Sarnath, The Deer Park In India Where Buddha First Taught

Stupa At Sarnath
Stupa At Sarnath

Buddha’s Religious Teachings
Having adopted the life of a religious master from the age of 35 until his death in 486 B.C. at the age of 80, Buddha taught the ‘noble truths’ that the craving for pleasure and the avoidance of pain leads to existence and suffering.

To get out of this cycle, Buddha stressed, one must strive to take a middle path between indulgence and denial. He preached that to attain that desired path, one should strive to behave with correct views, intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

Buddha As The ‘Lord Of The Deer’
There are a number of different claims about where the name of Sarnath for this deer park was derived, with one of them explaining that one of Buddha’s titles is ‘Saranganath’, which means ‘Lord of the Deer’.

As the story goes, Buddha as an enlightened being took the form of a deer and offered his life to a king to take the place of the doe that the king was planning to kill. The king in turn was so moved that he created the park now known as Sarnath as a sanctuary for deer.

Sarnath
The park and the town that has grown up around it is situated 8 miles (13Km) north of the city of Varanasi in the State of Uttar Pradesh in India.

It is reached by road from Varanasi by crossing the Varuna river and traveling along the aptly named Guatam Buddha Rajpath road.

A Peaceful And Pleasant Place
After trying to deal with the constant clamor of staggering traffic in Varanasi, we were delighted to find that the road out to Sarnath becomes peaceful and pleasant.

Buddhist Monks At Sarnath
Buddhist Monks At Sarnath
We traveled past dusty scattered houses set on quiet lanes lined with attractive trees.

It was an enormous contrast to the city that lay only a short distance behind us.

The town of Sarnath is small and dominated by a number of temples and by the parked coaches that have delivered pilgrims here from all over the world.

There is also a very good museum devoted to Buddhist artifacts and of course there is the Deer Park where the Buddha taught.

Once inside the neatly trimmed and tranquil park, we saw many Buddhist pilgrims like these robed monks.

The Dhamek Stupa In The Deer Park
Dotted with the remains of buildings among close-cropped grassed areas, the remains of the Dhamek stupa dominates everything in the deer park.

This stupa was built about 1,500 years ago to replace the earlier stupa built by Ashoka almost 750 years before that.

The Influence of Ashoka At Sarnath
Ashoka was the emperor during the Mauryan dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 269 BC to 232 BC.

It was he who spread Buddhism all over the country and it was he who built the original stupa at Sarnath.

Pilgrims At This Holy Buddhist Site
The original stupa and its replacement commemorate the Buddha’s life and deeds and contains part of his remains.

Today it is visited by Buddhists from all over the world.

They come to listen to stories about the Buddha’s life, to sermons from this holy site which marks the place where the stream of his teaching first circulated, and just to be in contact with the place where the Buddha taught.

We saw many groups of such pilgrims exploring this area, like these men and women dressed in white who are walking around the base of the stupa.

Pilgrims Walking Around The Stupa At Sarnath
Pilgrims Walking Around The Stupa At Sarnath

Other Visitors Absorbing The Tranquility Of The Park
We also observed other visitors dressed in everyday clothing who were similarly soaking up the atmosphere about the Dhamek stupa that day.

As you can see, they are sitting with umbrellas to shield themselves from the hot rays of the sun that day:

Sarnath Visitors
Sarnath Visitors

Remains From Earlier Times
Although Sarnath is now visited by many pilgrims and other visitors these days, the park actually lay forgotten until 1883 when a British Archaeological Society team led by Sir Alexander Cunnigham, J.D. Beglar and Dr. Rajendralal Mitra meticulously excavated the site and rediscovered the Ashokan stupa beneath the Damekh stupa.

This modern, carved stone inscription stands near the stupa and reads:

“According to an inscription dated 1062 A.D. recovered from the site its old name was Dharma Chakra Stupa. It is perhaps commemorating the spot where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon. In search of the relic casket Alexander Cunningham bored a vertical shaft through its center down to the foundation level and at a depth of 91.4cm [3 feet] he found a slab with the inscription “Ye Dharma Hetu Prabhava Hetu…” written in the Brahmi script of 6th -7th A.D.

Inscription Near The Damekh Stupa
Inscription Near The Damekh Stupa

Further below he traced out a stupa made of Mauryan bricks. However, the present diameter of this solid cylindrical tower is 28.5 meters [94 feet] at the base and 33.35 meters [110 feet] in height. Its total height is 42.60 meters [140 feet] including the foundation.

The structure consists of a circular stone drum up to a height of 11.2 meters [37 feet] from the ground above which rises the cylindrical mass of brickwork about 6.0 meters [20 feet] above the base eight niches are provided in eight directions which must have contained images of the Buddha, below them runs a broad course of beautifully carved stones having geometric designs, swastika, leaf and floral patterns combined with birds and human figures.”

Building Details
Here is a detail of the carving decorating one of the buildings in the park. Close inspection showed that the stonework was covered in small patches of gold leaf arranged in patterns.

We learned that some of the gold leaf laid on the stonework is very old, dating back to the earliest buildings in the park that pre-date the stupa itself.

Sarnath Temple Carvings
Sarnath Temple Carvings

During our visit, we also saw groups of women rebuilding some of the brick walls of the ancient ruins in the park. All through the park, low walls indicate the outlines of the many buildings that filled the park at one time.

Women Rebuilding Walls At Sarnath
Women Rebuilding Walls At Sarnath

Deer In Sarnath Today
There is a small fenced off area at one side of the park where a group of deer were eating long, red Delhi carrots that a good number of people were feeding them at the time.

The Boy Seller
We had seen those carrots for sale on stalls and stands throughout India.

This time in Sarnath, I noticed several young boys hawking bags of these carrots which had been cut into thin, manageable strips.

I noticed that the deer were chomping down the vegetables with great relish. So I decided this time to buy a bag to feed the deer.

Cross-Cultural Sharing
I went back to the fence and started feeding the animals.

However, I saw a group of middle-aged women who were watching me and other people feeding the deer out of the corner of my eye.

They were shyly smiling at us as they also admired the animals.

Suddenly it occurred to me to share the red Delhi carrots with these visitors. So I turned and motioned to them, since I wasn’t sure they would understand English.

I got a great reception to my pantomime, and soon several sets of hands were politely thrust in my direction to receive the vegetables.

That Circle of Life
As I handed out the carrots, I received something in return – namely a row of sincerely warm smiles, meaningful eye contact with the women in question, and gentle pats of gratitude on my shoulders and arms as well.

And so it occurred to me that everyone in our little group benefited that day under the heat of the midday sun: From the boy who sold me the carrots; to myself who had the pleasure of sharing them with the women; to the women who seemed moved by interacting with me as a guest in their land – and ultimately to the gentle deer, those lovely animals who accepted the food so gratefully from all of us and made our spirits rise at the sight of their beauty.

Deer At Sarnath
Deer At Sarnath

References:
New World Encyclopedia
Wikipedia – Sarnath
Wikipedia – Ashoka
Education World – The Buddhist Circuit
Sacred Destinations – Sarnath
The Dhammapada

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    Comments

    1. Joan says

      What a lovely little tale. but I was expecting a photo of the carrots! Also, the women building the wall – are they of a lower caste, or do women generally do this kind of work? or are they volunteering their labor as a form of devotion?

      • Tamara Colloff-Bennett says

        Hi Joan- Glad you liked the tale, thanks… Alas, we do not have any photograph of the carrots! Regarding the women building the wall, I don’t know what caste they are nor if they are volunteering their labor, as you suggested. However, I think it’s most likely that they are working women who are doing this for a salary. And from what we saw in India, it’s most likely that they are poor women.

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