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Scenic & serene Sarnath

Religious, artistic ideas and communities have converged, commingled, and coexisted over many centuries in Sarnath making it one of the most revered Buddhist pilgrimage centres, writes M P Nathanael
Last Updated : 30 April 2023, 00:23 IST

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Dhamek Stupa. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIPEDIA
Dhamek Stupa. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIPEDIA
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Dharmarajika Stupa. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIPEDIA
Dharmarajika Stupa. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIPEDIA

While in Varanasi, I decided to take a bike ride to Sarnath where my first stop was the Archaeological Survey of India Museum known for its interesting sculptures, ceramics, parasol and inscriptions apart from the strikingly impressive Lion Capital which once adorned the Ashoka pillar. The Lion Capital, a sculpture of four Asiatic lions standing back to back, was originally placed on top of the pillar at Sarnath by the great Mauryan emperor Ashoka in about 250 BCE.

Walking out of the museum, I entered the excavation site where seven monasteries once existed. At this place, Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment and preached his very first sermon to his erstwhile five companions expatiating on the four noble truths — the existence of sorrow; cause of sorrow; termination of sorrow, and end of sorrow leading to enlightenment or nirvana, which is obtained by adherence to eight noble paths — right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. It was here that Buddha formed a sangha of 60 disciples for the first time when 54 others along with one Yasa from an opulent background joined him. Though Sarnath was earlier known as Rishipattana, Isipatana, Migadaya and even as Sarangnath (meaning Lord of the Deer), it was the last name that got distorted to its present name Sarnath. In close vicinity is the Sarangnath Temple and also a deer park. Ruins of two monasteries — known as No 5 and No 7 on either side of the entrance are known to have been excavated by Major Markham Kittoe in 1851-52. While Monastery No 5 on the right has an open courtyard of 9.15 sq mt, the other on the left has 15.25 sq mts with both having a series of cells. These monasteries are believed to have been destroyed by fire. Moving on further is the Dharmarajika Stupa on the left which has the main shrine. The ruins of the thick walls testify to the fact, that the walls had supported a massive structure.

The Dharmarajika Stupa was pulled down by Jagat Singh’s men in 1793-94 and the material was retrieved for the construction of a market known by his name in Benaras city. Jagat Singh was the Dewan of Raja Chet Singh of Benaras. Little ahead of the main shrine are fragments of the Ashoka pillar which, along with the Lion Capital (subsequently adopted as our national symbol) was excavated by Friedrich Oscar Oertel, a German-born civil engineer in 1904-05. The mighty Mauryan Emperor Ashoka had got this pillar erected when he adopted the edicts of Buddhism following the Kalinga war in which over a lakh people were killed. Struck by remorse, he chose to adopt the path of peace and set about preaching the Buddhist doctrine. Advancing towards the Dhamek Stupa, is a well-manicured lawn that was the site of a monastery (No 6) in the bygone days. The Dhamek Stupa too came up during Emperor Ashoka’s rule and it is believed that Budhha preached his first sermon at this spot. Considered to be a sacred structure, this cylindrical tower with a height of 33.53 meters stands out prominently in the precincts and is used as the logo of Sarnath. On my way back, I stopped by to take a look at the massive standing Buddha statue which is 80 feet tall. Every tourist visiting Varanasi makes it a point to visit this much-revered spot.

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Published 29 April 2023, 19:29 IST

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