Stupa-hopping in Sarnath

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Mains Paper 1: Arts & Culture | All syllabus

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level:  Sarnath Stupa and associated stories

Mains level:  Significance of Buddhism


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Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath

  1. Dhamek Stupa is a massive stupa located at Sarnath, 13 km away from Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India.
  2. It was built in 500 CE to replace an earlier structure commissioned by Ashoka in 249 BCE, along with several other monuments, to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in this location.
  3. While visiting Sarnath in 640 CE, Xuanzang recorded that the colony had over 1,500 priests and the main stupa was nearly 300 feet (91 m) high.
  4. In its current shape, the stupa is a solid cylinder of bricks and stone reaching a height of 43.6 meters and having a diameter of 28 meters.
  5. The basement seems to have survived from Ashoka’s structure: the stone facing is chiseled and displays delicate floral carvings of Gupta origin.
  6. The wall is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds, as well as inscriptions in the Brāhmī script.

Importance of Sarnath

  1. The Dhamek Stupa is said to mark the spot Rishipattana, where Buddha gave the first sermon to his first five Brahmin disciples after attaining enlightenment, “revealing his Eightfold Path leading to nirvana”.
  2. In several of the ancient sources the site of the first sermon is mentioned to have been at a ″Mriga-dayaa-vanam″ or a sanctuary for animals.

Stories associated with Sarnath

  1. From Bodh Gaya, Buddha went to the Deer Park (Mrigadava) in Sarnath, where the five monks who had been with him during his ascetic phase were staying.
  2. It was there that he gave his first sermon, an event known as the Dharma Chakra Pravarttana, or turning of the wheel of law.
  3. In ancient times, this place was known by many names — Rishipatana, Mrigadava and Mrigadaya.
  4. The word Sarnath comes from a corruption of the name Saranganatha (lord of deer).

The first Sermon

  1. In his first sermon to the five companions, Buddha spoke of the Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path that frees people from suffering.
  2. He said that there are two ways of life: one is to indulge in all the pleasures of the world and the other is to deny oneself these pleasures.
  3. The middle path is the way to achieve nirvana, he said.

Foundation of Sangha

  1. It is in Sarnath that Buddha laid the foundation of his sangha, or organisation of monks.
  2. He had 60 disciples whom he sent to different parts of the country to spread his teachings.
  3. He also established an order of female monks, which was joined by his wife.

Excavation in Colonial Period

  1. The beautiful stupas and monasteries in Sarnath were excavated under Sir Alexander Cunningham.
  2. He excavated the Dhamekh, Dharmarajika, and Chaukhandi stupas along with a monastery and temple between 1834 and 36.
  3. Many excavations followed these, the most famous among them being the 1904-05 excavation by Friedrich Oscar Oertel of the Ashoka Pillar, including the Lion Capital.

National Emblem of India

  1. On top of the Ashokan pillar in Sarnath was the the Lion Capital and the Dharmachakra, but the Lion Capital is now housed in Sarnath museum, while the pillar remains where it was originally.
  2. The Lion Capital was adopted as the national emblem of India in 1950.

Survived several invasions

  1. After Ashoka, the other rulers who added to Sarnath’s glory were the Kushans, the Guptas and Harshavardhana.
  2. Under the Guptas, the Dharmekh stupa was encased with stone-carved floral designs.
  3. Sarnath suffered from the Huna invasions, but Harshavardhana later restored some of the earlier buildings.
  4. Sarnath also suffered when it was attacked by Mahmud of Ghazni. Mahipala, the Pala king, restored the monuments.

Cultural Significance

  1. Architect James Fergusson remarks that the sculptured band on the central part of the Dhamek stupa, which has geometric patterns of great intricacy similar to the mosques in Delhi and Ajmer.
  2. The calligraphy on the screen of Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, built by Qutbuddin Aibak in the Qutub complex in Delhi, does bear resemblance to the stupa.
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