March 2016


Sarnath and Varanasi: Experience the intimate rituals of life
March 2016




A dawn boat ride along the river Ganges

Escape from thinking about the cycle of life; marvel at the ancient stupas and monastery ruins at Sarnath; brace yourself in the blindingly colourful and chaotic ghats along the western bank of the river Ganges; relax in the twilight Ganga Aarti at Dasaswamedh Ghat; wash away your sins and attain an auspicious Moksha...


Words and Photography Srinath Rao


Travel weary, I was glad to arrive in Varanasi and enter one of the most blindingly colourful, chaotic and busy places on the planet. Soon after landing at the Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport, Varanasi, I decided to follow the footsteps of The Buddha. Driving through fields and jam-packed markets, I reached the place of the Buddha's first sermon, Sarnath.


I gave my taste buds a treat, with an appetising Thai and Tibetan meal and then headed towards the Thai Temple and Monastery.


The temple is clean, bright and set in extensive gardens. It also houses some of the most beautiful murals, depicting the story of the Buddha's life and an 80-foot standing Buddha statue.


Walking further along the Dharmpal amd Ashoka Road, I stumbled upon the Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple -the Japanese Buddhist Temple. The interiors are beautiful, inviting and serene, and worshipers gaze at a huge wooden statue of the Buddha in the reclining pose. 


I then headed towards the Tibetan and Chinese Temple and Monastery which has some simple rooms to stay in, before returning to Dharmpal Road. The next sight that I reached was the famous Mulagandhakuti Vihara temple. Built by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society, it houses The Buddha's relics that were found in Taxila. The relics are displayed every year on Karthik Purnima.


A few metres away from the temple is the holy Bodhivriksha (the Bodhi Tree), which was planted from a branch taken from the Shri Maha Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The temple also has a beautiful deer park behind it, which I quite enjoyed.


Walking further down the Dharmpal Road, I found the Dhamekh Stupa and Monastery ruins. The Dhamekh Stupa was built in 500 CE by the Great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, to commemorate The Buddha's activities in this location.


The Stupa is a solid, cylindrical, brick structure, 44 metres in height and 28 metres in diameter. It features some intricate brickwork and geometrical carvings depicting flowers, humans, swastikas and leaves, dating back as far as 200BC.


Another significant structure at Sarnath is the remains of the Dharmarajika Stupa, which is believed to have been destroyed by Jagat Singh in 1794 to use its bricks for construction of another building.


Just a short walk away from these ruins is the centuries-old Archaeological Museum, which houses the 3rd Century BC lion capital, the Ashoka Pillar. I continued further down the road until I came to the large, ruined Chaukhandi Stupa.

The day ended with witnessing the Ganga Aarti Ceremony
This Stupa dates back to the 5th Century AD and marks the spot where The Buddha met one of his first disciples. The tower on the top was constructed later, to commemorate the visit of Emperor Humayun.


With dusk approaching, I boarded an auto rickshaw and headed towards Varanasi, via the Dasaswamedh Ghat.


The day ended with witnessing the Ganga Aarti Ceremony, and with a pleasant stay in a nameless hotel near Assi Ghat.


Very early the next day, I hired a boat to explore the ghats of Varanasi. After an hour long ride on the mellow waters, I reached the Raj Ghat, where I enjoyed watching the sunrise.


Rowing against the river flow, I visited the Trilochan Ghat, which has two turrets and holy waters between them. Then came the Gai Ghat, which boasts a stone figure of the cow.


A little ahead, on the way to Panchganga Ghat, was the dominating Alamgir Mosque, built by King Aurangzeb on the sites of a large Lord Vishnu temple.


Rowing further, I reached the Ram Ghat, which was built by a Maharaja of Jaipur, followed by the huge and magnificent Scindia Ghat, and then Dattatreya Ghat, which bears a foot-print of a Brahmin Saint.


I halted for a while and then headed towards Charanpaduka and the Manikarna Well. Rowing past the huge piles of firewood, I reached the burning Manikarna Ghat. This place is considered the most auspicious place for Hindu cremations. I was led by a priest to a nearby building stacked with the most expensive sandalwood, used for royal cremations.


After rowing for a while, I reached the Meer Ghat, which houses a Nepali Temple with erotic sculptures, and a little further is the Man Mandhir Ghat, built by Raja Man Singh. After wandering around Man Mandhir Ghat for a while, I next found the lively and colourful Dasaswamedh Ghat.


It's a wonderful place to linger and watch people soaking up the rituals. Every evening, around 7pm,the Ganga Aarti ceremony is staged, and people from around the globe flock to witness this elaborate ceremony.


Nearby is the Ahalya Bai's Ghat, which is named after the female Maratha ruler of Indore, and the striking Munshi Ghat.


Rowing past the Someshwar Ghat, Mansorowar Ghat and Kedar Ghat, I reached another cremation spot of secondary importance: the Harischandra Ghat.


Crossing the popular Hanuman Ghat, the Dandi Ghat, the Shivala Ghat and Bachraj Ghat, I reached Tulsi Ghat, which is named after a 16th century poet, Tulsi Das.

A dawn boat ride along the Ganges provides a classic introduction to Varanasi, from people taking a ritual bath to praying to the rising sun
The boat ride was coming to an end, with a last stop at the lively Assi Ghat. Pilgrims from across the country bathe at the Assi Ghat before worshipping the Lord Shiva beneath the Peepul Tree.


A dawn boat ride along the Ganges provides a classic introduction to Varanasi, from people taking a ritual bath to praying to the rising sun; from selling flowers to washing clothes and cleaning buffaloes; from offering blessings to doing yoga, from getting a massage to cremating the dead. The experience is simply world class.


I rested for a while at the shady Café, and enjoyed the oven-baked thin crust pizza and a delicious apple pie.


I then headed towards the Benaras Hindu University, which is regarded as a centre of Varanasi's traditional learning.


The 5km-square campus has huge parklands with wide tree-lined streets. On the campus is the Bharat Kala Bhavan, which is a museum with a wonderful collection of miniature paintings, manuscripts and sculptors. The campus also boasts an attractive New Vishwanath Temple.


I returned to my abode in Assi Ghat and, after a midday sleep, headed towards the most popular Hindu temple: Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishwanath.


Next to the temple was the Gyan Kupor Well; the faithful believe that drinking the well's holy water will help them attain the spiritual plane.


I then boarded an auto rickshaw to cross the unsteady pontoon bridge and, after the bumpy ride, reached the crumbling Ramnager Fort.


The fort houses an eccentric museum, with a beautiful collection of American vintage cars, jewel-coated chairs, an extraordinary weaponry section and an astrological clock.


I descended a flight of stairs and boarded a boat to watch the sunset over the fort and river.

 

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    Thai Temple and Monastery

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    A Buddha statue under a tree at Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple

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    The Mulagandhakuti Vihara Temple

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    The Dhamekh Stupa

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    Remains of the Dharmarajika Stupa

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    Ganga Aarti at Dasaswamedh Ghat

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    Sunrise at Raj Ghat

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    Remains of the Chaukhandi Stupa

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    View of Alamgir Mosque from the river

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    Department of Electrical Engineering block at the Benares Hindu University

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