Sarnath was never on top of my list of places to visit. I was mildly curious though. Gautam Buddha had preached his first sermon there and it was home to the Ashoka Lion Capital (India’s national emblem).
Honestly, I had no idea what I would see other than perhaps it would be a huge thing on the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit. A cursory Google search described Sarnath as ‘a one street town’. After Varanasi’s chaotic energy, I was ready for some quiet time. As for a guide, I had the mighty powers of internet at my fingertips.
Hubby and I drove from Varanasi to Sarnath, just 10 kilometres away. Barely did we reach the town that we came to a screeching halt. I had spotted my first stupa, towering rather majestically, by the side of road.
We had to explore this first!
This was the Chaukhandi Stupa, that looked like a volcano made up of bricks.
The octagonal shaped dome on the top was added during the Mughal era to mark Humayun’s visit to this place.
It boggled my mind to think how old it was. Wikipedia says, 4 or 5 century.
The guards at the site were chatty. They were impressed that I could name the Mughal line of succession from Babur to Aurangzeb without a hiccup. Thank you Ms Naithani for being such a fine teacher. Anyway, they assured me that the main tourist sites- the Sarnath Archaeological Museum and the main stupa (different from this one) were just a stone’s throw away.
Gung-ho, we set off on foot. Soon enough we realised our destination wasn’t exactly a stone’s throw away.
Hot and bothered walking along a busy road, we found ourselves at a plaza that was dotted with a few cars, souvenir kiosks and people. After meandering a bit, we were directed to a ticket counter. A single ticket included both the museum and an archaeological excavation site, next door. I suppose much of the items excavated at the site found their way into the museum.
Luckily I was prepared for the next thanks to my research. We had to deposit our phones and bags in lockers available at the museum entry check point. The no mobile photography rule was strictly enforced at the museum.
My favourite was the original Ashoka Lion Capital.
Last time I wrote about Ashoka was the discovery of his edict in Kalsi, a boulder with a cryptic message that had far reaching effects. This time we are talking about India’s national symbol of the four lions standing back to each other on a lotus.
Trust me, no photo has done justice to this magnificent sculpture. It gleamed as though it had been polished recently and the carving details were stunning. Also, it was much bigger than I had imagined. The cherry on the cake, the capital dated back to 250 BCE. Talk about surviving the ravages of time.
Anyone visiting Varanasi, please do not miss the Sarnath museum. Do check its timings and avoid Friday. It is closed that day.
Once out, we collected our phones and bags and made our way to the Archaeological Excavation Site across the road.
Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.Thich Nhat Hanh
The site was a lovely surprise. In spite of the name, I didn’t see any signs of digging. It was sprawling. The ruins were well maintained with the paths marked.
We located the pillar on which the lion capital had rested. It was in pieces and encased in a glass box. The historical aspect alone made it a popular selfie point for the tourists.
The main stupa, the Dhamek Stupa was easy to find. It dominated the landscape by its sheer size. (It’s present in the previous photo at a distance. Below is a close-up)
This stupa marked the spot where Buddha revealed his Eight fold paths leading to nirvana.
My mind buzzed with the thought, I was walking in the footsteps of a legend.
By the time we left the site, the plaza had transformed into a traffic mess. The sun was high, the place was packed with cars and many more kiosks than I had earlier noticed. You bet, Hubby gave a sigh of relief that we had walked all the way here.
Walking back, we stopped at a Thai Temple. No tickets were required and as expected, it was crawling with tourists. An enormous standing Buddha was everyone’s favourite.
Still, there was no denying the serenity the place evoked with its lotus ponds and green lawns.
Google mentioned a few more temples and monasteries. I couldn’t find any on that road. That’s when it dawned. Sarnath was actually two streets town!
So off we went to explore the second axis. We saw a few monasteries. They appeared to be closed. An army of guides and car attendants actually sprang from nowhere outside a Japanese Temple. That had us beating a hasty retreat. Still I had a good look from afar.
I’ll take that as a win.
“In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.”Anthony Bourdain