institute of Higher Studies and purchased some Tibetan texts. I also made a day trip to Varanasi and went to the Ghats on the River Ganges. Even though Sarnath has changed so much since I was there as a young man, Varanasi has not changed at all, except that everything looks older and more decrepit. I spent about ten days although it seemed like only half that. By the time I left Varanasi it was beginning to get very warm -- from the time I had arrived to the time I left the temperature had risen considerably.
From Varanasi I took a train to Gorakpur which is near the Nepalese border. I knew it would not be an easy journey to take but nevertheless I really wanted to see Kushinagar, where the Buddha passed away. Kushinagar has still not developed very much which I am sure is a good thing. The lying Buddha at Kushinagar is one of the most amazing Buddha representations that you will ever see. I joined in with many other pilgrims in paying homage to the Buddha there. I spent over half an hour inside doing prayers and then walked around the many ruins of monastic compounds to be seen. There is also a very old Buddha statue nearby which I felt very blessed to be able to see after many centuries of its existence. Since many Buddhist sites have been destroyed it is very rare to see a carved buddha statue which is not in fragments or has a head or limbs missing. In Kushinagar I was able to visit the Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Burmese and Tibetan temples and pay homage and make offerings in each one of them. Then I made my way back to Gorakpur and from there took a train to Delhi.
Since I had been on the move ever since I left Darjeeling I needed a few days rest. I arrived in Delhi early in the morning and took a taxi to old Delhi because I thought I should stay in the Tibetan colony at Majnu Ka Tilla. It was nice to be with Tibetans there. I enjoyed a few days rest and then took a train to Simla as I had always wanted to visit. The last part of the journey was a ‘Toy Train’ from Kalka to Simla arriving at about five o’clock in the afternoon. After two days in Simla I made my way to Tso Pema in a taxi. The journey was quite pleasant as that area of Himachal Pradesh is very beautiful, mountainous and lush with many trees. I left Simla at about seven in the morning and arrived in Tso Pema at about four o’clock. I found a very nice Tibetan-run hotel right by the lake at Tso Pema. Here there are many monasteries belonging to all the four Tibetan Schools of Buddhism. I had the opportunity to visit all of the monasteries. Lama Wangdol, who has been living in the area for decades, has built a colossal Guru Padmasambava statue on the side of the mountain overlooking the lake. It has to be seen to be believed. One morning I hired a taxi to the top of the mountain where Guru Padmasambava's cave is located. As you zigzag up the mountain you get a sweeping view of the valley which is a breathtakingly beautiful site. In order for you to get to the cave you climb up the hill from the right side and once you are inside the cave you can make prostrations, give offerings, recite prayers and even meditate. When you come out you come out from the other side and you eventually end up at the same spot that you embarked from to go up the hill. Suddenly you realise you have done a circumambulation of that sacred hill. I was very happy that I had made the effort to get there as I felt Guru Padmasambava's presence in the cave. Since the cave is quite high up and quite a distance from Tso Pema, even the pilgrims do not make it.
After being in Tso Pema for several days through a Tibetan lady I was able to hire a taxi driven by an ex army officer to go to Dharamasala which was to be my final pilgrimage destination. Again the taxi ride was very pleasant and the landscape similar but quite different than the one at Tso Pema. You drive through many lush valleys and undulating hills. It seems to have more flora and fauna and the land appears to be very fertile with many farms dotting the landscape. The valleys are rimmed by snow -capped mountains. Although in terms of physical distance they may be far, to the naked eye they seem so close. As you get closer to Dharamasala you climb up the mountain and get very high up into the mountains. Dharamasala is a real Tibetan enclave: the majority of the people living in Mcleodganj are Tibetan and of course the Tibetan Government in Exile is also located there. You can even watch Tibetan parliamentary sessions on TV!
Since I didn't have many days left I had to concentrate on securing an audience with His Holiness Karmapa which I had the good fortune to achieve. One early morning I got a taxi and went to where His Holiness was residing, about forty minutes away at the Gyuto Monastery. His Holiness asked me a few questions and even though I answered and we had a good conversation I could not remember what we even discussed. Afterwards my mind had become blank. The only thing I remember is asking His Holiness to come to Australia and His Holiness said he would, perhaps next year. It was the most spiritually moving experience I have had for a long time. I genuinely felt I was in the presence of a very special and unique being. My pilgrimage had come to an end in such a wonderful way.