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The Ghats The Temples Other Universities Excursions

Excursions around Varanasi

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ll  Sarnath  ll


To see...



Main Shrine

Ashoka Pillar

Mulgandh Kuti


Archaeological Museum

A stupa is a solid, semi-spherical mound of brick or stone, a symbolic representation of the Buddha. The stupa, in fact, has a funerary association, for, according to Buddhist mythology, eight such spherical mounds were built over Bhudda's remains in Kusinagara where he died in 480 B.C. Perhaps, this accounts for the stark architecture of most stupas, which are unadorned. Some stupas, however, are embellished with sculptural bands running around their exterior. Very often, there is a relic chamber at the bottom of the stupa, which is a treasure-house for archaeologists. But this chamber can be reached only by boring a shaft through the centre of the stupa.

For non-Buddhists, the most exciting parts of the stupa are the ornamental gateways and the beautifully carved stone railings that flank the staircase leading to the base of the stupa, where it rises on a platform. Most stupas are crowned by a single or triple umbrellas.

Emperor Ashoka built several stupas in and around Sarnath and ruins of many have been excavated. The two most important stupas are the Dharmarajika Stupa and the Dhamekh Stupa.

The Dharmarajika Stupa is in ruins. But Sarnath was re-discovered only because J~gat Singh, the Dewan of Raja Chet Singh ofVaranasi, ordered this stupa to be demolished and its material used in the construction of other buildings.

The workmen who were pulling down the stupa found a casket of green marble enclosed in a stone box (now housed in the Archaeological Museum) at a depth of about 8.25 m inside the stupa.

The discovery prompted Duncan, the then British Resident of Banaras, to publish an article about it. This generated a lot of interest among archaeologists and the Government and resulted, ultimately, in the treasures of Sarnath b~ing unearthed.

Excavations have revealed that the Dharmarajika Stupa had been enlarged no less than six times. The original stupa, built by Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. to enshrine the bodily remains of Buddha brought from Kusinagara, was enlarged, with stair cases and a circumambulatory passage, which was filled up later, being added. The last addition to the stupa was made in the 12th century. Following Muslim invasion, it lay abandoned, till Jagat Singh ordered its demolition in 1794. A red sandstone Bodhisattva image of the 1 st century AD. and a 5th century image of Buddha in the Dharmacha~ra Pravartana mudra (pose) were found near the monument.

The only monument in Sarnath that has withstood the ravages of time and men is the Dhamekh Stupa, which rises to a height of 42 m., towering above the surrounding ruins. Scattered masses of brick and stone, once portions of temples, stupas and monasteries, built by different dynasties over several centuries, girdle the Dhamekh Stupa, making the solitary surviving monument seem all the more awesome. The visible stupa is dated to 500 AD., as the broad belt of intricate carving, showing beautiful floral patterns and geometric designs, is typical of Gupta architecture. But excavations in the stupa have revealed brickwork of the Mauryan period (200 B.C.), indicating that the present structure has been built over earlier constructions.

The original name of Dhamekh Stupa, Dharmachakra Stupa, it is held, indic.ates that it was built to commemorate the spot where Buddha delivered his first sermon. This theory is reinforced by the luxuriant stone work that has gone into the making of the stupa, obviously once a place of great importance.