The Archaeological Museum at Sarnath is the ASI’s oldest site museum, and is one of the most important in India. Plans to build a museum to house, study and display the antiquities found at Sarnath was initiated in 1905 by Sir John Marshall, the then Director General of Archaeology in India. The building which forms half a monastery (sangharama) in plan was completed five years later in 1910.
The museum consists of five galleries and two verandas, with well presented antiquities found at Sarnath dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D.
This virtual tour of the museum encompasses a good proportion of what is currently on display (as of Feb 2020) from their collection of nearly 7,000 sculptures and artifacts.
Until recently photography was not permitted in the museum, but thankfully you are now allowed to take as many photos as you like with a “proper camera”. Strangely, mobile phones are still not permitted, perhaps to prevent the endless stream of “selfie” takers. Mobile phones need to be left along with your bags in the cloakroom by the ticket office.
Click on any of the images to view the objects in a larger format.
Main Hall – Gallery 3
At this museum there is no build up to the star attraction, it’s actually the very first thing you will see. This is best known piece of ancient sculpture in the country, and simply has to be seen to be believed.
Carved out of a single block of Chunar sandstone and measuring 2.31m in height, this magnificent highly polished sculpture of Mauryan art is the lion capital, which once crowned an Ashokan pillar. The remains of the pillar can still be seen at the archaeological site just across the road.
The capital originally consisted of four parts, of which only three parts remain intact. At the base is a bell-shaped vase covered with inverted lotus leaves. Above that is a round abacus with four running animals; an elephant, a bull, a horse and a lion, each separated by a wheel (dharmachakra).
The four crowning lions are simply wonderful, the craftsmanship is staggering, with a great sense of naturalism. It is thought that originally the sockets of the eyes contained gem stones.
The capital was originally crowned by a ‘Wheel of Dharma’ (Dharmachakra) with 32 spokes. A few fragments of this were recovered on-site and are on display immediately behind the capital in this gallery (not photographed).
A similar set of four lion sculptures, a pair in fact, you can see on the south gateway of the great stupa (stupa 1) at Sanchi. In terms of craftsmanship there is simply no comparison however, this has to be one of the most impressive works of art I have ever seen.
In modern India, these four lions are an iconic image, found on all government documents, coins, banknotes and passports. It was adopted as the official emblem of India after independence in 1950.
To the left of the lion capital stands a colossal Bodhisattva image of red sandstone, which was donated in the 3rd year (81 A.D.) of Kushana king Kanishka’s reign by friar Bala of Mathura.
The figure bears inscriptions in Kushana Brahmi script on the pedestal and was dedicated under the shade of a huge umbrella fixed on an octagonal shaft standing just behind.
The octagonal umbrella shaft also has Kushana Brahmi inscription at the base in support of its erection.
The inscription reads :
“In the 3rd year of Maharaja Kanishka the 3rd fortnight of winter the 12th day. On this day Monk Bala a master of Tripitaka and a fellow Monk Pushyavuddhi erected the image of Bodhisattva and an umbrella with a shaft at Banaras, where the lord used to walk. (This pious act of Bala was done) Along with his parents, masters, teachers, fellows and with Buddhamitra versed in Tripitaka (in addition to) Kshatrapas Vanaspara and Kharapallana together with the four classes (Monks, Nuns, Layman and Laywomen) for the welfare and happiness of all creatures.”
The umbrella is wonderfully carved with auspicious symbols, and is kept in the corner of the main hall.
Elsewhere in the main hall are a number of Buddha figures carved in classical Gupta style. In most of the figures the right hand is in abhaya mudra (protection giving attitude), with some of the figures bearing donation inscriptions in Gupta Brahmi script.
Another important figure is that of a standing Tara, with both her arms broken, richly adorned with ornaments.
There is a significant fragment of an umbrella kept in a showcase on the right side of the entrance, which is carved with an inscription of Kushana period mentioning the four noble truths of Buddha’s first sermon at the Sarnath deer park.
Gallry 2 exhibits images of Buddhist deities and some associated objects. Of particular note is a stele depicting the eight great places (ashtamahasthana) or four main and four secondary events in the life of Buddha.
A description of each of the eight panels is as follows, starting with the left column going top to bottom, followed by the right column.
|Important Places of Buddha’s Life (1st column, top-bottom)|
The first sermon delivered by Gautama Buddha at Sarnath. Buddha is seated on a lotus pedestal in a preaching posture. To his right is Boddhisatva Maitreya, to his left Boddhisatva Avlokitesvara.
Panel depicting Buddha’s descent from heaven at Sankisa.
Panel depicting the grant of honey pot by a monkey at Vaishali to Lord Buddha. The monkey is standing with the honey pot to the right of Buddha. On the left the monkey is shown having fallen in a well and died, getting rebirth in devakula
This depicts the birth scene of Lord Buddha at Lumbani. Queen May, the mother of Buddha, is shown standing in the middle holding a branch of Saal tree. She is flanked by Indra and Brahma on either side.
|Important Places of Buddha’s Life (2st column, top-bottom)|
Here we see the death scene of Buddha at Kushinagar. He is lying on his bed, in front of him are the mourning disciples.
This panel depicts the miracle at Sravasti, where Buddha performed “Sahasra Buddha”. Lord Gautama is shown in the centre, flanks by his own images, with seated devotees below
This panel narrates the episode of the submission of a mad elephant at Rajgirh. Lord Buddha is taming the elephant Nalagiri who was charged by Devadutta to kill Buddha
Lord Buddha is shown seated in meditation under the Bodhi tree at Gaya when he attained enlightenment. To the right of Buddha Mara is holding a bow and arrow with the figure of Kama deva.
Here are some other artifacts from Gallery 2. Click on any of the images to view the objects in a larger format.
The lighting in the museum is remarkably good, with everything well labelled and spaced out. Although the museum can get quite crowded at times, there is more than enough space to move around.
Gallery 1 displays further images of Buddha and other deities. Here is another panel depicting scenes from Buddha’s life, dating to the Gupta period.
Here’s a breakdown of the four life scenes of Buddha :
The most notable sculpture in this gallery is undoubtedly the image of the preaching Buddha dated to the Gupta period (5th century A.D.). This image is a remarkable example of the form known as “compassionate one”, with the carving portraying a great sense of spirituality and inner peace.
The wheel (dharmachakra) occupies the central position on the pedestal. The figures of five disciples to whom Buddha preached his first sermon at Sarnath are depicted along with a woman and child on the lower part of the image.
Immediately behind this impressive piece of art is a small separate room, known as the Gold Gallery.
An accidental discovery on 3rd May 1990 unearthed a single baked clay plot containing a few gold objects in the premises of the Myanmar Temple adjacent to the excavated site at Sarnath.
The pot contained objects of high antique value, although the majority of objects were very fragile and broken. The collection consists of objects of gold, gold foil, copper, copper plated with gold, clay wrapped in gold foil and breads of semi precious stones.
These are all brilliantly presented in a well lit single glass cabinet. Click on any of the images to view the objects in a larger format.
As well as more images of Buddha, Gallery 4 showcases Brahmanical deities such as Surya, Saraswati and Mahishamardini, along with secular objects like figures of birds, animals, and human heads. The artifacts date from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D.
I particularly liked the head of a bird figure, possibly a pidgeon, with that distinctive Mauryan polished finish that you see on so many of their works of art, including the lion capital in the main hall.
Gallery 5 exhibits Hindu deities such as Shiva in different forms, Vishnu, Ganesha, Kartikeya, Agni, Parvati, Navagrahs (nine planets) with Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati. There’s also a panel depicting Navagrahas with Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesa.
Shiva as Bhairava is probably one of the finest Brahmanical images to be found at Sarnath. A colossal image of Shiva in his terrific form killing Andhak is also very impressive.
The unfinished image of Shiva slaying the demon Andhaka was found in the debris of Monastery IV at Sarnath.
Gallery 6 and 7 (the Verandas)
There are two verandas on either side of the entrance of the museum, where many architectural pieces are exhibited like lintels, face stones, door jambs, pediments etc. Click on any of the images to view the objects in a larger format with descriptions.
The Archaeological Museum at Sarnath is a treasure trove of wonderful art, and houses the most magnificent example of ancient sculpture I have ever seen. No visit to the archaeological site would be complete without paying it a visit. I recommend getting to Sarnath early in the day so you have plenty of time to explore everything on offer here.
The museum is open 9am to 5pm every day except Friday. Admission is the bargain of the century, at just Rs 5/-.
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