Gaya’s ancient data analytics to salvation

About a decade had passed and I had been steadfastly committing myself to hold the annual pujas for my parents after their death whom, we so dearly loved. Today’s fast-paced world hardly gave the pockets of time needed to remember our parents. In spite of the dearth of time, I made it a point to spend that 2 hours twice a year to remember my father and mother, offered prayers to them by way of chanting hymns. And when I did that, it seemed that I was talking to them in my mind with them. It gave me immense peace. Missing any one of the pujas gave me a feeling of disquiet as if I ignored my duties as a son.

This year, I thought of going to the holy town of Gaya in the Bihar state of India to offer my puja or prayers for my beloved parents. Hinduism has many ways of approaching pujas and rituals in India and one of them is Pinda-daan which meant that as a son I would be offering my final prayers to them and helping in my modest way to attain salvation from the cycle of life; in other words death and rebirth. Being a project manager, this time I would be facilitating my parents’ eternal journey instead of a software project delivery. While one does that, it is said that all the ancestors, both men and women as grandfathers, great grandfathers and great grandmothers, on either side of my parents would also be blessed and they would be released from the cyclic order of birth, death and rebirth.

Readers may believe this or may not; however, I wanted to follow the path laid down for generations with one sole objective – to provide my parents eternal peace.

At Gaya, the dried out Phalgu river played a crucial part in the entire pinda dan process, taken by Gautam Lahiri
The dried out Phalgu river played a crucial part in the entire pinda dan process

The transportation is a major challenge in India when one has to travel on a short notice. When I decided to go to Gaya, the first try was to get the train tickets which was next to impossible as four months in advance all tickets got sold. The second choice was to drive down using your own car. I calculated the expenses and along with the toll tax, and fuel posed an amount which was absolutely not worth when a single person travelling.

The third choice was taking the overnight bus service which fitted quite well, and I opted for it. With summer, around the corner, the air-conditioned buses again were all full so I took the non-AC bus. These buses stood tall and provided reasonable comfort and being a night travel, there was a respite from the sun.

With an overnight baggage in tow, I boarded one at Babughat and set off for a five hundred kilometre run through the night. It was the start of a short project which was both academic in nature and one of wonder.

At Gaya, the tourist bus which took me from Kalcutta to Gaya by Gautam Lahiri
The tourist bus which took me from Calcutta to Gaya

At about twelve in the morning, the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant for a fifteen minutes break for refreshments. Another long haul bus came alongside and the buses not only carried people, they also doubled up as goods carrier and I was astonished to see the dangerous way they had loaded the bus with drums making the bus top heavy which meant any sway of the bus on its side could make it topple.

These bus drivers push physics or mathematics to their limits and use them to their advantage in mopping up extra business.

Kolkata to Gaya bus service by Gautam Lahiri
Improper loading of the buses could be seen on every single one that traveled the night

At about quarter to four, the bus reached the old town of Gaya. The early mornings are very nice in India. Hardly any traffic could be seen apart from few stray dogs that tend to explore visitors with their tails wagging, the coolness of the mornings in the summer months is refreshing. I get hold of a rickshaw and made a beeline for the Bharat Sevashram Sangha (BSS) establishment.

This group are die hard social workers who are extremely organized and have been doing a commendable job as far as any religious function is concerned. I had reserved a day room with them at Calcutta. The entire puja that I was supposed to carry out would be done with their help.

It was an end to end delivery that they would be involved in which included getting hold of a priest, taking the pilgrims to the sites in an auto rickshaw,  attending to various pujas and finally bringing you back.

At Gaya, The Bharat Sevashram Sangha card which detailed out my connection with the group and the activities to be performed
The BSS card which detailed out my connection with the group and the activities to be performed

The BSS office opened up at about four thirty in the morning and we were asked to congregate by six thirty for an introduction to pinda-daan dos’ and donts. The area burst itself into activities at six thirty. About hundred people gathered, dressed in dhoti and gamcha or Indian basic towel, designed to be thin and terribly functional.

All were focused and heard the official speech and each member was asked few decisive questions – Whose puja will be done, Did the person die an unnatural death, and what would be the budget for the puja. Based on the answers, the official attached a priest and assigned different puja processes.

One pertinent question that was asked was “From where did your ancestors hail from?” This is the most crucial one and I learned later why the data was so significant.

At Gaya, Pilgrims gathered around for getting directions from the BSS officials by Gautam Lahiri
Pilgrims gathered around for getting directions from the BSS officials
At Gaya, With every passing minute, the crowd started increasing, a section of the people was lead off to the other side on to the waiting auto rickshaws for the next step by Gautam Lahiri
With every passing minute, the crowd started increasing, a section of the people was lead off to the other side on to the waiting auto rickshaws for the next step

There was a huge courtyard around which the living quarters within the BSS complex were lined up. Men, women and children were all present waiting for their turns for the onward journey. Interestingly, I saw children with their parents playing in the courtyard.

Usually, in religious functions like these, children do not accompany. Well, it is twenty-first century, the strict rules of religion, I guess had also transformed and have started allowing some benefits to the families, sort of a vacation perhaps when the menfolk are busy with the pujas.

At Gaya, Women gathered in numbers and waited for their husbands to complete the interview process. Shortly afterwards,  they would be heading to the river bank to start the proceedings by Gautam Lahiri
Women gathered in numbers and waited for their husbands to complete the interview process. Shortly afterwards,  they would be heading to the river bank to start the proceedings

I had got my notes ready for the answers. My lineage on the father’s side was from the Kushtia district and village, Alampur which sits in the Munshiganj of Khulna division of Bangladesh.

On my mother’s side, my origin tagged to Pabna district, village, Haripur of the Rajshahi division of Bangladesh. My turn of the interview was over and after answering the four main questions above, I was assigned a priest and I headed out with another family to a waiting auto rickshaw.

Enrichment of my eclectic knowledge base had begun.

At Gaya, Elderly woman having hookah on the streets of Gaya by Gautam Lahiri
Interesting scenes flashed by as I rode the vehicle. An elderly sweet looking woman was merrily having her mobile hookah, and idled away in a chat with her old boyfriend

The vehicle with the three of us made turn after turn through slender roads which only an auto rickshaw could master. We were suddenly stopped by a group of bike riders, who were young to middle-aged, fair and their heads were shaved. They had a tuft of hair called ‘tiki’ stuck from behind the head identifying them as the ‘pandas’ or the professional priests who for generations have been in this business and had a lot of knowledge and power which they flexed when necessary.

They have an enormous love for wealth and one has to be very cautious while dealing. One small slip and you will be bankrupt. A barrage of the same question hammered us and at least six people asked the same question, “From where did your ancestors hail from?”. Everyone made notes of what we said in a diary and within minutes these people were talking on their mobile phones.  The assigned priests by BSS were no match for these pandas. After they seemed to be satisfied, they let us go and the vehicle started its pitching dash over the broken roads and finally reached a temple complex.

The auto rickshaw entered serpentine lanes and by lanes as it made its way towards the first site, the Phalgu river. Our first session was to start.

At Gaya, The Phalgu river temple complex. The puja was about to begin amidst the roaming pandas by Gautam Lahiri
The Phalgu river temple complex. The puja was about to begin amidst the roaming pandas

The puja began with a minimum of frills.  Small container with few vegetables was arranged and a couple of incense sticks lit up. A small bowl which contained gram powder mixed with milk and water which were made into small balls called ‘pinda‘. It was the start of the first phase and it continued for forty minutes with pages from scriptures in the Sanskrit language.

It was very soothing to the ruffled nerves.

At Gaya, Pinda being made by me as traces of Vermilion are strewn by the priest by Gautam Lahiri
Pinda being made by me as traces of Vermilion were strewn by the priest
At Gaya, A multitude of items was arranged as part of the puja by Gautam Lahiri
A multitude of items was arranged as part of the puja

Seen above are the various components that made up the offering to the departed soul. Every single item that is seen will be going to the priest. It is a big standardized industry that runs.

The consumables would be used and the metal items, the clothes offered will be sold by the priest and they go back to the shops or recycled and came back into the system for another departed soul bought by his or her son.

At Gaya, The priest assigned to me kept a hawk's eye on every single movement I made, on every single hymn I chanted and stopped me when I got waylaid by Gautam Lahiri
The priest assigned to me kept a hawk’s eye on every single movement I made, on every single hymn I chanted and stopped me when I got waylaid

The session one puja was almost coming to an end when one of the pandas, the face was known to me as I was grilled several times before came up and brought a huge book which had entries of all the individuals whose pujas were made in the last one hundred fifty plus years. They had their own indexing system and I was trying to compare it with Oracle or SQL database queries, and never could get an answer.

Within minutes, they showed me an entry of my great grandfather whose puja was done one hundred and five years ago. Now, I was able to make the connection to the question “Where did your ancestors come from?”.

I was amazed at the data analytics they maintained, over the ages and without Google, or any other modern cloud-based application. Similarly, on my mother’s side, another book under another panda, showed me that in 1909, my mother’s great-grandfather had come to carry out his father’s puja. So, they cross-checked and found that I was the correct descendant who has come to perform his parents’ puja.

I was impressed beyond words seeing their documentation and preservation of historical facts.

At Gaya, The remaining pindis out of thirty created would be used at the last post at Akshaya bot by Gautam Lahiri
The remaining pindis out of thirty created would be used at the last post at Akshaya bot

The main panda signed off the session one puja and I was good to proceed towards the second session puja which would be held at Vishnupada temple about fifty meters away. The pandas were the leaders and guides who took me through and after a while, I became friends with them by being terribly honest about my capacity to pay them.

Fortunately, they agreed and did not push their way and the operation ran without a hitch.

At Gaya, Halfway through my second session as people concentrated around me at the Visnupada temple by Gautam Lahiri
Halfway through my second session as people concentrated around me at the Visnupada temple

I completed my session two and after a short hackle with the panda on the fees, I was allowed to go for the third puja session which meant that along with the family with whom I tagged along, I was able to jump into the auto rickshaw we had hired and traveled three kilometres away to the last spot called “Akshaya bot” or a special Peepal tree where pilgrims offered the prayers.

At Gaya, Puja proceedings underway at Vishnupada temple by Gautam Lahiri
Puja proceedings underway at Vishnupada temple

The priest from BSS spent about thirty minutes after which the end to end puja got completed. I was asked to sacrifice a fruit of my choice for life as a mark of respect to the departed souls. The priest showed me a list of fruits from where I had to choose one.

All the fruits that were present were among my favorites so I asked for a second list. In the second list, I picked one which I hardly found in today’s markets and clamped on it.

At Gaya, The head panda in the saffron clothes happened to be my ancestral head panda and after another royal battle in regards to fee discussion, my pujas ended on a good note by Gautam Lahiri
The head panda in the saffron clothes happened to be my ancestral head panda and after another royal battle in regards to fee discussion, my pujas ended on a good note

It was a poignant moment for me to complete the final round and bid goodbye to my parents. I sincerely hoped that I was able to do a son’s duty of offering his parents, the eternal peace and tranquility.

At Gaya, Pilgrims huddled up around the peepal tree where they carried out the last puja. The red clothes that hung from the branches indicated the pujas performed and each indicated a soul to be nurtured by this divine place by Gautam Lahiri
Pilgrims huddled up around the peepal tree where they carried out the last puja. The red clothes that hung from the branches indicated the pujas performed and each indicated a soul to be nurtured by this divine place

After spending four hours of pujas across the different sites, I returned to BSS station post. Having taken bath early in the day, I was famished as I had done the pujas on an empty stomach as fasting is a mark of respect when one performs the puja. I felt at peace that finally I was able to complete for what I had come to this divine land.

BSS was extremely organized and had also made arrangement for lunch after the pujas. It was very tasty and the dishes were all vegetarian. We sat on the floor along with hundreds and had our fill.

At Gaya, I joined the pilgrims seated for the lunch which was served with love and kindness by Gautam Lahiri
I joined the pilgrims seated for the lunch which was served with love and kindness

After the meal, I went for a quick round of the BSS and the whole place exuded strict discipline, and cleanliness.

At Gaya, The BSS entrance had parking place for the visitors to park their vehicles. A small passage on the right let everyone enter the main complex by Gautam Lahiri
The BSS entrance had parking place for the visitors to park their vehicles. A small passage on the right let everyone enter the main complex

Properly annotated notice boards hung with news and updates and each room had the bare essentials, required for the inmates.

At Gaya, The BSS camp from the inside. Temples and offices neatly made the entire area. living quarters stood where the pilgrims stayed. As a pilgrim, one can stay for a maximum of 3 days by Gautam Lahiri
The BSS camp from the inside. Temples and offices neatly made the entire area. living quarters stood where the pilgrims stayed. As a pilgrim, one can stay for a maximum of 3 days

It was time for me to catch the return bus for heading to Calcutta. The city of Gaya although famous for religious reasons definitely needs a makeover as far as cleanliness is concerned. Although the roads were in good condition, the sewage system was in deplorable state and it was evident that the city administration paid little to no attention and the place had not seen improvements for a long time. The other menace is its mosquito infestation.

Drones of them attacked the visitors and thanks to the presence of a mosquito repellent, in my travel bag which kept the bloodsuckers at bay and I was spared a bit.

At Gaya, The main road that ran in front of the BSS was frugally decked up by Gautam Lahiri
The main road that ran in front of the BSS was frugally decked up

The city had a mix of both new and old houses and modes of city transportation were unique.

I found a ‘tanga’ or a horse-drawn carriage still being used which shouldered the sleek cars that ran with them.

At Gaya, A tanga stood patiently for a customer to hire it. An auto rickshaw too stood beside it to woo customers using speed of travel as its USP by Gautam Lahiri
A tanga stood patiently for a customer to hire it. An auto rickshaw too stood beside it to woo customers using speed of travel as its USP

As is seen in many smaller towns, the evenings become quite animated with people flocking towards the local fast food centers. Very tasty local food is sold and both young and old gather around them to have a bite. As I waited for my night bound bus, the crowd increased and the aroma of the delicious food filled the air. One could get various flavors of tikias or fried items being cooked in front of the customers.

I was extremely attracted to them, however, feared the night journey ahead so avoided having them in case they spoiled due to stomach upset. I crossed the street to a place where food was scarce to get away from the lip-smacking whiff.

At Gaya, A local vendor with his array of fried food and cold drinking water was a welcome sight for the travel-weary visitors at Gaya by Gautam Lahiri
A local vendor with his array of fried food and cold drinking water was a welcome sight for the travel-weary visitors

I continued my wait and battled the mosquitoes that swarmed around me with the help of the repellent. Very soon, the good old long-distance bus presented herself and I boarded it.

The passengers made arrangements for their travel and I luckily was able to get a window seat to savor the night breeze.

At Gaya, The night queen had arrived and waited for the passengers to embark her at Gaya by Gautam Lahiri
The night queen had arrived and waited for the passengers to embark her

With the bus fully occupied, and I equipped with a packet of groundnuts, looked out of the curtained window as the towns-cape flashed past it and about an hour or so, the town of Gaya had vanished over the horizon. I felt good that I was able to fully complete my mission and at the same time also felt as if I left my dear ones behind. It was a feeling that I kept thinking.

The night breeze was cool and the woody smell of the forests had become a lullaby and I really do not remember when I had dozed off into a light slumber.

At Gaya, A vegetarian dinner that I had ordered when the bus stopped. It comprised of handmade bread, a mixed salad of carrots, cucumber, a big spoon filling crispy potato slices, and shahi paneer, incredibly tasty at Gaya by Gautam Lahiri
A vegetarian dinner that I had ordered when the bus stopped. It comprised of handmade bread, a mixed salad of carrots, cucumber, a big spoon filling crispy potato slices, and shahi paneer, incredibly tasty

After a hearty meal, the bus speared its way over the highway, NH-2 and at about six in the morning, I was awakened with the most familiar cacophony of horns which pushed me out of my stupor with its piercing orchestra. I guessed it right, this can only be heard in a big city. I had reached Calcutta.

Gaya was quite different. It embodied the ancient data system and the level of documentation that I came across was outstanding. I did see a lot of computer firms that had their offices which meant the old city had kept its stride to keep up with modern India. 

Little away down south of about thirty-five kilometres, the famous tourism destination of Bodh Gaya dazzles where Buddhism is well entrenched. 

We had driven a couple of years ago to this wonderful location and I do have a plan to travel once again to have a glimpse of it.

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