Sunday, April 25, 2010

Incredible Boat Ride along the River Ganga in Varanasi

Benares was not a disappointment. It justified its reputation as a curiosity. It is on high ground, and overhangs a grand curve of the Ganges. It is a vast mass of building, compactly crusting a hill, and is cloven in all directions by an intricate confusion of cracks which stand for streets. Tall, slim minarets and beflagged temple-spires rise out of it and give it picturesqueness, viewed from the river. The city is as busy as an ant-hill, and the hurly-burly of human life swarming along the web of narrow streets reminds one of the ants. - Mark Twain

Days passed by and I was nearing the end of my journey to the sacred city of Lord Shiva, Varanasi… The second last day of my trip – I decided to dedicate to the 2 very famous ‘To do things’ in Varanasi - The Boat Ride along the Ganga and the Ganga Arti.
In the morning, excitedly, I along with my family, set out for the boat ride and reached Dashashwamedh Ghat. This ghat being one of the largest, there were a number of different types of boats (manually oared or motored, personal or shared) adorning the ghat. I would definitely recommend a simple manually oared personal boat since it moves slowly and, kind of, complements the ride on the serenely flowing river. The prices for these boat rides are highly negotiable. So, if you are in Varanasi and thinking of taking a boat ride, bargain hard or you might just end up paying almost 4-5 times of the regular fare.

Starting from the initial quote of Rs. 440, after haggling with a number of different boatmen, we finally settled for Rs. 120 (4 persons/hr) which included a tour of the Ganges from the Harischandra Ghat to the Manikarnika Ghat and the back at the starting point i.e. Dashashwamedh Ghat.

The best time to take the boat ride is at dawn when the temples at the river front are bathed in a lovely hue of orange and the ghats are just beginning to bustle with various activities and rituals. However, that day the sun was in no mood to peek out from behind the dense cloud cover. The prevailing foggy and hazy conditions (we had visited in January), nevertheless, were just adding to the entire mystical aura associated with Varanasi.

This fascinating journey is very difficult to be described in words… So feel the cool breeze and step on to this virtual boat. As I relive those fantastic memories through photographs, let us together enjoy this wonderful boat ride along the river Ganges 

[ Boats lined up at the Dashashwamedh Ghat ]

[ Starting our Boat ride ]

[ Our Boatman - Chungeri Kaka ]

[ Ghats buzzing with morning activities ]

[ Kedar Ghat with the Kedareshwar Temple ]

[ One of the burning Ghats - Harishchandra Ghat ]

[ A group enjoying the boat ride ]

[ Raja Ghat- Now used for washing purposes ]

[ A panoramic view of the Ghats ]

[ Funeral pyres burning at the sacred Manikarnika Ghat ]

[ Seagulls.. seagulls..everywhere ]

[ Incredible boat ride comes to an end at the Dashaswamedh Ghat ]

As I stepped out of the boat, I found myself laden with the rich history of the beautiful Ghats (already described in my previous post here) and some marvelous moments etched in my memory to treasure for the rest of my life.

In the evening, we were unable to attend the Ganga Arti of Varanasi due to the ill health of my brother. The following day we left ISKCON (where I stayed) and headed back home...

Here I am today, sitting comfortably within the confines of my living room in Mumbai busy publishing posts. It’s been 3 months since I bid adieu to the religious capital of India – Varanasi. But frankly speaking, I feel the city never left me… the earthly abode of Lord Shiva – the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the magic of the sacred river- The Ganga, the land of Gautam Buddha – Sarnath or the so very unique festival of Magh Mela (Mini Kumbh Mela) in Allahabad… I am already craving to be a part of this magical experience called The Kashi Yatra all over again!!!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Walk along the Ghats of Varanasi

    The sacred city of Shiva stands graciously on the banks of river Ganga which are lined with an endless chain of stone steps known as the Ghats. Spread out in an area of around 7 kms along the river Ganga, these 90 odd ghats are dotted with a number of palaces, princely mansions, ashrams and mutts, ancient temples and shrines.

    Soon after the sunrise, the ceremonial steps of the ghats come alive with thousands of pilgrims performing interesting rites and rituals which continue through the day - People bowing to the rising Sun God, or taking a holy dip, ringing of the temple bells, chanting of devotional hymns combined with the heavy smoke billowing up from the funeral pyres – all these activities revolve around the sacred river Ganga and add magic and intrigue to the timeless city of Varanasi.

[ A Brahmin Priest sitting under a palm leaf 
at the Dashashwamedh Ghat ]

[ A woman gets ready for a prayer on the Asi Ghat ]

[ An old man selling flowers, incense sticks, 
oil lamps, etc for offerings to the river Ganga ]

[ People performing ritualistic activities ]

[ A woman indulging in some charity, 
A banner in the background raising awareness 
to avoid pollution of the Ganga  ]

    A walk along these ghats offers a unique and a pleasurable experience. Here one comes across saffron clad sadhus meditating with rudraksh malas in hand, priests chanting holy mantras, Brahmins sitting under palm leaves, tourists soaking in the entire atmosphere, little children playing cricket or flying kites, sacred cows roaming around and shops selling all sorts of souvenirs. Indeed, this unique relationship between the river Ganga, the Ghats and the city is the actual essence of Varanasi.

[ An old man lights fire to keep himself warm ]

[ Capturing the Life of Ghats on a Canvas ]

[ Holy Cow on the Tulsi Ghat ]

    First up is the Asi Sangam Ghat, one of the most important ghats of Varanasi, it is the southernmost ghat where river Asi meets the Ganga. The Ganga Mahal Ghat is an extension of the Asi Ghat, and includes a palace built by the Maharaja of Benaras. Adjacent is the Tulsi Ghat where saint Tulsidas wrote the epic RamCharitManas (Ramayana). Next is the Bachhraj Ghat where there are Jain temples followed by the Anandmayee Ghat dedicated to the famous Bengali female saint Mata Anandmayee.

[ Asi and Tulsi Ghats abuzz with various activities ]

[ Palatial palace on the Ganga Mahal Ghat ]

    Moving up is one of the burning ghats, the Harishchandra Ghat named after the truthful Indian king Harishchandra who is said to have worked here as the person responsible for cremating dead bodies. Up next is the Kedar Ghat with the Kedareshwar Temple followed by the Kshameshwar Ghat. Then comes the Narad Ghat dedicated to the Lord Vishnu’s devotee Narad who always chants ‘Narayan Narayan’.

    Proceding further we come across the Chausathi Ghat where there are idols of 64 female saints. Further ahead is the Rana Mahal Ghat built by King MahaRana Pratap of Rajasthan. Next is the Shitla Ghat where there is the Temple of Godess Shitla Devi whom we pray to keep away from Pox. Besides it is the Dasashwamedh Ghat where Lord Brahma is said to have performed ten Ashwamedh Yagna’s to celebrate the return of Shiva on earth. It is the most famous ghat of Varanasi for bathing which further extends into the Prayag Ghat.

[ Morning activities in full swing at the Dasashwamedh Ghat ]

    Then comes the Man Mandir ghat, built by Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur and houses a lingam of Lord Someshwar. The terrace also has an observatory. After that is the Lalita Ghat which has a Temple of Goddess Lalita and the famous Nepali Temple dedicated to Lord Pashupatinath (Lord Shiva).

[ Historical Nepali Temple in red on Lalita Ghat ]

    Further up is one of the sacred burning ghats, Manikarnika Ghat. Legend has it that Parvati’s Karnika (earring) fell here while bathing, hence the name. Funeral pyres continue to burn here night and day. Ashes are immersed and flown into the currents of the Ganges just as life flows into eternity.

[ Manikarnika Ghat – Here Death is not the end but only a new Beginning ]

    Next is the Panchganga Ghat where 5 different rivers merge and is one of the most important ghats of Varanasi. The last of the ghats is the Varuna Ghat where river Varuna becomes one with the Ganga.

    Some of the other ghats in Varanasi are the Ahilyabai Ghat, Munshi Ghat, Scindia Ghat, Janki Ghat, Reewa Ghat, Shivala Ghat, Dandi Ghat, Hanuman Ghat, Karnataka State Ghat, Mansarover Ghat, Raja Ghat, Bhosle Ghat and the Darbhanga Ghat. Each of these ghats is distinct and the list is almost endless…

    After walking through some of these ghats, I took a few moments out and felt the cool breeze gently patting on my face. The fog and the mist had completely engulfed me and transported me to the realm of a different world altogether… I sat there on the steps gazing at the holiest river of India flowing endlessly faraway into the heavens perhaps…

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sarnath - A Major Buddhist Pilgrimage in India

“Gifts are great, the founding of temples is meritorious, meditation and religious exercises will pacify the heart, comprehension of the truth leads to Nirvana - but greater than all is Loving–Kindness –- Gautam Buddha”

Very early in his life, Prince Siddhartha Gautam had left his house in search of the divine truth. This truth he sought was revealed to him under the Bodhi (Peepal) tree in Bodh Gaya, Bihar and he became the ' Enlightened One ' - Gautam Buddha. His only aim now was to improve the quality of human life. With this wish in mind, he reached Sarnath and delivered his first sermon after Enlightenment and set in motion, The Wheel of Law (Dharmachakra Pravartan). He gave the world the noble Eightfold Path- a way to achieve the ultimate goal of salvation or Nirvana. Thus, Sarnath became one of the four important Buddhist Pilgrimages around the world- others being Lumbini (birthplace), Bodh Gaya (enlightenment) and Kushinagar (death).

 [ Sarnath ]

Around 10 kms from Varanasi, one can reach Sarnath by hiring taxis, autos that are easily available all over the city. A large number of guides (their charges are fixed at Rs. 20) roam around the place looking for customers and are a good option if one is not aware of the significance or the detailed history of the place. We hired one and entered the premises of the serene Buddha Tirtha.

Sarnath has witnessed demolition, first by various Muslim invaders and later by treasure seekers, a number of times. Yet, even the ruins continue to provide fascinating links with the glorious past. These ruins and remains including various precious Buddhist artifacts and the royal Ashokan Pillar having the symbol of four back-to-back lions (Indian national emblem) are all very well preserved in an archaeological museum in Sarnath.

First, our guide took us to the Dhamekh Stupa, a 34 mtr high stupa, believed to be the exact spot where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon. A solid stone structure covered with beautiful floral and geometrical patterns, the stupa was built by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and is one of the finest monuments here.

 [ Dhamekh Stupa ]

We were told that it dates back around 500 A.D. but has been rebuilt a number of times since then. Our guide also mentioned of a second stupa, Dharmarajika stupa, but this he said was reduced to rubble by 19th century treasure seekers.

 [ Mulagandha Kuti Vihara Temple ]

We then moved towards a relatively modern Maha Bodhi Society temple, Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, built by the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk - Angarika Dharmapala. The temple stands amidst vast green lawns and is flanked by beautiful sayings by Gautam Buddha. Do take time out to read these inspirational quotes because the peace that emanates even from them is amazing.

 [ A Quote by Lord Buddha in the temple premises ]

As I entered the temple, I was surprised to notice that despite the steady stream of devotees trickling in, there was an air of stillness that enveloped this temple, something that we often associate with the Buddha himself.

 [ One of the painting by Japanese painter - Kosetsu Nosu ]

There is nothing elaborately intricate in the architecture of the temple. Its beauty lies more in its simplicity rather than any sophisticated decoration. The interiors are dimly lit with a series of paintings by Japanese painter - Kosetsu Nosu, depicting incidences from life of Buddha lining the walls.

 [ Mulagandha Kuti Vihara Temple – Golden statue of Lord Buddha ]

In the heart of the temple is a life-size statue of Lord Buddha covered in gold besides which is a silver casket containing his tooth relic. Since photography is allowed inside, I could click some photos to share them with all of you.

 [ A Huge Bell near the Bodhi tree ]

Closeby is the Bodhi tree (grown from a sapling brought from Sri Lanka which in turn was grown from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree in Bihar) below which are life- size statues of Gautam Buddha giving his sermon to the five BoddhiSattvas. One can also read the entire sermon which is engraved on black stone around the Bodhi tree in different languages.

 [ Bodhi tree beneath which Gautam Buddha 
is giving his sermon to his first five disciples ]

When I reached there, Some Buddhists were chanting mantras with beads in their hands while some others were lighting candles. I closed my eyes... it seemed as if time had ceased to move forward... After their chantings came to an end, we all circumambulated the tree. While doing so, I picked up a fallen leaf, still tucked away in one of my books. One incredible fact, our guide told us about this tree, is that it can flourish in any type of soil in any weather conditions! Amazing!!!

Next, we proceeded towards the open deer park. Our guide informed us that Sarnath has actually derived its name from 'Saranganath' which means 'Lord of the Deer'.

 [ Deer Park ]

A story goes that Buddha - a deer in his previous birth as a BoddhiSattva - had offered his own life in place of a doe which a king intended to kill. Moved by this gesture, the king built a deer park which stands even today in Sarnath. If you feel like feeding them with something, buy a packet of carrots sold in the premises.

According to our guide, the modern temples in the Thai, Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese and Japanese monasteries are also worth a visit. But unfortunately we were unable to visit these due to lack of time.

    This marked the end of my journey to the Land of The Blessed One - Gautam Buddha - who inspired one to strive for the higher values of life by exercising virtuous conduct and improving the quality of one's thought. He taught us a way of life, a way to rise above the troubles of life and finally a way to achieve the ultimate happiness of Nirvana. In today’s turbulent world, I would say Sarnath is not just a place of worship but a haven of peace. In a society where terrorism has cast its black shadows and people are fighting in the name of religion, his principles and words of wisdom provide us with much food for thought. Really, a life that to so many of us today has lost any true relevance can once more be rejuvenated by the practice of his ideals.