Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Lost wax at Thanjavur

Thanjavur is famous for at least two things: the magnificent World-Heritage "Big Temple" and an unparallelled collection of cast bronzes from up to 1000 years ago. In that collection, there are a number of outstanding pieces, including a number of examples of the well-known subject of "Nataraja" - the dancing Shiva in a ring of fire and some winsome and hyperidealised figures of Parvati, Shiva's wife - as well as many other remarkable examples. Ironically, these bronzes have survived because of the the iconoclasts (sorry, we're there again, but only briefly). When the Mughals were pushing south to extend their empire, the word went ahead of them to hide (i.e. bury) any images that could be moved. So it happened that hundreds, maybe thousands, of these images were buried in the soil of present-day Tamil Nadu - and then forgotten. Maybe the people who hid them were killed or the memory didn't get passed down through the generations in the Mughal period. Now they are being rediscovered: apparently a find was made only last week during a temple renovation. Without the Mughals, perhaps the images would have been stolen, lost, destroyed: here, ironically, iconoclasm has had the effect of preserving the images! It is also quite a thought that underground around this area are still yet more of these masterpieces, waiting for one day to be restored to the light.

They were all made by the lost wax method. This involves making the model in wax and encasing this in fine clay and then another layer of coarser stuff. Next, the clay is heated to harden it - and "lose" the wax, which flows out of an aperture, to be used again. The mould is then buried up to its neck (for support) and molten bronze (brass,copper,tin and a little silver and gold) is poured in. In very little time the mould can be broken open and the image revealed. Quite a lot of finishing detail is finally required to complete the work.

Well, being in Thanjavur I thought I would try to track down the canny guy who those years ago sold me the bronze, made to order as an imitation of one of the Parvati images in the museum. He had a "factory" way out in the country where he took likely customers (me included) to see the lost wax method in action. The first time I called in to see Mr Prakash in his lair (a craft shop in a luxury hotel), he wasn't there so I went off to the Big Temple, and found it as impressive as ever or even more so. A transcript from Mahatma Gandhi praises the custodian of this and 89 other temples (the "Senior Prince") for throwing them open to untouchables (I suppose that includes us lot). In fact, a significant part of the impact of the Big Temple for me relates to just this: the access to the worship or darshan, without any of the nasty Brahmin exclusivity you find at Srirangam (Trichy) and many other places where non-Hindus (and untouchables I suppose) are excluded. The main shrine contains a huge black lingam, sitting as usual within an accommodating yoni; and, as if at an altar rail, the priests anoint devotees with holy ash, pass their hands through a holy flame and hand out grains of some holy food. In one way, it's certainly still a privilege to be let in on the rituals but then, having no practice elsewhere, it is also hard not to feel a bit of a spare part hanging around on the fringes. Still, the priests seemed to be totally accepting of the outside presence.

Apart from the rituals, the temple is pricipally impressive for its scale and artistry and above all for its soaring tower. It's not a gopuram here - more like a very steep pyramid, 66 metres in height, covered in elaborate carvings. Another thing the tower has in common with pyramids is the method used to install the vast capstone on the top: a ramp 4 kilometres long was constructed and the 80-ton stone (shaped underneath to slot into place over the layer below) was edged up and along it, probably with the use of elephants.

Suitably uplifted I headed on back in the evening to Mr Prakash's shop and this time he was at home. He sort-of half remembered me and invited me to have a cup of chai with him. Next, there was a trip out to his "Artists' Village" in the outskirts of Thanjavur - at sunset on the back of his scooter! This is where his workers do demonstrations of the ages-old techniques for visitors and likely customers. (This saves the real artists at his main place from being distracted) Right then and there, bronze was being heated then poured into a mould, which was quite quickly cooled and then cracked open to reveal the basic casting ready for final finishing. ...... And then I get asked out for supper! He was quite affable despite being discouraged to hear I was staying in a budget hotel (visions of repeat business fading). However he particularly enjoyed telling his favourite story from a few years back when a piece he was exporting was called in as an original millenium-old bronze and he was on trial for a serious offence. It took two years to clear his name, during which time he was under something of a cloud, but now he's going from strength to strength. After all, it must be something of a boost to your reputation to have your stuff mistaken by the experts as a genuine antique.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Trichy to its friends

If you'd been given the name Tiruchirappalli, you too might prefer to be known by a shorter name. Trichy, as most people call it, is first in a sequence of Tamil temple towns along the Cauvery River, leading downstream to Thanjavur, Kumbakonam and Chidambaram - and for me, coming south, the start of another country.

The south IS different. The people look different, darker perhaps but rounder-featured - and gentler, by which I guess I mean less pushy and demanding. It is a distinct pleasure to be simply ignored! Or, if approached, to be treated like another human being, as the old woman did who wanted advice on resetting her mobile, or another who wanted to check that we were on the right platform.

It's good, too, to be in a real town, after the precious atmosphere and tourist economy of Mamallapuram. The last item I ate there was toast-butter-jam for an extortionate 35 rupees: the first thing I had here was a full thali washed down with a lime soda: a total meal for the same price! Yes, I'm back in the Land of the Thali and for lunch today I had the genuine total performance. A banana leaf spread on the table and watered (customer, who's washed his hands already, brushes it down) and then loaded with a pile of rice and set about with a variety of sauces and side dishes, including a dessert and a curd/yogurt. The form is that you dive in, right hand only (I sit on my left to keep it out of mischief), grabbing the rice, sopping up the sauces, swiping in the side-dishes and thumbing it home. And it keeps on coming - because the deal is definitely "all you can eat" and the waiters don't hang back, acting quite disappointed when you only manage a couple of second helpings. Somehow when I eat with my hands, sorry - hand, I find myself getting more voracious. Something cave-man about it, maybe, but the food tastes particularly good this way, I think.

Tamil Nadu is also the Land of the Gopuram, a particular kind of temple tower found largely here and not elsewhere. Think of a cross between a steep pyramid and a wedge set on end, cover it with a jungle of decorations, particularly deities (standing, greeting, dancing, grimacing, menacing), and overlay it all with a kaleidoscopic stampede of primal colours - and there you have it. Some soar to 30 metres or more and stand out from the tree cover from miles away.

Today I saw my share in a temple-tour of Trichy (remember Trichy?), starting at the Rock Fort Temple, set upon and accessed by steps up and through a great outcrop to the north of the city. From the top I could see my second and third destinations, both temples with a varied collection of gopurams set in the mid-point of a number of encircling walls (so, 4 per wall) and in the centre a holy-of-holies: non-Hindus not allowed! The final temple, at Srirangam, is the largest temple "campus" in India. But in a sense this is a cheat because, although it has nine encircling walls, the outer ones enclose what elsewhere would simply be called a town, with houses, shops and all - although I believe they are all in some way subject to - and serving - the mother temple.

By 1 p.m. I was all templed out and, although again bewitched by the short-phase repetitive chanting, which felt that it came direct down through the millennia of Hinduism, my scorched soles (yes, barefoot through a large part of this huge temple) told me enough was enough and it was time to head back to my personal shrine in the cool of my hotel room.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Theory of Ambient Pace

How is it that I can spend three hours sitting waiting for a train (I knew I'd be waiting, wanted to get there before the main heat of the day) and four-and-a-half hours sitting on my pack in said train and still have a pleasant day? How come I can happily meander along Indian roads on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle when back home I find cycling frustrating because it seems to take so long to get anywhere? Why do I find myself happy to just saunter and relax over here when people in England know me for always dashing around?

It all comes down to Ambient Pace. If the traffic trundles along relatively slowly, if the trains take their time to get there, if other cyclists aren't in a hurry either, if everyone, in fact, seems to have time to spare, it can't help but rub off. Plus, of course, the rising temperatures might just have a little to do with it!

Today was a good example to making the trip the trip: as they say, better to travel hopefully than to arrive. I set out by bus before 9 (as I said, to avoid the worst of the midday sun) so I was at the station (an hour from Mamallapuram) three plus hours early - but no matter! The platforms had a nice open view over a lake and some small hills and I read a bit, snacked a bit, looked around and slowed down (further) . Then, when the train did arrive, I just had a gentle days' travelling, with good views all the way: even having to sit on my pack instead of a seat was no hassle. The views were largely agricultural - rice culture with its range of green shades from the bright lime green of the seed beds right through to the green-brown of the nearly ripe paddy (plus the bright primary-coloured clothes of the workers bent over planting seedlings) - and then sugar cane. We did pass a couple of immense sugar cane processing factories and the smell beat Ipswich's beet sugar factory (when it was operating) by a wide mark.

Plenty of bird life too: I'm not hard to please, really - give me a couple of views of my favourite bird, the turquoise-blue Indian Roller, in flight and I'm happy. Throw in a bee-eater and a couple of local kingfishers and I'm ecstatic!

A minor lesson from today may be that if a train trip is a shortish day-time run then reservations really are an optional extra. A more important lesson is to try to disprove the Theory of Ambient Pace back home by taking my time whatever speed the world around is moving at. Hmm, some challenge!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Ch-ch-ch-changes at Mamallapuram

How much can a place change in eight years? Well, if it's conveniently close to an international airport (Chennai/Madras, this one) and got a beach and fishing boats and been poineered by backpacker tourists, then quite a lot. Add to that changing technology and some extra (selective) prosperity - and the tsunami - and you have a push to build, rebuild and develop.

The place still has some charm: you can't shift the huge rock outcrops, carved in situ with a range of impressive figures, nor can the sea or beach disappear in that time span (although the tsunami gouged out quite a bit and revealed more stone temples below the tide line) But where the prevailing sound used to be the musical tap of mallet on chisel on stone as the traditional stone-carvers of the village carried on their trade, now they've gone mechanised - and rising above the gentle percussion of the chisels is the multi-tonal buzz of a thousand small angry angle-grinders. Still, productivity must be up, judging by the number of statues, often quite large, standing around by the roadside!

In the beach-side restaurant where I had breakfast they've put a mark for the level of the top of the tsunami wave: two storeys up from the level of the beach, itself raised well above high tide level..Chilling to sit there and imagine how one's fate that Boxing Day morning might have been determined by which direction you had been facing or whether there were any cries of alarm to alert you in time for you to run. Still, you would probably have been caught in some of the wave but not, perhaps, overwhelmed. I don't know how many perished here (the fishing fleet was wiped out - now restored) but further down this same coast 2000 Christian pilgrims at a Marian shrine lost their lives.

Now, however, the result has been an opportunity to rebuild and renew and - apart from the memorial marks - little remains to show what happened less than 14 months ago. Mamallapuram is now a tourist resort, albeit a little scruffy (but where are we?), and its days of being a backpacker haven are gone, although a few lurk on in corners and the occasional aromatic whiff betrays their persistence.

Monday, February 13, 2006

India is....

(Sunrise at Puri)


... a wide empty beach and a man on a bicycle who stops a yard away and stares at you for minutes on end (or until you get up and move away)

... where men's underpants are, to judge from behavioural observation, ill-fitting and uncomfortable

... where there's a billion people and democracy

... where you advertise for a spouse (not just a partner/romance, of course) on the basis of location, income, qualifications, caste, profession but never tastes, interests or gsoh

... where you drink your tea short, sweet, spiced and often - and throw the earthenware cup down to break it

... where 13 Indians can enter Chennai Government Museum for less than the entry charge for a camera and 17 can enter for one foreigner (one of many many examples: 25 can enter some National Parks for 1)

... where mobile phone reception is often much better than mine at home and, with the right tarrif, you can text for 1/100th of a rupee and phone for 1 rupee a minute all over the state you're in. You even see people talking on mobiles in the rice paddies!

... where the cars are either very old or very new, more and more of the latter: someone's making money!

... where men are drab and women are rainbows (the usual story only much more so - in both directions)

... where the litter bin is conveniently just where you happen to be standing

... where the cows' diet is the rubbish heap

... where English is used and abused in strange and wrong-end-of-the-stick kind of ways

... where there are international phone booths (or equivalent) every few yards in many places

... where the use of the mirror by the vehicle in front is replaced by the use of the horn by the vehicle behind

... where "hello boat" and "hello massage" (for example) constitute complete utterances

... where "yes" can mean no or maybe but the word "no" is rarely understood unless repeated vigorously and with gestures

...where you never wear shorts unless you are dirt-poor

... where people, especially women, go bathing in their full clothes

... where a cow or two can create a total traffic jam

... where male film stars have to have moustaches and women stars have to have long hair

... where the government authorises the sale of illegal drugs in holy places

... where the vultures get sick and face extinction

... where you can book any significant train from any significant station (and on the internet) 60 days in advance and get your berth number etc. BUT if you want a reservation for tonight's train it's barely obtainable even by hook, crook or bribery

... where 999 out of every 1000 attempted conversations with tourists have an ulterior (commercial) motive: it doesn't help to make us friendly. [Now I'm in the south I'd have to amend thesew proportions a lot: quite a few people just enjoy a getting-to-know-you chat with no ulterior motive]

... where roundabouts are incovenient obstacles to be circumvented on whichever side is the easiest

... where you don't visit for pleasure (unless you're on the luxury circuit) but rather for the experience

... where men defecate and urinate publicly and frequently but women have somehow found another way

... where the beach is not for sitting or lying on but for standing and walking about on

... where on-screen copulation can be mimed in dance but couples may never kiss

... where the people take revenge for the Raj by imitating it in a 1000 little ways - the power of petty bureaucrats is one (can't you just imagine the colonials making the Indians wait all day for an esssential chitty? now we do!) and another is the use of initials to conceal the meaning of things (again clicque-y colonials may well have had their secret code to mystify the locals - now we are mystified by "Go to the TC Office" "It's on MG Road" and so on. The Ticket Collector - why of course! And MG must be the Mahatma himself!

... where you dont need to say "Excuse me, could I possibly squeeze past?", you just call out "Side!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Juggernauts on the beach (almost)

We're back again among the graven images and the brazen calves (and that's not the ones lying asleep in the middle of the road!): Puri isn't just a destination because it's near the Sun Temple at Konarak, it has a very important temple of its own (but closed to non-Hindus), dedicated to Jagannath, Lord of the Universe (a form of Vishnu). Jagannath and his brother and sister are represented by black images with huge eyes - and once a year they go on an outing. Immense carts (the one for Jagannath is 14 metres high) with 16 wheels over 2 metres in diameter are constructed each year for the excursion. An image in each, three of these vehicles are pulled up the Grand Road to another temple where the images have a summer break. Altogether 4000 temple employees are needed to pull them the few hundred yards - and then, two weeks later, the carts are dragged back again - and broken up for firewood. The proper name for the monstrous vehicles is rathas but somewhere in the translation the name of the god and the name of the vehicle came together. And that, oh best beloved, is how the Juggernaut got its name.

(Still on images, etc.) I had a recollection the other day of an image or focus for a spiritual place that I could admire. At a modern temple near Pondicherry, the Matrimandir, the giant hollow sphere of the meditation hall has as its focal centre a giant crystal ball, 70 cms in diameter, apparently the largest in existence, full of a radiant glowing light whose origin is the rays of the sun reflected down from a solar-tracking concave mirror on the roof. Literally, it was awesome.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Catching some rays at the Temple of the Sun

Suitably it was my first clear, bright, hot day for my visit to the Temple of the Sun. Sounds a bit Aztec, doesn't it? But it's in India, at Konarak, an hour along the coast from here. (Still can't get used to it running east-west, rather than north-south as it "ought" to be doing). Dating from the mid-13th century, it consisted of towers and spires over intricately-carved (sand?)stone, with images of many kinds celestial and carnal, reminiscent of the rather better-preserved couples at Khajuraho. Konarak has suffered down the centuries from attacks, first by the Mughals and then by Nature, wind, sand and the two combined. It is still a mighty structure and, despite the depradations and erosion, the art of the makers and the subtlety of the designers is still quite evident. The main structure was conceived as a cosmic chariot for the Sun God for his journeying across the heavens: aligned East-West, with 12 pairs of mighty wheels (12 months, 24 hours a day) drawn by 7 horses (days of the week). The 12 wheels on the south side (the daylight hours) double as sundials, with 12 spokes and 60 bumps between each one: Konarak time is accurate to the nearest two minutes, thanks to the size of the huge wheels.

Took a cycle rickshaw to the bus station on the theory that they're at the bottom of the transport feeding chain and need feeding. The bus to Konarak (and indeed on the way back too) offered the classic choice: jump on as a last-minute passenger and dangle from the doorway or wait for the next and travel at ease in a window seat. Now a few years ago, I might have ... On the way back, temple duly admired, photographed and explored and rays having been caught, the bus had a load of college kids with less than a load of English but enough for some chat (well one-directional Q&A) and some jokes (some no doubt at my expense) plus a middle-aged businessman who had almost enough English for a real conversation. Still, with only 3 words of Hindi, who am I to talk? Literally.

The bus trip home seem brief as a result and again I hunted out (that's a misnomer - was hunted by a horde of) rickshaw drivers. Mostly, although Indian roads are ruled by might is right (cows always get trumps, though), most traffic does seem to recognise that a cycle-rickshaw with some momentum going should be given space - lest all that enrgy gets lost in a screech of brakes and tyres. Perhaps these other drivers started at the bottom once or fear they may be there in another life, but they do seem to show this one piece of consideration in the game of Grab the Road. Not so some of the middle class down from Calcutta (Kolkata now) in the shiny limos and jeeps: they often seem oblivious to the rickshaw man's plight Perhaps they can't imagine ever being one, having been one - or going to be one. All the poor man can do is cuss and be philosophical - what other choice does he have?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Blame it on Mr Dalrymple!

Just in case you thought I'd disappeared under a pile of prostrating Tibetans, I'm just popping up to report safe arrival at Puri on the Andaman Sea coast, south of Calcutta, here to relax a bit from the rigours of India and visit the World Heritage site of the Temple of the Sun at Konarak, just along the coast some 30-odd km.

I've done the requisite dabbling in the surf: nothing special (it is an Northern Indian urban beach after all) but there's lots of sand and there are fishing boats. First thing I did was get out to a restaurant and have some FISH!!! Three weeks of veg curry and rice (and occasional daal) and I was getting seriously malnourished or at least terminally bored. Guess what I'm having tonight! What I'm saving on a dirt-cheap room smelling of the damp of ages (110 rps!!) I shall spend - and more - on FISH!!

The place used to be a hippy hangout way back when. When? when bhang was legal here (and now??) but it has all the advantages (traveller-friendly menus) and disadvantages (back to touts again). The train journey was a doddle once I'd got through the antechambers of hell that are the back streets of Gaya (worst so far) especially as I was with an auto-rickshaw driver with whom I had An Issue: it was an old scam: take a solo hire then fill up the autorickshaw anyway (10 others at one stage) but then again he did get me to the station, not just leave me in the Devil's boudoir (aka autorickshaw stand). And he didn't take me to some cul-de-sac and demand money with menaces. I was determined that I wasn't going to pay the original amount (it's not the money, really, you know: but dash it, old chap, you can't let the blighters take you for a ride just like that, can you?) I decided in my mind that 50 would be more than fare sorry fair so I got out, unloaded, and held out 100 (firmly gripped) and wouldn't hand it over until he gave me 50 change. Quite a melodrama but even so he was still well ahead - with some 50 in total from the other passengers. Then into the station, again quite the worst so far, hundreds of recumbent forms in the gloom, plenty of unmentionable substances all around AND no train departures board, but luckily a helpful ticket collector's office got me to the right platform.

The journey was enlivened by a "Southern Gentleman" from Louisiana, Kentucky (now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico) who addressed all the men as "Sir" and was old-time genteel, despite being barely in his 30s. He made a point of chatting up everybody - methinks he was a gay on the pick-up really and eventually left Puri station by the back door with young man who was carrying a flower. Oh and yes ... In our carriage on the train were a whole gang of Hare Krishnas from Russia!! (Yes, no mistake but mighty hard to believe!!) They did give us some lovely chanting, though, musical, harmonic and relaxing. But don't worry, I'm not signing up!


The title is an excuse for how my reading of "From the Holy Mountain" has led me into (probably yawn-inducing) speculations on comparative religion. (I apologise to any readers for whom it has been all too much!) It is curious, though, being in one's body and senses in an Indian religious zone while your reading is taking your imagination off to other lands and times (in this case, Byzantine Christian Near East) , sometimes with illuminating effects. But for those who've had enough of that sort of thing should, for the sake of their health, skip this final section (about iconoclasm and worship), which was stimulated by a sight I saw soon before leaving Bodhgaya: Tibetans lining up to be given pcs and A4-size illustrations of Tibetan deities (esp. Tara, the one you typically see on their hangings) and among the crowd was a saddhu, a Hindu holy wanderer: what is he there for, I wondered. Later, I saw him walking along with the crowd, vigorously tearing up his postcard into small pieces (clasming that icon, for sure, but not for usual iconoclastic purposes - i.e. stopping people worshipping images and getting them to focus on the core agenda). He was presumably just making a blanket anti-Buddhist (or anti-Tibetan) statement. What I don't really get as an outsider is the need for worship in the first place - seeing Tibetans doing their energetic prostrations in front of the Buddhist shrine makes me think how far things have gone from the source, from a great historic teacher with inspiring ideas - but who claimed no divinity for himself or indeed for anyone. That's what would make me sympathise with the Byzantine iconoclasts (and the Islamic prohibition on figurative art). But then William Dalrymple rides to the rescue with his account of one celebrated monk who, almost single-handedly he suggests, turned back the tide of the iconoclasts and saved representational art for later transfer to Greece and then to the Renaissance. Without John Damascene (or some such, haven't got the book to hand), the Renaissance might never have happened - or at least not in the form we know. And the further I let myself go down the road of being a would-be iconoclast, the more I realise would have been lost to art if the tendency had come to be a monopoly. We'd still have had the Taj Mahal, admittedly, and all the great structure of Islam, but of the figurative arts, perhaps nothing. Including none of the fine Buddhist sculptures I saw at Sarnath.

Which still leaves me puzzling over worship. Going right back to Aaron and the Golden Calf, there seems to be a human characteristic to seek an expression for fear, incomprehension and awe and perhaps the core of the religious impulse is a yearning to be overwhelmed by a belief in - and a worship of - something much greater than oneself.

[Incidentally, my current reading is Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake" - so watch out for futorology and apocalyptic visions!! Only joking (I think!)]

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Many paths - and the Middle Way at Bodhgaya

I know it may well be anathema to adherents of One True Faith but for me, open-minded agnostic, the idea of many paths to the sublime is an appealing one. Though written in a racy modern style, Sarah Macdonald's "Holy Cow" chronicles a wide sampling of faiths and paths, most of which she found had something for her in her spiritual quest. In Varanasi, for all that it is considered Shiva's City, many currents of Hinduism flow alongside: in fact in the chanting at the ghats, I could catch references to Khrishna rather than to Shiva. Then, thanks perhaps to repeated raids and destruction by marauding Mughals and their like, the Moslem population of the city is also significant. And even here in what is the epicentre of Buddhist pilgrimage, the site of Siddharta Gautama's enlightenment, the diversity of styles - of doctrine, worship, decorative art - is quite as wide [as far as you can measure such things] as the gap between Western fundamentalist Christianity and, say, the remnants of the Syrian Christian church visited by William Dalrymple for his excellent "From the Holy Mountain", my current read. As in Sarnath, just outside Varanasi, where the Buddha preached his first sermon, so in Bodhgaya there are examples of temples/monasteries from a number of Buddhist countries - Thailand, Bhutan, Japan, China, Tibet and !! Bangladesh - but I find my preferenced for the unadorned has difficulty with many of the styles. As with so many religions [is Buddhism a religion? Discuss!] the plain core of teaching from the originator seems inevitably to gather accretions, whether decorative or superstitious, that overlay and obscure the original straightforward message. So, for me, while I am drawn to the Theravada form of Buddhism found in Thailand, among others, it's the starker aesthetics of Japanese Zen that feel most calming, focused and uncluttered.

When I left Varanasi, I last ritual I saw (or think I saw) was at night when a litter bearing and ancient or ailing body was carried down to the ghats in front of my guesr house accompanied by a raucous and discordant "jazz" band. After the music stopped (thankfully) there was a little fussing around the figure on the litter and then it was left alone, close to the water's edge. Perhaps it was a dying person who wished to gaze on the holy Ganges one last time - and maybe even die there. In the morning all was gone, as I set out for Bodhgaya - a bumpy noisy bus tripo of 8 hours along the ambitiously named Grand Trunk Road (Delhi to Kolkata), now being converted bit by bit into a dual carriageway - with many sections suddenly missing and others unexpectedly becoming two-way (on both carriageways). On arrival at Bodhgaya, after a necessary collapse onto my bed, I set out to explore and found there were a load or VIPs in town [I'd been told to expect the Dalai Lama] but the only way I could deduce that was from the substantial army/police presence, bamboo barricades and several occasions where a tidal flow of the Important Ones were tended and shepherded at some speed along between the largely hushed crowds or where a motorcade (of typical disorderliness) swept an unassuming Hindustani Ambassador (aka Morris Oxford) into an area for an audience. Only later did I discover via the internet that dissidents had set off a bomb just 5 km away, that the Dalai Lama had been ill and his arrival here at one stage in doubt, and that a group of "neo-Buddhists" bent on starving themselves to death over the Dalai Lama's softly-softly approach to the Chinese regime had been arrested and thrown into prison!! And I thought I was coming to a centre of Peace and Reflection!

Bit it IS good to be in a town full of Tibetans. They seem gentle people, maybe a little shy. The women and men sit down together to eat in family or friendship groups - more appealing than the Indian male world where women appear only round the edges, doing most of the work and expected to be beautiful at the same time. I haven't seen Tibetan children much, though - perhaps they were left behind in Dharamsala and other Tibetan refugee centres while the crowds of parents followed his Holiness here. Judging by the ebbing crowds and the vanishing army he must now be gone.

There's clearly something of a retreat circuit around here judging by the posters on the "restaurant" wall and the conversation at my breakfast table between two large men, a German and an American. They were conducting a kind of point-scoring retreat-groupie conversation which was won comprehensively by the American-Russian-Jew able to speak Hebrew and Hindi and now studying Tibetan who expatiated at lebgth on the relative characteristics of various Sutras. But for all their Buddhism, they didn't feel the need for any gesture or remark before plonking themselves down at "my" table, when all the others in the place were vacant. Ah well!

In fact I am slowing becoming aware of a hidden western population in Bodh Gaya, invisible because they are in 10-day retreats and then suddenly visible, as they are today, when they emerge and busily compare notes and plan transport to the next retreat location - Sarnath, where I was before, seems the current favourite. It's an underworld of many nationalities, Aussie, Kiwi, US, French, German, UK and others no doubt who know each other, it seems, from such occasions in key sites around the country. Maybe some are doing the Spirtual Tourist bit, like the book of the same name, or like Sarah Macdonald - although I get the feeling that the majority are finding their own version of the Middle Way in the footsteps of the Buddha.