I had already been in Varanasi for over a week and was desperately in need for some calm. Don’t get me wrong, but chaotic Benaras wasn’t exactly my kind of place. First the pollution had welcomed me into its grasp and then the incessant and omnipresent noise had created much heartache. In my inimitable style, I had been fighting my way out of trouble when Sarnath happened.
I was staying in a cheap hostel on Assi Ghat and after waking up quite late one morning, it was time to take a shared auto ride to the bus stand. After being confused for some time with no direct buses to Sarnath (at 10-11 am); I got into a bus that left me 3 kms away from Sarnath. Varanasi to Sarnath was only 10 kms. A shared auto took the measly sum of 5 Rupees and dropped me bang on the road in the tranquility of Sarnath.
Places to Visit in Sarnath in a Day
Sarnath Archaelogical Museum
My respite from the searing October heat, Sarnath Archaeological Museum is a modern air-conditioned building. I repeatedly gawked at the legendary collection dating back to ancient times. It is a huge place with numerous galleries. I took more than one hour to explore all the exhibits and it was time well spent.
Photography is not allowed inside the museum and sadly I don’t have any pictures of the wonderful treasures of our rich past.
Sarnath can be called a one lane town and I was feeling very happy wandering without any plan. A young guide tried to show me around for only Rupees 25, I politely declined.
The Tibetan Monastery is just a bit away from the main road and two lions guard the beautifully designed entrance. Inside the monastery compound, a chorten pays tribute to people who died in Tibet’s freedom struggle. Inside the colourful monastery is a huge statue of Sakyamuni Buddha.
After arriving in Sarnath, I spotted a filter water plant and rushed to satiate my thirst. Adjacent was the ticket window where a 20 rupee ticket meant combined entry to the ruins complex, Dhamekh Stupa and Archeological Museum (All maintained by the ASI).
Dhamekh Stupa is believed to have been built in the year 500 CE, and the construction was ordered by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century BC. It was here at Dhamekh Stupa, where the Buddha revealed the eightfold path leading to nirvana and enlightenment. It is set in perfectly manicured gardens and rises around 43m from the ground while the diameter of the monument is a formidable 28m.
Monastery Ruins & Ruins of Dharmarajika Stupa
The colossal collection of ruins including ruins of four monasteries lie in the same compound as Dhamekh Stupa. It was like taking a walk back in time, as the structures date from 3rd Century AD to 12th Century AD.
Dharmarajika Stupa is a place close to where Buddha had delivered his first sermon after being enlightened, but there is hardly anything that remains except a three foot circular platform. The benches installed had couples spending quality time in the quiet surroundings.
I had been fascinated with all things Japanese after reading Pico Iyer’s ‘The Lady and The Monk : Four Seasons in Kyoto, and wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see the Japanese temple in Sarnath. The temple itself looked very cute, with a sloping roof curving up at the eaves that gave it a very serene feel.
Inside the temple, there was a huge wooden statue of the Buddha in a reclining pose. Apparently the statue is made of sandalwood and the aroma was an added charm for me. It felt like the perfect place for meditation and calm.
Mulagandha Kuti Vihar
After having a kulhad of chai, I entered the compound of this fascinating 1931 building. The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara was built by Angarika Dharmapala, who was the founder of Mahabodhi society. This monument was closed for lunch when I first got here, so I walked to see the adjacent Digambar Jain Temple.
The entrance foyer is decorated by a huge bell which was gifted by the Japanese. The interior houses a golden statue of the Buddha while the walls are covered with frescoes depicting scenes from life of the Buddha.
Chinese Buddhist Temple
A short walk from the restaurants of Sarnath lies the yellow coloured Chinese Buddhist Temple set amidst a small garden. Chinese lanterns hang on the walls in very calm and uncluttered surroundings.
This was a lovely and calm place, despite being very close to the main square of Sarnath.
In the same compound as the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, the Bodhi tree in Sarnath is an offshoot of the tree at Bodhgaya in Bihar, under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. The entrance was closed at lunch time and that gave me the opportunity to roam around and also see the Deer Park located behind the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar.
It is said to be the oldest religious tree in the world and there I was amazed to see a huge hanging bell with inscriptions.
After seeing the recommended sights I spotted a signboard written Padma Samye Dharma Chakra Vihar Nyingmapa Buddhist Monastery and took the left turn leading to this place. Little monks-in-training wandered about in yellow attire.
I was very happy with the bright colours on the walls and traditional paintings. The door to the main monastery is intricate surrounded with frescoes. I also spotted a nice looking guest house near the monastery, it may make for an excellent place to stay amid the calm.
This temple was built by Thai dignitaries in 1933; the Thais refer to it as the Wat Thai Temple. I spotted pilgrims in orange robes (presumably Thais) moving around the temple compound and paying their regards.
The outstanding feature of the Thai Monastery is a colossal standing Buddha statue among running fountains with blooming lotus flowers enclosed in a lot of greenery. Although I was very tired by this time, yet the charm of these beautiful sights kept me going.
Garden of Spiritual Wisdom
When I was in Varanasi, I received an email from someone in the Government department to visit the Garden of Spiritual Wisdom. In hindsight, this is my favourite of sights in Sarnath. Plus, it was evening and the sun cast a glow over the Chaukhandi stupa.
The landscaping in the gardens is fascinating and an entire path lined with bonsai took me to an entirely different level on the happiness quotient. It is spread over a large area and Buddhism’s four noble truths and eightfold path were depicted in wonderful sculptures in the Garden of Spiritual Wisdom. I loved the stone sit-outs beneath a big tree, the light was just perfect while birds came and chirped away happily.
It was nearing 4-430 pm and after having walked for the entire day, I was understandably tired. While I didn’t think highly of the views from the main entrance, it was at the Garden of Spiritual Wisdom where I had the chance to appreciate the full glory of Chaukhandi Stupa.
This now-in-ruins structure was originally constructed in the 5th Century AD and marks the spot where Buddha was reunited with his five companions who had previously deserted him at Rajgir. A rectangular plinth on top of the Stupa was built by Akbar in 1589 AD to commemorate his father Humayun’s visit to the site.
Halfway through the day and my sightseeing walk, I had lunch at a small dhaba near Vaishali Restaurant and it turned out to be quite good. This wasn’t all, after visiting the last point of Garden of Spiritual Wisdom I couldn’t find a ride to the main road and had to plod my way. Plumes of smoke and dust greeted me when I reached the main road. A shared auto ride brought me to Varanasi Cantt for only 20 Rupees.
Suddenly, even Varanasi felt better. I had the best time roaming around the ghats and aimless wandering in the narrow lanes after that. I sampled a variety of street food in the timeless lanes of Benaras or Kāshi and totally loved it. Perhaps Sarnath was the catalyst in the change of heart, and mind.
After my experience, I would go as far as to recommend first visiting Sarnath and then making your way to the chaos of Varanasi. Let yourself slowly into the love of Uttar Pradesh.