My recent pilgrimage that I like to call In the Buddha’s footsteps wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Varanasi, a small town situated in the second poorest state of India, Bihar. I took a bus from Bodhgaya with this crazy idea that I’ll open my eyes in the morning in another holy place where the Buddha gave his first teaching ever. Why crazy? Because you can’t simply plan in India; things go always the way they want to go regardless your wish. And why didn’t I take the train which only takes some 4 hours? I wanted to give India a chance and prove that not everything has to inevitably go wrong…
Well, I’m a credulous fool. As always, the bus wasn’t full so the Indians in charge started to look for more people who would fill in the empty seats. Also, some people who had bought the ticket showed up an hour late so our departure was greatly postponed. Time in India is regarded as a hollow phrase so the initial delay was only the tip of the iceberg; we didn’t even make the first 60 miles only to find out that the bus had broken down…
What to say? We were stuck in the middle of nowhere until 7 am when a couple of mechanics finally arrived and started working on the engine. The picture that you should actually have in your mind now is that one Indian was leaning over a smoking engine and four other were watching him. Right in the middle of a highway with only two dhabas by the road that had just woken up, a decent breakfast was out of the question.
I bought a cup of sweet masala chai from one of the stalls when I suddenly saw a young Indian man approaching the bus with sort of a wooden wheelbarrow full of fresh papaya. He parked his business and started peeling and cutting this wonderful fruit into cubes. Such an apparition – maybe a gift from Shiva (or any other Hindu god) – lifted my spirits. Here I was, eagerly gobbling sweet papaya chunks sprinkled with black salt and dribbled with lemon juice. Would you ever think of such a combination? It never crossed my mind but let me tell you this – however bizarre it sounds, it actually worked!
One more note about the way that the masala chai is served in Varanasi – as a local specialty, the tea is poured into small clay cups which you immediately smash on the ground once you’re done drinking!
The journey took 9 more hours to complete. Utterly exhausted, I got into the first hotel in Sarnath that I found. Needles to say that it was way more pricey than the ones in Varanasi. I stayed near the University of Varanasi where the Tibetans and foreigners from all around the globe study Buddhism and Tibetan language. I liked the university’s sweet-looking campus and its buildings mirroring the traditional Tibetan style of architecture. I had a surprisingly delicious lunch at the local cafeteria (my bad memories of the food that we were forced to eat in elementary school were swiftly dissipated) and straight after that I took a rickshaw to the place where the Buddha gave his first teaching.
Don’t picture any enormous audience sitting around the Buddha back then, though. In fact, only his five disciples were present, listening attentively and swallowing every word he uttered (I believe). In order to enter the grounds, you need to pay a foreigner’s fare ticket. To give you a rough idea, an Indian citizen pays 15 rupees whereas a foreigner 200 rupees. Unfair? Maybe. Welcome to India…
The main attraction is a humongous stupa which is set in a park where Indian couples stroll and devotees circumambulate. The Tibetans usually offer khatags (white silk scarves) to statues of Buddhas or any other holy objects. The stupa in Sarnath is no exception – people try to throw folded khatags as high as possible so that they get stuck on the stupa. Unfortunately, all those white scarves look like toilet paper from the distance and give a bad overall image to the holy place.
Another important “attraction” absolutely worth visiting while staying in Varanasi is the Main Ghat. What is so unique about this place? Well, imagine flights of stairs leading to the holy Ganges where people get baptized, do their laundry, wash themselves and burn dead bodies at the same time. It is really fascinating to see the circle of life spinning right in front of your eyes. You can take a boat and enjoy the view from the river or just sit on the steps and let yourself get caught in the moment and carried away.
You will especially get engrossed by watching ceremonies during which people carry dead bodies covered in expensive clothing to the Ganges to wash them and get them cremated subsequently. Hindus believe that if the body of a deceased person is laid in the holy water of the Ganges, the deceased will attain enlightenment, also called moksha or nirvana. If you understand the deep meaning of this ceremony, you won’t be surprised that the bodies are cremated 24/7 without a break.
Even though it is prohibited to take any pictures (which in translation means that you need to bribe a priest in order to be allowed to take some), I couldn’t help myself and shot a few anyways (without opening my wallet, of course).
I had an amazing time during my pilgrimage but it was time to take a train home and spend some 30 more hours on the road…
India is truly a marvelous country in which you will never cease to awe. If you’re thinking about visiting for the first time in your life, be sure to read my article on essentials you’d better know before you set off on a journey to this incredible land.
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