Monthly Archives: January 2013

Varanasi – The Oldest Living City

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and

looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain

Varanasi (also called Benaras or Kashi), the holiest of the Hindu pilgrimages, the microcosm of Hinduism, is a city of traditional classical culture that is glorified by myth and legend and sanctified by religion. The divinity of “Kashi” and the quest to attain eternal oneness of the body and soul, has attracted worshippers and pilgrims to this holy land from time immemorial. Known for the numerous ghats facing the mighty river Ganges shining in the golden hues of the sun, art and music, Varanasi offers an unforgettable experience to every pilgrim or traveller. The shrines and temples along the Ganges, bathing in rich tradition of India, basking in the glory of Indian culture, re-vibrates of the hymn and incense from the prayers of kin that elevates the mortal soul to the next cycle of life. This is the story of my journey to Varanasi – The city of Light, trying to contemplate on the meaning of life.The Ghats and the Ganges

Ok, fine. I’m not here to meditate on my destiny, I’m just a traveller with a passion to explore the rich cultures and tradition of Varanasi. First of all, let me tell you that Varanasi was not in my initial travel plan. It was a quick decision we made in Ragir (Ya, yesterday) to visit Varanasi as well. Luckily we did get a Tatkal ticket in Budhpoornima Express and to our great relief, we did get our sleeper berths as well.

30th November

We arrived Varanasi by around 11 am since the train was late by 2.5 hours. So, we thought we’d start off with the most famous temple of India – The Shri Kashi Vishwanatha Temple. It is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva (The destroyer) and it is located in the middle of the city. The most notable part about visiting this The sagestemple is that, the security around it is so tight that I’d say, there’s atleast a battalion of soldiers stationed there. Now, the reason for this is quite obvious as there exist a Babri Masjid (Mosque) very next to the temple. I must admit, even though India is a secular country, not everyone understands the meaning of secularism. The air around the temple and mosque is quite tense, and we could literally feel it. After nearly 30 mins on queue, I finally had the darshan of the Shiva Linga or the deity of the temple. No pun intended, but to see the advertisements of banks about online poojas and payments inside the temple was disheartening. Technologically advanced that spirituality and religion is just a mouse-click away!!

After visiting the temple, we set of to the Ghats. Varanasi is very famous for the Ghats and high banks around the river Ganges. There are nearly 80 Ghats and each have its own name and uniqueness. The smell of incense fills the air and the hymns purify your souls. We could see countless people performing poojas.  We could see marriage ceremonies, people The ritualsbathing in the river to purify themselves of their sins, the black smoke that rises of the funeral piers – They reminded us of the cycle of life. This is where it starts and ends for them. If you are searching for eternal oneness with your spirit, you’d be one of the thousands who come to Benaras for meditation. So, we started out with the Dashashwamedh Ghat, one of the 80 Ghats, somewhere to the middle, I guess. We were lucky to have Abhisekh, a classmate Vishwanath Temple BHUof mine in IIT Kanpur as our guide. After some 30 minutes of negotiation we got ourselves a boat that agreed to take us to Assi Ghat, the 80th Ghat. The trip took nearly 1 hour and trust me, it was a remarkable experience. We were rowing along the shore of Ganges amazed at the beauty and  spirit of Varanasi.

We then went to the Benaras Hindu University, one of the largest Universities in the world. Located at the heart of Varanasi, this temple of high learning has helped a lot in the all round development of the nation. We visited the Vishwanath temple inside the University campus and A sight in Varanasiit was a really huge temple. Built in 1965, the Marble and concrete temple is a fine example of the modern temple architecture. The campus of the university reminded me of the IIT campus, but the buildings were older and beautiful. The campus is nearly twice the size of IIT Kanpur.

And before we left, we bought some sweets from Varanasi (They are really famous). Varanasi is also known for Banaras silk. After a good dinner, we boarded a UPSRTC bus and we were off to Kanpur.  Don’t be alarmed if your bus jumps to the wrong side of a 4 lane highway and still keeps up 70-80 kmph. You’re driver just wants to avoid the queue at toll booth; Don’t forget – Time is money!

This concludes my 3 day trip to Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Varanasi – through the cradle of two great religions – seeking enlightenment and spiritual oneness. Now, I’m not gonna answer the question as to whether I attained enlightenment or the oneness. The total expenditure was Rs.2200 or $41 per head. The mapAnd here is the tour map as I promised. And this is Ashwin, Me and Rashid – The Trio

The TrioA special thanks to Ashwin, Rashid and Abhisekh and all those who helped me during this journey.

PS : End of Bihar – Varanasi trip

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Rajgir – The House of the King

Rajgir, a quiet village in Bihar, was once the site of Rajagrih – The capital of the most powerful empire in India during the time of Buddha. Apart from being an important Buddhist area, Rajgir also kinder the past for Jain and Hindus. But the most famous place in Rajgir is Nalanda, where the ruins of the once great ancient University of Nalanda reminds us of the fall of the mighty. And this is the place were I’m gonna take you.

Shanti StupaSo much for the history, let’s get back to the trip. Like I said in the previous post, this day began with an unexpected turn of events. You know, people of  South India are generally prejudiced about Bihar. I must admit, I too had a few preconceived notions about this place. When it comes to trains, I guess I’m right! We considered ourselves lucky to get a Tatkal ticket some 6 hours before the train Tongas in Rajgirdeparture. But it was only when we boarded the train that we realized that, those tickets were available only because no one takes tickets! At 1 am in the morning, we were stranded in a train, with allotted berths, in a jam-packed sleeper compartment. After some argument with the people, we here able to get a seat to at least sit, let alone lie down. Thank God, it was just a 4 hour trip. As my friend put it, “We were like sardines in a can”. Somehow we made it to Rajgir in the morning, and we were still in one piece.

The first thing was to find a hotel room and found one near the railway station. The room rent was just Rs.300 (He initially asked Rs.600, though. We’re good at bargaining) and it was pretty decent. Japanese TempleAfter the usual Poori-sabji breakfast with jilebi, we set out to explore Rajgir. Being one of the most important tourist site in Bihar, Rajgir is a well maintained town. The major means of transport is the horse-carriage or the tongas. And the tonga fares are fair. The first stop was the Venu van which was a small forest garden and had been the favourite resort of Lord Buddha during his stay in Rajgriha. Next we walked to the Japanese Temple which is also a famous buddhist site in Rajgir. The temple as such is simple, but has some exhibits related to Japan and Buddhism.

After a little Buddhist visit, it was time for a Jain site visit. The Veerayatan. It was a non-profit Jain Organisation started by Acharya Shri Chandanaji and as for a tourist, Veerayatan boasts museum, meticulously portraying the life of Lord Mahavir. The museum is a must visit place and the exhibits are extremely beautiful and intricate. We had to honour of meeting Acharya Shri Chandanaji during our visit to the museum.Sonbhandar Caves

Another tonga took us to the Rope-way. It took us up by 400m to the Shanti Stupa. Like all major Hill stations in Eastern India, Rajgir
Rajgir Ropewayalso hosts a Japanese Shanti Stupa located atop a hill. The interesting part is the view from the top of the hill. The remains of the  ancient Cyclopean wall, that once encircled the ancient city of Rajagriha, can been seen from the Stupa.  The single-person rope-way is one of the most important tourist attraction in Rajgir and it is worth the 60 bucks.

The next destination was the historic site of Bimbisara jail. I’d call it an epic troll! No pun intended  but we weren’t expecting a ground with a 2 foot wall as the remains of a jail. Next was the Sonabhandar caveBimbisara Jail ?? which is believed to hold the treasury of King Bimbisara. The legend has it that, the treasure opens to the person who can read the inscription on the cave wall. Guess, no one read it so far.  Near the Cave is the Maniyar Math which is believed to be the Mani-Naga shrine mentioned in Mahabharata.

Next destination was the Ruins of the Ancient Nalanda University. Located some 20km from Rajgir, the ruins are a World Heritage site.  Started in 5th century AD, the Nalanda University was as good as any of the best universities in the world at present. Spread over a sprawling 14 hectares, the Red DSCN1320bricked university attracted scholars and students from all aver the known world during its glorious days. Having met its decline during the Muslim invasion, all that is left of Nalanda are these ruins. It is believed that the great Nalanda library, which contained all manuscripts of ancient knowledge, burned continuously for 3 months after the invaders set fire to it. The planning and the engineering of the University is mind-blowing. The ruins Ruins of Nalandaof the monasteries where the monks stayed, the temples of learning, reflects the engineering ingenuity of ancient Indians. The present ruins were rebuilt by Archaeological survey of India and hence looks new. The entire complex and the associated museum are well maintained and I’d urge you to visit that place.

It was already dark (5 pm) by the time we completed the Nalanda tour. We had our dinner from a Bihar tourism hotel. Since we couldn’t find any tonga or any means of transport, we walked about 3km through the pitch black darkness with the freezing winds blowing on us. From the main road, we boarded a local bus and went back to Rajgir. After a 2 hour rest in the hotel room, we vacated the rooms and went to the Panoramic View of Ruins of Nalanda
railway station. We had a train to Varanasi. All we prayed for was that, the events of previous nights journey did not repeat. Guess, the Gods heard our prayer. I slipped to a deep sleep on the upper sleeper berth of Budhapoornima express.

Train Departed! Last Stop : Varanasi

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