She sat motionless facing the stupa, dwarfed by its giant proportions. The scaffolding encircling the sacred structure, providing a symbolic barrier against the world outside its perimeter. Her stillness and focus was fascinating, and magnified the contrast between this tranquil, spiritual retreat and the seething drama of life and death on the ghats of Varanasi, just ten kilometers South West!
The stupa is empty. Of the relics once held in a casket in its core. And of the golden statues in its niches. But as the lone surviving monument to the first turning of the wheel of Dharma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) its significance is enormous. For here in the deer park of Sarnath (from Saranganath for ‘Lord of the deer’) is where Buddhism began as a religion.
After his awakening in Bodhgaya (in 528 BC. Recent studies have brought forward the timeline to 490 – 410 BC) the Buddha traveled to Sarnath, then known as Isipatana or the land of the Rishis, in search of his five companions with whom he had originally embarked on the quest for truth. They had parted ways in Bodhgaya over a misunderstanding over his acceptance of kheer (rice pudding) from a local girl that they perceived as the abandoning of his ascetic self denial.
Here he revealed to them the ‘Four Noble Truths’, in his first ever sermon as the enlightened one, rejecting the extremes of self indulgence and self denial and opting to choose the middle path. With the ordainment of the five monks, the first Sangha was born. And the foundation laid for a thriving Buddhist city that flourished up until the 12th century
A religion that abolished all rituals, preached action over beliefs, and took power over one’s destiny away from the priesthood, did not go down well with existing patriarchal religions. And persecution was inevitable with the decline of royal patronage due to the rise of predominantly Hindu dynasties. The final blow to Buddhism in India was the ransacking of native religious monuments by invading iconoclastic Moslem rulers, mainly Qutub ud din Aibak in 1134. The buddhists fled to Sri Lanka, China and South East Asia. And Sarnath was abandoned.
Of all the glorious monasteries that once graced this site, the only structure still standing is the Dhamek Stupa, measuring 31.3 meters tall and 28.3 meters wide. It is believed to have been built by emperor Ashoka to mark the spot where the first sermon was held. In 1784 workers scavenging for bricks for Jagat Singh, the Raja of Benaras, stumbled upon the stupa and the caskets containing a few charred bones and some precious stones, pearls and gold leaf inside its core shaft.
There is no record of what happened to the inner green marble casket and its contents. Some accounts claim they were handed over to a Mr Duncan by the workers who found them. Others, that they were just dumped into the Ganges! But the outer casket was left in place and was re-discovered by Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1834 and now resides in the Calcutta Museum (sadly closed for renovations during our visit). Many excavations since, have unearthed evidence of the flourishing city glorified by the Chinese monk and traveler Hsuan-Tsang whose extensive chronicles form the basis for much of the lost history of South and South East Asia!
The small site museum in Sarnath houses many treasures from the digs, an exquisite 5th century Gupta style Buddha among them. The star attraction however is the 2300 year old Lion Capital from Ashoka’s famed pillar that once stood in front of the Dhamek Stupa. Ironically this Buddhist sculpture depicting the doctrine of a religion that never took hold in the land of its birth, is the national symbol of that land! And the wheel of the Dhamma set in motion here in Sarnath, now graces its flag.