Car journey to Sarnath - fog, fog fog - Letter 5

Sarnath is the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence. . . . Sarnath is located 13 kilometres north-east of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, India.

The Buddha went from Bodhgaya to Sarnath about 5 weeks after his enlightenment. Before Gautama (the Buddha-to-be) attained enlightenment, he gave up his austere penances and his friends, the Pañcavaggiya monks, left him and went to Isipatana.
After attaining Enlightenment the Buddha, leaving Uruvela travelled to Isipatana to join and teach them. ...When Gautama Buddha found his five former companions, he taught them, they understood and as a result they also became enlightened. At that time the community of the enlightened ones, ie the Sangha, was founded. The sermon Buddha gave to the five monks was his first sermon, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

The journey to Sarnath, from Bodhgaya we were told would take c.4-5 hours. In the event it took about 7 hours. The road and weather conditions were appalling, that's why. Every town or village we passed through in our saloon car had traffic problems, often gridlocked. This sometimes meant that our driver would detour through some roundabout rural area in order to avoid a town or village centre likely to be jammed up. Added to that a dense fog (similar to the one we had encountered in Delhi), descended that night on a large part of Northern India until at its worst (on the lower slopes) visibility was down to c. 2 metres.

We started off late, c. 2 pm, due to the Manidharma dispute about payment. I sat in the front, as I prefer to avoid feeling nauseous as often happens if I'm in the back of a car. But after a couple of hours my back got painful due to sitting upright when all I wanted was to sleep. I find this hard (in planes too) if I can't lie flat. I didn't say much but was probably squirming about, unable to get comfortable. Julia kindly offered to swop places, so at the next loo stop we swopped around. Loo stops were usually at petrol forecourts. There was a rather modern looking cafe attached so we managed to get some chai and I got a veg curry. Julia ate lightly as she was finding the journey tough and it affected her appetite, the boys had a stir fry, all with chapttis. The toilet was the usual tiny cubicle with a stainless steel squat toilet, I had my own packets of tisses with me which was just as well as toilet paper s rarely in evidence in India (or Indonesia) You use your left hand and then sluice off with the hose and tap provided! Although I do like to fit in with local custom that is one I never get used to. We used tissues, washed and then anti-bacterial gel every time,. Squat toilets are quite difficult for me as I have knee problems. Don't even go there.

Anyway, with full bellies we got back in the car and drove off on the next leg. Julia later talked about this trip as for her a bit of a nightmare – 7 hours in an uncomfortable saloon with atrocious driving conditions. I was now lying out on the back seat, I had no wish to be in the front seat (a) because of my back and (b) because the driving conditions were pretty scarey. I went to sleep for most of it. Julia stayed awake looking out. I told her a few times not to look, but she found that quite difficult and also could not sleep.

The driving conditions were like this – fog, descending, darkness, poor visibility and heavy traffic. Our driver had his hand on the horn a great deal and was constantly swerving around pedestrians, dogs, chickens, cows, lorries, motorbikes with small children on the back etc.. etc. Sometimes the road was long and straight, other times it meandered up steep hillsides and zigzagged down the other side. When the fog and darkness descended and visibility on some stretches (usually the bottom of long slopes) was reduced to c. 2 metres, traffic on the narrow potholed two-lane (forward and back) road was not only a hazard in the direction you're travelling in, but coming towards you, looming out of the darkness and fog were lorries, cars, old vans, horse and carts, and not all of them had any lights. So being a passenger looking out from a front seat was often hair-raising to say the least. I'm kind of philosophcal about these things, having travelled quite a bit and feel that if my number's up.... And I'm a good sleeper. It was not so easy for Julia.

So she was still talking about that 'dreadful' car journey a week later, whereas for me, I'd forgotten about it and moved on to the next challenge. I seem to have a good ability to focus on the here and now and forget anything unpleasant really quickly...

We got there eventually of course and were taken to Shivam Guest house – the room was basic and when we looked in, there was one double bed – obviously we refused to even enter the room until they had separated the double into twin beds, which was done swiftly. But it was reasonably clean, with hot water in the shower – I asked for an extra mattress as the one provided (rock hard) was about 1.5 inches thick . We also asked for an extra sheet – as there was only one although with a thick warm fleecey blanket. The room was on the ground floor along the corridor past rthe reception desk. The manager welcomed us in a friendly manner and Julia, a bit later when theyd sorted the beds out, managed to boil us a kettle for our hot-water bottles, by reception where there was a spare plug. It was freezing by then c. 4C and of course nowhere in India seems to have central heating or any form of heating really. The thing is, it would warm up by midday to about 18C and you'd be stripping off the layers down to a T shirt for a few hours, then by 4 o'clock they were all going back on.

Anyway, we fell into bed, Julia with her earplugs and sleeping tablet – she's not good at room sharing, being a light sleeper – she said I snored and that she could hear me breathing all night! Cheek! What can I say? Anyway on this occasion she slept reasonably OK and even said next day that she was getting used to sharing a room.

Anu was a little late next morning – he was supposed to meet us in the lobby at 8 a.m, but turned up at c. 8:30. We went for breakfast to a rather bleak place up some steep stairs nearbye, right on the small central town roundabout, in a large room where we were the only guests. I  had a mushroom omelette,  Julia pushed hers around her plate, still not feeling up to eating.

Then we went to visit some sites - we walked down a long wide straight road, past a few pavement cafes on the left.  The gates to the sites were on the right and large parties of tourists  were entering the gates - many Japanese, American, Tibetan, German groups.  Tibetan monks were present at many sites with their mustard and dark red robes and shaved heads, they were distinctive and brought colour to the sites.  There were quite a few groups of beggars at the various gates, most were children, others were women carrying babies.  The babies had clearly been trained also to put out their hands and look pleading.  I tried to carry coins and small notes to give these beggars, but of course as soon as you gave to one another 10 would appear.  I found that (as the last time in India) they would look at the 10 rupee note you gave them with disdain.  Many tourists out of guilt, give them 100 or higher rupee notes, which is, although about £1.20 in UK money, a great deal of course, more than most people earn in a day (average monthly wage is 3000 rupees c.18.75 rupees per hour)
Sarnath has been developed as a place of pilgrimage, both for Buddhists from India and abroad. A number of countries in which Buddhism is a major (or the dominant) religion, among them Thailand, Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, have established temples and monasteries in Sarnath in the style that is typical for the respective country. Thus, pilgrims and visitors have the opportunity to experience an overview of Buddhist architecture from various cultures
Anu took us to the ruins of a site built before the time of Ashoka – the 4th century AD Buddhist king whose kingdom had flourished in that time -
The Dharmarajika Stupa is one of the few pre-Ashokan stupas remaining, although only the foundations remain. The rest of the Dharmarajika Stupa was removed to Varanasi to be used as building materials in the 18h century. At that time, also relics were found in the Dharmarajika Stupa. These relics were subsequently thrown in the Ganges river.
While there, as it is the site of the Buddha's first teaching (well somewhere in the area), Julia and I decided to meditate. We found a quiet place amongst the ruins and sat (me in lotus position, Julia sitting on a rock, Anu in lotus too). We'd had very little 'spiritual/meditation' stuff up until now, which had been the whole point in asking a Buddhist to organise the trip for us. Anyway, I led a meditation and Julia said afterwards that she had enjoyed it.
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Then we visited -

The Chaukhandi Stupa which commemorates the spot where the Buddha met his first disciples, dating back to the fifth century or earlier and later enhanced by the addition of an octagonal tower of Islamic origin. It is undergoing restoration.


The ruins of the Mulagandhakuti vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season. The modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara is a monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society, with beautiful wall paintings. Behind it is the Deer Park (where deer are still to be seen).
We were exhausted by now so asked Anu to take us for lunch - we sat outdoors (as by now it was warm enough) in a small restaurant opposite the museum - which Anu said we'd visit after lunch. Over our curry and rice lunch Anu told us that tonight we were going on a boat trip on the Ganges to the cremation grounds and that he'd found a driver with an SUV and it wasn't too far. First we'd go to the museum which we could see from where we were sitting. I suggested that Julia and I go back to our room for a siesta afterwards. We'd need to put on some layers as it would be cold on the river. The temperature was already falling.

Here's some pictures


Bodhgaya - the place of enlightenment - Letter 4

Day 4
Bodh Gaya the place of enlightenment

Temples and conflicts and fog

We woke c. 4- 5 hours later, got up, showered in cold water – no hot and went off to visit our first site. I'd said when booking this particular tour guide – who was an Indian member of the western buddhist group to which I belong, that what I wanted on the trip was meditation every morning and a spiritual journey around the sites.... that never happened.

Our guide was pleasant enough and full of boyish charm and at each site visited regurgitated some of the old apocryphal myths about the Buddha's life story, but had very little real archaelogical or historical knowledge. The worst thing on this first day was the developing conflict with Mani – the guy who was supposedly organising the trip. He was based in Nagabodhi, another Indian town and I never actually met him. This dispute was to start us off with bad feeling and difficulties. We had arranged to pay the full fees by cash on arrival. This would have been fine, but I was annoyed firstly that we'd had a ghastly 24 hour journey in third class (OK the delays were no one's fault but third class???), when I had specifically requested Upper Second class tickets. Indeed I later explained what had happened to us, to an English buddhist who was incredulous that a tour organiser would subject two middle-aged female westerners to the awful conditions of 3rd class. I was concerned about what the rest of the trip was going to be like under the circumstances, we were to have several long car journeys and then be put on a train again from Gokhpur back to Delhi at the end of the tour - yes of course, he said, it would be in second class – as if the alternative was unthinkable.... well!!. I felt therefore that if we were to pay all the money over we would not be in any kind of bargaining position for the rest of the trip. I suggested at first that we pay 75% and when that was stonewalled that we withhold £50, but there was no compromise or discussion. Consequently we were late setting off for the sites and the next part of the journey, which had a knock-on effect.

Julia on the other hand just wanted an easy life and for everyone to be happy, so she wanted just to pay all the money without quibble. Mani meanwhile, unknown to us, instructed Anu to pass on to us that unless we paid up in full now, he would cancel all arrangements. Anu was diffident in telling us this, clearly embarassed and it came out in
vague dribs and drabs. This freaked Julia out, but not so much me as I had originally contacted another tour company who might be willing to step in. The problem was that at this stage we were really not in a strong negotiating position, we needed a guide and someone to arrange hotels and organise trips to various sites, our local knowledge was very limited and we were both dog tired.

In the end I capitulated and handed over the money, but felt strongly aggrieved that I was being held to ransom. We also found out later, from a travel tour operator in Sarnath that we could easily have organised the rest of our trip ourselves, with his help, for much cheaper. My forebodings turned out to have some foundation when, after my payment, the trip that then unfolded was considerably substandard - there was no meditation organised by our guide or anything approaching spiritual experience, for a trip that I went on as a Buddhist pilgrimage. The only religious experiences we had at various sites was due to meditation or chanting organised by me. The hotels/guest houses that we were put in by our very sweet but grossly inexperienced guide were of generally low quality – sometimes sheets not clean, not enough blankets and in several places a room so dirty that we'd use half a packet of wet-wipes to clean them before we could sleep in them. V few had hot water. We were not expecting 5* hotels, but maybe 2* or at least a good level of cleanliness. This is not what we got. Anyway back to the story.
We had lunch in a rather hot an oppressive cafe – a long walk from our accomdation, it seemed to be full of backpackers, a few aging hippies and a woman in a white kaftan came over asking for donations to her charity., I had a pleasant veg curry with boiled rice and chapati, Julia had little as her stomach was upset. Afterwards, walking about we began to see what Bodh Gaya was like - there was a cacophany of noise and traffic and commercial activity, street stalls selling buddhist souvenirs, from pictures of the Dalai Lama, to carvings of the buddha, all colours, shapes and sizes; pashminas, cheap jewellry, trinkets, food snacks cooked on the spot. The general atmosphere of the whole place was of a giant commercial opportunity. When you tried to cross the road you had to jump out of the way to avoid being run over by hundred of bicycles, tuk-tuks, beat up old cars and lorries – all blowing their horns, cows wandering about through it all.and hawkers trying to get you to stop at their stall.The dust was everywhere 

I thought of where I was and why I had come there – this was the place of the Buddha's enlightenment, a place that should have been sacred and inspiring, a place for quiet contemplation and meditation. I thought with some sympathy of the biblical story of Jesus getting angry with the stalls and money lenders in the Temple precincts, overturning their tables. We asked Anu to take us to the Buddhist centre hoping to find some peace there, Anu called a tuk-tuk and we left the main road and down a rough gravel track to some tall wire gates where the driver dropped us. We walked through and down the track and were asked to sit down at an old table and chairs overlooking the large garden, and eventually tea was brought. The local Indian chair of that centre was a pleasant chap and chatted to us for a while telling us of their local charitable intitatives going into schools, raising awareness about Buddhism in the poorest sections of the community.

Pictures of Dr Ambedkar were prominent – he was the low caste Dalit who in the 50s, against all odds became a politician and a member of the Indian cabinet. Feeling that there was no other way to break the caste system and improve the lot of these Dalits he had urged his followers to leave Hinduism behind and become buddhists. He instigated mass conversions, instructed and encouraged by Sangharakshita the English founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order to which I belong. Ambedkar had died shortly after and Sangharakshita had inherited his leadership of these mutitudes of uninstructed buddhists. Since then programmes have been put in place, schools founded, support given to many enterprises to give assistance to these now second and third generation buddhists, often still given scant respect by those Hindus who adhere still to the caste system,

We were enjoying the peace and tranquillity in the garden, a welcome break from the madness outside on the main road. I asked if we could see the shrine room and whether they had any meditation planned. The three members there led us down and it was suggested I lead a meditation, which I did using my meditation app on my phone which rings a bell every five minutes for however long you sit for. I led the metta bhavana, which is about developing friendly positive feelings towards yourself and others. There's a bit where you bring forward your positive feelings to someone you have had conflict with – I put M, our agent there but with limited success.

We left after a guided tour of the buildings and proposed developments, facilites seemed very basic compared to the smart well funded retreat centres in England.

Anu and his tall smiley mate took us off on a walk to see the giant Buddha statue in the distance – 80 foot tall, built by the Tibetans – I'll post up photos soon. Then we took a tuk tuk back to the guest house.