Post 11 – Day 4 ‘Sarnath’

Post 11

My second day in Varanasi. I awoke to the call to prayer that echoed clear from the Aurangzeb Mosque somewhere nearby. I slept hard the previous morning and had heard only the last of the mosque’s song to the pious. At that time I did not know the significance of the announcement, nor from where it emanated, but my obvious puzzled expression as I stood yesterday upon the balcony alerted a passing French backpacker to my query and she, later divulging a full two days greater knowledge and consequent authority of the surrounds than I, confidently explained its significance. My school boy French was inadequate to express my gratitude. She wrinkled her face in apparent disdain. I think I had insulted her. That evening I bought her an inexpensive Indian tea at the little restaurant on the hotel’s rooftop. We are friendly acquaintances now, though of only a modest familiarity.

The far bank is still shrouded in haze, and heavy dew fell last night so wetting the open-air restaurant above, that I must wait for the owner to dry my table top. Not wanting him to labour in unnecessary servitude for my benefit, and of limited financial return for him, I had considered using my handkerchief to achieve the same effect. But the wisdom of forethought interceded, me in sudden realisation that the application of a piece of cloth traditionally used from the evacuation of nasal cavities, might not be received with due appreciation of my intended gesture. He wiped the table with a cloth of his choosing. I said “thank you”.

So done, and my breakfast finally served and consumed, I try to contemplate the heat of summer at this place. The little newspaper lying near by notifies the death, from exposure to the night cold, of the homeless upon the streets of Delhi. In Hometown, at this moment, people are perspiring in the high heat of summer, their glances set to the possibility of forest fires.


Today is ‘Sarnath Day’, and I will travel to its ruins. My driver/part-time guide will call later to collect me. All the while the tour car has been parked somewhere on the streets of the city. I do not know where my driver passes his time, finds food, or finds shelter. But before heading to Sarnath first I had arranged with him a ‘river cruise’. It was at his instigation and reminder. The fee would be minimal as apparently this pleasure was one of the matters of detailed interest that were included in my itinerary, but one which I had forgotten. My attention had been drawn elsewhere. I had grown accustomed to avoiding the cast-away detritus that littered the alleyways, and took pleasure in the faces of the people I met. I had quite forgotten the cruise.

I sat in a little boat, wood-weathered but sound of construction, the guide alongside. An old man possessing ribs in stark profusion uncomplainingly strained at two oars. His efforts propelled our little party parallel with the shoreline, the riverbank already dotted with the faithful. On the lowermost of the steps, the ghats, a young man followed the pace of our craft in the hope that when I came ashore he could make the sale of sundry items he carried in a broad but shallow tray strapped across his shoulder. The tray was like that used by ice cream and lolly vendors who once solicited cinema goers at film intermissions. He demonstrated a tenacity of interest in our passage. And no obstacle or person was sufficient to bar his movements matched to the speed, almost non-existent as it was, of the boat.

We landed. Sure enough, the young man was there to greet me. He wanted Rs300 for a small book of postcards, cheap ones best consigned to their intended purpose, rather than those of higher quality best kept as proxy photos of a holiday. I offered Rs100. I stood firm to my bid, and he finally accepted, then ran off. Later I noticed that the same booklet of postcards could be bought at the little corner stall near my hotel, for Rs50. I could afford the dollar loss, all 50 rupees of it, and thanked the boy silently for his gift of enlightenment. I laughed silently to myself. In hindsight the episode was an appropriate and instructive introduction to my ‘Sarnath Day’, but I did not overplay the thought.


Sarnath is the site of Gautama Buddha’s first teaching and is not far to the north of Varanasi. Consequently this site has been one of Buddhist pilgrimage and veneration, but the traffic through which we press to reach Sarnath is already congesting the roadways. We compete with slow moving cattle hauling wagons laid high with produce. There, fog still clouded Sarnath’s ruins, shrouding whatever the colour of the sky was on that morning. Birds I do not know, but including some kind of yellow-coloured oriole and multicoloured red, black and white bulbuls among them, are grouped by the entrance gate. Inside its grounds is an informal congress of Tibetan Buddhist monks and novices, their robes coloured deep maroon. They are not too many in number, maybe 40. Some sit in ordered ranks on the damp grass, in study and whispered chant. Others quietly walk clockwise about the large Dhamekh stupa, which at more than 44 metres in height, dominates the structural remains still in evidence. One monk, of about my age, stopped and turned to speak to me. My grasp of Tibetan, in any dialect, was appalling, in truth non existent. But on concluding the wisdom I am certain it was his intent to impart, he grinned wickedly, grasped my hand with both of his, chuckled loudly and walked away to engage with several of his fellows who had stopped attentively nearby. Nice people, those Tibetans. I like their dress sense.


After Guatama Buddha, or Sakyamuni or Gotama Siddhartha if either these alternatives be your choice, had accomplished enlightenment he thought to himself: “This is what I have won through my efforts – Enough! Why should I make it known? This Dharma will not be understood by persons consumed with lust and hate. Heading against the stream, this Dharma is deep, subtle, delicate and difficult to see. It will be unrecognized by those slaves of passion who are cloaked in the mire of ignorance”. These lines I have borrowed from the Majjhima-Nikaya, the ‘Middle-length Discourses of Buddha’ of the Sutta Pitaka. But it was pointed out to Guatama Buddha that there were indeed men who were little defiled by the influences of the material world, and that these were not beyond teaching. If they heard the ‘dharma’ preached, Buddha was informed, they would then be set on a path towards their own enlightenment. So from the urging of human compassion Guatama Buddha resolved to spread his teachings to others so that these might benefit from his experience.

So determined, he decided to teach the five ascetics, known I think as the Pancavaggiva, but do not quote me, to whom he had practised an austere way of life during his six years of previously wandering through the forest. With this intent Guatama Buddha travelled north to the Ganges and then west to Varanasi where he went to the forested area known as the Rsipatana Mrgadava, or ‘Deer Park’. Literally, Rsipatana means ‘fallen sage’ or ‘fallen wiseman’ and refers to the place where the bodies of five hundred Pratyeka Buddhas, lesser Buddhas who have kept their attainment to themselves, fell after achieving ‘nirvana’. The origin of the name Mrgadava is attributed to the king of Varanasi for the place had been set aside as a sanctuary for herds of ‘game animals’, ‘mrga’. There is a subtlety of word craft regarding this place of Buddha’s ‘First Sermon’ that my inadequate finer grasp of Buddhism and its lore, and my profound ignorance of Sanskrit, does not allow me to articulate. But it has something to do with the Sanskrit root ‘mr’, essentially meaning to die, and ‘mrg’ which is a verb implying to hunt or pursue. However it is only in a very general sense that mrga means ‘deer’, for technically the word refers to any small game animals that live in a forest, particularly deer and antelope, animals which are chased, and by running from their pursuers they hope to avoid death. Thereby they are ‘those afraid to die’. This is what mrga literally means, or so I am told. ‘Deer’, if the explanation given me is correct, apparently was simply a convenient English equivalent. To bring my laboured discourse towards an overdue conclusion, Gautama Buddha travels to the park of those who are afraid to die to teach them how to overcome death.

The story proceeds that when Gautama Buddha’s former companions at the Mrgadava see him approaching they resolve not to greet him or to stand in acknowledgement. They bore resentment that Buddha had denied his past ascetic lifestyle. Resolve flies from them for they are overcome by his bearing and radiance, and the ascetics rise to greet him with respect and humility. He is received as one who has attained the state of a ‘further-man’, one who by his self-attainment of enlightenment is worthy to be their teacher; a Buddha, by definition, is a teacher. From there matters and the teachings of the ways of Buddhism evolved, for it too suffered its share of schisms; starting with that of the Theravadins ‘Followers of the Teaching of the Elders’ and the Mahasanghikas the ‘Great Community’, these schools coming into being in 383 BCE, one hundred years after Buddha’s death. Theravadins claim to adhere to the unadulterated teachings of Gautama Buddha. Such, that things are now where they are. And will move from.

So I too came to Sarnath, the modern name for the Rsipatana Mrgadava, the Isipatana of the Pali Canon; the ‘Tripitaka’, this being the standard collection of scripture in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, as represented in the Pali language. But Mughal invaders in the 12th and 16th centuries had preceded me and had wrought much mischief during their visitations. The Mahavamsa, a historical poem written in the Pali language, states that a large community of Buddhist monks were living at Sarnath during the 2nd Century BCE. It became a major centre of the Sammatiya school of Buddhism, but later versions such as Vajrayana Buddhism were also taught there. Originally known as the Sri-Saddharmacakra Jinavihara, ‘The Victor’s Monastery of the Revered Wheel of the Good Law’, or more simply the Dharmacakra Jinavihara, the monastery fell into disuse during the Islamic period, its ruined buildings being mined as a source of bricks for the construction of roads, bridges, and even a bazaar, the Jagatganj. There is also evidence of the wilful use of fire to destroy buildings. Even so monks occasionally found their way there, for even in its ruined state Sarnath never lost its Buddhist significance.

Sarnath is now a large archaeological park. The British had excavated there in the 19th Century. I was greeted by lines and circles of bricks that hinted at long lost halls and ‘stupas’, breast-shaped domes that held relics of spiritual significance, the surviving walls and foundations barely indicating their prior form and height. In apparent haphazard lodgement were blocks of ornament-carved sandstone. These were laid horizontally against their original vertical intent, being inlaid amongst the later rough-cast red brickwork. The Dharmarajika and Chaukhaudi stupas are ghosts. Of the huge Mulagandhakuti temple, said by the 7th Century Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar and traveller Hsuan-tsang (alias Hiuen Tsiang, alias Xuanzang) to be 6o metres in height, only the foundation walls remain. Dating in its present shape from about the 6th Century CE the Dhamekh stupa was plundered in 1794, the same year Robespierre was executed without trial at the height of the French Revolution. The relics of Buddha found in it were consigned to the Ganges. At Sarnath, scroungers both royal and of lesser social stature, have played their role well over the years. We are good at scrounging, us humans. The glories of the architecture of Rome and the eastern cities of the Byzantine Empire did not all fall to war and tempest. They were pulled down piece by piece, often by rude little men who had nothing better to do with the finely carved stone they were casually appropriating than to build a rough barn or an outhouse. We can’t blame everything on invading Goths and Vandals. It was our forefather’s lack of understanding and sympathy for their own architectural heritage that too frequently wrought the infamy.

Fortunately there is the imposing Sarnath Archaeological Museum across the road in which some of the most iconic emblems of the modern Indian state are preserved and exhibited. Sarnath has more Mauryan period material than any other site in India. The broken Asoka column, which dates to about 250 BCE and is named for the Mauryan emperor, Asoka, marks the location of Buddha’s first sermon, and is still in place in the archaeological park. By the 1st Century CE the Asoka column had become a monument worthy of veneration in its own right. The column once held the famous Lion capital, an image of which adorns the Indian national flag and coinage. The capital is remarkably intact, considering it had been toppled 15 metres to the ground, and now stands in the museum. The four lions and lotus of the capital are preserved with only minor damage, only the associated wheel-shaped ‘dharmacakra’ which the lions once supported has been lost, though some few fragments remain in the museum’s collection. Among the other Buddhist treasures unearthed at Sarnath are sculpted heads believed to be representations of the original ascetics who sat intently listening to Buddha’s teaching of the dharma. The style of other found sculptural pieces suggests crafting by Persians who may have fled from Alexander the Great after the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty to the Greeks. Others reflect conventions found in sculpture of Graeco-Buddhist Gandhara, a kingdom which existed in what is now largely Afghanistan.


I crossed from the museum to my car, and my waiting driver-come-guide leaning against it. It was then that India confronted me. My first really serious beggar, an old lady with a particularly bad attitude. I’m in a land with an indigenous middle class of 300 million, at least one of whom boasts private ownership of an airline, and this lady picks on me. I must have had the word ‘Money’ tattooed on my forehead. I didn’t understand a single word she cried. Gesticulations here, gesticulations there. She deftly wove to obstruct every escape route I attempted, she was spritely I’ll give her that. Her hands in my face, her face in my face. I could count the teeth between the spaces. The lady probably had dire need and cause, I don’t doubt it, for I cannot imagine the miserable level of her life. But her approach was all wrong. She wouldn’t stop her haranguing, and I was a first-time apprentice at dealing with such an assault. It’s alright sitting comfortably back in a lounge chair thousands of miles away sipping something cold and sweet while you’re watching a half hour documentary on the world’s dispossessed. Try it in real time. She ushered up visions of harpies and horror movie crones, and people who yell and scratch over the contended ownership of a one dollar mark down blouse sale in a Sydney clothing emporium. Forgive the persistence of gender bias in my examples, but all the bad memories of my mother-in-law, God bless her, came rushing up at me.

Then the guide stepped in. He gave her a small silver coin, maybe a 2 rupee one, a Rs5 at the best. She reversed it several times, appraised both sides coldly, turned and walked to the next tourist, giving no thanks to the guide for his action.

Sarnath was a place of teaching and learning. I will ponder this.


‘Postscript’. Since observing and taking note in my mind of the several species of birds at the entrance to the Sarnath archaeological site I have had the benefit of the brief loan, thanks to the generosity of an English visitor at my hotel with a fondness for bird watching, of Grimmett, Insipp and Inskipp’s excellent and authoritative ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’, in paperback and regrettably a little dog-eared. I will attempt to seek out a copy for myself, but in hardcover. I see from my perusal of its identification plates that my oriole is most probably the Indian Golden Oriole, whose scientific name is Oriolus oriolus kundoo, migratory in parts of its known range, whilst the bulbul is of the ‘Red-whiskered’ kind, Pycnonotus jocosus, this species widespread in India. Belatedly I realised the Red-whiskered bulbul had been released into Australia, it not being native there, and that I recall one or two, when I was a child, being infrequent visitors to my parent’s backyard. One additional bird I remember from that morning at Sarnath, is the Brahminy starling, Sturnia pagodorum, the male sporting a distinctive cap of black feathers on the head, and the back of its neck, this giving the false impression of a hood.

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