Sarnath

It’s mid February 2008, and I am in Sarnath.

Formerly a deer park, Sarnath lies 10km outside Varanasi and is the place where the Buddha came after his enlightenment at Bodhgaya, to seek out his former companions who were living there in huts and give his first sermon, on the turning of the Wheel of Dharma. This comprises the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and the Middle Way.

This altar is still used by pilgrims for pujas – not just Buddhists, but also Jains, for whom Sarnath is also sacred.

A monastic tradition flourished at Sarnath for over 1500 years after the Buddha. Many monasteries and two great stupas were built, which survived until the end of the 12th century when they were destroyed during the Muslim invasions and not rediscovered until 1834 by a British archaeological team. Amongst these ruins were a stone column 15.25m high with four lions as its capital, erected by the emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism after witnessing the terrible carnage of a war he had unleashed in the 3rd century BC. This capital was adopted as the symbol of the modern Indian republic.

The Dhamekh Stupa. Built in the sixth century, this solid cylindrical tower, 33m high, consists of a stone base with the upper part made of brick, and was virtually the only building to survive the Islamic destruction, perhaps because of its sheer size and bulk. It marks the spot where the Buddha supposedly gave his first sermon. The five former companions, who became his first disciples on hearing him speak, had deserted him when he gave up his ascetic vows. On achieving enlightenment, he determined to follow the ‘Middle Way’, avoiding both luxuries and asceticism. This is the basis of its appeal to me personally – nothing to do with religion, but a sensible lifestyle avoiding extremes, with kindness at its heart. A philosophy of life.

Delicate carvings on the base of the Damekh Stupa.

Just outside the Deer park, there are a number of modern Buddhist monasteries, attracted to the site because of its history. This particular spot was a beautiful peaceful place, but I can’t remember exactly where it was! I think it was outside the Japanese Temple…

Inside the Dharmachakra Japanese monastery

Mulagandhakuti Vihara built by the Mahabodhi Society in 1931

Just Look at Ghat!

Ouch! Probably my worst title yet!

I can’t help it…I’ve not been well…

…well, only a cold, but you know what we men are like.

In another attempt to feel instantly better, I’ve nipped across to North India (only in my imagination, unfortunately), to picture Kedar Ghat, on the banks of the Ganges, in Varanasi.

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Ghats, a Hindi word, are sets of steps leading down to a river (and also mountain ranges or passes – The eastern and Western Ghats in Central India). It has also come to mean a level place at the edge of a river where Hindus cremate their dead.

In Varanasi, there are between 84 and 87 ghats, depending upon who you get this information from,. The Manikarnika Ghat, or Ghats (possibly this is the origin of the confusion over the number) is the ‘burning ghat’, where cremations are carried out 24 hours a day, all through the year. The source fire there has supposedly been burning for thousands of years, but photography is actively discouraged, hence my only shot is one taken from a distance.

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Of course, the ghats are also used for bathing. Hindus bathe en masse there, as a dip in the Ganges is meant to wash away sins. Important pujas (ceremonies) take place at sunrise and sunset. Boat trips to view the ghats are very popular, and finally much of the city’s laundry gets done at the dhobi ghats (dhobi meaning laundry).

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Namaste!

Varanasi and Sarnath

The city of Varanasi is probably the most important place in India to Hindus, whilst the ruins of Sarnath, some 10km away, mark the remains of a site of great importance to Buddhists. I stayed there for three days, some 8 years ago.
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Dasaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi. Taken from the top of the steps (ghats). The River Ganges is the holiest river to Hindus, and Varanasi is the one of the holiest cities. Previously named Benares (and often so still called) and Kashi (City of Life), it is visited by Hindus in their millions who come to bathe in the Ganges to purify their souls. In a final journey, many are cremated here and their ashes cast into the river, believing that this will help to achieve liberation from rebirth.

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The river Ganges from Dasaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi.

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Stalls on the ghats at Varanasi. Varanasi never seems less than vibrant and colourful.

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And another stall near the ghats.

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Down at the ghats I was trailed by this cheerful young rogue demanding money to have his photo taken or to show me the sights or sell me souvenirs or lead me to stalls where I could purchase to my heart’s content or…whatever.

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Street scene in Varanasi. The church in the middle distance is Saint Thomas’. This was taken quite early in the morning when I was on my way to the ghats. Early afternoon as I was returning, it was packed solid, traffic completely unable to move.

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10km outside Varanasi lie the ruins of Sarnath. After the Buddha had achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya, he came to Sarnarth – a walk of some 250kms or so, through what would have been highly dangerous country then – to seek out his former companions and in the Deer Park there he gave his first sermon, on the turning of the wheel of law. This comprises the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and the Middle Way. In the 3rd century BC, the emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism after witnessing the terrible carnage of a war he had unleashed, built stupas and monasteries here as well as an engraved pillar. These survived until the end of the 12th century when they were destroyed during the Muslim invasions and not rediscovered until 1834 by a British archaeological team.

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This altar stone in the ruins of Sarnath) is still being used by pilgrims for pujas.

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Dhamekh Stupa at Sarnath . This solid cylindrical tower, 33m in height, supposedly marks the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon. The base is stone, covered in delicate carvings, and the upper part brick.

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Carvings adorning the base of the Dhamekh Stupa.