Friday 9th October.
With a lot to see here Karen and I decided last night to arrange a few tours so that we could see as much of Varanasi as possible in a single day, so our schedule for today was:
05:00am – morning boat ride
Daytime – Sarnath tour
05:30pm – evening boat ride
The features of these tours were:
Morning Boat Ride:
- Subah-e-banaras:morning ceremony
- Circle of life and death
- Hindu pilgrims from all over India
- Experience spirituality and calmness
→ boat ride starts from Assi ghat at 5 :30 am
- Place, where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon
- Dhamekh Stupa
- Temples from different cultures, styles, and religions
- One the biggest standing statue of Buddha in India
- Archaeological museum
Evening Boat Ride:
- Dashashwamedh Ghat (main Ghat with pilgrims from all over the world)
- Aarati (Ceremony for goddess Ganga)
→ boat will stay for the whole ceremony
→ boat ride evening tours starts from assi ghat – 5 :30 pm
Our day started at 04:15am when the alarm went off, and at 04:30am we were met out the front of our hotel by Prasann, half of the ‘Varanasi Behind’ team. Prasann led Karen and I down to Assi Ghat, about 2km south of our hotel, where he explained aspects of the daily Hindu religious ceremony we would get to see, being performed by seven Brahman priests. The ceremony commenced with four or five girls changing mantras in a sing-song voice before the priests climbed up on the raised benches upon which sat the accruements of their ceremony, and commenced the ritual – which involved a complicated set of repetitive actions performed with incense and then fire, rotating through the four main compass points.
Just before the ceremony started we were relegated from our front row seats to the second row, and this made the viewing more difficult as we peered around the shoulders of people who came in late and took up the vacant front row … grrrr.
Ceremony concluded, we climbed onto an awaiting wooden boat, and the oarsman slowly rowed us downstream whilst Prasann pointed out the numerous ghats built along the bank of the Ganges and explained their history. We got as far north as the burning ghat, at which point we turned around and dispensing with the oars the boatman cranked up his engine and we putt-putted back to our starting point.
Back on shore Prasann led us a short distance to the Ashish Cafe where we parted ways, leaving Karen and I to enjoy our breakfast of omelettes and home-made toast, and a Nutella pancake. Ricky – the owner of ‘Varanasi Behind’ – met us as we were getting ready to leave, and arranged to pick us up at our hotel at 09:00am so we could go out to Sarnath, for the second of our tours.
Our trip out to Sarnath was a chaotic ride through the morning traffic, made more interesting with Ricky explaining things about Varanasi and India in general, and made more safe by virtue of the 4×4 we were travelling in. Sarnath is a village about 13km north of Varanasi, and its main claim to fame is that it is the place where Buddha delivered his first sermon, to five disciples he had assembled. Arriving in Sarnath we first visited a selection of Buddhist temples that had been built by various countries for the benefit of their pilgrims – including the Tibet Buddhist Monestary, Japanese, Chinese and Sri Lankan Temples. Adjacent to the Sri Lankan temple is the deer park, in which is situated the tree (not the original tree as this was destroyed, but a regrown tree from stock of the original tree that had been taken to Sri Lanka) under which Buddha delivered his first sermon.
We had hoped to see also the Sarnath archeological museum, but being Friday the museum was closed which was unfortunate as I was very keen to see the Lion Capital of Ashoka, but bad timing put paid to that idea 🙁
This from Wikipedia:
“The Lion Capital of Ashoka is a sculpture of four Indian lions standing back to back, on an elaborate base that includes other animals. A graphic representation of it was adopted as the official Emblem of India in 1950. It was originally placed atop the Aśoka pillar at the important Buddhist site of Sarnath by the Emperor Ashoka, in about 250 BCE. The pillar, sometimes called the Aśoka Column, is still in its original location, but the Lion Capital is now in the Sarnath Museum, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Standing 2.15 metres (7 feet) high including the base, it is more elaborate than the other very similar surviving capitals of the pillars of Ashoka bearing the Edicts of Ashoka that were placed throughout India.”
Returning to our hotel around midday we parted ways with Ricky and met Aad and Mike for lunch. Our afternoon was spent napping as we’d had two early mornings, and about 5:20pm Prasann met us again to take us out to Assi Ghat for our evening boat ride up the Ganges to Dashashwamedh Ghat, where we would join other people to watch the evening Hindu ceremony, either from their boats or from the crowded river bank.
When we arrived by motor boat at the ghat the boatman manoeuvred his wooden craft into position by pushing and pulling it around the throng of other boats lashed together, and then tied up so that we wouldn’t drift away. Other boats arriving after us did the same thing, and soon the river was turned into a floating dock, with hawkers selling photos or chia or offerings hopping and skipping from boat to boat as they plied their goods.
The evening ceremony followed the same pattern as the morning ceremony we had seen earlier at the Assi Ghat, but with a touch more vibrancy and noise, and a much larger crowd of pilgrims and tourists taking in the sights and sounds. By 7:00pm the thirty minute ceremony was concluding, and the boatmen quickly untied their boats so that they could start to motor or row their way back. Getting away quickly from the ghat we had one of the few motor boats out on the river that evening and we made good time back to Assi Ghat, where Ricky joined us as we jumped back onto dry land, and led us to a nearby chai house for a cup of Indian tea. A young girl – just ten years of age – was fascinated by Karen and I as we stood and drank our tea, so I chatted with her a little, learning that she was on holidays from Bihar.
Tea concluded and payment made for our three tours, Karen and I caught a rickshaw back to our hotel where we met Aad and Mike for dinner, before starting to watch James Bond’s ‘Skyfall’ on the Mac. Halfway through I was knackered enough to fall asleep, and so concluded our Varanasi sightseeing day.