Photographing Peace, Part 2: The Buddhist Holy Grounds of Bodhgaya, India

Photo of Indian man in Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

My good friend Pawan.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L,
1/125 sec, f/9.0, ISO 400.

The tumultuous bustle of “holy tourism” leaps at me from every turn. It’s a stark contrast to the quiet walkways that greeted me earlier within the Mahabodhi Temple complex (Part 1).

I’m back to fending for myself, back to avoiding the gaze of eager salesmen peddling shoddy crafts, and zigzagging through and around the poor and diseased who will never relent. I cannot feed them all. A gesture to one will ensure a difficult passage by the rest. Perhaps this is my rationalization for a lack of pure altruistic tendencies. I do feel pangs for these people, but there is not one or two of them here. There are droves! The children are the most persistent and sometimes follow me for as much as an hour.

As I depart Mahabodhi I am quickly reminded that it is still monsoon season as the clouds open and pour down an abundance of water. I have no umbrella and do not wish to duck into a salesmen’s stall where I have no intention of purchasing his wares. There is, however, a man standing beside a vacant chair under a makeshift tarp covering that provides shelter from the storm. The chair is no ordinary chair – it is a barber’s chair. Feeling ready for a new experience, I decide to wait out the storm productively by getting a street-side shave.

This shave is my first in India and would not be the last. The dynamic is fantastic. The barber is absolutely astonished, pleased, and excited to have possibly the only Western man in the area sitting in his chair asking for the service of his blade. Under my watchful eye the smiling barber produces a fresh packaged blade and places it into his shavette. My initial trepidation with this experience is not concerning his skills as a barber. I’m concerned about sanitation. Seeing that fresh blade makes me very, very happy. With a dollop of shave cream and a brush, the barber lathers up my cheeks, my chin, and my neck, and then goes to work. Small, light, deliberate strokes of the razor slowly reveal my clean-shaven skin from under the blanket of shaving cream. Not a single cut on my face! Now the barber makes his second round to get even closer. I just got a straight-razor shave on the side of a street in India that easily outdoes any barbershop shave I’ve had in the United States.

Map of Bohdgaya, India

At the “barbershop” a small crowd has grown, watching every flick of the razor and every emotion on my face. As if on cue, the barber finishes my shave and the rain stops. Perfect timing. A young Indian man wearing a purple polo shirt and blue jeans approaches and introduces himself to me as Pawan Kumar. Pawan is interested in who this lone white man is getting a shave at his friends street-side barber chair in Bodhgaya, India. We make some small talk about my occupation, education, family, and previous travels before he offers to show me more of Bodhgaya. Camera slung over one shoulder and tripod over the other, I hop on the back of Pawan’s motorcycle and off we go.

Pawan is thrilled to guide me through his town and we weave through tuk-tuks and light traffic in this rural village, hopping from monastery to monastery. There are many Buddhist monasteries here, clustered as close as possible to the holy Mahabodhi Temple. Each country with a large Buddhist following has built a monastery in their traditional architectural style. The Japanese have a pagoda shaped temple, the Thai temple is adorned with golden tiles on a sloping roof. The mix of styles is an eclectic Asian smorgasbord. I can see the differences in the Buddhist traditions of each country and I have only to walk one hundred yards. Our journey of monastic discovery ends with the big Buddha – an 82 ft tall Buddha sitting in meditation-pose on a lotus. The Buddha towers above us.

Photo of a gold Buddha in monastery in Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore

© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

Photo of ornate interior in monastery in Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

The interiors of the monasteries are very ornate and colorful. It’s hard to imagine the number of man hours it took to create the incredible details that went into each one.

Photo of 82 foot Buddha statue in Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

This 82 foot tall Buddha sits within the interior of one of the many Buddhist monasteries of Bodhgaya.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/400 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Having seen all that I know to visit, I ask Pawan, “Show me something special, that most travelers don’t get to see.” Pawan starts driving and as we bump and jolt along a dirt road to the outskirts of town the traffic diminishes and tuk-tuks are replaced by villagers and cattle. Pawan’s motorbike is perfect for this countryside drive – we’ve left the crude road for an even rougher foot trail through the fields of Bihar. A field, a village, another village, a cow, through five children singing and playing, and around women carrying things on their heads, we navigate through the countryside.

Photo of a woman carrying rice cuttings on her head in lush green field in Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

Woman in Green

A woman carries rice cuttings in a field near Bodhgaya, India.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/80 sec, f/9.0, ISO 400

I learn that our destination is a riverbank shaded by a large banyan tree. Pawan likes to come here in the afternoons to sit in the shade and relax and make offerings at the ancient Saraswati temples that stand a stones-throw from the giant banyan. This is very much a place for locals, and the men already sitting in the area are asking Pawan who I am and why I am here. They are curious as to what could possibly interest me here, in this place, away from the main tourist attractions of the town. Pawan describes me in a favorable light, as one traveler interested in knowing a more about the culture than most, and the men smile and nod my way. Pawan speaks very good English – these countryside men speak only their dialect of Hindi. This little spot is fantastic! I can laze about in the grass, basking in the sun and writing in my journal. The Indian men are chatting peacefully, the river rushes by us, and an occasional cattleman with his livestock pass along the trail towards the nearest village. It’s another place to find respite, peace and quiet.

Photo of a huge banyan tree in Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

Photo of Nico DeBarmore in huge banyan tree in Bodhgaya, India by Indian man.

Image taken by local Indian man.

The “Banyan”, Ficus benghalensis, is the national tree of India

Older banyan trees have a lot of character to them. They will have aerial prop roots (roots above ground) that will grow very thick. As the tree ages, it is difficult to distinguish these roots from the original main tree trunk. Other times, the main trunk will die, leaving a hollow core. The remaining tree is then supported by the aerial prop roots which can spread laterally and over a very wide area.

I was exploring the innards of this giant tree and this image gives you a sense of how huge it is.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/40 sec, f/5.6, ISO 400

Photo of cattlemen driving a cow under Banyan tree in Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore
© 2012 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

Cattlemen at the Saraswati Temples

Cattlemen drive their livestock by an ancient Saraswati Temple
that sits below a giant banyan tree near Bodhgaya, India.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, 1/160 sec, f/9.0, ISO 400, B&W conversion with Nik Silver Efex 2.

As the sun dropped back to the horizon, Pawan drove me back to town through incredibly green rice paddies. The paddies are so green, quintessentially lush. We are at the end of our adventures and Pawan drops me right at the door of Mohammad’s Guesthouse. In return for being such a great guide, and most especially for never trying to sell me anything and never asking for compensation, I handed Pawan 200 Rs.

Mohammad’s Guesthouse, run by a middle aged Nepali man by the name of Pren, is a great place to stay. This is one of the very few lodgings in India where I felt my host knew the meaning of service and was really invested in making my stay a comfortable one. He is full of smiles, and makes a fantastic Tibetan noodle soup.

My favorite aspect of the guesthouse is the rooftop. From this vantage point I can sit and watch the people, the sun setting behind the clouds, the sky changing colors, the workers leaving the rice fields, the children playing and the dogs barking, the women starting their cooking fires, and the occasional surprising glow of a television from within a shanty shack.

Photo of poor housing development from Mohammad's Guesthouse in Bodhgaya, India by Nico DeBarmore
© 2011 Nico DeBarmore. All Rights Reserved.

View from Mohammad’s Guesthouse

From the rooftop of Mohammad’s I can see the monasteries of Bodhgaya,
the surrounding rice fields, and the squalor at my feet.

Canon 5DmkII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, ¼ sec, f/8.0, ISO 400, stitched panorama.

As far as popular Western tourist locations go, Bodhgaya is off the beaten path and is perfect for a peaceful 1-2 days stop if you are traveling via train between Varanasi and Kolkata. Bodhgaya is a chance to connect with a spirituality and serenity that is difficult to find in India. I highly recommend it.

Travel Tips:

Best Place to Stay: New Mohammad’s Guesthouse (double w/bath 350 Rs/night)

Cheap Eats: Fujiya Green (tent restaurant)

No. 1 Attraction: Mahabodhi Temple at dawn

Off The Beaten Path: Find a local to show you some special spots in the countryside.

Tuk-tuk from Gaya train station to Bodhgaya: 50 Rs (20 minutes)

by Nico DeBarmore

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