On the Trail of the Buddha

Article excerpt

Byline: Sudip Mazumdar

A luxury train ride through Northern India visits some of the faith's most important spiritual sites.

Suffering may be the path to enlightenment, but retracing the steps of the Buddha need not be fraught with hardship. With interest in Buddhism growing around the world, Indian Railways has devised a Buddhist Circuit train that takes travelers on an eight-day odyssey in air-conditioned comfort through some of the faith's most important spiritual sites. Cocooned in safety and pampered by attentive, smiling hosts, the modern-day traveler has plenty of time for contemplation.

The train meanders through some of the least developed rural hinterlands in India. From the national capital of New Delhi, it heads nearly 1,000 kilometers east to Bodhgaya, where a wandering ascetic named Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, and to Kushinagar, where he passed away. The landscape and lifestyle in these areas have not changed much since the Buddha walked on this dusty land 2,500 years ago, preaching liberation from suffering through altruism.

Launched in 2007, the Mahaparinirvan Express, a seven-coach train that can accommodate 240 people in sleeper berths, is already a hit among international travelers. "We get tourists from as far as the United States, Canada, and Argentina," says Nalin Singhal of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, the arm of Indian Railways that operates the train. Travelers gather at New Delhi's exclusive Safdarjung station for a traditional welcome before the train departs at 4 p.m. The first stop, at dawn the next day, is at Bodhgaya, where Buddhism's holiest shrine, the Mahabodhi Temple, draws pilgrims from all over the world. Maroon-robed Tibetan monks prostrate beside white-clad Thai and Sri Lankan devotees meditating in the granite courtyard outside the temple, alongside a golden Buddha. As if to underline the peaceful coexistence of India's multiple faiths, a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer at a mosque down the road, as bells chime in Hindu temples nearby.

After a night in a comfortable hotel, visitors are taken in air-conditioned buses to Rajgir, some 85 kilometers away, where, on a rocky hilltop, the Buddha gave many of his famous teachings, including the one on the Lotus Sutra, which gives instruction on how to move toward enlightenment. The bus journey exposes travelers to India's chaotic, potholed roads, where bullock carts vie with cycle rickshaws and ambling cows. Also on the itinerary: the impressive ruins of the Nalanda monastic university, which was established in the fifth century and drew students from as far as Egypt, Iran, and China.

Returning to the train, pilgrims travel overnight to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi and nearby Sarnath, where the Buddha met up with five of his Hindu ascetic friends in a deer park and gave them the first sermon after his enlightenment, known as "turning the wheel of dharma." Hearing his sermon, the story goes, the five ascetics instantly became his first disciples. …