Heritage · Photography · Travel

Strolling In Sarnath, India.

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.

A stupa is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics (such as śarīra – typically the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) that is used as a place of meditation.

Wikipedia

We had to explore this first!

This was the Chaukhandi Stupa, that looked like a volcano made up of bricks.

A view of the Chaukhandi Stupa in Sarnath, India.
Eye in the sky

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.

A view of the Archeological Excavation Site in Sarnath with the Dhamek stupa and a golden temple spire at a distance.
Walking in sunshine

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)

A close up of the Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath with carving son its wall visible.
Writing on the walls

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.

Buddha statue under a tree with the roof of a Thai temple seen in the background in Sarnath
Green Serene

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.

Strolling in Sarnath with the Dhamek Stupa clearly visible.
A close-up

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

Jo’s Monday Walk

Searching for serenity

17 thoughts on “Strolling In Sarnath, India.

  1. That first stupa is fabulous, Sheetal. I don’t think you can ever fully appreciate these things without seeing them for yourself but I’m very appreciative of your sharing them. I don’t have a walk up this week but you’ll have a spot in the next one. Thanks a lot!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I absolutely agree with what you say of how true appreciation comes from what one sees, Jo. I’ve only studied about these stupas in school and seen grainy pictures in the history textbooks. However, a stupa in person, especially with those staggering proportions and history, is not just awe inspiring but memorable.
      Then of course there was the walk too. One notices more I suppose. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is not often I feel such a lack of knowledge about a subject as I did reading this one Sheetal. Thanks for sharing the history and your sense of awe at seeing these historic places. I hope someday to experience them first-hand. If so, I hope you’ll be my tour guide!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a treat this way to read and a perfect post for our Searching for Serenity challenge prompt. I am so glad you joined in, Sheetal! You are of course very welcome to do so again. Your photos brought back memories of my time in Nepal visiting the Stupas and hearing the incredible history of the region. It is a part of history I didn’t learn at school but rather from my travels. I have followed your blog so am keen to read more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Amanda for your kind words. It was serendipitous that I found your blog. Searching for serenity in a crowded place can be a challenge and yet your words reminded me of my time in Sarnath.
      I was especially happy to know that you are familiar with stupas. So happy to have connected with you.

      Like

  4. I’m glad your blog gives me a chance to ‘see’ places in India that are less well known outside the country. The history here is fascinating and even just in photos I could sense the age of those ancient stones and all they had witnessed. Meanwhile the photo of the Thai temple took me back to our time in Laos a couple of years ago as it’s in a very similar style.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The first thing I did after reading your comment was google Laos. Seriously, the places you’ve traveled to is amazing. I can see how it has a familiar vibe.
      Once again, awesome hearing from you Sarah. Feels good to be an ambassador for my country and showcase its treasures. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is brilliant!
    I remember mugging up all the facts or the fictionalized facts in my history classes, but just memorized the details without understanding. So thanks for the walk… buddhism is an ideology I find really fascinating. Our culture is so rich and vast- so much to explore, keep walking, Sheetal:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah! Mugging up is how we did all the subjects , Manjari. History, perhaps more than the others. That’s why when I see the actual monuments, I’m in awe. The text books never could conjure that feeling in me. In Sarnath, I was in the presence of these time machines that lived through revolutions and are proof that the legends of Ashoka and Buddha were all true.
      Happy you enjoyed the walk as well.

      Like

      1. It’s only natural isn’t it? India has been with my family for close to 200 years, from Chandernagor to Kolkata, to Varanasi to Gwalior to Jowrah to Ujjain to Karachi…
        I still hope I can make it to India before I’m too old… 😉
        And yes Google helps. They almost never send me ads, since they can’t understand what I’m searching… 🤣
        A pleasure ma’maji…

        Liked by 1 person

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