Guide to Sarnath Buddhist Complex

Historical Context

Sarnath is one of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world, the other three being Lumbani (where Buddha was born), Bodhgaya (where Buddha attained enlightenment), and Kusinagar (where Buddha died).

Siddhartha Gautama was born to a royal family of the Shakya dynasty sometime in the 6th century B.C. His mother died just a few days later, and the young prince was brought up by his father in a palace completely shielded from the realities of the outside world. Anything Gautama wanted his father would provide instantly. As he grew up, Gautama was allowed out of the palace on a few rare occasions, and it is during these forays out into the “real world” that he started to witness at first hand the level of human suffering that existed beyond the palace walls.

Although Gautama would go on to marry and even become a father, at the age of 29 he left the royal palace and adopted a life of wandering and meditation in order to understand the nature of human suffering. After a period of harsh self-disciplining, he decided to stop his extreme ascetic practices and sat down to meditate under a pipal tree with the determination not to get up until full awakening (sammā-sambodhi) had been reached. That tree where he attained enlightenment is known as the Bodhi tree, in Bodh Gaya in modern day Bihar.

Gautama thus became known as the Buddha or “Awakened One”, and travelled to Banaras (Varanasi) to teach others the truths he had realised. In a grove filled with deer just outside Banaras at a place called Mrigadaya (or Sarnath) he delivered his first sermon to a small group of five people who were to become his first followers. Buddha set in motion the wheel of Buddhist law (dhamma), and here at Sarnath first preached the Four Noble Truths, which are :

  1. All life is suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire.
  3. We may end suffering by removing craving and passion since all that we desire is perishable and changing.
  4. We can get rid of craving and passion by methodically following a path.

The path he laid out consists of correct aspirations, correct views, correct speech, correct conduct, correct mindfulness, correct livelihood, correct effort and correct meditation. Following this path leads to the end of sorrow and to the attainment of peace, enlightenment, and nirvana.

Here at Sarnath, Buddha also laid the foundation of his “Sanga”, or the order of monks. Yasa, the son of a rich householder in Banaras, together with 54 of his friends were attracted by Buddha’s teachings. With them and the five monks that witnessed Buddha’s first teachings, the first Sangha of 60 monks was founded who were sent to various destinations to preach Buddha’s dharma.

Two hundred years after Buddha’s enlightenment came Ashoka, the great Mauryan emperor, who is rightly famous in the history of Buddhism. The Kalinga war of 261 B.C. in modern day Odisha was a turning point for Ashoka. After witnessing the unimaginable loss of human life, he renounced violence and adopted a doctrine of welfare to the common people, promoting Buddhism across ancient Asia. You can read more about these events in my blog post – Ashoka’s Rebirth And Rediscovery At Dhauli.

The reborn Ashoka almost immediately went on a pilgrimage to all the places associated with Buddha, and raised tall pillars and other monuments such as stupas to memorialise Buddha and his teachings. Owing to the sanctity of the site, Sarnath rapidly became one of the leading pilgrimage places of Buddhism. The ruins that can be seen at Sarnath today are from the time of Ashoka through to the 12th century A.D.

Archaeological Excavations

For the last two hundred years, Sarnath has attracted the attention of many scholars and archaeologists searching for antiquarian remains.

The earliest account comes from Jonathan Duncan in 1794, who records the discovery of two urns by Babu Jagat Singh of Banaras. Singh was digging a stupa mound obtaining bricks and masonry for the erection of a market place in the city. Gold, silver, pearls, rubies and even bones were discovered in a cylindrical marble box, found next to a sculpture dated 1026 A.D.

The first formal excavations at Sarnath commenced in 1815 by Colonal Colin Mackenzie, although these were relatively unsuccessful. Major Markham Kittoe also worked here in 1851/52 but his untimely death just a couple of years later means details of his excavations were never published.

The most significant early archaeological excavations at Sarnath were conducted by Alexander Cunningham from 1834 to 1836. He excavated the main stupas here along with exposing the remains of monasteries and temples. Both Kittoe and Cunningham collected a large number of statues, inscriptions, votive stupas, and sculptured panels, many of which can be seen in the nearby Archaeological Museum.

The religious centre of the complex at Sarnath was discovered by Friedrich Oertel, who excavated the Main Shrine in 1904-05. It is here that some of the most wonderful works of art and historically important artifacts were uncovered, such as the Ashokan Pillar with its world famous Lion Capital, the famous 5th century preaching Buddha, and the Buddhisatta statue with umbrella and stand dated to the year 81 A.D.

In total Oertel recovered 476 pieces of sculpture and over 40 inscriptions. Many of these priceless objects take pride of place in the Archaeological Museum a short distance away.

Sir John Marshall’s excavations in 1907/08 opened up a large area of the site and exposed the remains of three monasteries, some underlying the remains of later structures, in addition to finding the remains of a co-called “hospital” near to the Main Shrine.

The last major excavation work was conducted by Daya Ram Sahni and commenced in 1921. He exposed structures between the Dhamekh Stupa and the Main Shrine as well as discovering an underground passageway between Monastery I and Monastery II. The five seasons of excavation recovered a number of sculptures, ceramics and other objects now housed in the museum.

The Monuments – A Site Tour

The remains of structures that can be seen today at Sarnath date from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. One has to remember that not everything here existed at the same time, and in many cases buildings were erected over the top of the remains of earlier structures.

Dharmarajika Stupa

This is the stupa that was largely destroyed by Jagat Singh in 1794. It is thought that the original stupa was built by Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. and was then subsequently enlarged at least six times. This practice appears to be common with stupas throughout India, the same process of enlargement also happened at the Great Stupa (Stupa 1) at Sanchi.

It is here that two outstanding images were found that can be seen in the museum; the red sandstone Bodhisattva dated to 81 A.D. and the image of Buddha in the preaching attitude in gallery 1 of the museum.

Main Shrine

Approximately 20m north of the Dharmarajika Stupa is the Main Shrine, the remains of which are a shadow of what once stood here. The famous Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Hiuen T’sang (also known as Husan Tsang and Xuanzang) traveled extensively throughout northern India between 634 and 645 A.D, and noted that the main shrine here was over 60m high.

The structure is a little confusing to get to grips with, although mostly built of red bricks it also incorporates carved masonry from earlier structures.

Below the foundations of the shrine Oertel discovered plain polished monolithic Ashokan railings which it’s assumed were once part of the nearby Dharmarajika Stupa.

Excavations below the path around the Main Shrine uncovered votive slabs dating to the 1st century B.C.

Ashokan Pillar

Immediately west of the Main Shrine stands the remains of the Ashokan Pillar behind glass, the lowest part of the pillar still in-situ.

The pillar once stood to a height of 5.25m and was crowned by the famous Lion Capital which was adopted as the official emblem of India after independence in 1950.

The pillar bears three inscriptions, the earliest is an edict of Ashoka (known as the Schism edict) in Brahmi characters, where the emperor warns the monks and nuns against creating divisions in the sangha.

… the path is prescribed both for the monks and for the nuns. As long as (my) sons and great-grandsons (shall reign ; and) as long as the Moon and the Sun (shall endure), the monk or nun who shall cause divisions in the Sangha, shall be compelled to put on white robes and to reside apart. For what is my desire? That the Sangha may be united and may long endure.

The second inscription is from the Kushan period and refers to the 40th year of Asvaghosha. The third inscription is in early Gupta script and mentions teachers of the Sammitiya sect and Vatsiputraka school.

I have visited a few sites where there are Ashokan pillar and rock edicts in India, so you can see some more in my blog posts about the sites at Dhauli, Delhi, Feroz Shah Kotla (Delhi), and Sanchi.

Dhamekh Stupa

Standing over 40m tall, the monolithic Dhamekh Stupa dominates the Buddhist complex at Sarnath. This solid cylindrical tower consists of a circular stone drum sitting on a rectangular basement, with each layer of stones bonded by iron clamps. Eight niches are set within the drum at equal intervals, I assume that once these would have held images.

Although partially restored, the drum still has a significant proportion of the original elaborate carving of floral and geometric patterns together with human figures and birds. Above the stone drum is a cylindrical tower made from red bricks.

There’s a lovely area to the east of the stupa that is grassed, and is one of the focal points for those visiting the stupa to worship, meditate, or just sit and be for a while.

The air was filled with chanting, click on the audio file below to get a sense of the atmosphere here :

When Cunningham was excavating here, he dug a vertical shaft down through the centre of the stupa to the foundation layers. There at a depth of over 90m he found a slab with the Buddhist creed in script attributable to the 6th-7th century A.D. which must have been inserted at a later date. His excavations also revealed an earlier brick-built core to the stupa, indicating that this stupa was also enlarged over the centuries and was orginally much smaller.

The scale and elaborate stonework of the Dhamekh Stupa suggests that this is the most important and sacred structure in the complex. It’s easy to perhaps speculate that it may mark the very spot where Buddha performed his first sermon.

Rectangular Court

Between the Dhamekh Stupa and the Main Shrine is a large rectangular court and courtyard.

A large number of brick built ruined shrines reside here, along with some votive stupas. Clearly this was the original route one took from the Main Shrine to the Dhamekh Stupa.

Panchayatana Shrine

Located immediately south of the courtyard is a curious sunken brick built shrine with a modern roof cover.

Dating to the Gupta period, in plan this looks like small Hindu Panchayatana Temple. Although its true origins are unknown, in the Theravada Buddhist tradition it is a revered building, and recognised as the place where the merchant Yasa converted to Buddhism after the first sermon.

At the time of my visit this shrine was undergoing a process of renovation and conservation.

Monastery I

With an open court and rows of cells on the three other sides, the remains on Monastery I that we see today probably dates to the 12th century A.D. It was a large set of buildings, up to 90m in length from one end to the other. It is here that an underground tunnel nearly 55m in length was excavated by Sir John Marshall in the early 1900s.

It’s probably worth noting that the monastery numbering system is in the order in which they were discovered and excavated. So Monastery I is probably the latest of such structures in the complex. Excavations here showed that the footprint of Monastery I overlies earlier structures; Monasteries II, III and IV.

Monastery II

Dating back to the early Gupta period, Monastery II was just under 30m square with only traces of nine cells to the west surviving.

Collected Masonry

Near to Monastery II is an area that has been set aside for the vast array of sculptured stonework that has been collected from all around the complex. It’s worth taking time to quickly look at this stone blocks, they really help give a sense of how wonderful the original buildings here would have been decorated.

Monastery III

Dating to the late Kushan period, Monastery III shares a similar plan to Monastery II with a couple of columns still standing in-situ.

The thickness of the walls suggests that this building once had at least two storeys.

Monastery IV

Lord Shiva killing the demon Andhaka - 12th Century A.D.
Lord Shiva killing the demon Andhaka, discovered in Monastery IV

Some remains of Monastery IV are over 4m below the current ground level. The exposed portion of this structure today consists of some cells to the north and the remains of a veranda to the east.

It is here that the colossal image of Shiva killing a demon was discovered lying on top of the cell walls. That unfinished but wonderful 12th century carving can be seen in the Archaeological Museum.

Monastery V

Originally excavated by Kittoe, this is one of the more complete monasteries on site, being slightly set aside from the other buildings in the complex. Measuring 15m square, the structure has a series of cells on all four sides with a well in the centre of the courtyard. A terracotta seal dating to the 9th century was found in one of the cells here. It is thought the monastery was destroyed by fire.

Monastery VI

Located to the west of Dhamekh Stupa and dating to the 8th-9th century, this structure was originally interpreted as a hospital by Sir John Marshall on account of a large number of pestles and mortars that were unearthed here. The remains of the structure are now covered.

Monastery VII

Little remains of Monastery VII with all the cells having disappeared and just the footprint of a square courtyard and veranda. As with Monastery V, it is thought this building was destroyed by fire.

The significance of the events that occurred at Sarnath can hardly be over-estimated. The messages revealed here by Buddha provided a basis for all future development of the religion, and one which has nearly 400 million followers in the world today.

A visit to the Buddhist Complex and Archaeological Museum at Sarnath makes for a fantastic few hours out of the city of Varanasi. But Sarnath has far more to offer beyond this, and even a whole day is probably not long enough to see everything. My next few blogs will highlight some of the lesser known places worthy of exploring in Sarnath.

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