The Mulagandhakuti Vihara or the main shrine was such an auspicious spot, which was built and rebuilt successively. As the archaeological indications are and also the legend points, it was the chamber of the Lord which was called Gandha-kuti or the Mulagandhakuti Vihara. If this was true, then structures were in existence at this spot right from the time of Gautama, the Buddha. It may be significant to note the excavator’s observations: “….. a large court measuring 47' from north to south and 27" broad internally is said to have 2'5" thick wooden posts. It has been further noted that the west wall …..seems to have originally formed part of a somewhat earlier building, now presumably buried under the main shrine”1.
The format of the landscape in the post Asoka pre-Kushan period was more or less the same as during Asokan times. It may be held that the Dharmarajika stupa, Asokan pillars and the apsidal monastery were more or less in their original form in this period also. But, the constructional activities might have changed the appearance of Mulagandhakuti Vihara, by replacing the wooden railing of the earlier times with carved times with carved railing of stone, around 2nd/1st century BCE. Whether some other structures of the premises also were transcribed from wood to stone, or were freshly built, is difficult to ascertain. Similarly, though plausible, it is difficult to demonstrate whether some parts of Mulagandhakuti Vihara were renovated by durable medium at the time of emperor Asoka also.
Mulagandhakuti Vihara is mostly addressed as the ‘main shrine’ in the excavation reports and the early publications on Sarnath. As has been mentioned earlier, this was the sacred area where the Lord stayed. The initial constructions (of Buddha to the pre-Asokan times) in this part appear to be of wood. The enclosure and the structures were transcribed in stone and masonry during successively periods. Mulagandhakuti Vihara perhaps acquired the status of a temple, the Shrine, during Gupta period. This is suggestive from the history of origin and development of structural temples of north India.
Mulagandhakuti Vihara, which was renovated and reconstructed a number of times, appears to have been built as a temple for the first time during the Gupta period when architecture of a structure enshrining a deity was crystallised2.
The main shrine complex is a 18' high brick masonry, surrounded by a concrete floor which extends 40' in all the directions. Facing east, the plan of the shrine resembles the Christian cross. The central chamber, or the garbhagriha, which was square in plan (60' x 60'), was attached with projecting chapels at south, west and north and a portico to the east. These chapels enshrined Buddha images, traces of which were recorded in the southern chapel. The exterior of the structure was marked by projection as may be viewed in the exposed parts. The temple had thick walls suggesting an imposing superstructure3. Xuangang records that the ‘Chief fane (Mulaghandhakuti)’ was about 200 feet high and surmounted by a golden amra fruit. This description does suggest the existence of a lofty shikhar of this shrine during the 6th century C.E. That the shrine had a tower from the beginning, though difficult to demonstrate, is possible because it is evident from the other existing examples that the temples of 5th century C.E. were adorned by developed shikhar in this part of the country4, as is testified by the Gupta temple of Bhitargaon. The original construction of the main shrine of Sarnath had undergone many changes, and it is difficult to mark the successive phases of this building. For instance, a brick wall was constructed in the main chamber at a later date, which reduced the size of the inner chamber considerably (25'6" on each side). Similarly, the use of earlier architectural members in haphazard manner to the later masonry further shrouds the original composition of this monument. But, the concrete floor surrounding this structure may be accepted as the horizon which demarcates the early Gupta from the later and Post-Gupta phases. It was noted earlier that below this concrete cover was found buried ruins of early Gupta and remains of Pre-Gupta times. The original construction of the main shrine, Mulagandhakuti, at Sarnath took place during the reign of Skandhagupta, but, the broken icons were also caused to be repaired during his time.
1.Archaeological Survey of India Annual Report 1906-07:97-98&78.
2.Saraswati, S.K. 1954. ‘Art: Architecture’. Ch.XIX. The History and culture of Indian People: Vol.III: The Classical Age. (Reprinted 1970). Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan, Bombay: 1-32.
3. Majumdar, B. 1947. A Guide to Sarnath. (2nd Revised Edition). The Manager, Government of India Press, Delhi, 29.
4.Jayaswal, V. 2001. Royal Temples of Gupta Period: Excavation at Bhitari. Aryan Books International, New Delhi.