After two days of Varanasi intensity I escaped to the nearby site of Sarnath. It was here that the Buddha expounded his teachings for the first time after enlightenment and it couldn’t have been more of a change of scene with a peaceful park and stupa raised by the King Ashoka around two thousand years ago.
Ashoka the Great was a very interesting character – he managed to build an empire covering almost all the area of India today, a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until the British two thousand years later.
He had whatever the Buddhist version of a Damascene conversion is after seeing the effects of a particularly bloody war against one of his opponents. He renounces war except for defence and proceeds to institute a secular state. He sent out emissaries to spread the word of how he intended to look after his subjects and inscribed these messages on sandstone pillars throughout the land.
Although others still stand tall only the stump of the Sarnath one remains among neatly tended gardens near a carved stupa. I was chatting to a Sri Lankan monk accompanying a group dressed in white who were quietly stitching together an enormous ribbon to wrap around the stupa – the neat garden, the quiet was a world away from Varanasi.
Nearby is possibly the best value museum I visited with an entry fee of 5 rupees (7 cent) even if no cameras were allowed. Just inside the door is possibly the most famous of all the Ashokan pillar caps – the four lions.
Made of polished sandstone it has become a symbol of the Indian state most notably on banknotes and passports. It looked as though it had been carved the day before such was quality of the carving and the impeccable condition. Notice the 24 four spoke wheel which makes a later appearance on the flag of India.
Elsewhere in the museum was a movingly serene Buddha carving – an exceptional work of art.
Three hours on the train further east is the town of Bodhgaya which is the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment under a Bodhi (fig) tree here 2500 years ago.
It is the most revered place for pilgrims from across the Buddhist world and while several temples have been built here over the centuries due to razing.
Early in the morning the pilgrims, many of them monks in saffron or maroon robes and lay persons dressed all in white slowly walk clockwise around the site while others read from prayer books.
One of the nice attractions of Bodhgaya town are the temples from Asian buddhist countries.
On my last day I was having dinner in an outdoor covered restaurant when I was about to leave on my bike when the heavens opened with a thunderstorm. Amid the deluge a bolt of lightning landed with a shattering bang no more than 60 feet away and rattled everyone.
While waiting for the storm to clear I got chatting to a local college student who was studying maths. Now Bodhgaya is in Bihar state – one of the poorest in India – and he asked me what I did and I explained that I had worked for a bank but now was travelling for a year. He earnestly asked what good acts I had done in the past to enjoy such good karma in my life.
I can honestly say I was completely lost for a response. All I could eventually offer was that I had great parents, family & upbringing and was incredibly lucky to be able to have the opportunities I had which led me here. Hardly full enlightenment but still a flash of clarity and gratitude for an amazing year before I trundled home on my bike with the lightening flashing in the distance.