Saturday, July 19, 2008
Friday, July 18, 2008
A Statue of Buddha at Sarnath
1. Lumbini – his birthplace, now in Nepal
2. Kapilavastu – his kingdom, also in Nepal
3. Bodh Gaya – where he attained enlightenment, in Bihar
4. Sarnath – where he gave his first discourse, in UP
5. Shravasti – where he taught many of his students, near Lucknow
6. Rajgir – where he loved when he fell ill, in Bihar, 80 Kms from Gaya
7. Kushinagar – where he breathed his last, in Bihar.
Buddha spent 6 weeks at Gaya. The first week he spent under the Bodhi tree, the second inside the temple, the third near a lake (it is said that when he placed a foot on the water, a lotus appeared under it), the fourth week in the area around the temple, the fifth under another Bodhi tree (which is no more- a pillar stands in its place) answering the questions of learned Brahmins, and the 6th week at the centre of the pond. It is believed that when a severe thunderstorm approached, Adisesha himself arrived to protect the Buddha, forming an umbrella over his head with his hoods. This is the reason Buddha is sometimes counted as the 9th avatar of Vishnu.
There are over 50 temples at Bodh Gaya, all built by foreign Buddhists. The most important one however, remains the Maha Bodhi Temple, where the Bodhi tree stands.
The Maha Bodhi Temple
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Gaya is all about legends, and there are legends connected to every temple there and every rite that is performed.
The Vishnu Padam and the Legend of Gayasuran
Let me start with the name of the place. 'Gaya'. According to the legend, there was once an Asura named Gayasuran, who was a great devotee of Vishnu. When the Devas couldn’t bear the trouble he caused any more, they went to Vishnu and asked for a way out. Vishnu approached Gayasuran and told him that He wanted to perform a special yagna, and wanted a special place to perform it. Gayasuran offered his heart, and Vishnu accepted. The yagna began, and soon, the fumes and the heat became unbearable, and Gayasuran started succumbing to it. Vishnu asked him for his final wish, and Gayasuran asked that the place he died would be immortalized by his name, and hence the name ‘Gaya’. Second, he asked that people should be allowed to perform the sacred rites (Pinda pradaanam) not only for their ancestors, but for anyone- family, distant relatives, friends and foes, non-Hindus, pets, unclaimed bodies- in short, for any dead human/creature they could think of. This remains the only place where Pinda pradaanam is carried out in this manner. In fact, I am told that in a normal Shrardham, 3 pindams are made (one for each generation which ahs passed on); in a Teertha Shrardham , as at Kashi, Allahabad, Rameswaram, etc., 16 pindams are offered, including all ancestors on both parents side; in the Gaya Shrardham, 64 pindams are offered, of which 32 are for the mother alone, since she carries her child for 9 whole months within her body, 16 for the ancestors, and 16 for all others as I have mentioned earlier. Of course, all this is a matter of faith and belief, but what is there in life if we don’t have faith? Anyway, once Vishnu granted his wishes, he stepped on him with his foot, leaving a footprint at this holy place, and granting liberation to Gayasuran. It is this footprint which is worshipped as the Vishnu Padam. For the information of devotees, I must mention that for a fee of Rs.50/- an imprint of the Padam is taken on a muslin cloth and given. This is to be kept in the Puja room and is considered very auspicious.
Falguni River and the Legend of Sita
The next legend concerns the Falguni (or Falgu) river. There is never much water in the river at Gaya, though apparently, there is water upstream as well as downstream. It is clear that there is water under the ground, because, even as one digs into the ground with ones fingers, water appears. This is apparently because of a curse on the river. The story goes that Rama, along with his brothers and Sita, came to Gaya to perform the sacred rites for his father, Dasaratha. When the brothers were bathing in the river, Sita was sitting on the banks, playing with the sand. Suddenly, Dasaratha appeared out of the sand, and asked for the Pindam, saying he was hungry. Sita asked him to wait till his sons returned, so that she could give him the traditional Pindam of rice and til. He refused to wait, asking her to give him pindams made of the sand in her hand. Having no other option, she gave him the Pindam he desired with five witnesses – the Akshaya Vatam, the Falguni River, a cow, a Tulsi plant and a Brahmin. Soon, Rama returned and started the rituals. In those days apparently, the ancestors would arrive in person to collect their share, and when Dasaratha did not appear, they wondered why. Sita then told them what had happened, but Rama could not believe that his father would accept pindams made of sand. Sita now mentioned her witnesses, and asked them to tell Rama the truth. Among the five, only the Akshaya Vatam took her side and told the truth, while the others lied, trying to take Rama’s side. In her anger, Sita cursed all of them thus: the Falguni river henceforth would have no water at Gaya; the Cow would no longer be worshipped from the front as all others are- only its backside would be worshipped; there would be no more Tulsi plants at Gaya and the Gaya Brahmins would never be satisfied, they would always be hungry and crave more and more. She then blessed the Akshaya Vatam saying that all who came to Gaya would perform the Pinda pradaanam at the Akshaya Vatam too.
Other temples in the vicinity are the Sakshi Gopal temple and the Mangala Gowri Temple, which is among the Shakti peethams.
The Sun Rises over the Sarayu River
The Crowds throng the river into which Rama merged at the end of his rule on earth.
Ayodhya is much worse than Varanasi when it comes to extortion from pilgrims in the name of religion. In fact, even though we were accompanied by a guide, the number of people who tried to get money out of us in the name of Hinduism spoilt the entire trip for us. We made the trip to the Ram Janmabhoomi, which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. When we had got through all the tight security, and walked the long distance to what was supposedly the exact place where Rama was born, I found myself thinking, not about God, but whether all that bloodshed was really worth it. I have never been a supporter of what some call ‘doing good in the name of Hindutva’, and a visit to this place which has seen the governance of a king like Rama as well as destruction in His name, made me sad , to say the least.
The Hanuman Gadhi, a temple of Hanuman is the only one which shows Hanuman on a throne. It is believed that Rama asked him to rule the city when there was no ruler.
While at Ayodhya, try to stay at the Birla Dharamshala. It is an amazingly clean and nice place, and if you can get one the few AC rooms, there’s nothing like it. 5 to 6 people can easily stay in one room and the experience will be like that at a 5 star hotel!
Places to Visit around Ayodhya
Chitrakoot (270Kms from Varanasi and about 150Kms from Ayodhya)– the place where Rama, Lakshmana and Sita first lived during their exile. There are a number of places of tourist and religious interest here. Not surprising, considering that Rama lived here for a number of years. Among the famous places are
- Kamad Giri- where the mountain is believed to represent Vishnu himself
- Hanumat Dhara- where a river emerges from the gada or mace of Hanuman’s idol
- Spatik Shila- on the banks of the Mandakini, from where Rama aimed an arrow to hit a crow (who was actually Jayanta, the son of Indra) which was troubling Sita.
- Gupta Godavari- from where the river spring up on being hit by Rama’s arrow.
- Naimisharanya (400Kms from Varanasi and about 250 Kms from Ayodhya)- this is the sacred place where the Vedas, Puranas and Shastras were supposedly written, , and where sage Veda Vyasa recited the Vedas for the benefit of the Devas under a 5000 year old Banyan tree. The Gomati River flows here, the banks of which are covered by religious institutions from every part of India
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
The Many hues of the water at the Triveni Sangam
The three rivers maintain their identity and are visibly different as they merge. While the Yamuna is deep but calm and greenish in colour, the Ganga is shallow, but forceful and clear. The Saraswati remains hidden, but the faithful believe that she makes her presence felt underwater. During the monsoon, when the rivers are in full flow, the confluence of the rivers is seen clearly due to the force of the water, but the same force makes having a dip at the confluence difficult. I was told that during the monsoon, most devotees bathe at the riverbank for safety, while the more ardent ones who are willing to pay for the risk involved go to the confluence in a boat, where a shallow area is created by the presence of a number of boats with a kind of net suspended in between, and bathe there. In May however, there was enough water to bathe, but no too much, so we did not have any trouble in going to the centre of the rivers where they meet in a boat. A sort of platform had been constructed there, from which we climbed down into waist deep water. We had a wonderful time bathing in the river. We could have stayed in the water for ages, if it hadn’t been for the rites and rituals we had to perform back at the mutt where we were staying. It was a wonderful experience and I would advise people to visit Allahabad in March/April when the water will be less and the weather would be pleasant. Of course, it will be quite crowded at that time. May-end is actually a good time to visit if one wants to avoid the crowd and have fun in the water.
Heading towards the Sangam on a boat
A number of rituals are traditionally performed at Allahabad, mainly for appeasing our ancestors. There are a number of Mutts there who perform the rites. As at Kashi, there is no standard charge, but varies according to the rites one wants to perform and the budget.
An interesting ritual performed at the Sangam is that of Veni Daanam. This is a practice followed by married women for the long life of their husbands. The husband is supposed to comb and plait the wife’s hair and after decorating it with flowers, the end of the plait is cut off and offered to the rivers. Some men even shave off their hair/beard and offer it also to the rivers. This procedure is performed while travelling by boat to the Sangam and the hair is offered along with flowers, etc at the confluence. There is nothing interesting in itself about this. What is interesting is that hair, being light normally floats on water, but at this place, the hair sinks straight to the bottom. Though hundreds of people offer their hair everyday, there is not a single strand of hair seen floating on the river. Of course, there could and will be a scientific explanation for this phenomenon, but whatever it is, it gives us proof that nature is a wonderful thing….. Call it God or simply nature, it is indeed inspiring!
The Platform at the confluence.
The temple of Veni Madhava (one of the trio along with Sethu Madhava and Bindu Madhava, as I have mentioned before) is a little way inside the city. It is a small temple, with a small idol of Vishnu representing Veni Madhava. According to the legend painted on the walls of the temple, there was once a rakshasa who troubled all the Devas. Narada sought an audience with him to find out his weakness, and found that he suffered from a skin infliction. He told the Asura to bathe in the Triveni Sangam at Allahabad, which the Asura proceeded to do. Amazed at finding himself cured, he wanted to possess the 3 great rivers who had cured him, and began drinking them up! When the rivers pleaded with Vishnu, he arrived in the form of Veni Madhava and killed him, restoring the rivers to their rightful place.
The Veni Madhava Temple
The Shayana Anjaneya temple is an important one right on the banks of the river. Here, the idol of Hanuman is larger than life, carrying Rama and Lakshmana on his shoulders. Only, the idol is lying down. There are many stories about this temple. According to one, hanuman stepped over the rivers without their permission, angering them. They rose up and threw him to the ground, and crushed his ego. According to the locals, every year, the river rises and covers the whole idol before going back, which they consider absolute proof of this story. Another legend mentions that this is where hanuman emerged with Rama and Lakshmana after defeating the king of Patala, the netherworld, Ahi Ravana. Whatever the story, the temple is a simple and nice one.
The Adi Shankara Vimana Mandapam, a temple built by the Kanchi Mutt is right next to this temple. This is a 3 storeyed temple with idols and sculptures of various Gods and Goddesses. It is worth a visit.
The other paces of interest in Allahabad are-
The Allahabad fort, on the banks of the Yamuna, where we take a boat to go to the Sangam.
The Bharadvaj Ashram, where Sage Bharadvaj lived
Anand Bhavan- the birthplace of our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
We were unable to visit these places due to lack of time. I hope to visit them when I next get the chance.
75 Kms from Allahabad is Sita Madhi, or Sita Samahit Sthal, where Sita is believed to have merged with mother earth. This place has recently been developed by the UP Tourism Dept, and made into a tourist spot. There is nothing remotely religious about it now, but children seem to enjoy the attractions of the place which are a huge statue of Hanuman with an artificial cave under it, a Shiva lingam inside a cave, and the Sita temple flanked by a river on all sides, and a statue depicting Sita entering the ground.
A Statue of Hanuman and
The Sita Temple at Sita Madhi
75 Kms from here is Vindhyachal, where the temple of Vindhyavasini is one among the Shaktipeethas. We were unable to visit this temple too.
I would advise my readers to start early in the morning and visit Allahabad first. It is possible to have a dip in the river and visit all the temples, fort and other places by afternoon, if one does not have to perform all the rituals there. On the return journey, visit Sita Madhi and Vindhyachal, both of which are on the same route.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Sarnath is easily approachable from Varanasi. An auto wala charges about Rs.150/- for the trip (to and fro). A number of people hanging around act as guides, though a guide is not really necessary. All the structures have detailed descriptions and explanations on boards. All you need is the patience to read them! The guides are useful, though, if you want to see the temples constructed around recently.
Buddha was born at Lumbini, now in Nepal, and attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. It was here he came next, to impart his teachings to his first 5 followers. It is believed that Emperor Ashoka constructed the Stupa at the exact place where the Buddha sat. The Dhamek Stupa is the only structure left standing in the entire area. It is 28m in diameter at the base and 43.6m in height, built partly of stone and partly of brick. There are intricate carvings on the lower portion of the Stupa.
The Stupa amid the ruins of the ancient structures
The Stupa and the ruins of the ancient temples are protected monuments and one has to pay a minimal amount to view them. They are maintained by the archaeological society in association with the Buddhist society. The grounds of this enclosure are huge, and each ruin has detailed descriptions of the nature of the original structure and its history. It is a good pace to take children. Though they understand nothing much of history, unlike most places around Varanasi, here they have ample place to run around and enjoy themselves. Samhith had a good time here, and he was actually curious about what the broken down structures were. It is probably a better idea to bring children to such places to teach them history, rather than spending time poring over boring books!
It is here that the original of the Ashoka pillar was found with the distinctive emblem of the four lions, which is now preserved in the museum. The museum, I have heard is very good, and worth a visit. However, the down side is that is open only from 10AM to 4:30PM, and we were unable to visit it.
The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara
Anagarika Dharmapala from Sri Lanka who built the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara
The most recent structure here is the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara. The original Mulagandha Kuti temple lies among the brick ruins. This recent temple was built by the Sri Lankan Buddhist Monk, Anagarika Dharmapala, who founded the Maha Bodhi society. The story goes that he came on a pilgrimage to India, to visit the most sacred places in the life of Buddha, and he was appalled by the condition of the shrines at Sarnath. He had this temple constructed as a place of worship for Buddhists who came here from all over the world. He also collected some of the bones of the Buddha and had them kept in a casket in the temple. Over this casket is placed a beautiful image of the Buddha, made in stone, but covered with gold.
The Buddha Statue inside the temple placed on the casket containing the bones of the Buddha
On the walls are paintings depicting incidents from Buddha’s life, painted by the renowned Japanese painter, Kosetsu Nosu. He also brought a cutting from the Bodhi tree at Sri Lanka (which in turn was grown from a cutting of the original tree at Gaya), which he planted in an enclosure near the temple. Around this tree are kept statues of the first five disciples of the Buddha as well as statues of the earlier Bodhisattvas. There is also a complete script of the first discourse of Buddha, in various languages.
The Paintings inside the temple
One thing which I appreciated about this place was the serenity that was maintained in spite of the crowd visiting it. This probably has something to do with the atmosphere of the place itself, and which is probably why the Buddha chose this particular place for his first sermon. One thing to appreciate about the society is that one is allowed to click photos inside the temple. There is no ticket for cameras, but there is a placard telling us to put Rs.10/- per camera in the donation box. There is no one to actually make sure that one does put the money in. it is left to one’s conscience to do the right thing, and probably what the Buddha would have expected us to do. It is a good system that seems to work here, and will probably work in other places too.
Once upon a time, when the Buddha came here, this was a forest with a number of deer, whom the Buddha was specially attracted to. In his forms as the Bodhisattva, He had frequently taken the form of a deer. The name ‘Sarnath’ is believed to come from the word ‘Saranga-nath’, or the Lord of the Deer, as the Buddha was known here. In recent times, till about 20 years back, there was a deer park here. This park has now given way to a small zoo with birds like parrots, parakeets and peacocks, and water birds like the pelicans and storks, and also a few crocodiles. There are quite a few deer around too. This mini zoo was something Samhith enjoyed thoroughly. We did not see any crocs, though we did see the deer and the water birds.
Animals and Birds in the Mini Zoo
The constant influx of Buddhists from all over the world has led to the construction of new Buddhist temples. Among these is the impressive sandalwood temple built by the Japanese. This temple is built using sandalwood (so our guide told us). Inside is a life size statue of the Buddha in the pose in which he breathed his last. There are also statues of his first disciples, each made of a single block of sandalwood. The carvings and the decoration of the temple are beautiful, and make a visit to this temple worthwhile. When we visited, a form of aarti or prayer was in session with people singing and beating cymbals. Though I couldn’t understand a word, the music was soothing, and I could have stood there for ages listening to it, if it wasn’t for my boisterous son, who was running around, distracting people.
The Japanese Sandalwood Temple
Inside the Temple
I had thought that was the end of my Sarnath trip, but it wasn’t to be. As I have mentioned earlier, the name ‘Sarnath’ is believed to come from ‘Saranga-nath’ or Lord of the Deer, referring to the Buddha. However, our guide had a different take on it. He took us to a small temple near the Japanese one, where there were two lingams in the sanctum. Here, he said the two lingams represented Shiva and his brother-in-law (Sati’s brother and Daksha’s son) whose name was ‘Sarangnath’. Hence, he said, the name ‘Sarnath’ for this place. Whether it was simply wishful thinking of Hindus to have the name after one of their Gods, or whether it was really true, I have absolutely no idea, and honestly, I can’t think that it matters very much. After all, it is not the name which matters, or the god or the guru we believe in. it is our action that judge us, and not our beliefs. No religion teaches us to fight or kill. They all try to teach us tolerance, and that is what we ought to learn.
We were also taken to a sari shop where the weavers were Buddhists, and the proceeds were used to provide facilities for the poor. We had already bought enough saris at Varanasi, and my husband accompanied us unwillingly into the shop, but our attention was captured at once by a simple cotton sari with a motif including the word ‘Sarnath’ in the pattern. It was certainly unique, and we were told that saris with this pattern were only available in Buddhist shops at Sarnath. Anyway, even my husband loved them, and we ended up buying a couple more. After spending more than our budget allowed us, we traced back our steps to Varanasi, tired after spending more than 3 hours at Sarnath, filled to the brim with memories we shall treasure.
The Sari with the Sarnath Pattern
Sunday, July 6, 2008
The last remnant memory of the kings of Benares is the Ramnagar Fort and Palace on the opposite banks of the Ganga, in a section of which the present scion of the royal family still resides. The palace is about 15Kms away by road, and an auto takes about half an hour to reach there. We however chose the longer, but more interesting and relaxing option- that of taking a row boat to the palace across the river. The journey took us a good one and a half hours, but the sheer bliss we experienced made every minute worth it!
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, Merrily, Merrily,
Life is but a dream……….
Samhith with our boatman Raju
We spent 10 days in Varanasi, and not a day passed without us taking a boat ride. My husband Shankar made friends with a young boatman named Raju, not yet out of his teens, and we found him waiting for us, ready to take us to the other bank for a bath, or a long, leisurely boat ride down the river. It was he who took us for a tour along all the Ghats, a trip to the Ramnagar Palace, and also to the temples via the Ghats. It was a wonderful experience, one I shall never forget. Read the full post...