Cycling India’s Wildest Highway: Deliverance
Travel Stories: In which Jeffrey Tayler pedals more than 1,000 miles along the Grand Trunk Road. Part five of five: journey's end.
02.27.09 | 10:12 AM ET
After Varanasi, the Ganges veered north, and the Grand Trunk Road south. Still haunted by Manikarnika, I pedaled down the GTR onto the jungle plains and past the coal-chunk hills of Bihar state, a hardscrabble land even by Indian standards. Runt dogs with hanging udders and pellagra hides lurked by the roadside, like twitchy, oversized rats. The harsh light bleached color from the scene, casting the world in black-and-white relief.
I grew worried about my safety; Bihar, after all, gave us the word “thug,” as in the roving sect of Thugs, who, in the British era, chatted up travelers, won their trust and then strangled and robbed them ritualistically. Colonial authorities eventually ended their savagery, capturing thousands of them and hanging hundreds. These days caste warfare, criminal gangs and bandits keep Bihar in the news.
Finding no hotel the first night, I put up in a gas station. “Not to worry, sir,” the owner told me. “Bihar is peaceful, the land of the Buddha.” My raised eyebrows prompted him to add, with a jingoistic head waggle, “and I have five rifle-armed men on patrol to protect us!” I drifted off to sleep watching camouflaged guards stalk the cracked walkway by the pumps.
Noon the next day found me rattling through dust and glare along the sidewalk of an endless wobbly steel and concrete bridge, nervously glancing over the waist-high railing - all that kept me from an impromptu rendezvous with Yama—down at the sandbars of the Son River.
Just ahead a red-white plastic ribbon of warning fluttered on the pavement, and then, beyond it ... the sandbars below! I squeezed the brakes and almost flew over the handlebars, swerving, barely missing a 3-foot-square hole in the bridge. A truck thundered past, shaking the structure so hard that pebbles bounced off into the abyss.
Trembling, I turned away from the gap, adjusted my helmet, and pedaled on around it.
MORE ON INDIA’S WILDEST HIGHWAY: Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on Cycling Across India | Video: Jeffrey Tayler: ‘I Was Getting in Over My Head’ | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on Why He Started Traveling | Video: Jeffrey Tayler on His New Book, ‘Murderers in Mausoleums’ | Slideshow: Bicyclists in India
‘Call Me!” said the smiling brunette beauty in a low-cut halter top, holding a Reliance cell phone to her ear. Other adverts pasted along the road to Bodh Gaya’s Mahabodhi Temple offered me a chance to order a ‘70s-style Bollywood Romeo suit, bouffant hairdo not included; book an STD (“standard trunk dial,” or long-distance call); or feast on bowel-liquefying street grub.
I ignored these temptations and made straight for Mahabodhi Temple’s walled-off grounds and its obelisk, which rises 180 feet above the Bihar plain. At the obelisk’s base grows a pipal tree, gnarled and gargantuan. In 623 B.C., after six years of austere wandering and pondering the causes of mankind’s woes, a prince named Gautama Siddhartha took a seat beneath an ancestor of this tree, passed through a night of meditation and demonic torment, and arose at dawn the Buddha (the Enlightened One), with a concrete plan to conquer suffering and reach Nirvana without recourse to the supernatural.
In the soft sunlight of early morning, I sat amid a scattering of lotus blossoms across from the pipal, not far from Tibetan monks chanting in eerie nasal tones. For the first time since leaving Amritsar a month before, I relaxed, free from peddlers, beggars, the GTR’s racket and the burdensome eyes of wary villagers. Round and round the temple ambled saffron-robed monks; others, enacting bizarre prostrations, slinked like caterpillars in knee-pads and felt gloves across the marble esplanade; in various adjoining shrines votaries made merit, lighting candles and intoning hymns to tiny portraits of the Enlightened One. The Tibetans, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans (who predominated) looked cheerful, even irreverently so. The only serious, conscientiously ascetic Buddhists about were Westerners, who assiduously adjusted their robes or furrowed their brows as they spun their prayer wheels.
Blissfully relishing Mahabodhi’s tranquility, I opened my copy of the Dhammapada (rendered into English from Pali by Eknath Easwaran) and lit upon a line. “Look on this world as a ... mirage; then the King of Death cannot even see you! Is it not like a painted royal chariot? The wise see through it.” All at once, I perceived something wonderful, revivifying, even transcendental, in my gritty, two-wheeled traversal of India. For almost a month, I had dodged trucks and weaved among flatulent draft animals, not knowing where I would find my next meal or spend the coming night, but this uncertainty energized me. The painted chariots that had frightened me before Varanasi now hardly registered as they shot past; rather, they served to rivet my attention on the here and now, to enforce a thorough absorption in the present moment, a meditation of sorts. I had learned to react without fear, and I was involuntarily heeding the Dhammapada’s injunction to make my mind “serene, unaffected by good and bad.” This very calm quickened my reaction time and made me safer.
So often, India seemed either a land of timeless poverty, whose inhabitants benefited little from the enlightened scriptures of their ancestors, or it was a baubly charade, as callow and shallow as a Bollywood epic. The world’s glitter and dross had changed form since the days of the ancients, but the messages of the Dhammapada held true. I felt blessed. By what or whom I did not know.
As I bounced across India on the last leg of my journey, the air heated up and the sun closed in. Often alone on the now well-paved road, four-laned and divided, I ascended the jungle highlands of Jharkhand, awed by the black mountains rising in the mists, weak with hunger from an enforced vegetarian diet. I then began three days of blissful descent into the rice-paddied flatlands of West Bengal state, passing people cheerfully bathing with their buffalo in algae-clogged canals. I returned their enthusiastic waves and shouts of welcome, and, as the oppressive mood of the Gangetic Plain lifted, I sensed the steady approach of my own temporal moksha.
Five days out of Bodh Gaya, as evening drew on, a policeman stopped me at a tollbooth. His club hanging at his side, he shook my hand, smiling, intuiting, I believe, that I had arrived from afar. I tried to ask, “How much longer to, to ... ” but my voice cracked with fatigue and thirst and emotion.
“Calcutta? It is just ahead, sir! Welcome!”
We shook hands again, and I proceeded down the highway. With little warning, palms became slums; snoozing cattle, pavement dwellers sleeping in roadside exhaust fumes; flocks of goats, swirling gaggles of rickshaws; and stacks of hay, burning heaps of rubbish.
A violent moil of trucks and carts swept me along into the murky dusk, and I made for the twin suspension towers of Howrah Bridge, Calcutta’s supreme landmark. Moksha was mine at last, if only for now.