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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sarnath and Buddhism: A Peaceful Respite from Varanasi


Sarnath, India
the Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath, India

It’s been days with this flu or virus, or whatever it was that took over my energy and my voice. I feel mostly weak and so I sleep, but I feel so groggy the next day because of way too much sleep. I’d love to run but I couldn’t, and the monsoon season has been hovering in my country.

Given my normal job and the extra work I took for additional income for my travel fund, I feel like my mind has been loaded with too much numbers and excel files. Which I’m not complaining, by the way, because I love numbers and excel file, and of course the extra money. But also with this flu that’s been zapping my energy, I feel like I need to go into my creative side. I feel like I need to write.

And so I remember the time I felt so down during my travels, physically and emotionally. It was Varanasi, the one place I was so excited to see and experience. But it proved to be too much for me – the burning ceremonies by the ghats, the claustrophobic and confusing alleyways, the men who insistently follow you, the dirt and smell that didn’t use to bother me but were magnified during our stay in the holy city. And at the end of our third day there, I started to get sick. A stomach flu that slowly got me dehydrated, feverish, and weak.

Sarnath, India
Buddhists from Sri Lanka gather on the grounds of  Dhamekh Stupa

Then I remembered a place that our friend, Max, suggested. He said to visit Sarnath, an hour ride north of Varanasi. He said it was the perfect place for a respite from the intensity of Varanasi. He stayed there for two days while waiting for his train back to Delhi. Despite the fact that it was going to be my first time to travel solo in India, I still wanted to go. I just needed to be somewhere less chaotic and less intense. After a burning smell from our hostel’s shower, my friend Paul decided to go with me too.

The next day we rented a rickshaw to drive us to Sarnath. After an hour or so, we were in the country side. And I started to feel relaxed. I didn’t really know much about Sarnath, all I knew was that Buddhists from all over the world go there. Wikipedia says that it is where Buddha gave his first teachings of the Dharma.

Once in Sarnath, we checked into Agrawal Paying Guest House. Just the sight from its big gate, I knew I found the perfect place to rest and recuperate. It had a big lawn and a garden. The rooms were also big with hot showers. Just right across the road is a Tibetan Monastery and a few stores and an internet shop nearby.

Sarnath, India pilgrims who just finished hearing a teaching

We spent the afternoon walking and visiting some of the nearby sites. The first thing I noticed was how this place seemed to be a pilgrimage for Buddhists. Buddhists from different countries go here, we saw monks and nuns wearing different colors/shades of robes.

Sarnath, India
monks praying 

There are a lot of stupas, temples, and a museum that you can visit. But we spent most of our time in the deer park where Buddha taught his first sermon. It’s quite peaceful there. People, mostly pilgrims walk around the park. Some groups are gathered on the red stone monuments to hear teachings. And some are quietly meditating while facing the Dhamekh Stupa. The stupa is said to have been built on the exact spot where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment.

Sarnath, India
relics of red stone monuments

Sarnath, India
a Buddhist monk praying around a stupa

Sarnath, India

Sarnath, India
pilgrims listening to a monk's teachings

Sarnath, India
pilgrims meditating facing the Dhamekh Stupa

For the first time in weeks, after visiting the crowded and chaotic cities of Amritsar, Agra, and Varanasi, I was able to relax in India. I sat down on the grass near the stupa and observed the different pilgrims who all seem so peaceful and content.

Sarnath, India
the Dhamekh Stupa

Sarnath, India
floral carvings and patterns on its walls

Sarnath, India
gold leaf left by devotees

Sarnath, India
Buddhist monks praying

The next day was when my fever worsened and I felt so weak. I slept almost the whole morning and couldn’t eat properly. That afternoon we made our way back to Varanasi in time for our train back to Delhi. I think it took me another week more back in Delhi before I was able to digest solid food. But despite this, I’m glad to have been in Sarnath when it happened. I cannot imagine being that sick in Varanasi.

Sarnath, India
a couple rests by the tree

India’s energy can be exciting and perfect for adventure-seeking travellers. Its different culture and traditions can be interesting for people who have an open mind. But sometimes, the difference and intensity can be too much. I found Sarnath to be the perfect place to recuperate from all of these. A place for some peace and quiet. So if you happen to be in Varanasi and feel the need to take a break, go to Sarnath for a day or two. And there’s always something positive and light about being surrounded by peaceful Buddhist monks, just like the Tibetan monks in Dharamsala and the Burmese monks who were so welcoming to us in Inle Lake.

Sarnath, India