Travels: Varanasi and Saranath

In Varanasi, I would find the real India, according to someone I’d met in Bangalore. The holy city located on the banks on the Ganges is associated with the god Shiva and attracts tourists and pilgrims alike who come to see the Arti ceremony, ghats, temples, sadhu-babas, make an offering or bathe in the sacred river. There with another Summer in South Asia fellow, Caroline, who had just arrived in India. My first day in Varanasi began with a walk on the Ghats, which means steps. We walked along, being continually asked if we wanted a boat ride while we took as much of the place in as possible. The river, the ghats and history of the place provided a great deal to observe. After reaching the last ghat we turned back and headed to the guest house.

Me in front of one of the ghats

Me in front of one of the ghats

Walking along the ghats

Walking along the ghats, taken from the Assi ghat

With the rest of our day we decided to see Saranath, one of four pilgrimage sights in Buddhism and the sight of the Buddha’s first sermon, known in the sutras as Deer Park. The Buddha came to Saranath after achieving enlightenment at Bodh Gaya to find the five ascetics that had rejected him when he discovered the middle way. Knowing they would understand his teaching about the nature of reality and suffering he delivered the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of Dharma Sutra. Stupas stand at the spot where he met these ascetics on the edge of town and where he gave his sermon a short distance way. We wondered around the excavation site seeing the brick stupas and the sight of the Ashoka’s column. (Ashoka was a famous emperor of India who is said to have converted to Buddhism and marked the Buddhist pilgrimage sites. His column, that of four lions, is the symbol of India and can be seen on the nation’s flag.)

The excavation site at Saranath. The large brick tower in the distance is the Dhamek Stupa and once held relics of the Buddha inside of it.

The excavation site at Saranath. The large brick tower in the distance is the Dhamek Stupa and once held relics of the Buddha inside of it.

This Stupa commemorates where the Buddha met his disciples. The tower on top is a later Mughal addition

This Stupa commemorates where the Buddha met his disciples. The tower on top is a later Mughal addition

After seeing the stupas, we went to a Buddhist temple where the Buddha’s first sermon is recited every evening with other sutras. The temple also contained a Bodhi Tree, which was a clone of the tree found in Sri Lanka. Although many people walked around the temple complex, most left when it came time for the puja. Caroline, another person and I sat as the monks chanted. An hour flew by as the rhythmic recitation caused feeling of deep relaxation.

The MahaBodhi Society temple at Saranath.

The MahaBodhi Society temple at Saranath.

The Bodhi tree at Saranath. It was grown from a branch off the Bodhi tree from Sri Lanka. The Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka having been brought there by Ashoka's daughter and grown fro a branch off the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Ghaya, the tree the Buddha achieved enlightenment under.

The Bodhi tree at Saranath. It was grown from a branch off the Bodhi tree from Sri Lanka. The Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka having been brought there by Ashoka’s daughter and grown from a branch off the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Ghaya, the tree the Buddha achieved enlightenment under.

The next day we awoke at 4 am. Our guest house arranged a boat ride and a tour of the city for the day. A French medical anthropologist named Pierre from our guest house who was studying how religion effects schizophrenia joined us. Schizophrenia can often produce hallucinations that relate to god and the dive, thus religion can affect the hallucinations that schizophrenics have. When I first met him the night before, he said to our host “tomorrow, no rain, boat ride. Rain, tea and cigarette.” I quickly knew he was European. Even now I miss his jovial personality and sense of humor. Our guide met us at our guess house and we saw the morning ceremony on the Ganges at the Assi Ghat and drank chai from small clay pots. As the boat moved along the ghats, the guide told us about them. Some were former places of maharajas that now stood abandoned. Although one former palace was now a hotel with all the trappings of a palace, the interior still covered in gold and silver. You could spend a night there for 70,000 rupees. At the current exchange rate that’s 1,087 USD.

Pierre taking pictures of sadhu-babas.

Pierre taking pictures of sadhu-babas.

Former palace of the Maharaja of Rajasthan, now a hotel.

Former palace of the Maharaja of Rajasthan, now a hotel.

Our boat ride stopped at the Manikarnika Ghat, the largest burning ghat. Every fire that you see there has a body in it. People save money their entire lives to be burned here, the guide explained. Cremation costs at minimum 150,000 rupees and to be cremated there meant that you would achieve moksha, the reunion with god that is the goal of Hinduism. Although some people aren’t burned there such as Sadhu-babas and those who are bitten by a cobra. Women are only allowed on the ghat if they haven’t seen the face of the deceased. As we observed the ghat we saw a family bring another body to be burned there and a burnt bone be tossed into the holy Ganges. Only lower castes work on the burning ghats. Even the Brahmins, who are the highest priest caste are low caste there as there are sub-castes within the four major castes. These Brahmins can only preform pujas on the burning ghats and not in the temples which are reserved for the high caste brahmins. The high caste brahmins don’t even want to step into the homes of low caste brahmins who work on the ghats, believing them to be unclean.

The Manikarnika Ghat, a burning ghat

The Manikarnika Ghat, a burning ghat

Returning to the guest house, Caroline and I broke our fast on mangos bought from a street vendor. You can only get mangos when they are in season here, something foreign in the US where you can get fruits and produce in the store all year round. We continued our tour of the city seeing some of the numerous temples throughout Varanasi. We went to the Hanuman temple on Hanuman day to find it incredibly busy. Hanuman is the god with the face of the monkey who helped Rama in the Ramayana by lifting a mountain. Every day of the week has several gods associated with it. Friday and Tuesday are both days dedicated to Hanuman. All monkeys are considered to be incarnations of Hanuman and monkeys could be found all over the temple. Monkeys, while cute, are notoriously aggressive. Don’t get close to one. We also saw the Tulsi Dargi temple, the Durga temple or red temple and several others. We ended the afternoon at silk wholesaler who showed us beautiful silk blankets and scarves after having seen the hand looms on which they are made. The sheets were nothing short of works of art, and outside of my price range. I did still however buy a kurta, a traditional Indian garment resembling a tunic.

The Tulsi Manas Temple

The Tulsi Manas Temple

Me wearing the kurta I got in Varanasi

Me wearing the kurta I got in Varanasi

We returned to the guest house to avoid the heat of the day. In the evening, we ventured out again. While in Bangalore I craved a good lassi and was disappointed the few times I got one. Lassi is north Indian. In Varanasi, I found what I was searching for and our evening started with eating lassi in clay pots. As we walked through the narrow alleyways of the tourist market, our guide told me that Goldie Han had been to see his guru and had made astrological predictions for her. He asked me if I would also like such a reading, which would tell me what would happen in my future. I declined. After lassi we headed to the Kashi Vishvanath, a temple dedicated to Shiva known as the golden temple, although not to be confused with the one in Amritsar. While I could have tried to enter the temple, they ask that only Hindus do so. I chose to respect that. It still makes a striking sight from the outside earning its name being topped with gold. We saw the even arti ceremony which like the cremations never stops, rain or shine.

The evening Arti ceremony

The evening Arti ceremony

As the day turned to evening the ghats gained new beauty awash with light and changed from a religious space to a social space. People played cricket and teenagers looked for a place to hang out. Pierre, Caroline and I settled on one of the ghats to converse with our guide after the arti ceremony. He explained that if he wanted to be married he would ask his parents to arrange it. Although he had some desire to visit Europe he wanted to stay close to his family in Varanasi and felt fortunate to be born there because he didn’t need to go anywhere when he was to day and could be cremated there.. I also learned from him the saying “no hurry, no worry, no chicken, no curry.” He was an excellent guide and I was glad to have him show me the city as I never would have seen as much of it as I did without him.

The ghats at night

The ghats at night

Our last day in Varanasi was spent simply walking along the ghats once last time and heading back to the market, where I bought a few things for friends back home. We left our guest house 2 hours before we needed to catch a bus to Delhi where we would spend a day before heading to Dharamshala. When the auto dropped us at the boarding point we didn’t see the bus but the auto driver assured us it would be along shortly. We waited an hour and half. The bus hadn’t arrived. We pulled out our phones frantically trying to figure out where we needed to go as the bus was scheduled to depart in 20 minutes. With the help of strangers, we figured out the place we actually needed to be and managed to get there and board our bus. Without helpful strangers, I never would have survived for as long as I have here in India. I hope to become one someday as we could always use more of them. Odes ought to be written to them, but I‘ll save that for another time.

The Buddha and his disciples at Saranath.

The Buddha and his disciples at Saranath.

The Ganges, known as the mata ganga, or mother ganges

The Ganges, known as the mata ganga, or mother ganges

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About Chris Olson

Chris is a sophomore planning to major in Political Science and minor in Community Action and Social Change. After graduating he hopes to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in political science to pursue a career in academia. In India he will be conducting independent research on urban planning. Chris plans to examine the master plans of Bangalore and Amritsar and learn what values are motivating planning in the two respective cities and why those motivations are present. From there he will compare those values of each city to understand how and why they may be the same or different, giving greater insight into how urban planning is being conducted in India.

2 thoughts on “Travels: Varanasi and Saranath

  1. Fascinating account of your travels. Based on what you’ve written it sounds as if this summer has truly been the experience that you hoped it would be. I am really looking forward to hearing about more of the details of your journey. You mentioned the need to steer clear of monkeys due to their aggressiveness. Did you learn that lesson the hard way?

    • Fortunately, I did not learn it the hard way. I was told to not go near them, although I did meet someone who was scared of them do to a “bad experience.” I also saw someone get to close too one and it lashed out a little bit as the guide yelled at him to get back.

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