The Buddhist Trail

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March 4th 2008
Published: February 17th 2010
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Hi again-
We are finally at the beach in Goa and loving every minute of it! 😊 Below are the pictures from our final adventure through Northern India. After the Taj Mahal we did a Buddhist trail through Varanasi, Sarnath and Bodhgaya. We spent a day in Mumbai after a 30 hour train trip (yes, 30 hours), then got back on an overnight train to Goa. And we'll be back on another overnight train to Kerala tomorrow after just 2.5 days in Goa. Lots of 3 year old nephew would be in heaven.

Apparently one of the oldest cities in the world. This is where the holy Ganges River meets another very important Indian River that I can't spell. It is said that if you die in Varanasi you go straight to heaven...and many old or sick people come here specifically to die. There are multiple holy ghats lining the Ganges and many of those are "burning Ghats", or essentially funeral sites. One burning ghat claims to burn over 150 bodies a day. The funeral pyres are lit up right there in the open for anyone to see and each body takes about 3 hours to burn. Male family members (and tourists with fancy cameras) can witness the torching from just steps away. We stared in awe for a moment but the morbid fascination seemed worse than peering at a car crash and even though there were other gawkers around it felt disrepectful to the mourning family, so we left and went to get some tea (our new favorite past-time).

There is a nightly puja (prayer) at one of the ghats which we watched for an hour and found really interesting. Five young Brahmans perform the puja, lighting insence and swaying candlesticks while a huge crowd gathers, claps and lights candles & flowers to float into the Ganges for good luck. It was a huge performance that I am impressed they put on every night.

"Madam, Madam!" The young man on the street yelled after me. It's not uncommon to be accosted for business immediately outside the train station, so we kept walking. "Madam, welcome to Varanasi. Which country?" Not to be dettered by our silence our friend followed us for about 10 minutes until we finally told him where we were from ("Ooooohhh, America! Very big country, very powerful country. George Bush!" is the usual response.), and where we were going. He tried : "You come for boat ride on my brother's boat." Then: "Have nice dinner in my Cousin's restaurant...". And finally: "Madam, good shopping in my father's silk shop. Just looking...looking is free!" This guy was so sweet and so relentless. They do not give up here...there is no such thing as no! But there was something different about this guy that set him apart from anyone else.
"Tracy," Rick said to me, interrupting my refusal of the silk shop tour. "Did you see his shirt?" I checked it out and was surprised to see a shirt splayed with a bunch of MTV logos! Our new friend was happy to pose for pictures for my work buddies. He was disappointed that we didnt want to go on a boat ride or to the silk shop, but very happy to model his MTV logo shirt for us. MTV India is thriving...I just didnt realize the popularity extended beyond hip and modern Mumbai to this ancient holy city in Northern India!

This is the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon in a "deer park". Its a small town about a half hour by rikshaw from Varanasi. There is a temple and a stupa marking the spot where the sermon was given, many different buddist temples, and a museum of insanely ancient rock carvings (its a miracle they have lasted as long as they have given the museum guard was leaning on one rock statue of Buddha from 8thc BC as he enjoyed his smoke break). For residents of the land of Buddha they are as pushy here as elsewhere...seems odd to haggle for a rock with the Om sign or a picture of Buddha.
The little kids here were adorable. But some of them only know 3 words of English...and it seems to be enough to get by: "Chocolate, School Pen, Moooonnnnnnnneee???" They continue this chant until you finally either throw them some coins, give them a pen (not really sure what the value is here for them but I am making it my mission over the next 2 weeks in India to find out), or buy them some chocolates. But if you do this---as I've found out being the sucker that I am---word will get around fast and you'll have a new trail of kids after you...and sometimes even some hungry grannys too!

What a cool place. We took a train ride from Varanasi and five hours later we were meditating under the Bodi tree that Buddha was enlightened under. Some say its the original tree while others claim that Ashoka's wife chopped down the real deal in a fit of rage and that this one is just a descendant of that first tree...but either way its a beautiful thing and people from all over come to sit underneath its long leafy branches. Many Tibetan refugees live in this welcoming town and there are Buddist temples from Thailand, Tibet, Bhutan and Japan all smushed together in one lovely little community. We stopped in most of the temples and though I really loved the Bhutanese temple (because I want to go there one day!), I think the best experience was the Zen temple from Japan. We meditated with about 20 others and the insensce, monotone chanting and vibrating gongs made it one of the most memorable experiences I have had so far on this trip. We only stayed in Bodhgaya for the day but I wish we had stayed longer...seems that its a special place that could teach you a lot.

After 30 hours (!) on the train from Bodhgaya, we had a day to wait in Mumbai before our overnight train to Goa. We really soaked up this metropolitan city's culture by sampling the cuisine at McDonald's (McChicken's are amazing after a month of no meat) and Pizza Hut. We went all out on the exploration by staying within a five block radius of the train station where all of our American fast food and entertainment needs were easily met. It was so balmy in Mumbai after the chilly Northern temperatures that we desperately needed to have some AC for a while...we decided the best way to do this was to catch a movie and we thoroughly enjoyed watching Michael Clayton after not seeing a movie or watching TV for a month. By the way, Nakul, Sonia, Krishnan,etc...thanks for mentioning that Indian movie theatres have not only a standing ceremony for the national anthem, but an intermission! We were really taken aback, but I guess no one really thought we'd be hanging out in movie theatres while we were here. After 30 hours on a train we needed to unwind a bit. So after our stimulating day we got back on another overnight train to Goa and here we are now. Ahhhh...its so good to be at the beach!

More from Goa and the rest of southern India soon. Love to everyone!


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