Day 17 - Sunday, November 13, 2016 – Visit Sarnath a Buddhist Temple; Evening Ceremonies on the Ganges River
We met our group at 9:30 after a leisurely morning. Sujay let us sleep in after our crazy day yesterday. We met our local guide, Atanu who welcomed us to his city of Learning and Burning on the Ganges River.
Varanasi is known as one of the Seven Holy Cities and is a center for many universities, schools of religious philosophy, and yoga study. It is also over 4,000 years old and known as the spiritual capital of India. Hindu pilgrims bathe in the Holy Water of the Ganges River and cremation rites are held there daily.
With Atanu, we got on the bus and drove about 20 minutes to the nearby town of Sarnath. Sarnath was an ancient Buddhist learning center at the convergence of the Ganges and the Gomati Rivers.
Our guide explained the history of Siddhartha Tharu, (The Buddha) who was born a prince around 600 BEC and then spent the rest of his days living a simple life and teaching and preaching the benefits of meditation and devotional practice.
Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon to his disciples in Sarnath. We saw many pilgrims, monks, and holy men praying at the Stupa and turning the prayer wheels at the temple. We walked through Deer Park and then to the archeological ruins of the original Sarnath Village.
There were huge crowds today as tomorrow is a religious holiday and it is also the full moon of November, a very auspicious day for the Buddhist and Hindu religions. A group of dancers from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) were preforming at the temple today and we had a chance to take photos and watch them dance.
We visited the Bodhi Tree, a sacred fig tree, the same family as the one under which the Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment. The Tree of Knowledge and Enlightenment is very well protected and people stand in line to spin the prayer wheels that surround the tree.
The next learning and discovery was at the Sarnath Museum, or Archaeological Survey of India. No cameras or cell phones were allowed in the building but we had a chance to see many of the ruins of the ancient village along with 5th century statues of the Buddha.
Atanu pointed out the including Ashoka’s Lion Capital, made of polished sandstone, and now is the national symbol of India. We had about 20 minutes to explore the museum on our own before driving back to Varanasi and to our hotel.
Lunch and dinner were not included in today’s schedule so Sujay suggested we could eat at the hotel or walk just a few blocks to a large shopping mall where there were little cafés, shops, and a Pizza Hut and a McDonald’s.
We had a few hours so we chose to take a walk in beautiful downtown Varanasi. The shopping center was very modern and we got a quick sandwich and then found a grocery store on the top floor.
When traveling, our two favorite places to visit are hardware stores and grocery stores. These two businesses give us a true flavor of the people and what they need to have in their daily lives.
Dinner was also on our own tonight so we bought a few snacks for our evening meal. Walking back to the hotel, we dodged, tuk-tuks, bicycles, cars, rickshaws, sleeping dogs, and wandering cattle. It was quite an adventure, but we can say we went out of our way to see the city.
At 4:15 we met our group for the evening on the Ganges activity that was scheduled for yesterday. Our local guide, Atanu was with us again this afternoon and explained about our visit to the Ganges.
We boarded electric Tuk-Tuks, four to a cart, and drove as far as we could into the old city. We got out and walked the rest of the way. Words cannot describe the crowds of people going in the same direction down to the ghats or stairs on the riverbank.
When we reached the Dashashwamedh Ghat we got on a small boat and were rowed out onto the river. The light was fading and we could see the cremation fires of the Manikarnika Ghat, the Great Hindu Crematorium.
Atanu explained the whole process of death and then almost immediate cremation by the oldest son or head of the household called the Chief Mourner. The wood is stacked and then the head of the family lights the fire. Untouchables tend the fires until the body has burned to ashes.
Our boat got close enough to the ghat for us to count 16 cremation fires burning. The families stand on the banks and pray that their loved one’s soul will be released.
This amazingly peaceful process was very moving. There were no bad smells as sandalwood and precious oils were poured over the body and the fire was extremely hot.
As we were rowed away from the crematorium, Sujay brought out 18 candles set in bowls of marigold blossoms. The evening ceremony was to honor and pray for living family and friends. We each got a glowing candle bowl, made a wish or prayer for our loved ones, and then placed it into the Ganges.
It was almost time for the daily evening prayers of thanksgiving to put Mother Ganga to sleep. The ceremony is very unique and thousands of people sat on the steps of the Dashashwamedh Ghat to join in this service.
The crowds clapped and chanted with the priests, incense wafted through the air, and a full moon hung in the sky to light this touching Hindu ritual. We watched until almost the end and then made our way through the crowds, snaked through back alleys, and finally found our drivers that took us back to the hotel.
We took our showers and then went to work trying to preserve this astonishing day. The sights, sounds, and the smells of the city and the two night ceremonies on the river were almost impossible to describe. The photos will help, but today was truly a day you had to be there to get the full impact.
There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth, not going all the way, and not starting. Buddha
Accommodations: Radisson Varanasi Hotel - - - Meal: B & D
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Very nice description of your day. Thank you.
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