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