Saturday, October 31, 2015

India travelogue 14 - The end

Birla Mandir (the name outside will say Shri Vishwanath Mandir) - Called Birla temple because it was built by the Birla industries group. This is inside the Benaras Hindu University (BHU); a large sprawling campus with a lot of greenery. The minute we entered the campus I could feel a cool breeze; the effect of greenery. The temple is made of marble; it is a Shiva temple and built based on the famous Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. At the centre is a Shiva lingam. The temple is very spacious; along the walls are plenty of inscriptions - in Hindi and some in English. I read through the English ones - quotations from the Gita and Vedas. Some were quotations from the Dhammapada (a collection of quotes by the Buddha and another scripture in Buddhism). They had some quotes about God being one, about desires, about the mind, about emotions etc. Very neatly kept place and was great walking around reading the scriptures. They have a nice outdoor area as well. 

Next day I was up at 4am; 30 minutes before my alarm time. I wanted to walk to Assi Ghat to see the early morning Ganga aarti (puja). I wasn’t sure at what time it exactly was but I started from my place at 4:30am. I planned to walk the 2.5 kms by trusting Google Maps. At this hour there was no sign of daylight; the streets were dark and deserted. A few tea shops had started preparing tea for early risers; good business idea because they had barely any competition. Along the way I saw a couple of cops; there were many positioned all over the city. I got to see the sun rise in Assi Ghat; the aarti here is a smaller version of the evening aarti. Not many people, not crowded, pleasant to see the Ganga river at this early morning hour (a pleasing clear blue) with the sun rising in the background. Great sight to behold.

This early morning aarti is to provide a platform for upcoming singers and performers; and also to encourage early morning exercise. I stayed on till about 7am; after that was the carnatic music and then I guessed there would be some yoga happening. On the way back I saw a government park and went inside; this was very shabby but there were still people exercising and walking. 

That concluded my short visit to Varanasi – wonderful city to experience; a city where you will surely reflect on life; one of the few places where you get to see so many funerals happening at one spot. The city is supposed to be good for sweets and snacks as well but I didn’t have the opportunity to try any of the local food. 

Return journey

The New Delhi airport is classy unlike the airport I had used on my trip heading to Varanasi. This one looks like the Singapore airport - not yet having all the amenities but the carpet floors and infrastructure is very similar.

What happened in my return flight will likely sound cliche but it did happen. There was this father with his two young sons sitting behind me who got into a minor argument with the air hostess. The air hostess said, “You should have told me earlier.” And the father said, “That’s what my son tried to tell you before but you didn’t even listen to him.” 

It was finally resolved but all through the journey you would hear the other son exclaiming about something. From their conversation I learnt that they had travelled to Singapore and Malaysia; and perhaps they were settled in one of those two countries as well. When you hear someone who has been outside India get excited over things during the flight you kind of find it surprising. If it’s a first time travel it is understandable but this seemed to be over the top; and the boy would have been around 16 years – so not too small either like a child. 

When we stepped off the flight, I felt bad for the thoughts that I had earlier. The boy was being carried down the steps by two flight attendants and gently placed on a wheelchair. The boy was paralysed below his hip. Inspite of the odds, the boys had just been enjoying the flight with enthusiasm and his dad was patiently answering every question he had. 

As I observed the cheerful boy's face I wondered, 'What’s wrong in enjoying every moment to the fullest extent? What’s wrong even if it is something we’ve experienced before?'

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

India travelogue 13 - The temple tour

I returned to the Deer park and spent some time in the hall where the golden Buddha was seated. Four monks arrived and sat facing the Buddha. They started chanting something and I couldn't get the words. Before I started, folks said it would take an hour to cover Sarnath and that's what the auto driver estimated and that's what the tour guide said it will take. But I had already spent 2 hours here! And if I had more time, I would have actually sat down in the hall and penned my thoughts and also observed the monks. 

When I stepped outside the hall, my auto driver saw me.
"Babuji, saw everything?"
"Yes. I was just coming back."
"I was wondering what happened. So long. I thought you disappeared. That's why I came searching."
I laughed and got into the auto. I was glad that I did make it to Sarnath; for those who aren't interested in religion or philosophy this place would be boring. But if you are into either then there will be something here that you might enjoy - surely at least the peaceful Buddha!

Nearby was a Japanese temple where the driver stopped and told me to take a look; this was outside the package of 7 temples that he promised to show me. The temple was a single building in distinct oriental style; inside the hall was a wooden Buddha lying down on his side. And there was an inscription that read ‘Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo’ - it means ‘Devotion to the Mystic Law of the Lotus Sutra’. The Lotus Sutra is a scripture in Buddhism. No crowd here; just the person who takes care of the place.

We then went to the 7 temples within the city. Some are special and I shall just mention about them.

KalBhairava - a temple for the fierce form of Shiva; the same one for whom there was a statue in the museum killing a demon. Apparently the God Brahma had ego and Shiva created this form to deal with that. You feel surprised reading about Gods showing anger and ego - all related to desire.

I walked into the street leading to the temple and wondered where to leave my slippers; there was one instance back home where I lost an old pair of shoes when I left it outside the temple and since then I’ve always been skeptical about leaving footwear unguarded. Having no choice, I left it outside the temple entrance near a pile of slippers. 

This temple is an extremely small temple with a central section where we have Bhairava; there is a corridor that runs around the central section where you will see swamis sitting with a lot of things like holy black strings, pictures, bells hanging from the ceiling etc. Everything inside the temple was painted orange in colour (pillars and walls). There’s a lot of sound inside and a lot of crowd packed in the small room. It is quite a sight; I had barely walked a few yards and I was drenched in sweat. So many people!

Sankat Mochan - there were plenty of monkeys on either side of the carpet that leads us to the temple. Adult monkeys and baby monkeys running around; some even stepping on the carpet. One was playing with a yoyo and two were eating nuts. Some kids were scared and clung to their parents as they entered the temple! This temple is for Hanuman; quite apt having so many monkeys around. Inside the temple is a large sweet shop; speciality seemed to be laddus. Pretty much everyone was buying a small sweet box and then waiting for the pooja to start. Some were sitting and reading from a booklet; I noticed many similar booklets stacked in racks. On closer look I learnt that they were a part of the epic Ramayana. Many people also wrote the name 'Ram' in Hindi on top of a metal grill that already had many 'Ram's.

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

India travelogue 12 - The enlightenment

The museum welcomes you with Ashoka's lion, an explanation about the number 32 (the number of spokes and its link to Buddhism), the significance of the 4 animals on the pillar (horse, elephant, bull and lion) etc.

Gods and emotions

There were two galleries I liked - one with exhibits from temples in the past and the other with Buddha related exhibits/carvings. The other galleries had things like items used during those years by people etc. - not my interest and I skimmed through them quickly. The gallery on Gods focussed on Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. Interesting point mentioned was that though Brahma is considered the creator of the world there are very few temples in India for Brahma! Shiva in his different forms was there - the one like Bhairava was an impressive structure (Bhairava chopped one head of Brahma in anger and that's why Brahma has 4 instead of 5 heads). There was a huge unfinished structure of Shiva with 10 hands killing a demon; in one of his hands he held a bowl below because he didn't want any drop of the demon's blood to touch the Earth (else another demon would arise).

When I read about Shiva in anger I was reminded of the money incident in the temple; our Gods are also portrayed to show emotions like anger. There was one statute about Kama - the god of love who is present in the breeze. That was something new to me; he was destroyed by Shiva and later allowed to take the form of breeze.

In each gallery there was a silent staff observing the crowd - just like you had in museums around the world. The gallery on Buddha had a statue of Buddha preaching at Sarnath. I couldn't sit and admire the statue because of two foreign tourists who were listening to their Indian guide narrating a story.

What is the truth?

I overhead his story - it was the story of Gautama Buddha from his childhood onwards. I knew the story - born a prince, pampered by dad, protected by dad, married and had a kid, went on a tour of the city, witnesses what life really is outside the palace, leaves home in search of the truth, finds friends who were in a similar quest, goes to teachers in the hope of learning but ultimately left on his own, gives up worldly desires in the quest for truth, becomes famished and weak, offered food by a lady who saw him, accepts it, friends believe he has given up his quest and abandon him. At this point I was curious as to what the guide would say because this was the stage of enlightenment; Buddha had found the truth. What was the truth?

And the guide said, "That is when the Buddha found enlightenment. He was sitting under a Banyan tree; you know Banyan tree - all the branches hanging down."
"Yes yes," the ladies echoed in unison.
"He found the truth.”
That sounded a bit of an anti-climax!
He continued, “He lived both extremes - with plenty of riches and then with nothing; he experienced both states and realised that the ideal path lies in the middle. The path of the middle."

And then he continued with the rest of the story as we know it; his friends come back; his father himself listens to the enlightened Buddha and then the story goes till his death. The part about Mara (desire) wasn't mentioned. Neither were the mudras (significance of hand gestures). I finally left the hall and in the neighbouring gallery saw a group of about 10 Chinese tourists. And guess what - they had an Indian guide who was talking fluent Chinese; he was even able to answer some question that they asked in Chinese - wow; quite impressive.

I then headed outdoors to the massive Stupa - it was part of an excavated area under the Archaeological Society of India. There were spots marked were there used to be temples and monasteries. They no longer existed but the Stupa was there. It was impressive - wonder how they built this massive structure back then. Again very well maintained place; and again some couples were romancing under the shade of trees. There were a few monks who came in their traditional dark brown robes to the site - this must be a special place for them; to come to the place where the Buddha once lived. I guessed that these monks were probably from the Tibetan temple nearby.

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