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Sarnath

Location

Sarnath is situated 13 kms to north-east of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

How to Reach

You can reach Sarnath by bus, train, taxi or by auto-rickshaw. The ruins, the museum and temples of Sarnath are within walking distance.

Highlights

Both Sarnath and Varanasi are popular among tourists as Buddhist/Jainism and Hindu pilgrimage but they have different feeling and aura attached with them. While Varanasi is loud and noisy, Sarnath is calm and serene. If you want a relaxed outing away from the crowd of Varanasi, give a quiet visit to Sarnath and you will feel that you are in a completely new world. Sarnath is an exceptionally serene place. Sarnath (also called as Sarangnath, Mrigadava, Migadaya, Rishipattana and Isipatana) is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage centres in India. Buddha, after attaining enlightenment in Bodh Gaya came to Sarnath and in the Deer Park delivered his first sermon, or in religious language, set in motion the Wheel of Law (Maha-Dharmachakra Pravartan). Due to Lord Buddha’s delivery of his first sermon, Sarnath is also bestowed upon the title of “birthplace of Buddhism”.

Details

There are four important places in the life of Buddha: Place where he was born (Lumbini, Nepal), where he gained enlightenment (Bodh Gaya, India), where he gave his first sermon (Sarnath, India) and where he left his mortal body (Kushinagar, India). Sarnath probably derived its name from one of Buddha's title, Saranganath, Lord of the Deer. Buddhist worldwide look upon India as the land of the Buddha and visit for pilgrimage to these sacred place. Sarnath is the place where Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples named Kaundinya, Bashpa, Bhadrika, Mahanaman and Ashvajit. Sarnath is, thus, the place where foundation of Sangha, a new order of monks and Dhamma, was laid. The celebrated Mantra, 'Buddham Sharanam Gachhami', owes its origin to Sarnath. On the day before his death Buddha included Sarnath along with Lumbini, Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar as the four places he thought to be sacred to his followers. Sarnath is also a religious and sacred place for Jains as this is the site of the birth of Shreyamshanath, the 11th Trithankara.

Emperor Ashoka (304 - 232 BC), who spread the Buddha's message of love and compassion throughout his vast empire had visited Sarnath around 234 BC. Ashoka built the Dharmarajika Stupa and erected a pillar surmounted by the magnificent capital of four adored lions, which today forms the national emblem of India. Several Buddhist structures were raised at Sarnath between the 3rd century BC and the 11th century AD and today it presents the most expansive ruins amongst places on the Buddhist trail.

There are many Buddhist monuments and edifices in Sarnath. Some of the important Buddhist monuments at Sarnath are the Dhamekh stupa, the Chaukhandi stupa and monasteries and Temples of different schools of Buddhism from Japan, China, Thailand, Burma and others. The Indian Buddhist society called Mahabodhi Society maintains a park around the Buddha Temple. There is also a vast expanse of ancient ruins at Sarnath.

Sarnath has been a premier centre for Buddhism. It is a rich collection of ancient Buddhist relics and antiques comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisatva images on display at an excellent Archaeological Museum (open 10am to 5pm except on Friday). Saranath's annual festival is Buddha Purnima, which commemorates Buddha's birth with colourful fair and procession of his relics held on the full moon of May/June.

History

Sarnath had lost its identity in 13th century but gained its glory back in 1798. In 1798 Mr Duncan, the resident of Banaras, threw light on a casket of green marble inside a stone box which was unveiled by the workmen of Jagat Singh, Dewan of Raja Chet Singh of Banaras while he was knocking down the Dharmarajika stupa as he wanted to gather building material. This created a lot of buzz about Sarnath and it was then when Sarnath gained limelight. Thereafter many archaeological excavations were conducted at the site by number of people namely Sir Alexander Cunningham (1835-36), Major Kittoe (1851-52), Mr. C. Horne (1865), Mr. F.O. Oertal (1904-5), Sir john Marshall (1907), Mr. H. Hargreaves(1914-15), and Mr. Daya Ram Sahni (1927-32).

These excavations unveiled carved railing pillars from Shunga period (2nd –1st cent. BC). During Kushanas (1st –2nd cent. A.D.), a new wave of religious and artistic activities emerged in North India. Mathura became the centre of all the new activities but Sarnath flourished equally during this period. Sarnath became a prominent centre of Buddhism in the Gupta period. The abundance of exquisitely carved sculptural art, which was given a new dimension by the Gupta artists, is testimony to this fact. The place, thus, became a main centre of Gupta art and gave rise to the Sarnath School of Art, which is known for its elegance, simplicity of forms and sublimity. The images of Buddha (displayed at Shakyasimha gallery) are a true example of this school of Art. Standing figure of abundantly ornamented Tara is one of the best specimens of Late Gupta sculptural art of Sarnath School.

Sarnath became a centre of structural and artistic activities during this period and several structures including Mulagandha Kuti, the chief shrine of the Buddha, were erected during this period. One of the most impressive and best preserved stupa is the Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath. It is a cylindrical tower that measures 28.50 mts in diameter and 33.53 mts in height.

Famous Chinese traveler Fa-Hien visited Sarnath and saw four stupas and two monasteries at the time of Chandragupta ll (376-414 A.D.). Hiuen-Tsang has also left a vivid description of monuments in Sarnath. Sarnath continued to blossom during the reign of the Pala kings. However, the place suffered when Banaras fall prey to Mahmud Ghajni’s invasions. The last remarkable monument at Sarnath that got shape was a large monastery built by Kumar Devi, wife of Govindchandra (1114-1154 A.D.) of the Gahadavala dynasty. After that the architectural and artistic activities came to a standstill and the world had to wait for long to witness the real Sarnath till archaeological excavations unveiled the glory and heritage.