Me-go: Around-the-World

Buddha’s Birthplace or Bust


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Although I spent a month in Nepal I never felt like I really got into the place. It felt to me like a mix between Tibet and Nepal—but not enough of either to fascinate me. After some time recuperating from my trek in Pokhara I was ready to get to India, but had one last stop.

Lumbini, a small village about an hour from the border crossing to Northern India, has been archeologically proven to be the birth place of The Buddha. The legend goes that after his mother had a good wash in a pool she walked over to a tree, held onto a branch and gave birth to little Siddhartha Gautama. If that isn’t far-fetched enough for you, it might be hard to believe that the little prince then walked seven steps and pointed to the sky. In any case, he set off at my age, 29, on a quest to rid the world of suffering.

The site is quite simple and after spending a night in a three bed room with a nice couple from Belgium and a few dozen mosquitoes I went to see the holy site. The actual birthplace is marked by a stone inside the ruins of a temple which is inside of a building built to protect it. The ruins itself is unremarkable and I find it hard to believe that anyone could possibly pinpoint where Buddha was born. In any case, a stone pool sits next door to the ruins and the pillar erected by the Nepali emperor in ancient times, marking the site remains in tact.

The exact birth place of Buddha? Is it a fossilized placenta or what? Monk hanging by a tree

Many people come on a pilgrimage to the sites where Buddha was born (the only site located in Nepal), where he give his first sermon, where he became enlightened and where he died. I met one woman from Korea who was with a tour group, all carrying dark robes to chant in at the sites. Of course, the chanting had to wait until after she bought her fill of day-glow plastic Buddha figurines and wooden prayer beads in the souvenir market. Seeing as Buddha set out because he disapproved of worshiping Gods and came to the conclusion that worldly possessions was one of the major causes of suffering, I found the entire experience highly ironic.

The Belgians and I decided to forego the parade of temples erected by various nations of the world (I’ve already been to most of the countries and have seen their Buddhist architecture) and head directly for the Indian border. The bus to Varanasi takes 10 hours, so even if we crossed early we would arrive in Varanasi after dark. Instead, we decided that it was best to take a bus into India, stopping at Gorakpur where we could pick up a train the next morning.

At the border I exchanged my last Nepali rupees for Indian rupees and had just enough to pay for the bus, train, hotel and food for the day. The outside of all of the trucks and buses are brightly decorated with highly stylized sayings and decorations—something I saw in Nepal. Almost every vehicle has “horn please” painted on it’s back end and, believe me, people we complying much to my dismay. The horns here are high pitched and resonate like a trombone. Sometimes the horns play little tunes and they are never just one short honk. Most drivers like to honk the horn even when there’s no one in front of them.

Welcome to India Kim on train #1 Indians surrounding us and staring, my bag's in the middle

Our train left early in the morning and we dragged ourselves across the road to the train station before the sun rose. None of us had ever taken a a train in India and were relieved when an official-looking man in a booth confirmed that the train on track 2 was our train. We hopped onto a completely empty sleeper car and hunkered down for the five and a half hour ride. Kim took out her sleeping bag and her boyfriend climbed onto the third-tier bunk to take a nap. We figured we were just lucky. After two hours a conductor finally happened by and casually informed us that the train was not going to Varanasi, that our train had been delayed by thirty minutes and would be following shortly behind.

We got off at the next stop, a station seemingly in the middle of farmer’s fields, and waited for the next train. After a few minutes we were completely surrounded by Indian men. They came from the fields, they jumped across the tracks, they called their friends over… just to stare at us. One man might have asked where we were from but we mostly just sat, surrounded by men staring, for about an hour. We decided that the train was probably coming on the other track and made our way across, assuming we’d eluded our fan club. But because we were now on the platform side of the tracks instead of the side of a field we had a much larger group of admirers. We sat and waited for two more hours before our train arrived.

I’ve tried posting a small video of the experience here, but I’m experimenting with a new plugin. If nothing’s happening at the following link try turning off your pop-up blocker: Indian Staring Contest

This train was much more crowded, but we found an empty compartment to spread out in. Sitting in the sun all morning made us grumpy and none of us had any food to eat. Although there seems to be a lot of food on Indian trains, there never seems to be any when you actually want it. Soon the seats around us filled up with men coming from other carriages to look at us. Sometimes it was just three men sitting and watching us but at other times there was a group of ten standing in the opening of the seating area with other men crawling up onto the bunks above us and staring down.

Some men got bold and pushed our bags aside to sit next to us if we weren’t paying attention and let our guard down long enough for it to happen. Of course, I don’t mind if people sit next to me, but I do mind when the rest of the seats on the train are empty and the man’s sole purpose is to get a better look. The worst part is these men wouldn’t stop. They pushed papers into our faces, tried to take our books away, played annoying ringtones in our ears to get our attention and generally were extremely annoying. Nothing we said or did would get them to leave and they would perch on the edge of the bench, where I’d left four inches of space next to my bag when a six foot long empty bench was one compartment over.

    My first Indian train experience taught me a few things:

  • Never expect to arrive (or leave) on time.
  • Bring food in case you’re stranded, surrounded by Indian men staring at you for 3 hours.
  • Always have reading material to help you to pretend to be busy.
  • Trying to rationalize with the people tormenting you only makes it worse.

Eventually we arrived in Varanasi in horrible moods and took two cycle rickshaws to the old town to find a hotel. Our drivers dropped us off on the far edge of town, giving the touts enough time to catch up and ensure they would get a commission just by walking next to us when we arrived at a hotel. Althoguh I had emailed ahead, the first place we tried was full and had no record of my name. We followed a man through winding alleys and stairwells to another hotel which turned out to be fine, with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the river. We finally got some lunch around 5:30 and managed to catch the sunset over the old city while we settled into India.

3 responses to “Buddha’s Birthplace or Bust”

  1. chan Avatar

    Heh must’ve been a harrowing experience on that train… but it can get worse.. and it can get much better.. try n be careful but there’s lots of good things here.. as u must’ve experienced since.. seeing that u’ve already done Agra..

  2. Stacy from WA Avatar
    Stacy from WA

    Ahh… the infamous staring Indians. It gets easier the longer you are there. You’ll probably even come up with techniques to get them to bugger off.

    So, how many pictures have you been in? I’m probably up on walls all over Rajasthan and Punjab. Isn’t that funny… one white person surrounded by a whole group of Indians. I wonder if they tell friends that I’m their long lost auntie or something…

    Wasn’t the Taj Mahal amazing? Words just can’t describe!

  3. vlad Avatar

    wow.. i love the staring video. too funny. i definitley remember how crazy the staring was over there. in small towns people would literally just follow us around and walk after us in there streets, not to sell us stuff, but just to stare at us. you feel like some kind of weird celebrity. and everyone just loves having their picture taken… which is such a contrast to africa where no one wants their picture taken and they all ask for money if you want a photo.