Sarnath

by Gabriella Sonabend

Yesterday felt somewhat indulgent.

Norman has a friend visiting him from London and had organised to take him to Sarnath, the site where the Buddha is said to have given his first teachings in India. Sarnath has become a site of pilgrimage for all denominations of Buddhism and across a few kilometres of land the various Buddhists have each built a temple for their practitioners to come and meditate/worship in. (I have never been sure where the word worship is appropriate when discussing Buddhists). In the morning the three of us left from the gallery with Anil our favourite tuktuk driver, (who has unofficially been working for the gallery/residents for a few years now being the only trusted tuktuk driver we are able to call knowing that he will always be on time, take us to the right places and never honk his horn or chew paan as he drives).

Although Sarnath is only about 12km away from Kriti the drive through the broken roads and heavy traffic took almost an hour. As we drove north, further and further from the city, Norman talked about the days when Varanasi was surrounded by beautiful green fields and tranquility. Looking around me, as he described what must have been a somewhat paradisaical place, I strained to imagine these dusty roads lined with street vendors, animals and vehicles, looking any other way.

We turned down a smooth quiet road, which led into the area of Sarnath. Here the air was cleaner than in the city and beautiful peaceful gardens had been constructed around the row of temples, which are set back from the road. We wandered around the various Buddha statues and stone wheels of life and removed our shoes to step on the cool temple floors. Tourists swarmed around us and as the temperature had dropped I enjoyed the ease of the place. We visited the museum, which contained a collection of archeological findings, stone sculptures of deities, old tools and segments of jewelry. Unfortunately and not surprisingly there was very little information about anything and the tour guide who was leading a group of Americans behind us seemed equally ill-informed about the museum artefacts.

We strolled around the ruins of the great temple complex, which is what has awarded Sarnath its fame and we circled the large stupa. (A large mound made of stone or brick which is believed to hold a relic from the Buddha’s body inside). I was amused to see that the stupa was covered in scaffolding and a group of no less than 10 Indian men stood and sat atop it looking particularly unproductive as they sent buckets flying up and down the great structure on rope-lines. The tiny people at the top of the large mound looked like ants passing large leaves between them. I stopped and watch this a while easily amused.

After seeing enough temples and not feeling particularly spiritually enlightened or enticed to stay longer, we headed back into town to Norman’s favourite restaurant, Kerala Cafe, where he very generously insisted on buying lunch. I, like a child, indulged in a coffee ice-cream shake and an enormous masala dosa (a traditional south Indian dish). I joked about having missed the city while we were on our outing but there was a peculiar truth in my words. Although Sarnath had been extremely pleasant and was a welcome interlude from the noise of the city, it provided me with no sense of place. It was simply a site and one, which to which I felt no particular connection. The tourist coaches and gift shops created a sense of inauthenticity and I left there feeling strangely cold and unstirred.

Despite my ambivalence to Sarnath the day provided a necessary respite from the city and it was a pleasure to spend it in the company of the mysterious Norman and his British friend.

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