Varanasi on Voltarol (part 2)

Wednesday 8th

Varanasi on voltarol - schoolchildre We were up early for breakfast because we were leaving at 8 with our host, Dominique, to visit her school.  Its name is ‘Shantindia’ and it is run by a charity.  At the moment it has 250 under-privileged children and its aim is ‘to give them the future that they wish for’.  We spent some time talking with the teachers and enjoyed watching the children prepare for their day by singing and taking part in some relaxation exercises.

The children stay at Shantindia until year 10 and those who wish to proceed with their education are then sponsored to attend High School because Shantindia cannot afford to pay teachers qualified to High School level.  More information about Shantindia can be found on its website or facebook page.

After visiting this wonderful school we took a tuktuk to attend a teaching we’d been invited to with around 600 nuns at Tergar monastery.  I was thrilled to see some of the Annis (very young nuns) from the nunnery in Nepal where I spent some time last year.  Prayers chanted by so many female voices sounded spectacular and we all felt blessed and privileged to have had this great opportunity.   S

Thursday 9th

Today has been a day of giant objects!  After an early breakfast we took a tuktuk to the Giant Buddha Statue which is 25m tall and very beautiful.  It was consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1989.

We walked along the main road into Bodhgaya, stopping to visit a Thai Temple, with its unmistakeable roof.  We then carried on through the market, where a little retail therapy took place, ending the morning at the Dalai Lama’s Temple which has an impressively giant prayer wheel.  We could just about turn it when all three of us joined in!

We spent a few hours in the shade at our guest house, chatting to the seven lovely children who live here and are very keen to practice their English.  We then ventured out again to the Tergar Monastery.  It was holding a Tseringma puja which sounded reassuringly familiar after the strange sites and sounds we’d experienced in temples and monasteries which follow different Buddhist traditions to our own Kagyu school.  We didn’t participate but sat outside and listened, then spent some time in the empty shrine room until dusk – leaving just before the mosquitos began to bite!    S

Friday 10th

Today we saw the best and worst of the ‘pilgrimage trail’!

We began the day by unexpectedly stumbling across a beautiful stupa and shrine room in a Nyingma retreat centre.  We were confused by its architectural style and some of the iconography, which felt far eastern, but this was explained by the fact that many of its patrons are Tibetan Buddhists from the Far East.  We sat there for a while in its early morning tranquility before venturing out into the hubbub of a day in rural India.

We’d arranged to go to the Mahakala caves, around 12 miles outside Bodhgaya.  This is where the Buddha is said to have practiced self-denial before realising its futility and walking down into the town to sit under the Bodhi tree.  A drive through rural India is very similar to a drive in town (i.e. cows in the road, overloaded moterbikes, buses with racks of passengers on top as well as inside, enormous potholes, the constant blare of horns and impromptu rubbish tips by the side of the road).  Our driver and guide, however, bemoaned the absence of traffic lights which, he said, made country drivers crazier than those in town.  To be honest, we hadn’t noticed any difference!

There is a short but steep climb to the Mahakala cave, which we foolishly tackled in the mid-day heat.  Our guide was one of the young men from our guest house and he practically had to push and pull all of us up the last bit of the mountain as our creaking joints and great age began to tell!

The views from the cave are breathtaking but we found it difficult to do the practice we’d planned because of the steady stream of visitors to what is a dark and tiny space.  We managed to find a quiet spot outside, however, and said the prayers we’d planned to say.  Our Hindu guide joined in, after reminding us that Hindus are Buddhists too, which was really nice.

After coming down from the cave, where we’d recited the ‘Twelve Deeds of the Buddha’ we crossed the dry river bed of the Nairanjana River, which is mentioned in the text.  This wasn’t quite the romantic experience we’d hoped for, however, because at this time of year this is a 1000m stretch of midge-infested desert.  After marching across it like ‘mad dogs and English women’ we were all exceptionally happy to reach the shade of the 700 year old banyan tree on the other side which shelters a tiny Hindu temple.

We then moved on to a ruined Stupa which is said to commemorate the place where the Buddha was offered rice milk by Sujata.  We tried to circumambulate it but this was difficult because we were pestered for money by teachers from the nearby school which, they said, had been set up to stop local children pestering people for money!

Today has brought home to all of us the fact that we’re here to practice in special places and not to be tourists.  We won’t be going back to the cave or Stupa and but we’ll definitely go back to the Nyingma retreat centre!    G

Saturday 11th

We’d promised ourselves that we’d have a less strenuous day today and we almost did!  There had been heavy rain overnight and we set off in the cool of the very early morning to get all our climbing out of the way before the day got too hot.  We’d arranged for a driver to take us up to Vulture Peak and Nalanda – a round trip of almost 200km for about £30.  One of the children from our guest house came along to help interpret and guide us, for which we were very grateful.

Vulture Peak is in a mountainous area where the Buddha spent much time on retreat.  It is a bleak spot but has spectacular views and we wanted to recite the Heart Sutra and do some long-life prayers for our teachers there.  Even early in the morning, however, the area was teeming with visitors, including a monk who appeared to be making a film – complete with cameras, microphones and a crowd of adoring autograph hunters!  We did manage to find a quiet spot to do our practice, though, and took a look at a spectacular Japanese Stupa nearby before descending a path lined with beggars – many of them children.

 

We then moved on to Nalanda which may prove to be a highlight of our trip.  These are the excavated ruins of the world’s first Buddhist University, founded in the 5th Century.

The site comprises temples, Stupas and eleven monasteries.  In its prime it housed monks from all over the world – many of whose names will be familiar to anyone who has studied Buddhist writings or has recited lineage prayers.  For example, Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Asanga and Dharmakirti.

 

The ruins are well preserved and sit in what feels like a very English garden.  Although it was busy, the atmosphere was peaceful and there were lots of places to sit and take in what must once have been majestic buildings.  Once again, we’ve been surprised today by how few westerners we’re seeing at these classic sites.  Nalanda felt more like a public park where local families were taking a weekend stroll and, as usual, we proved to be a bit of a draw for people wishing to be photographed with some novelty westerners!     G

 

Read the third part of this blog.

Read the fourth part of this blog.

Read the fifth part of this blog.

Read the previous entries in this blog.