Serene, green, enlightening Sarnath – famed Buddhist Destination

Readers you would recollect that my earlier post was on famous Buddhist Destination Sanchi Stupa in Madhya Pradesh, India where I had recollected my childhood memories of visit to Sanchi. Giving continuity to that, today I want to recollect my visit to Sarnath few years ago on a trip to Varanasi.

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While in Varanasi, I thought of visiting my cousin there and he insisted that we visit Sarnath which is around 10 Kms away from Varanasi. Reluctantly I and my mom agreed as I was already tired of visiting religious places of Varanasi. But it was to happen and it happened, but what a surprise it held for us. When we reached Sarnath, some excavacation was going on there which was very similar to the one I had read about in my History books.

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My cousin who was well versed with the place told me that it is a highly revered Buddhist pilgrimage centre. It is believed that after getting enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, Lord Buddha preached his first sermon, sanctified as Maha Dharm Chakra Parivartan, at Sarnath. They are digging the site to bring out more details about Gautam Buddha. It was the sprawling site with lush green facade and a stupa in the centre. “After his enlightenment in Bodhgaya, the Buddha went to Sarnath seeking his five former companions. He found them, taught them what he had learned, and they also became enlightened. This event is referred to as “the turning of the wheel of the Dharma” and also marks the founding of the Sangha, or the community of monks,” my cousin shared with us. I got more interested and came to know about it more through various books which I bought from Varanasi on Buddhism and Sarnath.

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The highlights of Sarnath are:

  • The great Dhamekh Stupa and several other structures stand testimony to the importance the place enjoyed at that time
  • The Chaukhandi Stupa is the place where, during his first visit to Sarnath, Lord Buddha met his first five disciples
  • The area is a treasure trove of archaeological findings such as Dharmrajika Stupa and Mulgandhkuti Vihar
  • The smooth glistening pillar established by Emperor Ashoka in 273-232 B.C. marks the foundation of the Buddhist Sangha, and the Lion Capital atop this pillar is now India’s National Emblem

Sarnath, located just 12 km from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, is the site of the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma after his enlightenment. Sarnath is one of four holy Buddhist sites sanctioned by the Buddha himself for pilgrimage. The other three sites are: Lumbini (birth); Bodh Gaya (enlightenment); and Kushinagar (death).

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Sarnath has previously been known as Mrigadava, “deer park,” and Isipatana, meaning the place where holy men (Pali: isi) fell to earth. The latter name is based in the legend that when the Buddha was born, devas came down to announce it to 500 holy men. The holy men all rose into the air and disappeared and their relics fell to the ground.

The current name Sarnath, from Saranganath, means “Lord of the Deer” and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the doe he is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer.

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What to See at Sarnath

All of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath were damaged or destroyed by the Turks. However, amongst the ruins the Dharmekh Stupa is impressive at 128 feet high, and 93 in diameter. This dates from around 200 BC and is the spot where the Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon.

Only the foundations remain of the Dharmarajika Stupa, but it is notable as a rare pre-Ashokan stupa.

The decaying ruins of the Mulagandhakuti Vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season in meditation. In the 7th century, a writer described it as 200 feet high and containing 100 niches containing a Buddha carving along each wall. A life-sized statue shows the Buddha turning the wheel of the law.

To the east is the modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara with its beautiful wall paintings; behind it is the Deer Park, which is maintained as an open animal park and still attracts deer.

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The Ashoka Pillar at Sarnath survived the Turkish invasion but was broken during excavations. The base still stands in its original spot and has some interesting carvings.

The splendid lion capital that topped the pillar, which thankfully survived its 45 foot drop to the ground is on display at the Sarnath Archeological Museum. The museum also houses some of the greatest treasures of Indian Buddhist art, including almost 300 images.

There is also a Bodhi tree planted by Anagarika Dharmapala which was grown from a cutting of the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. It is located next to a Sri Lankan monastery.

Six national temples have been built by various Asian communities at Sarnath.

Six national temples have been built by various Asian communities at Sarnath since the site’s restoration, including a Tibetan temple and Sri Lankan temple.

Must visit Sarnath, when you plan to visit Sarnath.

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