New Year in Varanasi (and holy Sarnath)

Varanasi Travel Blog

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Up so early that I beat the boatmen out of bed.  My hostal lacky left me in the hands of a 8 year old flower seller to try and get up one of the boatman.  The poor lad ended up having to untie one of the boats and row it from the mud bank over to the steps of the ghat where the boatman had got himself out from his makeshift bed to reluctantly start work. 

Varanasi is the city of 10 million temples.  With the population a fraction of that, I was sceptical until I had a little time waiting for the boat to arrive.  Every spare piece of stone or pallet of wood becomes a temple given a holy man with a few burning lanterns.  I was asked to move every time I sat down as I was being disrespectful.  I stayed standing !

We rowed 5 minutes down stream towards one of the funeral ghats where cremations are held 24 hours per day before the 1st hints of daylight on the horizon started.
  Watched a little of the ceremony from the river before heading back where my boatman had spotted bigger fish to fry in a group of 12 Germans.  A quick transfer to a bigger boat and we headed in the opposite direction towards the bigger and more historic ghats.

Sunrise on the Ganges another of the 1000 Make the most of your life moments from my geeky book.  As we rowed passed the numerous ghats, every one crowded with locals bathing in the Ganges in their morning Hindu ritual. The Germans decamped at the much revered Manikarnika ghat which is the holiest of the ghats being "the Great Cremation Ground for the corpse of the entire Universe".  The Hindus lucky enough to die in Varanasi to supposedly receive enlightenment passing on to the next life all desire to be cremated in the most ancient and holiest of ghats before the worldly ashes are "swept" in to the Ganges.
  I stayed on the boat and watched the sun rise with activity all around - cremations, next to another ghat with bathers and dozens of other boats floating by, and the changing colour of the sun reflecting off the river.  Highly recommended.

Returned back to Rana ghat with still hundreds more Hindus coming down to the ghats to fully submerse themselves in the Ganges river.  I dipped my finger in and thankfully it didn't dissolve.  I wasn't risking anything more.

An hour break at the hostal and I went to complete my hostal booked trip to see 3 of the Hindu temples.  Sadly (but I guess understandably), the 4 main Hindu temples are not accessible to non Hindus so we are left with some of the others.  I received a fleeting tour of;

Viishwanatha - modern temple built in the middle of the impressive Varanasi University complex that majored on homage to Ganesh
Durga (also known as monkey temple for the number in the complex) - with tight security following a bomb blast last year killing many, pays homage to Shiva's terrifying consort Durga
Shakti - I'd lost track

My hostal guide didn't speak the best English and he didn't seem to know much about the places as it soon transpired the main focus of the tour was to get me to the silk factory and then cornered in the silk shop where a very complimentary old man tried every effort to get me to buy some of his fine silk.
  I was shown a fine display of scarves, cushions and bed sheets and made to feel very guilty that I'm not buying anyone any presents, but I left him disappointed.

With a free evening, I was happy to be talked in to attending a music show for the evening. Got escorted to the music hall through the warren of alleyways from the hostal wondering how the hell am I going to find my way back in the dark.  However arrived at the show and left those troubles for later as presented with a small hall with just 8 other tourists sat around the outside of a hall whilst two men playing a tabla (two drums making one instrument played with the hands) and a sitar (very complex looking guitar) strummed away.  Very impressed with them both, especially the tabla which took the bongos to a whole new level.
  The 2nd half far more surreal as they were accompanied by a male dancer dressed in womens clothes who proceeded to order the two musicians to a beat whilst he demonstrated some traditional dances.  The musicians were great, his dancing was terrible as he nearly fell over with every pirouette and completely out of time.  I just focussed on the music.  A good little show and managed to find the main road to get a rickshaw back to my hostal.

Not only is Varanasi the holiest of Hindu cities, but 10km out of Varanasi is Sarnath and a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists as the site of Buddhas 1st sermon, just 5 weeks after he gained enlightenment in 5th century BC.  The site was a major site of Buddhist monasteries until the invasion of Islam saw the site abandoned in the 12th century.
  However a Sri Lankan Buddhist visited the site in 19th century and funded a full excavation of the site discovering a whole array of important artifacts.

However my trip started at a much newer Buddhist temple, built in the 1930s.  Impressive structure in its own right, the most significant feature was the annex that housed a Bodhi tree planted as a sapling at the temples consecration.  The Bodhi tree was imported from Sri Lanka where trees have been grown from saplings taken from the very tree that Buddha gained enlightenment.  Now a fully grown tree itself, people can sit in the shade and emulate Buddha, or read the full length version of his 1st sermon, just 100 metres away from where Buddha started the "Wheel of Life " that became Buddhism.

Next door to the Buddhist  temple is a Jain temple.  On this site, the 11th Tirthankarawan (Jain equivalent of Dalai Lama) was born and died.  Not wanting to get started on another religion, the temple itself very nice with the inside filled with religious paintings and photos.

The ruins themselves  offer a large site of stone stumps but plenty of plaques in English describing what each building used to be.  I guess 700 years of pillaging between the site being abandoned to when it was excavated leaves little chance of well preserved buildings. Many stupas still in quite good condition.  However the obvious shining light of the sight is the 33 metre Dhamekh stupa still towering over everything else that is widely acknowledged to be built on the exact spot where Buddha gave his 1st sermon 2500 years ago. 

The museum opposite contains the best preserved artifacts found in the excavation.  Surprisingly large and well preserved collection of large stone/clay/terracotta statues ranging from 6 inches to 6 foot high.  Most statues of Buddha himself in various poses dating from between 1st century BC to 11th century.  The star attraction though is the lion capital (3rd century BC) that was the head piece of the Ashoka column.  The 4 sided 6 foot obelisk crowned with lion heads and underneath the main quadrapeds of India - an elephant, a cow, a lion and a horse.  The Sarnath capital is now the emblem of modern India.  Surely a collection to compete with some of the best Roman artifacts.

Treated myself to an expensive lunch ordering chicken in orange and thyme sauce with roast potatoes !!  It definitely wasn't chicken and have a strong feeling it was one of the pigeons that are being exercised by men with flags off all the rooftops of Varanasi.

Spent the last hours of 2009 in the hostal in the rooftop terrace which had been cleared as a dance floor with a sound system set up.  We all ordered the Varanasi "special lassi" and lasted until 12 for a dance watching a surprising amount of fireworks from all over the city. 
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photo by: rotorhead85