Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Much Needed Escape to Sarnath

One of the most interesting places to visit in India has got to be Varanasi. Everything that is shocking, rattling, and sensory-assaulting about India is magnified ten-fold in this most sacred city in all of Hinduism. The cow dung, the heady incense smoke, the dizzying alleyways. It didn't help that I was scammed here, too, just a couple of days ago. My breaking point was nigh. (Yes, nigh!)

I knew my travel buddy, Angelica, was about to break, too. And that afternoon, she did. First thing the next morning, she says, she was heading to a place a fellow traveler recommended. Only 40 minutes from Varanasi, but worlds away from it. I was not planning on going with her, but that night, when it suddenly reeked of gas from the busted propane-powered shower heater close to our room, I made a decision. The next day, we headed to Sarnath.

Sarnath, Varanasi, India

Sarnath is an area of Varanasi, about 40 minutes away from the ghats, the staircases leading to the banks of the Ganges. It is easily reached by hiring an auto rickshaw, setting you back around 180 INR one way. Considered a holy site in Buddhism, the Sarnath deer park is where the Lord Buddha first taught the dharma, his body of teachings, after he attained enlightenment.

When we got here, we knew we made the right decision. It was indeed worlds away from the chaos of Varanasi. Streets were wider, for one. There were less people (and cows) on the streets. Relatively, of course. I mean, this is still India. Noise was, well, non-existent. Trees, vegetation, parks. Yes, we definitely made the right decision.

Sarnath, Varanasi, India

Perhaps what I appreciated most about Sarnath, besides the relative peace and quiet, is that you can see Buddhism in all its forms here. Down one street is a Tibetan temple. A few meters from it is a Sri Lankan house of worship. Walk further and you'll seem to find yourself in Cambodia or Japan. When we came here, in fact, there was a Buddhist festival about to take place, which explains the buses of pilgrims from all over the world. Yet, even with all those people, Sarnath never felt congested, definitely not chaotic.

Sarnath, Varanasi, India

Sarnath, Varanasi, India

Sarnath, Varanasi, India

The main site in Sarnath is the Dhamek Stupa. A stupa, also known as chorten, is typically a mound-like structure, basically used as a shrine by Buddhists in their daily prayers. The Dhamek Stupa in its current form was built there in the year 500 to mark the deer park where Buddha is said to have made his teachings. Other structures have been built around it but most of them lie in ruins now.

Sarnath, Varanasi, India

Sarnath, Varanasi, India

I have said it again and again in this blog. I am not Buddhist. However, for some reason, I always get drawn to their religious sites. I even attended a lecture by the Dalai Lama himself, the most famous Budhhist in the world. Maybe it's the peace and non-violence inherent in the religion. Maybe it's the concept of impermanence of life, or the interconnectivity of everything around us. I am not sure. For what it's worth though, Sarnath proved the peaceful escape we needed at the time.


* More photos of Sarnath in my Flickr set: India: Varanasi.


What kinds of religious sites do you get drawn to in your travels? Which sites are they?


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