Varanasi on Voltarol (part 5)

Monday 20th

We arrived at the station for the overnight train with plenty of time to find our platform.  We weren’t expecting hundreds of people sleeping on the station in the hopes of getting standby tickets and we weren’t expecting cows but we found both!

Our train was delayed by a few hours and was moved to another platform so we almost took the wrong one, which would have meant us ending up in Alahabad.  When Viera pulled back the curtain to what she thought was her bunk there was a man fast asleep!  ‘It’s the wrong train, get off quick’ was the cry!  We finally boarded the correct train and settled down for a few hours’ sleep.

We arrived in Gorakhpur around 9.30 am and negotiated with a local driver to take us straight to Kushinagar, which is a drive of about an hour.  He was a really lovely man – a muslim who wanted us to know how much he respected our holy sites.  He also wanted lots of selfies with us, using one hand and one eye while the others negotiated the usual frightening traffic!

We were all feeling tired and grubby but it somehow seemed right that this was how pilgrims should arrive on the last stage of their journey – the place which commemorates the death of the Buddha.  We entered the Mahaparinirvana Temple and saw the magnificent reclining Buddha – 19 feet long and dating from the 5th Century.  I think I can speak for all of us by saying how overcome we felt.  We entered the shrine room and were able to say our prayers in front of the beautiful statue.  A fitting end to our pilgrimage!   S

 Tuesday 21st

After a very tiring but worthwhile day yesterday we were out front of our hotel at 4.30 am for a taxi to the station.  There were none around so we had to finally bite the bullet and take a couple of cycle rickshaws.  The poor men must have had very strong legs and it was rather frightening to trundle along the middle of the road with juggernaughts thundering past!  I am afraid to say I had to be helped out by at least three people –  we have decided over the past couple of weeks that my legs are just too short for travelling!

We spent a happy few hours watching the countryside go by and seeing how rural people lived as we travelled back southwards.  Such different lives.  After a quick wash at our hotel we were out again into the blazing sunshine for some souvenir shopping, followed by a long lime and soda on our favourite rooftop and a final stroll along the ghat.   S

Wednesday 22nd and Thursday 23rd

We’re spending the last couple of days before flying home tidying up a few loose ends, including visiting museums that were closed the first time round.  Before leaving Varanasi we went back to the University Art Gallery and marvelled at a whole room full of Nicholas Roerich paintings – mostly of Himalayan scenes and mostly painted in the 1930’s.  An added bonus was finding we’d caught the last day of an Alice Boner exhibition.  She was a Swiss painter who based herself in Varanasi from the 1940’s onwards and produced beautiful pictures after spending months in cave temples, contemplating composition in Indian art.

Having stopped for a day in Kolkata en route home (or, in Sue’s case, on to Nepal) we’re visiting the Indian Museum.  This houses some lovely sculptures  excavated at Sarnath and the remains of the original wall enclosing the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya.  We’re also spending some time in the market because we can’t come home without a few presents and we have rupees left to spend!

Reflecting on our time in India, there are certainly things we’d do differently if we could start again: bring more wet wipes and antihistamine cream; check the opening hours of museums on line, rather than believing guide books; learn earlier how to handle touts and hawkers; not bother with the portable mosquito nets (!) and not take the cheaper option of flying into Kolkata rather than Delhi.  But we’ve loved most of it – especially the very generous people we’ve met and who’ve helped us at every turn.  We’ve also loved the process of travelling: the night trains; chatting to strangers; finding little gems of places by accident when we were lost; trying new foods; and feeling as though we were really walking in the footsteps of the Buddha.  Our journey has brought so many historical stories to life for us and there are some prayers and practices we will see in a very different way now.

We’ve tried to identify our ‘best bits’ for those readers who might be thinking of doing something similar.  We’re agreed on our ‘top two’ but there was disagreement further down the list, so here are the strongest contenders:

* Sitting under the Bodhi Tree with thousands of Buddhists from around the world; hearing chanting, prayers and pujas in so many languages which somehow all sounded so right together;

* Being alone in the simple little temple at Kushinagar with the reclining figure of the golden Buddha;

* Doing practice in the shrine room of the Sakya Temple in Bodhgaya, saying long life prayers for their Holinesses on the last day of the enthronement; and

* Seeing the excavations of Nalanda and Sarnath which really brought home how significant Buddhism was in northern India in those early centuries.

Some of us felt visiting Vulture Peak and the Mahakala Caves helped us understand the conditions in which the Buddha practiced but one of us (naming no names) felt these had been turned into a bit of a tourist circus and got more from the beauty and tranquillity of places like the Nyingma retreat centre.  Each to her own!  We all felt at home among the monks and nuns at Tergar monastery and with the lovely family at the Tara Guest House and we all loved the beautiful, crumbling architecture of Varanasi’s ghats and its golden light.  None of us liked Gorakhpur – Geoff was right about how horrid it is and that the only reason to visit is that it is the closest transport link to Kushinagar and the Nepalese border!

It has been a memorable journey in so many ways but the thing we keep coming back to in our own discussions is that it has broadened our horizons about Buddhism and the people we’ve met who practice it.  It has made us realise what a bubble we live in as practitioners in the West and has made us think more about the linkages between and within Buddhist traditions, which seem so much stronger in these places than they do in our Manchester outpost!

So, it is safe to say that this journey has changed how we think and will change how we practice.  We just need to work out how to preserve the best of what we’ve learned and let go of the worst bits.  No challenges there then!

Final shots of us at the airport – tired and grubby but happy:

 

Read the first part of this blog

Read the second part of this blog

Read the third part of this blog

Read the fourth part of this blog