If you remember, today I was booked on a tour to Sarnath, having more or less seen all of Varanasi yesterday. It’s learning time!
Sarnath, which is a town just 10 km north of Varanasi, is one of the four first holy sites of Buddhism, based on the major events of Buddha’s life. The first is Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal, where prince Siddhartha Gautama was born. The second is Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, India, where he achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha under the bodhi tree. The third is here, in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, where Buddha gave his first sermon and thus started Buddhism. The fourth is Kushinagar, also in Uttar Pradesh, where Buddha is said to have died/achieved Nirvana at the age of 80.
Nowadays, Sarnath has become a Buddhist pilgrimage destination and has given rise to many different denominations of Buddhist temples all around its main attraction, an ancient archaeological site and museum.
It was a sunny morning, and the drive took probably half an hour, although it felt longer because when you stay in the old city of Varanasi you have to first walk out of the no-traffic zone to get to your car. The driver took me to the town of Sarnath and dropped me off first at the Thai temple, which is a medium-sized temple built and tended to by Thai monks. The driver offered to hook me up with one of the guides from the temple, and I initially refused but then realized that I really didn’t know the first thing about Sarnath or, more importantly, what even there was to see and where to find it, so I relented and agreed for a “voluntary donation”.
The actual wat is rather small and just contains a large golden statue of Buddha, but what’s more attractive is the gardens surrounding it, which looked verdant and refreshing in the clear morning. There’s a giant stone statue of Buddha, apparently built by the Thai as a reconstruction of an ancient statue that was destroyed, and a replica of the state emblem of India, the four lions. I learned that the circle in the center of the Indian flag is a chakra, specifically the chakra of Dharma or, roughly, “order”.
After a cursory walk through the gardens, the guide steered me to a silk shop for that part of every tour that I call “the shakedown”, but it caught me in a less charitable spirit than last time and I quickly peaced out without buying anything.
At this point I was done with this temple and the guide, so I made my donation and got directions to what I wanted to see next. He explained that there’s the Archeology Museum, which cost just 5 rupees (just six cents!), and then he talked about the archeological site nearby, which he didn’t seem to think worth visiting: he said the ticket is 300 rupees (€3.7) and you can’t even go inside the stupa, which you can see from outside anyway. “Ooooh, I see” I said, with every intention of going anyway.
So I took off and walked a very short distance to get to the museum, where I bought a ticket for both visits. 5 rupees for a very good museum is hard to beat, although it really made me nervous that they make you leave your bag and your mobile phone in consignment before walking in. Leaving your bag, I can understand, but what’s wrong with your phone? They explicitly tell you that it’s okay to take cameras inside and use them to take pictures, so I have no idea.
Anyway, I reluctantly took my wallet and put my phone in the backpack, and went into the museum -of course I could only take a picture of it from outside the gates.
The museum’s collection was surprisingly solid, with a large number of Buddhist and Hindu statues and inscriptions recovered from the buildings in the excavation site next door. Most of the statues are from around the 10th century, so they amount to a large wealth of historical significance. All the displays were in both Hindi and English, so it was interesting to read some context about what was important about the different works. I was especially interested in the overlap between early Buddhism and Hinduism, as evidenced by some shared figures at the time. They also have the original four-lion statue in there, of which the one in the Thai temple is a copy: it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that the statue dates back to Ashoka’s Empire, around the 3rd century BC!
I stayed longer at the museum than I expected, which is a good thing, and then I hopped out (got my phone and my bag back, phew) and into the archeological site. This was apparently a deer park when Buddha gave his first sermon to his followers, although eventually it became a religious enclave and a city that flourished around the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.
Nowadays, only the foundations of some buildings remain, everything else either destroyed by invading armies or carried to safety in the museum. The most impressive structure in the site is the Dhamek Stupa, which rises from the ground like a mountain (stupas are Buddhist structures that were used to encase the remains of important monks). This one was built in the 6th century CE, so it’s shocking that it still stands; it was apparently much taller, but it’s already astonishing that even the remaining core still shows inscriptions and decorations from 1500 years ago.
Unlike the museum, the site is very short on any kind of explanatory text, so you’re mostly left to visit the enclosure on your own. I walked around the stupa (you’re supposed to walk clockwise) and went back out to my driver.
On the way back, we stopped at the Japanese temple, a small Buddhist temple that seemed plucked right out of Japan, and also at the Chinese temple, which is a little bigger but nowhere near as pretty. Having been to Japan and Thailand, it was cool to be able to recognize the architecture of their respective temples!
I got dropped off in Varanasi, right outside the old city, but instead of going back to my hotel I scouted places for lunch instead. The Lonely Planet recommended Keshari, but I did a walk-by and it didn’t seem very inviting so I gave it a pass and squeezed into the alleys of the old town to go the Dolphin restaurant, which on the map is right next to my hotel but did not feel anywhere close when actually navigating the streets!
I ordered Korma for lunch, to change it up a bit, vegetarian like all the items on the menu, but was horrified to discover that the Korma curry I got included fruits (like grape, grapefruit and pineapple) as ingredients! Pineapple in my curry! I mean, I ate it, but eeeeeh I wouldn’t order it again. Sweet curries and salty lassis are where I draw the line.
After I finished eating, it was still early to go back to the hotel (yesterday I came back too early and they hadn’t made my room yet), so off I went again into the streets to find a cafe -no easy task, at least for my concept of a cafe, which is no existent in Paris so I shouldn’t be surprised it’s rare here too. Anyway, after much exploring I ended up going to Brown Bread Bakery, which is recommended on the Lonely Planet guide (they say there’s fake places called the same so I checked pictures online to make sure I got the right one). This was the very only place in my trip so far that was frequented exclusively by foreigners, so clearly it caters to the Lonely Planet crowd. It worked for me: I wanted to sit down somewhere quiet, where I’d be left alone, and have a hot tea and a slice of cake the size of my own head, and that’s exactly what I did! (My first bite was like “This is exactly what I wanted!” My last bite was more like “I am dying”) The tea and enormous cake set me back 120 rupees (€1.50; in Paris the tea alone costs €4,75).
At an undetermined point I rolled off my seat and back onto the streets, this time to finally go back to the hotel. Several times as I followed the map I ended up in the narrowest alleys, where I was sure that I’d end up in a dead end or in somebody’s house, but no, this time the map served me more or less faithfully and the alleys eventually opened up to wider streets. You’ll notice in the pictures that the walls are all painted with bright signs pointing you in the direction of your hotel or restaurant or shop, and as far as I’ve seen they are correct, but what you don’t see is that you take the turn as they point out but then you never see that sign again! I got to my hotel but bizarrely enough, not through the main street that I left from but from a side street that I’d never been to. Oh well!
This is it for my visit to Varanasi, as I’m going back to Delhi tomorrow for a last day before going back to Paris. (This goes back to my demonstration of how to plan around delays: when I made my itinerary, I booked myself one full day in Delhi at the end of the trip, as buffer in case anything went wrong or flights got canceled, so I’d have extra time to react and catch my flight home)
I am definitely glad that I added Varanasi to my itinerary. The reports that it’s more stressful or intimidating or that people are more intrusive than elsewhere in India are, in my experience, unfounded; it has been more uncomfortable only in the sense that the old city is closed to traffic and it’s difficult to navigate, but that’s mostly it. It is also, like Agra, a one-day visit, as it’s mostly about walking along the ghats and across the old city, there aren’t really museums or monuments to visit.
On to Delhi!