11th September to 14th September, 2016.
When we started this journey a month ago, part of the plan was to find accommodation in some friend’s house wherever we go. Staying in hotels for two months was not viable, in terms of health and economics. This plan had worked pretty well for us till we reached Gaya. Friends or their friends had managed to find us a place to crash wherever we went. This mechanism, however, did not work out in Bodh Gaya. So we started looking around for places to stay. We were sure we did not want a typical hotel, and one of us remembered reading about a school that rents out rooms to backpackers. This is how we ended up at a school named ‘A Bowl of Compassion‘.
Started by Michael Saatkamp and Murari Singh as a soup kitchen, it expanded to a school almost 6 years ago. Now, almost 130 students come here everyday for quality education and a square meal. The school also has 5 teachers, a cook and a care taker. Mr. Murari manages the day to day affairs of the school with great enthusiasm. While Murari is the manager, he credits the vision behind the enterprise entirely to Michael, whose touches can be found throughout the school, from the murals on the wall to his photographs decorating the guest rooms.
The rooms themselves are simple and clean with attached bathrooms and access to hot water. The payment for the rooms are accounted as donations to the school and a receipt will be provided for the same. Sushma di, the resident cook will happily whip up some simple food and insist you eat as much as you can. All in all, this place was the ideal stay option for the three of us.
We had a neat room, right next to the Falgu river. There was a horse named Arjun tied up right next to our room, and every day, we woke up to the sight of a hundred kids marching to school. It was in this place that we completed 30 days of our 60 day trip. The 33rd day happened to be Onam. While it is a big celebration back in the south, people here had not even heard about it. We decided to celebrate the festival here, with the members of A Bowl of Compassion. As making a complete sadya was out of question, we decided to make some ‘paal payasam’ (a version of rice kheer) to mark the event. This involved carrying 15 litre of milk on a motor cycle, and a lot of stirring.
A key feature of Onam is the flower carpet or ‘Pookalam’. The 10th day or ‘Thiruvonam’ is marked by a flower carpet containing 10 types of flowers. Our group botanist Bala managed to find exactly 10 types of flowers early in the morning and went about making a semicircular flower carpet. People started joining in, and soon, we had a decent flower carpet.
Sushma di helped us in making the payasam. Considering our abysmal cooking skills, this was truly a blessing. By 12 noon, the payasam was ready, and the students assembled for food. Our payasam was served on leaf plates (no banana leaf) to an enthusiastic crowd. Since many kids asked for seconds, we are assuming they liked it. On our part, this is by far the most unique Onam celebration we have had, and it was a real privilege to celebrate the festival with this bunch of people.
If you ever end up in Bodh Gaya, do stay over at A Bowl of Compassion. The level of discipline and hygiene they maintain at this place is truly impressive. The school also has a well stocked library dedicated to the memory of a fellow volunteer who helped make the school what it is today.
Bodh Gaya itself is a rather small town. Apart from a few local eateries and shops, there is little to explore. Local markets take over the road during market hours, and traffic blocks last for hours. The food scene is limited to a few generic hotels and road side shops selling Chinese food and omelets. The local litti and anarsa, however, are worth trying. But in the end, the Bodhi tree is what brings everyone to Gaya.
The school is a few hundred meters away from the heart of Bodh Gaya, the Mahabodhi temple complex. The temple complex is a melting pot of cultures, with congregations from Japan, Srilanka, Thailand, Bhutan, Tibet, and parts of Europe. The Mahabodhi tree itself still offers shelter to monks who meditate in is shade. A happy and peaceful place, one can still spend a few serene hours wandering around the many shrines inside the complex.
Most countries also have independent temples around the Mahabodhi complex, and many are worth a visit. And as we walk around, we realise that the Light of Asia continues to shine, through institutes like A Bowl of Compassion, dispelling darkness through education.
From Gaya we drove through Bihar to Siliguri. While the roads (except for national highways) were truly amongst the worst, the sights of jute farms on either side more than made up for the discomfort. From Siliguri it is off to Sikkim, and we look forward to spending a few days in the foothills of the mighty Kanchendzonga (Kangchenjunga).