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Sarnath Turning the Wheels of Life

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The holy Dhamekh Stupa which casts its benevolent shadow across the green lawns of Deer Park in Sarnath, 10 km from the temple town of Varanasi has two distinct sections: a base comprising engraved stone and the layer above it which is of brick. A comforting sense of all pervading peace blankets the park where the Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment while sitting under a peepal tree in Budghaya, 273 km away.

In fact, Sarnath is considered to be one of the four most holy places on the Buddhist pilgrim circuit as it was here that the Buddha set the Wheel of Life in motion. (The other three are in Lumbini in Nepal where he was born; Bodhgaya where the final transformation of Prince Siddhartha to the Buddha the Enlightened One took place and Kushinagar where he surrendered his mortal body and attained Maha Pari Nirvana).

After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha thought it only fitting that he share his new knowledge with the five sages who had accompanied him through the six years of fasting and meditation before they parted ways on the sandy banks of a river just outside Bodhgaya. Divine inspiration let him know that they had moved to Sarnath and so he followed them there. And it was in a little forest clearing, what is know as The Deer Park today, he preached the first of the many sermons he would over the remaining course of his life. It was here that the five sages became his first disciples. Today the park is dusted with the excavated ruins of an ancient monastery, a towering stupa and the broken stumps of an Ashoka Pillar – the crown of three lions is preserved in amazingly good condition with other Buddhist relics, artefacts, sculptures and paintings in the archaeological museum across the road. A few monks in orange robes spinning prayer wheels mingle with the handful of pilgrims and tourists who stroll through these grounds.

As you stand in silent meditation before the stupa, reach out and touched one of its sun-baked stones: a flash of searing heat, like an electric current, sizzles the palm of your hand. It is as though the Buddha is reaching out through the ages and transmitting his message of understanding, love and commitment to doing a given task without being motivated by desire. It is a profound yet simple message and one that is so hard to adhere to as human failings and wants tug at us from every direction. You draw your hand away, reassured by the comforting knowledge that you are not being judged; just directed.

Later walk around the larger than life stature of the Buddha and the five sages at the far end of the park. Right next to is the Sri Lankan temple where a golden Buddha is enshrined. The temple walls are covered with frescos of the significant moments of the Buddha’s life and the many miracles that are attributed to him.

No visit to Sarnath is quite complete without dropping in at Varanasi just 10 km away. And as you enter the pilgrim town the peace and calm that you had experienced at the Deer Park may seem to have happened eons ago as the temple town greets you with a chorus of temple bells, conch shells and mantras… Though very different in mood and character, the two towns are deemed to be one of the most sacred by followers of their respective religions: Hindus and Buddhists.

File Facts
Varanasi (10 km) is the closest airport and railway station to Sarnath.

By way of accommodation most visitors to Sarnath prefer to stay in Varanasi as it has a far wider choice and caters to all budgets from 5-star properties to lodges and dharamsalas.

Indian Railways’ Maha Parinirvan special trail which covers most of the important Buddhist sites in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh makes a stop at Varanasi. The 7 night / 8 day itinerary which starts and ends at Delhi also includes a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra.