Saturday, January 14, 2012

Entering the Buddhist Trail at Sarnath

We eventually did make it to Sarnath, but it involved riding the last hour-plus in the dark, on extremely busy, rough roads through Varanasi (I only got sideswiped by a motorbike once in this stretch, and that was because NOBODY LOOKS BEFORE THEY PULL OUT INTO TRAFFIC IN THIS COUNTRY, and I beeped and moved over as far as I could without getting hit head-on. It was only just a love tap this time) and out the other side, through smoke and dust (they make a lot of bricks in the area, and all the chimneys were a-smokin'). 

When we finally arrived at our destination, it was blissfully quiet, with little traffic, and no horns. We found, quite accidentally, the guesthouse where we hoped to stay, and they had a room available. We checked in and asked the proprietor about dinner. He gave us a couple of recommendations, so we hoofed it down the street to have a rather disappointing meal. But the walk was pleasant. It felt good to be off the bikes and able to walk in a straight line unhindered by any traffic but the occasional cow. After dinner, we walked to the very dark center of town (since everything shuts down by 9:00 pm) and managed to score some cookies and soda water. Having polished off our bedtime snack, we pulled the wool blankets up to our noses and fell sound asleep.

Sarnath is an interesting town. It's more or less a suburb of the city of Varanasi, which is a tourist destination for those who want to see the burning funeral pyres on the Ganges River. In Hindu culture, it is the most sacred of all the rivers in India and is the place to be cremated if your family can make it happen. We decided to bypass Varanasi because, although it would be interesting to witness these rites, we couldn't bear the thought of dealing with another big, dirty, crowded, Indian city. So instead, we went to Sarnath, which it on the Buddhist pilgrimage trail. It is the place where Buddha met the first of his disciples and gave his first sermon. The morning after we arrived was socked in with fog, so after a hot, steamy shower to loosen the sore muscles from yesterday (no injury but a small bruise on my right forearm where my jacket armor must have hit), we had a leisurely breakfast of coffee and buttered toast with homemade mango marmalade on the guesthouse verandah. The guesthouse is built on a huge courtyard filled with beautiful flowers, vegetable patches, and fruit trees. Overhanging the door to our room was a starfruit tree, covered in ripe fruit. The owner asked if we would like to try one, to which I wholeheartedly said please! He had one of his workmen climb up on the roof to find a nice one for us which we enjoyed immensely. When you buy them in the States, they seem to be good only as decoration on a fruit tray, but here, they are just huge and so juicy and sweet!

Chaukhandi Stupa
Once we realized the sky wasn't going to get any clearer, we headed out to see the sights. Our first stop was the Chaukhandi Stupa, where Buddha met his first disciples. The stupa is now largely just a humongous pile of bricks upon which a Mughal tower was constructed in the 16th century. Re and I walked the path around the mist covered stupa, and while there wasn't much to see, we both found the site very peaceful. We sat and talked for a while before continuing on. Next we walked to the Archaeological Museum and discovered that it is closed on Fridays, and we were there on a Friday. So we instead stopped for a yummy thali lunch at a little shack of a restaurant with canvas walls that was doing a hopping business. Once we were finished eating, we continued to the Damekh Stupa, which is where Buddha gave his first sermon.  

Damekh Stupa and monastery remains
The grounds surrounding the stupa contain the remains of a huge old monastery and the Ashoka Pillar. The stupa was an impressive sight at nearly a hundred feet high and was striking in its simplicity compared to Hindu monuments. The only colorful thing here were the thousands of Tibetan prayer flags and the gold leaf that pilgrims rub on auspicious spots. Next we stopped at the Mulgandha Kuti Vihar, which is a modern Buddhist Temple notable mostly for its bodhi tree. This tree is said to be an offspring from the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. 

High goat fashion in "plether."  PETA would approve
The atmosphere is so much more calm and peaceful here than at any of the Hindu sights we've visited. The pilgrims and the tourists are respectfully quiet (for the most part) and the touts stay outside the grounds (again, for the most part). It's quite a nice change to be able to stroll and think and talk without being hounded to buy something. Once we'd visited the sights, we stopped and bought some fruit on the way back to the guesthouse, which we ate in the now sunny courtyard. Later on, we wandered back to the same spot where we had lunch and enjoyed an equally good dinner.


  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your amazing adventure! I really look forward to your well written posts, complete with great pics. Best of luck to you!

  2. I just found your blog completely by accident. I can only dream of visiting a place like this. Thank you for the blog and I look forward to more entries.