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Day 5 – Trip to India – Royal treatment in Varanasi

Day 6 - Varanasi - Breakfast with Nehru

Day 6 - Varanasi - Photo with Nehru

Erin and I had the extreme pleasure and privilege to stay at the Nadesar Palace boutique hotel owner and operated by Taj.  The property is palatial but not a proper palace. It was originally built by Britishers as a luxurious guest house. It was subsequently given to the local Maharaja who continued the tradition of using it as a guest house for distinguished guests. Each of the 11 rooms or suites is named after a person who has used the room. We stayed in a room honoring no less a.personage than Pandit Nehru the first Prime Minister of the Republic of India and a major leader in the push for independence and self-rule of an Indian nation. The room had several photos of Nehru as well as pages from the Maharaja’s guest log where he had signed in and out as a guest in the 50s.
The floors of our room were marble throughout and covered with Persian or Kashmir rugs. We had a dining table seating 6 in a large combine living and dining room and a large bedroom with study and antique four post and canopied bed. All these material luxury paled in comparison to the luxurious service. We essentially had a personal butler who proactively attended to our every need. After I had inquired about local mangoes, our butler, Neeraj, brought back a selection of three mangoes picked from the properties orchard.
There is a very special greeting and exit that I do not want to spoil for you. You will feel kingly, or queenly, through the attention the staff pays you.
In addition to our living accommodations and dining, we took three consecutive spa treatments in the on property Jiva Spa. We had a head champi, a coconut body scrub, and a full body aromatic massage. These services were all performed in a privat couples chamber with adjoining showers and steam room.
We had three wonderful meals at Nadesar Palace as well, all served by Neeraj. We had a lunch of spiced New Zealand lamb chops, a Bramhin that platter for dinner, and a sumptuous breakfast of the most delicious fruit salad I’ve ever eaten and a tasty dosa. The latter was served in our in room dining table with Erin and I sitting on opposite ends of the table for a royal meal.

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Categories: India, Varanasi

Day 5 – Trip to India – Varanasi and Hinduism

Day 5 - Varanas Ghats II
Varanasi is a two for one city situation. You are visiting a the physical city of Varanasi and the spiritual city of Kashi. Physically Varansi is located at a point where the Holy Ganges river makes a you turn from its southern flow and flows north. Spiritually the Ganges which has its source from Shiva’s head turns to touch Shiva’s feet before flowing Earthward to the Bay of Bengal. The city sits atop Shiva’s trident.
We begin our day with a morning river tour of the Ghats. The Ghats are the steps down to the river. They are steep! The river swells and rises more than 50 feet from the low point we were at during the dry season before the monsoons arrive. The benefit for us is we saw the most of then Ghats possible. Downside, I guess, was there were more steps to climb.
The activities on the Ghats and in the river perfectly demonstrate how life and death can peacefully exist together. The most solemn funeral rights are performed 24 x 7 in two public crematoriums where funeral pyres are in a constant cycle of construction, combustion, and smoldering. For a westerner like myself this is the most remarkable sight. I have a respectful image of a flame bathing a clear corpse imprinted on my retinas. This image was the most human form I saw, the other pyres, more resembled bonfires. The ceremonial cremation is organized and limited to just the two official crematoriums. Prior to my visit I had a misperceptions in several ways. I expected hat familia might perform the act anywhere along the ghas. I also had envisioned families placing their love one on a flaming bamboo bier that the set off floating down the river. The bamboo bier is simply the stretcher that the family uses to ritualistically carry their loved one to the sight of cremation after they are securely bundled in cloth which hides the body.
Life goes on immediately around the crematoriums. People live adjacent, somewhat nearby is a riverside laundry service (dobhi ghat), elsewhere is a lesson for twenty kids learning to swim. Then up and down the Ghats the pilgrims come to take their dip in the Ganges to have sins washed away. Our guided pointed to a 90 year old woman slowly descending the steps to take he daily dip that he has observed for 15 years.
We returned to shore after taking I the north to south expanse of the city and stepped into the narrow by lanes of Varanasi. Our focus on the morning trip was primarily observing the omnipresent Hindu temples at e every turn. We glimpsed into the Golden Temple which sits on the central tip of Shiva’s temple as only Hindu’s are given access to pay respects inside. With the number of worshippers each person only gets s few minutes within the walls of the temple and a moment in front of the altar / shrine.
We returned to our room for lunch and relaxation. I watched a 45 minute movie on the spritual realm of Kashi. It provided solid insight into the legends of Kashi and were a good background and context for the rest of our walks around Goa.
We returned for a more extensive tour of the by lanes of Varanasi in he afternoon. I had not expected that due to the fact that pilgrims come from all corners of India small neighborhoods exist composed for each different language and region of India. The most notable change as you transitioned between the narrow lanes.
We boarded a boy’s large row boat for our second time on the Ganges River after the walk. This time we rowed further North waiting for sunset. Lots of teenagers were enjoying swimming and diving into the Ganges. Even though our Indian guides advised us not to enter the Ganges because it is not clean, I eventually realized they were concerned about industrial pollution. I figured that out rivers would be equally unclean by that measure, however maybe the U.S. Clean Water Act does more than I expect to keep our rivers clean.
The cherry on top of a brief trip to Varanasi will be the Aarthi evening prayer to Ganges. This is an elaborate 20 minute ritual conducted by 7 priests on the Ghats who chant and offer fire in a series of braziers. I had seen pictures of the crowds attending this ceremony, but I did not know that this happened every night!
Overall, I felt peace at Sarnath and enlivens on the Ganges. This feeling prompted a connection to spirituality.

If you want to consider a similar guided tour of Buddhist and Hindu sites of Sarnath and Varanasi consider reaching out to Varanasi Day Tours at this URL http://varanasidaytours.com/
Day 5 - Varanasi Ghats
Day 5 - Varanasi - Aarthi Ceremony

Categories: India, Varanasi

India – Day 4 – Sarnath and Buddhism

Day 4 - Varanasi - Standing alongside stupa recognizing Buddha's sermon to the First Five

We begin our first of 2 days in Varanasi with a tour of Sarnath. This is one of four locations associated with very important events in the Buddha’s life. Buddha gave his first sermon/lecture on his enlighten to five friends at Sarnath. The five friends became Buddha’s first disciples. Thus Sarnath represents the third of the most important events in Buddha’s life. His enlightenment is second when listed chronologically, and his birth and death are first and fourth respectively.

The Buddha gave his first sermon/lecture in a wooded area outside of town in 528 B.C.E., therefore you might expect there would not be anything physical to see in Sarnath.  However, 300 years later, Ashoka the Great converted to and became the great proselytiser of Buddha’s teachings. He sent emissaries across India and Southeast and East Asia to spread Buddhism. He built two structures to commemorate the site of the original teachings one to house some relics of the Buddha and another on the spot considered to be the exact location the Buddha stood. This became the site of many smaller stupas and a monastery. Today you can visit the one Stupa still standing 43.6 meters tall and 28 meters in diameter as well as the remaing ruins of the complex.

There is a museum nearby this site that houses many sculptures found when the site was excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our guide, Indrageet, first gave us a tour of the museum. He focused our visit on two key sculptures. An exquisite example of the Lion Capitals of Ashoka and a statue of Buddha with miniatures of the First Five Disciples and the female artist who sculpted the piece during the Gupta period, 6th century C.E., the Golden Age of Indian Art.

If if you are travelling to Varanasi check out Varanasi Day Tours to book a tour similar to mine. http://varanasidaytours.com

As you may already know, the Lion Capital of Ashoka was selected as a symbol of the Republic of India after independence. In addition an Ashoka Dharma Wheel that topped this column capital is displayed in the center of the Indian national flag.  I was familiar with the capital but had never seen this sculpture in real life. Thus I was impressed with its size and appearance. Most fascinating to me was the high degree of polish on the sandstone as our guide explained modern man does not know what technique was used. The technique is impressive because it has made the stone as resilient as marble and thus the features did not weather over millenia.  Each of the four full lion sculptures has a different, small bas-relief animal sculpted below it representing one of four stages of Siddharta Gautma’s life before and after his enlightenment. An elephant symbolizes his royal birth. A horse represents him leaving his royal life to seek enlightenment. A bill represents his strong will power necessary to pursue an as sting life and achieve enlightenment. A deer represents his sermon to The First Five.

Only fragments remain of a Dharmic Wheel that sat atop the four lions. A  Dharmic wheel traditionally  has 24 spokes representing 4 sets of important tenants in Buddhism:
• The Four Noble Truths
• The Eight Fold Noble Path
* The Twelve Origins of Dukkha

“Dukka” is often translated as anxiety or suffering. My understanding is that it’s important to first think about the dukkha you feel as an individual.

The Four Noble Truths:
• Dukkha
* Dukkha has an origin
• Dukkha can be eliminated
• There is an Eight Fold Noble Path to follow to eliminate dukkha

Eight Fold Noble Path
• Right view
• Right intention
• Right speech
• Right action
• Right livelihood
• Right effort
• Right mindfulness
• Right concentration

Twelve Origins of Dukkha
• Ignorance
• (Mental) formations
• Consciousness
• Name and form
• Six Senses
• Contact
• Feeling
• Craving
• Grasping
• Becoming
• Birth
• Aging and death

I thought it fitting to share these principles of Buddhism in my entry on Sarnath.

The second sculpture Indrageet shared with us was the Gupta era sculpture of Buddha. This sculpture is a master piece. The features and emotions portrayed by the statue change depending on what angle you look at it. You even view the sculpture differently as you squarely approach it straight on as you get closer and closer to the sculpture.

The First Five knew the Buddha as a man. They knew him as an Enlightened man and wanted to ensure that people practiced his teachings instead of ignorantly worshipping him as a god. This fact is one reason Buddhists did not erect or create sculptures of him for hundreds of years. However eventually people begin to build statues and begin worshipping him as a divine God. I believe Buddha was simply trying to provide guidance to people to find the same Enlightenment and neutral content he had discovered in life. Buddha only talked about what he had experienced. He wanted to provide guidance to others to avoid Dukkha in life. Whenever he was asked about the metaphysical he would remain silent implying he did not know or it was not his objective to share. His objective was to provide guidance on the middle path between the luxurious life as a royal prince and heir to a kingdom until he was 29 and his ascetic life of hardship and intense knowledge seeking as an ascetic until he was 35 and attained enlightenment.

Buddhism has evolved and can broadly grouped into two schools of thought. Mahayana (or Great/Big Vehicle) Buddhists seek to make the understanding of Enlightenment to everyone but this has led to what I perceive as mysticism and people believing in phenomenal they have not observed). There is another branch Hīnayāna meaning, (Smaller vehicle) which is supposed to keep closer to the specific guidance of Buddha for those who want to reach Enlightenment. I’m definitely getting these two interpretations a little wrong. However these terms and there traditions help me to separate the myth and conflation with Hinduism from the worldly guidance that is all that Buddha, was at least willingly, to talk about.

We first visited the relatively small museum with its two master pieces and about 100 other pieces from the deer park where Buddha gave his first sermon. Then we visited the site of the sermon on which Ashoka the Great erected a stupa which is still standing and nearby a stupa was ignorantly dismantled in 1800s in which he placed some relics of Buddha. The destruction of the stupa by the local governor to reclaim bricks was bittersweet because it was because of this destruction that the significance of the structures was discovered and a monastery complex was excavated in the 19th and 20th century.

The other spiritual experience I connected with circling the stupa where Buddha gave the sermon to the first five disciples was circling the largest living organism, a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), in Sequoia National Monument.

Categories: India, Varanasi