“Ānanda, there are these four places that merit being seen by a clansman with conviction, that merit his feelings of urgency & dismay. Which four? ‘Here the Tathāgata was born’ is a place that merits being seen by a clansman with conviction, that merits his feelings of urgency & dismay. ‘Here the Tathāgata awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening’.… ‘Here the Tathāgata set rolling the unexcelled wheel of Dhamma’.… ‘Here the Tathāgata totally unbound in the property of unbinding with no fuel remaining’ is a place that merits being seen by a clansman with conviction, that merits his feelings of urgency & dismay.”
Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, chapter 5
On the second day of the Buddhist leg of our Indian trip, we arrived in Lumbini in Nepal. I’ve rarely crossed an international border except in an airport — or in the European Union. (I have dim memories of driving through the Alps with Robert maybe twenty-five years ago and insisting that the Italian border officials stamp my passport as a souvenir.) This time, we had to visit two very rundown offices, one in India and one in Nepal, where the entire process was mediated through ancient malfunctioning computer equipment. And I think the driver may have had to bribe an angry guy. But we made it. A day trip to Nepal, back to India the next day.
Lumbini is one of the four major pilgrimage sites that the Buddha tells Ānanda about in the sutta quoted above. It’s ‘Here the Tathāgata was born’. I had seen images and video of the site before. But a lot of money has gone into the site over the past few years, and so it’s no longer the dustbowl I had been expecting. In fact, it’s been transformed into a beautiful garden.
Like most major religious figures, the Buddha had a fairly remarkable birth.
From the solid earth sprung beautiful lotuses, the nature of vajra.
They appeared auspiciously where the Guide placed his wheel-marked feet.
He took seven steps and spoke with a melodious voice like Brahmā’s:
“I will be a perfect being, a sublime physician who cures old age and death!”
Lalitavistara Sūtra, chapter 7
The Buddha’s mother Māyā was travelling from her home to her father’s home for the birth, carried on a palanquin. She stopped to take a walk in the shade of a sal tree. She gave birth holding on to one of its branches, and the baby “emerged from his mother’s right side, fully aware and mindful”. He took seven steps, and a lotus bloomed from each of his footfalls. He pointed at the sky and said his first words.
The place where the Buddha was born is marked by a tree, a pond, and an unimpressive low brick building painted white, with casement windows along each wall. There’s a square parapet on top. It merely exists to shelter the main attraction: the remains of a temple built by King Ashoka, who visited and adorned the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the third century BCE, and who is credited with the spread of Buddhism beyond the region where the Buddha lived and taught.
In fact, it’s because of Ashoka that this place is confidently identified as Lumbini. In front of the white building is a three-metre pillar, carved out of a single stone, with an inscription in the Brahmi script, saying that this spot is Buddha Shakyamuni’s birthplace, that Ashoka made and erected the pillar, and that he freed the village of Lumbini from its taxes, or at least from most of them. The pillar had been known of for years, but the inscription was only rediscovered in 1896.
Before going to the site, we spent a couple of hours being driven around the area to the north in a tuk-tuk. There’s a lot of construction going on, and the drive was very rough, but it’s going to be a lot easier to visit in a few years’ time. The whole area is full of temples, including one constructed by Nepalese Buddhists, but there are Thai temples, Lao, Japanese, Burmese, Tibetan — even French and German temples. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a “site of cultural and natural heritage […] considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”.
Then the Blessed One, emerging from the cessation of perception & feeling, entered the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. Emerging from that, he entered the dimension of nothingness… the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness… the dimension of the infinitude of space… the fourth jhāna… the third… the second… the first jhāna. Emerging from the first jhāna he entered the second… the third… the fourth jhāna. Emerging from the fourth jhāna, he immediately totally unbound.
Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, chapter 6
The Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta tells the story of the Buddha’s parinibbāna, his Total Unbinding, which took place here in Kushinigar when he was eighty years old. There are several sites connected to this event.
The first one we visited contained the remains of a massive stupa — a burial mound faced in stone or brick — the site where the Buddha’s body was cremated, built over some of his ashes.
The second was a temple constructed during the Gupta period (between the fourth and seventh centuries CE), which contains an ancient statue of the Buddha reclining, carved from a single block of red sandstone (since broken into three pieces somehow and covered in gold foil by worshippers). Our guide encouraged us to look at the statue from different angles: looking along from the feet, he said, it looks like a dead body, from the top it looks like the Buddha is deep in contemplation, and from beside his face you can just discern a satisfied smile.
Behind the temple is a tall hemispherical stupa, built originally by King Ashoka in the third century BCE. Both the temple and the stupa were renovated extensively during the time of Nehru. They are surrounded by the ruins of monasteries.
And finally, across the road is the Matha Kuar Shrine. A small temple, containing a three-metre golden Buddha, marking the source of the Buddha’s last drink of water before his Total Unbinding. It’s adjacent to the usual ruined monastery.
Calvin and I were the only foreigners here. At Lumbini, there were monks sitting around the sal tree — we even had a hilarious chat with one of them. (He gave us his card.) There were young people prostrating themselves before the stone that marks the exact site of the Buddha’s birth. And there was a small group of devotees chanting melodiously outside the temple. But at Kushinagar, all of the visitors were local, and only one young man kissed his hand and touched the foot of the reclining Buddha.
Anyway, we’re tired, and both a bit run down from a persistent cough which is probably not Covid. So we’ve retired early to our hotel room for a break and a nap before dinner.
Just got back from lunch: we’re hanging out in the hotel room until dinner, relaxing for a while before the onslaught tomorrow.
The hotel room is in the Radisson Lucknow City Centre, a hotel which is only a couple of decades old, but which has been really letting itself go. There’s a lot of miserable dark wood panelling on every wall. The doors on Level 7 have signs indicating that it’s a non-smoking floor, but judging by the smell of the corridor, they were hastily put up less than a week ago. The Samsung TV comes complete with an LG remote, there’s no bath towels in the bathroom (which I discovered when I got out the shower), and the fridge doesn’t work, or didn’t until a nice man came to the door to fix it at about 11 o’clock last night. Oh, and it sounds like the toilet’s leaking.
Anyway, we’re not in Rajasthan any longer. We’re in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, which is a state larger and a bit poorer than Rajasthan. After Udaipur we went to Jaipur, and after Jaipur we went to Agra. And after Agra, here.
Our sightseeing has continued much as before, but the pace has slowed. So, we do a long day of driving, followed by a night at the hotel, followed by a day of forts and palaces and things, followed by a second night at the hotel, followed by another long drive to the next destination. Sometimes we visit something on the way. A fort, usually.
My Terran Ague, which is now under control, thank you for asking, prevented me from engaging in the sightseeing in Udaipur and Jaipur. Fortunately, though, I was able to enjoy Agra, where the Taj Mahal is to be found, but where there are also two forts to visit. The first fort is Agra Fort, not far from the Taj Mahal: it was built by the Mughal king Akbar in the sixteenth century as the capital of the empire. Before it was finished in 1573, Akbar had moved his capital to the second fort, Fatehpur Sikri, in order to be near the Sufi saint Salim, who predicted the birth of his first son Jahangir, whose son Shah Jahan would go on to build the Taj Mahal.
Calvin complains that there have been too many forts over the last two weeks, and there’s something to be said for that, but each of them has been huge and beautiful, and I would have been sorry to miss any more of them than I already did.
But basically, we’re done with forts. Out for dinner tonight, and then tomorrow morning we’re leaving the forts behind.
First stop: Shravasti, a pilgrimage site marking a location where the Buddha delivered many of his suttas and performed two miracles. After that, we will drive to Lumbini in Nepal, staying there the night, and then visiting the site of the Buddha’s birth, at the Maya Devi Temple. Over the next week we will be visiting all four of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites, as well as some ancillary sites nearby.
Both Calvin and I have been looking forward to this for a long time. I’ll let you know how we get on.
Since my last post, we have driven 1,125 kilometers across Rajasthan. We’ve stayed in Bikaner, Jaisalmer (two nights) and Jodhpur, and now we’ve arrived in Udaipur, where we will be staying for two nights before leaving for Jaipur.
It’s all been a bit of a blur, really. Lots of checking in and out of hotels, lots of driving through the countryside, and lots of temples, cenotaphs and forts. Here is a random selection of salient observations. (I’m allowing myself one post in this format for each leg of the trip.)
After a couple of days’ grace, the Terran Ague has returned with a far more brutal and upsetting assault than before. Indescribable. I suspect that it was a mistake to have a few vegetarian meals at local eateries over the last two days, but Calvin doesn’t want to feel like a tourist, and he is thrilled by the prospect of paying only one or two hundred rupees for a meal. In any case, I’ll be living on electrolytes, muesli bars and prayer for the next few days.
Jaisalmer is a very beautiful place. It’s in the middle of the desert, not too far from the border with Pakistan, and it’s full of yellow sandstone buildings, including a massive old fort on the top of the nearest hill housing about 3,000 regular residents.
Just before our arrival in Bikaner, we visited the Karni Mata Temple, a Hindu temple that is home to tens of thousands of rats. Walking through the temple barefoot was certainly a thing that I remember doing. Our driver told us that the Italian tourists he had taken there didn’t really appreciate it. “Tanti topi,” they would cry, apparently.
Calvin has been assiduous (some people might say annoying) in his effort to capture every moment of the trip with his little point-and-shoot camera. I can’t possibly post all his photos here, but you can find them on Facebook, and I’ll be downloading them to my photo library when I get home.
More than one of the hotels we’ve stayed in was actually part of a palace complex owned and inhabited by members of one of the royal families. In Bikaner, this was the Hotel Lallgarh Palace, which actually seemed a little bit run down and sad, in part because its corridors were adorned with what its website chooses to call “charming sepia photographs and cherished hunting trophies”. In Jaesalmer, it was the Hotel Mandir Palace, which is ornately carved from the town’s yellow sandstone and whose tower is the highest building in Jaisalmer apart from the fort.
Whenever I walk past a dog asleep in the middle of the road, I am compelled to stop for a second to make sure it’s still breathing.
I didn’t know what a haveli was when I wrote my last post from a haveli in Mandawa that had been converted into a hotel. The next morning, our guide (who was a handsome young local who spoke four or five european languages) showed us a dozen of them in Mandawa, and we’ve seen dozens and dozens more of them since. In Mandawa, a local family of artists have been painting frescoes on the havelis for decades; elsewhere, they are decorated with intricate stone carvings.
For the nerds: I was able to correct an error in my previous post from the back seat of the car using my phone’s GitHub app. Editing the file and committing my changes automatically triggered a full site rebuild incorporating my changes. (Those are all meaningful English words.) I am unreasonably excited by this.
As you can see, I have now ridden a camel. I was expecting to be mounted behind an experienced cameleer, but instead I was sat on the camel by myself as it was led along by a small, quiet teenager. Getting on and off is the most unsettling part: camels stand with their back legs first and sit down with their front legs first, so you have to hold on tight to the saddle and lean backwards to avoid faceplanting into the camel’s neck or (more likely) just completely falling off the bloody thing. Camels are grumpy and obnoxious, but really, who can blame them?
We’re in Udaipur now. Taking it easy, thank God. And tomorrow is all sightseeing and very little driving, which will be nice. I’ll catch you all again in a few days.
Everyone who’s been into deep space has had the Terran Ague, or the three-day sweats as it’s commonly known. It’s a sort of a mild infection, it slightly alters the body’s nucleic structure, it seems to be a metabolic reaction to space travel.
— Doctor Bellfriar, Blake’s 7, Series B, Episode 7, Killer
I arrived in Delhi on Saturday morning.
The flights overnight from Rome were lovely, of course, but I lost 4½ hours travelling east and the final leg was only 3 hours long, so I had had only about an hour’s sleep. But, you know Calvin, it was straight to business. I had a quick shower and we were picked up from the hotel almost immediately by the tour guide, Aditya from Food Tour in Delhi.
Aditya was a funny and cheerful young man. He had been a chef, and so he was able to explain to us what we were eating and even to predict with accuracy how our taste buds would respond to different foods in different combinations. We started in Old Delhi, which is gloriously squalid and crowded, trying food from stalls and restauarants, and even a coffee house run by generations of a Jain family whose specialty was a kind of fruit sandwich with cheese, which taste like a light and delicate cake.
Six hours later, the tour had finished and we went back to our grimy hotel. I feel asleep immediately, but Calvin woke me up a couple of hours later for even more food.
You can probably tell where this is headed.
The next day, our proper tour started, which will take us from Delhi to Kolkata, via Rajasthan and the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Calvin has organised it all — every night’s hotel is booked, every day is accounted for, there’s none of my hippie fear of foreclosing possibilities. This tour is serious business.
We met our tour guide for the day and our driver for the next three-and-a-bit weeks, and we headed off into Delhi. Another less food-oriented tour of Old Delhi, the Jama Mosque, Humayan’s Tomb, the ruins of the Qutb Minar complex, and the Shri Laxmi Narayan Temple.
I had already had an unfortunate gastrointestinal incident before leaving the hotel that morning, and by the time the day’s sightseeing was nearing its end I was increasingly, urgently keen to return to the hotel. I’ll spare you any details, but I was unable to muster any enthusiasm about the Rajasthani restaurant we went to for a dinner consisting of tiny metal cups of delicious things on a giant metal tray full of even more delicious things. And by the time we got back to the hotel after that, the Terran Ague had hit me full force. I spent an unpleasantly acidic night, sweating and shivering in the bed and waking up dehydrated every couple of hours.
Naturally, Calvin had come prepared with as much gastro-stop as I could possibly want — certainly enough to get me through today’s six-hour drive without any horrifying incidents.
Tonight, we’re staying at the Vivaana Heritage Hotel, which is a restored nineteenth-century haveli, a merchant’s house lavishly decorated with frescoes and carvings. And if I make it through dinner, there’s an evening of traditional puppetry, storytelling and folk music, which I’m hoping will be tolerable. Before that, though, a nap, I think.
Well, I was never going to be able to afford to stay in Positano, of course, so the best thing to do was a day trip. Really, I should have done this when I was staying in Sorrento — it’s a 50-minute bus ride from Sorrento to Positano — but I was still at the very beginning of four whole weeks of travel in Italy, and I didn’t want to fill those weeks up with day trips and activities, to impose any structure or foreclose any possibilities.
I’m nearing the other end of those four weeks now. And I’m pretty happy with the structure that ended up somehow being imposed on those four weeks. Sorrento, Ischia, Naples, Salerno, Matera and Pompei. Four or five nights each. Not spending too much time sitting on trains and buses, lugging the big suitcase around, checking in, checking out.
I decided to stay in Pompei because the bus back from Matera stopped there on the way to Naples. And because I thought it looked pretty when I accidentally caught the wrong train from Naples a couple of weeks ago and ended up at Pompei Santuario instead of Pompei Scavi. I had walked through the town for about a quarter of an hour and entered the archaeological park through the eastern gate near the amphitheatre. There’s a long stretch of road there leading from the main square to the ruins, full of stalls and bars and restaurants catering for tourists, but it has a kind of festival atmosphere, which I think is kind of fun. And, you know, I’m a tourist.
By the time I decided to go to Positano, the four weeks had been completely planned, and my trip to Italy had ended up being four weeks hanging around the Bay of Naples and its immediate environs, punctuated by four nights in Matera. By then, the Amalfi Coast had joined the infinite list of foreclosed possibilities. (Mostly because I had checked out Positano on hotels.com and had decided that it would be unreasonable to spend $400 a night on accommodation at any point during an eleven-week overseas holiday.) Still, I knew it would only take me about an hour and a half to get to Positano, and that would count as having visited the Amalfi Coast.
I literally knew nothing about the Amalfi Coast, apart from its location. I had seen some photos, I think, that made it look roughly like Sorrento, with big hotels perched on cliffs and things. But I had no idea that the towns were built on precipitous hillsides, in places where it would probably have been a lot easier to just take a quick look round and decide to build somewhere else.
I walked down from the bus stop to the beach and sat on a bench on the seafront surrounded by expensive restaurants. And then I climbed back up again. That night, I texted Calvin — “I went to Positano today, which is where we will be retiring to in just a few years” — and seconds later he sent me a link to a 9½ million dollar property that would be just perfect.
I left Pompei this morning, and now I’m in the Holiday Inn Roma — Eur Parco Dei Medici. Just a 15-minute drive from the airport. The day after tomorrow, I’m flying out to Delhi to meet Calvin. But before then, I have a whole day left, and I’m near Rome. I still haven’t decided what to do.