Soon after finding enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, Siddhartha walked about two hundred miles northeast to the big city of Banaras in search of his old friends. It was with these five yogis back in Bodh Gaya that Siddhartha had been striving to crack the code of suffering in search of ultimate awareness. After having wasted away from fasting and other ascetic practices, Siddhartha shocked his colleagues by taking food and declining further self-mortification. Determined, yet disheartened, and finally alone, he sat under a bodhi tree, and the rest is Buddhist history.
Banaras, also known as Kashi and now Varanasi, is, as Mark Twain once wrote of it, “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Striking and picturesque as it sprawls along a crescent of the sacred river Ganges, it is thought to be the oldest living city on Earth. What the Buddha saw from the east bank of the river as he approached the ferry to the city side, we still see today: men in loincloths and women in multicolored saris are taking ritual baths, praying to Lord Shiva, doing laundry, and cremating the dead on the crumbling city ghats—ancient stairways that descend into the sacred river. On Banaras’s rural bank to the east, kept free of buildings throughout history, farmers still use oxen to plow their emerald fields, and half-naked children play outside huts caked with dung.
When Siddhartha arrived, the northwestern boundary of the city abruptly stopped around Gai Ghat and the Anandavana, or Forest of Bliss, began. Near the “new” Malviya Bridge, spanning the river since 1887, this greenbelt was the most famous gathering place in India for gurus and their disciples. It may have been where the new Buddha first searched for his friends but evidently with little luck. After bathing in the Ganges and begging a bowl of food, the Buddha walked six miles north through verdant farmland to Sarnath, to another known gathering place of yogis, the Rishipatana Mrigadava, or Deer Park.
Today’s thirty-minute trip from the old city of Banaras to the tall shade trees of peaceful suburban Sarnath is through an almost continuous urban sprawl teeming with storefronts and choked with cows, buses, and auto-rickshaws. As you enter Sarnath, the first visible landmark is a high mound, the remains of a fourth-century brick stupa called Chaukhandi. Easily recognized by the octagonal tower that the Mughals added to the top in 1588, the monument is said to mark the spot where the Buddha first encountered his five companions.
Just up the road the imposing Dhamekh Stupa comes into view, a solid cylindrical tower 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter, finely carved in geometrical and floral patterns. In 1833, the view of this stupa, then partially obscured by thick trees and knee-high grasses, magnetized a young Englishman named Alexander Cunningham, who had come to India to make his fortune as an archaeologist. Told by locals that it was a tomb of some rajah or prince from the distant past, Cunningham was intrigued and sank a shaft from the top of the stupa to the foundation. He didn’t find any burial finery, only a stone with an ancient Brahmi inscription that his friend and fellow researcher James Princep translated as “homage to the Buddha.”
About ten years later, the historical accounts of two Chinese monks who had traveled to India were first published in English. Fa Xian and Xuanzang had pinpointed all the significant Buddhist sites in India in the fourth and seventh centuries, respectively. Armed with their accounts, Cunningham proceeded to uncover and identify most of India’s major Buddhist monuments including the Dhamekh Stupa built in the fifth century on a spot previously occupied by older shrines. Dhamekh, perhaps short for Dhammekkha, or “beholding the Dharma,” may have marked the place where the Buddha shared his insights with his friends and delivered his first sermon.
In any case, we know that somewhere in Deer Park—now an official Indian archaeological site for which you need a ticket of admission—the Buddha gathered his friends. He explained that the fatigue and discomfort caused by their self-mortifying practices renders one unable to understand ordinary life, let alone the truth that lies beyond the senses. Instead, the Buddha proposed the “Middle Way,” between the extremes of mortification and self-indulgence, as the surest path to enlightenment. He convincingly described his experience of recognizing the Four Noble Truths and mapped the Eightfold Path for them. The five ascetics promptly became the Buddha’s first disciples, and the Sangha here began.
Before long, this group of five was joined by Yasa, the troubled son of a wealthy Banaras merchant, who encountered the Buddha and after a brief conversation immediately took refuge. Seeing his son so happy, Yasa’s father became the first lay follower and Yasa’s mother and wife the first lay women disciples. Four young friends of Yasa’s soon joined the family, becoming monks, followed by fifty more.
At this point, the Buddha suggested the group spread the dharma by splitting up and traveling in different directions. Still the Buddha returned to Deer Park during the next rainy season and many times later. Thanks in part to the favor of kings and wealthy Banaras merchants, a Buddhist monastic tradition flourished here for the next fifteen hundred years until Turkish Muslims sacked Sarnath in the eleventh century.
The archaeological park also contains the remains of smaller stupas, shrines, and five partially excavated monasteries. There are gardens, a pen for live deer, and the ruins of the third-century Dharmarajika Stupa with an inscribed pillar built by King Ashoka to celebrate the birth of Buddhist teachings. Unfortunately, forty-one years before Cunningham arrived, an officer of the Maharaja of Banaras cannibalized the stupa for its bricks and tossed its relics (probably bones of the Buddha) into the Ganges. Cunningham found only an empty casket.
Bordering the park is the Maha Bodhi Society’s Mulagandhakuti Temple, an impressive building decorated with scenes from the Buddha’s life and housing relics of the Buddha. The temple was constructed in 1931 by Anagarika Dhammapala, a Sri Lankan monk who was instrumental in preserving Buddhist monuments in India, and it offers chanting every evening at six o’clock. Also in the vicinity are Burmese, Chinese, Thai, and Tibetan temples.
During the Gupta period (fourth to sixth century C.E.), Sarnath became a major center of sculptural art, and just opposite the park entrance is a spectacular museum containing important Buddhist art and statuary from this time. Among the many treasures found here is the famous lion capital (the emblem of the modern Indian state) from the Ashokan column across the street, as well as the sublime fifth-century statue of the teaching Buddha known as the Sarnath Buddha.
More than just a window to the past, today’s Sarnath is once again a thriving center of Buddhist study. The Maha Bodhi Society, located just outside the park, possesses an excellent library of Buddhist literature open to the public, and a short walk from the park is the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies an accredited university with over three hundred students under the direction of Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the president of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile. The institute’s library has rare manuscripts and over eighty-five thousand titles on microfilm. Noted Tibetan scholar Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche offers an annual seminar in English at Sarnath’s Vajra Vidya Institute, and author Christopher Titmuss teaches a popular program with meditation and dharma talks every February in various locations. Thus, the wheel of dharma that Shakyamuni Buddha first turned continues to revolve in Sarnath.
Contributing editor Allan Hunt Badiner is the editor, most recently, of Mindfulness in the Marketplace: Compassionate Responses to Consumerism.
The best time to visit Sarnath is from October to March.
Sarnath is served by a major airport in Varanasi with direct flights from Kathmandu, Delhi, Agra, and Mumbai. Varanasi railway station is also well connected to major cities and is en route to or from Bodh Gaya. Sarnath is twenty minutes from Varanasi by taxi or tourist bus.
No hotels exist in Sarnath, although pilgrim-style lodgings are available at the Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, the Vajra Vidya Institute, and some of the temples from other Asian countries. The cantonment area of Banaras has several Western-style luxury hotels, most notably the Taj Ganges, Hotel Clarks, and a Raddison.
Taj Ganges www.tajhotels.com Nadesar Palace Grounds, Varanasi Tel.: +91-542-2503001 Fax: +91-542-2502724, 2344227, 2344291 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hotel Clarks www.clarkshotels.com The Mall, Varanasi Tel.: +91-542-2501011-20 Fax: +91-542-2502736 Email: email@example.com
Radisson Varanasi www.radisson.com The Mall, Varanasi Tel.: +91-542-2501515 Fax: +91-542-2501516 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visitors can also stay in a comfortable hotel right on the Ganges River, the Palace on Ganges. A guesthouse next door, Ganga View, offers wonderful meals and cultural programs.
Palace on Ganges www.palaceonganges.com B-1/158, Assi Ghat, Varanasi Tel.: +91-542-2315050, 2314304, 2314305 Fax: +91-542-2204898, 2314306 Email: email@example.com
Ganga View Guesthouse B-1/163, Assi Ghat, Varanasi Tel.: +91-542-2313218 Fax: +91-542-2369695