A quick trip to Sarnath

I was at Benares and we were mulling over whether to do a trip to Sarnath or not. I was not feeling too well, long driving and June summer was getting the better of me. I didn’t want to stretch too much, since I was to drive to Darbhanga the very next morning. The shorter route from Varanasi to Darbhanga via Chhapra has been ruled out by multiple people. Almost every one whom we called asked the same thing, “Dont make it dark”, start early, dont drive in evening and so on. Finally, we had decided to go via Patna. That meant some extra driving. I have been to Patna many times and I was familiar with the road from Patna to Darbhanga but Patna was still 4-5 odd hours away from Banares. So mulling continued for few more split seconds before we decided to move on and do a quick trip. It would have been a shame to go till Banaras and not visit Sarnath.


It was a bright sunny day with occasional bouts of June clouds. The place was going through the usual city chaos rituals, with all kinds of traffic jostling to intertwine yet remaining separate. I think if you look at a city chaotic traffic from 30000 feet with a bino so that you could actually see only dots, it would look like a video game,where these dots would almost bump into each other but that almost would never be un-successful. It would always remain almost. If the dots could be colored then a green dot and a yellow dot would be seen rushing towards a blue dot, often coming too close to become one, but never would and when they are finally very close to blue, you could say for certain that its done, only to retreat and see for your amazement that green and yellow have changed sides but they still remain as separate and as unique as the numerous other dots are.

If you are inside an A/C cabin, it all appears as if someone else is controlling this organized mayhem. It was not long, when we had taken the last of turns and could sense that we are close to Sarnath.

As we entered, suddenly the rush disappeared. Though its hard to find a place in India which has less people but the contrast with main Banaras in terms of human-populace was very stark. The road suddenly widened and we could see temples on our left. We slowed down and noticed that a gentleman was trying hard to bring my attention towards him. He was a lean fellow of average height, wearing a regular half-sleeve shirt and trousers, his hairs not combed well and with wheatish complexion aided by a regular BMI, he didn’t seem impressive enough to warrant a halt. He definitely didn’t look like either a government or local administration guy or a Budhhist on a mission, but he did seem very focused. We found out that he is a ‘government’ approved guide and can take us to places against a paltry sum of Rs 20. That was hard to believe but we bought in and took him in.

The story of Sarnath
After Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, Bihar, he went to Sarnath. At Sarnath, he preached his first discourse in the deer park. And with that discourse he set in motion the ‘Wheel of the Dharma’. And thus Sarnath became an important milestone and is on the ‘Buddhist Circuit’ which has just three other places.

Buddhist Circuit has
1. Lumbini, where Gautam was born, in Nepal;
2. Bodhgaya, Bihar, where he attained enlightenment;
3. Sarnath, near Varanasi, where he preached his first sermon, and
4. Kushinagar, near Gorakhpur, where he achieved Mahanirvana.

I had the opportunity to visit Kushinagar in 2003 but somehow I lost all the pictures. I had a chance to visit the place again when I was coming back from Darbhanga since I took the other route to come to Delhi. I would write a short story on that sometime soon.

The main stupa, The Dhamekha Stupa, was closed since it was noon or something like that so we proceeded towards the other big main temple. Its just next to main stupa and this is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon, called “Dharamachakra Pravartan”.

Lined by Ashoka Trees
Mom and Daughter

The place has large lawns with large trees lining the aisle. There is a tall temple which was built by the king of Sri Lanka sometime around 1900 (I may be missing the date) and its maintained by a trust. On the way, we found this deer park, separated from us by a large ditch.

Deer Park at Sarnath
Deer Park at Sarnath

As we moved on, we came to a place which has the bodhi tree, actualy a pipal. Our guide told us that this pipal has actually been grafted from the one at Bodh Gaya. It was difficult to believe that since the Bodh Gaya thing happened almost 2500 years back.

Bodhi Tree
Another Bodhi Tree

With in the same complex, the initial teaching of five disciplse have been beautifully captured through a great sculptor work.

Buddha giving first sermon to give disciples at Sarnath
Buddha giving first sermon to disciples at Sarnath

So after taking you to the temple, its a good time to revise the Buddhism philosophy before we move towards the stupa. The core is that, dont go to extremes. Take the middle path. Without getting into the debate of my own interpretation, here’s the official one

There are Four Noble Truths viz.
1. There is suffering;
2. Suffering has a cause;
3. The cause is removable, and
4. There are ways to remove the causes.

To remove the cause there is an eight-fold path viz. Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness, Right concentration, Right attitude and Right view.

The weather was at sultry best, muggy and demanding. We had very little pilgrimage motivation and we still wanted to take a eye full of the huge and mammoth Dhamekha Stupa, so we turned around and went back to the iron grilled gate through which we could look at this structure.

Main Stupa
The Dhamekha Stupa

The stupa is really huge, measuring 31.3 m in height and 28.3 m in diameter. Its now a solid stucture. This is considered to be the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. The original stupa was constructed by Ashoka. The Dhamekha stupa is considered to be the sacred place where the voice of Buddhism was first heard. Many dignitaries of Buddhist countries visit this place for circumambulation of this sacred stupa and to worship the Buddha. Tibetans Buddhist circumambulate it chanting the mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’.

The Big Bell

It was time to go back and visit more temples as per our guide. As we entered the cool confines of our car, we decided to call it a day. To more initiated there are temples which one can visit.

We came back to main square and bid good bye to our guide. While we were there, we learned that this chap is actually hired by a trust/NGO who are into silk and other handicrafts. Rs 20 is just a sort of ploy to make the deal of guide-visitor look real, he was actually getting paid well and his main job was to show Sarnath to visitors, win confidence/trust and then bring them to their shop. It took some time for us to convince him that we wont be good customers since we are not planning to buy anything.

It was not long when I was back on the busy streets of Banaras. It was a short trip but to think of it, it was about a religion which came 2500 years ago and is still going strong. With everyone predicting doom, it was really very heartening to see that good things do find a way to stay.


  • Ram Dhall says:

    I have been wanting to visit Sarnath ever since I was young. Though I have been to Benaras at least half a dozen times, it was mostly on official trips and was like coming out of the airport, hopping into the waiting cars, rush to Renukoot, Renusagar, Mirzapur, etc and on tight schedules, board the aircrafts and come back.

    Thank you for this extremely well narrated journey. The historical background and the four noble truths have been equally well narrated.

    The mom and daughter picture is a visual treat.

    Thank you for sharing this nicely crafted piece of writing.

    God bless you.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Thanks. It was a pretty short visit since the weather was very muggy. I can imagine that on a cool afternoon/evening, it would be a treat to be at Sarnath.

    This was my 2nd trip to Varanasi and when I was there in 2000 or 2001 it was same as you said, rush rush and then rush. Went there for finding some engineers from IT-BHU. Even though this time it was better but I would really like to go there with some more time at hand.

    Thanks again.

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Short and sweet.

    The chaos theory of dots points to the writer’s colourful imagination.

    It would be good if the caption of the ‘first sermon’ pic is modified :-)

  • nandanjha says:

    I thought by the time people reach the end of the story, they would forget the dots. Thanks.

    Thanks for the caption, fixed it.

  • sameer sharma says:

    Well written. I was there last november and visited the museum maintained by ASI just opposite to this stupa. It contained a lot of sculpture, idols and artifects relating to Budha. It was sad to see that most of sculptures had been vandalised.

    Nevertheless, as regards the guides hired by silk traders, I had a similiar experience. Infact, the trader claimed that the Banaras silk is actually made in Sarnath behind the stupa and not in Banaras. I got really confused.

    Nandan, did you visit the ashoka stambh and jain temple next to stupa?

    Please elaborate.

  • Rajeev Tivari says:

    I immensely liked your dots theory.
    I have derived two important tips for the place:
    1. Visit in winters.
    2. Be skeptical of cheap guides.

    Neat, informative peace of work, with pictures to match. There is lot of samyak gyan in it. I believe that such teachings should be a part of basic curricula in schools.
    The violent streak that is growing in everyone, from kids to the grown ups could be arrested that way.
    However, I wonder what the world says of Aparigrah, professed in another faith of Hindu origin.

    BTW, I had read the post before it temporarily went off.

  • Cuckoo says:

    Well written Nandan.
    I have been to this place once in my childhood when we were going by car to eastern India. Do you remember I had mentioned it once ? Your pictures brought back those memories.


    The mother-daughter duo is awesome. :)

  • Smita says:

    The dots-story is imaginative and interesting. I’d suggest you swap the green and blue. Make the yellow and blue dots sway on the road, trying to merge into green and all become one. Now, knowing you very high (!!) CQ, I couldn’t resist and point this out.

    CQ – Color Quotient
    Very High – You-know-what-I-mean ;)

  • Sudhir says:

    I liked “Nandan’s Dot Theory” :-)

    As usual your post is crisp and clear. Anything related to our ancient history fascinates me and like Ram, I too have been wanting to visit places like Sarnath since my childhood. Good to note that Ghumakkars write on visits to historical places.

  • Rajeev says:

    Corrigendum to my comment above: Neat informative “piece” of work.

    Nandan you post pictures of daughter-mother duo with their backs to the camera (The other snap I recall is taken at Anand Bhavan) and these get best rating. Do you ever walk ahead of them to take a snap from the front:-)

    Btw, I would like to take this opportunity to to share a general feelings while taking snaps at some location. This is like the theory of relativity, whihc I am not very conversant in, but know that mota mota, if you measure time accurately, you loose space accuracy and the vice versa.

    Photography, while enjoying the scenes is like this situation. If you want to enjoy what you are seeing, takning snaps/movies is a hindrance. If you want to just take snaps, you might miss some of the actual fun at site, though you bring back a lot for posterity. Sorry to bring a reference of the ‘abbreviated’ post of mine, but honestly, this was the reason that I did not pull out my handycam to record some of that train-in-rain fun.

    I do not how many others share this dilemma.

  • Smita says:

    I agree with you, Rajeev.

    I been on group tours where people are taking pics from all angles from all devices possible. And this is the best situation for someone like me, who would rather stare at the place than be busy decing angles. Works well, you come back and take the souvenirs from these guys.

    But at the same time, a bare minimum is important – a) to flaunt :), and b) to be able to still recall after 10 years, what you did.

    I think the roll-cameras did good as long as they existed – there was a cap pf 24/36 pics per roll and you had to make do with that.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Thanks Sameer. No, we didn’t to to Jain Temple, the museum and the Stambh. It was getting very hot-n-humid and we thought that we had our share of Sarnath. Probably next time.

    That guide told us the same thing that whole of Benares silk gets done from there, he even offered to take us around to look at it. I would not believe him, I would think that traditional weavers would be right in the main city or in adjoining areas (may be as far as Mirzapur) but not all in Sarnath.

    Ghumakkar is probably becoming a place where you never are the first or the only person to visit a place :)

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Rajiv – Thoughtful comments. Winter is best time and if you do plan then look for a package from Raddisson (Rs 5999 for 2 nights, 3 days includes b’fast).

    Dots thing just happened, probably I took the liberty to just go on and didn’t restrain myself.

    Aparigrah – I would leave this to ‘Manish Khamesra’. I really dont know much about it. Jainism is more about very top level guidelines so anyway… Manish is a Jain and he would know more. Lets wait for him to read this comment.


    Smita – My CQ is pretty challenging :), you would appreciate that despite that I try my hand at colors, I would think that its a very brave attempt on my part. :)


    Thanks Cuckoo. Yeah you mentioned about it in the past. I hope the daughter of Mother-daughter duo reads this when she grows up.


    Sudhir Bhai – Thanks. I think Ghumakkar is gradually growing to include more subjects. Great observation.

  • Patrick Jones says:


    Agree that our (I’m speaking on behalf of all ‘darker’ sex) CQ isn’t very high.

    We are happy with ‘peach’ being a fruit, lavender a flower or ‘mow’ is something we do to a lawn (or is it mauve, I’m not sure) and so is peacock, the latin word beige (may be French)…..

    Hey. we’ll stick with the primary colours.

  • jaishree khamesra says:

    It has been long that I read something at a leisurely pace.Yours and Rahul’s post just happened to be that.
    immensly liked your dot theory.
    It seems you have the same CQ as Manish, and the same habit of taking photographs from behind except that he would always call us to stop, turn around and take it.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Long time Jaishree. Der aaye durust aaye. Hope the new-born gets you some time to be here.

    CQ – Hmm. Welcome Manish to the club.

    thanks for the dots.

    Rajiv, Jaishree, Others – I think I was just lucky to take the duo pic which was liked by many. I dont think I really planned it any which way. This puts some pressure on me on my next visit to some place but considering the light-minded I am, I would probably forget and might come back with another of this kind of shot.

  • manish khamesra says:

    Aparigrah – Its the concept of not having more than one needs. Its easier to say than to do. Though I also feels that it makes your life so easier. These days most of us are busy on our two days weekend for getting thiungs corrected, depositing bills for those gadgets which are supposed to make our life easier. In-fact most of the time two days of weekend goes in all these. Do we realize how simple our life would have been without these ?

    Of course Aparigrah is much more than the example I choose to show its advantages. It should come from inside. The less Aasakti a human being will have on any particular thing, the less he is going to collect it.

    That’s all, as I think most of you know very well (even more than me) about the subject :)

    Jaishreeji there are a few reasons for following the ladies:

    1. You should not expect from us that we carry all the luggage and still remain in front of you :)

    2. I developed a theory that when you are walking always walk behind girls/ladies and never walk behind a guy. Reason is that walking behind a girl, you can always smell the perfume in air and walking behind the guy, you have to inhale the smoke of cigarettes. I think “ladkiyon ko dekh ker jo thandi aahain Bharnee waali baat hai” that is because we guys are not well understood. Actually its due to the deep breath that take to we enjoy the perfume and finally it lead to thandee aahein. Take deep breath in a fashion that you are enjoying it and then exhale from mouth. You will understand what i am writing.

    3. When I ask you to stop and to smile, its my innovative way to be able to reduce your pace and to come closer to you. I am sure Nandan wil take the tip.

    CQ – Reading Smita’s comment I thought that you are genuinely praised Nandan. Why ladies are so cryptic ? If Jaishree would have commented the same, I would have thanked her …

    Dot theory – Perfect, enjoyed it a lot.

    Sarnath – Beautiful photographs and very well written.

  • Geetha Saravanan says:

    Wow! The comments on this post are as interesting as the story itself. I enjoyed the account, neat and nice pics. Good that you added the historical and philosophical significance too. Could you tell me one more thing? What language is it that is visible on the info granite slab near the sculpture od Buddha preaching his first sermon?

    The Dot theory – superb! I wonder if Seurat ever thought his pure colour theory could be applied to more than just painting techniques?

    Smita, Rajeev- I perfectly comprehend and understand the dilemna of holding a camera. But then I am happy to have a spouse who is a shutterbug and I leave all the record taking to him!

    Manish- the perfume- thandee aahein connection is a good one. Though do you believe, women given to being criptic will take it at face value?
    Thanks also for detailing ‘Aparigrah’ and ‘Aasakti’.

    I also want to add… My mother who is right now on a trip to North America wrote to me that the Americans have just four hundred years of history behind them, but they do an amazing job marketing, advertising and selling it. She observes with a lament that we don’t do half as much to promote our vast reservoir of five thousand years of history.

    I feel we can be happy that by being a part of ghummakkar, we are contributing our little drops to the ocean of creating awareness about India’s heritage. hip hip hooray!

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Manish Khamesra – Just two words for the post and two thousand for everything else.

    Geetha – Yeah, the post and the comments are getting interesting. And I agree with your mom. We are starting to realize this. In Delhi, a new project is started which would work to create a museum , walks and other stuff around old Delhi (Lal Qila, Jama Masjid, Lahore Gate and other Gates, Chandni Chowk, Jain Temple etc). Lot more needs to be done. If some of it can happen at Ghumakkar, thats amazing.

    I dont know about Pure Color Theory, I would think that lot of my darker sex colleagues are at equal loss, so if you can just write couple of lines or para. I dont think it would improve our CQ but it might just let us feel better.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Geetha – I agree with you that even if a drop, we are definitely helping/marketing our own good old India and in the process we too are learning more about it. I used to think that Sarnath is in Bihar. So you can very well understand that how much else I might be knowing about it.

    Nandan – Well I avoided writing four thousand and four lines in total and being in the competition with the post itself. After writing 2002 words, I thought that I have written a very long comment and I should stop commenting and start working :)

  • Rajeev says:

    Smita, Geetha – there are two kind of people in this world, one with the rope around there neck and the other with a gun. No this was not what I wanted to say, and which was “there are two kind of people one, with a camera strap and so many other straps around their neck and the other who walk ahead of them”.

    (I am sure, the darker sex would solve the puzzle as to who said the gun and rope theory. )

    I am the one with the straps around my neck.

    Geetha-I am in full agreement in what you and your mother say about heritage and how it should be preserved and presented.

    Manish- thanks for the short but sweet discourse on Aparigrah and Asakti.

    Btw, guys, I have posted my next in the Jagannath series, which is on Chilika lake. Please visit and let me know what you think of it.

  • nandanjha says:

    In ‘The Good , the bad and the Ugly’, Clint said something like this but I remember him saying that ‘I have the gun so you dig’, one of those last scenes.

  • Rajeev says:

    Yes, in fact there was a series of the ‘two kind’ quips with variations to suit the sequences, in the movie. The one I quoted was used in the beginning when Blondie (Clint Eastwood) says this to Tuco when the latter ask for a bigger share in the ‘turning in the bounty – saving from hanging’ trick.

    The one about digging was used in the end when they the grave was to be dug. And it was the wry delivery of the lines that made these immortal. Our Big B also used such lines with comic applomb in Hum (am I right?)…”Do tarah ka Keedaa…”

  • Geetha Saravanan says:

    You see Nandan- your dot theory brought to mind the ‘pointilism’ technique practiced by the French artist Seurat. While painting on the canvas, he would use say pure dots of yellow with pure dots of blue close together. When seen from afar we see green. One of his paintings, ‘Sunday Afternoon on …’ is supposed to be his masterpiece. He has even made a painting depicting the Eiffel Tower all in dots. Perhaps, if you google it, you’ll be able to see his paintings.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    What a beautiful piece of information Geetha ! Thanks for sharing it. I will surely google to know more about it.

  • Celine says:

    Haha..the comments here are as interesting as the post!

  • Munnabhai says:

    I guess there is some discrepancy in the article. The first sermon was not preached here.

    On retrospect it is indeed shameful of India that all the Buddhist teachings n structures were destroyed by Indians only and little do we know that the lineage from Pushyamitra Sunga have pushed us to the deepest nadir of civilisation now.

  • Munnabhai says:

    Correction. The first sermon was preached here. Other facts remain the same.

  • Munnabhai says:

    Pusyamitra Shunga is believed in tradition to have been hostile towards Buddhists and to have persecuted the Buddhist faith.

    According to the 2nd century Ashokavadana:

    “Then King Pusyamitra equipped a fourfold army, and intending to destroy the Buddhist religion, he went to the Kukkutarama. (…) Pusyamitra therefore destroyed the sangharama, killed the monks there, and departed.
    After some time, he arrived in Sakala, and proclaimed that he would give a hundred dinara reward to whoever brought him the head of a Buddhist monk” (Shramanas) Ashokavadana, 133, trans. John Strong.
    A Buddhist tradition holds him as having taken steps to check the spread of Buddhism as “the number one enemy of the sons of the Shakya’s[1] and a most cruel persecutor of the religion”.[2] The Divyavadana ascribes to him the razing of stupas and viharas built by Ashoka, and describes him as one who wanted to undo the work of Ashoka.[3]

  • replica chanel usa says:

    A Buddhist tradition holds him as having taken steps to check the spread of Buddhism as the number one enemy of the sons of the Shakyas[1] and a most cruel persecutor of the religion

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