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After reaching enlightenment, the Buddha began attracting followers—and founding a religion—by preaching. He delivered his first sermon at Sarnath, near the banks of the Ganges in Northeast India, in the 6th century BCE. By the 3rd century BCE, it had become a site of considerable importance; the emperor Ashoka visited and erected a gleaming pillar, officially declaring it the site of the Buddha’s sermon while also referencing the flourishing monastic community. For thousands of years Sarnath has attracted monks, artists, archaeologists, and tourists from across the globe. Today, it ranks among the most prominent and most visited sites for Buddhists. Its ancient religious structures, including stupas, or reliquary mounds, and pieces of Ashoka’s pillar, can be visited in an archaeological park that is a candidate for World Heritage status.

In this episode, Fredrick Asher, professor emeritus of art history at the University of Minnesota, discusses the long history and significance of Sarnath, the site’s relationship to its local populations, and ideas for the future of the excavated area. Asher is the author of Sarnath: A Critical History of the Place Where Buddhism Began, recently released by Getty Publications.
Book cover image, featuring a watercolor image of a stupa that has plants growing from it. Below is the book title, Sarnath: The Place Where Buddhism Began

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Sarnath: A Critical History of the Place Where Buddhism Began buy the book


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
FREDERICK ASHER: There is, and appropriately so, a tension between Sarnath as an archaeological monument, a historical monument, but also a highly sacred one.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with art historian Frederick Asher about his new book, Sarnath: A Critical History of the Place Where Buddhism Began.
Sarnath, a village in India ten kilometers north-east of Varanasi near the confluence of the Ganges and Varuna rivers, is said to be where sometime during the fifth century BCE, the Buddha preached his first sermon and attracted his first followers or monastic order.
Famous for its archaeological and sculptural remains, Sarnath is a popular devotional and tourist site today.
I recently spoke with Frederick Asher, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, whose book, Sarnath: A Critical History of the Place Where Buddhism Began, was recently published by the Getty Research Institute.
Okay. Thanks for speaking with me on this podcast episode, Rick. And congratulations on your new book. Let’s start at the beginning. Who was the Buddha and what was his association with Sarnath?
ASHER: First of all, I’m really glad you refer to him as the Buddha, recognizing that that’s an epithet, a kind of nickname he acquired on his enlightenment that happened considerably later in his life.
But just to give a little bit of background, he was born in the north of India, south of Nepal. There is some debate, of course, as to where at least his father, a minor royalty, served as the monarch. India claims one place for Kapilavastu, the capital; they claim Piprahwa. Nepal claims Tilaurakot, which is very near Lumbini Garden, where the Buddha was born, according to these later texts, from his mother’s right side, as she reached up to grab the branches of a sal tree.
He was born about 500 BCE. He was a prince then. But he had some doubts consistently through his life in the palace. The Buddha was— or really, the prince was much moved by the things that he saw, worried about the luxury with which he lived..
It was this kind of experience that led him—in adulthood, after he was married, after he had a son—to leave the palace to go off in quest of a kind of wisdom. And he studied with various sages, until one day, he decided that meditation might be the best way of gaining the kind of insight that he sought.
And so at a place that today we call Bodhgaya, he sat through the night in profound meditation; and by morning, had gained full enlightenment, and thereby, became the Buddha. And so after several weeks remaining there, he decided to go off to a place to preach to those who might listen.
And he went westward, towards the place that today we call Sarnath, where he encountered once again, five monks whom he had known at Bodhgaya. And he preached to them a sermon, a sermon about the Middle Way—that is, about moderation; about the Eightfold Path, as he called it, of noble truth, the cessation of suffering, and the list goes on though the remaining six, at Sarnath. And he was able to convert them to his way of being.
Now, [it] was that place, which was not then called Sarnath, but rather, Rishipattana or Mrigadava, the place where the deer were, the place where the deer roamed, maybe we should say, the garden of deer, or the place of the rishis, the sages, the wisemen. And it was only sometime later, in the third century BCE, that Sarnath, as the very place that today we call Sarnath, a name that’s derived from a temple that is there, but was not at the time, that it became identified as the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon attracted his first converts, and then subsequently attracted a larger and larger number of converts.
CUNO: How do we know the content of the first sermon?
ASHER: That’s a good question, Jim. We don’t know, really, the content for sure. But in subsequent texts—by subsequent, I mean even beginning about the first century—it’s recorded that this is what he taught. But all this is sort of building a biography of a person who came to be quite important.
At first, of course, he was a local sage. Subsequently, as he gathered more and more adherents; and finally, as they left the place that today we call Sarnath, to go wandering and gain more and more adherents, and he became the beloved of his adherents. So again, say such texts. And when I say such texts, I mean portions of much larger philosophical or religious texts.
CUNO: Where do these texts reside?
ASHER: Where do they reside? They reside in the memory of those who committed them to me. Now, you may wonder a text that runs, you know, in an octaval volume, normal book-size volume, several hundred pages; how could somebody memorize that? The answer is, they really, really could memorize vast amounts of literature. And still do.
And part of the training that one gets, let’s say if you decide to study with a sage at Benares, modern Varanasi, would be, “Recite after me. Memorize this.” And they do. So as a wonderful anthropologist who worked extensively in south India asked modern architects, “Well, do you have the architectural texts?” And they’d say, “Yes, of course we do.”
And he’d say, “Oh, I’d love to see them. Where are they?” And they’d point to their chest and say, “In my heart.” And I think that explains a lot about the tradition and why we have some variations on the texts, as we really do.
CUNO: How long did the Buddha reside, if that’s the correct word for it, at Sarnath? How long did he say at Sarnath?
ASHER: You know, that’s a good question, but one we can’t answer. Here’s my best guess. He likely stayed until he had a fairly large group of adherents. So I’m assuming a few years, in any event, before they went off to spread the word, so to speak, and wander over northeast India.
CUNO: What’s the importance of the site in relationship to Varanasi or Benares, as you name it, and the River Ganges?
ASHER: You know, we don’t know really. But here’s what I assume. The Buddha, for then he weas the Buddha, when he came to Sarnath, picked the outskirts of Benares because it was an important city, a really important city, as a religious center.
And the Ganges, which flows beside Benares, was a main artery of travel. River travel was the main mode in premodern times. And so it could bring lots of adherents, or potential adherents to the Buddha at that time.
But I think there is one other thing. Benares, Varanasi to use the proper name today, Varanasi is associated with death. It is a place that people come to specifically to die. And I think the Buddha’s concern with death and overcoming death made a location and proximity to Benares a very important one.
CUNO: What was the earliest structure on the site, and what was its purpose? And by site, I mean Sarnath.
ASHER: Yeah, of course. The answer is again, we don’t know for sure what’s the earliest. We have the foundations of buildings that date to the third century BCE. 200 years, that is, after the time of the Buddha.
In the West generally, if we were going to rebuild a structure, we would tear down the old one, down to the foundation, and build anew. In India, the tradition is to encase the old structure anew and to thereby expand it. So at least inner core of most buildings that stand does remain.
Here’s where the third century BCE becomes very important. The Emperor Ashoka, who lived about 262 to 239 BCE, converted to Buddhism. Having converted to Buddhism, he decided to visit the various sites that were associated with the life of the Buddha. He was led by a monk, first to the site where the Buddha was born.
And there, the emperor erected a pillar. And on the pillar, he inscribed not his usual edicts, but rather an edict that says, “I declare this the site where the Buddha was born.” In other words, he was on a mission to identify specific geographical places. And in the course of his travels, he came to Sarnath.
And there, on a pillar, he inscribed an admonition to the monks and nuns at Sarnath. So clearly, by the time he was there, in the third century BCE, there must have been some kind of monastic gathering, because his admonition to the monks and nuns is, “Hey, you guys, if you form any sort of schism, if you fail to follow a kind of unified practice, you are going to be very much an outcast.” And he describes what an outcast will be.
So it does seem that when he arrived at these places, especially the site where the Buddha was born, where he gained enlightenment, where he preached his first sermon—that is, Sarnath—and finally, after that, the place where the Buddha died, he declared them as those very places.
There was no way to know precisely where the Buddha preached his first sermon,
CUNO: So among the first structures is a stupa, a famous stupa. I’ll pronounce it, probably, incorrectly, but Dhamek Stupa. What’s the date and purpose of that stupa?
ASHER: Again, we don’t know for sure what the date or purpose of the stupa that’s known as the Dhamek Stupa really was. It is today the largest standing structure at Sarnath. It is sort of the iconic structure of Sarnath.
And for a very long time—from the seventeen century onward—it had attracted amateur watercolorists, professional painters. It was an object of great, great interest. And today, the signage the Archaeological Survey of India provides there, one of the few extensive signs they have anywhere at the site, says, “This is the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon.”
But they made it up. It is completely a product of the Archaeological Survey of India, and a very, very modern one.
CUNO: Now today, it’s a brick structure. But in its heyday, in earlier years, it had had stone sculpture around it. And what happened to sculpture and what was the importance of that sculpture? Did it tell a story? Did it introduce the believer to a kind of environment that was important?
ASHER: Let’s start off with this. A stupa is intended to enshrine relics, relics that allegedly belonged to the Buddha. And they are kept in a reliquary.
Today, all that remains of any sort of sculptural adornment of the Dhamek Stupa, is a beautifully carved pattern that runs the circumference of the stupa, at a good twelve or fourteen feet in height.
Within this, however, there are niches, niches that probably contained stone images; but they may as well have been stucco images. We have no idea whatever what happened to those sculptures. Almost all of Sarnath’s sculptures have today been removed to the Sarnath Museum, India’s first site museum.
CUNO: When one approaches the stupa, is there a prescribed path that one takes? What is important about that, and describe it for us.
ASHER: The general practice is to circumambulate the stupa in what today, we would call a clockwise direction. It simply is a way of gaining proximity to the Buddha himself, as represented by the relic inside.
But today at Sarnath, groups of monks or devotees who are not initiated come to Sarnath and generally sit by the Dhamek Stupa as a group, and listen as a preceptor, a teacher, usually from their country—Thailand and Sri Lanka being probably the most common ones—and listen to them preach, listen to a sermon, listen to an explanation of a text.
Imagine the awe of experiencing listening to a text expounded upon with exegeses by a profound adherent of the faith, as you sit in proximity to what is imagined to be the Buddha himself, or at least a portion of his body. Now, I say imagine, because we don’t know what’s inside the Dhamek Stupa.
CUNO: Today, when one goes to Sarnath, one sees little pieces of metal foil attached to the stupa. What is the importance of that foil?
ASHER: You know, this is an interesting question. Partly because wherever one sees the gold foil attached to either a temple at Sarnath, or the remains of a temple or to a stupa, there are always signs from the Architectural Survey, “Do not put foil on this monument.” But in contradiction, invariably, monks do it all the time.
And no one stops them, and probably should not, because there is, and appropriately so, a tension between Sarnath as an archaeological monument, a historical monument, but also a highly sacred one.
The purpose— I’m not sure about the antiquity, although we do have one Buddha image—not from Sarnath, but rather from far in the northwest—that is fully covered in foil. My sense is that it is to give it a golden sheen, much as pillars are lustrously polished. I do think the idea of a kind of metal reflecting the sun was terribly important.
And the sun is an important symbol in Buddhism. His birth, for example, in one text known as the Buddhacarita, the Life of the Buddha, refers to the Buddha’s birth in solar terms. “Like the young sun, he had eternal brilliance. Like the sun, he obscured the rays of the lamps of night and the moon itself.” And it goes on and on in solar terms. The idea of brilliance, reflective brilliance, is, I think, very important.
CUNO: Now, give us a sense of the scale of Sarnath. How many structures remain on the site today, if only as foundations? I mean, there aren’t very many built structures any longer, but there are foundations, as you mention. How big a site is it?
ASHER: The site isn’t big. I can walk all the way around the excavated site, the site that is enclosed within a fence, the site that one pays a ticket to enter. I can walk the whole thing in twenty minutes, maybe. And I’m not a fast walker. So it’s not a huge structure by any means.
And so how many monuments are there? Two big stupas, one of which has been reduced to its foundation only; but the diameter of that is easily as large as that of the Dhamek Stupa. Then about a kilometer away is another—but outside the fenced area—is yet another stupa.
Within Sarnath, however, within the excavated area, there are several monastic structures, of which, again, only the foundation remains, enough to see the individual monks’ cells; but we don’t have any idea how high they were.
In addition to that, there are a lot of relatively small stupas. Small carved stupas— which were monolithic, one piece of stone—about, oh, maybe eighteen inches in height. And they’re scattered around the site.
Now, I think the site has much more organization than often implied. For example, I see a row of monastic dwellings on the north side and another row on the south side, the stupas in the center. Are we dealing with two schools of Buddhism? Maybe. Maybe.
But I also think it important to recognize that what we call Sarnath, the site that was used from the third century to at least the twelfth century and once again in the nineteenth and twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries, extends way beyond the excavated site. I find mounds within a ten-minute walk. And I’m sure all those mounds contain relics. And I rather imagine that the images we find in American and European museums that are Sarnath-style images all come from these surrounding mounds, as a result of illegal excavation.
CUNO: How and how often did pilgrims access the site?
ASHER: There’s a curious thing that I’ve never quite, quite understood. The Western tourists who hire a car for half a day and visit Sarnath for about an hour—that’s the average time, apparently, that a tourist spends at the entire site. And part of that may be, oh, buying souvenirs or eating snacks. But it’s the devotees, the worshippers, especially from abroad, that can’t access the site quite so easily.
Nonetheless, many of them stay at designated monasteries on, you know, within a five- to ten-minute, maybe even fifteen-minute walk from the excavated area. There’s a Chinese monastery, there’s a Tibetan monastery. The oldest is the Burmese—that is, the Myanmar monastery, but referred to still as the Burmese monastery. The list goes on and on.
And in fact, when I was last at Sarnath—I’ve been there I can’t tell you how many times—when I was last there and walked out to the Vietnamese monastery, which is one of the farthest away, I saw a sign that says, “This will be the site of the American monastery.”
CUNO: So it’s still an important pilgrimage site today.
ASHER: Yes, definitely. It is extremely important. If I had to rank order the Buddhist sites, I would probably put Bodhgaya as first and Sarnath as second. So what we might say is that of all the Buddhist sites, Sarnath is the second-most important of all.
Why isn’t it first? I can only make a few guesses, because it certainly is the most accessible. There’re trains, buses, even regular flights to Benares. That’s not the case at Bodhgaya, which is still considered the holiest place. But I think that is because that’s where he became the Buddha.
CUNO: What about he famous Chinese pilgrims, Faxian and Xuanzang? Why and when did they come to Sarnath?
ASHER: The Chinese pilgrims, Faxian came in the fifth century, Xuanzang in the seventh century. We even have their approximate dates. I think their fame and importance may be somewhat exaggerated. Indeed, Xuanzang, who kept by far the greater, more extensive, and more detailed account, dispenses with Sarnath in about two and a half printed pages. It’s not an extremely long, detailed account. He simply notes, “Here were pillars. There were three stupas,” and so on.
But it was Alexander Cunningham, who founded the Archaeological Survey of India, who believed that India had no real written history. To a very large extent, he was wrong; but it just has to be extracted in a different way than the way in which we might extract a European history.
And so he found the recent French translation of Xuanzang by Stanislas Julien, and was thrilled because here was an account, in detail. “I spent this night here; then I went there; then I went X distance to the next place.” And so at last, Cunningham, in the 1850s, believed he had the source for reconstructing the history of the life of the Buddha and the places associated with his life.
CUNO: Well, speaking of Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey in India, tell us about the history of the survey, Architectural Survey, when it started and how important it is today.
ASHER: Well, having mentioned Cunningham, who did excavate at Sarnath even in the 1830s, Cunningham was from a highly privileged background, not surprising, from British civil servants. He was an engineer in the Army Corps of Engineers. His brother was the political agent of the British for a very large kingdom in central India, which gave Cunningham the opportunity to excavate at a site known as Sanchi, a very, very important site, but not one associated with the life of the Buddha.
With his retirement coming up in 1861, he wrote Lord Canning—the Viceroy of India—to say, “Hey, look, we have the trigonometric survey. We’re mapping India in detail. We have established the census. We are determining the population of India. But we need the Archaeological Survey of India to understand the history of the country that we now rule so benevolently.
“Oh, and by the way,” said Cunningham, “I’d like you to appoint me Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India.” And Lord Canning did agree, created the Archaeological Survey of India, appointed Alexander Cunningham its director general.
CUNO: What was its ambition? Was it to map or survey the entire subcontinent of India?
ASHER: Cunningham’s work was really limited to north India. He never extended very far south at all. And so what would have been his ambitions, if he could have lived decades longer?
Maybe to go to the south. But his languages, his expertise, his level of comfort really was north India-based. And so we have some intimate and detailed records, in twenty-two volumes, of the Archaeological Survey of India reports. And I guess I should say twenty-one, since volume twenty-two is the index.
CUNO: What about Sir John Marshall?
ASHER: Ah, Sir John Marshall. A really interesting guy, to say the very, very least. Marshall had excavated three seasons in Crete, and came to India at age twenty-six. Twenty-six, when he was appointed Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, in 1902.
But I think there was more to that than his young age, which continues, however, to awe me. But despite the fact that he had a pretty gruff personality that is well-recorded, he nonetheless was the first Director General to give Indians a voice in exploring their own history.
Up until his time—that is, until 1902—it was exclusively a European mission. When Cunningham was director general, Indians served to set up camp ahead of him, so that he could have his dinner in comfort and his bed already made for him. That’s not what Marshall did. Marshall, who had an immense curiosity, very broad gauge, gave Indians a voice in the Survey.
At Sarnath, he picked up the excavations that in 1904 and 1905, had revealed some of the very most important of all objects. And then after his time at Sarnath, went on to excavate India’s earliest civilization. Marshall was a remarkable, remarkable scholar.
CUNO: And by the earliest archaeological remains in India, are you referring to the Harappan civilization?
ASHER: Yes, when I say excavating the earliest sites, I am referring to the Harappan culture that flourished from—and here will be a controversial statement—but flourished from about 2500 to 1900 BCE, and was contemporary with the major sites of Mesopotamia, with Sumerian and then Akkadian civilizations.
CUNO: Was it Sir John Marshall who discovered the so-called pillar with the inscription of Ashoka on it?
ASHER: No, it wasn’t Marshall. And I’ll bet he was disappointed. It was a German named F. O. Oertel, who had renounced his German citizenship to take on English citizenship—and I suppose, thereby a job—who got permission from Marshall to excavate at Sarnath during the 1904-1905 season. I put it as a two-year season, simply because the cool season begins in November, lasts through about March. And that’s when most of the excavations were conducted.
And Oertel uncovered some things that were of the most extraordinary importance, from Sarnath’s only dated images, three of them, to a pillar bearing Ashoka’s edict. Remember, he was the third century BCE emperor who designated the site that today we call Sarnath as the place where the Buddha preached his first sermon.
And there on that pillar, brilliantly polished, fragments of it lying still at the site—protected, however, by a glass enclosure—brilliantly polished, as Xuanzang, the seventh century Chinese pilgrim noted— And on that pillar was an inscription admonishing the monks and nuns of Sarnath to avoid schism, and asserting punishment.
He also found the capital of that pillar, which shows four adorssed—that is four back-to-back—lions standing on a platform, often called by its Greek name, an abacus, with four different animals—a lion, a horse, a bull, and an elephant—each of them separated from one another by a carved wheel.
And on the back of these four addorsed lions was held an enormous wheel. We’re seeing two things that, I think, require still further interpretation. The wheel, of course; but also the four animals.
And I do suspect—I do assume, even—that the wheel, both perched on the backs of these lions and also the wheels separating the four animals, refers to the wheel of the law the Buddha set in motion when he preached his first sermon.
As for the four animals and the pillar, what is its symbolism? Here’s the conundrum that I find absolutely fascinating. Between the time of the Harappan civilization—remember, 2500 to 1900 BCE—and the third century BCE—that is, the time of Ashoka—we do not have a single sculpture work that remains. Not one. And yet all of a sudden, during the time of Ashoka, we fine extraordinary work in stone, such as this brilliantly-polished pillar and its magnificently-carved adorst lion capital.
So the obvious question is, where did they learn to do this? And there’re all sorts of theories, some of them half-baked, it seems to me. And so we still need to puzzle and think clearly about, what’s the symbolism of the pillar? But also, how was it made? Who learned to make such a thing?
The tendency to look at foreign activity, a foreign influence, seems to me far too great. In fact, if I may say something about the whole world of art history, that word influence rather bothers me, because too often, we use it without explanation of how the influence was transmitted, how and why it was received.
And so while we might say, yeah, there’s a bit of Persian influence here, it is used entirely differently in the Indian context.
CUNO: What about the so-called Sarnath School of Buddhist sculpture?
ASHER: The Sarnath School of sculpture, as it’s so often called, refers to the fifth century sculptures, generally of the Buddha, at Sarnath. Slender figures wearing transparent garments, most often but not always showing a gentle sway to their bodies. It is usually contrasted with another style—and I would much rather see style than school as the operative word—one at the city of Matera[?], rather far to the west of Sarnath, where the figures look rather different from those at Sarnath.
I will admit, as I think many Westerners do, that the Sarnath sculptures of the fifth century are magnificent. And I see that style not just as a Sarnath style, but as a wide-ranging north Indian style. I see the style as represented, for example, in the stone Buddha images at the rock-cut caves at Ajanta. I see it reflected in other Buddhist sculptures rather far to the east of Sarnath. So it’s not just the Sarnath School or Sarnath style.
CUNO: How does Sarnath function? And what role does the Archaeological Survey of India play in planning its future?
ASHER: I don’t know what the Archaeological Survey plans for the future. Probably not a great deal, since I find it sometimes a little bit too moribund. But Sarnath is exclusively under the dominion of the Archaeological Survey of India. They can determine everything from tickets, of the price of admission, to conservation. Every aspect of the site is fully controlled by the Archaeological Survey of India.
The Archaeological Survey of India, however, does not extend its authority, as I wish it would, to the surrounding area. I do think there needs to be some degree of protection for the mounds that exist all over the area that is within a, say, twenty-minute walk of the excavated site.
CUNO: Well, Sarnath has been proposed for a UNESCO World Heritage status. What would that mean, in terms of what you’ve just described? What would that mean, both for the visitors, tourists, and pilgrims, and for the surrounding community to Sarnath? And what impediments stand in the way of Sarnath’s being granted World Heritage status?
ASHER: Well, one of the biggest impediments to standing in the way is that the government of India needs to finish its report to UNESCO. They say it’s going to be some 600 pages in length. And nothing moves that fast through a large bureaucracy, so it may be some time.
But what would be the impact of World Heritage? I think they are two ways of looking at it. To India, having World Heritage Sites is a big deal. The number of sites they claim is part of a real national, and maybe I should add nationalistic, pride. So gaining Sarnath as a World Heritage Site would enhance the pride of India.
It would then be three of the four major sites associated with the life of the Buddha that would have World Heritage status. Kushinagar, the place where the Buddha is alleged to have died, it would be the remaining one that does not have World Heritage status.
But I see lots of other issues. The price of tickets would go way up. Right now, it’s five rupees for Indians, 200 rupees for foreigners. That still is a lot of money for the foreign pilgrims. It would go up to at least 500 rupees for foreigners. Would that discourage some? You know, 500 rupees, less than ten dollars. It’s really less than a third the admission to the Museum of Modern Art. It does nonetheless seem to discourage some visitors. I have seen young visitors to Sarnath, European visitors, who get to the gate and look at this and say, “What? 200 rupees? I can’t afford that.” I don’t think that’s entirely true, but it’s an argument.
Two, and I think very much more seriously, UNESCO imposes a lot of restrictions. So that on the long walk, both from the parking area where buses and cars park to the excavated site, where today there are carts where tourist souvenirs are sold, where food is sold, they would all be moved away.
It would impact the livelihood of those and everybody else who’s set up shop within a kilometer of the excavated site. That’s a lot of lives that are seriously, seriously impacted. And I’m not sure what the payoff really is, except for pride, in gaining World Heritage status, and then in the process, eliminating the livelihood of a great, great many people and their families.
CUNO: Now, Sarnath is of the greatest importance to the history of Buddhism in India, but it’s just one of many important monuments in need of financial and scientific resources.
If you were in charge of Sarnath today, what would the first thing be that you would do there, and why that particular thing?
ASHER: I love the question. I really do. What would be the first thing I’d do? First of all, I’d celebrate. Champagne is hard to get in India, but there is a decent Indian Champagne. And then I’d hope that somebody is in the wings, somebody with initiative and vision, who could quickly, quickly replace me. So what else would I do during the first few days?
I’d rip out all the signs with names of the monuments. To have a sign that simply says Monastery 7 or Monastery 3 doesn’t mean anything. And I’d replace the signs with meaningful interpretive data, and I’d do it in both Hindi and English, but maybe also in Thai and Sinhala, to speak to the large number of foreign devotees who come.
I think I’d add an interpretive center. There is nothing today, if you go to Sarnath, that gives you a feeling for what the site was, is, or could be. And a sense of the surrounding community, recognizing that Sarnath is much more than the excavated site.
And then, oh then—what a joy it would be—I’d completely reinstall the museum. The Sarnath Museum contains all of the sculptures that were excavated there. And I’d provide meaningful labels for the works.
Oh, and finally, finally, I’d appoint an advisory committee, because with all the braggadocio that has just preceded this, of all the things that I’d do, I don’t know everything by any means. And I do think there’s sensitivities locally that are very, very important. I’d include in that advisory committee, representatives of everybody with a vested interest in Sarnath. I’d include a bureaucrat, I’d include an officer from the Archaeological Survey of India. I’d include people, representatives of the diverse Buddhist communities. I’d include an architect.
And then, and then I’d seek some funding to support these projects.
CUNO: Well, congratulations, Rick. Your book is thoughtful, scholarly, and beautifully produced. We’re pleased to have published it, and we thank you very much.
ASHER: In turn, thank you very, very much. It was a pleasure to work with the Getty on it.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
FREDERICK ASHER: There is, and appropriately so, a tension between Sarnath as an archaeological monu...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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