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Sarnath, Varanasi

Sarnath, Varanasi
Sarnath, a world famous Buddhist site is about 10 kms. from Varanasi. Sarnath is one of Buddhist’s major centres in India. In Sarnath, the Lord Buddha preached his first sermon at a deer park. The sermon is known as Dharmachakkapavattana or Dharmachakra or setting in motion the Wheel of Law in Buddhism. Sarnath became one of the great centres of Buddhism. The Emperor Ashoka erected magnificent stupas and structures in Sarnath. The Chinese scholar Huien Tsang who also visited Sarnath in 640 AD, wrote about the splendour of the city. This place was rediscovered and excavated in 1836. Sarnath is one of the most holy sites that attracts the people from all over the world. The people visit this place to pay homage to the great teacher and to attain spiritual perfection.

History of Sarnath

Sarnath, Varanasi

After attaining enlightenment at Bodhgaya, Lord Buddha went to Sarnath. In Sarnath, the stream of the Buddha's teaching first flowed. At this place, the Buddha encountered the five men who had been his companions of earlier austerities. Here in the Deer Park, he delivered his first sermon, or in religious language, set in motion the Wheel of Law (Maha-Dharmachakra Pravartan) in 528 BC. Since then, the site has been revered. The Emperor Ashoka (304 - 232 BC), who spread the Buddha's message of love and compassion throughout his vast empire, visited Sarnath around 234 BC, and erected a stupa here. The last and largest monastery constructed before the Muslim rule was Dharma-Chakar-Jina Vihar. This Vihar was erected by Kumardevi, wife of King Govinda Chandra, who ruled over Banaras during 1114 to 1154. In 1194 AD, Qutb-ud-din-Aibak, the Muslim conqueror, leveled the city to the ground. Sarnath became a forest of debris below which the historical ruins remained buried. Several Buddhist structures were raised at Sarnath between the 3rd century BC and the 11th century AD. Both the Chinese travelers Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang visited Sarnath, the former at the beginning of the 5th century AD, the latter in 640 AD. Hieun Tsang described the sangharama (monastery) as having 1500 monks, a 65 m high vihara, a figure of the Buddha represented by a wheel, a 22 m high stone stupa built by Asoka, a larger 90 m high stupa and three lakes. The remains here and the sculptures now housed at the Indian Museum, Calcutta and the National Museum, Delhi reveal that Sarnath was a centre of religious activity, learning and artistic endeavour continuously from the 4th century BC to 9th century AD. Sarnath was probably destroyed when Muslim armies devastated the region in 1197.

Tourist Attractions in Sarnath
The main tourist attractions in Sarnath are the Stupas, excavated ruins of monasteries, Ashoka Pillar, Deer Park, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, Dhamekh Stupa, Bodhi tree, Moolgandha Kuti Vihara and Archaeology Museum.


Dhamekh Stupa
Of the two great stupas which adorned the city, only the Dhamekh Stupa survives, which belongs to the 6th century. The Dhamekh Stupa is the most imposing monument at Sarnath. This imposing stupa was erected in 200 BC in the Mauryan era. It consists of a 28 m diameter stone plinth which rises to a height of 13 m. There are 8 faces, each with an arched recess for an image. Above this rises a 31 m high cylindrical tower. The upper part is brick and was probably unfinished. The

Dhamekh Stupa Sarnath

central portion is elaborately decorated with Gupta designs like luxuriant foliation, geometric patterns, birds and flowers. Excavations have revealed that the stupa was enlarged on six occasions and the well known figures of Boddhisattva standing and the Buddha teaching were found around the monument. Dhamekh Stupa is believed to be the place where the master gave his first discourse to the 5 ascetics became his first disciples. This event ranks along with his birth, enlightenment and death as one of the 4 most significant in his existence.

Ashoka Pillar
This pillar was erected by the Emperor Ashoka. The pillar had his edict engraved on it. This stupa is about 15.24 m in height and had four lions as its capital which is now treasured in the archaeology museum. The lion symbolises both Ashoka's imperial rule and the kingship of the Buddha. The four-lion capital was adopted as the emblem of the modern Indian republic.

Moolgandha Kuti Vihara

The Mulagandha Kuti Vihar is a modern temple erected by the Mahabodhi Society. It has a life-size statue of the Lord Buddha in the Dharmachakra Pravartan form. It also has excellent frescoes by Kosetsu Nosu, Japan's foremost painter, depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life and a rich repository of Buddhist literature.

Bodhi Tree

The sapling of the Bodhi tree was brought from the famous tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, which in turn originated from the original tree at Bodhgaya, under which the Lord Buddha attained enlightenment about 2,500 years ago. It was planted here in 1931.

Archaeology Museum

Archaeology Museum was constructed in 1910. This museum displays the capital from the Ashoka pillar and other relics found on the site including sculpture from the Mauryan, Kushana, Gupta and various other periods, a Sunga Period stone railing, Kushana Period Boddhisattvas, Gupta Period figures, including the magnificent seated Buddha. There is a rich collection of Buddhist sculptures comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisattva images, considered amongst the finest specimens of Buddhist art. The museum also houses Buddha figures in various postures dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries and images of Hindu gods such as Saraswati, Ganesh and Vishnu from 9th to 12th centuries.

Deer Park

The Deer Park is holy to Jains because Shreyamshanatha, the 11th Tirthankara died here. The monastery in the SW corner is one of 4 in the Deer Park. The other 3 are along the N edge. All of brick with cells off a central courtyard. All are in ruins.

Dharmarajika Stupa

The Dharmarajika Stupa was built by the emperor Asoka to contain relics of the Buddha. Like the Dhamekh Stupa this was enlarged on several occasions but was destroyed by Jagat Singh, the Prime Minister to the Maharaja of Varanasi in 1794. At its core was found a green marble asket containing human bones and pearls which Jagat singh ordered to be thrown into the Ganga. Mr. Duncan, British Resident at the Maharaja’s court, published an account of the discovery thereby drawing Western scholars attention to the site.

Main Shrine

The Main Shrine is a rectangular building 29 m by 27 m with doubly recessed corners reaching 5.5 m in height. It is believed that this is where Buddha settled in the Deer Park. The building is attributed to Asoka and the later Guptas. The concrete path and interior brick walls were added later to reinforce the building. To the rear is the lower portion of a polished sandstone Asokan Column. The original was about 15 m high and was topped by a capital which is now housed in the Archaeological Museum. This comprises of four lions sitting back to back with the wheel of law between them. It is now symbol of the Indian Union. The remaining part is only 5 m high. The column was one of many erected by Asoka to promulgate the faith and this contained a message to the monks and nuns not to create any schisms and to spread the word.


At Chaunkandi about 1 km to the south is the site of a 5th century Stupa. On top of this is an octagonal brick tower built by Akbar in 1588 to commemorate the visit his father Humayun made to the site. The inscriptions above the doorway reads ‘As Humayun, king of the Seven Climes, now residing in paradise, deigned to come and sit here one day, thereby increasing the splendour of the sun, so Akbar, his son and humble servant, resolved to build on this spot a lofty tower reaching to the blue sky.’

Festivals in Sarnath

Buddha Purnima is celebrated in the month of May in Sarnath. It marks the birth of the Buddha. A huge fair is held when his relics (which are not on public display at any other Time) are taken out in procession.


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