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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 January 2007, 01:36 GMT
Long-distance prostrating pilgrimage
By Amarnath Tewary
BBC News, Bihar

Gyalsten set off in July 2005. (Photos by Prashant Ravi)

Sherab Gyalsten has already been on the road for one year and eight months.

He doesn't run or walk.

Instead, the Buddhist monk from Tibet takes three and a half steps forward, then prostrates flat on the road while chanting mantras. Then he gets up, folds his hands in prayer and repeats the process.

He averages six kilometres a day.

For protection he wears a thick apron, fortified shoes and gloves with a wooden pad on the palms.

He recently crossed the border from Nepal into the Indian state of Bihar.

His destination is the Buddhist pilgrimage centre of Bodh Gaya where the Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment under a peepul tree.

It now houses the world-famous Mahabodhi temple, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that prostrations bring merit in the quest for enlightenment.

This type of prostrating pilgrimage is hard enough at the best of times. The pot-holed roads of impoverished Bihar make it worse.

Body gestures

Gyalsten set off on his journey from Tibet in July 2005 with a friend.

Monk Gyalsten and companions Sonam Yeshi and Pema Tsomo

They reached the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, on 29 November.

Neither can speak Hindi or English and the friend returned to Tibet.

Gyalsten is now accompanied by a Nepalese couple, Sonam Yeshi and Pema Tsomo, who take care of his daily needs.

The husband and wife pull a hand-made tin sheet cart mounted on bicycle wheels that carries their provisions, including drinking water.

"We've two folding tents, sleeping bags, a stove, some utensils and food materials in our cart," says Sonam Yeshi, who also translates for the prostrating Tibetan.

Sherab Gyalsten makes some attempt to communicate with the locals, through body gestures and, more often, simply by smiling at the staring onlookers.

Sustenance

What about food?

"We've with us a bagful of rice, wheat, barley and fruits. We eat twice every day, at 10 in the morning and at 6 in the evening", Sonam Yeshi says.

Gyalsten
Sherab Gyalsten says prostrating is tough on Bihar's rough roads

Gyalsten loves to drink barley soup and eat apples and banana. He also sips tea and water offered by people on the road.

When the party gets short of supplies, the husband and wife inform their guru in Kathmandu and he sends provisions on to them.

"We do not accept money or anything valuable from the people on road," Sonam says.

Bihar is the most lawless part of India. Aren't they scared?

"No, not at all," Pema Tsomo says. "Once we entered Bihar we got to know that people here are very courteous, nice and of a helping nature.

"Moreover we do not carry hard money with us," she smiles.

"The Bihari people offer us food, water, money and even touch our feet or just greet us with respect by folding hands."

However, there are doubters. One local told the BBC that the monk might be a spy sent from China.

Lhasa
The monk has come all the way from Lhasa in Tibet
So far the monk has stayed well and fit, despite the demands of his long and torturous journey.

"It has really been very difficult," Sonam Yeshi says.

"At some places there are no proper roads and then there are big trucks and buses bearing down on us from both directions."

Sherab Gyalsten agrees: "Its scary... it's even tougher and harder than the hilly terrain of Tibet and Nepal."

The unmarried monk has three brothers and an old mother in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, from where he began his journey.

His long pilgrimage is nearly over.

"Another 16 days and we will complete our journey", the Tibetan monk told us, sipping yet another tea, before slipping into his blue folding tent for the night.


SEE ALSO
Fleeing a Tibetan monastery
27 Apr 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Tibet
26 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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