Sarnath is one of the most beautiful sites in the world, marking the place where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, taught his first disciples and introduced the world to his doctrine of peace. The site lies 10 kilometers north of the city of Varanasi, and it is said that the Buddha came here to a tranquil shady forest teeming with deer and was persuaded by his followers to speak of his experiences after his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya (Bihar) and to set up the first Buddhist sangha or order. Its religious significance and association with the Buddha made Sarnath a popular pilgrim spot for more than a thousand years (third century BC to the thirteenth century). Today the site consists of commemorative stupas, remains of monasteries of different historical periods, some new Buddhist institutions, and a museum with a wonderful collection of Buddhist art.
The main area has been enclosed and consists of a labyrinth of half-ruined monasteries and votive stupas. It is fascinating to walk amidst these relics of the past. The building that dominates ones attention is the Dhamek Stupa (fifth to sixth century) that commemorates the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon. It is a cylindrical tower (30 meters high) and, like all other stupas, is a solid structure. The trunk of the stupa is decorated with panels carved with geometric and floral designs. Several attempts to excavate the stupa have revealed that the structure was enlarged no less than twelve times, with each successive patron adding and embellishing the original shrine. Another ruined stupa, the Dharmarajika Stupa, lies to the west of Dhamek Stupa (third century BC) and is believed to have been built by Emperor Ashoka. Within its solid hemispherical mound a casket of funerary relics was found.
The Archaeological Museum of Sarnath is a splendid building built early this century and stands adjacent to the historical ruins. The museum contains a large collection of sculptures which stands testimony to the fervent artistic and religious activity at Sarnath for more than a thousand years. The first sculpture to be encountered in the entrance hall is a huge capital (2.31 meters in height) that once crowned a free-standing pillar amidst the Sarnath ruins. The Lion capital is made of pale yellowish-grey speckled sandstone, and has been burnished so well that its polished surface still shines. This style of highly polished stone sculpture is associated with the times of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (third century BC) when pillars carrying Buddhist symbols were erected throughout the kingdom to mark places of special religious significance. The capital has four lions seated back and their snarling (smiling?) faces gaze towards the four cardinal directions which they protect. Below, on the abacus, are four wheels, the emblems of the law of dharma (spiritual movement and progress). The Dharmachakra wheel is also the sign of Sarnath, for it is here that the Buddha set the spiritual wheel in motion by showing people the way to truth and enlightened living. Separating the wheels on the capital base are symbolic attributes which the devotee should acquire: the patient devotion of the bull, the trustworthy strength of an elephant, the fearless power of the lion, king of the jungle, matched by the swiftness of the horse. This lion capital with its message of peace and dedication was chosen as the emblem of the Indian Republic and is to be found on all government documents and on all Indian currency.
Within the same hall is another sculpture called Buddha Preaching the Law which sums up the events at Sarnath. The Buddha is shown seated with his hands indicative of 'turning the wheel of dharma', and below are his disciples, the deer of the jungle, and at the center is the dharmachakra. Other sculptures of the museum are of the Bodhisattva, the potential Buddhas who, out of compassion for the world, remain on earth to lead people to the path of truth, ahimsa or non-violence. The later Kushan period (second century AD) statuses depict the Bodhisattva in flowing togas and striking jewellery. There are any number of statues of the Buddha, as if there had been sculpture factory at Sarnath in the Gupta period (fourth to fifth century AD).
In these images the essence of the Buddha's philosophy is portrayed. The half-closed meditative eyes directing self-reflection to one's inner strengths. His face is shown without any expression or emotion for the Buddha has these under control. The halo around the head denotes that wisdom is the only means to true liberation. His plain flowing robes symbolize the importance of material desire is the only way of attaining true happiness. He is often shown with one outstretched hand in a gesture of peaceful reassurance (abhaya) blessing all devotees. There are many such objects that add to the splendour and beauty of the ruins of Sarnath. One often wishes that one could see the buildings and their sculptural decoration together with the hum of the monks chanting their prayers to capture once more the authentic spirit of the site.
There are several Buddhist monasteries and viharas in the Sarnath area. Buddhist monks from all parts of India and abroad come here to continue their studies and to visit one the most important Buddhist sites in the region. During Buddhist festivals Sarnath is full of pilgrims and visitors.
What's In The Neighborhood
For Hindus, Varanasi is the holiest city in the world but it is not representative of India, just as Rome is not typical of Italy. Varanasi's special beauty and sanctity is derived from the location of the city along a bend of the Ganga. The river Ganga is considered holy and the most sacred in the land, believed to have descended from heaven. Rising in the northern Himalaya, the river cuts across the expanse of the northern Indian plains till it finally mingles with the sea in the bay of Bengal. There are many places along the course of the Ganga that are considered sacred to Hindus, and the continuous cleansing and rejuvenating powers of the river are also symbolically worshipped. Since the river moves constantly towards the sea where all the waters of its various tributaries mingle, it is believed that it will also carry the ashes of the dead to their final resting place, reintegrating them once again with the creator, the ocean from which all life began. To die at Varanasi or to immerse the ashes of a loved one in the Ganga is believed to ensure liberation from the cycle of mundane life and the attainment of eternal life. It is, quite simply, a great place to die.
The holy Ganga or Ganges flows in a south-eastern direction, and by the time the mighty river reaches Varanasi it has lost it furious speed and meanders leisurely along the level plains of northern India. The river, as it approaches Varanasi, takes a wide curve, turning back towards the north, as if reversing its flow. It is around this bend of the holy river that many myths and legends have grown. It is believed that the omnipotent god Shiva was washed clean of his sins while bathing in the holy Ganga at Varanasi and therefore the city is associated with him and spiritual cleansing. The entire city is orientated towards the river, with ghats (stepped platforms) that line the banks to enable pilgrims to descend to the river to bathe, collect holy Ganga jal (water from the Ganga), and to pray beside the sacred waters.
The best way to see this vital aspect of the city is to take a boat-ride downstream, preferably at down. Rajghat Plateau is the oldest historical part of the city. Excavations here have brought to light evidence of occupation of this region from the first centuries of the Christian era. For hundreds of years Varanasi was ruled by many Hindu kings. In 1033, the city was raided by Mahmud of Ghazni and again by Ala-ud-Din Khalji. After that it remained under Muslim rule till in 1775 when the city was ceded by the Nawab of Oudh to the British. Many temples were destroyed and replaced by mosques. The Great Mosque of Aurangzeb, besides the Gyan Kup (Well of Knowledge) was constructed over the ruins of several temples in the late seventeenth century. Its minarets (70.7 meters high) tower over the landscape and can be seen dominating the horizon of Varanasi.
Over the past three hundred years some of the shrines have been rebuilt and the skyline of Varanasi, from the riverside, reveals this amalgamation of different cultures and traditions. As the boat moves away from Malaviya Bridge, the city and ghats rise out of the western river bank. The Panchaganga Ghat is dominated by a view of Aurangzeb's mosque, the Ram and beside it the Lakshmana Ghats, a popular bathing area with temples associated with the heroes of the epic poem Ramayana. The Manikarnika Ghat and the adjacent cremation ghat are perhaps the most revered places along the river front. They are associated with Vishnu, the lord of preservation, who dug a well (previously a lake) when the began the process of creation. From the steps of the ghats there are narrow lanes and passages that lead to the temples and residential quarters of the city. From these ghats one can approach the most famous temple, the Vishvanatha, which marks the presence of Shiva, the presiding deity of the city. The temple, as stands today, was rebuilt by the Rani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1776. A cluster of spires rise above the congested area and below a multitude of pilgrims gather to enter the temple. (The shrine is open only to Hindus.) It is considered an act of great religious merit to make donations for the construction of ghats and temples, or even rest-houses for pilgrims at Varanasi. Many royal families, like the Holkars of Madhya Pradesh and others, have immortalized their name by building ghats and temples here. Above the Lalita Ghat is the Nepalese temple, characterized by its wooden architecture, sloping roofs, and ornamental woodwork. It was built early this century by Rajendra Bir Vikram Shah, King of Nepal, the only surviving Hindu kingdom in the world. After the Mir Ghat, with its popular Vishalakshi temple dedicated to the goddess, is the Dashashvamedha Ghat, where the lord of creation, Brahma, is said to have conducted his ten (das) ritual sacrifices. Further south is the Asi Ghat which marks the confluence of the Asi river with the Ganga. It is believed that the name of the city, Varanasi, is derived from two rivers: the Varana, that marks the northern boundary of the city, and Asi to the south. At the southern boundary of the new city and on the opposite bank rises the Ramnagar Fort and palace of the ex-Maharaja of Varanasi. This seventeenth century fort has massive bastions and walls protecting the palace and courtyards within. The palace can be reached by road and by boat, and some areas within are open for public viewing.
Varanasi is traditionally called Kashi, the city of light and spiritual wisdom. Kashi is of considerable religious significance to the Hindus, for it is also a place of learning and education. Throughout history we hear of pilgrims, scholars, and teachers coming to her sacred banks from every corner of the country. It still remains a city of learning and there are several gurukuls or traditional schools of Hindu philosophy and education. The Benaras Hindu University lies to the south of the city and was built in this century to enhance and promote traditional Indian studies. The campus buildings have been built on an interesting semi-circular plan. Within the campus is one of the finest museums in India, the Bharat Kala Bhavan, which houses an excellent collection of early Indian stone and terracotta sculpture. Priceless seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings, textiles, and other artifacts are also on display.
How To Get There
Sarnath lies ten kilometers north of Varanasi city which is linked by road, rail, and air to all the major town of northern India and by air to Kathmandu. A large number of hotels and guesthouses have sprung up over the years to meet the needs of tourists, who pour in to see one of the most important historical and religious towns of India. There are buses and cars available from Varanasi for a half-day trip to Sarnath. The best time to visit Varanasi is in winter, for summer temperatures can soar.
In October and November each year fabulous festivities for Dussehra, Divali, and Kartik Purnima are held. The Dussehra festival is spread over ten days and there are fairs, processions, and spectacular nightly theatre performances of the Ram Lila, the epic story of the hero-god Rama. In the Buddhist calendar it is believed that the Buddha was born (in Lumbini in Nepal) on a full moon night in the month of Baishakha/Vaishakha (April-May), and a similar full moon occurred years later when the attained enlightenment (at Bodh Gaya, Bihar) and also on the day of his final salvation (at Kusinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India).