Monday, July 15, 2024

Tourism      Pilgrim Centers      Buddhist Temples      Uttar Pradesh     Varanasi    


Place : Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Significance : Place where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon
Best Season : May/June
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Sarnath, also know as Mrigadava (deer park), situated 10 kms north east of Varanasi, is one of the holiest places of the Buddhists. It is here that Buddha came, after attaining enlightenment at Bodhgaya and gave his first sermon or preached, 'Maha-Dharma-Chakra Pravartan' (in Buddhist terminology) which literally means, set  the 'wheel of dharma' or law rolling, more than 2,500 years ago. In this sermon, he preached the doctrine of Buddhism, by revealing to the world the middle way (the way of life of a monk on the path to enlightenment) , the four noble truths and his Eight fold path - the path to end sorrow, achieve inner peace, enlightenment and ultimate Nirvana.  

There are different versions to it, but the common belief is that Buddha preached his first sermon to the five ascetics with whom he fasted and meditated for six years before his enlightenment. Even though the ascetics had lost faith in him after Buddha broke his fast or penance which were the order of the day among the ascetics then, when he came to Sarnath to find them they felt impelled to rise and pay him homage. These five ascetics became the first converts to Buddhism and formed the first 'Sangha', for popularising the teaching of the great ascetic, world-wide. Every Buddhist seeks to visit Saranath once in his lifetime. 

Although Sarnath was amongst one of the first Buddhist pilgrimage site to be explored by the British, it was Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist in the early 19th century who was instrumental in the restoration of Sarnath's monuments which was in a state of decay and neglect. Through his writings, speeches and pleadings to wealthy Indians and westerners he raised money not only for the restoration of the site but also for the construction of 'Mulagandhakuti Vihara'- a Buddhist temple (1931) in the Deer Park.

There are a number of twentieth century Buddhist temples in Sarnath, built and maintained by monks from Tibet, China and Japan, but the main attraction is the Deer Park with its ruins of several monuments. On the way to the deer park is the 'Chaukhandi Stupa' the spot where the Buddha met the five ascetics, dating back to the fifth century or earlier. During Emperor Akbar's time, an octagonal tower was built on top of the stupa by his Governor Govardan to commemorate Humayun's visit to the place. Inside the deer park is the 'Dharmekha Stupa' which is believed to be the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon.

It is a cylindrical tower rising over one hundred feet exposed at the top, with the upper portion and the inside composed of Mauryan brick and the outer lower section with large stones decorated with 5th century Gupta reliefs.

Around it lies the ruins of a monastery in all directions. Then there is the 'Dharmarajika Stupa' built by the great Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (273-232 B.C.) later turned devout Buddhist, which is in complete ruins. The stupa was enlarged five times by different empires during different centuries. In the eighteenth century, during the reign of Raja Chet Singh of Benaras the stupa was pulled apart by his Dewan Jagat Singh. Near the stupa stood the smooth glistening  'Ashokan Pillar' unearthed in 1905 topped by the splendid capital of four seated lions facing outwards measures 2.3 m in height and has a bell-shaped base with lotus leaves, a round abacus with an elephant, a horse, a bull, now kept in the Sarnath museum. The lion capital is today the National emblem of India. 

The main shrine (vihara) called the Mulagandakuti dating from the sixth century, is the hut where Buddha used to stay during his visits to Saranath.  There is a carved sandstone railing inside. Then there is the Buddha walk made with blue stones and a small lake at the edge of the park bordered by the zoo.

The more recent 'Mulagandhakuti Vihara' is a 110 feet high tower with a lone image of Buddha inside. Buddhist relics discovered at Taxila are enshrined in this 'vihara'. There are paintings on the walls by Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu. Buddhist services are conducted there. There are Chinese, Burmese and a Jain temples nearby. There is an 'Archeological museum' south east of the Vihara with a rich collection of ancient Buddhist relics including numerous Buddha and Bodhisatva images, images of Hindu Gods, the Ashokan pillar etc open 10 am to 5pm, except on Fridays.

Saranath's annual festival is Buddha Purnima, which commemorates Buddha's birth with colourful fair and procession of his relics held on the full moon of May/June.