Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism

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?

The Dhameka Stupa erected by Emperor Asoka


 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. 

The majestic Mulagandha Kuti Vihara in Sarnath

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 Golden Buddha

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

Though the influence of Ajanta is evident in the imagery, the painting techniques used were Japanese

Birth of the Buddha. Legend has it that the newly born infant was as big as a 6 month-old child and able to walk and talk

Sujata, a devotee, offering nourishment to an emaciated Siddhartha performing severe austerities under a peepal tree. It was his last meal before attaining enlightenment.

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.

A tableux depicting the Buddha's 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.

A giant statue of the Buddha in the garden of the Thai Wat

The elegant Thai Wat

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.

A replica of Asoka's lion capital in the Thai Wat garden. The original is in the Sarnath Museum

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…..

Chainish food...does it confer चैन (peace of mind) to the diners?

It happens only in India

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.

7 Comments

  • Mukesh Bhalse says:

    D.L.

    Interesting write up and mind blowing pictures. I think this is the best post in your series, Kashi: A spiritual sojourn. What is the mode of local transportation from Varanasi to Sarnath? Thanks for taking us to this beautiful place.

    Thanks.

  • Mahesh Semwal says:

    I have been to Sarnath around 20 years back , I can see lot of changes there. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks Mukesh for your appreciation.

    Sarnath is just 10-15 kms. from Varanasi, depending on where you stay in that city. It is easily accessible by road. The hotel arranged a taxi for for Rs. 700, for a round trip to Sarnath with short visits to shrines which are nearby like the Sankat Mochan temple and the Durga Mata temple. Auto rickshaws too are available, but one has to bargain hard, especially if you do not speak Hindi with a Bhojpuri accent.

    I have just submitted for review the final installment in this series. I have thoroughly enjoyed reliving my experiences at Kashi while writing this phto-essay. Heartfelt thanks once again to all my fellow ghumakkars for being so welcoming and supportive and the editorial team for their encouragement and support.

  • VED PRAKASH says:

    Narayan Sir,
    Really u have meticulously and methodically so incorporated the minutes…despite having several visits to the place (Sarnath) it is felt like i have never been to the place but for this time with ur post.
    Thnx for the nice post.
    Toddler ved.

  • ram dhall says:

    Your brilliant write up almost transported me to Sarnath, the birthplace of Budhism.

    I never knew that the creator of the famous frescos at Sarnath was a Japanes Budhist, Kosetsu Nosu.

    You have created an urge to visit this holy place, soonest.

    Thanks for sharing this highly informative post.

  • Mayura Luktuke says:

    I have always been fascinated by Siddh?rtha Gautama, thanks for sharing information about Sarnath.

  • AUROJIT says:

    DL,
    Welcome.
    Have been enjoying this Kashi series – the elaborated information being provided in your articles is very interesting. Thanks also for elaborate and precise information.
    Looking forward,
    thanks,
    Auro.

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