Back then, I had read history for the heck of passing the subject and today here I am… Travelling to know more about the rich history soaked heritage of my country… And in the pursuit, my friend and I stumbled upon this little forgotten land from the pages of history- Saranath. It was as if the history textbooks of primary school were walking alive with us… Saranath is an important destination both religiously and historically. So, people of varied interests can be found strolling the streets of Saranath. When we alighted, a volunteer offered to take us for a guided tour around the place and we nodded a yes! A couple of visitors from different countries joined us seeking me to be their translator while the Hindi speaking guide took us around. So I was doubling as a curious traveler and a travel guide cum translator.
Firstly, Saranath is the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon to the five disciples after attaining enlightenment. Hence, a very important place religiously for the Buddhists. Today, the Chaukhandi Stupa, an octagonal structure made of brick and mortar stands at the very same place welcoming the visitors to this town. It was originally built in the Gupta era and later renovated during the Mughal rule.
As I explored the place, I realized that people from different countries have made their presence with Buddha temples built in their native styles of architecture. The Nepali, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Bhutanese etc. to name a few. While each temple style is unique and beautiful, you realize that the statue of Lord Buddha too is different in each of them. Buddha is worshipped in different forms in different countries… Seated Buddha, sleeping Buddha, standing Buddha, meditating Buddha ET all… The murals inside the Japanese temple grabbed my attention… I was told that the complete interiors is made of sandalwood… The idol, palanquin, the doors and even the chandeliers!
A small walk from there, is ‘Mulagandha Kuti Vihar’, the Nepali temple. What makes this place special is the third generation peepal tree adjacent to its premises. Fondly called as the grandson of the Bodhi tree, it is grown from a twig of a peepal tree believed to be the son of the original Bodhi tree that exists in Sri Lanka. With prayer chants and smell of incense in the air, it is truly a place of calm and solitude. We were quick to pick a few leaves of this holy tree as a souvenir from this little place.
Next, it was some history time! We bought an entry ticket at the ASI counter to take a stroll around the ruins surrounding the Dhammek stupa. It is believed that the Mauryan emperor Ashoka had built small clay mounds at ten places where the ashes, the urn and the embers of Lord Buddha were buried which were eventually refurbished as large stupas by the different rulers in the course of history. Dhammek stupa is believed to be one among these ten stupas and hence, a very important one for the Buddhist pilgrims who throng here from across the globe. And that very place where the Indian National emblem was born! The pillar on which the four headed lion is seated was commissioned by emperor Ashoka to commemorate his visit to Saranath. The broken part of the pillar was found during the excavations of this site and later transferred to the ASI museum in Saranath. Today, the bottom portion of the pillar surrounded by four posts holding a stone slab are the things remaining from the original relics at the exact same spot. One way it is nice that nobody has tried to restore this pillar back as the easy accessibility to it would have got the emblem all over the internet with the insensitive photo/selfie-enthusiastic tourists.
A visit to Saranath would definitely be incomplete without getting a glimpse of the ORIGINAL National emblem of India. We deposited our valuables including cameras and cellphones in lockers provided along with the entry ticket to the ASI museum and headed to THE place. A chill ran down my spine on being greeted by this majestic sandstone structure bearing the lion capital, the original form of our National emblem. The four headed Asiatic Lion is seated on a lotus- The national flower of India. Our guide narrated the religious relevance of the emblem in Buddha’s life. The lion represents Buddha himself who stressed upon equality and justice in all spheres of life (all 4 directions). While Gautama was in his mother’s womb- she had a dream of a white elephant entering her womb representing prosperity. The bull represents the young prince Siddhartha’s strength, the horse depicts Siddhartha’s renouncing his royal life and Lion is the depiction of Siddhartha’s transformation into Buddha. When Baby Siddhartha learnt to walk, a lotus bloomed under his feet after the first seven steps and the lotus is said to have faded at the passing away of the Lord- Hence, the inverted lotus. The Ashoka wheel is called the Dharma Chakra, representing the movement of life with 24 spokes- each for the hours of a day… It is true to admit that the national emblem evoked a sense of pride in my heart. Ours is such a rich country in terms of history, culture and heritage! Every stone in India has a tale to tell… Having been restricted from the access of shutterbugs makes this sight all the more valuable and meaningful! There are several other sculptures and artefacts in this museum making it THE BEST museum day in my life!
The last leg of our Saranath walk tour was a visit to the handloom centre where demonstration of weaving a Banarasi saree was given and there it concludes! Sometimes you end up having this feeling of unplanned trips are the best things to happen… And Saranath is one such place!
Must do- Walk tour of the town
Must see- The Original form of the Indian National emblem at the ASI museum
Best souvenir- The leaves of the Grandson of the Bodhi tree.
How to reach- There is a railway station in Saranath. It is more convenient to hire an autorickshaw for a 30minute ride from Varanasi.
Stay- There are several Dharamshalas run by people from different countries.
This article was featured in Toyota’s in-house magazine ‘Carz’ Apr~Jun’18 edition