India – Journey to the West

19 10 2008

Since young, I am fascinated by the story “Journey to the West” in which Tang San Zang together with his 3 disciples including Sun Wu Kong embarked on a journey to India to obtain Dharma. But it has never crossed my mind that I would one day be able to make a trip to India, being a really exotic location.

I also did not know what caused me to suddenly sign up for the tour to North India and Nepal, journeying from Delhi to Agra and along the Ganges river and up to Nepal. I took a morning flight on Indian Airlines and arrive at India at noon (local Indian time, which is 2.5 hours behind Singapore time).

Agra – The city of Love

The renowned Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is located in this city 5 hours dive from Delhi. This magnificent monument, made of pure white marble, was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved Queen Mumtaz Mahal who died at just 39, giving birth to their 14th child. The Taj took over 22 years to be built. Viewing the Taj Mahal at sunrise, the Taj looks magnificent. Accordingly to the tour guide, legend has it that couples who took picture together in front of Taj Mahal would be able to have ever-lasting love. From the tope of the Taj Mahal, one could see the Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was jailed by his son when his son overthrown him to seize the thrown. The Taj Mahal can be clearly seen from the room in which Shah Jahan was jailed and it was said that he would stand by the window and looked at Taj Mahal where his beloved wife was buried. After Shah Jahan died, he was buried at Taj Mahal beside his wife and the couple was united again in the “other world”.

Varanasi & Sarnath

The journey from Agra to Varanasi took approximately 10 hours by train. One of the oldest living cities in India (it was referred to in ancient Indian mythology as Kashi), Varanasi, situated on the banks of the Holy Ganges river, is Hinduism’s most sacred city. Most Hindus make a pilgrimage here at least once in their lives for a dip in the Holy Ganges, which is said to wash away their sins and would wish to die here (so you can see many bodies being cremated along the river). 10 km from Varanasi is Sarnath, the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightment.

Bodhgaya

After staying a night at Varansai, I went on to Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment 2500 years ago. Travelling to Bodhgaya is an eventful journey. The journey, which normally takes around 7 to 8 hours, stretched to almost 10 hours due to the long jam along the bridge that crosses the Ganges river. When we reached the road towards Bodhgaya, it was closed. The tour guide informed that this road is not safe as there had been many instances whereby the villagers would come out after dark and rob the vehicles that passed through. As such, the state government closed the road from 10 pm and those who need to pass through the road would have to wait for 13 vehicles to gather together and the police cars would escort the vehicles along the road. Thank goodness the tour guide actually has some connections and we are able to get a police escort and passed through the road without having to wait for 13 vehicles.

Bodhgaya is one of Buddhism’s most sacred places, attracting millions of pilgrims from all over the world. The Mahabodhi Temple is a UNESCO World heritage site, with the holy Bodhi Tree under which Buddha meditated and attained Nirvana, and a stone representation of the Vajrasana , the Seat of Enlightenment.

Patna

Around 10 hours drive from Bodhgaya, I arrived at the famous Vulture Hill in Rajgir, a site where the Budhha preached numerous sermons. The first Buddhist Council was held in the Saptaparni cave here.

Afterwhich, I stopped at the nearby 5th Century ruins of the Nalanda University, the first residential university in the world and also a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Nalanda was once home to 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students from all over the Buddhist world. It played a major role in the development of Buddhism. Lord Buddha and Emperor Ashoka frequently visited Nalanda, and the famous Chinese monk from the “Journey of the West” – Tang Hieun-Tsang, stayed and studied here.

Kushinagar

The journey to Kushnigar was the most memorable part of my whole journey because I almost could not make it to Kushnigar. I was downed with a bad gastric and fell very sick when I reached Patna and my dad decided to abandon the remaining of the trip and come back to Singapore. However, another family that travelled with us are extremely helpful. Thanks to auntie who woke up daily at 3 am to cook porridge for me, I recovered from my gastric and was able to make it to this place.

2500 years ago, the Buddha also travelled an eventful trip to Kushnigar. After a long spiritual enlightened journey through life, the Buddha chose Kushinagar for his Mahaparinirvana making it one of Buddhism’s 4 most sacred sites. The Mahaparinirvana Temple is believed to be the site in which the Buddha passed away under the twin Sal trees. A 6 metre long statue of the Reclining Buddha was discovered here. Nearby is the Ramabhar Stupa, which is the cremation site of the Buddha and the place where his relics were divided into eight equal parts.

Lumbini

Situated at the foothills of the Himalayas in modern Nepal near to the India border, Lumbini Garden which means lovely in Sanskrit is where the Buddha was born. One of the major attractions in Lumbini is the commemorative stone pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka, the Mayadevi Temple and the Sacred Tank.

For foreigners residing in Nepal for less than a week, the VISA to Nepal is free and would be given on the spot. However, most of the time, a “nominal fee” of around US$5 each would have to be paid to the customs officer, otherwise it would take forever to get the Nepal VISA. The weather in Nepal is much cooler than the past few days in India (and the air is fresher also).

Around 15 minutes ride from Lumbini is the ancient kingdom of Kapilvastu, capital of Sakyan where King Shuddodan, the father of theBuddha used to reign. This is also where Buddha had spent his childhood. Sravasti is an ancient kingdom intimately associated with the life of the Buddha.

Sravasti

The capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala, Sravasti was the biggest town in the Gangetic plains during the Buddha’s lifetime. It was in the Jetvana Garden of this prosperous city that the Buddha spent 24 rainy seasons. It was also in this city that Buddha confounded his critics with the Twin Miracle, a million-fold manifestation of himself, seated on a thousand-petal lotus, as fire and water emanated from his body. The Garden also contains the sacred Anandabodhi tree, brought as a cutting from the Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, which itself grew from a sapling of the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya.

Delhi

5 hours ride from Sravast to Lucknow followed by around 6 hours of express train ride, we reached Delhi on the Deepavali Day. I understand from my tour guide that Hindus would have to buy utensils before Deepavali and used it to on that day. That night in Delhi, the song of firecrackers can be heard throughout the whole night as Hindus celebrated their auspicious festival.

The next morning, the tour guide brought us to Qutab Minar, which at 72.5 metres high, is one of the tallest Islamic feature towers in the world and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the first mosque in India and was built out of bricks from Hindu Temples. This can still be seen from the walls of the mosque containing Hindu gods crafting (with their face disfigured)!

Delhi also has quite a few attractions, ranging from India Gate (a war memorial dedicated to the unknown soliders), the Red Fort (the most opulent fort and palace of the Mughal Empire), the Raj Ghat (place where Ghandi was cremated), Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India) and so on, but I still like Delhi the best.

Overall, I would say the trip to India is an eye opener to me as I get to see a different culture and also learn to appreciate the things that we have here in Singapore.