Circuit of Buddhist temples

Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh

February 2017

Barely 30 minutes from the hustle & bustle of Varanasi, Sarnath presents an absolute contrast picture. It has been written that every stone in Sarnath has a history to tell. And no truer word has ever been said! Even though we were in Sarnath for half a day (a plan that was literally formulated on-the-spot because Varanasi was too much to the senses!), it was an experience like no other! Looking at the amount of content and time it has been since I am putting it out for the world, I decided to keep it limited to my Monday feature.

Introduction to Stupas

Technically speaking, Buddhist architecture started around 400 CE, even before the death of Buddha. However, it was during the Mauryan period that the architecture started developing images of Buddha. It is the Stupa that holds such great importance within the Buddhist architecture. Legend has it that following the cremation of Buddha, his ashes were divided into 8 parts and distributed among various rulers to be enshrined at special burial mounds. The eight stupas with relics of Buddha were Rajagriha, Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Allakappa, Ramagrama, Pava, Kushinagar and Vethapida. Emperor Ashoka (274-236 BC) is said to have redistributed the relics housed in the original stupa into thousands of stupas throughout India – which includes the ones at Sanchi and Sarnath.

Stupas were hemispherical mound-like structure, built for various reasons. Based on the reason and function, the stupas were generally classified into five types:

  • Relic stupas were known to enshrine the relics of Buddha and other religious personas.
  • Object stupas consists of objects belonging to Buddha or his disciples.
  • Commemorative stupas were built to commemorate events in the life of Buddha and his disciples.
  • Symbolic stupas were built to symbolize various aspects of Buddhist theology.
  • Votive stupas were constructed to commemorate visits or gain spiritual benefits

Exploring Sarnath

Having been to Sanchi and Borubudur, it is quite difficult to imagine any other stupa that can match in grandeur. No wonder, Chaukhandi Stupa took me by suprise with its brick-like structure, terraced staircase, crowned with an octagonal tower. The name Chaukhandi derives from the four-armed plan of the stupa, marking the place where Lord Buddha met his first disciples as he traveled from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath. The structure has recently been declared to be of national importance by the ASI in June 2019.

The octagonal tower perched on top of the stupa is a much later addition, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1567 in memory of his father Humayun, who visited Sarnath 35 years previously in 1532.

Japanese Temple or Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple is one of the new temples in Sarnath, with a beautiful reclining buddha statue waiting for you once you step across the threshold. The statue is made of sandalwood, a personal favourite scent and hence the aroma was an added charm for me.

Vishwa Shaanti Stupa was a complete shocker for me! Stepping through the entrance literally transported me back to Sanchi, with exact replica of the Eastern gate, flanked with replicas of the Ashoka pillar and the Ashoka emblem. The idea behind the stupa was to dedicate it to the people of India and the world, with aspirations for a sustainable and peaceful planet. A very idealistic and noble thought!

The Lhaden Chenmo Tibetan Monastery (also known as the Tibeten Temple), constructed in 1955, is the first monastery and temple built by the present Dalai Lama in India. The monastery complex opens up to a large open compound housing a light pink stupa, built by Tibetans to show their gratitude to the Indian Government for granting asylum to the fleeing Dalai Lama.

The Chinese Buddhist Temple was established in 1939 by the abbot of Beijing, Tao-Kai, and the president of the Eastern Asian Buddhist association, Fa-Yuan-Tsu. The overall red, yellow and gold aesthetics cannot be missed despite the simplicity of the building design.

A definite full day is needed to complete Sarnath. We clearly missed out the more popular hotspots.

uptourism.gov.in has a fantastic map of Sarnath which can be extremely useful for all unprepared tourists (just like we were). To download it click here. But for a quick getaway from the hustle bustle of Varanasi, this was perfect! And next time, might as well create an itinerary of Buddhist circuit in India! Any volunteers? 😉


Related (and not-so related) Posts:


Uttar Pradesh

2 comments

  1. […] Technically speaking, Buddhist architecture started around 400 CE, even before the death of Buddha. However, it was during the Mauryan period that the architecture started developing images of Buddha. It is the Stupa that holds such great importance within the Buddhist architecture. Legend has it that following the cremation of Buddha, his ashes were divided into 8 parts and distributed among various rulers to be enshrined at special burial mounds. The eight stupas with relics of Buddha were Rajagriha, Vaishali, Kapilavastu, Allakappa, Ramagrama, Pava, Kushinagar and Vethapida. Emperor Ashoka (274-236 BC) is said to have redistributed the relics housed in the original stupa into thousands of stupas throughout India – which includes the ones at Sanchi and Sarnath. […]

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