Feb 242015

Dhamekh Stupa

We rose early in Delhi to head to the airport for a flight to Varnasi.  Alas, the plane was late in arriving so our day became an exercise in catching up.  It was not a problem, it just meant for a long and very exhausting day.

We checked into the Taj Ganges Varanasi, and I will say it is not the best, but I am told it is the nicest hotel in the area.  I only find this of interest because of the incredible importance of this area, I would assume a high end tourist hotel would have been a natural, but I guess I am wrong.

This area is of such sacred importance to both Buddhism and Hinduism that I hope I don’t confuse you in my telling.


After an insane drive on half paved, oxen crowded roads we arrived at Sarnath.  Sarnath is  one of the Buddhists most sacred spots.

Buddha arrived in what was then Deer Park, in 528 BC, at that time Sarnath was already one of India’s greatest centers of learning.

It is here, under where stupa above now sits, that Buddha came to preach the Wheel of Law, his first major sermon after his enlightenment.

This stupa, the Dhamek Stupa. was built in 500 CE to replace an earlier structure commissioned by the Mauryan king Ashoka which was built in 249 BC. This stupa stands about 110 feet high  and is about 90 feet in diameter.  The lower portion of the Stupa is covered randomly with beautifully carved stones.  Buddhists come from around the world to circumambulate the stupa.

carvings of the Stupa at Sarnath

The accompanying museum has a superb collection of artifacts, sadly photos were not allowed.  As you enter you get the first glimpse of a polished sandstone Ashoken Lion Capital. The piece in the museum is considered the pre-eminant of the many found around the Buddhist world.  The one in the museum does not have the wheel attached.

Ashokan Lion Capital

The pillar was adopted as the national emblem of India. It is depicted on the one rupee note and the two rupee coin.
These columns were commissioned by Emperor Ashoka (273-232 B.C.) who was a staunch follower of Buddhism and who visited Sarnath.  It is assumed there were many pillars but only nineteen survive with inscriptions, and only six with animal capitals, the columns were a target for Muslim iconoclasm, thus their destruction.  All the pillars were placed at Buddhist monasteries, these were important sites from the life of the Buddha and places of pilgrimage. Some of the columns carry inscriptions addressed to the monks and nuns. Some were erected to commemorate visits by Ashoka.


Two Rupee Coiin


One Rupee Note








The symbolism of each and every part of the capital is worth studying, but in a nutshell.

The top of the column—the capital—has three parts. First, a base of a lotus flower, the most ubiquitous symbol of Buddhism.
Then, a drum on which four animals are carved representing the four cardinal directions: a horse (west), an ox (east), an elephant (south), and a lion (north). They also represent the four rivers that leave Lake Anavatapta (the lake that lies in the center of the world) and enter the world as the four major rivers.  The moving animals follow one another endlessly turning the wheel of existence.

The four lions stand that sit atop the drum, also face in the four cardinal directions. Their mouths are open roaring or possibly spreading the Four Noble Truths of the dharma. The lion references the Buddha, formerly Shakyamuni, a member of the Shakya (lion) clan. The lion is also a symbol of royalty and leadership and may also represent the Buddhist king Ashoka.

The wheel (or Dharma chakra), was assumed to be originally mounted above the lions.

The Ashokan Capital at Sarnath as found before moving to the museum

The Ashokan Capital at Sarnath as found before moving to the museum

This is the first time that I have been in India and presented with beads, rather than flowers, when entering an establishment. These beads are called Sadhguru made from the Radraksha seed. Rudraksha is the seed of the Eliocarpus ganitrus tree that once grew mainly in the Himalayan region. Unfortunately, most of these trees were used to make railway sleeper cars, so there are very few of them remaining in India. Today, they are mostly found in Nepal, Burma, Thailand or Indonesia.

Mala, Prayer Beads

Usually the beads (seeds)  are strung together as a mala. A mala is a set of beads commonly used by Hindus and Buddhists,  used for keeping count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra or the name or names of a deity. Traditionally, they believe the number of beads is 108 plus one. The extra bead is the bindu. There must always be a bindu to the mala, otherwise the energy becomes cyclical and people who are sensitive may become dizzy. The Radraksha seed is said to have a certain harmonic resonance.  The larger beads are prized for this resonance.

When we arrived at the hotel we were given a colorful set, not 108,  In one form of Buddhism, for instance, 27-bead malas are common. These shorter malas are sometimes called “prostration rosaries” because they are easier to hold when enumerating repeated prostrations.

Prayer Beads

We spent a few hours riding down the Ganges to witness the Aarti Ritual, but that will be another post.  Dinner was a true highlight and I would like to show you that.

We arrived via boat

Ganges Boat

To this…

Amrit Rao Peshwa Haveli

Amrit Rao Peshwa Haveli

We were greeted with marigold necklaces, showered with marigold petals and escorted in to the sounds of traditional Indian music and chants.

A beautiful chorus of chanting greeted us upon our arrival

A beautiful chorus of chanting greeted us upon our arrival

After a welcoming drink we were given a show of traditional Indian dancing by a beautiful woman, accompanied by a male singer with a voice of angels.


This is Amrit Rao Peshwa Haveli (mansion). Built in 1807 as a fine restaurant to the Brahmins, it sits on the Raj Ghat. Ghat is a Hindi word meaning a wide set of steps descending to a river, especially a river used for bathing.

Dinner was Thali,



Thali (plate) is an Indian meal made up of a selection of various dishes. Thali dishes vary from region to region in South Asia and are usually served in small bowls, called katori, which are placed on a round tray. Ours was fabulous.

A boat ride home by and to bed after a long, exhausting and yet exhilarating day.


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Feb 232015

“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Mark Twain


Varnasi,  also known as Kasha (the City of Light) or Banares, is Hindu’s holiest city. It is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism, and Jainism. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Varanasi is also known as the favorite city of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva.

Hindus regard the Ganga (Ganges) as Amrita, the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead (Some Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation);  outsiders tend to focus on all-persuasive and extreme lack of hygiene.

Varanasi is like any other Indian city when wandering within the town, it is when one delves into the life on the river that you see the religious and revered side of Varanasi.

Our first introduction to this world was at night.  There are two events that make the river at night the center of the world.  First is the Manikarnika Ghat, one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi.  This is where funeral pyres burn day and night.  The shroud wrapped bodies are placed on biers besides piles of wooden logs. According to legend,in the middle of the ghat is the well that Vishnu carved out with his discus before the Ganges flowed here. (out of respect, I took no pictures)

Farther down the river are the formal evening Aartis.  These daily prayers (aarti) are done at dawn and dusk and serve as salutations to the river.  This ceremony consists of fire offerings, ringing of bells, gonging of gongs and chanting sacred mantras.  It is a colorful, and lively ceremony.

Photo from "About Travel"

Photo from “About Travel”

The formal aarti is performed on a stage by a group of young pandits, draped in saffron colored robes and puja plates* spread out before them. It begins with the blowing of a conch shell, and continues with the waving of incense sticks, feathers, peacock fans all in elaborate patterns. The movement of the various chosen items, held in the pandits’ hands, is tightly synchronizing to the rhythmic chants and clanging of cymbals.

*Puja consists of a variety of ritual offerings and prayers to be performed as mentioned in the puja vidhi (protocol of worship).

Evening Aarti

Performing in the evening Aarti

An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. So while this formal ceremony is taking place, many are performing their own personal ceremony.  These are usually made in the form of floating lit candles or diyas down the river during this period.  The diyas, that we sent down the river, consisted of marigolds and a little votive, placed in a cup made of leaves. It was interesting that little girls ran after us at the end of the night begging for our marigold flower garlands to recycle into these offerings to sell again the next day.

aarti candles


candles floating down the Ganges

It is a religious ceremony, that by now seems to be more of a chance to watch the people watch, that the spectacle of watching is of as much interest as the ceremony itself.  No matter how you feel about mixing tourism with religious practices it is so much a part of India as to be a wonderful and confusing experience, like so much of this amazing country.

Feb 222015

Varanasi in the Morning

February 2015

Up before dawn to catch the river as it wakes. It was truly amazing to be in an Indian city where it is quiet and the streets, while not deserted, were empty but for the sleeping cow and early worker.

Ganges in the Morning

Once at the river however, it was the beginning of the day. People are out, washing clothes, performing yoga asanas, offering flowers and fire to the river and also going for a swim.

day 5-2

Ganga “supermarkets” are floating along side happy to sell you whatever you may need, playing cards, post cards, malas, and even candy bars.

Ganga Supermarket*

day 5-7

Today we passed many fabulous buildings, several funeral ghats and various religious temples doing morning prayers.

day 5-21


Ganges in the Morning

Here is our guide serenading us as we float down the river.

A quick breakfast and onto the bus for a six hour ride to Badh Gaya.

It is harvest time for some type of grain so, at 50 miles an hour, a painting of the process opened before our eyes.

Grain Harvest in India


Grain Harvest in India

The straw left from harvest is put to many uses in India included bio-fuel


A beautiful form of storage for the straw

A beautiful form of storage for the straw


Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya is where the Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa).

For Buddhists, Bodh Gaya is the most important of the main four pilgrimage sites, the other three being Sarnath, Kushinagar, and Lambini.

Bodh Gaya

Next to the Bodhi Tree there is a platform known as Vajrasana, or the Diamond Throne. This was originally installed by Emperor Ashoka to mark the spot where Buddha sat and meditated.

Bodh Gaya

Buddha’s Footprints

In the shrine are the footprints (Padas) of Buddha carved in black stone that date from the 3rd century BC when Ashoka declared Buddhism to be the official religion. He had thousands of these footprint stones installed all over the kingdom.

Bodh Gaya 1


Apparently the architecture is a mystery. It appears to have been constructed with the intent of being a monument but later became a receptacle for relics of the Buddha. The temple is one of the few early monumental brick structures to have survived in eastern India.

The base is approximately 50 feet square and the tower, a 19th century construction, rises 170 feet.

Bodh GayaInside the temple there is a huge image of the Buddha in the bhumisparsha mudra “touching the ground pose”. This image is purported to be 1700 years old and is facing east exactly at the place where Buddha obtained enlightenment.

We arrived as the sun was going down and evening prayers began, it was absolutely magical.

Here is a small sample of that magic-

Feb 192015

February 2015DSC_9081Our only stop today was Vikramshila University in the town of Bateshwarsthan. This is the birthplace of Vajrayana Buddhism. Originally established by King Dharampala in the late 8th or 9th century in response to what he saw as a decline in the quality of education at Nalanda. Vikramshila is one of the more important centers of Buddhist learning, along with Nalanda. This center, however, is much smaller with only one hundred teachers and one thousand students. It taught such interesting subjects as theology, philosophy, grammar, meta-physics and logic.

The university was destroyed by the Turks around 1200.

Stupas at Vajarhana

Stupas at Vajaryana

Vajarayana is a branch of Buddhism, related to esoteric ritual practices associated most strongly with a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, Tantrism. Tantrism is found in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

There is a local festival of which I do not know, but the animals have been colored for this festival

There is a local festival of which I do not know, but the animals have been colored for this festival

Colored Goats

Colored Goats

While it is quiet I wanted to go back to a site we saw in Varanasi. We had a quick stop at the Mother India Temple to view a map. Maps are an interesting concept in India. We have used maps throughout time and consider them a vital part of exploration and getting around, but this is not so in India.

map of India

Pilgrimage maps were the first maps of India, and these make the most sense. The candles and oil lamps that light the holy rivers drew the body of the Goddess (Bharat Mata) and gave sanctification to what was imagined to be the landscape of the country. So the concept of India can’t really be drawn in a western manner.

The second problem arises with “What is India?”

“There is no such country, and this is the first and most essential fact about India that can be learned. India is a name, which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries. There is no general Indian term that corresponds to it.” – Sir John Strachey, 1888.

Because maps are such a touchy subject in India the Geographical Survey of India is the only organization that that is authorized to make official maps of India.

In April of 2013 the national surveying and map-making body filed a complaint with the Delhi police accusing Google of violating India’s national map policy. According to India’s 2005 National Map Policy,  no department or entity, apart from the Survey of India, has the authority to produce maps of the country.

The Mother Goddess drawing the map of India with her body and clothing

The Mother Goddess drawing the map of India with her body and clothing

We passed another ethereal rock form today with a temple called Khelgaon or Jahngira.


Some sights from our slow, relaxing journey down the Ganges.

washing waterbuffalo in the Ganges


Ferry Boats on the Ganges