Mulagandha Kuti Vihara – Sarnath

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is located 400m east of the main entrance to the ancient Buddhist complex at Sarnath. Completed and opened in November 1931, this temple is considered the crowning achievement of Anagarika Dharmapala, who founded the Maha Bodhi Society in 1891 with the aim of resurrecting the prominence of Buddhism in India and restoring the ancient Buddhist shrines at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinara.

Anagarika Dharmapala was born to an aristocratic Buddhist family in Sri Lanka on 17th September 1864. In 1891 at the age of 26 he took a pilgrimage to Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, where he saw at first hand the deplorable and appalling condition of the monuments there.

The Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya was in the hands of a Saivite priest, the Buddha image transformed into a Hindu icon, and Buddhists barred from worship. Prior to that, Sir Edwin Arnold visited the site in 1885 and published several articles drawing to the attention of Buddhists the deplorable conditions of Bodh Gaya. Anagarika Dharmapala resolved to restore all places of Buddhist worship and at the same time regenerate Buddhism as a religion in India.

On 31st May 1891 he established the Maha Bodi Society of India, and travelled all over the world to promote his mission and to gain support and patronage from national leaders, in particular those from Buddhist countries. In 1893 he participated in the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, which went a long way to cementing Buddhism as a recognised religion in the west.

In response to a request the then British rulers of India, he constructed the Sri Dharmarajika Chetiya Vihara in Calcutta in 1923, and the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara in Sarnath in 1931. The site chosen at Sarnath for his temple was as close as possible to where Lord Buddha is thought to have conducted his first sermon, and so today stands just 200m east of the great Dhamekh Stupa.

Today the temple enshrines the relics of the Lord Buddha which were discovered by the Archaeological Survey of India during excavations at Nagarjuni Konda in Madras and Taxhila in Punjab. These relics were presented to the Maha Bodhi Society during the rule of Willington, Viceroy and Governor General of India representing King George V.

The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is probably best known for it’s famous frescoes. These wall paintings were done by the renowned Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu, an assignment from the imperial government of Japan on a request made by Shri Devapriya Valisinghe, the then General Secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society of India.

Kosetsu Nosu, an ardent Japanese Buddhist, had previously visited India in 1918, where he worked at Ajanta Caves making copies of the wonderful frescoes that can be seen there.

The paintings here at Mulagandha Kuti Vihara were completed in 1936, five years after the temple construction had finished. Over the proceeding decades these paintings started to deteriorate, resulting in a restoration project commencing late in 2019.

The restoration project is undertaken by the “Society for Honouring the master artist Kosetsu Nosu” under the leadership of technical supervisor Prof. Takayasu Kijima and curator Shigeki Mizobuchi. The project was supported by the Embassy of India in Tokyo, the Nakamura Hajime Eastern Institute, and Shukutoku Gakuen and Musashino Universities.

Immediately to the east of the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a small complex with some additional Buddhist shrines. Legend has it that Emperor Ashoka’s daughter, Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta, visited the Bodhi tree at Bodhi Gaya where Buddha achieved enlightenment, and took a branch cutting and planted it at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. The tree flourished, from which a sapling was taken by Anagarika Dharmapala and planted here in 1931.

A scene of Buddha’s first sermon to the first five disciples was added in 1989 by a group of Mayanmar Buddhist devotees.

The final monument associated with the Maha Bodhi Society can be found about 100m west of Mulagandha Kuti Vihara. This is the original Maha Bodhi Society temple at Sarnath, a small and peaceful temple that rarely receives any visitors but is certainly worth a quick visit.

Just two years after Mulagandha Kuti Vihara was opened to the public, Anagarika Dharmapala passed away here at Sarnath in 1933 at the age of 68. Whilst he did live to see his grand temple project completed, he never got to witness the opening of those wonderful frescoes within.

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