Sarnath, Deer Park

India 2013

Tuesday, Feb. 20

We're up early again, and waiting for a hired van to take us to Sarnath, less than an hour from Varanasi. The van's late, so we wait. And while we wait we enjoy watching kids on their way to school.

Looks like these boys didn't inherit their fun-loving attitude from Mom or Grandma.

Abbey Road East. "Change."

Eventually, we arrive in Sarnath, home of Deer Park, where the Buddha himself walked and talked and sat 2,500 years ago. If you've ever been to Rome and experienced walking in the dust and brick of the Forum where the Caesars themselves walked, you know it's a pretty eerie feeling. I remember running my hand along a 2,000 year old stone wall and imagining Julius' hand having done the same (conveniently ignoring the other 80 billion hands that had done so in between).

The Deer Park is where Gautama Buddha did his first teaching after figuring things out, enlightenment-wise. This is pretty thrilling for me, seeing as how the Buddha's teachings have changed my life in some very deep ways. For instance, as to the question from the Intro to this blog "Why travel?" I realize that through meditation, I have become very aware of how much I unthinkingly consider myself to be the centre of the universe; or perhaps more accurately, I presume that this universe of which I am the centre is the only universe there is. I feel that one more reason I like to travel is because I need to see face to face just how false that hypothesis is. And see it again and again, because my mind just doesn't want to be convinced! As the saying goes, "Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you."

Anyways, enough about me.


At first sight, Sarnath seems a bit of a Niagara Falls. Kiosk after stall after booth of touristy buddhaphernalia line the streets, but once inside the grounds, you feel the spaciousness of open fields and the peace of cool stone temples.

Entrance to Deer Park. The Mulagandhakuti Vihara Temple is at the end of this banner-lined walkway.

Enough with the gold shirt, already.

In the following video you see shots of the grounds (imagine the Buddha walking here), red and blue uniformed kids on a class trip, and our group kibitzing with a group of Indian tourists.

According to the Info sign at these ruins: "This is the remnant of a huge temple which probably represents the spot where Lord Buddha used to sit in meditation. It appears to be constructed during the Gupta Period." (320 B.C.E. to 550 B.C.E.)

Dhamekh Stupa is in the background. Once again, allow me to quote the sign on the site: "According to an inscription dated 1024 A.D. ... it's old name was Dharma Chakra Stupa. It is perhaps commemorating the spot where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon."

Detail of the stupa wall.

Detail of the detail of the stupa wall.

Also on the grounds is the Vajra Vidya Temple.

At the Vajra Vidya Temple, Darrol checks with the powers that be and they are totally welcoming. The Karmapa Lama is currently visiting and will probably be at the Puja which is starting soon, and we are welcome to attend. We can photograph to our hearts' content, too. The Karmapa Lama is a major Lama, being the head of the Karma Kagyu, the largest of four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

At the puja inside the temple:

To meditate in this atmosphere is next to impossible. There are no cushions, only thin mats, and more distractions than you can shake a stick at. The Karmapa Lama is a no-show, but it is a fantastic experience nonetheless.

Monks gather on the temple steps post puja. There's something so pleasing about these colourfuil robes, be they orange or maroon. The nuns in my past, dressed in black did nothing for me, colour-wise. Or any-wise, for that matter.

Stone inscription in the temple. "To the Whole Wide World." (bottom right corner)
Bet you didn't know that December 15, 1999 was the 7th day of the 11th month of the year of the Female Iron Rabbit, didja?

Buddhist imagery isn't fun and games, as these smiling skulls in the sky demonstrate.

Butter Lamp Room. Sign on the left, rows of candles inside on the right.

Inside the Butter Lamp Room, it's humid and a good 10 degrees warmer than outside. Originally, yak butter was used, but these days vegetable fat or just regular old candles fill the bill. The intention is the same, though: wisdom being illuminated by an ordinary worldly substance.

Rifleman on the lawn. Security is everywhere these days. Nice that this guy can take a break, anyway.

Wary little Buddha says good-bye at the gate. Sarnath has been a wonderful stop on our journey.


Back in Varanasi, Matt, Ben and I have to change lodgings from the Kedareswar B&B to the Teerth Guest House, where Darrol & Dennis have been staying. Our travel time is just post the nearby giant Kumbh Mela Festival, the largest gathering of human beings, anywhere. Ever. In just one day it attracted a crowd the size of Canada's entire population. So there is a general dearth of available rooms in the vicinity. Therefore, Darrol, who so kindly and skillfully booked ALL of the travel and lodging arrangements, had to occasionally entertain some creative solutions.

So the three of us schlepp our suitcases and backpacks along the ghats, then up flight after flight of stairs through the dark and cow dung-laden alleys to the Teerth. Once we're settled into our rooms, Dennis, bless his soul, tells us to c'mon down to his room, where he greets us with a glass of wine, which has the same strange and welcome delight as one might get from caviar on a camping trip. The 5 of us then head out for a bite to the Brown Bread Bakery #2. There is an aged sitarist playing in the background. I'm no expert, but he sounds - uh, how shall I say this? He sounds, um... bad. Really bad. Really slow and very tired. 'Maybe he was great once,' I think. So I buy the CD when he comes around peddling. (I have since given it a listen, and I was right. He is really quite bad. )

The meal, on the other hand, is terrific - spinach lasagna for me. The camaraderie between the 5 of us is relaxing, and some good old fashioned human connection is just what the doctor ordered after this whirlwind day. Darrol tells us some great stories about his past trips (ask him about Hardass Singh some time), and it's great to get to know Ben a little better. Ben's the kind of guy who keeps pretty much to himself, but if you ask directly, he's more than willing to share some of his fascinating life's story.


Wednesday, Feb. 21

In the early, early morning, it's more schleppage of suitcases back to the Kedareshwar for brekkies together, then we're off to the train station, Bodh Gaya bound. Can't you just hear Gordie Lightfoot a-strummin'?

Bodh Gaya bound, Bodh Gaya bound, It's good to beeeee - Bodh Gaya bound...

Perhaps with a little bad sitar accompaniment.

Here I am following Ben - at 6:50 a.m. through the crowded ghats:

Father & son photo op.

Jimmy Buffet: Just another Benares Sunrise.

Everyone really should come experience this most spectacular city.

Armed guard.
One of the Kedareswar employees stands guard with his monkey stick while we eat breakfast. (see next pic)

On the next-door balcony, a curious monkey scrambles along.
Can monkeys have underwear fetishes?

Emma Bryant, Darrol & Susan's youngest, has joined us for the remainder of the journey. Here are father & daughter in the van on the way to the Varanasi train station, going over details of our upcoming visit to Bodh Gaya.


Next: Adventures in the Varanasi train station.

Happy reading!

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