Saturday, March 5: Bright and early, we say our goodbyes to K. Lal and pose in front of Hotel Singh Sons for departing photos. He then drops us at the Delhi airport for our uneventful and brief 9:30 a.m. flight to Varanasi.
We arrive fairly early, where we meet our new driver, Sanjay, who seems to have an attitude problem right from the get-go. He insists on taking us to his office, where we meet his boss, Nandu Mishra of Holiday Travel Tips. We don’t much see the point of this meeting and after, when Sanjay insists on dropping us at the Ramada Plaza JHV in Varanasi for an hour and a half rest, we protest. We don’t want to waste our time meeting other travel agents when Umer has already arranged our tour; neither do we need to take an hour and a half rest. Come to find out Sanjay just wants time to go home and eat lunch. We say we only need a half hour to drop our bags then we’ll be ready to go explore Varanasi. He’s irritable about this, it’s plain to see, but our thought is we’re paying for this tour and his time, so he should be ready to go on our schedule.
At this point, we are gung-ho about our journey. Jayne is only 3 days in and I’m 5 days in, and we are still energetic and optimistic. This changes over time. As our trip continues, it becomes grinding and difficult and this hour and a half would be a welcome respite. But. That’s the benefit of hindsight. At this point in time, we think there is much to see and we’re here to see it, so we better move along. Ha! If only we knew.
So, we check into the beautiful Ramada, which in retrospect turns out to be our #1 hotel in India. It’s lovely, clean and elegant, quite a huge step up from the Hotel Singh Sons in Delhi. We simply drop our bags in our room, and head back out to meet Sanjay.
We head out into the onslaught of Varanasi. This is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and one of the holiest places in India. It’s unapologetically chaotic, insane, and edgy. There is no way to prepare for the streets that are Varanasi: narrow two-lane dirty roads where cows roam and munch lazily on plastic bags and garbage. They shit all over the place, adding to the generally all-encompassing piles of debris. Cows rule here, along with mangy skin-diseased dogs, small armies of pigs pushing up dirt with their snouts, goats, and more cows.
People’s clothes and faces and arms are covered in dirt and they live alongside the cows and other animals, stepping over their piles of shit, accepting, even embracing, it as a permanent part of the landscape. Women in saris sit on piles of rubble hand-mixing the profusion of shit with hay and forming it into little patties, which they then form into larger igloo or beehive shapes to use as cooking fuel later. Horns honk and screech and play goofy little ditties, a cacophony of loud abrasive noise. Whole families burst at the seams of auto-rickshaws, hanging on for dear life and smiling as if they are having the happiest moments of their lives. Between the bicycles, cycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, the cows, the animals, and the filthy people, there is not a space to breathe or rest. Everyone and everything is in constant motion, and you must go along with the flow or you’ll be swallowed whole. The energy here is so intense, it takes your breath away.
We don’t spend much time in the city proper today. We just drive through on the way to Sarnath, on the fringes 13 km northeast of the city. This is a deer park where the Buddha gave the first sermon to his five disciples after attaining enlightenment, teaching his Eightfold Path to reaching nirvana. This is an oasis of peaceful beauty at the edges of frenetic Varanasi. The grounds are lovely, with flower gardens and a bright green carpet of grass. Crowds of students congregate on the lawn to listen to mock Buddha sermons and monks with shaved heads lounge on the grass in their maroon and gold robes.
At the end of the 12th century Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims, and the site was subsequently plundered for building materials. British archeologists rediscovered Sarnath in 1835. The restored ruins are all we can see today. Sarnath is a place of pilgrimage, both for Buddhists from India and abroad. A number of countries in which Buddhism is a major religion, among them Thailand, Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, have established temples and monasteries in Sarnath in the style that is typical for their country. As we wander around the grounds of the archeological survey, we see a Tibetan monk walking serenely around the Dhamek Stupa, a mound-like structure used by Buddhists as a place of worship; the walls are covered with beautifully carved figures of humans and birds, as well as inscriptions in Brahmi script. Stupas usually contain Buddhist relics, typically the remains of Buddha, but this one was built mainly to commemorate Buddha’s activity in this area.
After wandering around the beautiful Sarnath and its ruins, we go through the 100-year-old sandstone archeological museum where we see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and a huge 2,000 year old stone umbrella, carved with ornate Buddhist symbols. Sadly, we’re forced to leave our bags at the gatehouse, so we’re unable to take pictures in the museum.
Next door, we go into the Sri Digamber Jain temple, just behind the Dhamek Stupa, inside of which bamboo scaffolding is erected; painters stand on bamboo in their bare feet, painting the ceilings and walls. At the entrance sits a monk who shows us pictures of a famous Jain monk who lives his life totally naked. The pictures he shows us are of this famous monk, stark naked, meeting high-level dignitaries. Like Gandhi, but with even fewer clothes!
Jainism is an Indian religion that believes in non-violence toward all living beings. The philosophy involves self-effort to become liberated and reach divine consciousness. “Non-violence” is sometimes interpreted as not killing, but the concept goes far beyond that to include not harming or insulting other living beings. There can be even no room for thought to injure others, and no speech that influences others to inflict harm. It also includes respecting the views of others. Other principles are to always speak the truth in a harmless manner and to never take anything that is not willingly given. It actually is quite a lovely religion. Apparently Jainism was founded between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE and is one of the most scholarly and literate religions in India.
We make another stop at Sri Digamber Jain Temple, a small park and temple. We go into the grounds to walk around and when we return to the car, we find Sanjay taking a little nap.
After meeting and taking pictures of a bunch of schoolgirls riding bicycles on the street, we visit the modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara, a Buddhist monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society.
Inside are beautiful wall paintings on important episodes of Buddha’s life, done by a famous Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu during the years 1932-1936. Outside is a life-size diorama of Buddha teaching his disciples. We encounter a mangy dog trying to escape her three ravenously hungry puppies; they try to cling to her to teats despite her obvious disinterest.
Next stop, the peaceful and serene Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple, a Japanese temple. It is one of the many temples of various Buddhist sects in Sarnath. It is much like the temples I found in Kyoto when I went there in February, with a beautiful reclining wooden Buddha and another Buddha sitting under a tree. An Indian woman is vigorously sweeping the dirt ground outside one of the side buildings and a young Japanese woman who has ridden her bike to the temple is praying in front of the Buddha, with her forehead to the ground.
We are tired out from all these Buddhist and Jain temples and monasteries and archeological surveys. We’ve decided we want a massage, so we tell surly Sanjay that we want to go to the Lonely Planet-recommended Hotel Surya for a massage. He tells us it’s very expensive and not good and first he’d like to take us to a Muslim guy to look at silk stuff, bedding, scarves, etc. We tell him firmly, NO! We don’t want to see any silk. We want a massage. Then he wants to take us to a massage place he recommends, a place where he undoubtedly gets a kickback. We insist that we want to go to the Hotel Surya, and we don’t budge in our insistence. Every time we stand our grand with Sanjay, his surliness becomes more evident. And more obnoxious. Finally, he grumpily takes us to the Hotel Surya’s Relax Point Spa & Salon, where we each have an hour-long Shirodhara massage.
During the Shirodhara massage, warmed herbal oil is poured in an even stream onto the forehead to “pacify and revitalize the mind and body.” According to the brochure, “In addition to its intense rejuvenating and anti-aging effects, Shirodhara improves memory, normalizes sleep pattern and treats other neurological disorders.” We figure this will be a great thing to have after our intense day in crazy Varanasi. It feels wonderful, but after our hair is soaked in oil.
We tell Sanjay we want to go to the other Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant, The Brown Bread Bakery, for dinner. He protests that our hotel is on the outskirts of the city and it will take an hour to drive into Varanasi proper. So he takes us to a dirty outdoor restaurant with no other patrons. We tell him we don’t want to eat there. Then he insists on taking us to a restaurant called Brownie, which he says is owned by the same people as the Brown Bread Bakery. We go in and decide it’s not what we want. We also suspect he is lying about this Brownie being owned by the same people.
We return to the Ramada, where we go directly, in our oil-soaked hair, to the Toxic Bar & Lounge. There we chat with the young Indian guys at the bar, and as Jayne is British and follows cricket, and they are watching the cricket matches on TV, they have a grand time discussing the sport, about which I know absolutely nothing.
We order Kingfisher beers and they give us the most delicious peanuts ever, roasted and salted with the skin still on, along with some chips. We keep laughing because the oil is literally dripping from my hair onto my skin and my shirt, and no matter how much I wipe it off, I’m drenched again in minutes. One of the bartenders, a cute Muslim guy named Fahad, is being quite flirtatious, and we’re all having a grand time. We order a delicious spicy prawn appetizer, which along with the peanuts and chips, (and the drinks, to which we’ve added a glass of Indian wine), serve as our dinner.
We stop by the business center where we check emails and update our Facebook status… Haha, as if anyone cares! As a matter of fact, none of our kids or anyone in our family has written to even ask if we’re still alive! I shower and wash my hair twice, but I still can’t get all the oil out. Oh well, I guess I’ll wash it again in the morning, after our sunrise boat ride on the Ganges.