Located 600m south of the main Sarnath Buddhist Complex, Chaukhandi Stupa is a lofty brick built structure curiously crowned with an octagonal tower. The name Chaukhandi comes from the four-armed plan of the stupa, which was declared to be of national importance by the Archaeological Survey of India in June 2019.
The stupa was originally erected to mark the place where it is believed Lord Buddha and his first disciples met as he made his way from from Bodh Gaya to the location of his first sermon at Sarnath. It is not entirely clear if originally there was a more regular smaller stupa here, as the monument you can see today has possibly been altered considerably over the centuries.
Chaukhandi Stupa is first recorded by the famous Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Hiuen T’sang (also known as Husan Tsang and Xuanzang), who traveled extensively throughout northern India between 634 and 645 A.D. So as far as documentary evidence is concerned, we know there was a stupa here by the mid 7th century A.D.
As far as the archaeological record is concerned, the rising stepped-terraces most prominent on the eastern side were uncovered during excavations here in 1835 and 1904-05. These structures date to the Gupta period, sometime between the 4th and 6th century A.D. The excavations also unearthed an image of Buddha seated in dharmachakra-mudra (wheel of dharma), a Bodhisattva and two beautifully carved bas-reliefs representing leogryphs and gladiators.
Alexander Cunningham whilst excavating here in 1835 dug a vertical shaft in its centre all the way down to the foundation layers in the hope of finding a relic chamber. His efforts proved fruitless however, and nothing of any significance was found.
The octagonal tower perched on top of the stupa is a much later addition. It was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1567 in memory of his father Humayun, who visited Sarnath 35 years previously in 1532. The construction of the tower was undertaken by Govardhan, the son of Akbar’s Hindu finance minister Raja Todar Mal. Akbar is of course famous for his tolerance of religion and secularism, you can read a lot more about this in my blog about Akbar’s Tomb at Sikandra just outside Agra.
Chaukhandi Stupa is a little isolated from the other main monuments at Sarnath, and perhaps also a little overshadowed by them as well. It’s a monument well worth visiting however, set within some lovely grassed gardens it gives a sense of isolation and peace quite far removed from the crowds a short distance away.
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