A mere 12 kilometres from Varanasi, Sarnath could well have been on a different galaxy, far far away. The streets are clean and broad, the traffic is orderly and the place is eerily silent. The place looks deserted and dung-pooping bovines are nowhere to be seen. The ambience is serene and tranquil. What is it about Hinduism, I wonder, that makes us revel in such utter chaos?
Sarnath, probably a corruption of Saranganath, is the birthplace of Buddhism. It is here, 26 centuries ago, that Gautama Buddha delivered his first ever sermon after attaining enlightenment. A massive monument, the Dhameka Stupa, was erected at this spot by the Magadhan Emperor Asoka.
Abutting the stupa is the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara built by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society. There is a beautiful golden statue of the Buddha seated in Padmasana, his fingers forming the Dharmachakra Mudra, indicating that he is delivering a sermon. His first five disciples can be seen in the bas-relief on the pedestal. Photography is permitted inside the temple and one is expected to make a nominal donation of Rs. 20 for using a still camera and Rs. 100 for shooting videos. No tickets, no coercion, just a collection chest and trust in the integrity of the visitors.
The walls of the Vihara are adorned with exquisite murals depicting major events in the Buddha’s life. A brief aside about the creator of these frescoes. In 1918, Kosetsu Nosu, an ardent Japanese Buddhist, came to India, drawn by the aesthetics of the Ajanta frescoes. After being entrusted with the onerous task of creating these murals, he travelled to Santiniketan to seek the guidance of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. To quote Nosu, “When he (Tagore) strongly impressed upon me the importance of unifying the characteristics of Indian Art with that of the Japanese, through the spirit of Buddhism, I could not but reply that it would be impossible to accomplish such a work within the time allowed, to say nothing of my poor skill. The poet encouraged me by saying that devotion to our Lord Buddha would solve my difficulties. Thereupon I really made up my mind to do my very best in painting the sacred frescoes, always bearing in mind this valuable advice from the poet”. Faith can move mountains and Nosu’s work is a brilliant attestation of this adage. Sadly, few people in India have heard of this great artist. For more information about him, please follow this link: http://www.chitralekha.org/articles/kosetsu-nosu/kosetsu-nosu-japanese-artist-who-painted-sarnath
Adjacent to the Vihara, a sapling of the Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (which itself grew from a branch of the original tree at Bodh Gaya, which was taken to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitra, the daughter of Emperor Asoka), was planted by a Sinhalese devotee, Anagarika Dharmapala. Myanmarese devotees have erected under this tree a tableaux of the Buddha delivering his very first sermon.
There are also Chinese, Myanmarese, Tibetan and Thai temples showcasing the architectural traditions of those countries. The Wat Thai Sarnath has replicas of the Dharma Chakra and the Lion Capital. The garden of this Wat is dominated by a gigantic stone statue of the Buddha.
Another must-visit place is the Museum which charges a nominal entry fee of Rs. 5/- but photography is not allowed. Free lockers are available at the entrance for the safekeeping of cameras and mobile phones. The main attractions are Asoka’s Lion Capital which was adopted by Independent India as its National emblem and fragments of the Dharma Chakra, which was the inspiration behind the wheel in the Indian Flag. It also houses a number of Hindu and Buddhist antiquities which were found during excavations in the Sarnath area.
It was an amazing excursion, walking in the footsteps of two titans of world history, Buddha and Asoka, men who have changed the world forever and whose influence persists to this day. The lasting impression, however, is the art of Kosetsu Nosu, the forgotten genius from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Sarnath has its rib-tickling aspects too…..
As our driver is getting impatient, we skip visits to other Buddhist shrines and return to Varanasi. As we approach our hotel, the narrow streets are suddenly chock-a-block with men, colourfully attired women and children, carrying stalks of sugarcane, bunches of bananas and pooja paraphernalia, making their way towards the Assi ghat. I ask the driver what it is all about and he says it is some Ekadashi festival. I knew that it was shasti, so I didn’t question him further. It took us 30 minutes to traverse the 500 metres to the hotel. I later learn from the next day’s newspaper that it was the famous Chhath (छठ) festival, when the setting sun is worshipped on the banks of the Ganges. I had missed out on a rare chance to witness this festival.
Lesson learnt: Right place + Right time + Inexcusable ignorance = Lost opportunity
Next, I shall recount my experiences on the famed ghats of the Ganges.