India has been an accidental trip, so much which was unplanned and left to destiny. Varanasi and Bodhgaya, and all the diversity, colour, spirituality the country had to offer in between, I can’t help but to think it was merely a fraction of the experience in this vast land.
Let The Adventures Begin
Expected the unexpected, you could aptly put that as the guideline. It would serve well to have it as a mentality. And really, our first train at 11pm traversing from Lucknow to Varanasi was cancelled. Suddenly we were stranded in the train station, amongst many people who were sleeping on the floor with blankets and baggage. Were they homeless, or did they got cancelled too?
Train Cabin Categories on Indian Trains
Undeterred and unwilling to arrive late, we bought a general ticket for maybe Rp200. That means we could jump on any train with the condition that we have no reserved seat.
India train cabins are categorized into different classes, starting from the best (and most expensive) to the worst:
- AC tier 1
- AC tier 2
- AC tier 3
- Unreserved – this is what you get with a general ticket
Of course there were tricks on how to sneak your way up a better class with a general ticket, however given it was our first encounter we just followed the rules. I came to learn eventually that there’s no hard rules here. The only rules to abide were respect and awareness.
Secret Cabin for Rp100
After some poking around and witnessing someone jump into the train window, we found this man who told us we could try our luck in the disabled cabin. A bribery fee of Rp100 was enough to let us into this hidden chamber.
Not the most comfortable or clean place. With 8 other Indians draped in blankets staring at 2 Chinese tourists coming into their resting place. There was nowhere to sit except for a corner on the floor which was sufficient to rest our tired bodies.
Ahead of us was at least 9 hours of cold, dusty, smelly ride. The smell came from the toilet which was a few meters away flooded with waste. It wasn’t the most welcoming place you will want to enter. However like all adventurers, we find joy in difficult things. Oh and they will ask you what country you came from; we chose to lie to the dubious bunch.
And so it begun the long journey through the blistering cold night, loud train horns, incessant rolling of train tracks and the occasional whiff from the toilet.
Varanasi: The Ancient Religious City
Varanasi, or Benaras (I heard locals call it by this name more often than not), is an ancient religious city built along river Ganges (or mother Ganges as the locals affectionately call it). It breathes religion and spirituality. It is also no surprise that here we wandered around the holiest of seven sacred cities in Hinduism and it is known for the Hindu god Shiva.
Stroll along the ghats which are stone stairways along mother Ganges and you will be enthralled by the many daily activities of the faithful locals. Bathing, washing clothes, prayers and rituals are the most common sights. At the same time, you can also find people throwing waste, ashes of the dead, decomposing animal corpses by the banks. This juxtaposition of faith and logic was difficult for me to grasp.
Local Indian Traditions: Ghats and Beliefs
There are more than 80 ghats to walk across, however the famous ones are Dashashwamedh and Manikarnika representing the main and burning ghats respectively.
The burning ghat is especially sacred as the belief goes that if one dies and get cremated here, he/she achieves liberation from the cycle of rebirth and hence freed from suffering. Fires are kept burning by pyres made of straw and sandalwood. The process is elaborate from the transportation of the body, shaving of the head and beard of the deceased family member, lighting of the fire from a special source guarded by the Doms and various rituals upon throwing the ashes into the holy river.
Tradition: Burning Corpse
It is interesting to know that the burning of the corpse are performed by Doms which are of the lowest caste, the “boss of the Doms” controls the fire and wood supply which he charges a fee for cremation. This could actually mean the clan of Doms are actually quite rich!
The cremation grounds are divided into sections to differentiate between the different castes. The lowest castes are below near the river bank and progressively higher castes are higher up the ghat.
Tradition: Aarti Ceremony
Dashashwamedh ghat is where the aarti ceremony is performed every evening, you won’t miss it as there will be holy music and chairs prepared. There are several aarti performed in the vincinity and they are all free to watch. These ceremonies are a part of Hindu worship and it is a wild orchestra of ringing bells, chanting, worship songs and dazzling flames.
The performers face the Ganges which is synonymous to facing their deities, so it is not good to stand in front of them for pictures. Otherwise you can sit back or go to the side walk ways for better views.
Silk and generally fabric trading is common in Varanasi, the little workshops which produces scarfs, blankets, table sheets houses a few workers. The products were hand woven, dyes were manual, and threading was helped by simple machines which reflected the ancient technology.
Sarnath: The City of Buddha’s First Sermon
Further up north is the city of Sarnath, the story goes that this is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Pay an entrance fee of Rp200 for a walk around the ruins of the monastery and stupas. On hindsight, it wasn’t particularly exciting and it takes up about half a day travelling back and forth.
As we bid Varanasi goodbye, it was a city populated since antiquity, splendour of colours and traditions unique only to the place itself. The next leg of journey brought us 300km east to Bodhgaya, the land of Buddhism.
Bodhgaya: Finding Happiness
It was in Bodhgaya where I was introduced to a charity school in a village called Choraha. A friend whom we met in the guesthouse at Varanasi brought us here. This was where I had some personal realization that much of happiness in my given circumstances were within control. And what little actions in my own capacity could make a big difference to others who are living hard lives.
There was a profound respect for the children who did not attach desire of poor and rich, they lived the moment, they showed gratitude although all I had was a camera pointing at their faces. Was it ignorance that proved to be a bliss? Is it the perspective we adults let our complicated desires cloud our definition of well being?
Mahabodhi Temple: Buddha’s Bodhi Tree
The next place of interest was Mahabodhi temple, here is where Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Enormous looking architecture, the temple is divided into a few areas, there’s a section for meditation, one for prostrations, one for chanting and teaching etc. Despite the tall structure, the inside was narrow and housed a statue of Buddha with his right hand touching the earth – most probably a depiction of Buddha winning over Maya the devil of desires.
Day Trips: Nalanda & Rajgir
Moving up north east on a day trip to Nalanda and Rajgir. We saw the ruins of Nalanda which used to be a university in ancient terms some 800 years ago. Plenty of restoration work has been done and it’s very much up to the imagination to visualize what this place might have used to be. Xuanzang (the monk in Journey to the West) is said to have visited Nalanda. The demise of Nalanda came during an invasion by the Turks during the 13th century.
At Rajgir, there is a gondola which can bring you up the hill to Viswa Shanti stupa which had a Japanese Buddhist temple. If you walk down half the hill, there are 2 small caves, sitting within are Buddha statues – you have to look hard enough otherwise it’s probably missed. Continue downwards and you will reach Gridhkut vulture peak (look it up on google map). This is a very quiet open-air shrine which you can have a rest and take it the skyline view of Rajgir.
Till We Meet Again, India
Regrettably, the air around Northern India during the winter season is foggy. I don’t know if it’s because of air pollution. You might be disappointed that landscape photos yield a flat image. On the other hand, there are many moments of peace, quiet and cool air from the peak.
At last, we had to leave Bodhgaya to Lucknow for our flight back home. We didn’t have a ticket and we bought a general ticket but this time we had advice from our kind Indian friends that we could sneak into the Sleeper class and steal a bed, because someone might not have shown up or alighted at a previous station. It seemed to work pretty well until I got chased off my bed twice. Luckily, I managed to secure a free bed for the 16-hour ride.