The city of Varanasi has become a dust bowl, thanks to all the ‘khuddai’ (digging) that is going on for installation of civic amenities and construction of flyovers. The work is extremely slow and the congestion gets multiplied with all modes of traffic doing it their own way and bovines going their own way. I started early for Saranath with Dwivedi, my guide, to beat the rush hours in the city. Saranath is the place where Buddha came to after his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, and preached his first sermon. Along with Lumbini (the place of birth), Bodh Gaya (the place of enlightenment), Kushinagar (the place of death), Saranath is among the four most important Buddhist sites. Saranath was also known during various times as Rishipatana (a place where Rishis lived) and Mrigadava (a place where deer lived). The importance of Saranath declined with that of Buddhism in the 8th century and repeated ransacking and rapacity of invaders laid the city to waste, till it was unearthed in the 19th century by British excavators and archeologists.
The Damekh Stupa in Saranath marks the place where Buddha delivered his first sermon. The Stupa and monastery ruins date back to the Gupta period with some relics of the 3rd century BC Mauryan artwork. The Stupa is solid brick work with stone covering the base structure. The park is a very peaceful place to meditate and spend some time in solitude. The park also has five pieces of the Ashoka edict pillar, which once stood over 15 metres tall and had atop it the four lion sculpture (which is in the Museum), the national emblem of the Government of India.
The Chaukhandi Stupa marks the spot where the Buddha met his disciples first and was built during the period of the Guptas in the 4-5th century AD. There is an octagonal tower on top of the stupa with Arabic inscription. This was built in 1588 by the son of Raja Todar Mal to commemorate the visit of Humayun. One is permitted to climb right to the tower, which is about 100 ft high.
A sapling from the Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura was planted in 1931 in the Complex adjacent to the Dhamek Stupa. Surrounding the Bodhi Tree and huge statues of Buddha and his first five disciples, organizations from various countries have inscribed the first sermon in their own language. The modern temple built by the Mahabodhi Trust has large frescos on Buddha’s life, completed by a grateful Japanese Buddhist artist in 1939. The sacred relics of the Buddha are also stored in the Muagandhakuty Vihar.
My aunt, Sr Gilda Abraham, had served the mission work of the ICM Sisters in Saranath more than three decades ago. She had requested me to visit the congregation when I visited Saranath. I surprised Sr Archana, who was in the House. After a couple of cups of hot tea I went with her to meet Sukhi, who my aunt remembers with a lot of affection. This 80 plus lady was overcome by emotion when I told her who I was. I also got her to speak to my aunt, who is now posted in Dindugal, and also took a few pictures of her family.
Kerala Café was highly recommended by Dwivedi. We chose it for a lunch of idlis and masala dosas. From Venugopalan Nair, of Ottapalam, I came to know that his father had established the Café 50 years ago. The food is every bit South Indian, down to the chutney and sambar. Unfortunately we were served Nescafe and not the ‘metre coffee’.
The next destination was the Benaras Hindu University; the entrance gate proclaims it as the ‘Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalay’. This is probably the only University which has all the faculties within the same campus, be it IT, Management, Social Studies, Medicine, Nursing – you name it, you have it. There are Halls of residence based on the faculty you are attached to and faculty residences within the campus. You realize the vision of the founder, Madan Mohan Malaviya, when you drive through the humongous campus set in 5 sq kms and established in 1916. The New Viswanath Temple in the campus is a masterpiece.
I then headed for the Assi Ghat, which is the southern most of the main ghats presently (another ghat is being made further south through the patronage of the CM of UP) and is a favorite place for boat rides. It is one of the largest ghats and the Sangam of the Rivers Assi and Ganges is not very far from here. Pilgrims do go out to the Sangam. The local sights were rounded off with a Benarasi Paan and a farewell to Dwivedi.
The Vijayanagar Market is a favorite with the people who come to the railway station, as it is just opposite it. I went there scouting for something to eat. The smell of egg omlette hooked my olfactory sensors in an instant and my mind was made up. I headed to a way side shop that had a bench to sit on. The proprietor asked me if I wanted a two egg omlette or a four egg one. I asked him to make me two omlettes of two eggs each, sandwiched in a bun. When I had the first one my gastronomic memory was yanked back 32 years to the ‘bun-unda’ of Delhi University, near the Hindu College. The years have gone by in a trice, but memories remain fresh.