Just 10 km north of Varanasi, the chaotic spiritual capital of India, is a quiet oasis of calm and tranquility. With desolate rambling ruins and stupas, prayer wheels, thick groves and meditative silence, it is a venerated Buddhist site. It was here, around 530 BC—just five weeks after he had found enlightenment—that the Buddha gave his first-ever sermon.
Sarnath, derived from Saranganath, means ‘Lord of the Deer’. It harks back to an old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva takes on the form of a deer and offers his life to a king, instead of the doe he is planning to kill. The king is deeply touched and creates the park as a sanctuary for deer. Sarnath was also called ‘Isipatana’ denoting the place where holy men or devas fell to earth.
In the seventh century, when the Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang visited Sarnath, he found 3,000 monks living here. In the 12th century, Sarnath was razed by the Turks. “Except for the Dhamekh Stupa, much of the site lay in ruins for almost a millennium,” explains our guide. It was Col Mackenzie in 1815 and later Alexander Cunningham in 1834, who started systematic excavations in Sarnath, uncovering many of its priceless treasures. Sarnath today is a major place of pilgrimage, both for Buddhists from India and abroad.
Today most of the ruins are found in one place protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Mud paths meander their way between monuments and ruins. The lofty brick mound of the Chaukhandi stupa is the first monument a visitor encounters in Sarnath. Built in 5th century AD, this was marked the place where Buddha first met his five companions. This was a terraced temple in the Gupta period. Later in 16th century, an incongruous octagonal tower on top of the stupa was added by Raja Todarmal’s son, to commemorate the visit of Emperor Humayun.
In the lush, manicured lawns, sitting under massive trees are a group of Buddhist pilgrims from Sri Lanka listening to a lecture by their leader. A short walk away is the gargantuan Dhamekh Stupa that glows orange in the afternoon sun. I am dwarfed by its gigantic proportions as I walk around the structure of shiny Chunar stones bound with iron clamps. This ancient stupa was enlarged during different time periods. It is said to mark the spot where the Buddha gave the first sermon to his five disciples, after attaining enlightenment, revealing his Eightfold Path.
The façade has brick work with eight niches in eight directions. Below them runs a string of beautifully carved stones with geometric designs, floral patterns and human figures. The pattern seems to mimic the designs of the original cloth-covering called devadushya, which was wrapped around the stupa.
North of the stupa is the ruins of the main complex of the Mulagandhakuti Temple and vihara where, according to Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha meditated during the rainy season. The temple’s courtyard has scores of small shrines and votive stupas. Close by, under a protective structure stands the 8-foot stump of the famous Ashoka Pillar, which was damaged during the Turkish invasion. The pillar bears three inscriptions—the edict of Ashoka in Brahmi, the second added in Kushan period and the third in early Gupta script.
As I walk through the groups of monastic ruins with cells, I imagine the haunting spectacle of rampaging Huns and later Muslim invaders as they destroyed all the monuments. I sit by the stupa under the shade of a tree, watching devotees circumambulating the stupa, chanting the mantra “Buddham, Saranam, Gachhami”.
The new Mulagandha Kuti Vihar is a welcome break from the overwhelming history in Sarnath. Situated amidst the brick ruins of ancient Sarnath, this modern temple was erected by the Maha Bodhi society in 1931. The insides of the temple have some ethereal frescoes of the Buddha’s life painted by the Japanese painter, Kosetsu Nosu. You can also see the Bodhi tree whose sapling was brought from a tree in Sri Lanka. This Bodhi tree in turn originated from the original tree under which Buddha sat in Bodh Gaya and gained enlightenment 2,500 years ago. We round off the day with a visit to the Sarnath Archaeological Museum.