From the chaotic streets of Varanasi and the temple-lined shores of the river Ganges, Sarnath, only 10 km away, was like an oasis of peace and tranquillity. It was here at the deer park that Buddha preached his first sermon in the sixth century B.C. I stood recalling the history lessons of my childhood, about the life of Gautam Buddha, who gave up his princely pleasures in search of nirvana. Unfortunately, those lessons rarely mentioned the places that fell on the Buddhist trail followed by pilgrims retracing the path of the enlightened one.
In front of us, as we enter Sarnath's walled park, is a group of Myanmarese devotees who prostrate before the great stupas looming over the entire complex, their faces reflecting the joy of being on the holy trail of the Buddha.
It is believed that after Siddhartha renounced worldly pleasures. he went in search of true knowledge. He found it at Bodh Gaya, and it is here that Lord Brahma told him to teach it to the rest of the world. Reaching Sarnath, he set the wheel of teaching in motion with his first sermon - The Foundation of Righteouness'. This initial sermon of the Wheel of Law', also called the 'Middle Way', became the cornerstone of Buddhism, and, over the years, as he preached, mainly at deer parks, probably alluding to peaceful forested areas, he attracted a following.
Sarnath probably derives from Saranganath, meaning Lord of the Deer. The seventh-century Chinese visitor, Hiuen Tsiang, describes the beauty of Sarnath, with its eight enclosures, tiers of carved balconies, richly decorated halls, 1,500 monks, gilt statues and a life-size bell-metal Buddha in the act of preaching (represented with a wheel), high stupas and water bodies. As Buddhist sites began to decline specially after Islamic invasions, so did Samath. But the remains seen in the 'park' and the relics at the archaeological museum near the entrance, as well as at the museums of Calcutta and Delhi, show that this was a major site of religious, learning and artistic activity. Today, the largely ruined, but imposing monuments, set in pleasant lands caped gardens, make Sarnath worth visiting.
We walked past extensive mills and the foundation of the main shrine (a rectangular building where Ashoka is said to have meditated, dated to Mauryan and Gupta rulers) stopping to see the Ashoka Pillar. Its most notable feature is the edict inscribed on the polished stone-that was once 20 m high, but is now badly damaged and housed in the museum near the park gate. We approached the Dhamek Stupa following a group of Myanmarese pilgrims. This structure dominates the entire complex of Sarnath, with geometric, floral and avifaunal relief carvings on its cylindrical tower, with arched niches in the centre that must have once held images.
In front of us, the Myanmarese pilgrims prostrated before the stupa that is sacred, because it is said to commemorate the exact spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon of four noble truths to five disciples. One of the devotees told us that the stupa, or Dharam Chakra, was enlarged over various periods from the fifth to the ninth century AD, as the carvings belong to the sixth-century Gupta period, and the Brahmni script is from a later era. It now looms more than 30 m over the surrounding grounds on a 28-rn diameter stone plinth. Dharmarajika Stupa, the other ceremonial place of worship. is said to have enshrined relics of the Buddha, but is completely destroyed. According to one of the guides. it was dism antled by the dewan of the Maharaja of Varanasi in the 18th century because it had treasures like a green marble casket full of pearls.
While moving between the stupas, we saw the Digambar Jam temple, built about 1824 AD, believed to be the birthplace of the 11th Jam tirthankara, Shreyanashnath. A huge idol of the saint and murals portray the life of Mahavir, founder of Jainism. Outside the enclosed area is the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, an elegant 1930s Mahabodi temple, with murals by a Japanese artist and ancient relics of the Buddha. The Bodhi tree here is sacred to pilgrims.
Walking on the roads of Sarnath, we saw the Thai temple, the Myamnarese temple, Chinese temp le, Japanese temple and other modem monu ments, an institute of Tibetan studies, and Mrigdayavana Society-run Tibetan temple. We walked back to the car park outside the museum to see the lion capital, first-century stone railing, Kushana Buddhas, Gupta figures, including the piece de resistance-a seated Buddha, cross-legged with hands in mudra gesture, and later sculptures.
The final destination associated with the Buddha was Kushinagar, where he is said to have been cremated. Reaching Varanasi, we headed for Gorakhpur, from where roads lead north to Lumbini, west to Sravasti and Kapilvastu, and east to Kushinagar.
To reach Sarnath, Varanasi, 10km away, is the nearest airport and railhead. Sarnath has a good choice of star- rated hotels like Taj Ganges, Radisson, and Clarkes Tower. For those who want to stay at Sarnath, Hotel Golden Buddha and UP Tourism's Mrigadava are good options. There are also paying-guest accommodations at Sarnath and hotels on the Varanasi-Sarnath road.
At Kushinagar, there are talks that a Japanese foundation is setting up a major shopping and tourist facility to bring in more visitors. A little lane at the centre of Kushinagar has a Thai monastery featuring an assembly hall and a temple in a garden complex, a simple Japanese temp le with a circular chamber enshrining a golden Buddha, an imposing Myanmarese temple, and other temples built by various nationalities. We started with the Matha kuwar shrine-a simple structure among older remains said to mark the place where Buddha last drank water, housing an image of the Lord in the bhumisparasha mudra, or earth-touching posture.
The main site at Kushinagar is the Parinirvana temple complex with a stupa dating to Ashokan times. It also has an imposing idol of the reclining Buddha, said by some to have been brought from Mathura in the fifth century AD by Haribala, a monk, during Raja Kumargupta's reign. This complex, with archaeological ruins and remains of old stupas and shrines, teemed with devotees from different parts of Asia, as it is the place of the Mahaparinirvana of Buddha, the place where he breathed his last.
The Rambahar Stupa was built here by the Malla dynasty to house the relics of the Buddha. As we circled the stupa, a group of pilgrims from Myanmar prostrated in prayer and lit candles in honour of the enlightened one.
Gorakhpur is the main railhead for Kushinagar. about an hour away. Star-rated hotels at Kushinagar like Lotus Nikko and Royal Residency are popular. UP Tourism's Pathik offers rooms for all budget categories.