I awoke at 4:45am to the now familiar series of beeps from my Casio Pathfinder watch. I set my alarms the night before, figuring I could always go back to sleep if I didn’t feel like making my way down to the Ganges River for a sunrise boat ride along the ghats. I went back to sleep.
Two hours later, I stepped out of Hotel Buddha to the almost serene streets of Varanasi. I hailed an autorickshaw to take me the 10km to Sarnath, the location where Buddha gave his first sermons in a deer park. It is one of four primary pilgrimage sites on the Buddhist circuit. I had skipped Lumbini (his birthplace in southern Nepal) because it was a few days out of my way, and didn’t intend to visit Kushinagar, India (where he died) for the same reason.
The rickshaw let me off at the entrance of Mulgandha Kuti Vihar, a temple built in 1931 to house sacred relics from Sakyamuni Buddha. Next to the temple was a bodhi tree, around which were giant stone plaques bearing the engravings of Buddha’s first sermon in a variety of languages. I was given a kata (scarf) to tie around the bodhi tree in exchange for a little baksheesh (a tip or bribe depending on your perspective and the situation).
Next, I headed to the prominent 34-meter high Dhamekh Stupa which marks the spot where Buddha’s first sermons were given. The stone carvings around the stupa are thought to date back to the 5th century AD. It was only 8:30am, yet the sun was fierce and I could feel my energy waning. I continued to walk through the excavated ruins in the complex, occasionally shooing away the touts trying to sell me cheap Buddha statues (both kids and adults). There persistence and presence can test even the most patient people.
As I gulped some water near the entrance of the site, I saw a young girl begging through the metal fence. Clearly I was her target as there was barely a tourist around so early, let alone a stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb white person. I began to walk toward the rickshaw stand and she followed me on my left. She barely rose to my waist, yet she was carrying a small baby, muttering the same two words over and over again in a quiet, sad tone. ” Please sir, please sir.”? At least that’s what I think she was saying. I apologized to her, I bowed in respect to her, I said ” no”? many times to her. I walked on for a block or two under the increasingly hot sun. ” Please sir, please sir.”? At one point I heard her voice fade, and I had hoped she had given up, however when I turned around I saw that she had only stopped to pick up the cloth which had been over her head. ” Please sir, please sir.”? The refrain began again once she had caught up.
Knowing you’re not suppose to give money to begging children, I gave money to her (3 rupees…7 cents) when I passed upon a man who could render small change. I didn’t give her the money out of compassion (either a true or false sense). I gave her the money so she would leave me alone. So I wouldn’t hear her voice continue to repeat those words over and over as though I was being haunted.