There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 18 February 2013

To Mughal Sarai and Sarnath: Part 3 of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh

At 20.10, precisely on time, the Magadh express pulled out of New Delhi station. We were travelling in the second class A/C sleeper, not that the A/C was needed in February. All reserved carriages have a seating list pasted up by the entrance. Last time we used an Indian train Lynne had been assigned seat number 61 in a 60 seat carriage. This time there was no such problem.

As in other sleeper trains we have used (in China, Russia, Vietnam and Mongolia) we were in a four berth compartment, but unlike them we were only divided from the corridor by a curtain.

Leaving the curtains open we watched the vendors wandering up and down selling snacks and Indian railway dinners. Mohammed had been insistent that we should take a picnic, so we had dutifully bought some samosas from the bakery; it was a shame, they looked less appetizing than the railway meals.

There were chai wallahs, too, with their distinctive Chai-eee cry. For reasons which may not be entirely rational, I found the thought of real Indian chai wallahs selling real Indian chai unreasonably exciting. We stopped one and he took two small paper cups from his stack, popped a teabag in each and then, holding the urn between his knees, filled the cup not with hot water, but a sweetened mixture of milk and water. It was a very small paper cup, but for seven rupees (10p) each it would be churlish to complain. The resulting beverage bears little relationship to anything we would normally think of as tea, but taken on its own terms it is pleasantly refreshing – and very sweet.

Leaving Delhi we entered the state of Uttar Pradesh (literally: Northern Province) where we would spend the rest of this trip. UP is India’s most populous state with 200 million people crammed into an area barely twice the size of England. Looking out of the window we discovered that, despite the dense population, rural UP after dark is very dark indeed.

UP in daylight - full of people and tuk-tuks

I would not say that the Indian train was dirtier than others we have used, and the bedding supplied by the attendant was freshly laundered, but it was certainly scruffier and looked more battered and well-used.

A further difference was that the corridor was narrower and beyond it was another row of bunks set along the bulkhead. Other overnight trains have wider corridors with folding seats. You have to move when anyone wants to go past, but at least there is a place to sit. We had been allocated top bunks which meant that when the inhabitants of the lower bunks made up their beds we had no option but to retire 'upstairs' and read for a while, and then sleep - or attempt to.

Normally I have little problem sleeping on a gently rocking train. The Magadh Express, however, seemed to spend half the night stopped, and the other half blowing its hooter. Approaching trains too would announce their arrival, and although I enjoyed the dramatic demonstration of the Doppler Effect, once would have been enough. And my bunk was too short; however hard I pressed my head against the wall, my feet overhung the end. It was the last bunk in the carriage, so every time somebody came or went they gave my toes a good scrape with the door.

We should have arrived at Mughal Sarai at 7.45, but at that time we were entering Allahabad, 150 km short of our destination.  It was here, the week before, that 30 people had been crushed to death in a stampede. Millions were attending the nearby Kumbh Mela - we would join them in a day or two - and for many Allahabad station is the way in and out. At that hour in the morning, despite recent tragedies, it seemed quiet if not entirely calm.

Rural Uttar Pradesh with the inevitable concrete factory

We shared two Indian railways breakfast, one veg (a vegetable patty), and one non-veg (an omelette). They were good, though not very large.

The Magadh Express is officially a ‘superfast train’. It is scheduled to complete its 1000 km journey at an average speed of 56 km/h - if that is ‘superfast’, a slow train could be overtaken by a glacier. It has been downgraded since a new service opened to Patna, the state capital of Bihar, and now regularly runs some 4 hour late. We arrived at Mughal Sarai, the end of our journey though the train still has some 280 km to go, two and a half hours late, which according to Indian Railway’s remarkably honest website is 45 minutes better than average.

Rural Uttar Pradesh through the window of a train

As we approached Mughal Sarai the trackside was lined with dwellings, some of corrugated iron, others little more than tents. Mughal Sarai is a small town but its station boasts the largest marshalling yard in Asia, a sort of Crewe with added monkeys.

We were met by a young man called Shashank and shown to a waiting car. We soon realised we had not just left Delhi, but had returned to an older India, an India of bullock carts, ramshackle market stalls spilling across the street and children and animals running wild. We had also arrived in a much warmer India, though that had more to do with the passing of a weather front than our new location.

Varanasi (formerly ‘Benares’) sits on the northern bank of the Ganges some 14 km from Mughal Sarai. We crossed the river and drove to our hotel. The Hotel Ganges View is on the western tip of the city, so although we could not avoid a little entanglement in the traffic, it was nothing to what we would see later. An old wooden building rising up from the side of the city’s westernmost ghat, it really did offer Ganges views from the roof terrace and the balconies that ran the length of the building. It is a place of great charm, and we were warmly welcomed. It was a good place to stay, and will be even better when the management finally decide whether they want to run a hippie’s retreat or a boutique hotel.

A view of the Ganges from the Ganges View Hotel, Varanasi

After a shower and a quick lunch we met Ajay and his driver Parveen who would take us across town to Sarnath.

Varanasi is a city of 1.5 million people with the infra-structure of a village. The roads are narrow and the traffic moves, when it moves at all, at the pace of the tuk-tuks and cycle rickshaws that dominate the streets. Traffic lights are ignored, probably because they are permanently on red in all directions. There are several roundabouts, but instead of going round them, those wishing to turn right cut across to the right; indeed there are policemen directing them to do so. The rush hour lasts for fourteen hours and traffic is usually stationary with drivers leaning on their horns. The police look at it, tap their lathis against their shins, smooth down their luxuriant moustaches and shrug their shoulders.

I do not know how long it took to drive the 14 km to Sarnath, but a cyclist on an uncluttered cycle path could have got there and back in the time, and there and back again with a little effort.

Around 500 BC Gautama Siddhartha achieved enlighten after a long meditation under a Bodhi tree near what is now the town of Bodh Gaya. After seven weeks consideration of the nature of this enlightenment the Buddha, as he now was, walked the 250 Km to Sarnath where he met up with his disciples and first taught about the eightfold path.

The Damekh stupa marks the spot where this is believed to have happened. The base dates from 250 BC. There were a series of enlargements over the years and later some robbing of the stone for other building projects. Buddhism has all but died out in the land of its birth and the stupa has not always been treated with proper respect, not least by invading Mughals.

The Damekh Stupa, Sarnath
There may have been few local visitors, but the site attracts pilgrims from far and wide. We passed a group of Sri Lankan pilgrims, who sat quietly on the ground to be lectured by their accompanying monk while other monks walked clockwise round the stupa. As in Myanmar, squares of gold leaf have been stuck haphazardly onto the brickwork, despite signs asking people not to.

Sri Lankan pilgrims by the Damekh Stupa
Nearby are the remains of the house where Buddha spent the first rainy season after his enlightenment….

The house where Buddha spent the first rainy season after
his enlightenment, Sarnath
…and in front of that is a shattered stone pillar, which is far more important than it looks. 

Lynne beside Ashoka's pillar, Sarnath
The Mauryian dynasty ruled most of the sub-continent from 322 – 185 BC. The empire reached its greatest extent under Ashoka, who started his rule as Ashoka the Cruel and ended it as Ashoka the Great. Troubled by the carnage in his victory over the state of Kalinga he embraced Buddhism and gradually turned his empire from militarism into a land of peace. His edicts were inscribed on stone pillars some 10 to 15 metres high. It is not known how many there were, but 19 survive some, like that at Sarnath, in a fragmentary state.
The remains of Ashoka's pillar, Sarnath
The Sarnath pillar was originally surmounted by a lion capital which is now the centrepiece of the excellent Sarnath museum. No photography was allowed inside, so this picture, by Raj Verma, is scanned from a postcard. The capital sustained some damage when the pillar was smashed, but that is largely hidden in the photograph. It was once surmounted by a Wheel of Dharma known as the Chakra of Ashoka, but only fragments have been recovered.

The Lion Capital, Sarnath Museum
(picture: Raj Verma)
The importance of the lion capital to India’s self-image cannot be overstated. Indian banknotes differ in size and colour but they all have the same design on the front. There is a portrait of Ghandi (ironic considering he was hardly driven by the accumulation by wealth)..... 

100 Rupee note
… and in the bottom left hand corner is the lion capital.

The Lion capital on a 100 Rupee note
 The wheel beneath the lion’s feet has been incorporated into the national flag.

Indian flag

We left Sarnath with the feeling that we had visited somewhere special. There is something about Sarnath that feels holy, and it is not only sacred to Buddhists but also to Jains as it the birthplace of the 11th Tirthankara. 

A monk meditates by the Damekh stupa with the Jain temple in the background,
Nearby, Varanasi is a major Hindu holy city, so there must be something in the water. It was to Varanasi and the Holy Ganges we went next.

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