By Emmet Brady
On my second day, I took advantage of a renowned day-trip to Sarnath, 15 km east of Varanasi. Sarnath is home to a bodhi tree temple where the Buddha offered his first teaching after attaining enlightenment. In this deer park he taught the four noble truths and the teachings associated with it.
The Bodhi Tree in Sarnath
There is also a marvelous Jain temple located right next door to the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, the international Buddhist temple at Sarnath. In the temple garden is the famous giant fig banyan, inundated by worshipers, adorned with prayer flags. Entrance to the serene and elegantly ornate temple is free and open to the public. The paintings of the Buddha’s life on the temple’s ceiling are not to be missed.
If you want a souvenir Buddha statue and insist on having one from inside the temple, be prepared to pay top dollar – at least 100 rupees. If you are less discerning, you can buy the same item on the road outside for thirty.
Sarnath offers a contrast to the solemn intensity of Varanasi. The locals seem more relaxed and welcoming, catering to tourists and visitors who are looking for inspiration in this lifetime, rather than peaceful guidance to the next.
Morning of Day Three was as swirl of placid activity along the river banks of the Ganges, with bathers and launderers wading amongst the many boats. The water appears questionable for bathing, but this is routine for the locals. I did venture down the massive arrays of Ghats, embankments that are actually long flights of wide stone steps. They lead to the river, with the dull yellow bricks peppered with cow patties. The scene is relaxing and complex, embodying the diametric of daily life in India: A mass of humanity operating according to rules unfamiliar to the Western mind.
On my last evening in Varanasi, a lovely graduate assistant named Pinkar offered to go out with me onto a riverboat to see the evening spectacle. Starting a kilometer or so upriver, we proceeded in near silence towards the bon fires that pepper the riverbanks. The faint sound of drumming could be heard, accompanied by the cool air settling on the water. It seems as if I am entering a performance space, an ancient collaboration between nature and the man made rituals.
We arrive at the Tulsi Ghat to a spectacle of fire and dance. It’s obviously a tourist attraction, but one akin to a ceremonial stage show. Fifty or so exquisite dancers and musicians perform a coordinated celebration, deemed to honor those who have passed while entertaining those present.
All the while, the banks were dotted with small fire cremating the remains of dead, operated by somber, hard-working men. One bonfire down the river past the Ghat was obviously doing good business. Pinkar told me that location had been in operation for over 1,000 years. The idea of that so many bodies had bee honored in such a long-running tradition overwhelmed me.
We finished the evening ascending the Ghat. I was mistaken that the school was treating me. I had to pay the equivalent of $40 American for the evening. It was worth it.
The water along the Ganges at this point, as compared to its pristine origins in the Himalayas, seemed wretched to me. The wetlands directly across from the Tusli Ghat are of particular ecological significance, especially for the scientists at BHU. Construction has begun on a wastewater oxidation pond, to clean the river water using bacteria and algae. When the project is completed is will be the first of its kind on an urban area along the Ganges, a landmark event in the latest wave of Indian environmentalism. (Many people are unaware that the term “tree hugger” was born from the Chipko social protest over deforestation in India in the early 1970s).
Fires glowed across marsh, casting a delicious orange glow over the water, I discussed with Pinkar the complexities of environmental policy in such a densely populated and historically important area. Her reply, “We will always know how to care for the Mother Ganges. She cares for us.”
Such is the thinking of the people who live in the oldest city on Earth.
Editor’s note: Original World offers cultural immersion experiences across India, including several North India Journeys that take you to the sacred Ganges River and holy city of Varanasi, the Chandella Temples of Khajuraho and the exquisite and romantic white marble Taj Mahal.