Photograph by Noa Jones
Photograph by Noa Jones

Curd. It’s not a pretty word. It brings to mind tea accidents, milk slipped into lemon infusion, coagulation, spoilage, and mysterious nursery rhymes involving innocent girls and dangling spiders. But I began using the term with regularity during an extended stay in Bodhgaya, India.

It was near there that Prince Siddhartha, yearning for the cessation of birth and death, spent six years as an ascetic in the woods, his daily diet consisting of one jujube, one sesame seed, and one grain of rice. The sight of his emaciated body was “a source of joy to the eyes of others, as the moon in autumn is to the night lotuses,” wrote Ashvaghosha in his singularly beautiful text, the “Buddhacarita.”

But then Siddhartha changed his mind. Inward tranquillity, he realized, requires an outward appeasement of the senses. He stepped out of the forest and was met by Sujata, the daughter of a cowherd chief, dressed in a sari like “dark blue water wreathed in foam.” From Sujata he accepted his first proper nourishment and thus gained the strength to sit under the Bodhi tree, where he attained enlightenment. Some say it was milk, some say rice pudding, but most agree it was a form of curd.

Bodhgaya is a place of lepers and lamas, golden stupas and stinking ditches, piles of guava fruits and marigolds, living Buddhas, dying traditions, brilliant colors, brilliant faith, fake pearls, fake preachers, authentic yogis, sycophants, blessings upon blessings upon blessings… and a lot of flies. It was difficult to eat anything with complete confidence during my stay. I had seen enough larvae-studded carcasses at Indian butchers and enough truckloads of sickly chickens to swear off meat for the duration. But after hours of prostrations under the tree, I would teeter around the dusty streets of Bodhgaya with the greenish palor of an anemic. I craved protein, something, anything, other than the bleached rice, watery daal, overcooked vegetables, and starchy momos found at the stalls.

Then I met my own Sujata, a lovely Brazilian pilgrim who gave me a pot of her homemade curd, also known as yogurt, or dahi. Tasting this pure, cool, probiotic substance, I think I might have had my first experience of Buddha, a revelation, even if it was merely gastronomic. There was a thick layer on top where the creamier part of the milk had risen. She’d purchased the milk from a paju ama—a Tibetan woman who kept cows—boiled it and strained it and then made the yogurt using little red-clay pots from the market. It had been tended to every step of the way. It was incredibly satisfying.

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