I returned from a 10-day pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, the holiest pilgrimage site for Buddhists. I have been fortunate to be able to visit this holy place a number of times in the past. I would like to share my experiences and observations from then and now. The juxtapositions have been quite enriching as well as revealing.
The number of Bhutanese pilgrims going to Bodhgaya has gone up exponentially. Some days almost half of the people circumambulating the sacred choeten were Bhutanese. Many were proudly in our national dress, some young men, apparently college students, even with kabneys.
When the Throema group came for their annual Throema prayers, performed under the sacred Bodhi tree, it was a proud moment because the thousands of Throema practitioners who had gathered there were by and large Bhutanese. This undoubtedly was the largest gathering of practitioners of any prayer or moenlam at the Mahabodhi Temple. When walking around the choeten with them during their breaks, it was like being in Bhutan, eastern Bhutan, because most of them were Tshangla speakers.
The hotel where I stayed had become like a Bhutanese home with old, young and children, monks and nuns, occupying almost the entire hotel. I landed up there by chance because I was not able to get accommodation in our regular lodging at the Bhutan Temple guest house, and I did not want to stay anywhere from where bringing my mother-in-law to the choeten daily in her wheelchair was going to be a challenge. Despite the crammed nature of the environment at the hotel, staying at this hotel was an experience of a lifetime. It opened up my eyes to many things that I would have otherwise missed by staying at the Bhutan Temple.
I was very happy to notice the remarkable progress made in the way our pilgrims travelled now as compared to the olden days. This is a clear sign of the tremendous socioeconomic progress Bhutan has achieved and the unprecedented prosperity enjoyed by our citizens over the recent years. Gone are the days when our pilgrims would arrive with bulging bedding hold-alls and jute sacks of all sizes containing cooking utensils, crockery, gas stoves and even gas cylinders. Now, they come with latest design suitcases, neat carryall bags and modern shoulder bags. Most stay in hotels, of course. Many families still preferred to cook their meals in their rooms. This was more prevalent among the elderly group than the younger pilgrims.
There was also a stark improvement in the way our Bhutanese pilgrims dressed and in their manner of conduct. They seemed more familiar with the place and confident about their manner of conduct. When I went to Bodhgaya in 2010, I met many Bhutanese who looked lost and sought help to get around starting from Gaya airport. What made me proud was that our people had clearly established the Bhutanese identity and made their presence felt through acknowledgement and respect by the local population.
I also felt proud in the manner they conducted themselves around the choeten, which was a clear indication of their civility and devotion to the teachings of Lord Buddha. There was also noticeable improvement in the conduct and manner of the pilgrims in general and the staff manning various functions of the choeten.
Bodhgaya town itself has improved tremendously, particularly infrastructure around the Mahabodhi Temple. The economic condition of the people has also improved and there are fewer beggars now. Many high-end hotels have come up which is an indication of the improving economy of Bodhgaya.
On the other hand, there are still many Bhutanese pilgrims who cannot afford to stay in the hotels, as well as many who need help to get around. There was an elderly man from Paro who longed to go to Varanasi but did not know how. There was a woman from Mongar who was staying at our hotel but was paying half the room tariff we were paying because she had managed to convince the hotel owner that she could not afford to pay what others paid. Last year, a pilgrim from Pemagatshel had suddenly died and there was no one to render any help to her family. Shechen Monastery came to their rescue and cremated her body and performed the last rites. We also hear of many innocent pilgrims being taken for a ride by cunning tour operators. With increasing number of pilgrims visiting Bodhgaya and other holy places in India, such incidences will also be on the rise.
And I thought of some questions. What is the government responsible for looking after its citizens and their welfare in a foreign country? What is the role of our embassy and the Bhutan Temple in facilitating our elderly, innocent, poor and the weak in fulfilling their long-cherished dream of visiting Bodhgaya at least once in their lifetime? Do our guesthouse rooms at the Bhutan Temple cater to poorer section of our society?
It is not often that we come across people like the sympathetic owner of the hotel we stayed in. I heard that his mother used to beg around the sacred choeten. He and his brothers used to work as manual workers in Bodhgaya and had also worked in the Middle East. Their 6-storey, 100-roomed hotel was constructed with their own menial efforts over a long period of time. When I went down early in the morning to check out of the hotel, to my utter surprise, I found the owner sleeping on the couch in the hotel lobby. He surely knew what being poor means. In fact, I also saw him sweeping the lobby floor. He was like a member of the family to many Bhutanese pilgrims because they would always bring him something, even tshogs from the choeten.
Bhutanese pilgrims contribute substantially to the local economy of Bodhgaya. Local people know this, because of which strong and deep friendship has developed between the locals and the Bhutanese.
According to current RMA regulations, one is eligible to get Indian Rupees 15,000 for pilgrimage/travel to India, provided one could produce proof of travel such as air or train tickets. It is estimated that around 100,000 Bhutanese travel to Bodhgaya annually between November and February. So, according to a rough estimate, Bhutanese pilgrims contribute about Indian Rupees 1 to 1.5 billion to the Indian economy annually, most of which,goes to the local economy of Bodhgaya.
This could most certainly be used as leverage for the Bhutanese government to establish means of support in partnership with local Indian government or even businesses to facilitate the ease of travel, accommodation and planning, particularly for the old and financially challenged citizens of our country.
Contributed by Kinzang Dorji
Former works and human settlement minister