After Rajasthan, I was back on the road. My next stop was to Agra. Agra is located in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and it is home to the "granddaddy" of monuments for love, the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is all the marbles. It is an amazing monument. I visited the Taj early in the morning and it was exquisite. The Taj Mahal was definitely worth visiting.
From Agra, I took the train to Varanasi or Benaras (Indian name). Varanasi is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. The other six sacred cities are Haridwar, Ayodhya, Dwarka, Mathura, Kanchipuram, Ujjain. Varanasi or the city of Shiva (Hindu Goddess) is considered to be one of the holiest cities in India. Varanasi lies adjacent to the Ganges river which is one of the most sacred rivers in the Hindu religion. Hindus make pilgrimages to Varanasi to bath in one of the 80 ghats or bathing areas along the Ganges. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges washes away your sins and if you die in Varanasi it is considered good luck because you will be liberated from the cycle of birth and death. As my friend said, "Varanasi is a city that is alive" It is filled with constant activity. Along the Ganges river there are nightly pujas, people bathing, cremated bodies floating down the river, and launders cleaning clothes on rocks. One morning I took a boat ride on the Ganges and watched the sunrise. As the sun rose over the river, the river was filled with activity - people bathing, launders washing clothes, other boats filled with Hindu pilgrims, the remnants of bodies floating by; it was an interesting experience. Off the river, the city is filled with a maze of narrow alleys. I would walk aimlessly down alleys getting lost, then finding my way again. I really enjoyed staying in Varanasi and experiencing the energy of the city.
On my last afternoon in Varanasi, I visited the town of Sarnath which is about 15 km or 10 miles north. Sarnath is where Buddha gave his first teaching after attaining enlightenment. Sarnath is home to numerous Buddhist temples as well as Jain Temples. While I was there I befriended a Jain priest and his two young sons at a Jain Temple. I ended up getting a tour of some of the temples by the two sons. At the end of the day, I went to the Jain priest's home for some tea. On my ride home from Sarnath, the streets were filled with processions of weddings and funerals with loud music blaring in between streams of bright lights.
After Varanasi, I ventured to Bodhgaya. Bodhgaya is located in the Indian state of Bihar and it is where Buddha attained enlightenment under a Banyan tree. Bodhgaya is a major pilgrimage city for Buddhists. A temple called the Mahabodhi Temple sits adjacent to the Banyan tree where Buddha was enlightened. Bodhgaya is home to temples and monasteries from all the major Buddhist sects - Tibetan, Zen, Thai, etc. But Bihar is the poorest state in India. Just outside the Mahabodhi temple where a gold statue of Buddha sits, beggars line the street and children wander around in dilapidated clothing. While I was there I volunteered at a local school helping the kids learn math and english. Also with some friends, I took a day trip to Radjir and Nalanda. Radjir is home to Vulture Peak where Buddha gave his first teaching on emptiness. Nalanda was once the home to one of the ancient world's great universities. At its peak, the university was home to 10,000 monks and students. It is said that when the Afghans burnt the library of books at Nalanda, the fire lasted six months.