10 kms north of Varanasi is Sarnath, one of the three holiest sites for Buddhists. It was here that after attaining enlightenment Buddha gave his first sermon in 528 BC. In 640 AD, the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited the site and recorded his impressions of Buddhist vihara (monasteries), a statue of the Buddha turning the wheel of law (Dharmachakra) and stupas of stone. With the resurgence of Hinduism and fading popularity of Buddhism, the site was ultimately abandoned around the 9th century AD and fell into ruins with the coming of Muslim invaders. Today, it has regained its importance in the Buddhist world and several institutions have their centres of learning at Sarnath.
Sarnath Temple – VaranasiThe town has a cluster of stupas, monasteries and an Ashokan column, set against the serene backdrop of a deer park. The main shrine, built by Ashoka (3rd century BC) and further embellished by later Gupta rulers (5th century AD) marks the spot where the Buddha meditated. It is a rectangular building, with a portion of an Ashokan Pillar to its west. The column, which was originally 15 metres high used to be crowned by the lion capital, which is now the national emblem of the Indian Union. It has four lions looking to the four cardinal points, with the wheel of law beneath them. The capital is now housed in the Archaeological Museum at Sarnath. The archaeological museum has a small but significant collection of artefacts. They include the lion capital from the Ashokan column, life-size boddhisattva figures, and a statue of the seated Buddha in a meditative pose with a halo around his head.
The largest structure in the complex is the Dhamekh Stupa, dating 5th to 6th century AD, was the place where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. It has a large cylindrical tower over 33 metres high, and decorated with foliage, birds, flowers and geometric patterns. There are eight arched recesses to hold statures.
The Dharmarajika stupa, built around the 3rd century BC by emperor Ashoka, is said to have contained a green marble casket with relics of the Buddha. The modern Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, built in 1931 by the Mahabodhi society with donations from followers, has become one of the most popular sites in Sarnath. The inner walls have frescoes while a huge bell from Japan dominates the entrance. A bodhi tree (peepal) planted in 1931 is a sapling from the tree in Sri Lanka, which was grown from a cutting of the original Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Sarnath also has a 19th century Jain temple called the Shreyanshnath temple.
There are several missions from various countries, including the Central Institute of Tibetan Studies, the Mahabodhi society, the Chinese temple, the Burmese temple, the Japanese temple and the Thai temple. The Institute of Tibetan Studies runs courses in Tibetan philosophy and Pali language, and has a good collection of ancient manuscripts.
The most important festival at Sarnath is the Buddha Purnima (full moon night – May), marking the Buddha’s birth. At this time, there is a huge influx of pilgrims to see the relics of the Buddha taken out in procession.
Sarnath Temple – VaranasiSarnath is only 10 kilometres from Varanasi. Regular buses ply from the Varanasi cantonment railway station, but auto-rickshaws are faster and less crowded. The trip costs Rs. 35, but shared seats are available for Rs. 8 per person. Taxis from Varanasi charge Rs. 100 to 150, including waiting charges.
It was in a quiet grove here, in the 6th century BC, that Siddhartha Gautama – who came to be known as Buddha, the “Awakened One” – gave his first sermon, and set in motion the Wheel of Law, the “Dharmachakra”. Sarnath derives its name from saranganatha, the Lord of the Deer.
Over the centuries, Sarnath flourished as a centre of Buddhist art and teaching, particularly for Hinayana, the Lesser way. Buddhism in India floundered under the impact of Muslim invasions and later due to the rise of Hinduism. Except for the bulk of the Dhamekh Stupa vast portions of the site lay in ruins. For nearly a millenium the site remained in ruins but today it has again become an importannt Buddhist center housing missions from all over the world.
Dominated by the huge bulk of the Dhamekh Stupa, the extensive archaeological excavations of the site are maintained within an immaculate park. The most impressive amongst the ruins the Dhamekh Stupa also known as the Dharma Chakra Stupa is said to be the exact spot of Buddha’s first sermon.
Sarnath Temple – VaranasiOpposite the gates of the main site, the museum designed to look like a monastery, has a small but renowned collection of Buddhist and Brahmanist antiquities. The most famous exhibit is the lion capital, moved here from the Ashokan Pillar on the main site. Constructed by Ashoka, the great Mauryan King, who converted to Buddhism, it has become the emblem of modern India and is found in all Government documents, currencies etc. Four alert and beautifully sculpted lions guard the four cardinal directions atop a circular platform.