I wander down by the Ganges in the late afternoon and meet up with Leia from Israel and tall, lean Mandy from England, whom I met in Sarnath, a small hamlet that sits some six miles northeast of Varanasi. After the Buddha sat under a bo tree, meditated, and achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya, another town in India, he preached his famous first sermon, The Sermon in the Deer Park, in Sarnath.
The monolithic Dhamekh Stupa, pictured here, towers over 100 feet tall in Sarnath and is believed to mark the spot of the Buddha's first sermon.
A group of statues situated under a bo tree nearby commemorate the Buddha's first sermon to his five disciples. The tree was transplanted in 1931 from the tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, which in turn is said to be an offspring of the original tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Back in Varanasi, Mandy and Leia are with a friendly Indian boy named Godot, who walks around on his hands and well-callused knees. He is from the town of Bareilly. He came alone by train to Varanasi and gets by with the help of many friends. One theory we come up with is that he used to walk on his feet, but was made to walk on his knees to earn more money as a beggar, and this has by now disabled him. He is so strong, so happy, a child with a charisma, expressions and antics that make him fast friends.
Mandy hugs Godot. He's a very loveable kid.
Mandy and Godot
It's sunset, and we're all up for a boat ride. Godot puts his slippers on his hands and comes with us, climbing down the steps and onto the wooden boat with remarkable agility. The boat ride is wonderfully relaxing. I dangle my feet and dip my cupped hands in the water, which I pour on the crown of my head three times. Peace. Godot is delighted to be on the boat, and proudly waves and shouts to all his many friends on the shore.
A girl rows up in another boat -- she is selling small woven leaf bowls that each contain a candle in a bed of pink flower petals. An offering to the Ganges. I buy one, light the candle and set it free to bob away in the current. It's twilight now and the nearly-full moon, large and low in the sky, lights the Ganges. Six fires burn at the burning ghat. We row to the far side of the river, a strand of sand, and watch the hectic, holy city from this silent vantage point.
Godot and yours truly
The boatman rows us back to Dasaswamedh Ghat, the main ghat. A sadhu is performing puja, an offering to the Ganges. To the sound of drum beats, he moves a candelabra around, tracing the sacred mantra "OM" in the air with candle light. The River sparkles with leaf bowl candle offerings.
On my last day in Varanasi, I wake up to leave town as I arrived, in the stillness of pre-dawn. Alyse has decided to stay in Varanasi and rent a room in a house for a month. I lug my bags out of the hotel and through a twisting maze of alleys to the nearest "big" street, where I hire a rickshaw. When I arrive at the railway station and pay the rickshaw driver, he touches the rupees to his forehead, giving thanks for the first money he has earned today. Daily life and the spiritual are deeply intertwined.
After waiting at the wrong ticket window inside the railway station, I am abstractly directed around the building. A cycle rickshaw driver I recognize points me in the right direction. The scene is quintessentially Indian: a long line at one ticket window, the only window where tickets for a train departing in twenty minutes are available. Some people cram the front of the line, but most wait patiently, unfazed by "the system", knowing time will unfurl as it should. Somehow I make it on the train on time, ticket in hand.