This is the final post of my trip to Benaras. It’s going to talk about our visit to Sarnath and why our travel group works. I’ll share the unfolding of our last day in Benaras and then explain the latter. If you’ve read the last two posts, I may not even need to explain. Before you continue, I’d like to warn you that this is a lengthy post, has loads of history (as the title states), and warrants attention. Happy reading!
Day 3: Our last day in Benaras
We were down at the ghats at 6.00 a.m. on the final day of our trip- this time dressed in sarees- for a photoshoot. Yes, you heard right- a photoshoot where we were the models and we were the ones behind the camera. Tip 1: If you are travelling in a group, ensure there is at least one good photographer in the group. And by that, I don’t mean someone with the most expensive camera or the best lens but someone who loves photography has a fairly good camera and is willing to indulge you by taking photographs. We are very fortunate to have an amazing photographer in our group.
Dressed in yellow, blue, red and fuchsia pink, we were ready to colour Benaras.Tip 2: If you’re travelling with a group, travel with people who have similar likes. If you’ve followed my previous travel post with the same girls, when we went to Goa, you know we love to dress up, pose, take pictures, etc.
At 6.10 a.m., the four of us were on the street. Why 6.10 a.m.? Because a) we wanted to take pictures when the weather was cool and b) we had a rickshaw booked for 8.00 a.m. to take us to Sarnath, the seat of Buddhism. That brings me to Tip 3: If you’re the kind who likes exploring the place you’re visiting, be sure to go with a bunch of people who like planning and are disciplined about time. That way you’ll be able to make the most out of your trip. Tip 4: Also, ensure you don’t go with nit-pickers. If things go awry which very well may (because everybody knows, you can’t control everything in life), at least you don’t have to deal with cribbers.
Below are a few of the pictures we took in a saree. I caption this collage as ‘For the love of sarees.’In retrospect, it feels right to flaunt the national costume in a city that is known to be the seat of Indian tradition and culture. I know none of this is related to ‘Benaras’ as a destination to travel to, yet I had to share it here as part of our experience. But, without digressing any more, here are the pictures.
We returned to the hotel by 8.00 a.m. Our tuk-tuk was waiting to take us to Sarnath – the site where Gautam Buddha gave his first discourse after attaining enlightenment. It took us an hour and a half to get to Sarnath via bumpy roads and traffic coming in from all directions. When we finally got off the tuk-tuk, our backs were sore and the sun was blazing down. But, we were determined not to return without seeing the places we had hereto read about in school as part of our History lessons.
The first place of visit was the Thai temple in Sarnath – manicured gardens with pretty flowers, a temple with That architecture that houses a statue of Buddha in bhumisparsha mudra (five fingers touching the ground) symbolizing his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree). He touched the earth to summon the earth goddess to witness his enlightenment. The 80 foot Buddha in the Wat Thai temple is inspired by the Buddhas of Bamiyan (2 statues carved into the mountain in the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan). Notice the greek-styled robe on the Buddha in the picture below. Sadly, the original statues at Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
The lion capital of Ashoka, symbolized King Ashoka’s (the ruler of the Mauryan Empire in 269 BC), conversion to Buddhism after the war of Kalinga in which many people lost their lives. The loss of lives filled the King with remorse and from then on he decided to spread the message of peace. The 4 lions looking in each direction symbolize the brave king, who ruled over Pakistan, Afghanistan, parts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and the whole of India except present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The wheel you see on the capital is the dharma chakra or ‘the wheel of dharma’, an essential symbol of Buddhism. When the wheel is represented with 24 spokes it is called the Ashoka Chakra- the 12 spokes represent the principle of dependant origination (I do not know much about it but it broadly states all things happen through ’cause’ and ‘effect’, which basically means all things that happen are interdependent ), and when there are 24 spokes it means it reverses and returns to the same position. When that happens, one can achieve enlightenment. it is the 24 spoke wheel you see on the Indian flag. It indicates it’s important to keep moving because stagnation is death. Of all the structures in Sarnath, the Thai temple is the most beautiful.
All the other essential sites in Sarnath are in close proximity. While we did ensure we saw them all, it was an exhausting tour, with the sun burning down. When the weather is right, the place serves as a picnic spot because of its green lawns and wooden benches under shaded trees. We saw the Dhamek Stupa from the Thai temple because it was too hot to walk around. A stupa is essentially a burial mound in which some remnant of Lord Buddha is buried and serves as a shrine or a relic for Buddhists worldwide. The Dhamek Stupa is revered because it is where Lord Buddha revealed his first eight-fold path sermon (Right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration).
At a short distance away from the Dhamek Stupa, is the Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple managed by the Mahabodhi Society Temple which was set up to revive Buddhism in India around 1891 by Dharmapala, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka. Dharmapala saw the dilapidated condition of the structure (built during the Gupta dynasty between 4th and 6th century C.E. ) and collected funds from all over the world to revive the temple. I couldn’t get a good picture of the temple (below) as the place was crowded with students and others who had come on a tour of the site.
The Mahabodhi tree (in the above picture) was propagated from Gaya (where Lord Buddha got enlightenment) to SriLanka and back to Sarnath. No wonder it is revered as the relic of Lord Buddha himself. Some of the ashes of Lord Buddha preserved in Myanmar were brought by Dharmapala and stored at the Mahabodhi Society temple.
The next place of visit was the Chaukhandi Stupa. You can buy a ticket online or buy it at the place, by scanning the QR code. It’s Rs 20 for Indians. We stepped in, took pictures of the stupa and stepped out. It was originally built between the 4th and 6th centuries as a temple to mark the place where Lord Buddha met his disciples when he travelled from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath. Today, it is a mound covered with brickwork and has an octagonal tower on the top.
The last place of visit was the Digambara Jain temple. I had thought of Sarnath as a Buddhist pilgrimage centre. So, this temple came as a surprise. The temple is very important for Jains, as this is the place where the 11th Tirthinkara (guru or spiritual teacher) of Jainism was born.
We still had to see the Archaeological Society of India but none of us had an ounce of energy left. So, I satisfied myself by taking a picture of the complex from the gate. And then, we began our journey back to Sarnath – exhausted, sweaty, dusty, tangled hair (thanks to the open tuk-tuk we had hired for the trip). The trip to Sarnath cost us Rs 800.00 which is pretty reasonable, considering we were charged Rs 500 the previous day to go to the Durga temple, Sankat Mochan temple and back to the Godowlia Crossing. Tip 4: Ask the hotel you’re staying at, to book a tuk-tuk for you. They know the rates, so you can rest assured you will be charged fairly.
After a light lunch of rice and dal and a glass of lime juice in the hotel we were staying, a shower and lazing around for an hour, we were back on the ghats, refreshed. There was no way we were going to end the trip without walking the 2.3 km length of the ghat one more time. There was still something that we had probably not seen or something that our cameras had not captured. The three of us (as one of our friends left earlier) soaked up the spirit of the ghats, walking down it slowly and savouring each sight to our heart’s content.
Then we posed some more, this time in white Lucknowi salwar-kurtas. Tip 5: Go with people who are as crazy as you are. We must have carried 8 sets of clothes for a three-day trip!
Before I go further, I must say that the stench of urine permeates the air in the ghats, at night when the cool air blows. While the ghats have been cleaned by the government, action has not been taken to stop unruly men from using the walls as a public toilet. This brings me to the last Tip: Stay away from walls and corners while walking on the ghats.
With that came an end to our Benaras trip. We walked up to the market and to Kashi Vishwanath temple to buy prasad (offering to God that is then given to devotees) to take back home for family and friends. We now knew the roads of Benaras like the back of our hands and could guide anybody around. The streets were filled with colours and the people of Benaras were soaked in colour too. Holi, the festival of colours is celebrated earlier in the city. The beauty of it is that we walked through the lanes in our spotless, white outfits and returned to the hotel with not a spot of colour on it. It goes to show that people are respectful of others here, and will not drag you in to do anything unless you’re willing.
We left Benaras the next morning with a treasure trove of memories, richer with lessons learned and new experiences gained, travels to look forward to in the future and our beautiful Benarasi saris with gold zari work.
While travelling with family is fun, travelling with friends has its own charm. You learn so much more about yourself when you travel with friends or alone. My friend captioned our picture with sarees ‘Friends are in different colours,” on the occasion of Holi, the festival of colours, which was celebrated in India on the 18th of March. I read the caption and loved it – not because of the literal meaning but the metaphorical one. If we understand friends come in different colours, it’ll be easier to let go of a few quirks and create a group that works for you, no matter how old you are.
I leave you with a few more pictures and videos of the place and hope all of you who love travelling but cannot physically make it to Benaras for whatever reason, get a feel of the place.
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