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.
|Ashoka pillar remains|
I 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.
Signing Note- Immerse in the serenity that prevails over the stupas, temples and excavations of Sarnath...!!
Location- 13 Kms from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh