Sarnath

It’s mid February 2008, and I am in Sarnath.

Formerly a deer park, Sarnath lies 10km outside Varanasi and is the place where the Buddha came after his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, to seek out his former companions who were living there in huts and give his first sermon, on the turning of the Wheel of Dharma. This comprises the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and the Middle Way.

This altar is still used by pilgrims for pujas – not just Buddhists, but also Jains, for whom Sarnath is also sacred.

A monastic tradition flourished at Sarnath for over 1500 years after the Buddha. Many monasteries and two great stupas were built, which survived until the end of the 12th century when they were destroyed during the Muslim invasions and not rediscovered until 1834 by a British archaeological team. Amongst these ruins were a stone column 15.25m high with four lions as its capital, erected by the emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism after witnessing the terrible carnage of a war he had unleashed in the 3rd century BC. This capital was adopted as the symbol of the modern Indian republic.

The Dhamekh Stupa. Built in the sixth century, this solid cylindrical tower, 33m high, consists of a stone base with the upper part made of brick, and was virtually the only building to survive the Islamic destruction, perhaps because of its sheer size and bulk. It marks the spot where the Buddha supposedly gave his first sermon. The five former companions, who became his first disciples on hearing him speak, had deserted him when he gave up his ascetic vows. On achieving enlightenment, he determined to follow the ‘Middle Way’, avoiding both luxuries and asceticism. This is the basis of its appeal to me personally – nothing to do with religion, but a sensible lifestyle avoiding extremes, with kindness at its heart. A philosophy of life.

Delicate carvings on the base of the Damekh Stupa.

Just outside the Deer park, there are a number of modern Buddhist monasteries, attracted to the site because of its history. This particular spot was a beautiful peaceful place, but I can’t remember exactly where it was! I think it was outside the Japanese Temple…

Inside the Dharmachakra Japanese monastery

Mulagandhakuti Vihara built by the Mahabodhi Society in 1931

Kathmandu, Nepal

How on earth have I managed to blog for almost a year, now, and still not put up a single post on Nepal? I think I’d better put that right immediately.
I’m going to start with a selection of pictures from Kathmandu, capital of Nepal.
All of these pictures were taken before the dreadful earthquakes of last year, and I do know that some of the buildings in these pictures (especially in Durbar Square) were sadly destroyed.

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The entrance to Swayambunath. Swayambunath is the main Tibetan Buddhist site of Kathmandu. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking Kathmandu, it comprises temples, stupas and various other buildings, including a couple of Hindu shrines. Here, a Hindu holy man lurks in ambush, ready to dab a tikka mark on the forehead of (especially) western tourists and demand rupees for the privilege.

 

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The sacred and the secular at Swayambunath. In Nepal, as in India, it is almost impossible to visit a religious site without Mammon getting a good look in. Here, in the main Buddhist site of Kathmandu, everything from yak bells to masks.

 

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‘One day, my boy, all this will be yours’ – just as long as you have enough money and all the time in the world to bargain hard. More shops – seriously colourful, seriously prepared to sell you anything. And having said that, the hard sell is a world removed from India. It almost feels as though there is no pressure at all. In Nepal, you feel you can relax again, especially if you have just travelled there from India.
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Nuns lighting butter lamps beneath a row of prayer wheels at Swayambunath.

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Hindu puja at Swayambunath. Probably a private ceremony at the request of the beneficiary, either for good luck in general or with a particular goal in mind (e.g. birth of a son, successful business venture.)

 

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Portrait of a Hindu lady.
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Tourist shop in the Swayambunath complex.
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Buildings in Durbar Square. Durbar (or ‘Palace’) Square is the heart of the old town and the area where the Kings used to live in the 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast to Swayambunath, this area is entirely Hindu, reflecting the vast majority of the lowland Nepali population.

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Side street in Thamel, Kathmandu. The lovely old buildings…beautiful wood carvings…collapsing brickwork…wiring all over the place…speed…calm…old and new…………the only things I can’t bring you are the sounds and smells…you must imagine them for yourselves. Coming soon, scratch and sniff websites!!!

 

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Bicycle rickshaws awaiting customers in Durbar Square.

 

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Balloon seller and hopeful customer, Durbar Square.

 

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Kala Bhairab – an image of Shiva in his most fearsome aspect. Wearing a garland of skulls, the six armed Kala Bhairab tramples a corpse, symbolic of ignorance. Carved originally from a single stone, it was set up by Pratap Malla, king in the 17th century. He was a pious Hindu, but interested in the arts and tolerant of other religions. He even restored much of Buddhist Swayambunath. It is said that telling a lie while standing before Kala Bhariab will bring instant death. It was once used as a form of trial by ordeal.

 

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Pashupatinath, on the Eastern side of Kathmandu, is the holiest of the Hindu sites in the city. It is the temple of Shiva, on the Bagmati river and hence it includes the ghats, the most widely used place of cremation for Hindus in Kathmandu, indeed, in Nepal.