(Part II of a three-part series)
Counting the day I arrived, this was my third day in Kashi. So far, I had experienced the enigmatic Ganga Aarti and had walked along seventy odd Ghats of Kashi. It took me six hours to cover these Ghats, and even though my mind had an experience of a lifetime, today my legs were in total defiance. So I decided to start a bit late that day. In the morning I sat next to an Australian musician practicing his Sitar and had a scrumptious North Indian breakfast. This musician had come to Banaras Hindu University to learn Sitar and used to play his beautiful instrument each day as travellers enjoyed breakfast on an open terrace cafeteria.
As I finished eating Pudi Bhaji in this musical ambience, I decided to inquire about travel arrangements that could take me to my next destination – Sarnath.
Ten kilometres from Kashi, Sarnath is an equally divine place, only for the Buddhists. It is located at the confluence of river Ganga and Varuna and has some of the finest Buddhist structures in India. There is a deer park in Sarnath, where Bhagwan Buddha is believed to have formed his Sangha by teaching Dharma to his very first disciples.
For a mainstream tourist like myself, Sarnath has a lot to offer. Chaukhandi Stuppa, Dhamek Stuppa, Tibetan Temple, The Big Buddha statue, not to mention the Ashok Stambha are all packed into this one place.
From a ritualistic Kashi, I had suddenly stepped into a place which felt more spiritual. Though not being accustomed to both rituals and spirituality, my feeling of unfamiliarity lingered on. I first visited the Chaukhandi Stupa where I saw a bunch of kids dressed in monk’s attire praying silently on the lawn nearby. The glaring sun had little effect on them and their faces had the same kind of submerged expression I had seen on the faces of priests performing the Ganga Aarti. This similarity I had observed, was later beautifully summarized by an old gentleman who played Tabla in a Chinese restaurant near the Ghats that evening.
He said, “Dhun alag alag hai, par sangeet toa sangeet hota hai.” (The tunes might be different but it is all music in the end.)
From this stupa I went to the Japanese temple, which was made using Sandalwood. It gets a special mention in my account because of the enigmatic aroma of sandalwood and the purity it brought within its ecosystem. I spent quite a lot of time in that serene atmosphere. Alongside the Japanese temple is a Sri Lanka Temple and a Wat Thai Temple, each representing the cultures and countries that accepted the teachings of Buddhism.
Another iconic temple was the Tibetan temple. Beyond the usual, this temple had a distinct and painful factor to it. This temple had pictures of all the protesters of the Tibetan cause that had self-emulated themselves. There was a prayer written on a wall next to the picture of Dalai Lama which offered comfort to these departed souls. It also had room which was full of small lights that were all lit at the same time. The symbolism behind these lights was hard to miss, and the monks here in their peaceful manner explained that each light here represents a soul fighting to free its home. The heat and burning smell of the room brings a shiver to those who can sense the pain of those passionate warriors who submitted themselves to the fire in order to fight for their cause.
From this temple that leaves behind the thought of mortality I moved on to a monument that stands for the exact opposite. The Ashok Stambha – A symbol of India’s immortality, a structure so unique and powerful that it was used and passed on by every dynasty that ruled or invaded India. The Mughals used it and so did the British and after thousands of years this icon of India’s unbroken tradition now proudly stands on every official document and representation of our republic. I saw the pillar in all its glory and soon found myself at a stall nearby sipping away another national pride – Chai.
My ride along the Varanasi-Sarnath highway was also testament to how this place is full of contradiction. A backpacker from Kolkata and a recently married Scandinavian couple accompanied me in my Auto Rickshaw. My fellow traveller from Kolkata and I, took turns in occupying the seat next to the auto driver. The Scandinavian couple tried occupying this adventurous position which we Indians are so accustomed to, only to find themselves petrified, every time another vehicle passed by. We all shared a good laugh at this first world peril and got into a discussion that led us on the obvious track of how great our country and its people are. As I added my voice to the boastful narrative, what passed by us was the dreadful economic and cultural disparity of people living alongside this ancient road, unacknowledged but not unnoticed.
(Read Part I of the three-part series here and Part III here)
(This post was first published here on The Tilak Chronicle.)
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.