These days, a damp, bone-chilling fog fills Bodhgaya in the early hours, burns off for a few hours in the afternoon, and returns around dinner time. We’re now in the middle of the Nyingma monlam. A monlam is a massive days-long Tibetan prayer festival. In Tibet, there was only one a year, dominated by followers of the Gelug school (fair enough since they started it). But in exile, each school now sponsors its own, bringing it’s own unique flavour to the proceedings. In Bodhgaya the monlams have taken on the feeling of a Buddhist Woodstock.
The Kagyu Monlam is eco-friendly and super-organized, largely due to the huge number of Asians that are devotees of the Karmapa, the spiritual head of the largest Kagyu sub-school. It even has its own logo that’s printed on badges, bags and tee-shirts, and usherettes in nifty uniforms. The Gelug monlam, dominated by the monks from the three uber-monasteries of Gaden, Drepung and Sera, was a model of efficiency–over in two days flat. But the Nyingma monlam is the daddy of them all.
The oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, it brings together large numbers of yogis who look like they’ve descended from the earth’s remotist outposts. Long matted hair, cross-legged in grubby robes, they mutter over ritual items fashioned from human bone among the dwarf village of stone shrines. The shrines are bedecked with orange and yellow marigolds, some in intricate patterns like mandalas. The air is laden with the sounds of soft hand clapping, mantras, hand bells and a constant swoosh swoosh swoosh of sandals on stone, as hundreds of people circumambulate the temple. At least four different Hindi film songs are blaring from different parts of town. There’s a strong smell of incense and rose petals.
I sit behind the temple of the Unwinking Gaze over-looking a round stone table about 12 feet in diameter decorated with a mandala made out of carefully placed plastic cups and marigolds, with an outer ring of ruby rose petals. Around this dozens of monks and old women perform full length prostrations on wooden boards using what look like oven mitts to protect their hands from splinters. They seem to have limitless energy and I never see one of them stop for more than a moment to wipe their brow.
Every opportunity to lay a string of lights had been seized brought to illuminating fruition. Candles are everywhere, as are thousands of tiny water and flower offerings in glass and metal bowls. The Mahabodhi temple is lit by two huge spotlights, shooting up into the sky, like an ancient dormant spacecraft. Indian groundskeepers are engaged in the precarious job of climbing up 15 feet of wall unaided by ladders, and placing necklaces of marigolds around the necks of all the statues surrounding the temple. And everything is playing out through a layer of fog that certainly doesn’t hurt the mystical ambiance.
The Nyingma Monlam officially ends in the afternoon, when large numbers of (mostly young) maroon-clad monks burst into the streets and leap into auto rickshaws, 12 at a time. (I saw one plucky little auto rickshaw with 14 monks hanging on the outside and 12 inside). But in the evenings, the temple grounds are still filled with tireless monks performing full body prostrations on wooden boards, and the white-eyed dread-locked yogis. In front of me a monk plays an enormous damaru, a double-sided drum that represents the co-existence of conventional and ultimately reality, with both sides struck simultaneously by two tiny balls on the end of strings.
The 150 foot tall Mahabodhi stupa rises above us all, etched in stone reliefs like pieces of a puzzle from an alien civilization. In my travel-weary gaze, I imagine that the entire structure is on the verge of re-arranging itself like some antediluvian Rubik’s Cube, to send a space-time-continnuum-ripping beam to its distant creators somewhere deep in the belly of the lonely night sky.
My reverie is disturbed by the nudge of an aged Tibetan monk in a woolly hat. He peers at me, eyes twinkling. I sense the promise of some about-to-be-imparted wisdom. “Can I leave my backpack with you?” he says. “I need to go and check my email.”