Dhammekh Stupa in Sarnath
The first couple of weeks in India were spent mainly in Rājagaha or Bodhgaya and visiting their environs. By then my health had picked up again so we were faced with a decision as to whether to try and take on a 1,500 km round trip to see some of the other sites.
We had only around a week to visit everything because of the cost involved in hiring a car on the one hand and a need to leave some time to recover from the trip before three flights on three successive days to get us back to Malaysia on the other.
I can say right at the outset now, having made the trip, that this is not the best way to do it, and it was really only time and costs that made us choose to go – and the fact that by then I was thinking it really will be my last opportunity to visit the other Holy Places.
In many cases it was a matter of traveling for most of the day, which in itself was interesting enough, but then being faced with only a few hours to see the places we had actually come to visit, which was, of course, very unsatisfactory.
We started off from Bodhgaya, and our first stop was at the Patna Museum which I have posted about earlier. As we were having communication problems with our otherwise friendly driver, we missed the important site at Kumrahar on the edge of the city, where the ancient Pāṭaliputta walls could still be seen.
But worse was to come because on our first stop-over at Vaishali we missed the main site altogether, arriving very late in the afternoon, and being persuaded to leave very early in the morning. We did visit the Museum, but were told No Photos. There were only a handful of visitors, but around a dozen guards to enforce this annoying rule.
We were headed for Kushinagar (Kusināra) that evening, but our first stop was at Kesariya, the ancient capital of the Kālāma Republic, and the site of the famous Kālāmasutta. There is a very fine stūpa at the site now, and the area is well-protected. It must have been magnificent in its heyday, and produced some nice silhouettes in the early morning light.
By mid-afternoon we were in Kushinagar and spent a good hour going round trying to find somewhere to stay. Most places were booked out, but we managed to get into the Tibetan Temple pilgrims’ rest, which was very comfortable, before heading out to Ramabhar, the actual site where the Buddha’s body was cremated, before visiting the Parinibbāna Temple.
The next day was a lot less traveling, but unfortunately it included crossing the India-Nepal border. We were really lucky to get across so quickly, as some lorries we passed on the way, were just reaching the border when we came back a few hours later. The gardens at Lumbini are some of the better preserved and presented, with a whole section set aside as a peaceful haven.
We spent a mosquito-filled night at a Thai temple near the border, before heading off to Kapilavastu (Kapilavatthu) in the morning. I should say that this is the Indian Kapilavastu, as there is another one in Nepal. It appears to be certain though that the Indian one is the correct one, as the film Bones of the Buddha which I presented a couple of days ago proves.
We were very early in the morning, but already a couple of coach-loads of Sri Lankans had arrived at the site before us. It was a nice misty morning, and besides the stūpa and monastic remains I also took a few good photographs of the surrounding fields as the sun rose.
By evening we were in Shravasti (Sāvatthi), which was the main teaching center for the Lord Buddha, who spend over 20 of his Rains Retreats there. The archeological site again includes many monastic remains, as well as stūpas commemorating Angulimāla and Anāthapiṇḍika. And we also managed to visit the Sri Lankan Nava Jetavana, which had some fine modern murals.
The following day was the most gruelling of all, as we traveled down from Shravasti to Sarnath near Varanasi. This is a long trip in itself, probably 250+ km, but also the roads are good for only part of the way, so we were greatly delayed on the trip. We arrived around 4.00pm, booked in to our Guest House and then went to the site.
This was the only one of the Buddhist Pilgrimage sites I had visited before, way back in 1987 I think it was. Then it was a quiet haven on the edge of the turbulence of the main city, but by now a lot of the turbulence has caught up with the site itself. Again we had only a few hours to view the site before dusk fell and gates were shut.
We were very tired by this time, and were trying to weigh up whether we could be able to photograph in the Museum if we delayed our home run the following day. I don’t now know the answer to that, but it appeared it might require a backsheesh and I was not willing to encourage the corruption. The following morning we returned to Bodhgaya.
I have tried to make this post sound as hectic as the trip was, but nothing will ever prepare anyone for the constant noise, pollution, broken roads and sheer chaos of most of India, which was well reflected on this journey. If you have a hardy constitution and a lack of time and money I can say this is one way to do it. But you would be better planning it so you have more time to spend at the sites.