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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

The Land of Ramayana- Ayodhya

We were scheduled to arrive at the land of Ramayana- The Epic of Indian Mythology! Ayodhya is believed to be built by Manu, the first man on earth as per the Vedas. This land was the capital of Ikshvaku dynasty of Suryavamsha- lineage of the Sun, of which Lord Ram was the most popular ruler. Lord Ram has been revered as a symbol of a perfect man. Irrespective of religion, every child born in India grows up listening to stories from the Ramayana. Young girls grow with dreams of having a husband similar to Lord Ram. That said, it was no less a dream to travel all the way to the land where the greatest empire of all times existed.

A small platform which ended even before the train made its 1 minute long stop, very laid back village scene and just 2 tracks with a yellow ‘AYODHYA’ railway board welcomed us as we arrived there by an afternoon train. An old man and his cycle rickshaw awaited us on the other side of the tracks. We told him our hotel’s name and he said 50 Rs. We hopped on to the cycle and our dream journey kickstarted!

It was as if the rickshaw was our time machine that took us back in time as it slowly inched through the main commercial area.. A typical rural setup. Dusty roads were flanked by old tenements on both sides from end to end. The rich embossings on the facades of each house was unique and gave us a sense of an era bygone. Each house enclosed a shrine from where the smell of incense had filled the environment. The main street had everything being sold in the stalls from colourful plastic ware, brass souvenirs, religious beads, clay articles et all. The Chai-wallas were busy serving their brew in clay cups and the Jalebi-wallas were spiraling the batter into hot oil. Fruit vendors did brisk business on carts.. Amid all this, the prayer chants of ‘Ram Siya Ram, Siya Ram Jai Jai Ram’ from the temples in the bylanes echoed in the air giving us the sense of a heavy atmosphere. There was so much character in this small stretch! Just as if we were woken up from a dream, our rickshaw halted and our driver broke the silence- “Madam, your hotel” he said pointing out at a very modern building which looked very sophisticated for an otherwise laid back country side.

We freshened up and had a rather sumptuous meal at their inhouse restaurant. It was already sunset time and upon enquiring about the nearest sightseeing places, our hotel caretaker told us to head towards the ghats to catch the Saryu Aarti. We had to rush as the sun was nearing the horizon. While we were asking for directions and running towards the Lakshman Ghat, my friend and I stopped abruptly at a sight.. The first glance of the Ayodhya that we had heard about as kids. A visual treat that looked straight out of a fairy tale. ‘This is AYODHYA, Man!” we both blurted in unison. The oblique rays of the setting sun added a glorious gold to this Royal beauty. Although this is relatively new from the 19th century or so and not the original Kingdom that Ram had spent his days at, we stood there dumbfounded for a couple of minutes. After taking an eyeful of it, we walked towards the Lakshman Ghat were the Aarti was about to begin. We hitched a boat ride across river Saryu and back from where we watched the aarti. From there, we took a rickshaw to the Hanuman garhi main road to get our day’s dose of kulladwala chai before we called it a day.

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Our “The AYODHYA view” at Lakshman ghat

Next day, we woke up early to reach the ghats for the aarti during sunrise. Post that, we took a walk along the chawl photographing the artistic friezes. We explored the inside streets and the several temples inside those ancient tenements. Treta Ke Thakur, Ram ki Paidi, Nageshwarnath temple are all in this surrounding. We got talking to several residents both Muslims and Hindus and they all seemed excited to share what Ram meant for them. For some Lord Ram was a brother, for some a father and yet for some a son.. A curious family from the chawl even invited us over to their house for breakfast and took us across the fortress to introduce us to their relatives.. We were deeply moved by the innocence and simplicity of these people. We then bid a warm goodbye and headed towards the heart of the town..

From there, we reached the Hanuman Garhi, an important temple built on a fortified walled structure high above the ground level. Lord Hanuman is believed to have had kept a vigil on Lord Ram as a kid. A man offered to guide us around other important temples around the place. Some being Dashrath Mahal, Kaikeyi Mahal, Baal Ram Mandir, Dant Dhawan kund among the important places out of the 7500+ temples that is believed to exist in Ayodhya. Kanak Bhawan was the highlight of the places with its architectural beauty. This structure is said to have been entirely plated with gold (Kanak) back when Kaikeyi had gifted it to Sita during Ramayana. A board on the wall explains the evolution and modifications done over different periods and by different rulers who ruled Ayodhya. We attended the aarti at noon before heading towards THE PLACE!! “Ram Janmabhoomi”.

Being one of the MOST controversial areas in India, we had to deposit all the things in a safety locker including watches, water bottles, cameras- basically everything before entering the premises of the birth place of Ram! Rifle armed commandos guarded the entire area. We had a long queue and four rounds of frisking to really get there. Women guards frisked us in really uncomfortable places and it was a strange experience to go through inside our own country. I was made to throw away even the vermillion I had kept in my pocket from the Hanuman Garhi temple because they couldn’t trust me on carrying random powder. With all the embarrassment, uncomfort, tiredness in the scorching sun- when we finally made it there: I did not realize that it was Lord Ram’s birth temple. The King of Ayodhya!!! Small idols of Ram Sita and Lakshman were placed inside a Swiss tent as if the trio were still continuing their vanavas in the Kaliyug. Off-beat camping in a deforested jungle. I burst into tears and I didn’t have a reaction. I went berserk for a while until my friend calmed me down.

We couldn’t visit the Ayodhya research centre which has lot of information collected from across the world about Ramayana and the holy land of Ayodhya. Mani Parvat on the outskirts is another place I would suggest if you have time which gives a good view of Ayodhya. Although a 20Rs. per head ride in a tempo can take you to Faizabad, the district headquarters; I would recommend you to take a 1000Rs. boat ride along the Saryu which will take you to Ram Ghat at Faizabad for the evening aarti.

Summary: My entire stay here has been a great one with both Hindus and Muslims coexisting and helping me get around the place. Never did I feel the communal rife. It is one BIG political ticket for easy votes and in interest of no social harmony. Like really!! When there is Ali in Diwali and Ram in Ramzan, do we have really need to fight in the name of God??? The question needs to be pondered over…
Must buys: Chillums (clay pipes), handmade religious bags made of cotton.
Must dos: Get a glance of the Ramayana trail on the India map at the Ayodhya research centre, boat ride from Lakshman ghat(Ayodhya) to the Ram ghat (Faizabad)