At the end of our last post, we were in Rajgir about to make our way to Bodhgaya, the Buddhist centre of the universe.
Day 12 – Our hotel in Rajgir (the Indo-Hokke) was fantastic, best we’ve had in India. It wasn’t cheap, but the service was great, the food was fabulous and well priced, and the WiFi was strong and reliable — A BIG PLUS. We were reluctant to leave, but had to get on our way.
Normally, the drive to Bodhgaya should be about an hour and a half; it’s only 80 km away. However, India always has a surprise in store. About 40 minutes in we encountered a road block. Mata just pulled over behind a long line of cars and freight trucks. He asked a local man something, then he turned off the car and sighed a long, deep sigh… “Politics strike.” We asked what party and he just said people were protesting about fuel and electricity prices. So we were stopped.
After an hour or so the police showed up with guns and started clearing the protesters and the piles of bricks and rocks blocking the road. After a few more minutes, we were off again.
Driving into Bodhgaya we were struck by the circus craziness we’d been warned of. It’s the largest of the Buddha sites, and it’s spread out over a large area populated by many temples and monasteries. The Tibetans alone have at least three large monasteries and temples and are building another large one. Bodhgaya attracts people from everywhere, Hindus, Buddhists, and meditators from various traditions. It’s much busier, louder, and more garish than other Buddha sites. The day we arrived was just before one of the biggest Hindu religious festivals, Pinda Daan. And the Phalgu river (also known to Buddhists as the Neranjara) is the mythological site where Rama’s wife offered pinda to Rama’s father. So it’s a very popular place for Hindus to offer pinda to their own family members who have passed. As the days went by, the number of Hindu pilgrims flowing into Bodhgaya grew and grew.
In the middle of our first night we were awoken by the sounds of shouting amid pitch darkness. The electricity was out (no surprise), but the generator was off, too. Strange. Scott went out to check on things and discovered there had been a short circuit and our wing of the hotel was completely in the dark. But the shouting had nothing to do with this. The shouting was coming from the lobby. About a dozen Chinese tourists were leaving at midnight and were just doing their thing as they waited for their bus. Apparently, their thing was talking as loud as they could. Shouting at their friends who sat just twelve inches away. Incredible, really. We accepted this situation and returned to our dark and very hot and humid room. The hotel offered to move us but we were sleepy and decided not to change rooms at midnight.
Day 13 – After breakfast, we set out to see the Mahabodhi Temple including the Bodhi Tree. On our way in to town, Mata told us he had a friend who could help us navigate the site. No charge, he said, just whatever we wanted to give if anything. We said, thank you, but we don’t need any help. We’re just going to meditate. We left Mata and walked into the complex.
Wow. And this was off season. This is not a peaceful place. It’s a zoo for the religious. We headed for the tree, passing some pretty strange ritual behaviour. There’s an ancient pillar here to mark the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. These famous pillars are everywhere in India, important proclamations of the Buddha’s essential teaching. But Hindu pilgrims have found a different way to view this particular pillar. A man standing on a very tall ladder hugs a metal bowl that has been placed atop the pillar. His job, it seems, is to make sure coins thrown by worshippers below make it into the bowl. When a coin makes it in, it’s a sign of good fortune. So the man’s job is to help things along a bit, we guessed. Also saves having to collect all the money at the bottom of the pillar that misses the target… We wondered what Ashoka would have made of this?
In a short time we found the most famous tree in the world. Swarms of people were walking around it. A few monks and pilgrims sat off to one side of it. Some prayed and some were clearly meditating. We squeezed ourselves in behind some monks and beside another couple. Then we sat under the tree for a couple of hours. It was lovely. The massive Mahabodhi Temple and the thick shade of the Bodhi Tree itself provided a welcome relief from the heat. And there was even a quiet breeze. After a few minutes we were actually alone under the tree.
As the day moved closer to 11 AM, the pilgrims began to disperse and a quiet serenity replaced the chaos. When we were finished, we found Mata sitting off to the side. He had come to look for us. And he had brought his young friend Umesh who told us about the chanting schedules and gave us good advice about when we could come back and sit in the temple. We agreed to return in the evening to join the Theravadan monks as they chanted Pali Suttas in the Temple.
In the evening when we returned the real chaos had descended upon the complex. The morning crowds were nothing compared to the spectacle that greeted us at sunset. It was amazing.
In addition to the usual Buddhist devotees, Mahabodhi was surrounded by devout Hindus. A very long line had formed to enter the Mahabodhi Temple. But we just followed Umesh’s gentle instructions until the monks pointed at us and told Scott to follow them in, moving past the line of pilgrims. We were led past a gate at the front and told to sit behind about 20 yellow-robed local monks. Then the gate was shut behind us. The long line of Hindu worshippers and tourists continued to shuffle in and then back out of the temple as the monks chanted for about 40 minutes. Hindus obviously are not there to pay respects to the monks or the Buddha, but just past the gate there is the ruin of another pillar (likely the original one put there by Ashoka) that Hindus now worship as a Shiva Linga (it’s a sort of ritual penis, we’ll let you google it).
Day – 14 We enjoyed meditating at the Temple, but we preferred to return to the more peaceful setting underneath the beautiful Bodhi Tree. So very early the next morning we went to the temple complex around 5:00 AM. We sat underneath the tree with no one else except for one other monk. Later we were joined by three other monks.
Day 15 – After a few days it was time to make our way to the holy city of Varanasi. It was one of our longest drives yet, and when we arrived we had to park the car and walk about a kilometre to our hotel because the streets of the Old City are notoriously narrow and winding. When we arrived we checked in and rested for the evening.
Day 16 – This is an incredible place. There is a feeling of authentic devotion here and it’s clearly a place revered by Indians.
It’s very easy to get lost here. Normally, the easiest way to walk around is to use the stone walkways that line the river and the steps that lead down to the famous ghats. But, the monsoon rains were heavy this year, if a bit late, and thus much is under water and several inches of thick, caked mud. We hired a local guide named Molu to help us get around. On our first outing, we walked along the narrow, maze-like alley ways, stopping at centuries-old temples and houses along the way.
At one point, we walked close to the river and saw something strange. Then Molu stopped and explained what it was. The bloated body of a dead man floating down the river. Molu told us there are five types of dead bodies that cannot be burned: Children under the age of fourteen, pregnant women, holy men (or sadhus), someone who’s died of a cobra bite, and lepers. The bodies of these people are instead weighted down with rocks and dumped into the middle of the Ganges. After a few days, the body frees itself of the rocks and floats down the river to be eaten by birds and fish.
This was our first experience of what makes this place so unique, it’s close proximity to the dead. We continued our walk until suddenly, after turning a corner we emerged onto a place unlike any we’ve ever visited. The burning ghat.
We stood on the steps leading from a storehouse containing special wood for cremation, and looked down on to the ghat where several bodies were burning. The heat from these funeral pyres was intense. No photos are allowed. Actually tourists aren’t allowed either. But all of a sudden Molu told us to follow him and we descended the steps right down onto the ghat. He walked very quickly. As we caught up to him we realized why. Oh my god it was hot. We walked along a very narrow strip of ground, caught between the funeral pyres of three bodies blazing into the next life on our left and freshly-wrapped bodies of the dead waiting on the ground to our right. We had to step gingerly, desperately trying to make sure we didn’t get too close to the intense furnace of the pyres or accidentally trip over the bodies of someone’s cherished relatives. When we got to the other side of the ghat we watched a body being brought down the steps from the temple and lowered into the Ganges. We had moved out of the way as the procession went by. Music, drums and chanting accompanied the carrying of the body. In the river it was washed, holy water from the river was poured into the mouth, then the body was hoisted out and onto a fresh pyre of wood. One of the family members, always male (eldest son if the deceased was the father, youngest son if it was the mother, for example), after shaving and putting on a white lungi, brought a lit piece of wood from the sacred fire (which has been burning continuously for this purpose for three thousand years) and circled the body while someone poured ghee and sandalwood incense over it. Then the pyre was lit and the body began its three-hour journey to ash and burnt bone.
Despite the fact that no one even blinked at our presence, it still felt a little intrusive, so we hiked up some steps that led to the large Shiva temple overlooking this ghat and continued our walk through the Old City. Molu led us through the nooks and crannies of the city maze. At one point he darted into a very dark narrow doorway, squeezing passed about five police officers who were standing around chatting. They eyed us suspiciously as we went in. Down a dark hallway and around another corner we arrived at a dead end. He pointed down a black shaft and said, “Shiva Temple.” Indeed, when we shone our flashlight down the hole there was a Shiva linga way down at the bottom. It was old. And apparently we weren’t the only ones surprised by this. Our suspicious police friends had followed us in to find out what we were up to. Molu asked us to take a photo of the linga using the flash and then to show them. They were shocked! They never knew there was a temple here. Funny.
We finished our walking tour passing the shops and cafes of the Old City and arrived back at our hotel. It was noon and sauna-like. Molu was sweating profusely, which was kind of reassuring. We aren’t the only ones who found it hot! We made plans to meet Molu at 6 PM for an evening walk to the main ghat to watch the evening puja performed by the priests.
Varanasi also had another surprise for us. Locals here, especially the young boys, are wild about kite-flying. From the window of our hotel room alone, we watched over three dozen kites flying high over the rooftops. One kid in particular is like a kite ninja, with super fast, mad kite-controlling skills. We took a video of him. He was irresistible. Right below our window on a neighbouring rooftop some children were playing tag while others played with an accordion. It was so lovely to watch all of this life just going on right around us on Varansi’s roofs.
At 6 PM we ventured out to watch the evening puja at the main ghat. There were about a thousand people watching from the steps and from boats that pulled in close to the ghat. There were a few tourists, but most were Indians visiting the city for funerals or to offer pindan.
Day 17 We began the day early by taking a row boat over to the other burning ghat and to watch the pilgrims come down to the Ganges to perform their morning puja. Varanasi is famous for the quality of the light, especially at sunrise. And it is quite beautiful.
It’s also stunning during a thunderstorm. And boy did we get a gorgeous storm. We love thunder storms and lucky for us the monsoon has a last few violent gasps in it yet. The heat of the past couple of days here has been off the charts. The humidity is difficult to describe. You’re soaking wet in minutes with sweat pouring down your face and neck. Yuck. The heat has been building up to a big crescendo of a storm that hit as we ate lunch in the rooftop restaurant of our guest house. It was awesome. As the rain started, we thought it would be great to have some chai masala out on the patio under the eave. But as we opened the door to go outside, the sky just opened up and rained the Indian Ocean down on the city. It was more like being on a ship during a typhoon. The light was incredible in the storm and we shot a little video of it.
That same evening we took a boat to visit the burning ghat we had visited on our walk. It was an incredible thing to witness during the day, but at night the whole scene is transformed into a very different experience. At once both eerie and quite beautiful. As we approached the ghat in our row boat, we managed a few photos. We stayed for a while and watched before cruising back up to the main ghat to watch the evening puja again from the river.
Day 18 – We spent our last day here in Varanasi with a morning walk after breakfast through the streets surrounding our guest house.
The rest if the day we spent getting some lunch out and finishing our blog post. There is not much to be said for the food options here in Varanasi. It’s quite terrible actually. Even the places recommended in Lonely Planet are just mediocre. With this we’ll sign off. We’re on our way to Sarnath tomorrow where we may not have access to the internet until we reach Delhi on October 10th.