Sarnath’s current status as a one-horse town belies its religious and historical significance. A bumpy half-hour drive from Varanasi, it is the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon after he attained enlightenment. Shreyansanatha, the 11th Jain tirthankara (one who has detached himself from the material world) was also born here. Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, deeply moved by the place’s sense of peace, built the famous Ashoka Pillar at this spot.
We arrive at Sarnath in the afternoon, on the recommendation of our driver, who has speedily snaked through the narrow roads packed with buses and bullock carts. Already, some in our party are ruing the decision. “It’ll just be ruins, nothing much to see. We should have taken a boat ride on the Ganges instead.” But Sarnath, one of four major pilgrimage destinations for Buddhists, has surprises in store. Believers from around the world are drawn here. Our guide tells us that the nationalities of the monks who visit are given away by the colours of their robes. Saffron robes are favoured by Indian monks, brown ones are typically worn by Thai monks, red robes suggest a Tibetan background, and the almost purple robes are of Myanmar monks. All these colours swirl through the streets of Sarnath as those who wear them slowly make their rounds, whispering chants and taking their time to connect with spirits of the past.
Our driver pulls up at an excavation site beside a modest museum, a hundred-year-old sandstone structure. Perhaps in keeping with the Buddhist ideals of simplicity and modesty, the building offers no indication of the treasures within. The antiquities on display date back to between the 3rd century B.C. and the 12th century A.D. Among them is the original capital of the Ashoka Pillar whose design, with four Asiatic lions back to back, was adopted as the India’s national emblem over half a century ago.
The sculpture, chiselled out of a single block of sandstone, isn’t even encased in a glass box, which makes me doubt its authenticity. But this is the real thing. Standing within arm’s length of the carving, the details of the strands of the mane and whiskers on the lions come into view. Other impressive relics are also available for close inspection: ornate Gupta dynasty reliefs depicting the life of Buddha, railings that date back to the Sunga period, statues of Tara and Hindu deities, and elaborately carved artefacts—all unearthed right here in Sarnath. There isn’t even a rope to distance them from the corrosive oils on the fingertips of enthralled visitors.
Incredible as this is, it’s just a prelude to the excavation site next door. Digging has been going on here since the mid-19th century, when General Alexander Cunningham, a senior British officer, discovered a stone chest and an image of the Buddha. Cunningham and his successors went on to unearth the ruins of once-magnificent stupas, shrines, and monasteries on the site, which are now maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Though a couple of the passages leading underground are closed, visitors are allowed a rare privilege—to explore most of the excavation site. Anywhere else in the world, such centuries-old structures of sandstone and brick would certainly be cordoned off for preservation. Mud pathways wind between the remains of monasteries, stupas, and temples, which are flooded with people but still imbued with a calm serenity. We stroll in just in time to watch the setting sun, peeking between the bare branches of a tree, its fading light falling on a row of candles whose flames dance in the evening breeze.
A large map chiselled in stone indicates the structures that once stood here: a main shrine, a courtyard, several monasteries, a Jain temple, and stupas. Dharmarajika Stupa, has been reduced by time and raiders to a circular podium just three feet high, but the magnificent Dhamek stupa still stands at nearly 43.6 metres. This structure is believed to mark the spot where the Buddha delivered his first sermon to five disciples at the deer park. Tibetan monks flock towards this stupa. As they circle its base, they twirl bells in their left hands, and dorjes (carved metal ornaments that represent the thunderbolt of enlightenment) in their right hands. Chanting, they walk in a clockwise direction. The gesture signifies that the Buddha is the centre of the universe.
As they walk, some visitors chant, “Buddham Saranam Gachhami. Dhamam Saranam Gachhami. Sangam Saranam Gachhami,” (I seek refuge at the feet of the Buddha. I seek refuge in reality. I seek refuge in the order of monks.). Some visitors sit by the ruins or under trees nearby to meditate. Some plant incense sticks in the gaps between bricks, and others stick square gold leaves on the ruins, despite a sign cautioning against this practice and emphasising the fragility of these relics.
The gold leaves are a Thai tradition, rooted in the belief that the metal has the power to placate spirits. For example, a Thai Buddhist praying for relief from a painful right knee might place a gold leaf on the right knee of a statue of the Buddha. In the courtyard of the Wat Thai, one of Sarnath’s Buddhist temples, is a tree wrapped in a sparkling shawl of gold leaf. Sadly, few explore the Wat Thai’s lush grounds and manicured gardens. Most visitors seem content with a photograph in front of the complex’s 80-foot-tall standing buddha monument.
All Buddhist temples have a statue of the Buddha and also weave the five elements of fire, earth, air, water, and wisdom or space into their design. But these requirements translate differently in the structure of each of Sarnath’s modern temples, depending on the architectural traditions of its sponsors. Though it requires trekking around the township, for the cultural tourist these architectural differences are just as interesting to note as the distinct modes of worship of each group of monks.
For example, the Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple, a short walk from the Dhamek Stupa, has typically Japanese aesthetics, with a twin-storeyed pagoda with a sloping roof curving up at the eaves. But to see truly jaw-dropping Japanese art, one must venture over to the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, built by Sri Lanka’s Maha Bodhi Society. The walls of this monastery display Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu’s interpretations of the life of Buddha, inspired by the frescoes of Ajanta.
The Chinese temple, just outside the periphery of the excavation site, off Station Road, is stunning in its simplicity. The 107-year-old Migadawon Myanmar Temple in the deer park dazzles visitors with its extravagant red-and-gold interiors and golden roof topped by the hti, or umbrella, one of five symbols of sovereignty in the Burmese tradition.
Half a day spent here is like a cultural expedition across Asia. We leave at sunset to battle the traffic on the road back to Varanasi. Many in our group are still dissatisfied, but this time only because they wish we had more time to devote to Sarnath.
Sarnath is in eastern Uttar Pradesh, 10 km/30 min northeast of Varanasi and 800 km/13 hr from New Delhi by road.
The closest airport is at Varanasi, a 30- to 50-minute drive away, depending on traffic. The train station at Varanasi connects to all major Indian cities. From Varanasi, you can take a bus (a 40-minute to 1.5-hour trip from Varanasi Junction; four or five buses a day, but the schedule is flexible), taxi (₹200 one-way; waiting time extra), or rickshaw (₹400 return trip, including wait) to Sarnath. It’s best to negotiate a rate for the return trip if hiring a taxi or auto.
During winter (Oct-Mar), days in Sarnath are pretty pleasant (about 25°C) but mornings and evenings are slightly chilly (around 15°C). In summer (Apr-June), temperatures are generally between 30 and 35°C though it can go up to 45°C in the afternoon. Sarnath receives moderate rainfall from late-June to early-September.
Travellers can plan a day trip to Sarnath from Varanasi and have enough time to explore the museum, excavation grounds, and visit a couple of the monasteries (most shut by 5 p.m.). If you choose to stay overnight, Sarnath has a number of B&Bs and guesthouses. Some of the monasteries also offer rooms at nominal rates.
Srilanka Mahabodhi Society’s Dharmashala Located near the deer park, with functional rooms, and a common bathroom in the courtyard (₹50-100 per night per person).
The Nyingmapa Tibetan Monastery Also close to the deer park, the Tibetan monastery offers comfortable but basic rooms for a donation (₹200 per night).
Vajra Vidya Guesthouse next to the Tibetan monastery also offers rooms with en-suite bathrooms (94152 24361; $12/₹800, including meals).
Sometimes the Chinese and Burmese Monasteries offer lodgings for a modest donation, but you need to enquire on-site.
Appeared in the November 2015 issue as “The Spell Of Sarnath”.