Following Buddha's footsteps

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
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Trip End Oct 08, 2008


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Flag of India  ,
Monday, December 31, 2007

Once upon a time there was a prince in a land that was pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  Life was good.  Really good, actually, because the king, his father, wanted him to experience none of life's trials, so the prince got to live in a nice princely bubble.  He got married.  He had a kid.  He had a future, with as much wealth and he needed and absolutely no access to human suffering.  But something was not right. 

He figured it out when he finally got out to see his kingdom.  There were old people and sick people.  Even some dead people.  There was suffering, and he decided (at least in theory) that he wanted none of it.  So he ran away from home.  The resulting learning process was somewhat experimental, his father having not only withheld human suffering, but also religious teachings.  Eventually he sat under a tree and didn't get up for a very long time

When he did, he had all the answers (he had said he wouldn't get up till he did, so, really, he was a man of his word), and he decided to share them. 

This, dear readers, brings us to Sarnath.  In case you had not realized, the above story is an extraordinarily loose (meant to be more amusing than factual...but also informative...) version of the events that lead the Siddhartha Gautama to become known to one and all as the Buddha. 

Sarnath, you see, is one of four pilgrimage sites (in the entire world) for Buddhists, because it is where he preached his first sermon to his seemingly wayward disciples.  The town has a temple in it from every country that has an abundant Buddhist population.  They're pretty much all Asian temples, but each has its own distinct flair.  The Tibetan one is particularly splendid (at least from the outside...we didn't go into temples outside the complex) and it has the added bonus of carrying a political message.  But who can blame them?  Their Buddhism has had a number of slaps in the face these past years. 

First we entered the temple inside the complex.  It was quite plain, especially on the outside, being entirely made of some dull red-brown stone and lacking any special carving.  But then on the inside there was a Japanese fresco running around three walls.  It looked oh so Japanese, and yet...not.  But it was not bold, and the majority of the inside was wood.  Thus all attention was drawn to the large, gold Buddha seated on his pedestal, looking utterly serene and in the know

Next, and quite possibly my favorite part, we went to see the holy tree.  The holy tree was completely surrounded (more than once) by religiosity.  On the inner wall were the prayer flags, but the outer "wall" consisted of enormous plaques in over a dozen languages carrying Buddha's first message.  In front of the tree was a mock-up of Buddha, seated in teaching position, giving said first sermon to his disciples.  They had a very nice canopy in addition to the tree.  There was also a bell that people seemed to think was important, but there was no explanation for we of the uneducated set.  It was nifty, so I took a photo anyway. 

But I still haven't gotten to the best part!  And that is, quite simply, that this tree is the offspring of the offspring of the very tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment!  Isn't that simply delightful? 

Our next step was to get a little bit lost.  We saw the stupa, but we were continuously fenced off from it.  Alas.  Eventually we figured out that there was a separate gate and that we had to pay admission to get into that section of the complex.  Our map (courtesy of LP) neglected to mention this. 

The complex as a whole is not terribly exciting.  There are piles and piles of ruined monasteries.  The main points of interest are the Ashokan pillar and the stupa where Buddha is thought to have preached. 

Emperor Ashoka, the most powerful emperor of the Indian Mauryan era, embraced Buddhism in something like 262 AD.  He then ran around planting pillars in important places.  The one in Sarnath is broken, but we could still see the pencil-thin carved writing in the upper parts and, when we went to the museum we got to see the stunning topper of four lions back to back with their mouths wide open.  This part of an Ashokan pillar is the most famous and has become the national standard (crest?  though it's not actually a crest...) of India.  It's even on the money.  But it looks really cool in stone. 

We wandered through the ruins to the stupa.  It was ridiculously large, and, while the base was still smooth and had some lovely carvings, the top mostly looked like a pile of bricks.  I was never totally sure if it was actually meant to look that way or not.  There are also eight recesses around the stupa that are thought to have contained little buddhas in them back in the day.  I walked around it twice. 

The first time I followed a group of pilgrims who were circling the stupa.  They very dilligently placed marigolds among other marigolds in a ring about chin height around the stupa.  Very pretty.  In the lawns were some other pilgrims listening to the teachings of their monk and then chanting.  It was a good setting for an enlightening pilgrimage.  Peaceful, calm, beautiful.  I felt a little bit in the way, but tourists are tourists, and when the pilgrims started taking pictures I relaxed. 

Walking back toward the gate we ran across some inhabitants of the deer park.  I thought they might be holy deer, given that they looked pretty much exactly like the deer at Todaiji temple in Nara, and those deer are messengers of heaven.  But it turns out that they're not quite so special.  The deer park also had some peacocks.  Unlike the ones in Rajasthan these had tail feathers.  There was also a seriously weird little creature with some wicked antlers.  When we read a news article on how the animals were being fed special treats for the new year, and black bucks were mentioned, we suspicioned that odd creature might be a black buck.  The deer weren't black...

After a somewhat fly-by visit to the archaeological museum (it cost 2 rupees...entry to the park cost 100...honestly, who does the money stuff here?) we headed back to Varanasi.  For your information, the museum was quality, though not necessarily a font of information.  The big room with the giant, stone, toadstool umbrellas; larger-than-life buddhas in standing position; and lion standard is best.  But the other rooms have nifty carvings and jars and the like that got dug up in the resurrection of Sarnath. 

On the way back to Varanasi our rickshaw driver tried to squeeze two other adult tourists into the tiny back seat for the 20 minute ride.  Travis had none of it.  Our betelnut eating friend smiled and indicated that he wanted the extra fare (he had just called to them that it was no problem to bring them along...gotta love money grubbers).  Travis indicated that extra fare for him made no difference to our expense, but a great deal of discomfort at our expense, and ordered him to move along. 

And then it was New Year's Eve in Varanasi.  Travis was sick and fell asleep and by the time he woke up to join the party upstairs (it was very lively) I was asleep.  And so we rang in the New Year (and the anniversary of our engagement) in bed.

Erin
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Comments

eaevansmd
eaevansmd on

Wow
Thanks for the links (and the Facebook notifications). Your time sounds absolutely fascinating - and you have some great photos. The stereotypical honeymoon to the tropics sounds so tame in comparison! Have fun on the rest of your way.

dreamtravel77
dreamtravel77 on

amazing photos on buddha and wonderful work. wow

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