Saturday, February 8, 2014

India Adventure: Varanasi

Varanasi waterfront.
Even though I'd booked a train ticket from Bodhgaya to Varanasi (twice) I still considered skipping the city entirely, in favor of staying at the Root Institute to hear the Karampa's Dharma talk on February 1. But in the end, I took the train to Varanasi on Jan 31.

The Rough Guide warns that rickshaw drivers will try to take you to a different hotel than the one you've asked to be taken to, because hotels will pay rickshaw drivers commission for your business. A rickshaw driver met me on the train platform as I exited my train, and walked me to the pre-paid auto booth in the train parking lot. This turned out to be a big bonus. It was dark by the time I got to Varanasi. The narrow corridors near the river where my hotel was located are difficult to navigate by motorized vehicle, so I had to be dropped off, in the dark, several blocks away from my hotel. The rickshaw driver coordinated with my hotel on the phone, to ensure the hotel sent someone to meet me on the street, and walk me back to the hotel. A sari shop owner even had me sit down and wait with him, for my escort to arrive. People are so nice.

I was excited to see Varanasi because it is one of the oldest living cities in the world, having maintained its religious life since the 6th century BC in one continuous tradition. It's an important Hindu pilgrimage city that stretches along the banks of the River Ganges. Anyone who dies in the city attains instant enlightenment. The waterfront is lined with sets of stone steps, called ghats. Each set of steps (each ghat) has its own name and lingam (representation of the Hindu god Shiva). So the waterfront is lined with a series of named ghats, which also serve as the names of the adjacent neighborhoods. My hotel was in Pandey Ghat.

The ghats are visited daily by bathers, clothes washers (dobhis), owners of boats who will try to get you to take a ride on the river, Hindu priests who perform religious ceremonies (pujas), and many tourists who like to walk along the waterfront, sit on the steps and observe city life, or talk with local residents. Boats line the waterfront, offering rides to tourists and residents. Each time I looked out at the river, there were boats travelling up and down, ferrying people along its banks. I picked my hotel because it is right on the waterfront, with a restaurant and deck that overlooks the river. The hotel is maybe 2 stories above sea level. Guests can walk down a flight of steps next to the hotel building to access the waterfront. It was great.

I woke up on my first morning in Varanasi, intent on visiting Sarnath, a  town 6 miles north of Varanasi. Sarnath is a Buddhist pilgrimage site - the place where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment around 530 BC. Sarnath's name is derived from Saranganatha, the Lord of the Deer. A Buddhist story tells of a Boddhisatva, a deer offers his life to a king instead of the doe the king is planning to kill. The king is moved by the offer, and creates a park as a sanctuary for deer. The deer park is still in Sarnath. 7th Century pilgrim Xuan Zhang recounted seeing 30 monasteries in Sarnath, but Indian Buddhism floundered to Hinduism. Sarnath was rediscovered in 1834, and now houses missions from Buddhist countries.

So that morning, I approached another hotel guest in the restaurant, and asked if he'd been to Sarnath and knew how to get there. Andre, a French-speaking Canadian told me he had hired a rickshaw driver to show him the Varanasi sites for the day, including Sarnath, and did I want to join him and split the cost? Perfect. This was the only full day I had to spend in Varanasi - might as well cram in the major sites.

We left the hotel at 10am Indian Time (10:15am) and spent the day being whisked around by our rickshaw driver. It was great. I didn't even know where we were going, at any given point. I'd just get in and out of the places our driver pointed us towards. 

Our first stop was a modern temple, Bharat Mata (Mother India), inaugurated by Mahatma Ghandi. The temple's floor is covered by a relief map of India. I wouldn't make an effort to visit it, if you're planning a trip to Varanasi. 

Next stop was Sarnath, where we got to go inside the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara temple, which has a beautiful Buddha inside of it, and saw the place where Buddha gave his first sermon, right next to the temple. There is an offshoot of the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, in Sarnath at that spot. We walked down the street to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and visited the temple located in the center of the monastery. From the outside you'd never know that there is a gigantic, beautiful gold Buddha inside of the temple, surrounded by beautifully painted walls. It's one of the prettiest Buddha statues I've seen in India - amaaaazing. We then had lunch at a great little Tibetan restaurant across the street from the monastery called Friend's Corner Tibetan Restaurant. It felt like I was back at Sera Monastery or Bodhgaya - felt great.

We stopped at Ramnagar Fort, on the opposite side of the river from our hotel to walk through the unused part of the current Maharaja of Varanasi's residence, and a dusty museum full of antique cars, palanquins, ornate guilded and silver howdahs (elephant seats), and other assorted artifacts of royal life in Varanasi. It was so unlike your typical museum - felt more like poking around an old home. One of the highlights of the day.

After Ramnagar Fort we visited 3 very different temples. The first temple was in very active use by Hindus who were ringing a loud bell and shouting, and a very large group of monkeys. It was unusual as compared with other temples I've seen in India, and was very fun. We weren't allowed to bring cameras or food inside the temple grounds because that would attract the monkeys who wander and play freely amongst the visitors. We walked along a wooded path after visiting the temple, where we had to be careful not to step on monkeys who were blocking the path. The next temple we visited was a large, white modern Hindu temple whose interior looked more like a wedding reception hall than a temple. It was beautifully decorated and maintained, and at its head had three separate altars for Hindu gods. The last was the 19th century Durga Temple, which is stained bright red. The entrance to the temple itself was shining gold. It was really lovely. There were ringing bells at this temple, too.

After our tour, Andre took me down to the ghats just north of our hotel to show me the evening pujas. Each night young uniformed men perform Hindu rituals, with fire, set to recorded music, on the waterfront. They perform on stages that line the waterfront. Local residents and tourists sit on stone steps that face the waterfront to watch the performance. Others watch from boats that have been pulled up along the waterfront, just behind the stage. Basically it looked like Disney World - so many cameras pointed at the stages. It was a lot of fun.

We then walked over to a the International Music Centre for a concert in memory of Ravi Shankar. A violinist, sitar player, and two tabla players performed beautiful music to an audience of tourists who were sitting on the floor, which was covered in white sheets, or on wood benches. I was so tired at this point that I curled up on the floor, leaning against the wall, and may or may not have closed my eyes to enjoy the music and the comfort of being surrounded by tourists who also went out of their way to see live music in Varanasi. Navigating our way back to the hotel after 10pm in the pitch black, by the light of the flashlight that's built into my cell phone was also an adventure. The corridors were quiet and empty except for the street dogs, cows, and a few residents who were frequenting a few convenience store-style shops that were still open. It was a fun experience to see Varanasi in a very different way.

The next day, my last in Varanasi, I walked along the waterfront and explored the ghats. It was relatively peaceful and non-touristy, even though I was walking along a part of India that felt like Venice. The buildings were built high, with 18th and 19th century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces. So walking along the waterfront is like walking along the bottom of a row of really old buildings that mostly touch each other, with sets of stone steps leading up to their doors from the waterfront. The architecture is varied, as are the colors, heights, and purposes of the buildings. It was a nice walk. I decided not to visit one of the sites that many people come to Varanasi specifically to see - the burning ghats where bodies are cremated. I decided I didn't really need to see it.

After walking along the ghats I went back to the hotel to pick up my luggage, and ran into a Spanish couple who were also heading to the train station to catch the same train I was taking to the same city - Agra. There were many other white foreigners travelling on our train - Agra is home of the Taj Mahal. The subject of my next post, and as a preview - in itself, a perfectly good reason to travel to India.

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