Sarnath – Where The Wheel Of Dharma Was Set In Motion

She sat motionless facing the stupa, dwarfed by its gigantic proportions. The scaffolding encircling the sacred structure providing a symbolic barrier against the world outside its perimeter.

Her stillness and focus was fascinating. It 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.

Dhamek Stupa Sarnath

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. The first Sangha was born with the ordainment of the five monks 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. 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 Muslim rulers, mainly Qutub ud din Aibak in 1134. The buddhists fled to Sri Lanka, China and South East Asia. And Sarnath was abandoned.

Dhamek Stupa - Sarnath

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 remarkable 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.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

75 thoughts on “Sarnath – Where The Wheel Of Dharma Was Set In Motion

  1. Before reading about it, I felt there was something very unique about it! Beautiful tour, Madhu to this spiritually [and aesthetically] significant place. Excellent shots, especially the “Meditating beneath the Dhamek Stupa” photo. 🙂

  2. What a beautiful and informative post as usual Madhu! Stunning shots! Thanks so much for sharing. 😀

  3. I always like seeing buildings being renovated and cleaned. These places are a part of our history and it is always sad to see them crumbling.

  4. My first thought was that I hope those remains weren’t dumped in the Ganges but then – maybe that’s absolutely perfect, what do you think Madhu?

  5. As I sat and read this post, and looked at the photos, I could almost feel the tranquility of this place, and the spiritual peace here. Wonderful post, Madhu.

    1. I am not sure if I was influenced by its history, but this place exudes incredible serenity. Thanks Angeline.

  6. Oh, beautiful, Madhu! The two shots in the slideshow of the stupa from a distance are my favorite. I had this little flash with the closer shot of it in it’s entirety (the the young girl in the foreground?) of the weight of time and the marvel it exists at all. Of course, too, I wanted to touch it! 🙂

    1. The powerful reactions that bare stupa elicits after all these centuries is just amazing Riba! Glad I could convey some of it.

  7. “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”

    That is not surprising as many mainstream religions have morphed into institutions for temporal wealth and power for a select few.

    I enjoyed the little history wrap up – always a rewarding visit to your photo galleries.

    1. The history of organised religion isn’t very pretty is it? 🙂 Thank you for your thoughtful comment Eric.

  8. I love not only the history that you share with us but the emotional connection you have with a place as well. This post had me thinking back to when I first read the story of Buddha and how in awe I was. Wonderfully written Madhu!

    1. I decided early on that this blog wouldn’t be about travel resources, but about my perceptions of the places I visit. And your comment makes me believe that was the right decision 🙂 Thank you LuAnn.

  9. Fascinating history, Madhu. Just imagine if that beautiful green marble casket should eventually come to light after all this time. Stranger things have happened. Thanks for sharing your photos. You’ve certainly visited some very interesting places. 🙂

    1. I know, anything is possible! Sarnath was next door to Varanasi, so it was easily doable as a daytrip. Thank you Sylvia.

  10. thanks for this serene post Madhu, and the history as always … I was thinking about stupas and wats myself, all those I have visited over the years, and now I can share this precious one too 🙂

  11. Wonderful photos.Wonderfully informative post. Wonderful photos. I especially like the one with the young girl in the foreground. Juxtaposition of young and (very) old. I so enjoy traveling along with you, Madhu!

  12. 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
    Amazing and very nice pictures. The girl in the fore ground is very significant and speaks volumes of your thoutfulness while taking pictures.

  13. Fascinating details, Madhu. And the carving on the stupa is exquisite 🙂
    I’ve lost track of where you are in your current ‘adventure’ but no doubt the pictures will tell the story.

    1. 🙂 At this very moment, in the middle of a jungle tracking elusive cats!!! Connectivity isn’t strong enough to upload a post….back tomorrow with pics.

  14. Wow! What an incredibly interesting history of Buddhism. I read through your post twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything…and the photographs are wonderful! (Hope you’ve made it out of the jungle!)

    1. He, he, catching up with my comments backwards as you can see!! 🙂 Delighted that you found this interesting Elisa.

  15. I love the photo with the little girl in the foreground. It’s really sad that there are such scant remnants of Buddhism in its country of origin.

    1. It is. And here is little information about why the decline was so sudden. Sarnath has piqued my interest in the other three Budhist pilgriage sites. Thanks Kan.

  16. Loving the details – the designs, the carvings, the arts. You gave us a sense of how it was way back then. It’s hard to imagine all the visions these remarkable people had creating, adjoining and debating on some of their beliefs and ways to build a certain foundation, be it tangible or something spiritual.

    1. Amazing isn’t it Rommel? Sometimes when I read up on the history of these places I wonder what we are contributing to our children’s future, apart from destroying their legacies!

      1. Hardly anything I would say. This post both in narrative and photos is mind-blowing. Thank you for another lesson.

  17. I was so looking forward to seeing this first hand, but had to drop Sarnath at the last minute. (got sick) Your narration and photos capture the essence of this place.What really strikes me is how close the birth of this religion is to Varanisi, just as significant of a place in its own right. I echo Rommel’s comment.

    1. Oh no, I hope it wasn’t too bad Lynne.
      Yes the proximity of Sarnath to Varanasi is significant. But they were all high caste Hindus to begin with. The threat of a new and evolved religion would only have been perceived after it gained popular acceptance.

  18. Wow, what a fantastic post – some research and afford going into all this information. Magnificent photos as always – thanks for bringing your real world and culture to me. *smile

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