About 4 in the morning, I had my wake-up alarm. We would be getting off the train at Varanasi in an hour, this was the most pleasant wake-up call of my life.
It is my habit to set at least three alarms on my mobile, 10 minutes apart, because I do not trust myself to wake up the first time, nor do I trust myself to hit the Snooze button. If I hit the Cancel button by mistake instead, the phone would not ring again. So I set up three separate alarms. But this day, I was wide awake, and turned off the alarm settings, I was not likely to fall asleep again. And the mind was in a state of delirious joy, this is how I would like to wake up every morning.
Our duffel bags were already lined up at the exit of the coach. We now had to pull out our backpacks and handbags and be ready for a quick departure. The train reached Varanasi exactly as per schedule, and our entire group was out of the train in record time.
At the railway station at Varanasi, there were many coolies - porters, and after a bit of negotiating, we decided on a rate that each passenger would pay and our duffel bags was carried on able heads and shoulders to our bus waiting outside. The bus ride to the hotel was uneventful. Varanasi is believed to be the oldest city in the world, and it retains its ancient heritage and its small town flavor. It was too early in the morning for any shops to be open, or people to be bustling about. We drove through narrow streets and marketplaces till we turned into an alley behind a strip mall. A surprisingly new and beautiful building awaited our arrival - we had reached the hotel. The hotel lobby was gorgeous, one would expect the rooms to be good too, and we were here for 2 days, we would not need to unpack and re-pack the next morning.
We got rooms assigned soon enough, and we could freshen up and come down for breakfast which turned out to be a Roman feast. And the food was good. For the first time on this trip, instead of eating an idli or two to sustain myself till my lunch of rice and yogurt, I loaded my breakfast plate.
Deliriously happy as I was that morning, I had this rankling irritation about something from the previous day that I could not get rid of, and it came boiling out when Sarveshanandaji started a conversation. He was calm and collected at my outburst, and as always, I was aware of my mind rushing from irritation to anger in a split second and I had said what was on my mind before I could stop myself. Not that I hide an opinion or thought pattern from him - how else do I learn to improve - but it was breakfast time for him too, he was exhausted as well, and he looked a bit under the weather.
After breakfast, we left for a darshan - viewing, of Kashi Vishwanath.
To me, the temple of Kashi Vishwanath had an overpowering aura of Shiva. Unlike the benevolent Shiva of Somnath, or the salvation giver Shiva of Kedarnath, the Shiva of Kashi Vishwanath is undisputed king for whom you live and die. Every particle of matter, every point in space, everything vibrates to the name of Shiva - it is a feeling difficult to describe. There was not much of a crowd, but there was tight security that has been in place since the bomb attack at one of the temples in Varanasi in December 2010. No plastic goods are allowed, I even had to give my pen away. Every person was thoroughly physically felt up and down the body before allowing them to go in. There are so many security checks in so many places in India, that nothing surprised me any more. The patting down in American airports is nothing in comparison to the thorough feel-through the security lady gave me and every other woman in line.
Dheeraj had suggested a trip to Sarnath, about 8 miles away. Sarnath is a corrupted form of Saranganath - lord of the deer. The story goes of the Boddhisattva - an enlightened soul, in the form of a deer, offered his life to the king in place of a doe that the king was about to kill. The king was so moved by this, that he made this place a sanctuary for deer. Deer could not be hurt in this area, which is why it is also referred to as Mrigadaya. Sarnath is the location of the Buddha's first sermon, and as such, is highly revered. The mighty emperor, Ashoka had constructed a pillar here to commemorate the Buddha's first sermon, known as the Ashoka pillar, at the top of which was an emblem with four lions. When the Turk Muslim invaders attacked and destroyed the buildings here, the pillar was destroyed as well, and only the base is visible now. The top of the pillar - the emblem with the four lions, had fallen to the ground, and was miraculously preserved. It can be seen in the museum at Sarnath. This emblem with the four lions was honored as the Indian emblem. For Buddhists, Sarnath is one of the four most important pilgrimage sites - the other three being Lumbini where the Buddha was born, Bodhi Gaya where the Buddha attained enlightenment, and Kushinagar where the Buddha left his mortal body and attained parinirvana - salvation.
Ashverya made the trip with the rest of the group while I stayed in the hotel, and took some much-needed rest. We did go in the evening around the city, and to the ghats. The presence of Shiva is just everywhere in Varanasi. Shiva is a living presence, and at the same time eternal. Events like birth and death have no meaning in a place where everyone is surrendered to Shiva.
Ashverya and I skipped the dinner at the hotel to go to Aditi's place for dinner - getting to meet family and a home-cooked meal. I was deliriously happy when I started this day and I was blissful when it ended.
Tomorrow, we have to be down in the hotel lobby at 3:30 am to go to the temple for abhishek - annointment.
Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!