Baby Taj ~ A jewel box for Itmad-ud-Daula

After a long day in Fatehpur Sikri and a sumptuous late lunch in The Pinch of Spice we headed towards Itmad Ud Daula located on the right bank of river Yamuna. The straight faced chauffeur managed to skilfully navigate through the sudden swerves of two and three wheelers and brought us to Itmad ud Daula’s mausoleum. Itmad-Ud-Daula or the Pillar of the state was actually Mirza Ghiyas Beg who was Jahangir’s father in law.Itmad Ud Daula -Agra

The red sandstone gate is very similar to the other Mughal structures. At first glimpse, the marble mausoleum intricately decorated appeared like a jewel seated in a large lush garden. Itmad Ud Daula -AgraOn closer look, the glow of the setting sun lent a warm ochre tint which made it look all the more beautiful.Itmad Ud Daula -Agra

Noor Jehan built the tomb in 1622. It was her tribute to her Persian father to be laid to rest with reminders of art back home. Persian art recreated with influence of Indian designs through beautiful Pietra Dura designs be it 10 point stars, floral patterns, flower vases, geometrical patterns or the intricate stone jaali Itmad Ud Daula -Agra

This was the first time marble was being used in Mughal architecture and it gave me the feeling that Jahangir added the marble minarets and domes to Akbar’s mausoleum in Sikandra as an after thought to ensure the best for his father.Itmad Ud Daula -Agra

The floors in the interiors appeared like Athangudi Tiles from far until on closer look I realised it was a fine example of accurately cut stone pieces interlocked together and then fixed on the floor. The same technique is applied on the walls as well and was first discovered in Rome as Pietra Dura.Itmad Ud Daula -Agra

The green lawns were quite lush though it was winter. I walked over to the gate to glance at the shriveled Yamuna slow poisoned over the years with chemicals and sewage from Agra city.Itmad Ud Daula -Agra

Travel Tip:

Do visit in the evening since the sunset across the Yamuna lends a beautiful glow to the surrounding. Entry Ticket is Rs 20 for Indians as on date.

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Sikandra ~ Where Akbar the Great is laid to rest

 

Sikandra ~ Where The Great Emperor Akbar is laid to rest

We stopped by at Sikandra in the outskirts of Agra very early in the morning on our way to Mathura. I had planned it as a brief visit but the early morning calm, the dancing peacocks, chirping birds and squirrels made it very difficult to leave. After the grandeur of The Taj Mahal, this may appear to be quite spartan to most people but to the discerning eye, this mausoleum was definitely a huge inspiration for the design of Taj Mahal.Sikandra in Agra

Jahangir built the mausoleum between 1605 -1613 AD in a sprawling garden of 119 acres which was specially selected by Akbar as his final resting place. The entry is through the South Gate which is an ornate red sandstone structure topped by 4 marble minarets. The rich inlay work is a combination of floral and geometric patterns which denotes a mix of Central Asian and Indian designs.Sikandra in Agra

From a distance it appeared like a painting but on closure look they were skilfully arranged pieces of slate, yellow Jaisalmer stone,marble and green tinged granite. The structure has an uncanny resemblance with the Charminar of Hyderabad which was constructed during contemporary times (1591AD) except that the material used was different.Sikandra in Agra

The main mausoleum is a sprawling red sandstone structure topped with marble. As I walked ahead on the paved pathway, the first rays of the sun appeared on the eastern horizon.Sikandra in Agra

The external walls were plain red and the arched hallways on either side were supported by barren pillars.Sikandra in Agra

The roof had intricate filigree styled floral patterns in varied shades of blue and golden which seemed to have seen better days. Apparently, there was gold inlay work which was plundered more than a century later by a Jat ruler.Sikandra in Agra

A dimly lit narrow passageway led to a hall where the emperor was laid to rest. It was simple and spartan, the only striking thing was that it was on the same straight axis right to the main gate. Visitors could walk straight into his mausoleum to pay their respects without hindrances like the way he listened to his subjects during his life time in Diwan i Aam.Sikandra in Agra

I walked around in slow measured steps marveling at the structure from all angles. The thought crossed my mind whether one of the greatest Emperors in the history of India actually underwent a spiritual transformation in his last days to have decided to rest in peace within the confines of simplicity. I asked myself whether Jahangir obliged to his father’s wishes of using Red Sandstone and keeping it simple but as a son he paid his tribute using marble.Sikandra in Agra

Travel Tip: Located about 8 kms outside Agra on Mathura Rd, best accessed by a hired vehicle. Entry free Rs 20 for Indian tourists.

 

Lord Buddha performed miracles in Sravasti, India

Lord Buddha spent 25 rainy seasons in Sravasti. The rainy season is known as Vassavasa in Buddhist referring to the monsoon months when the entire Buddhist Sangha congregated in one place since the monks could not travel during that time due to inclement weather. Most of the Tripatakas(3 categories of teachings) viz Sutras, Abhidhamma and Vinaya followed by the various Buddhist texts were created here. Located 151 kms away from Lucknow, Sravasti named after King Shravasta of Mahabharatha is the place where Lord Buddha performed miracles.

Miracles:

Lord Buddha promised to perform a miracle under a mango tree in Sravasti on a full moon day. His detractors uprooted all the mango trees to prevent him but he was unfazed. On the promised day he went to the king’s garden, ate a mango and planted the seed from which a tree sprouted and flowered immediately which is known as the Gandamba Tree. Lord Buddha created a jewelled walk in the air by the side of the Tree and stood on it to perform the Twin Miracle (Yamaka Patihariya). He emanated flames from the upper part of the body and streams of water from the lower and alternatively from the left and right side of the body. The miracle lasted for a long while (nearly 16 days) during which he preached to the large gathering and appeared individually to each of them.

After demonstrating the miracle, Lord Buddha made his way in three strides to Trayatrimsa (the cosmology belonging to the 33 named devas) heaven to deliver the Abhidhamma discourse to his mother Mahamaya who was born as a Deva. It is believed that he descended through a ladder embellished with precious jewels stones in Sankissa (nearly 450 kms away)accompanied by Lord Brahma and Devraj Indra. An Ashoka pillar was erected with a elephant head to mark this spot but only ruins remain now.

Sravasti Sightseeing:

Sravasti Bodhi Tree

Most visitors head to Jetavana first and we were no exception. It is a huge garden named after local prince Jetakumar who gave away the place to Anathapindaka, local merchant and ardent disciple of Lord Buddha in return of a gold coins that would cover the entire place. A short distance away from the gate is the Ananda Bodhi Tree which was grown from a branch of the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya. I sat near the tree listening to the chants of the monks and the mild flutter of the flags on the tree.Sravasti Jetavana

I walked along the paved road from the gate to the Mulagandhakuthi which is nearly in ruins and sat around in the garden feeling the master’s presence. Some pilgrims were decorating the kuthi with bright marigold and incense which was perhaps a place for meetings and discourses during olden times.Sravasti Buddha On certain days, pilgrim groups organize for special worship in the Mulaganda Kuthi and also light up the place in the evening with thousands of tea lights and candles. Consider yourself lucky if able to witness the divine off season Diwali in Jetavan like me.Sravasti-BuddhaSravasti-Buddha

Kacchi Kuti and Pakki Kuti are part of the ancient fortified Mahet area. Kacchi Kuti is identified as the stupa of Anathapindaka or Sudatta which was  discovered after cutting through dense foliage and mud hills. We climbed up the stairs and got a sense of this one time multi storeyed spacious structure which is believed to have had all facilities. Sravasti Buddha

Pakki Kuti is the Stupa of Angulimala (robber who wore garland of chopped fingers) and is located a few feet away.Sravasti-Buddha

The highlight of the stupa is the robber Angulimala’s cave or dungeon where he is said to have spent his life in penance and repentance after being intercepted by Buddha and subsequently ordained by him. The play of light in the cave appears such that you feel Angulimala was transformed bit by bit, moment by moment.Sravasti Angulimala Cave

Travel Tip:

Mostly visited as a part of a Buddhist Pilgrim Package to all importance locations. If not then take a Car or Bus from Lucknow. Lotus Nikko Sravasti is the only luxury option in Sravasti. This 2 storey hotel is located off the Highway and located close to the main sites and Jetavana is about 10 minutes walk away. The Sri Lankan Guest House is perhaps the only option for stay in the budget category. The monasteries of Burma, China, Korea, Sri Lanka also have limited accommodation.

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Footsteps of Little Buddha in Kapilvastu, India

Kapilvastu in India is across the border from Lumbini in Nepal. Lord Buddha born as Siddhartha Gautama was born to Shuddhodhana the chief of Shakya clan who ruled in that area.  The young prince spent his early years in Kapilvastu in his father’s palace. Historians are locked in a debate between Kapilvastu  in India and Tilaurakot in Nepal as the actual palace of Shuddhodhana the chief of Sakya Clan. However, Kapilvastu in India has an edge with the findings from recent excavations.Kapilvastu

We ended up staying overnight in Kapilvastu since it is close to the Indo-Nepal border and travelling to Lumbini would be easy. The beautiful Royal Retreat where we stayed is a small pool of calming luxury in the middle of nowhere. There is no much to see and do in Kapilvastu and half a day is more than enough and the rest of the time is well spent in the gardens of Royal Retreat connecting with nature.Kapilvastu-Royal RetreatKapilvastu--Ganwaria

At the time of his birth it was predicted that the young prince would be a great king or a enlightened Buddha. His distraught father kept the young prince confined in a sanitized environment showering him with lavish luxury lest the hardships of life steer his mind towards spirituality. He was married off to his close relative Yashodhara at a young age. This attempt was short lived since the prince requested his father to allow him to meet his subjects outside the palace. His father agreed,ensuring that the streets were cleared of the old, sick and the down trodden. 4 Sights BuddhismHowever, destiny unfolds itself in its own way and the young prince, experienced the 4 great sights on the streets which prompted him to leave home with his 5 friends in search of truth, the day his son Rahula was born. He returned home after 12 years as the enlightened Buddha after his enlightenment in Bodhgaya and his first speech in Sarnath

Kapilvastu--GanwariaPiprahwa and Ganwaria are two adjacent compounds of importance in Kapilvastu. The former representing the seat of religious activity, while the latter comprised  the ruins of the Shudhodhana’s palace and other living quarters. We walked around the beautiful lotus pond in the gardens of Kapilvastu, soaking in the belief that we are indeed on the same soil that Buddha walked on several centuries ago.Kapilvastu-Lotus Pond The beauty of the lotus flower is the way it unfolds, much like life, presenting experiences of different hues over time and as they chant in Vajrayana Buddhism “Om Mani Padme Hum” which essentially means, hail the pearl in the lotus lodged in our physical body.

Kapilvastu-LivingWe walked around the palace ruins, exploring the brick and stone structures, reconstructing bits of history of life in the palace then, wondering how little Buddha would have spent his early years, allowing imagination to take over all forms of rationality. Kapilvastu-PrayerMonks were chanting oblivious of the cacophony around and construction workers went about their renovation job mildly distracted by a bunch of tourists exploring bricks and mud.  Kapilvastu WellA short distance away we came across a well and we were told it is centuries old and Lord Buddha and his kin used the waters from this well. Whatever it may be, a splash of cold water definitely cooled our parched skin. History to me is “Hi Story” and if it generates employment in remote corners, and allows people to share a laugh so be it.  After all, Love, Laugh, Learn and Let Go is the essence of life!

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  2. Royal Retreat in Kapilvastu

Turning the wheel of Law in Sarnath, India

Lord Buddha turned the Wheel of Law in Sarnath when he delivered his first sermon Dhammachakkapavattana Sutta to his first 5 disciples on the 4 Noble Truths (suffering, cause of suffering, end of suffering and the the path to the end). His first five disciples Assaji, Mahanama, Bhadda, Kaundinya and Vappa were his companions who had parted ways with him in Bodhgaya when he was seeking enlightenment.Sarnath-Garden

 Sarnath is located in the fringes of the Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in India. The name Sarnath is derived from Saranganath or the lord of the Deer. The story goes that Bodhisattva in the form of a deer offered him to be hunted instead of an innocent doe. Overwhelmed by this act of kindness, the hunter king created a deer sanctuary which still exists in the far left corner of Sarnath.  A once vibrant place of learning and meditation, it was reduced to ruins and rubble after the Turkish invasion in 12th Century led by Qutubuddin Aibak. The chants of the monks were silenced and Sarnath was lost in time.Sarnath-Garden Discourse

Sarnath is ideally a day trip from Varanasi. We set out from Varanasi for Sarnath on a warm February afternoon. As the bus meandered through the hustle and bustle of the holy town and picked up pace in the outskirts towards the airport, the driver of the bus, pointed left towards a stupa with an octagonal Islamic structure on top. The stupa is popularly known as Chaukhandi Stupa where Lord Buddha met his 5 friends turned disciples for the first time after enlightenment. We were at the gates of Sarnath within 45 minutes and at first glance we could see the the imposing 128 feet high Dhamekh Stupa standing guard for the ruins and garden around. The master had delivered his first lecture at the exact point where the Dhamekh Stupa stands. Sarnath-Dhamekh Stupa

The borders and walls of this stupa are carved with floral patterns and geometric designs and glistens under sunlight with all the golden foil applied lovingly on it by devotees from across the world.Sarnath-Dhamekh Wall

Next to it is the ruins of the Dharmarajka Stupa built by Emperor Ashoka to enshrine a part of the Buddha’s relics. Sarnath-Dharmarajka Stupa In the far left corner is the old Mulagandhakuthi where the Buddha lived and ordained disciples. The new one was founded by Angarika Dharmapala of Srilanka in 1922. The image of the Buddha inside is serene and beautiful. In the adjoining garden area near the gate, is the stub of the Ashoka Pillar. The 4 headed lion capital that adorned the pillar denoting the spread of Buddhism in cardinal directions was adopted as the national symbol of Independent India. It survived the bouts of attacks and invasions and is now on display in the Museum next to the park.  Sarnath-Old MulagandhakuthiAfter walking around the entire place keenly observing the ruins as much as I could, I rested in the garden, observing the Stupa between the trees. My mind questioned, why I was here from far away Bangalore, when realization dawned that sometimes we need to travel to experience a story. In Sarnath, every stone has a story, some told, some untold and everything left to imagination and the best way to experience is to evoke the Buddha in us to take form who will lovingly take us around. On the way out of the park, visit the Jain Temple just behind the Dharmarajka Stupa dedicated to Tirthankara Shreyansanath.Sarnath

Varanasi is famous for its silk weave. It is a must have in a bride’s trousseau in this part of the country. There is a silk weaving center just near the gate in Sarnath where you can walk in to watch the masters of the craft create a piece of art with the finest silk.Sarnath As is my wont, I struck a conversation with the artisan and he gladly showed me his art and tied a piece of silk on my wrist as a mark of respect !! I am touched, every time I am, with the kind gestures, the gentle ways the eagerness to explain and the world through my eyes unfolds in many ways.

Travel Tip:

Sarnath has limited places to stay and most people would opt for a hotel in Varanasi as per their budget. A trip to Sarnath is incomplete without a visit to the ghats of Varanasi. The nearly 100 ghats along the river Ganges are quite similar in appearance but narrate different mythological tales. The dark and opaque water of the river is hardly a deterrent for the devout who find solace in taking a dip in the river. Catch the sunrise on a boatride on the Ganges or watch the evening arati in all its splendour.

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  2. Boat Ride on the Ganges at Sunrise