Namaste, friends! I hope you enjoy my review of the Mahaparinirvan Express (Buddhist Circuit Train) tour that I thoroughly enjoyed in March 2016.
This is a train-based tour that takes you through significant Buddhist places and landmarks throughout Northern India and Nepal. It's a pilgrimage of sorts, but more historical than spiritual I think. They operate several 8-day tours between September and March. The train departs from the Delhi Safdar Jung station and includes the following destinations:
Gaya • Bodhgaya • Rajgir • Nalanda • Gaya • Varanasi • Sarnath • Varanasi • Gorakhpur • Kushinagar • Lumbini • Gorakhpur • Gonda • Sravasti • Gonda • Agra (Taj Mahal) • Delhi.
You have three accommodation options:
AC First Coupe: private berth with four beds and a door for just two people
AC First Class: same private berth but I guess you might have roommates
AC 2nd Tier: recessed berths with four beds and curtains; also beds along the aisle
It's like a hostel on wheels. I was fine with AC 2nd tier because pretty much all you do on the train is eat and sleep. I had a wonderful roommate named Jyotsna who is a retired English teacher so we communicated quite easily.
Luckily our train car was relatively empty and the bunks above us and across the aisle were vacant. The aircon worked well, perhaps too well, but I love snuggling up in blankets when its a little chilly.
The bunks are a bit short. I'm 5'9" (175 cm) and my feet just barely hang over the edge. The sheets were always clean and comfortable and the food was good, albeit a bit on the spicy side. They always offer your choice of a meaty meal or vegetarian meal. You will also spend a few nights in hotels. I recommend bringing earplugs and a sleep mask and digestive supplements/aids if you're not used to Indian food.
We were greeted with marigold garlands and traditional, live music. The train departed a bit later than planned. I was one of only a handful of Westerners on this trip: three Americans, one Brit, one German and one Mexican. Everyone else is Indian or Asian (Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea).
Since you will be touring many historically holy sites that require you to be barefoot, I recommend wearing flip flops or sandals that you can easily slip on and off. You should also dress comfortably conservative; in other words, covered knees and shoulders.
Our guide, Ram, accompanied us and gave us insight (in English) at each location. Our first stop was Bodhgaya, where Prince Siddartha attained enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree. (You are not allowed to bring a phone inside and have to check it at the entrance but I assure you it will be there when you get back.) I bought mala beads made of bodhi nuts here and wore them for the rest of the tour. Next we stopped in Rajgir, where the new Buddha (translation: teacher) delivered his first sermon. There are breathtaking views if you hike up to the top of the hill.
The next day, we visited Sarnath before traveling to Varanasi, the most holy city in India situated on the Ganges river. We had some free time, which I spent mostly in a tuk tuk with two other ladies on the tour before we all piled into a boat to see a traditional fire ceremony at sunset (along with about a bazillion other boats).
Although you do spend many hours (mostly sleeping) on the train, you will still spend plenty of time on a tour bus, too. (I tried to make the most of it by meditating or attempting to meditate while in transit.) This includes crossing the border to Lumbini, Nepal (Budddha's birthplace in 623 BC) so it's helpful to have a visa for Nepal before you start the trip, but you can also acquire it pretty easily at said border. A 30-day multiple entry visa for Nepal is $40 USD.
The fourth major stop on the tour was Kushinagar, where the Buddha attained enlightenment (or where his body died). There was an odd shaped structure housing a giant, reclining Buddha statue here. We also visited Gorakhpur and had dinner on the train.
A word of caution. Of course the most touristy areas are flooded with beggars and vendors. It's really not a good idea to give the beggars money, especially the children because you never know if they're being coerced or exploited. So exercising the Buddhist values of compassion and kindness, I and a few other travelers did buy and give them fruit sometimes. The vendors sell all kinds of trinkets and they expect you to haggle. If you buy even a small item from one vendor, the others will immediately pounce on you and try to convince you to buy their things as well.
Our last stop was the most famous landmark in India: the Taj Mahal, located in Agra. Our train was stuck waiting on the tracks so we didn't get a ton of time here but it was more than enough to take an obligatory Taj selfie (or several).
I'll never forget this insightful tour, the sights & sounds, the people I experienced this with and the melodic chanting I heard so often that will always bring back pleasant memories of my time exploring and experiencing the roots of Buddhism in Northern India: Buddham... Saranam... Gacchami...
Here's a quick video trailer I made with my film from the tour:
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