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.
The 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
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 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.
Opposite 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.