Walk in Buddha’s Footsteps
While you’re in Varanasi take a trip to Sarnath. Here you can literally walk in Buddha’s footsteps as Sarnath is where Buddha met with his five disciples and delivered his first sermon. Of course, Sarnath is a very holy place for Buddhists but it’s also a wonderful place to visit just to experience the peace and tranquillity of the gardens.
How to visit Sarnath from Varanasi
Before we arrived in Varanasi I spent a lot of time trying to find information on getting to Sarnath. Most of the reports I read suggested that you needed to take a tour. However, Sarnath is such a small place that I really don’t think that’s necessary. Of course, the first hurdle is to get there. Sarnath is about an hour from Varanasi so a taxi is an obvious choice. Unfortunately, if you stay right down by the ghats as we did then getting a taxi is very difficult.
Take a tuk-tuk
In fact, the best way to get anywhere in Varanasi is by tuk-tuk. We found them cheap and reliable and also great fun to travel in. So, we approached the gaggle of tuk-tuk drivers outside our hotel and asked them if they could take us to Sarnath. I was a bit worried about how we were going to get back but I thought we’d deal with that at the time.
However, the tuk-tuk driver offered us a deal of 800 Rupees to take us there, wait and bring us back. That’s around £9. For a 4-5 hour trip, it sounded very reasonable to us and we happily accepted. In all honesty, we could probably have haggled him down a bit but for the sake of a £1 or so, it really isn’t worth it. Our budget isn’t that tight and we’re happy to contribute to the local economy.
It was a great choice and quite a ride. We’ve definitely never been in a tuk-tuk on the dual carriageway before! When the driver turned on to it, I was a bit ‘OMG, we’re going on the motorway!’ but he knew what he was doing. I must admit, I wouldn’t drive myself in India since it looks like total chaos. Indian drivers don’t actually drive in the allocated lanes so they’ll be three lines of traffic squeezed onto a two-lane road. I think the constant beeping is something to do with not hitting each other but they might just be having fun. Still, the tuk-tuk is my recommended way to travel around Varanasi and we got to and from Sarnath without incident.
What to see in Sarnath
Sarnath Buddha Garden
As it happens, there’s a large car park just opposite the Buddha Garden. This is where all the tuk-tuk drivers park. We were the first ones there in the morning. However, lots of others arrived before we returned to Varanasi.
To start your visit to Sarnath, simply cross the road and walk into the gardens. There is no entry fee and the gardens are a lovely place to wander around. As soon as you enter the gardens you’ll see the giant stone statue of Buddha. At around 80 feet tall you simply can’t miss it.
Spend some time enjoying the calm and tranquillity of this garden. As you wander around you’ll find a number of golden Buddha statues. There’s also a small temple with yet another gold Buddha inside. Don’t forget to take your shoes off if you approach any of the statues or go inside the temple. Another top tip, if you walk down the path behind the small temple there is a Tibetan Buddhist retreat. You’ll find some nice clean toilets at the back, behind the main hall.
Visit the Sarnath Museum next, before you head to the Stupa. You’ll have a better idea of how significant the excavated area is after spending some time exploring the museum. The museum at Sarnath is organised by the Archaeological Survey of India and it’s one of their oldest museums. Inside you’ll find a selection from over 6,000 artefacts in their collection. All these were excavated from the nearby archaeological site which you can also visit.
The Museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm every day except Friday. Firstly, buy your entrance ticket at the small kiosk opposite the entrance to the Sarnath Museum. In fact, it’s a little bit confusing as one window sells tickets to the museum and one window sells tickets to the archaeological site. You can’t buy a combined ticket so you need to queue twice. Buy tickets for the museum for 5 Rupees. Practically nothing. You pay less than 1p. That’s because it is the same cost for Indians and foreigners.
Leave your bags in the free lockers at the entrance. You cannot take bags inside the museum. When we were there very few people were visiting the museum. So it’s uncrowded and a very pleasant place to wander around. It’s also air-conditioned so a lovely respite from the heat for a short while.
Explore the galleries
In the first two galleries are statues dedicated to Buddha and his various followers. Here, you can see statues of seated and standing Buddhas. India’s national emblem, the lion capital, dominates the third gallery. The polished Chunar sandstone statue is quite unique. It is surrounded by other red sandstone sculptures made from local stone.
Gallery four focuses on a number of different deities. For instance, Yaksha, Surya and Saraswati. You can also see sculptures of animals and birds here together with some everyday items such as pots and iron tools.
In the 5th gallery you can see deities such as Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh in different forms.
You can also see a number of stone reliefs and lintels in the veranda galleries and wander in the gardens. It’s also worth knowing that there are clean toilets in the museum. You can also fill up your water bottle at the drinking water point which is useful.
Without a doubt, the highlight of your trip to Sarnath will be a visit to the archaeological site and Dhamek Stupa. Buy your tickets at the kiosk opposite the museum. Tickets cost 100 Rupees for foreigners, approximately £1. On your left, as you enter the park is a small building with displays and information about the site.
As you walk into the park look out for the Bodhi tree. This large tree is a form of the fig tree and was planted from a seedling brought from Sri Lanka. For this reason, it has great spiritual value for Buddhists. Underneath this tree, is where Buddha found enlightenment.
Of course, the main attraction is Dhamek Stupa. As well as its physical presence it also has great spiritual significance. This large cylindrical construction is made of stone and bricks and stands over 40 metres high. It’s of particular significance as it is believed to be the site at which Buddha gave his first sermon.
As well as the stupa, there are a number of other excavated buildings on the site. You can spend some time walking around and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere here. Even if you’re not a Buddhist, there’s something rather special about this place.
Although the stupa is protected by a circular barrier which runs right around the bottom of it, you can still get pretty close. As can be seen above, parts of the stupa have been extensively repaired and restored. Standing in front of it likes this makes you feel very small.
Sarnath makes an excellent day out from Varanasi. The contrast is remarkable. Sarnath is so tranquil by comparison and I think I enjoyed it even before because of the respite from the chaos in Varanasi.