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The home of the Indian National Emblem- Saranath

This visit to Saranath is a part of my fortnight long backpacking in the typical pilgrimage circuit of Uttar Pradesh covering Lucknow- Ayodhya- Faizabad- Varanasi- Saranath- Allahabad- Agra- Mathura-Brindavan- Fathehpur Sikri– Delhi

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

The Details:

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!

Conclusion Remarks:

  • 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.

The not so Holi- Festival of Braj Bhoomi

Holi is Big in Northern India and the most beautiful in the Braj Bhoomi- the Land of Lord Krishna. Festivities start a week in advance with Lath-mar Holi in Barsana and Nandgaon, phoolonwali Holi (Holi played with flowers) and Widow’s Holi in Vrindavan, Huranga at Baldeo and Holika dahan and Rangowali Holi at Mathura and Vrindavan are some of the major parts of the festival. Articles, blogs and photos are all over the internet about how beautiful this celebration is and the fun of participating in the festival of colours. Deeply inspired, a two week trip was planned through the state of Uttar Pradesh whole-ly, to soak in the festive fervor of Holi.

This visit to Mathura is a part of my fortnight long backpacking in the typical pilgrimage circuit of Uttar Pradesh covering Lucknow- Ayodhya- Faizabad– Varanasi- Saranath– Allahabad- Agra- Mathura-Brindavan- Fathehpur Sikri– Delhi

As per plan, we reached Vrindavan to spend the last two days of Holi- the main days and get coloured in different hues of Gulal. The plan was to reach the hotel, change to clothes that we had kept aside specifically for Holi and then go out to the areas where the colours were being thrown at. However, the entire town was already painted with colours by the time we arrived in our delayed train. A samaritan helped us get an e-rickshaw so that we could reach our hotel. The rickshaw had to squeeze its way through the crowd that had already gathered out on all roads. By the time we reached the hotel, we started to feel miserable about having wasted our leaves and having travelled all the way to Mathura from Bangalore was a big mistake. It was very unfortunate that our experience of the famous Vrindavan Holi was no-where close to fun. Although we were inside the rickshaw, we felt more vulnerable to getting coloured than the rickshaw itself. Goon like mobs would specially target people who were new to this kind of celebration. I had atleast 4-5 men together hold me by my head inside the rickshaw and colour my face. Few others even pulled my scarf and shawl to ensure that every inch of skin was coloured. No! It was not a pleasant way to welcome guests to a new place!

Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan is where Holi is best celebrated with the priests throwing colours at everyone. On the day of Choti Holi, although we managed to go to the temple, we were drenched in wet colours. Leave that, our faces, hands and every bit of skin was chapped because we were smeared either with coloured cement or sand. This mixture is a norm and hurts like hell when it is being thrown at. We somehow managed to catch glimpses of Holika that were being burnt in some interior corners of the town. Women folk had gathered around effigies placed in the middle of firewood, food grains, vegetables and all other important things required for burning the pyre. We were colour soaked till the bone by the time we braved the task of reaching the safe confines of our hotel doorstep amid all the cemented colours and sand. Taking pity at our plight, our hotel incharge asked us to stay indoors the following day, as the last day could get wilder.

Finally, the main day of our fortnight long trip had arrived. But, we could barely think of venturing out on the streets on the day of Rangowali holi. Since our hotel was located in the main city area, we set our chairs out in the balcony of our room on the 3rd floor and watched the frenzy on the streets. It was disappointing to watch the Rangowali Holi turn into an event of Kheechadwali Holi (Holi played with water from the drainage). This kind of celebration can give the worst memories especially for girls and foreigners while goons attempt with ruthless amount of coloured glass powder. It can affect your eyes, skin, blood vessels anything! On top of it all, people are sloshed in Bhang and one cannot be sure of what’s gonna happen next!

Really, I’m not exaggerating the displeasure; the festival of colours is exaggerated through good photography by the photo enthusiasts who are all mostly male. I’d bet you not to plan your Holi trip to Braj with a bunch of girlfriends or with anyone who is new to this area. I strongly recommend you either plan on the day of Phoolon wali Holi or be a part of a private Holi celebration at a friend’s place amidst known crowd. This trip to Mathura has left scars of ir-repairable displeasure and sadness!

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The Banke Bihari temple Clicking credits: Gowtham Shastry

The journey through Uttar Pradesh State Elections- 2017

This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the typical pilgrimage circuit of Uttar Pradesh covering Lucknow- Ayodhya-Faizabad- Varanasi – Saranath- Allahabad- Agra- Mathura- Brindavan– Fathehpur Sikri– Delhi

I’m not a political person and I don’t prefer blogging about something that can spark a political row with my writings.. But, this one goes here because I want to narrate the election campaign as seen through my eyes as a traveler traversing through a state where the election fever had hit hard! One of the most awaited elections of the country and an important one for the current ruling party of the state to prove their influence.. Uttar Pradesh State assembly elections!

Firstly, we were roaming the streets of the state capital- Lucknow. One fellow told us, “There were elephants standing at all corners and across all streets, then the cycle lanes were laid. Neither the elephants nor the cycles did any good to the city. Unemployment is an evil left over by the previous governments. Ours kids are struggling in the slush. Let us give a chance for the lotus to bloom.”

Moving ahead, we were temple hopping at Ayodhya. A local boy offered to be our guide. We were amused with the stringent security checks and the big political drama directed by man in the name of God. Just as we were talking among ourselves, our guide blatantly told- “Don’t worry, you will not have to go through all this when you are here next time. ModiJi aayenge tho sab theek hojayega! (ModiJi will resolve everything)”

The following day we were at Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of Modiji himself! It was election day when we arrived there. The security was tight and with very less traffic, the spiritual city was a sight. That said, we went for a boat ride along the Ghats of the Ganges.. Explaining the history and significance of each ghat, our boatman rowed the vessel forward. In between he said- “Do you see that structure up there? Modiji aayenge tho uss Masjid ka samasya ka hal mil jayega (The issue around that mosque will be solved if Modiji wins), pointing at a mosque that is a subject of historical controversy.

It was 11th March: The D-day.. We were travelling to our next destination- Allahabad. The counting of votes was in progress and the poll trend was being aired by all news channels.. The customers in shops and hotels were glued to their TV screens.. Our fellow passengers were lost with news updates on their smartphones.. The driver and conductor of our bus caught up every now and then to get updates on the running poll trend.. Clearly, curiosity and anxiety were the only things in the air.. Everybody was discussing about who or which party would win the elections. We caught up with a conversation with our oarsman while being rowed to the confluence. He was casually talking about how he had left home to find a better job but later returned back to his family with the grace of mother Ganges et all.. And in the event, he told us that, “Mother Ganges gets more polluted on her journey forward through Banaras. But, Let us give a chance to Modiji, Ganga Zaroor Saaf hojaayegi! (Ganga will definitely become clean)”.

It is a very tough deal to commit for something as big as this, given the various religious, cultural and sentimental dimensions linked to everything that requires a change. These were not just hopes, It was an assurance given by the BJP.. It made me realize how just one man has changed the way common man looks at politics.. At any situation, we must stick to the basic morals of being an Indian- Secularism is the beauty of India! Exhibit ‘Unity in Diversity’ because the nation needs us.

And in between all the frenzy, we were waiting at Faizabad junction for our night train to Varanasi.. A train with no display board thugged slowly on Platform no.1. In the next few minutes, we were amused by looking at the platform. It was crowded with the men in uniform till as far as our eyes could reach on both ends. We saw arms and ammunitions being stacked up on the pavement and dedicated men with rifles guarding them. In a time where the entire nation was celebrating Holi, it was a strange but an overwhelming event to watch so many personnel from the armed forces who were there on duty. I hold very high regard for the defence personnel who guard us regardless of time and place. I had goose-bumps for having been in the midst of all this action. I couldn’t contain my anxiety and spoke to one of the men, while a couple of others joined in. We were told that they were from the Border Security Force (BSF) and had travelled down from Srinagar for security reasons during the state elections. That gave us an idea of how massive and sensitive the event of elections in UP is for whom, things are a lot peaceful and easy back in our home state- Karnataka.

Coming back to politics, declaring the party leader / Ministerial candidate before elections is a normal way to attract votes from the public based on various other parameters. In contrary to this style, having fielded no chief ministerial candidate; the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has managed to win the great battle with just the name of one man- ModiJi! A sweeping victory of 325 /403 votes that has pushed the entire nation into amazement. Now, that the lotus has bloomed, whether the fragrance of the flower or the stench of the drainage would spread is left for the citizen to watch..