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Published: January 28th 2010
Varanasi was a city I thought possibly best avoided. The city has a reputation based on the chaos of river boat touts, beggars galore, public cremations and fairly recent bombings. Actually the most recent attack was when I visited India in 2007, a bomb detonated in a courthouse killing 20 and injuring more than 100. But there was no tension upon arrival and in fact it seemed rather calm after the mass of humanity in Bodhgaya. I was traveling with Jamie and her friend Christina, whom she met at a recent Tibetan Buddhist course in Nepal. We also hooked up with their friend Dan and the four of us explored Varanasi together. The old city has many narrow streets with the smell of urine, incense, burning trash, chai and cow shit. Mark Twain said of Varanasi which he referred to by the old name of Benares, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." The city really has a charm of its own and truly feels like a holy city.
The highlight of many peoples trip to Varanasi is an early morning or evening boat
trip. It's really hard to avoid with the abundance and persistence of the boat touts. Literally every 20 meters at the most you hear, "You want boat?" or, "You want something else?....Hash?....Silk?...Massage," the list goes on and on. So on the 2nd morning we boarded a boat at 6:15am. The morning fog made for very soft light as we were rowed down the river by a 12 year old boy, his job before and after school. It was an amazing time to be on the river with tablas being played as part of morning devotional music, people bathing in the chilly waters, a holy man performing a fire ceremony and two bodies ablaze at one of the burning ghats.
This part of my trip has paralleled the footsteps of the Buddha though not in the same order. As I wrote about in my last blog, Bodhgaya is where Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha. Only 30k from Varanasi was Sarnath, famous for Deer Park, the first place that the Buddha taught the dharma. The dharma bums (see pictures) and I visited Sarnath on a day trip. There's a great museum there with many old statues and relics, including
a 2000 year old stone umbrella with Buddhist engravings. The Dhamek Stupa is a very large, brick stupa that marks the spot where the Buddha gave his first teachings to his five disciples.
I parted ways with my fellow seekers the next day. My route took me to Kushinagar, where the Buddha spent his last days and was cremated. Another massive brick stupa known as Ramabhar Stupa marks the spot where the Buddha is thought to have been cremated. The stupa and surrounding grounds had a serenity and peace that are hard to find in India. It was the perfect place to contemplate impermanence and death.
My final stop on this holy trail was Lumbini, the place of the Buddha's birth. It is just over the Nepal border. I arrived on an all too common strike day. This meant that all public and private transportation was banned apart from bicycle rickshaws. Lumbini was 22k from the border so I had to hire one of these poor chaps to pedal me there. Actually I didn't feel too bad because these guys usually work for chips, and I was giving him about $12, which is an average weeks wages. I
met another American by the name of Paul along the way. He will probably be the only person I meet in my life who was lucky enough to see a snow leopard, while doing anthropology work in NW Nepal! We hired bicycles and explored the Lumbini Development Zone the next day. This area is centered around the Maya Devi Temple, which marks the spot of the Buddha's birth (see pictures). It was another place of incredible serenity. A Japanese planner developed the layout for the outlying area. It's a masterpiece in the works, that is combining the natural lakes with canals so that eventually it will all be navigable by boat. The west monastic zone has been set aside for the Mahayana traditions, and the east side is reserved for the Theravada traditions. All the major Buddhist countries have built or are building temples and monasteries in their country's style. It is really a sight to see! Aside from this the birding was great, an added bonus for me. Onward to Pokhara!
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