Pilgrimage within the Pilgrimage

I spent the final week of my trip in a small Indian town called Bodhgaya (described in above post), sitting under a Bodhi tree trying to find enlightenment. Well, not exactly, but I am soaking in the vibe from this place, where 2600 years ago a 35 year old Siddhartha Gautam, soon to be known as the Buddha, found enlightenment after sitting for 49 days straight under a Bodhi tree. Today, a large Buddhist community has been built around a descendent of the original Bodhi tree and this small town has become the major pilgrimage site in the world for Buddhists.

I set off from Nepal with hopes of reaching all four of the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites, starting with Lumbini in Nepal (Birth), Sarnath (First teaching), Bodhgaya(Enlightenment), and Kushinagar (Death). I began the pilgrimage with a lot of suffering (perfect practice for one aspiring Buddhist), enduring a 24 hour bus journey from Kathmandu to Lumbini after an epic, all-day saga to get my Indian Visa. Eventually with a transit-visa in hand, I meandered to the bus station and hopped on a night bus headed towards Lumbini. Despite not being able to fit in my seat, I managed to finally fall asleep, expecting to wake up in Lumbini. I woke up groggily to hear that we were less than half way, due to a broken bridge. In great Nepali form, it took hours to figure out what to do and eventually a path was created through the small creek for buses and trucks to pass. I confirmed that I have in fact developed a sense of patience, as a trip of about the distance from Boulder to Vail took 24 hours and I felt quite content. I made some new friends, and despite being in the absolute middle of nowhere, there were people selling things from roadside carts and bicycles like water, fruit, peanuts and other snacks to pass the time. I met a great guy who was getting a masters in English literature and hoped to travel to America some day. Seizing the opportunity to speak with one of the first educated Nepalese I’d met, we talked politics and policy and he helped me discern some of the nonsense occurring in Nepal by the Maoist separatists.  I lost a day (or did I gain one?), diving into a new book and catching up on Simpson episodes and podcasts on my iPod. Ironically, my friends Al and Nicole left Kathmandu about 15 hours after I did and we both arrived at the same hotel within a half hour of each other in Lumbini.

IMG_4205 After a great night’s sleep, we toured Lumbini the next day. I was expecting mayhem and an over-touristic feel to the place, but ultimately found it to be extremely peaceful and relaxing. Despite plans from the Chinese to build the largest Buddha statue in the world and a mega-resort in Lumbini, today a small building surrounds the exact location where Buddha was born. This building surrounds the ruins of an ancient monument and itself is surrounded by a peaceful garden colored by thousands of prayer flags. We had a nice meditation and then jumped on our 60 year old rented bicycles to explore IMG_4208the Lumbini Development Zone, a large area where each sect of Buddhism has built a temple for their pilgrims. Most were quite unimpressive compared to the real thing in their home countries, but I did enjoy the Japanese World Peace Pagoda, where we sat with two monks for 20 minutes and chanted for world peace, “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” as we played  drums and the sun set quietly behind us. I finished the evening with some yummy street vendor samosas and retired early before the town shut down completely at 8pm.

We hired a private car for the ride to the border the next morning in order to circumvent the major Maoists strikes going on in Nepal that kept most taxis and buses off the road for a few days. Before I knew it, I was in India.  She was in full glory first thing in the morning – the smells, the guys trying to rip us off and the delay in getting our jeep driver to leave (he refused to budge before the full quota of 15 people in a jeep was reached!). I had some ridiculous idea of side-tracking to Kushinagar and catching a night train to Varanasi, not fully comprehending the speed of travel, the sometimes overbooked Indian trains and short days of December! Ultimately after a series of trials, we decided to skip Kushinagar (probably the least interesting of the 4 sights) and move onto Varanasi via bus.

Varanasi, where to begin? Lonely Planet describes it with: “Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favorite stop of all".

IMG_4226 Varanasi is a very raw and visceral place – a sacred place for Hindus on their most sacred river – the Ganges. This is were many people go to die, to be cremated on the riverbanks (ghats) and ultimately have their ashes deposited into the river. Throughout my four day stay in Varanasi, the sky was constantly filled with ash and smoke, as hundreds of bodies are cremated a day. As you walked the alleyways of town, you would often need to quickly slide to the side of an alley as families carrying their deceased loved-ones wrapped in an orange sari down to the ghats to be cremated. At times I was quite overwhelmed watching this scene – so much death and sadness all concentrated in one place. The buildings right behind the ghats are eerie places where the sick and old wait to die – preferably you die near the Ganges to save your family the trouble and cost of transporting your body many miles after death. The entire funeral happens in the public eye – depending on how much money you have you might be able to afford nicer wood for the cremation, and your caste determines where exactly the burning occurs. I learned a lot about the actual process in Kathmandu, but needless to say seeing it up close and personal was a very heavy experience. After viewing the burning ghats once or twice, I found myself wanting to avoid the areas, not only to respect the privacy of the dead and their families, but to avoid my own feelings that death brings into awareness.

Life and death are intermingled however. As body after body is burned (~ 3 hour process) and its ashes floated into the Ganges, the mighty river is also acting as a transportation hub, bath tub, IMG_4238washing machine and sewage plant. Despite carcinogenic levels being hundreds of times the deemed safe level, every morning countless thousands of Varanasi residents – men, women, sadhus, cows and water buffalos descend to the river to bath and wash. In the same holy water that their ancestors were cremated into and that the raw sewage of their village empties into. Its almost incomprehensible to us in the West, with our safety standards, clean drinking water and microbe killing soaps. Sometimes when traveling you have to put these standards firmly behind you, as the people of this land have been undergoing such rituals for hundreds or thousands of years and seem to get along just fine. You will too for a few days.

Wandering and driving the streets and Ghats in Varanasi was one of the most intense sensory experiences of my entire journey. First, December is wedding season in India, and in carnival, parade-like fashion, I witnessed many couples  and families celebrating their union, complete with fireworks, drums, light shows and generally week-long festivities. This was an incredible contrast to the scene occurring just a few blocks away on the river, as many individuals were passing IMG_4259away and leaving their bodies to be united with nature. One will never forget the smells of Varanasi either. Ashes, burning bodies, chai tea, sewage, spices, restaurants and on and on were intermingled as you wander around. One afternoon after a leisurely morning in the Aum Cafe,  I traveled to Sarnath with Al and Nicole on a pimped out auto rickshaw (picture a 3 wheeled go-cart with a hand break and pimped out stereo system). Getting out of Varanasi was yet another Varanasi sensory delight – the road was PACKED with pedestrians, bicycles, auto rickshaws, cars, buses, cows, delivery trucks, motorcycles, on and on.  There are no traffic lights, no rules and IMG_4220no police. Somehow everything just works and we interweave within inches of so many other vehicles and people. Our drivers friend appears and disappears three times in the midst of the traffic (all Indian rickshaw drivers seem to have buddies who like to tag along, especially when there is a foreign woman in the back to stare at through the rearview…). Eventually we break out onto open road and I relax in amazement at how anyone gets anywhere in India.

Sarnath turned out to be very cool and I wish we had gone earlier to enjoy the day at the park where Buddha gave his first sermon. There are ruins of an Asoka temple, the garden where Buddha gave his first enlightened teaching and a small temple where monks chant Buddha’s first sermon each evening at sundown. The garden is one of those rare places in India where you can relax, sit, read, meditate or otherwise without pesky Indian touts bothering you. The energy of the place was great and again we watched the sunset as various pilgrimage groups paid their respects to this holy place.

I feel like there is so much more to say about Varanasi, but it it is really a place one just has to experience on their own. The cell block hotel, the mighty river, the hashish salesmen, stampeding holy cows, dark and winding avenues and the amazing world of life on the Ghats. Words just can not do justice to sensory experience you will have there. We will leave it at that.

Next stop: Bodhgaya, the final stop on the Pilgrimage.