I-TSING, 671-695 C.E.



At a distance of ten days’ journey from the Mahabodhi Vihara [in Bodh Gaya] we passed a great mountain and bogs; the pass is dangerous and difficult to cross. It is important to go in a company of several men, and never to proceed alone. At the time I, I-Tsing, was attacked by an illness of the season; my body was fatigued and without strength. I sought to follow the company of merchants, but carrying and suffering as I was, became unable to reach them. Although I exerted myself and wanted to proceed, yet I was obliged to stop a hundred times in going five Chinese miles. There were there about twenty priests of Nalanda, and with them the venerable Teng, who had all gone on in advance. I alone remained behind, and walked in the dangerous defiles without a companion. Late in the day, when the sun was about to set, some mountain brigands made their appearance; drawing a bow and shouting aloud, they came and glared at me, and one after another insulted me. First they stripped me of my upper robe, and then took off my under garment. All the straps and girdles that were with me they snatched away also. I thought at that time, indeed, that my last farewell to this world was at hand, and that I should not fulfill my wish of a pilgrimage to the holy places. Moreover, if my limbs were thus pierced by the points of their lances, I could never succeed in carrying out the original enterprise so long meditated. Besides, there was a rumor in the country of the West (India) that, when they took a white man, they killed him to offer a sacrifice to heaven (Devas). When I thought of this tale, my dismay grew twice as much. Thereupon I entered into a muddy hole, and besmeared all my body with mud. I covered myself with leaves, and supporting myself on a stick, I advanced slowly.

The evening of the day came, and the place of rest was as yet distant. At the second watch of night I reached my fellow-travellers. I heard the venerable Teng calling out for me with a loud voice from outside the village. When we met together, he kindly gave me a robe, and I washed my body in a pond and then came into the village. Proceeding northwards for a few days from that village, we arrived first at Nalanda and worshipped the Root Temple (Mulagandhakuti), and we ascended the Gridhrakuta (Vulture) mountain, where we saw the spot on which the garments were folded. Afterwards we came to the Mahabodhi Vihara. . . .

From A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (A.D. 671-695) by I-Tsing. Translated by J. Takakusu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896.

Pilgrims at Mahabodhi Temple, India, courtesy of Nancy Shanahan.


I traveled more or less nonstop from Boston, meeting a friend in London. The last leg of our journey was a 48-hour train ride from New Delhi to Patna in a second­class carriage. That ride certainly qualifies among the ordeals that make a pilgrimage worth writing home about. My companion and I had not understood that we needed to pack enough drinking water and food for the trip; instead we drank spiced black tea from vendors’ kettles, ate the bananas and glucose biscuits available on station platforms at the longer stops. We also tasted the sweetness of tiny dark orange dried apricots, gifts from a passel of giggling maroon-robed Buddhist nuns from Ladakh. We all beamed at each other, delighted to recognize fellow travelers to Bodh Gaya, but soon had to scurry back to defend our seats from scores of ticketless passengers. These piled onto the train at every village, huddling even in the stinking lavatory, like crouching mummies with their heads covered in grimy gray shawls. As night fell, people urged us to abandon our seats, suggesting that Bodh Gaya was the very next stop. We’d better make for the door or we’d miss it, they warned; but we stayed put. Ten hours later the train still hurtled through the dark, stopping in town after town where these people would have been content to strand us.

An obese Hindu holy man played upon our sympathies. “I am so tired,” he wheedled, though he had just boarded the train. “So tired of standing. Please let me sit with you. I will only take little space.” As he held up finger and thumb, showing how few millimeters he planned to occupy, my friend whispered, “Don’t you dare give up your seat!” If she hadn’t been there to scold me into assertiveness, I’d have succumbed to the holy man. Surely he and his thinner, bur hardly ill-fed attendant waiting eagerly behind him would have expanded their millimeters until I was on the floor with the majority.

The train arrived, at two a.m., eighteen hours late, in Patna, a town we had fervently hoped to reach in day­light. Bandits thrive in Bihar, now one of India’s poorest , most brutal regions. Cutthroats own the roads after dark. Landowners keep private armies to suppress peasants into virtual slavery. Elections are bloodbaths: the state’s reigning prime minister has been convicted of three murders. That night in Patna Station, the waiting room looked like a bomb shelter, crowded with huddled, sleeping human forms. All hotels in visible range were vehemently shut for the night, their facades padlocked behind accordion bars of iron. My friend and I took a chance on a rickshaw driver who promised to find us beds; our hearts pounded as he towed us slowly our of the station’s lighted purlieu. Soon, all we could see were the eye whites and an occasional coppery reflection on a cheek, as people watched us by the glow of tiny dung or charcoal fires. I thought of wolves; but for them, it was simply too cold for sleep. That foggy night, its temperature just above freezing, a hundred people had died of cold in Patna. So we learned a few days after this arrival.

I don’t remember what conveyance took us to Bodh Gaya, that time, but my memory of the road is indelible. Its scenes have altered greatly since the Buddha, but in India, there is something timelessly simple about human relationship to land. This dry, wide riverbed, its white dust traversed by beaten paths, was the same river where the milkmaid Sujata offered the Buddha a meal of rice. One of those distant, humpy hills is Vulture Peak, site of the famous sermon. These feathery, green, spreading trees, palms and sals and ficus scattered across the flats, must have been the same species that once constituted the forest groves where, in ancient times, ascetics loved to practice. Women still carry water, sometimes in plastic jugs, but sometimes, still, in brass and pottery jars.

Entering the village, we passed the gates of the Burmese Vihar, haven beloved of travelers; then, the white plaster bust of Gandhi, nearly unrecognizable with his Groucho Marx grin and round eyeglasses freshly painted in shiny black enamel. Suddenly the stupa shot up on the left, intricately carved stone piercing the sky. All these sights, and others, have become landmarks in my imagination, instead of the novelties they were then. Bur when I returned to Bodh Gaya, I saw them with the same emotions, a fizzy excitement mixed with reassuring certitude, as if the Vihar, the Gandhi statue, and the stupa were unchanging parts of some ancestral home. On that second trip, I understood that even the first time I visited Bodh Gaya, my feelings were those of a person returning.

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