Although Buddha got Enlightenment in Bodh Gaya it was only in Sarnath that he delivered his first sermon. It was he laid the foundations of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, among others.
Like in Bodh Gaya there is quite a foreign presence at Sarnath. I first visit a Thai temple. They are busy building a huge standing Buddha. The head of the Buddha is installed separately but I assume this will be finally placed on the statue. Both are under scaffolding and workers are busy. The garden around the temple is not complete and work is ongoing. The Thais are also helping local community. I notice a school and a children’s park.
The Mahabodhi Society of India has a temple of its own. It enshrines some important relics of the Buddha that were discovered by the British in Takshila and presented to the Society. The details are unclear to me. The beautiful thing about this temple are wall paintings on the inside. They depict events associated with the Buddha and they are painted in the style of Ajanta cave paintings. The artist has handled colour very well to suit the mood. The expressions are wonderfully painted. Some of the scenes that are to be seen here are – birth of the Buddha, leaving his wife and child in the palace, discourse at Sarnath identified by the deer park. Another wonderful scene is Buddha’s first spiritual experience meditating under a tree while a field is being ploughed.
Among the ruins of Sarnath I visited two beautiful stupas:
- Dhamekh Stupa – a popular place for pilgrims and tourists. It is set in a large park with some beautiful flower beds. There is an Ashoka pillar here in surviving fragments. I quite liked the many tiny brick mouldings among the ruins, many of which are hidden between plain bricks.
- Chaukhandi Stupa – it is topped by an octogonal structure which is of a much later date. This was the first thing I saw at Sarnath. The morning sun threw harsh shadows. The play of these shadows and brightly lit brick exposed slopes brought of the form of the stupa beautifully. I made a sketch of this stupa.
Every place has many things to see and admire, but only a handful of things may be remembered. Among these it is often difficult to find one thing that is inspiring or worth visiting again. In Sarnath Museum there is one piece that deserves such a status. I loved it the moment I saw it. I am not taking about the world famous Lion Capital of the 3rd century BC which greets you as you enter the museum. Four lions face in four cardinal directions without fear. On the abacus are four animals – elephant, bull, horse and lion proclaiming the word of Buddhism in four directions. These animals are separated by dharma wheels. The capital originally had a dharma wheel on top with 32 spokes. So where does the 24 wheels of India’s National Flag come from? That comes from the wheels of the abacus. The disc below the abacus is plain and not the twisted rope motif I had expected.
There are other worthy exhibits in the museum but the piece that took my breath away was the seated Buddha in dharmachakra pravartana mudra of the Gupta Period. Although the nose is half-broken, the piece is still beautiful, more than that quite sublime. The Buddha sits with such calm poise and assurance that you can feel nothing in this world can ever trouble him. The halo around him is beautiful with floral motifs and attendants bearing garlands. The pedestal is carved with a dharma wheel, woman-child pair and five disciples. Ultimately it is the face, the smile and the compassionate gaze of the Buddha that you admire for what seems like hours.