In the Buddha's Shadow
Mazumdar, Sudip, Newsweek International
Before basking in the sun on the pristine beaches of Goa, Canadian painter Laurence Caruana and his French wife, Florence, decided to soak up a little spirituality. So they headed first to Bodh Gaya, a sleepy town in northern India where 2,500 years ago an Indian prince attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. The couple, who say they are spiritual but not affiliated with any faith, chose Bodh Gaya-- considered the holiest among Buddhist sites--in the hopes of absorbing some of the serenity that surrounds Buddha's teachings. They braved scorching heat and swarms of insects to spend several days meditating, chanting with monks, eating chapatis and appreciating the local flora and fauna. "There is so much happiness and calm in a simple, uncluttered life," says Florence.
Travelers eager for refuge from a strife-torn world are increasingly vacationing in the shadow of the Buddha. More and more Westerners are embracing Buddhism; according to a survey by the City University of New York, the number of Americans identifying themselves with the faith jumped 150 percent--to more than 1 million--between 1990 and 2001. No wonder so many are eager to visit the sites associated with the ancient sage. There are now nearly 50 Indian tour operators conducting Buddhist trips. Among the top destinations: Lumbini (now in Nepal), where the Buddha (originally named Siddhartha Gautama) was born; Kapilavastu, where he spent his childhood; Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment; Sarnath, where he gave his first teachings; and Kushinagar, where he died.
What visitors find in each is a place suspended in time. On the plains of the Ganges River, farmers till the land with bull-drawn ploughs, women cook on wood fires in mud huts, monkeys romp through trees and maroon-robed monks chant in temples. Although these sites are among the poorest in India, many travelers are captivated by the locals' lives. …