From Bodhgaya to Varanasi

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
Trip End Jul 18, 2004

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Thursday, January 8, 2004

Our visit to Bodhgaya was an interesting view into the Buddhist world. We arrived during a Puja (religious festival) for one of the Tibetian Buddhist lineages (sects tracing their origin back to the Buddha). Actually it was a Puja for the Kagyu lineage and among the many Buddhists in attendance (western as well as Tibetian) was the 17'th Karmapa, the religious leader of the Kagyu lineage (similar to the Dalai Lama with the Gelugpa lineage).

Stepping back a bit, Bodhgaya is said to be the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment after meditating under a Bodhi tree. In Bodhgaya now, there is a temple next to a decendant of the Bodhi tree the Buddha sat under, as well as a temple next to it, and a small town surrounding the temple. As it is a pilgrimage site, other Buddhist countries have constructed temples of their own in the architectural style of their home countries. This allowed to take an easy tour of many Asian countries differing architectural styles.

The Puja itself went on every day we were there and consisted of, from what I can tell, hours and hours of fairly monotone chanting by hundreds of participants (I was told later they were reciting from religious texts). Other followers performed prostrations as they circled the temple. These prostrations consisted of kneeling and then laying on the ground and then getting back up and repeating after taking a few steps. Others prostrated on wood boards set up in the outdoor temple area. We were told that some people did as many as 1000 prostrations a day, which seemed very believeable as we saw many doing prostrations for hours. Some monks couldn't even wait until 4 A.M., when the gates open, to start prostrations and hopped the fence to the temple area to get an early start!

After out introdution into the Buddhist world we headed next to Varanasi which (ironically) is the holiest Hindu city and which most people know for the famous ghats which line it's shores to the Ganges. As it happened our guesthouse was right on the small alley that lead to the "main" burning ghat. As Varanasi is Hinduism's holiest city, it is very auspicious for Hindus to die there. Therefore we were told as many as 300 people a day are burned at the ghat nearest our guesthouse. I don't think this was an exageration as we heard each an every body being marched by accompanied by much chanting at every time of the day or night (sorry folks, no pictures of this will be posted as it is forbidden).

The ghats themselves were fun to walk along as long as you can avoid looking at the occasional extremely-overweight-Hindu-in-a-thong. This is harder to do than it may sound. People tried to sell us everything from boat rides to massages to flowers to offer to the river. Our guidebook says that (at least when it was written) the Ganges is septic, that there is not enough oxygen in it to support fish life. Not only that, but it is also said to have a large heavy metal content due to industry up river. Still, people come in droves to bathe in it and the locals wash thier clothes in it. Rumors we heard from other travelers ranged from spotting Dolphins to body parts in the river.

Aside from exploring the riverside, Sarah and I did not do that much sightseeing. With most buildings in Varanasi's cramped alleyways (crmaped because tey are small and packed with people, cows, goats, motorcycles, etc.) it would be hard to see much anyway. Instead we went for finding the "feel" of Varanasi. We cought one of the nightly Hindu Pujas on the river, attended an extremely personal concert (viewers outnumbered the musicians 5 to 4), and took a few classes. Sarah opted for yoga while I tried my hand at Sitar. It wasn't the most rewarding two lessons I have ever taken so please don't expect a concert, or even a scale, when we get home.

That's all for now, next it's Jaipur and beyond!!!!!
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