Sarnath

Sarnath is a religious/archaeological site a few km out of Varanasi. It was originally a deer park, and was where Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. It’s one of the four pilgrimage sites of the life of Buddha, the others being the places of his birth (Lumbini in Nepal), his achievement of enlightenment (Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India) and his death (Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, India).

The place where a thing happened often isn’t very interesting, but in the case of Sarnath (and the other sites), the fact that many people believe it has value has made it interesting, because they’ve built lots of stuff there. It’s not currently a World Heritage site, but it can’t be long before it becomes one, so I thought I’d bag it pre-emptively.

Dhamekh Stupa and various foundations, Sarnath

At Sarnath, they’ve mainly built massive stupas. They’re not as elaborate and decorated as the ones at Sanchi, possibly because they’ve suffered more from the passing of time. After the decline of Buddhism in India, the site was sacked and looted for building materials. Of the two stupas on the main site, only one, Dhamekh, shown above, has survived. The other, Dharmarajika, was razed and is now just a large, circular plinth. These two are the competing claimants for the exact spot where Buddha preached his sermon.

Around these are the foundations of early monasteries and temples which have been revealed by Archaeological Survey of India excavations.

In recent years Sarnath has become an important pilgrimage destination again, as Buddhists from other countries have been able to travel there in greater numbers. Apparently they have a cultural tradition of sticking little squares of gold foil on objects of veneration (don’t get me started on Buddhist idol-worship again) which has become such a problem that there are signs up to discourage it (which aren’t working).

Golden foil abuse at Sarnath

There were some other old things to see at Sarnath: the archaeological museum, and an Ashoka Pillar (bringing my total to three). Also some new things: a giant Buddha statue built by Thais in 2011, and the Mahabodhi Society premises, which contained a gold statue of their founder and were a classic example of “not worth the effort of removing your shoes”. Round the side of the building, though, was an old banyan tree: supposedly a third generation descendant of the tree under which Buddha became enlightened at Bodh Gaya.

Banyan tree at Mahabodhi Society, Sarnath

On the way out, we stopped at another stupa. My companions weren’t interested and stayed in the autorickshaw, but I got out and had a quick look around it. Chaukhandi Stupa marks the spot where Buddha was reunited with his five disciples (they seem to have parted ways temporarily while he was busy achieving enlightenment at Bodh Gaya; they must have caught up with him again just in time to hear the sermon). It’s a huge mound of red brick, mostly overgrown with grass. The octagonal tower on top is a later addition, erected by the Mughals, in a moment of hubris reminiscent of Lord Curzon’s marble renovation of Aurangzeb’s Tomb. Satisfied that I’d had the comprehensive stupa experience, we went back to Varanasi.

Chaukhundi Stupa, Sarnath

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