Saturday, March 8, 2014

Varanasi Diary, Day 3: Life on a Sunday and the middle path

Sunrise from the balcony
2nd March: Intending to catch the Surya-pranam at the ghats, we had risen early although by the time we could hit the ghats down the 36 steps of the Chousatti Ghat, there was clear daylight everywhere.

Sunday cricket at Mansarawar ghat

Impregnated with the hope brought about by the new day ( a Sunday at that), the ghats were alive in their own ways. Sadhus getting ready –some to pray and a few to trade, priests offering packaged puja to salvation, barbers ready to tonsure the heads of their accumulated sins, young boys playing cricket on the ghats & the dhobi-ghat getting  decorated with colorful linens, freshly washed
Bangali Tola way to Chousatti Ghat
 Breakfast & bath later, we strolled through the narrow & cold alleys of Bangali Tola, that was just 28 steps up that of the  Chousatti Ghat. Bangali Tola has nothing much of Bangali left in it now as the area has been taken over by the Baniyas (resident-traders) whether as residents or shopkeepers. Nevertheless, one can spot a few . A Bengali woman managing a grocery shop or a Bengali man making Bidis (Indian cigarettes) out of tendu leaves & tobacco and selling them at the same time. Not to forget the two old Bengali widows gratuitously accepting alms from passers by. Also spotted a nameplate of a Bengali Torkobagish (rationalist),  dating back to 2 centuries, on a freshly painted house. Once out of the tola, we set forth towards Sarnath on the rocky, bouncy roads of Varanasi.


Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath
Close up of the abacus on Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath
The tapering Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath that was excavated by the British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham in 1835-36; stands like a neat monument amidst the well-kept lush greenery of the Sarnath park, which used to be  full of wild deers earlier. Watching the stupa & the floral carvings on the abacus of the stupa, first built during the reign of Ashoka, a fleeting image of a Shivlinga (the phallic symbol worshipped in  Kashi temples) zips through the mind. But then one is reminded that this stupa is believed to be have been the place where Goutam Buddha , after attaining enlightenment, preached his first sermon to his first five followers-Kondana, Vappa, Mahanama, Bhaddiya, Assaji somewhere during  the period 200 BC. The Sarnath school of sculpture developed nearly 2 centuries later, during the reign of the Ashoka & continued to express itself  through works during the reign of Kanishka, Gupta Kings & Harshavardhana from 200 to 700 AD. 

Lion-heads lie at the foreground of broken Ashoka Pillar, Sarnath

A millennium & half old Buddha statue in preaching position, Sarnath Museum
 A sculpture of Buddha in the preaching position bears testimony to the beauty of sculptured art, practiced nearly one a half millennium ago , at the archaeological museum in Sarnath. Incidentally the museum was established way back in 1910. The polish on this stone slab ( 5 feet high & 4 feet wide) may not be as glistening & lustrous as that of the lion-heads on the Ashoka Pillar, which were excavated along with this statue by the British Engineer, F.O. Oertal in 1904; but the intricate carvings of the  deers, crocodiles, lions, 5 followers, 1 woman & 1 child at the base of the statue & finally the sensual preaching mudras of Buddha’s hands give the statue a sobriety & value that only knowledge of history of an excavated city or civilization can bring. When the Dhamek stupa was set up in Sarnath along with its seven monasteries, Varanasi was already 6 millennium old, Various sutakas lead the reader to the first sermon also called Four Noble Truths which deliberate on the acceptance & cause of sorrow as well on the process of cessation of sorrow by following the eight-fold middle path in life. The latter consists of right understanding, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation. The eight-fold middle path also called the noble path was preached by Budhha as the path to follow ignoring the perilous & extreme paths of self-indulgence or self-mortification.

The ride back on the auto was a memorable one as the auto drove at high speed through the maze of narrow lanes of Varanasi often tilting the vehicle precariously over the  house-walls to glide past a larger vehicle coming from the opposite. The roads never seemed to be ending while time dilated as the auto miraculously waded its way through the clogged by-lanes and finally came to a dead stop at our dropping point.
Narrow lane in Bangali Tola
We walked back through the Bangali Tola again and reached Mansarawar Ghat for a late lunch at a fancy restaurant that was offering non-vegetarian food in otherwise a vegetarian town. After another long way back to the Chausatti Ghat in the fading lights of dusk, we headed for  our hotel’s roof-top restaurant to sit  in front of the television watching India play Pakistan live in the Asia Cup cricket tournament in Bangladesh. It was a short  stay till Afridi knocked Ashwin & India out of the ground & tournament with two consecutive hard-hit sixes in the last over with only one wicket  to spare. The boys at the Ghat had told us in the morning that whoever chased would win. So the defeat didn’t come much as a shock for many since the favorites were Pakistan. Anyway, the day was over for us as we finally retired to our room with plans for  visits to some temples the next day.        

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