Published: January 30th 2007January 11th 2007
The modern Mulagandhakuti shrine was completed in 1931 by Anagarika Dharmapala.
Apart from a handful of minibuses and the big autorickshaws that could accommodate a dozen passengers (and long distance trains, of course), public transport is scarce between Varanasi and Saranath. But the wary traveller doesn’t need a route map on the road to Saranath. Houses, shops, gates, billboards…everything features a familiar leitmotif - Ashoka Chakra, the wheel with 24 spokes.
Ashoka Chakra, the motif on the Indian tricolour, and Ashoka Stupa, the national emblem, come from the excavated monastery complex of Saranath. The stupas (columns) and sculptures patronized by Ashoka, the Mauryan emperor-turned-Buddhist monk, are the prized possessions in the archeological museum. Here you can see the fourth lion, hidden behind its three companions stamped on all coins and national insignia.
Centuries before the formation of the Indian republic and decades before the Mauryan empire, an enlightened monk, later known as the Buddha, walked into the woods of Saranath. Here he preached his wisdom to five ascetics who had earlier parted ways with him. The sages became the first Buddhists. Saranath was the launching pad for the first order of the monks, the Sangha. Today, it’s an unavoidable stop on the monks’ route.
Saranath is still a monastery
Way of the word
Dhamma Chakka Pavattana Sutta: The Buddha set in motion the wheel of law in Saranath.
centre. Buddhist and Jain monasteries and dharmasalas lead the way to the main temples and the archeological site and museum. Curio shops and eateries wait for the pilgrim-tourist. Predictably, local self-made guides stalk the independent traveller. They compete with their well-to-do counterparts attached to tour operators, in spreading misinformation on Buddhist course and discourse.
The first stop is an imposing Buddhist shrine - the modern Mulagandhakuti inaugurated in 1931. Anagarika Dharmapala, a Sri Lankan national who founded the Mahabodhi Society, bought the land where the Buddha is believed to have preached to the five ascetics, with Rs 2000, donated by Raja Bhinga of Benaras in 1904. Contributions poured in from across the world. Dharmapala died at Saranath after seeing the completed shrine.
The shrine became a revered centre after the British handed over the relics unearthed by John Marshal from Takshashila in Pakistan Punjab in 1913-14. A silver scroll dated AD 79 found with the silver casket, said it were the relics of the Blessed One. On the full moon day of every November, the relics are taken out in procession when a multitude of monks will be in attendance to witness and worship it.
Circle of faith
Tibetan monks go in endless circles around Dhammeka Stupa, a massive stone tower, in the archeological site.
of the shrine feature important scenes from the life of Gautama Buddha as painted by Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu. In the courtyard, Dhamma Chakka Pavattana Sutta, the first sermon of the Buddha, originally in Pali, is engraved in many languages on granite slabs. Kings, presidents and the rich have engrained the sacred words in their languages. White kerchiefs and coloured prayer bills are festooned in the sanctuary.
“Evam Me Sutam (Thus I have heard),” begins the sermon in reported speech. Tathagata, enlightened after his meditation in Bodh Gaya, reached the deer park in Isipatna, the former name of Saranath. He told the five ascetics: “And what, O bhikkus, is that middle path found out by Tathagata, which giveth vision, which giveth knowledge, which tends to peace, higher wisdom, enlightenment and Nibbana?
“It is this very Noble Eight-Fold Path namely: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” He condemned the pleasures of senses, “which is low, vulgar, worldly, unworthy and harmful” and self-mortification, “which is painful, unworthy and harmful”. The prince who wanted to know and conquer suffering had set the Dhamma Chakka (wheel of law) in motion.
Existence vs Enlightenment
Buddha's wisdom and Ashoka's wonders mean existence rather than enlightenment for these workers employed by the Archeological Survey of India.
peepul tree with a remarkable autobiography stands in the sanctuary. The tree has a genealogy that goes back to the famed tree in Bodh Gaya, where Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the enlightened. Years later, emperor Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra carried with her a branch of the bodhi tree to Sri Lanka. The branch spread its roots in Lanka, like Buddhism itself. The present tree in Saranath is an offspring of the tree in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.
Lounging tourists and meditating pilgrims dot the vast lawn. Lovers too set the wheel in motion. Deer are still here. So are the dogs. In the street, curio shops offer genuine Chinese artifacts and local handicrafts. Tourists from across the globe, in organised contingents, are out to explore the esoteric strains of Buddhism. A few of them resist the curious children to try a hand at meditation as their guides gang up to crack jokes.
The Dhammeka Stupa acts as a signpost even before you enter the site being excavated by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). The 140-foot-high cylindrical tower is the only monument from the Maurya-Gupta period, which has not been razed by armies and time. Though the massive brick structure has not yielded any archeological evidence, monks believe that the tower has Buddha’s teeth inside it. They go in circles around the tower in meditation until a guard intervenes at sunset.
On the western side of the site, once stood the magnificent Ashoka Stupa, the most famous of the thousands of pillars, statues and shrines commissioned by Ashoka. The emperor who embraced Buddhism after the massacre at Kalinga, engraved Buddha teachings on stone pillars across his empire. Buddhism flourished under his patronage. Then religious bigotry and internal schism got the better of it.
The massive monastery complex at Saranath was unearthed by a series of excavations in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Ashoka Stupa, discovered in 1904, is now a fragmented column. The lion capital, which lives on as India’s national emblem, is displayed in the ASI museum across the road. Many statues, maimed and mutilated, were recovered from the site. They are now housed in museums in Saranath and Kolkata.
Tibetan monks are Japanese tourists bow before the Dhammeka Stupa as the sun goes down. They have already covered Lumbini in Nepal, where Goutama the prince was born, and Bodh Gaya, where Gautama the ascetic meditated. Their journey is not over until they have visited Kusinagara near the Nepal border, where Gautama Buddha breathed his last. Saranath is a milestone on the Buddha path.
Labourers are busy renovating the crumbled shrines and monasteries built by Ashoka and his successors. The supervisor threatens them with a cut in the wage. For these villagers, shaping stones and fixing fissures, the archeological marvels of Saranath ensure existence rather than enlightenment. Pilgrims and tourists move on, insulated to the suffering, like the Shakya Prince imprisoned in luxury before he set out to become the Buddha.