Lord Buddha turned the Wheel of Law in Sarnath when he delivered his first sermon Dhammachakkapavattana Sutta to his first 5 disciples on the 4 Noble Truths (suffering, cause of suffering, end of suffering and the the path to the end). His first five disciples Assaji, Mahanama, Bhadda, Kaundinya and Vappa were his companions who had parted ways with him in Bodhgaya when he was seeking enlightenment.
Sarnath is located in the fringes of the Varanasi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in India. The name Sarnath is derived from Saranganath or the lord of the Deer. The story goes that Bodhisattva in the form of a deer offered him to be hunted instead of an innocent doe. Overwhelmed by this act of kindness, the hunter king created a deer sanctuary which still exists in the far left corner of Sarnath. A once vibrant place of learning and meditation, it was reduced to ruins and rubble after the Turkish invasion in 12th Century led by Qutubuddin Aibak. The chants of the monks were silenced and Sarnath was lost in time.
Sarnath is ideally a day trip from Varanasi. We set out from Varanasi for Sarnath on a warm February afternoon. As the bus meandered through the hustle and bustle of the holy town and picked up pace in the outskirts towards the airport, the driver of the bus, pointed left towards a stupa with an octagonal Islamic structure on top. The stupa is popularly known as Chaukhandi Stupa where Lord Buddha met his 5 friends turned disciples for the first time after enlightenment. We were at the gates of Sarnath within 45 minutes and at first glance we could see the the imposing 128 feet high Dhamekh Stupa standing guard for the ruins and garden around. The master had delivered his first lecture at the exact point where the Dhamekh Stupa stands.
The borders and walls of this stupa are carved with floral patterns and geometric designs and glistens under sunlight with all the golden foil applied lovingly on it by devotees from across the world.
Next to it is the ruins of the Dharmarajka Stupa built by Emperor Ashoka to enshrine a part of the Buddha’s relics. In the far left corner is the old Mulagandhakuthi where the Buddha lived and ordained disciples. The new one was founded by Angarika Dharmapala of Srilanka in 1922. The image of the Buddha inside is serene and beautiful. In the adjoining garden area near the gate, is the stub of the Ashoka Pillar. The 4 headed lion capital that adorned the pillar denoting the spread of Buddhism in cardinal directions was adopted as the national symbol of Independent India. It survived the bouts of attacks and invasions and is now on display in the Museum next to the park. After walking around the entire place keenly observing the ruins as much as I could, I rested in the garden, observing the Stupa between the trees. My mind questioned, why I was here from far away Bangalore, when realization dawned that sometimes we need to travel to experience a story. In Sarnath, every stone has a story, some told, some untold and everything left to imagination and the best way to experience is to evoke the Buddha in us to take form who will lovingly take us around. On the way out of the park, visit the Jain Temple just behind the Dharmarajka Stupa dedicated to Tirthankara Shreyansanath.
Varanasi is famous for its silk weave. It is a must have in a bride’s trousseau in this part of the country. There is a silk weaving center just near the gate in Sarnath where you can walk in to watch the masters of the craft create a piece of art with the finest silk. As is my wont, I struck a conversation with the artisan and he gladly showed me his art and tied a piece of silk on my wrist as a mark of respect !! I am touched, every time I am, with the kind gestures, the gentle ways the eagerness to explain and the world through my eyes unfolds in many ways.
Sarnath has limited places to stay and most people would opt for a hotel in Varanasi as per their budget. A trip to Sarnath is incomplete without a visit to the ghats of Varanasi. The nearly 100 ghats along the river Ganges are quite similar in appearance but narrate different mythological tales. The dark and opaque water of the river is hardly a deterrent for the devout who find solace in taking a dip in the river. Catch the sunrise on a boatride on the Ganges or watch the evening arati in all its splendour.