I departed Bodhgaya in the early afternoon and took a government bus to Patna, the capital of Bihar State. For various reasons the bus ride took considerably longer than anticipated and we arrived in the evening rather than afternoon. However, fortunately I was able to sit beside a young Indian man who was working as a guide for two English pilgrims who belong to the Triratna Buddhist Community which was founded by Sangharakshita. We had a long discussion on the bus about the state of Buddhism in India which I found quite educational and insightful. The bus also had a number of Tibetan monks on board who were in good humour and making the most of the trip by joking around. It was a long ride, but quite enjoyable.
I did not spend a lot of time in Patna and proceeded to the city of Varanasi. The city is famous as being a holy city for Hindus. The city is located on the Ganges River and beyond serving as a place where pilgrims bath it also provides designated areas along the river where bodies are cremated and then deposited into the river.
The city is also home to whole herds of cattle who roam around living on generous handouts.
One interesting thing worth noting here is that in India many people will collect cow dung, dry it into little discs and use it for fuel for cooking and heat. It does not stink when dried and interestingly when burned also keeps the mosquitoes away. Traditionally many homes were and still are made with cow dung smeared on the floor and across the walls.
The areas alongside the river are medieval and the narrow corridors and alleyways mean that besides motorcycles there is just pedestrian traffic. It is truly a maze of corridors, steps and buildings. It is also home to various monkeys who can and do terrorize both locals and tourists alike.
I was able to meet many backpackers and travellers around Varanasi. It is a popular destination for western youth travelling around India. Unfortunately there are a lot of drug users who enjoy visiting and the local drug dealers are happy to approach any westerner to offer them narcotics of all varieties. This is perhaps the one downside to visiting Varanasi.
While in Varanasi I also met a number of locals who were happy to sit with me on the street side and tell me all about the lifestyle and cost of living in the city. I found such discussions quite useful in understanding Varanasi from the Indian perspective. One shopkeep, a Hindu, told me he felt he was quite blessed to have been born in Varanasi and then commented that I as well must have done some good deed which allowed me the good fortune to step foot in the city. He also remarked on how generosity towards people and stray dogs is the utmost of virtues to be practised. He said he often goes out in the mornings to feed the many stray dogs in the city.
I very much enjoyed my stay in the city. I would also recommend anyone visiting there to hire a boatman and go for a ride on the Ganges River.
After spending three nights in Varanasi I proceeded onward to Sarnath, the site where the Buddha first started teaching the Dharma and the existence of the sangha came to be. Sarnath is only a half-hour rickshaw ride away from Varanasi. I had no reservation ahead of time, but found out that the local Gelug-pa Temple provided inexpensive lodging for pilgrims and took a room there.
Interestingly, the sign out front warns the Shugden practitioners and anyone associated with them are unwelcome in the temple.
The town has a number of sites and temples. The city is particularly famous for the Dhamek Stupa which is 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter and was built in around 500 CE to replace an earlier structure erected by the Buddhist King Aśoka (died 232 BCE).
Down the street there is the Chaukhandi Stupa which commemorates the place where Buddha met his first disciples. The structure on top of it was built to commemorate the Mughal Emperor Humayun's visit to the site.
There is also a temple nearby built by Anagarika Dharmapala called Mulagandhakuti Vihara which is parallel to Deer Park and provides recitation of sutta every evening which is broadcast over speakers around the area.
The interior of the temple is decorated with various wall murals depicting the life of the Buddha.
While the town is home to various monasteries of various nations, by far the most impressive is the Kagyu-pa's Karmapa Temple. It is an impressive monastery decorated inside and out with exquisite art. When I was there I was able to sit in on a puja which was being conducted for Tibetan New Year.
Sarnath also is home to the Sarnath Tibetan University, which provides traditional Tibetan education to the Tibetan community of India.
After spending a few nights in Sarnath I made my way to Gorakhpur by train and then transferred to a government bus to get to Kushinagar, the site where Buddha passed away and was cremated. The town itself is somewhat small, having only a population of around 18,000 residents. This makes it quite easily walkable. The city is built along an L-shaped road and one has only to follow it to get to all the sites in the town. Naturally the cycle rickshaw drivers will be happy to offer their services to any pedestrian.
Again I was able to secure lodging at the Gelug-pa temple in town. The resident monk was all too happy to provide the room to me. They also provide the rooms by donation without a fixed price. It was a simple and spartan room, but it was cosy and warm.
Next door to the temple is Parinirvana Stupa and Parinirvana Temple, which mark the spot where the Buddha passed away.
The statue inside of the temple is about 1500 years old.
Unfortunately the back of the stupa, like other ancient ruins in India, has been vandalized with graffiti.
In the surrounding area one also finds many ruins of ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries.
On the far side of town is the Makutabandhana Stupa which marks the site where the Buddha's physical remains were cremated.
Kushinagar was well worth the visit. The locals are friendly and helpful. The town does not have the status or number of visitors that Bodhgaya does, but in the future this will change when the Maitreya Project comes to fruition. They intend to build a 152 metre tall statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, at Kushinagar.
...to be continued in Part III.