Tag Archives: Banaras

What has the spiritual capital taught me at Banaras?

Kashi for the pilgrims, Banaras for the historians and Varanasi for the modern… How it is religiously important, culturally vital, historically notable… There is enough said and done about this city through literature that is available as early as mythology, history and the modern contemporary. If I had to write about the same stuffs here, then this post would be just another summary with my perspective in it. However, I still use this one sentence to re-iterate the common belief: ‘No time is long enough to be at Banaras’.

The immovable faith of the people, the ever crowded streets, delectable street food, the elusive power of the Naga Babas, the hippie culture of the westerners, the rich history, the mythological importance, the intriguing cultural heritage, dance, music, poetry, handloom, education, art, architecture- The list goes on endlessly that holds so much significance. Hence, keeping it all aside, I wish to make a list of what this city offered to teach me-

1. Work is Worship: This old man agreed to pedal us around for a rickshaw tour of the heritage campus of the Banaras Hindu University. The humility in his speech, the five-o’clock shadow in grey on his weather beaten face and the sinewy legs spoke volumes of his wisdom and hard work for this 60+ someone. He has seen those innumerous people come and go to this sacred land. At the end of the tour, he stopped at the Bharat Kala Bhavan museum complex on the university premises. We told him that we wouldn’t need much time there and would be back in half-an-hour. We failed with our words, and the quickest we could come out is after one-and-half hours. There was no sight of this old man for as long as our vision could stretch. The man did not carry a cellphone and we didn’t know his name to enquire with the people around. We had waited for another 30minutes now. We were uncertain whether to wait for some more time or leave without paying his fees. In just then, we heard the tinkle of his cycle bell as it screeched to a halt in front of us with a little girl in the rear seat. He explained, “I was getting late to go pick up the kids from school and drop them home, they would panic or else”. This man did not worry if he lost the money that we owed him, there was something else he considered more important. As we sat on the rear with the little girl on my lap, I was reminded how for this man ‘Work was Worship’. One has to stay committed to what has been assigned.

2. Solo travel helps in self-discovery but having a travel mate provides security: While we finished the Ganga Aarti, savoured some delectable street food and returned to the hostel at around 10.00.p.m. we found that 3 of our roommates were fallen motionless. We checked with them to know what had happened. While one held on to her stomach and started to cry of pain, the other 2 ran to the restrooms… Having barely any strength to talk or stand, one of them managed to say that they had food poisoning. On being requested for help, the men running the hostel conveniently pushed the responsibility of nursing the girls on us. Since 2 of them were burning with high fever, we rushed them to the hospital (supposedly the best in town) for medication. On arrival, the hospital authorities refused to provide first aid without submitting their passport and paying an advance of Rs.30000. Forget being able to talk, these girls barely had any conscious to tell us where they had kept their belongings. And we ourselves being strangers in the place, it wasn’t going to be easy helping those girls. It was well past 12.00.a.m. while we were running around the dark, rainy streets of Varanasi for the required documentations so that the girls could get their first aid ASAP. With the physical condition they were in, with a no-electricity night, cocky/horny street hawkers who were hovering around and adamant auto-rickshaw drivers trying to make quick bucks out of the helpless situation, it would have been rather impossible for the expats hadn’t they found us! While the attitude of the guys running the hostel, the hospital and one of the girls among the patients itself is a story to write about, this whole episode taught me one thing- The importance of having company while travelling or at least having an acquaintance in the place one wishes to travel.

3. Serving food is divine, do it from your heart: There are eateries in every nook and corner of Varanasi that serve authentic cuisines from almost all parts of the world to cater to the international tourists who throng in large numbers. Any food that is offered with a true heart gets its added flavours… We had found our favourite hangout at the Phulwari restaurant, conveniently sharing the premises of the Godowlia Kaali mata temple. With a traditional ornate welcome gate opening into a casual shack like place with basic cushions and bamboo chairs and a mud-smeared kiln for making their wood fried pizzas, it offered a very warm ambience. And having personal attention from the waiter was overwhelming. He made sure we got precisely what we wanted while we were confused running through the long menu. He even went to the extent of getting some herbal drink from the next street to help me with my headache. He offered us with the best thandai of Varanasi, chilled to perfection and served in clay bowls to retain its authentic flavour; delivered at our hostel on the last day of our visit! There is so much more about providing customer service and hospitality- this man was at his best!

4. Do not question the untold: The Ganges is a powerhouse of inspiration. She’s holy, pure, sacred and selfless. While we took a ride along the shores of the holy river, the veteran boat man patiently answered all our questions about the holy city. While umpteen things can be discussed in lines of communalism, history and science, Not to be debated about: the Ganga at Banaras is a lifeline. It’s a way of life. Irrespective of religion, caste and creed, faith is the only thing that has kept the people going here… Every baby born in this land imbibes it in the genes… It’s at times important to understand the significance and let things be. Do not be overwhelmed to exhibit your education by venturing into a zone to only be littled by the magnificence of the faith.

5. There is no escape from the cycle of life and death: While we were sitting on the steps of the Manikarnika Ghat and watching the flames engulf the body of the deceased on the banks of the holy river, a volunteer sat next to us to proffer his knowledge about the significance of every ritual in Hinduism starting from the birth of a person until he bites the dust. He goes on to explain why Hindu culture does not encourage women from performing the last rites. Women being emotionally weak, tend to cry at funerals. This makes it difficult for the soul to break the attachment and leave the body. With soot from the fumes rising from the burning ghat settling all over us, it was a good long 2 hours of narration of the rituals associated with life and afterwards. At the end of which, I was left wondering with a continuously running stream of questions about life and finding its worth. They were thousands of unanswered questions which I hope to go back to the ghats someday, to find all my answers!

The home of the Indian National Emblem- Saranath

Back then, I had read history for the heck of passing the subject and today here I am… Travelling to know more about the rich history soaked heritage of my country… And in the pursuit, my friend and I stumbled upon this little forgotten land from the pages of history- Saranath. It was as if the history textbooks of primary school were walking alive with us… Saranath is an important destination both religiously and historically. So, people of varied interests can be found strolling the streets of Saranath. When we alighted, a volunteer offered to take us for a guided tour around the place and we nodded a yes! A couple of visitors from different countries joined us seeking me to be their translator while the Hindi speaking guide took us around. So I was doubling as a curious traveler and a travel guide cum translator.

Firstly, Saranath is the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon to the five disciples after attaining enlightenment. Hence, a very important place religiously for the Buddhists. Today, the Chaukhandi Stupa, an octagonal structure made of brick and mortar stands at the very same place welcoming the visitors to this town. It was originally built in the Gupta era and later renovated during the Mughal rule.

As I explored the place, I realized that people from different countries have made their presence with Buddha temples built in their native styles of architecture. The Nepali, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Bhutanese etc. to name a few. While each temple style is unique and beautiful, you realize that the statue of Lord Buddha too is different in each of them. Buddha is worshipped in different forms in different countries… Seated Buddha, sleeping Buddha, standing Buddha, meditating Buddha ET all… The murals inside the Japanese temple grabbed my attention… I was told that the complete interiors is made of sandalwood… The idol, palanquin, the doors and even the chandeliers!

A small walk from there, is ‘Mulagandha Kuti Vihar’, the Nepali temple. What makes this place special is the third generation peepal tree adjacent to its premises. Fondly called as the grandson of the Bodhi tree, it is grown from a twig of a peepal tree believed to be the son of the original Bodhi tree that exists in Sri Lanka. With prayer chants and smell of incense in the air, it is truly a place of calm and solitude. We were quick to pick a few leaves of this holy tree as a souvenir from this little place.

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The Thai temple

Next, it was some history time! We bought an entry ticket at the ASI counter to take a stroll around the ruins surrounding the Dhammek stupa. It is believed that the Mauryan emperor Ashoka had built small clay mounds at ten places where the ashes, the urn and the embers of Lord Buddha were buried which were eventually refurbished as large stupas by the different rulers in the course of history. Dhammek stupa is believed to be one among these ten stupas and hence, a very important one for the Buddhist pilgrims who throng here from across the globe. And that very place where the Indian National emblem was born! The pillar on which the four headed lion is seated was commissioned by emperor Ashoka to commemorate his visit to Saranath. The broken part of the pillar was found during the excavations of this site and later transferred to the ASI museum in Saranath. Today, the bottom portion of the pillar surrounded by four posts holding a stone slab are the things remaining from the original relics at the exact same spot. One way it is nice that nobody has tried to restore this pillar back as the easy accessibility to it would have got the emblem all over the internet with the insensitive photo/selfie-enthusiastic tourists.

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The site of Ashoka pillar with the Dhammek Stupa in the backdrop

A visit to Saranath would definitely be incomplete without getting a glimpse of the ORIGINAL National emblem of India. We deposited our valuables including cameras and cellphones in lockers provided along with the entry ticket to the ASI museum and headed to THE place. A chill ran down my spine on being greeted by this majestic sandstone structure bearing the lion capital, the original form of our National emblem. The four headed Asiatic Lion is seated on a lotus- The national flower of India. Our guide narrated the religious relevance of the emblem in Buddha’s life. The lion represents Buddha himself who stressed upon equality and justice in all spheres of life (all 4 directions). While Gautama was in his mother’s womb- she had a dream of a white elephant entering her womb representing prosperity. The bull represents the young prince Siddhartha’s strength, the horse depicts Siddhartha’s renouncing his royal life and Lion is the depiction of Siddhartha’s transformation into Buddha. When Baby Siddhartha learnt to walk, a lotus bloomed under his feet after the first seven steps and the lotus is said to have faded at the passing away of the Lord- Hence, the inverted lotus. The Ashoka wheel is called the Dharma Chakra, representing the movement of life with 24 spokes- each for the hours of a day… It is true to admit that the national emblem evoked a sense of pride in my heart. Ours is such a rich country in terms of history, culture and heritage! Every stone in India has a tale to tell… Having been restricted from the access of shutterbugs makes this sight all the more valuable and meaningful! There are several other sculptures and artefacts in this museum making it THE BEST museum day in my life!

The last leg of our Saranath walk tour was a visit to the handloom centre where demonstration of weaving a Banarasi saree was given and there it concludes! Sometimes you end up having this feeling of unplanned trips are the best things to happen… And Saranath is one such place!

Summary:
Must do- Walk tour of the town
Must see- The Original form of the Indian National emblem at the ASI museum
Best souvenir- The leaves of the Grandson of the Bodhi tree.

How to reach- There is a railway station in Saranath. It is more convenient to hire an autorickshaw for a 30minute ride from Varanasi.

Stay- There are several Dharamshalas run by people from different countries.

This article was featured in Toyota’s in-house magazine ‘Carz’ Apr~Jun’18 edition