TAXI TRIP SERIES: INDIA, VARANASI

Exploring Sarnath With A Bajaj Driver (Part 1)


Old Kashi

Of the Indian cities that I have visited, Old Varanasi was the most impressive one. Its history, tradition, and life were original. The Hindus believe that Varanasi was founded by Lord Shiva making it the holy city.

Situated in Uttarakhand, a state in North India, Varanasi is crossed by the Hindu’s sacred Ganges River. Kashi is another name for the city. It means ‘illumination’ as the Dev Divali (festival of light) is celebrated in the city. The British colonial government called the city Banares.

Old Varanasi/Kashi, Uttarakhand, India

The Ganges is the personification of the Goddess Gange whom the locals call Gange Mata’ (Mother Gange). The Ganges, India’s biggest river, has been the reason why many people from all over the world have come to Varanasi. The city has traditionally been famous as the city of knowledge where the Indian rishis and yogis had lived, studied, or built their ashrams.

The Ganges, Old Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

Varanasi was the first city I stopped by on my 2015 trip to Uttarakhand. I spent a couple of days in Granny’s Inn, a homestay in Old Varanasi (the homestay has been closed now). I found it after searching in several travel applications and reading the travelers’ reviews. Thanks to my fellow travelers who have provided honest reviews.

Granny’s Inn, Old Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

The Bajaj Driver as My Guide

The whole team of Granny’s Inn was super. The host, Granny Asha, was treating me like a family member. Kashi, the cook, always presented delicious vegetarian food fresh from the kitchen, and Mayur, the manager, was helpful and very efficient.

Chatting with Granny Asha, Granny’s Inn, Old Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

Mayur helped me to buy a local SIM card and a train ticket to Lucknow, my second destination. After explaining about India’s intercity train system he recommended me to take the VIP train. I also asked Mayur to arrange my trip to Sarnath– a small town about 13 kilometers northeast of Varanasi. Mayur suggested to me a bajaj driver that used to take the homestay’s guests for a day trip in and around Varanasi. After contacting the driver, he told me the cost of the trip, and I agreed with the price. “You directly pay him. He is a good driver,” said Mayur, who didn’t take any commission for the trip charge.

The driver was already waiting in front of the homestay half an hour ahead of the schedule. Mayur talked with the driver in the local language and explained to him my trip plan. After seeing Sarnath, the driver would bring me back to the homestay.

The driver, whose name I sadly don’t remember now, greeted me in English as I got on the bajaj. It looked like it was not his first time taking foreign tourists.

My bajaj driver and his bajaj, Sarnath, Uttarakhand, India

On the way to Sarnath, we rode on a quite long, broken road segment. The wheels of other vehicles stirred the dust of red earth from the road. A kind of smog was ahead of us. Fortunately, I brought with me a scarf. Having smog all over, I covered my face and hair with the scarf along the dusty road. I didn’t anticipate that we would pass such a jugged road. It was not a trip for a girly woman. After few hundred meters, the bajaj was back on a better road.

The road to Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

Sarnath

The Temples and its significant histories attracted me to see Sarnath. In ancient times, the town was called Isipatana where the holy men used to live. People who have traveled to the city were mainly the pilgrims.

Sarnath was one of the holiest sites for Buddhists. After Sidharta Gautama had got enlightenment in Bodhgaya, a sacred town in Bihar State of India, he came to Sarnath and made his first sermon. Gautama Buddha spent several years in Sarnath to initiate dharma that resulted in his first five dedicated followers. It was the city of the birth of sangha (religious followers of Gautama Buddha).

In the 4th century BC, Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Dynasty visited Sarnath and built the stupas. Having embraced Buddhism, Emperor Ashoka disseminated the tenets of Buddhism throughout the continents. Sarnath flourished to be a center of art, education, and culture in the 3rd century AD. In the 12th century, Qutubuddin Aybak, the first ruler of Delhi Sultanate, destroyed the city and damaged it into the grounds.

Remaining Buddha’s Sites


Chaukandi Stupa

After about a 30-minute drive, we arrived in Sarnath. The atmosphere I sensed was not like in other Indian cities that I had visited. “That is Chaukandi Stupa,” the driver said while turning off the machine. It was the first distinguished structure in the city that I saw. I walked to the site.

Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

Located on a vast, well-tended green grass garden, the terracotta terraced structure looked gigantic. The Temple was built to mark the site where Gautama Buddha met his first devotees. The Temple was originally constructed as a terraced temple during the Gupta Dynasty in the 5th century.

Chaukandi Stupa, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

Moved by the its antiquity, I stayed for a while observing the rectangular temple. There was an additional tower constructed on the top of the Temple. The tower was built in the 16th century to commemorate the visit of Emperor Humayun of Mughal Dynasty to Sarnath. The Chaukandi Stupa has been an excellent example of classical art from the period of Gupta Dynasty.

Wat Thai

Continuing driving, the driver stopped the engine near a garden where I could see a giant statue of Buddha from a distance. The driver warned me, “If anyone ask to be your guide, just say no, also if anyone asks for donations, do not give him or her money.” I nodded. The driver would wait under the nearby tree. In the distance, I recognized a man was eyeing me.

Wat Thai Garden, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

The driver’s warning came true. The man who had watched me was showing up and offering his guide service. From his appearance, I could tell he was not an official guide. I shook my head saying no.

Thai Temple and Monastery, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

The architecture of the small Hinayana Buddha Thai Temple and monastery reminded me to the Thai Temple that I had seen in Thailand. I saw several sitting Buddha statues in different mudras.

Wat Thai Garden, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

The prominent structure in the garden was a giant standing Buddha statue. Meanwhile, the man who had offered the guide service kept following me. He still tried to explain to me about the place despite having been ignored. I was uncomfortable. My negative response didn’t make him any different. The man did follow me in my entire sightseeing on the site. I knew his only target was my money. In the end, I gave him some rupees so he could leave me in peace. I left the garden after shooting some pictures.

Wat Thai Garden, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

Dhamekha Stupa

The driver led me to Dhamekha Stupa. Dhamekha was a distorted form of Dharma Chakra meaning turning the wheel of dharma. Dhamekha Stupa had a cylindrical shape having about 28.3-meter diameter and 31.3-meter height. In terms of the materials and shape, the Stupa had a different form from the ones that I had seen in Indonesia’s Buddhist Temples.

Dhamekha Stupa, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

The lower part of the stupa was covered by carved stones having geometrical shapes and Swastika. The Emperor Ashoka ordered the construction of Dhamekha Stupa in the 3rd BC. It was where Gautama Buddha made his first sermon to his first five devotees.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

From Dhamekha Stupa I went to Mulagandha Kuti Vihara which was accessible on foot. On the gate, there was an announcement board for visitors telling about the rule of visiting the Vihara and warning of beggars.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

Situated in a neatly arranged, green garden, several big standing posters dwelled on the sides of the pavement to Vihara. The posters showed the figures of Gautama Buddha along with his advice written in Sanskrit, Hindi, and English.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

The Srilankan Anagarika Dharmapala, the founder of Mahabodhi Society, built Mulagandha Kuti Vihara in 1930. The Vihara enshrined to keep some bones of the Gautama Buddha that were discovered during the excavation in India.

A famous Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu decorated the interior wall of the Vihara with frescoes. The frescoes depicted the life and teaching of Gautama Buddha. After viewing the meticulous artistic frescoes, I asked a monk in a saffron gown if I could take a picture of myself in front of the Gautama Buddha statue in Jñāna Mudrā gesture. I had permission and the monk even helped to take a picture of me.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

Bodhi Tree

I continued to explore the Vihara by going to an outdoor small green lawn where a Bodhi tree has grown. I needed to take off my shoes to step into the lawn. Anagarika Dharmapala planted the Bodhi tree on the site in 1931. He brought the bud of the tree from Sri Lanka. The tree was lush and tall. A big diorama picturing Gautama Buddha teaching his first five disciples stood on the site.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

The Tibetan prayer wheels encircled the site. The prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel on a spindle made of steel. The mantra is written on the cylinder. Rows of tattered multicolored Buddhist flags hung above the prayers wheels.

Prayer wheels at Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, Sarnath, Uttarakhand, India

An Entrepreneur Driver

My trip to see Sarnath was complete and I was ready to go back to the homestay. Visiting sites that had remarkable meaning in Gautama Buddha’s life made me happy. There was one more Buddhist Temple to see on the way to Varanasi.

The driver was offering me another excursion in Varanasi as I was about to get on the bajaj. “Miss, we finish with Sarnath. If you want to see other places in Varanasi, I can take you there. I will take you to Durga Temple, New Vishwanath Temple, Hanuman Temple, and a place for weaving the saree,” he said enthusiastically.

Before answering his offer, the driver took out a book from his bag and showed the comments about his service from his passengers. I could see the countries’ names where his guests were from. “It was not expensive, you just added some hundred rupees. With the Sarnath trip and those places, you pay me 500 rupees, and in the end, I bring you back to the homestay,” he proposed. His entrepreneurship and English skills surprised me. I looked at my watch, it was nearly noon. And his offer was not bad. “Okay, that’s fine,” I answered. “Okay, Miss,” he happily responded.

Tibetan Monastery

The Tibetan Temple and Monastery was the last site to visit in Sarnath. The driver dropped me off at the entrance gate. Seeing Tibet-related architecture would give me a picture of a Tibetan traditional architectural design.

Tibetan Temple and Monastery, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarakhand, India

The two lion statues guarded the entrance gate. I sensed a peaceful ambiance in the big and clean courtyard. The poles of flipping multicolored Buddhist flags stood in front of the Temple. The rows of flags hung over along the entrance pave. On the left and right sides of the Temple, there was a two-story building with a rooftop.

I heard the sound of mantra chanting coming from the Temple that the Dalai Lama inaugurated in 2013. The thangkas, the Tibetan Buddhist paintings, adorned the Temple’s outer wall and ceiling. As I came nearer its entrance door, the sound of chanting was getting louder. From the transparent curtain that covered the door, I peeked inside, the young monks in dark red robes were solemnly chanting mantras. Unfortunately. I could not enter the Temple.

Tibetan Temple and Monastery, Sarnath, Uttarakhand, India

After looking around, I left the Temple that has been maintained by Lhadhan Chotrul Monlam Chenmo Trust.

A Treat from the Driver

The bajaj driver showed his hospitality. On the way to Varanasi, he stopped his bajaj at a local tea vendor on a dusty road. Getting out of the bajaj, the driver asked me to also come out.

Authentic tea masala making, Sarnath, Varanasi, Uttarkhand, India

The tea stand was local. The driver ordered Indian masala tea, a milk combination with tea, sugar, and masala spices. Boiled on a charcoal stove, I was confident to drink it as I was seeing the boiling milk. The man who wore the you-can-see-undershirt looked serious preparing the tea. He put some spices and sugar in the boiled milk. The masala tea was presented in a small terracotta glass.

Authentic tea masala making, Sarnath, Uttarakhand, India

People say that the street food vendors provide the best local food. That also applied to the masala tea in the tea stand. Having genuine preparation and taste, I drank three glasses of tea. I haven’t tasted the masala tea as delicious as it was. I was glad to have experience drinking authentic masala tea in the middle of nowhere. By the way, it was a treat from the driver.

To be continued

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