Sarnath near Varanasi

By | 28th February 2018

At the Kautilya Society Guest House in Varanasi, we met two young Indian students who were doing some work at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). We chatted with them over breakfast and lunch and were delighted we could finally have a conversation with some locals who didn’t have ‘making a sale’ as their main agenda for engagement. They spoke excellent English and it was a real pleasure to talk to them about their work and their travels. To take a break from the congestion and excitement of Varanasi they had recently made a day trip to the nearby town of Sarnath and recommended it to us as a pleasant and peaceful place to visit. We too thought we were due for a little peace and quiet, so we made plans to go.

Dhamek Stupa from the Jain temple courtyard

Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath

Sarnath is located on the northern edge of Varanasi, around ten kilometres from the city centre. It is believed to be the place the Buddha travelled to after attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya, more than two thousand years ago. He made the two hundred kilometre journey to Sarnath to meet up with five of his former companions. It was to them that he delivered his first sermon, imparting the wisdoms he had learned about overcoming human suffering.

His sermon was based on the Four Noble Truths (about the meaning of life) and the Eightfold Path (about the right way to live). The event marked the foundation of Buddhist teaching, often symbolised by an eight-spoked wheel, and the founding of a community of monks who would help Buddhism to grow and spread further afield. Thanks to the sponsorship of rich patrons from Varanasi, Sarnath itself would grow into an important centre for the Buddhist arts with over 30 monasteries and 3000 monks. During the 3rd century BCE, Mauryan emperor Ashoka, a convert and great supporter of Buddhism, erected numerous monuments throughout India in commemoration of the Buddhist movement, several of which were established in Sarnath. By the 12th century, however, it all came to ruin when India was invaded by Turkish Muslims and Buddhism virtually disappeared from the country.

Today Sarnath is a predominantly Hindu town containing a small collection of ruins and structures from Buddhism’s golden past, as well as a few monasteries and temples devoted to both Buddhism and Jainism. Its historical significance for Buddhists means the town attracts a steady stream of visitors and pilgrims from across the world.

To get to Sarnath, we took an auto-rickshaw from Varanasi and decided to stay for the weekend. While not really a place warranting a visit of more than a few hours, our logic behind staying for nearly three full days was to avoid not only the busy weekend in Varanasi but the more expensive weekend flights to Delhi.

After a long, fast-paced, seemingly manic, early morning rickshaw ride through Varanasi’s northern suburbs we arrived in Sarnath – nowadays more a suburb of Varanasi that an individual town.

Roadside stall in Sarnath

Roadside stall in Sarnath

Sarnath was hot, slightly humid, and for the most part fairly uninspiring. Despite its location on the pilgrim trail, there was little in the way of good accommodation or food outlets. We had booked a room at the oddly named Namo Buddha Guest House, located down a narrow dirt road between run-down buildings, vacant rubbish-strewn lots and a large stagnant pond. The whole area seemed to be guarded by stray dogs, randomly patrolling the streets like angry sheriffs.

I remember when Clare had phoned up to make the booking that the woman who ran the guest house had even suggested to her that it might not be the kind of place we were looking for. There was nothing at all appealing about the environment and when we came to a solid metal gate that marked the entrance to the guest house, I could only wonder what might greet us on the other side. The gate was lodged between what looked like an abandoned apartment building and a high brick wall lined along the top with broken glass.

As the gate opened we were greeted by a large German woman who ushered us in to what was quite a lovely and well-cared-for garden. It was something of an oasis compared to what existed on the other side of the wall. The guest house only had two rooms and one was already occupied when we arrived. Our room was very basic and aside from a very narrow double bed, contained no features other than a ceiling fan and some built-in shelves. The bathroom was separate and consisted of a squat toilet and a bucket shower. An added surprise was that the room was full of mosquitos and as we opened the door to drag our bags through, more of the insects seemed to fly in rather than out. The view from the roof terrace extended across a landscape of dilapidated apartment buildings and vacant lots, covered in rubbish. The sight of a woman openly defecating amongst the debris, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, caused me to wonder how long it would be before India could implement hygiene and pollution standards more like those currently in the West.

Our German host made us a cup of herbal tea and introduced us to her Indian husband and another much younger Indian man who was there each day to do various chores. She explained that she’d been in India for many years, although she still didn’t really feel that comfortable with where she was. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, she explained, there was the ever present corruption that seemed to taint almost everything, the nasty crime – mostly caste related – and the poverty. She said she would never feel accepted like a local, even though she was married to one. There was difficulty as well in trying to run a business inside a system that was often archaic, corrupt and entangled in unnecessary and time-wasting bureaucracy.

Despite the troubles, she seemed to have a high level of either acceptance or resignation regarding her choice to live there and quite a matter-of-fact understanding of the human nature inherent in the complex environment she had become a part of. Life was not easy, she said, but she had no life in Germany either. She did appear, however, to find some respite in the modern Chinese spiritual practice of Falun Dafa, advertised on several posters on the walls of her guest house and something she always talked about with affection.

Listening to what she had to say about the place where she lived made me more accepting of our stay there. I reasoned that if she could do it for several decades, then surely I could manage it for three days.

The other guest at the temple was a young man from the UK, a practicing Buddhist, on a journey around each of the four Buddhist pilgrimage sites before joining his partner in Nepal. Our conversations at the breakfast table helped to add interest to what would have otherwise been a fairly mundane stay. His name was Singhamanas, which means ‘lion mind’ – a name given to him many years ago by mentors within his school of Buddhism, and the name he has used ever since. It was a good fit, in fact we were both a bit taken aback by the extent of his intelligence, wisdom and thoughtfulness: qualities we would have normally attributed to someone older.

Dhamek Stupa

Dhamek Stupa

The key site in Sarnath was the ancient Dhamek Stupa, believed to be located at the very spot where the Buddha delivered his first sermon to his five companions. It was built to replace an earlier and similar structure built by Emperor Ashoka to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath. The current stupa sits as a landmark within the town and consists of a massive cylinder of brick and stone, nearly 45 metres high. Decorating the stupa are the remains of stone carvings incorporating a pattern of interconnected swastikas, bordered with representations of the lotus flower. The swastika is an image we encountered in many Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sites throughout India, although it tends to have slightly different meanings and representations in each religion. In Buddhism, it symbolises the concept of Samsara or eternal cycling.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihar

Mulagandha Kuti Vihar

Close to the Stupa was a Sri Lankan Buddhist temple called Mulagandhakuti Vihara, built in the 1930’s as a replacement for the ruins of a larger temple nearby with the same name. The temple is used daily and houses a number of large decorative murals featuring scenes from the Jataka tales. Next to the Buddhist temple is a sculptural piece featuring larger than life-size models of the Buddha and his five disciples, seated underneath a Bodhi tree, believed to be a descendent of the one in Bodhgaya.

The sculpture is surrounded by prayer wheels and by numerous plaques containing the Buddha’s original sermon in the Pali language, and translations of the sermon into English and all the languages of the Buddhist countries throughout Asia.

A large bell is situated nearby which was donated by the Japanese Buddhist community. Each evening at 6pm we would hear the impressive gong of the bell as it resonated throughout the town, a sound that could be heard from seven kilometres away. It was followed by the amplified chanting of the Buddha’s original sermon in the Pali language.

Nearby was a Jain temple, dedicated to the Eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism, which makes Sarnath a destination as well for Jain pilgrims. For lunch and dinner each day we would visit a guest house run by a Jain family. They would cook a simple but delicious dal bhat dish reminiscent of many of the meals we enjoyed while trekking in Nepal. The head of the family was known as Dr Jain. It wasn’t entirely clear if that was his real name or a more accessible pseudonym based on the fact that he held a doctorate in Geography and was also a practicing Jain.

He was very proud of his three daughters and made a point of ensuring they each got a good education and the freedom in life to follow a path of their choosing, something I understood was not necessarily the norm in traditional Indian families. It was clear Dr Jain was a respected figure in Sarnath. He was a gentle, well-educated man who had a genuine desire to help wherever he could to improve the lives of those around him less fortunate. He had a particular passion for education and believed games were an important and necessary part of learning for young people.

One evening I asked Dr Jain about the bell at the Buddhist temple that I could hear ring at the same time each evening. He told us the bell was made in Germany and he didn’t like the sound, but more because he thought the bell should have been made in India. The bell, in fact had a wonderful sound, perhaps the most wonderful sounding bell I’ve ever heard, and this was essentially because the bell was made in Germany. It had such a deep and powerful resonance that upon hearing it for the first time, I immediately wanted to seek out its source. The next evening I had the privilege of seeing the bell being rung by hand, which required not only special technique but considerable effort.

We had many excellent conversations with Dr Jain, as well as another guest that frequented his home for lunch, an American called Greg who had a shaved head and dressed in saffron-coloured robes. Greg was visiting Sarnath from Thailand, where he had lived as a monk in the Theravada tradition for many years. He was in Sarnath primarily to continue his studies of Sanskrit, a language he was learning as a way of enhancing his knowledge of ancient Buddhist texts. He told us about a presentation he’d been asked to give in Sarnath, completely in Sanskrit, to his fellow monks. It was an event he was understandably nervous about, but apparently one he managed to pull off admirably.

During our time in Sarnath, it was often uncomfortably hot and humid to be outside during the middle of the day, so we appreciated the fact that most of the sites in the town were in close proximity to where we were staying. It was definitely cooler in the shady garden of the Namo Buddha guest house but we did make a point of getting out and about as much as possible.

Ruins of Mulagandhakuti Vihara, an ancient Buddhist temple

Ruins of Mulagandhakuti Vihara

Next to the Dhamek Stupa were the ruins of a larger and more ancient temple called Mulagandhakuti Vihara where the Buddha is believed to have spent his first rainy season in Sarnath. Nothing much more than the foundations and the remains of various decorative pieces are visible today. It was strange to see some sections of the ruins, covered in pastings of gold leaf. Despite signs warning against, it appears to be a mark of reverence by Buddhist pilgrims and is associated with a decorative practice traditionally used in Buddhist art.

Replica of the Ashokan pillar capital, now the national emblem of India

Replica of the Ashokan pillar capital

Amongst the ruins were the large circular foundations of Dharmarajika Stupa, built before the time of Ashoka, as well as the remains of a famous Ashokan pillar, one of many he built at Buddhist sites throughout India during his rule. Generally, all of Ashoka’s pillars consisted of a vertical and slightly tapered stone column on top of which sat an ornate capital, usually featuring animals in its design. The one discovered at Sarnath had a capital with four lions each facing the cardinal points, and is particularly significant because it has since become the national emblem of India. Only part of the original pillar remains but the impressive capital is on display in Sarnath’s Archaeological Museum. Unfortunately and rather annoyingly, like most museums in India, photography is prohibited. As a result, the photo in the gallery below is of a replica of the original Ashokan lion capital. I saw it in the gardens of a Thai Buddhist temple, directly across the road from the museum.

One place in particular that provided some relief from the heat in Sarnath’s streets, was a coconut stand. Each day we would aim at least once to visit the cart, laden high with green coconuts. For 50 rupees a piece, the vendor would select a coconut and holding it in one hand would chop at it with his machete, until he had cut most of the husk from one end. With one final deft-handed action he would use the point of the machete to open up a tiny hole, pop in a straw, and we would have a coconut cup full of natural juice. It seemed like the perfect drink in the heat, a way to rehydrate and get some energy back.

After three days, I was glad to be leaving Sarnath and heading to the airport in Varanasi for our flight back to Delhi. The town, at least on first impressions, did not have much to offer but we did meet and enjoy the company of some interesting people. That and the daily dose of fresh coconut juice made our stay in Sarnath so much more worthwhile than it would have otherwise been.

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