advertisement

After gaining enlightenment, Sarnath is where Buddha gave his first sermon some 2,500 years ago, and continued to return with followers. For many centuries after this, it was renowned as a Buddhist center of learning, housing some 3,000 monks, but successive Muslim invasions and later lootings destroyed the monasteries and much of the art. Today it still attracts many pilgrims, but -- unless you're very familiar with Buddha's personal history or are an archaeologist -- the site itself is nowhere near as inspiring as his teachings, and you're likely to experience it all as nothing more than a boring pile of bricks. The most impressive sight is Dhamekh Stupa, if only for its sheer age. Built around A.D. 500, with a massive girth, it still towers 31m (102 ft.) into the air and is said to mark the very spot where Buddha revealed his Eightfold Path leading to nirvana. The ruins of Dharmarajika Stupa lie immediately north of the entrance. Beyond is the Ashokan Pillar -- the stupa is said to have been one of 28 built by Ashoka, the 3rd century B.C. Mauryan king and bloodthirsty warrior who was to become one of the most passionate converts to Buddhism. Beyond these are the ruins of monasteries. Across the road from the entrance to the main site is Sarnath Archaeological Museum, where you can view the four-headed lion that once topped the Ashoka Pillar; created in the 3rd century B.C., it's made from sandstone, polished to look like marble. The lion capital, with the wheel beneath representing Buddha's "wheel of dharma," is today a national emblem for India, found on all currency notes and official government documents. East of the Dhamek Stupa is Mulagandha Kuti (main temple), which houses an image of Buddha (ironically enough, against his wishes, images of Buddha abounded after his death). The walls contain frescoes pertaining to his life history -- a good crash course for the novice if accompanied by a guide. You can also visit the peaceful Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, a lovely, bright space with display cases filled with hundreds of miniature Buddhas.