Friday, July 24, 2020

Foot Journey in the shadow of COVID19: Sankisa to Shravasti

When I started my foot journey, ‘Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang,’ on 20th of February at Adi Badri, things were completely different from what they are now. The novel coronavirus had already entered India but none of the people I met on my way such as the guys at the roadside restaurant where I would eat or the temple and gurdwaras where I would spend my nights, were not concerned about the spread of the virus. Their perception of the disease was based mainly on what was in the news that this was a virus spreading among people of developed countries. Some told me even that the disease would not pervade India because the climate was too hot for the virus to survive.

When I start my walk at 3 am every day, the highways are pitch dark. When I cross small hamlets, the dogs go on the alert and start barking. Although I am not at all afraid of dogs, in the darkness, the barking scares me.

But on 24th March, much to the people’s surprise, a nationwide lockdown was announced to control the virus as it had already started spreading rapidly. Between the announcement and enforcement of the lockdown, there was hardly time for anyone to move places. I had made it till Sankisa incidentally when the lockdown was announced, and I feel so fortunate that I found a safe and comfortable shelter at the Young Buddhist Society campus in Sankisa for the next 2 months of the lockdown.

I resumed my foot journey on 20th May as soon as some relaxation was granted in the rules of the lockdown. Friends and family had advised me to defer the walk till the COVID threat subsided and I too realised that walking during the COVID situation was not going to be easy, but deferring the foot journey seemed not in consonance with the spirit of Master Xuanzang. Xuaznang’s travels in 7th CE were fraught with dangers and privation and he was completely on his own yet he did not abandon or stop his journey at any point. I, with my gear and internet connectivity, was comparatively much better off so there no reason to defer the walk.

But coronavirus was not going to be my only worry. Although I had mentally prepared myself to deal with the Corona situation, I still had the maddening heat of the summer to physically endure. I wanted to cover 25-35kms each day for which I needed approximately 7hrs walking hours. But as I would be walking in the hottest months of the year when daytime temperatures soar up to 45-degree Celsius easily and walking eastward facing the sun from sunrise dawn till about 4 pm, I had to change my walking strategy. I decided to walk in the coolest hours of the day - from about 3 am to 7.30 am and 4.30 to 6.30 pm. This posed a new challenge which was that I had to find two places to stay every day - one for the day and another for the night.

On 20 May, according to plan, I woke up at 2.30 am and left the Young Buddhist Society campus at 3 in the morning while everybody was still asleep without any goodbyes. Only the pet dog on campus who had become very friendly with me gave me company for about a kilometer but then turned back when he realized I was going further and further.

As news appeared daily of people discriminating against strangers and outsiders, I was anticipating uncooperative behaviour from people on the way. Especially because the lockdown itself had not been lifted yet. Some rules had been relaxed which I took advantage of for resuming my walk. Otherwise a 12-hour curfew from 7 pm to 7 am was in place, markets were under restrictions, and eateries were still closed. Earlier, I would ask a random person in the village about where to eat and stay but this was not appropriate or responsible anymore. In the changed scenario, expecting people to help me with food and accommodation was putting them in threat.

The first marketplace that I crossed was Mohammadabad. It was 7 am in the morning, still very early, a few fruit, milk and vegetable stalls were preparing to open. As I walked past, people started whispering, “Corona Ja raha hai” (Corona is passing by), covering their mouths with hands or cloth and stepping back a few steps to maintain prominent distance from me. This happened many times over the next few days so that became used to it. I can understand the pandemic has made people fearful. In the villages where people have lesser knowledge about the nature of the disease, the behaviour is more paranoid.

My first challenge on day one of resuming the walk was to find a place to spend the daytime from 8 am to 4.30 pm. About 50 mts from the road, I spotted an abandoned service well. Soon a person arrived at the well who told me that I could try staying at the temple located 200 mts further down the road. I went and to my surprise, the priest of the temple, an old man over 70 years of age, welcomed me and even showed me to a chowki (wooden bed) to get some rest. About noontime, a group of village elders collected near me and started chatting about Covid and politics. I joined their discussion and told them about my purpose of being there. They were happy to learn about my walk and immediately offered me food. One of them, a retired Air Force personnel, Shri Ram Charan Yadav, shared his phone number with me and assured me that I could call him for any help on the way. He also arranged for my stay in the night at the Shri Babusingh Jai Singh Ayurvedic College.

People generally were not discriminating towards me when they learn about my objective. With Shri Ram Charan Yadav.
I walked 37 kms on the first day of resuming my walk. When I removed my shoes at night, I saw my right ankle was swollen probably from hurting my ligaments. I hoped it would get better by morning but when I started at 3 am the next morning, it still hurt me badly. I walked limply for quite a distance. The ankle continued to trouble me. Each time I would take a break, it would take me some time to pick up speed again so I started walking longer stretches in-between breaks.

Crossing Poolton bridge on the Ganges. Lockdown has affected the traffic on this bridge drastically.
With Sanjay Yadav Ji, served watermelon at Badkagaam. 
I crossed the pontoon bridge over Ganges and arrived at a small village called Badkagaam. The village had no tree in sight for taking shade. As I was looking around to find a place to rest, a group of young guys approached me. After a little inquiry, one of them, Shri Sanjay Yadav, who turned out to be a local youth leader came forward to help me. He took me to a house where he said I could stay till evening. In the afternoon, he brought me lunch. During our conversation, he told me that there was no reason to think that every outsider was a carrier of COVID. He told me that recently more than 100 workers of the village who had returned from Delhi and Mumbai but were not kept at a quarantined centre instead allowed to stay in their homes while abiding social distancing norms. Sanjay said there was no need to live in such fear because he thought life and death were ultimately in God’s hands. He did not like the way people were being discriminated against each other using COVID as an excuse. Having expressed how he thought, Sanjay insisted me to stay for the night in that house.

My second night at Harpalpur was spent with a member of the Young Buddhist Society named Sanjeev Kushwaha.

The next day, I entered Hardoi district and immediately noticed that lockdown rules were being followed strictly in the district. The highway had very few vehicles. Implementation of the lockdown depended largely on the District Administration. By the roadside was a small temple which found to be a good quiet place to rest before resuming my walk in the evening. I had almost taken my place when I saw a big rat snake moving in the shrubs around the temple. I was fairly scared. But as the day was getting warmer and there was nowhere else for me to go, I chose to stay. I comforted myself by thinking that after all it was not a deadly cobra or krait. I stayed in the temple till 4.30 in the evening without any food. I was told on normal days, during this time of the month, one could find many vendors along the roadside selling sugarcane juice and watermelon. Starving since morning, I could not help imagining the delight of sipping on sugarcane juice in that place.

This is how I survive 45 degree Celcius.
This is how I escape the scorching sun during the daytime - taking shelter in roadside temples.
Sometimes I have to walk long stretches with absolutely no one and nothing in sight.
With the ankle troubling me, I thought of walking no more than 25 kms each day in the coming days. But I knew this could not be possible every time because I would not find a suitable place to stay in the 20-25 km range and in that case, I would have to walk more to find a safe place. Staying in unsafe places would put my laptop at risk. Walking to Hardoi was one such day when I covered 35 kms to reach the monastery of Ven Bodhipiya. 

With Ven. Bodhipiya Tiss and Sumit Sakya, Hardoi.
I entered the city of Hardoi as late as 8 in the evening because of my paining ankle and excessive heat that day. Venerable Upananda had arranged for my stay in Hardoi at Alora Buddha Vihara. There was not a single person or vehicle on the road. A few people stood in front of their houses and taking me for a migrant worker spoke to me loudly from a distance that the government had arranged buses to transport migrant workers meaning I was not to stop over at the city. I had no energy left to reply to them. I contacted Venerable Bodhipiya Tissa and requested him to send someone to guide me to his monastery. Ven. Bodhipiya was a bit apprehensive whether the Police would allow me to enter the town. He was ready to speak to the District Magistrate if the Police had stopped me. However, I didn't see any police or police vehicles around even after walking about 2 kms in the city. Ven. Bodhipiya was really surprised how come there was no Police even at night time during the curfew. Anyhow, as this was convenient for me, Ven. Bodhipiya felt it was some sort of a divine intervention to ease my way.

I was tired from the day’s walking, my ankle had gotten worse through the day and I had to resume my walk at 3 next morning, so I wanted to sleep at once. But Ven Bodhipiya was eager to have a chat with me about the Buddhist remains in the surroundings, that these sites could be the ancient monasteries where pilgrims travelling between Sankisa and Shravasti could take rest. So I stayed up for some more time and we discussed these ideas. Ven. Bodhipiya was so thoughtful, he packed some breakfast for me in the night itself in case I did not find dhabbas on the way next morning.

Ven Bodhipiya Tissa connected me to Shri Siya Ram ji who is a Dhamma worker, well-acquainted with people of the area. Shri Siya Ram ji suggested me to reach the village of Gaurasi Kalan where I could stay in another monastery called Buddhasena Monastery. So, I set out for this village the next day. It turned out to be an equally long day. I walked nearly 40 kms but made it to the monastery. It was in fairly bad shape. A group of extremely impoverished local Buddhists were managing it. They owned only a small patch of land for agriculture. A life-size image of Baba Saheb Ambedkar stood inside the monastery. Nevertheless, they welcomed me with much warmth and since my ankle was swollen and painful, I decided to take a day off from walking.

Roadside shops are usually full of life on usual days but due to the lockdown, every single one of them is closed.

After being in lockdown for over a month, this is the sorry state of roadside dhabbas (eateries).

In the lockdown, little Kajal was as happy to get a customer as I was to find something to eat.

The Buddhists at the monastery talked to me about their experiences during the lockdown. They said the government had gone against its promise of providing them with rice and lentils. But they did realise the government could not have possibly provided free ration to all poor people for the long period of the lockdown. Besides that, the lockdown has not affected their day-to-day life. They kept working on their farms just like at other times. I asked them if they had been on pilgrimage to the sacred Buddhist sites of Sankisa or Shravasti, both of which were not far from their village. They had not. They had not even heard these names. Instead, one of them, Shri. Awadhesh Baudh, said proudly that he had visited Nagpur, the Diksha Bhoomi where Baba Saheb along with 5 lakh others embraced Buddhism in 1956. They asked me if I had visited Nagpur. They were surprised that I had not because for them Nagpur was a pilgrimage site. All of them expressed that as Buddhists their only wish was to visit Nagpur once in their lifetime. They were motivated by my foot journey and hoped to undertake a similar walking pilgrimage or cycling expedition to Shravasti.

The next day at the break of dawn, I reached an industrial area on the outskirts of Sitapur. I saw a tea vendor secretly operating his shop though technically it was closed. Some truck drivers were sipping tea under the shade of a tree. I thought this was a good opportunity to know about their experiences of the lockdown. Nakshed, a man in his early 50’s, who has been driving trucks for the last 35 years, said he could manage to get a pass for his truck during the lockdown to ferry essential goods. Nahshed witnessed the miseries of the migrant labourers who set out on foot for their homes more thousand kilometers away. Nakshed described how he ferried people in his truck thrice from Ghaziabad to Allahabad. Each time, the truck was packed with people. Out of compassion, he even offered them tea during the journey.

At 4.30 am, the highways are still dark and lonely.

Sharing Lockdown experiences with Nakshed, Basant Kumar and a few others.
Basant Kumar, also a truck driver, joined the conversation. He narrated how the police were helping stranded people by finding trucks for them. At the same time, the police in the UP – Delhi border areas were caning people mercilessly. Basant Kumar himself got stranded on a couple of occasions in the first week of April at Shuklaganj in Unnao. Him and over a hundred others ate kadi chawal for 6 days arranged by a Baba of Jai Gurudev tradition. He had a similar experience when he was stuck in a Muslim area in Kanpur. A local offered him biryani. When I told them, I was doing a foot journey on the Buddha, Nakshed insisted on paying my bill.

In Sitapur, I stayed at another Ambedkar memorial Buddhist Vihara. In the evening, I got an opportunity to meet Shri Banwari Lal ji who was managing the monastery. We had a long conversation revolving largely around how he is trying to facilitate pilgrimage groups of Buddhists in and around Sitapur. He said he has received a good response - more and more people want to pay pilgrimage to sacred sites of the Buddha. 

On the ninth day of my walk from Sankisa, I crossed a newly made 3.2 km long bridge on river Ghaghra connecting Sitapur and Bahraich districts. The police on the Bahraich end of the bridge stopped me and offered to arrange a bus or truck ride for me. I thanked them for their offer and told them I was doing a foot journey.

About a km from the bridge was an eatery, technically closed, but when I asked the person standing there if I could get food, he replied yes. Slowly, a few more people collected at the eatery. I asked them about their lockdown experiences. Ghanshyam, a bridge and building mechanic, said he used to earn 450 Rs per day which was sufficient for him to take care of his family of 7. During the lockdown, he exhausted all his savings, which were little anyway, in feeding his family. So he started working on a farm receiving 100 Rs per day only and even the work in the farm is not regular. He had to take a loan from friends and family. There were times when his family cooked food once every two days. Now he is a bit relaxed because finally he is going back to his former employer in Lucknow.

3 km long bridge on River Ghaghra.
Sharing experiences of lockdown with Ajay, Ghansyam and others.

Even after 2 months into the lockdown, I saw people moving to their hometowns with all bag and baggage.

Ajay Awasthi, the owner of the eatery, said that two years ago when the bridge was newly opened, he took a loan of Rs 2.5 lac to start the eatery hoping to have a lucrative business. But now, with the prolonged shutdown of the eatery, he was not in a position to pay off the loan. He is hoping the government will waive off the loan.

All of them shared disturbing stories of the thousands of workers coming from New Delhi and Punjab who passed through that road to go to Bihar and Bengal. They were treated very badly. Villagers would not allow them to use hand pumps to draw water and would stand on the road with long sticks in hand to scare them off to keep moving and not stopping in their village. Awasthi said, “Log Corona se mare na mare Bhook se jarror mar jayenge (whether or not people die from Corona, they will certainly die from starvation). The Police were very strict in the first two months of the Lockdown but now show a little leniency which is why I could allow you to sit here.”

The next day, I reached the city of Bahraich. Shri Sundar Lal ji, a social activist in his 70’s, who is leading the Buddhist awareness movement among the Dalits in and around Bahraich had come walking till the outskirts of the city along with Shri Dinesh ji came to welcome me with flowers. Dinesh ji took me to his home for lunch. Few more of their colleagues came to see me. Our discussion was mostly on the topic of discrimination faced by socially backward classes (Dalits) from the Brahmins. Sundar Lal ji told me, “For us Dalit Buddhists, Ambedkar ji comes even before the Buddha because Baba Saheb is the one who introduced us to the Buddha Dhamma.”

Many of the Buddha Viharas/Ambedkar Centers where I stayed in this stretch of my foot journey did not have proper monks. But what I found appreciable is that in spite of obstacles and lack of resources, they were managing to run these Buddhist Vihara/Ambedkar Centers. Their affection towards me and eagerness to help me just because I was doing a foot journey in the name of the Buddha was very touching.

Awadhesh Baudh and others at Gaurashi Kalan
With Sanjay, Ganesh Chandra, Sundar Lal ji, Dinesh Ji. Stopover for lunch at Baharaich.
With Ramavatar ji and others at Buddha Vihara, Biswain
What I could gather from the little opportunity I got of interacting with the Ambedkarite Buddhists is that the Buddhist revolution among the Dalits was led mainly by Ambedkarite government officials in the districts of their posting. Most of my hosts, like Banwari Lal ji at Sitapur, Ramavatar ji at Biswain, Sunder Lalji and Dineshji at Bahraich, were government employees. They told me that in their spare time, they would go into the villages in their district and promote the message of Baba Saheb Ambedkar. All of them had similar experiences. They say the movement is growing but very slowly because people are so poor, they don’t have the time to join meetings and activities. But all of these local activists have a deep desire to see all Dalits embracing Buddhism.

A different side of the story came up when I met Venerable Vimala Tiss in Shravasti who has set up a monastery named Pubbarama in Khandbari village. This village is settled over the remains of ancient Pubbarama. Venerable Vimala Tiss told me that ever since he became a monk, he is facing hostility from Ambedkarite Buddhists both monks and lay followers, because he was a Brahmin originally. Fellow Ambedkarite monks treat him as an outsider in Buddhism. Ambedkarite monks have told him, “We are into Buddhism because of centuries of bad treatment from Brahmins and now if Brahmins come into Buddhism then the same discrimination will eventually start here too.” So according to Ven. Vimala Tiss ji, Ambedkarites tacitly hold and promote the idea of Buddhism an exclusively Dalit fraternity. Venerable Bodhipiya Tiss, with whom I stayed at Hardoi, had the same thing to say that he was discriminated because of his non-Dalit origin.

Ven Vimala Tiss, Shravasti.

The Ambedkarite Buddhists with whom I interacted during my foot journey almost always focused on the issue of caste system in Indian society and the contribution of Baba Saheb in liberating the Dalits from the oppression of Brahmins but rarely talked about Buddha and his teachings. The Ambedkarites I met were least interested in discussing Buddhism. I found them to be just like the Sakya community in and around Sankisa (Etah & Aliganj), also neo Buddhists like the Ambedkarites. Except a few aware persons, most of the Sakya people I met used anti-Brahmin rants as the chief tool for uniting the people or attracting them to Buddhism.

Dr J. P. Rao, my host at Bhadurchak (34 kms from Shravasti) who is also an Ambedkarite Buddhist felt Buddhism in India is becoming synonymous with Dalit - if one says he is Buddhist, he is assumed to be Dalit - which is in a way reinstituting caste-based discrimination.

Personally, I think the grassroots Buddhist movement among the Ambedkarites as well as the Sakyas is a little flawed. Rather than spreading awareness about the Buddha, it is generating hatred against some people. In the long run, this is sure to prove detrimental to the revival of Buddhism in India. To all the Ambedkarite Buddhists whom I met in this stretch of my foot journey, I shared what I had with the Sakya people I met around Sankisa, a quote from the book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior: The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

                   ---------------------------   Some Candid Moments -------------------------

To escape the daytime heat wave, I chose the shade of the Mango tree. Khalil Ahmed, the owner of this small grove of about 1-2 acres, told me that a mango groove should be at least 6 acres to be profitable.


Between Biswain and Reusa, while resting in the afternoon at a roadside temple, I had a visitor named Shri Ram Sagar Maurya. He came to me seeing the Buddhist flag on my backpack and being a Buddhist himself, thought it nice to bring lunch for me. During our conversation, he asked me a rather strange question: whether Coronavirus was real. I asked why he doubted it. He replied that a few of his Muslim neighbors in the village kept saying that there is nothing such as Corona, it was a ploy by Modi and Yogi duo to implement a lockdown under whose cover they could construct the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. 

In Reusa, I stayed at Satguru Tahal Saheb Kabir Panthi Math (Monastery). Kabir was a 15th CE saint who gave the message of love and harmony. Later, many monasteries were set up in India by his followers. The chief of the Reusa monastery, Shri Gyanshaheb informed me that Kabir Panth Math, since its inception in ancient times, did not accept offerings from disciples. They have their own farms for sustenance. In the evenings, they conduct bijak patha (recitation of the holy book) compiled by Puran Saheb, disciple of Shri Kabir Das. 

Most of the places where I spent my evenings, people would gather around me to know more about my foot journey and after learning what I am walking for would call me Bhante ji (address used for Buddhist monks). When I would tell them I am not a monk, they would say “But you are working for Dhamma. Anybody working for preservation of Dhamma is a Bhante (Monk).”


My  Foot journey from Sankisa to Sravasti

Story chronicled by Dr. Aparajita Goswami


jigar said...

Interesting and adventurous journey, revealing interesting facts about history and human behaviour.

Pushpinder said...

I am so impressed by your hard work. And also grateful for doing so much for Buddha Sasana. I would be glad if I can be of any help.