Thursday, December 08, 2005

Buddha Boy

Pilgrims trek to worship a boy they believe is Buddha

Ram Bahadur Bomjon, 15 (AFP/Getty Images)
SOME closed their eyes and clasped their hands in prayer, others knelt and touched their foreheads to the cool earth beneath a canopy of trees deep in the forest of southern Nepal.

By early morning hundreds of people had already reached this hidden spot at the end of a mist-shrouded mud track. All had come to see the teenage boy they believe to be a reincarnation of Buddha, sitting silently beneath a peepul tree.

Since word spread that Ram Bahadur Bamjan, the 16-year-old son of a maize farmer in a nearby village, has not eaten or drunk in the six months that he has been meditating in the lotus position, tens of thousands of devotees from across Nepal and India have flocked to Char Koshe jungle to worship him. The teenager sat in an alcove of exposed peepul roots. His closed eyes were framed by a messy mop of hair, and a brown robe draped over one shoulder exposed his right arm and hand.

Having heard that early morning was the time to witness light emanating from the boy’s brow and hand, the pilgrims had set off before dawn to walk miles over a rocky path before removing their shoes and shuffling in a snaking crowd to a fence strewn with marigolds, candles and burning incense. Around the enclosure, local people touted picture postcards, booklets and CDs telling the story of the boy’s life. Makeshift food and tea stalls run by villagers had sprung up. Allowed no closer to Ram Bamjan than 50 metres after concerns that the huge crowds were disturbing his concentration, the devotees stood on tip-toe, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the distant figure.

“I saw a reddish-yellow light on his forehead. A few minutes later I saw it on his hand. It’s real. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dhanbaha Durgurung, 60, a retired Gurkha in the British Army, said. He had made the ten-hour journey from his home in Pokhara, in central Nepal, after hearing a BBC radio report about the boy. “I had to see it for myself,” he said. “

I believe he’s the reincarnation of Buddha. I’m going to come back in a week and bring my whole family.”

The spectacle resembles an episode in the life of Buddha, who found enlightenment more than 2,500 years ago after 49 days under a peepul tree. He was born only 257km (160 miles) from Bara in 540BC.

In the nearby village of Ratanpur, Maya Devi, 50, the mother of Ram Bamjan, said that her son had changed after spending almost two years in Buddhist monasteries in India, including Bodh Gaya, the spot in the state of Bihar where Buddha gained enlightenment.

“He had always been a loner, but when he returned from India he just stayed at home and would chant and study Buddhist scripts,” she said, opening a cupboard in her son’s sparse bedroom that was filled with his red, satin-bound religious books.

Maya Devi was sad to see the sixth of her nine children go. He did not tell his family that he planned to live in the forest and crept out during the night to avoid being followed. She said: “I didn’t want him to stay away from home at night in the jungle. It’s a dangerous place. If he had not been called there by God, he would not have survived for so long.”

Villagers say that last month Ram shook off the effects of a poisonous snake bite. He apparently told an older brother that he did not want to be followed into the forest and that he was not a Buddha. He said: “I’ve got my education directly from God, but what I’ve learnt I’m not revealing now. I need six years of meditation.”

Local officials have asked scientific and religious bodies in Nepal to investigate whether the claims about the boy are true. In particular they want to know what happens when a curtain screens the boy from observers at night.

There have been suggestions that the boy is part of a plot by left-wing guerrillas to collect money from gullible villagers, but officials are hampered by a group of minders who refuse to allow anyone to disturb him.

Santa Raj Subedi, the chief government official in Bara, said: “The strength of religious belief means our hands are tied. We can’t just march in and interfere. Besides, being able to meditate is a human right. We can’t stop anyone doing it.”

Maya Devi is undecided about whether her son is the reincarnation of Buddha. “He’s certainly extraordinary,” she said. “But I’ll wait until after his six years of meditation to decide whether he’s a god.”