A trip to Varanasi, Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Nalanda

One wonders whether it’s a journey within or without! Perhaps it’s both. To visit places of spiritual significance surely elevates one’s spirits, especially if the places happen to represent two of the world’s most ancient religions. Varanasi stands for the very quintessence of Hindu philosophy and thought. Bodhgaya and Nalanda, on the other hand, are great land marks symbolizing the glory of Budhism. Bodhgaya is full of Budhist temples and monasteries or Viharas. Vihar is a Sanskrit word for a monastery. I believe the state Bihar derived its name from Vihar which originally meant a dwelling place for monks.

When I heard the chanting of the famous Lotus Sutra in a Japanese temple, it reminded me of Gayatri Mantra. It goes like this: “Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo”. The first two words are Sanskrit and Chinese respectively and the rest is Japanese. The sutra asserts that we all can realize our essential Budha nature and consciousness even in the midst of problems and suffering by taking refuge in the mystic law. Isn’t it similar to Gayatri Mantra which invokes the divine for enlightenment? But the similarity ends there. There are huge differences between the two religions in terms of the truth they convey, the religious practices and even the way of life. The serene and peaceful atmosphere in a Budhist monastery is in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle in a Hindu temple. Not just that. The aggressive behaviour of pandits or pandas in Hindu shrines is no comparison to the silent welcome a monk extends to a visitor. There is discipline and cleanliness in a Budhist temple which are unfortunately missing in a Hindu temple. The great vision of Vedanta as expounded in Upanishads did not get translated into our religious practices. This is unfortunate.

Our 5-day tour of Varanasi, Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Nalanda started on a Friday. These places have been in my list for a long time but somehow I could not make it till last week. As they say – nothing happens without bulava(call) by the gods.
We went straight to Varanasi from Bombay taking an early morning flight and engaged a cab for the entire day. Our Varanasi trip was mainly a temple tour and we covered 5¬† or 6 of them – Hanuman mandir, Tulasi Manasa mandir, Birla Mandir, Viswanath, Annapurani, Visalakshi temples. The last 3 temples are located close to the Ganga river. Therefore we visited these 3 places in the evening so that we could go for a boating tour of the ghats of Ganga. The boat ride was refreshing in spite of the chilly winds. It ended with a great spectacle of ”Ganga Harati” which was conducted with devotional songs and religious fervour. Here are a couple of pictures of the majestic Ganga taken during our boat ride. I use the word majestic with caution. It’s sad to see how this great river is being robbed of its majesty by our religious and industrial civilizations! Here again our religious practices are inconsistent and incongruent with our great spiritual vision. It’s great to worship Ganga as a Goddess but then polluting the river with dead bodies, smoke from funeral pyres and industrial pollutants is hardly the way to demonstrate that vision.

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Visawanath mandir can be accessed only via narrow lanes and by-lanes crisscrossing each other. This part of Varanasi is apparently untouched for ages to mantain its ancient look. One is literally transported to the olden times to experience the life as lived by our ancestors. Here is a picture showing one such lane. Can you see a cow claiming the right of way in this narrow lane!

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Day 2 was wasted only on travel. Thanks to Indian Railways, our 5am train to Gaya was delayed by 7 hours. We reached Gaya at 5pm instead of 9am!! Loss of one day meant that our remaining days were somewhat hectic. We spent one day at Bodhgaya going around various Budhist shrines including Mahabodhi temple and the huge Banyan tree under which Budha got enlightened. It’s impressive with lots of places for meditation. We sat under the tree where Budha got enlightened for what it was worth. (I do not believe that enlightenment is a sudden¬† event or a eureka moment! It has got to be a gradual process of cleansing the mind and understanding the truth).

A few pictures of this place are here:

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On the following day we covered Rajgir and Nalanda. The trip to a Japanese temple on top of a rocky hill by a ropeway was thrilling. It’s here in this temple that we listened to a continuous chant of the lotus sutra – Nam myoho renge kyo -, which I mentioned earlier.

100_2118100_2115Finally, we saw the great ruins of the Nalanda University. This is yet another place, besides Viswanath temple at Varanasi, which gave us the experience of time travel. We literally flew into the 5th century AD, the golden age of the Guptas. The university is said to be built by the rulers of Gupta dynasty. We were told that 2000 teachers and 10000 students stayed together in the monasteries where art, literature and philosophy were taught. There were monasteries on one side meant for studying and living. Here one could clearly see the remains of huge ovens used for community cooking. On the opposite side were impressive temples, stupas and meditation halls. The place is incredibly huge and speaks high of our rich civilization and ancient culture. The pictures below will only tell an incomplete story – one has to see the place to experience our past glory.

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Bihar, in those days, was obviously a great place of learning where scholars and spiritually enlightened monks lived. It is sad that today the same place is inhabited by thugs and unscrupulous people.

One piece of advice to tourists: Do not ever plan to reach Gaya in the middle of the night. It’s highly unsafe.

On the last day, we went to Patna to catch our flight back to Mumbai. The city was very dirty with piles of plastic waste and litter everywhere. Our only consolation was that a famous Gurudwara we visited was really clean and neat. We even had a very tasty and simple food served with utmost hygiene in their langar(community kitchen).

Published in: on January 31, 2016 at 5:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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