An evening shower drenching the town of Bijapur, as seen from Gol Gumbaz. Bijapur, Karnataka. October 2013.
Kabini Reservoir, Karnataka.
Saffron had a subtle change in colour and the beards and long braids disappeared as the autorikshaw rode through the crowded dusty road from Varanasi to drop me off at Sarnath. Such a drastic change within 13 Kms. Sarnath, though geographically close to Varanasi is quite contrasting and does not possess the exuberance of its more famous neighbour. It is relatively peaceful, has many Buddhist temples, stupas, sculptures and excavations of ruins. After attaining enlightenment, Gautama Buddha travelled to Sarnath and preached his first sermon to his five companions at the deer park here. This stage in Buddhism is known as 'Dharma Chakra Pravartana' or 'the turning of the wheel of law'. Sarnath forms one of the four major pilgrim destinations for Buddhists, the others being Bodhgaya, Lumbini and Kushi nagar. Buddhism and the preachings of Buddha flourished in Sarnath until it was attacked by the west asian rulers in the 12th century. The place remained abandoned till the 18th century when the ruins were re-discovered.
A few guides approach to show me around the stupas and temples of Sarnath, but I ignore them and walk away with my guide book and a self made list of places to visit. I walk into the premises of Mulagandhakuti vihara, a Buddhist temple built by Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan Buddhist follower in early 20th century. He is also the founder of Maha Bodhi society of India. A nice garden with lined trees and school children welcome me as I walk in. The famous deer park is behind it. Along with seated Buddha statue, the insides of the temple has beautiful mural paintings depicting various scenes from the life of Gautama Buddha by Japanese artist, Kosetsu Nosu. Also nearby is a bodhi tree, which has grown from a cutting of the Bodhi tree in Gaya. As I walk close to the tree, I see huge statues of Buddha giving sermon to his disciples. The huge bell with intricate works and the surrounding inscriptions of the sermon along with colourful prayer flags fascinates and takes me closer to it.
Beyond the trees and the garden, I see the huge Dhamek stupa dwarfing everything else in its vicinity. As I walk towards the 31 meter tall and 28 meter wide imposing structure, am dumbstruck by its magnitude. Built by emperor Ashoka in 249 B.C., the real name of the stupa is Dharma Chakra stupa. A few visitors light candles in front of the stupa while some circumnavigate it, not quite similar to the way it is done in Hindu temples. The followers take a couple of steps, then lie prostrate on the path and then keep repeating it as they navigate the majestic structure. Remnants of gold foil are seen on the outer of the stupa. Though prohibited from pasting the foils, pilgrims still press the foils hard onto the structure. The stupa also has wonderful geometrical designs and floral carvings on it.
In the near vicinity lies the excavations of monasteries, other stupas and ruins. I meander through the brick remains, more lush green gardens, saffron clad meditating monks, a swarm of tourists and school children who are spread all over the premises to reach the Ashokan Pillar remains. Only a cylindrical shaft remains here, well covered and away from the reach of visitors. Built during the times of emperor Ashoka, this tapering monolithic pillar made of sand stone displays Mauryan architecture and was first installed here. It once surmounted the four headed lions, The Lion Capital of Ashoka which is also the national emblem of India and is securely displayed at the site museum.
I walk amidst the excavations envisaging the life of monks in the monasteries that existed a many centuries ago. In the distance I see the Dharmarajike stupa, with monks praying peacefully atop it. Dharmarajike stupa is one of other popular stupas built by emperor
Ashoka to enshrine the relics of Lord Buddha. Only the base remains of
the once existent stupa which was pulled down during the 18th century by
the King of Benares to exploit various materials. A small crowd of monks is seated below the stupa and all I can see is meditation everywhere. The place is serene and my mind wanders into the lives of the monks again as I gaze at them from a distance. While I frame my subjects clad in saffron with a green background, a mild fog envelopes suddenly only to disappear within minutes.
|Ashoka pillar remains|
I leave the huge premises even as the monks continue their meditation. The red ruins turn feeble and hazy to my eyes as I walk out in search of Chaukanthi Stupa. Located a short walk away, this huge stupa made of bricks was built during the Gupta period in A.D. 5th century to mark the location where Buddha met his disciples while returning from Bodh Gaya. Atop the stupa is an octagonal brick structure built in Islamic style to commemorate the visit of Humayun, the mughal emperor. I enter the gates of the stupa and saunter towards it. There is no other soul in the vicinity as I gaze at the massive structure before me. I walk around its corners and from nowhere appears a group of buddhist monks who have just finished their meditation and are about to leave. They are absolutely nonchalant about this lonely visitor and do not even spare a glance. They gather their belongings in hushed silence and leave the premises as I still gaze at the stupa and walk around it. A close look reveals that the base of the stupa has interesting patterns and unlike now, must have been quite attractive when it was built. Sun has inched closer to the horizon and I am asked to leave by the guard who calls out from the road.
On the way back I pass the Wat Thai, which is a Buddhist temple which has a huge statue of the lord himself. I take a close look at the intimidating statue and go past it towards the Archaeological museum located next to the excavation site. Photography is prohibited and for a change I do not rush and explore the intricate inscriptions and works on the half broken sculptures and antiques displayed. With five galleries and two verandahs, the site museum at Sarnath has a plethora of displays ranging from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. which were discovered during the extensive excavation. This is a wonderful museum where visitors need to spend time, read the plaques and enjoy the unearthed art works and antiques. I loiter around until the authorities say it is time to close.
Numerous temple such as Chinese Buddhist temple, Tibetan Buddhist temple, Japanese Buddhist temple etc adorn the lanes of Sarnath. I walk into a couple of them and most of them are enveloped in serenity and peace. Well decorated Buddha statues with the country specific architecture and decorations adorn the insides and exteriors of these temples. Japanese temple is the last in line and surprisingly there is a small function with drum beats and hymns with a small crowd enjoying the beats. I too become a part of the evening ritual which ends shortly with chocolates being distributed.
go past the numerous vendors sell various buddhist paraphernalia on
their push carts and small shops by the road to my final place of visit
in Sarnath. Along with Buddhism, I add a tinge of Jainism and visit the
Digamber jain temple before leaving the serene Sarnath for the chaotic
Varanasi. Sarnath is also a pilgrim centre for Jains as it is the birth
place of Shreyansanath, the eleventh thirthankara of Jainism. Its quiet,
dark and peaceful inside the small temple. Without loitering around
much, I leave the premises in search of an autorickshaw.
The sun has gone down, visitors have left the roads of Sarnath deserted and it's become cold again. I get a glimpse of the excavations as the auto-rickshaw passes its gates. There are a few monks wrapped in saffron walking swiftly to their abodes. I look back for one last time at the land where Buddha gave his first sermon before the driver speeds past the lanes of Sarnath to the saffron land, which is far less serene.
Signing Note- Immerse in the serenity that prevails over the stupas, temples and excavations of Sarnath...!!
Location- 13 Kms from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh