Sarnath (also called as Mrigadava, Migadāya, Rishipattana and Isipatana) is the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. Sarnath is located 13 km north-east of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, India. After the frenetic volatility of Varanasi, also called Benaras and Kashi, Sarnath welcomes you with a serene smile.
The presence of the Great Teacher permeates the quiet ruins of Sarnath. The still air carries the fragrance of incense and flowers and the chants of the monks. Deer wander among the ruins and spiders weave huge spreading webs in the grass that shimmers at dawn, spangled with dew.
Buddhism flourished in Sarnath in part because of kings and wealthy merchants based in Varanasi. By the third century Sarnath had become an important center for the arts, which reached its zenith during the Gupta period (4th to 6th centuries CE). In the 7th century by the time Xuan Zang visited from China, he found 30 monasteries and 3000 monks living at Sarnath.
Sarnath became a major centre of the Sammatiya school of Buddhism, one of the early Buddhist schools. However, the presence of images of Heruka and Tara indicate that Vajrayana Buddhism was (at a later time) also practiced here. Also images of Brahminist gods as Shiva and Brahma were found at the site, and there is still a Jain temple located very close to the Dhamekh Stupa.
After attaining Enlightenment the Buddha, leaving Uruvela, travelled to the Isipatana to join and teach them. He went to them because, using his spirital powers, he had seen that his five former companions would be able to understand Dharma quickly. While travelling to Sarnath, Gautama Buddha had to cross the Ganges. Having no money with which to pay the ferryman, he crossed the Ganges through the air. When King Bimbisāra heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. When Gautama Buddha found his five former companions, he taught them, they understood and as a result they also became enlightened. At that time the Sangha, the community of the enlightened ones, was founded. The sermon Buddha gave to the five monks was his first sermon, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or Turning of the wheel of Law. It was given on the full-moon day of Asalha. Buddha subsequently also spent his first rainy season at Sarnath at the Mulagandhakuti. The Sangha had grown to 60 in number (after Yasa, the son of a rich merchant of Kashi, and his fiends had become monks), and Buddha sent them out in all directions to travel alone and teach the Dharma. All 60 monks were Arahants.Several other incidents connected with the Buddha, besides the preaching of the first sermon, are mentioned as having taken place in Isipatana.
Thereafter for 45 years the Lord walked the dusty plains of northern India, touching the lives of millions with his teachings. However he did not forget Sarnath. He came back to the Deer park to meditate during the months of the next monsoon and for many other such retreats.
The most impressive sight in Sarnath is the looming pile of the Dhamekh Stupa, possibly built around 500AD. It was built at the site of many earlier constructions as excavations reveal brickwork from much earlier periods. Dhamekh Stupa is a solid cylindrical tower, 33 metres in height. The borders have delicately carved geometrical and floral patterns and the figures of humans and birds.The base of the Stupa is made of stone with the upper areas of brickwork which probably once had a carve stone fencing.
The present name Dhamekh shows some connection with Buddha's Dharma. This might indeed have been the stupa built by Ashoka to mark the spot where the Buddha preached the Dharmachakrapravanrtana for the first time to the five ascetics.
The Ashoka Pillar
Sarnath gained eminence during the reign of Emperor Ashoka. The Ashoka pillar and its famous lion capital were discovered in 1904. Later Saka and Kushan monarchs also patronised Buddhist monks and promoted Buddhist art in Sarnath.
Dharmarajika Stupa marks the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon. It was broken down in the 18th century by an officer of the Maharaja of Benaras who was looking for building material for constructing a bazaar. Alexander Cunningham found a marble casket beneath the stupa during excavations in the late 19th century.
Just behind the Dharmarajika Stupa are the remains of the massive Ashoka Pillar, one of the many that Emperor Ashoka set up at Buddhist sits. It is placed at the spot where the Buddha gave his first sermon and established the Sangha. The monolithic Ashoka Pillar was once crowned with the magnificent Lion Capital, which is now kept in the Sarnath Museum. The four roaring lions face the four cardinal directions symbolising the spread of the Buddha's teachings.
Mulgandhakuti Vihara marks the site where the Buddha meditated during his monsoon retreats at Sarnath. Excavations have unearthed a statue of a Bodhisattva from the 1st century AD, and a tablet on which the name of the shrine was carved. In 1922, Anagarika Dharmapala laid the foundation of a temple named Mulgandhakuti Vihara at the site. It enshrines relics of the Buddha which were discovered at Taxila. The interior has frescoes painted by a Japanese artist in 1932-35.Outside is the Bodhi tree and its spreading branches symbolise the return of Buddhism to India.
The first landmark that visitors see on their way to Sarnath from Varanasi is a high mound with the remains of a brick stupa built in the Gupta period. Today the site is called Chaukhandi. It marks the spot where the Buddha first met his five companions on arriving in Sarnath. A Mughal style octagonal tower was added by Govardhan, son of Raja Todar Mal, in 1588, to celebrate a visit by the Mughal Emperor Akbar to the city.
The Sarnath Museum is a treasure trove of Buddhist sculptures, inscriptions and pottery. Some of the finest images of the Buddha and panels depicting important episodes from the life of Sakyamuni can from the Gupta period, carved in the fine-grained Chunar sandstone.
In Sarnath Museum one can see the magnificent Lion Capital, which once crowned the Ashoka pillar at Sarnath and which today is the official symbol of the Indian State.
Mathura School of Art
A fine example of the Mathura School of Art from the Kushan period (1st century AD) is the standing image of the Buddha in red sandstone, with exquisitely carved details. There is also a beautiful image of a serene Buddha, the smiling lips and half shut eyelids creating an aura of compassion and meditative calm. Six figures kneel at his feet and the decorated halo behind his head has two flying celestial figures among the floral patterns.
The library of the Mahabodhi Society possesses an excellent collection of Buddhist literature and rare manuscripts. There is also a fascinating sculpture shed, which displays finds from past excavations.
Kaushambi was the capital of the famous Vatsa Mahajanapada , during the time of the Lord. The Buddha is said to have visited this place in the sixth and ninth years after the Enlightenment and delivered several sermons. He stayed in the Ghositarama Vihara, which has been excavated recently. Hiuen Tsang visited this place after visiting prayag (Allahabad) 54kms away, which continues to be the nearest railhead. Allahabad is well connected by train to Varanasi, which also has the closest airport to Kausbambi.
Sarnath is located 13 kilometres north-east of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, India.
Varanasi - 10 kms
Bodh Gaya via Mohania - 240 kms
Varanasi - 10 kms
Mughal Sarai Junction - 16 kms
Both are well connected with Patna, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai
Varanasi Airport at Babatpur - 22 kms from Varanasi
Buddha Poornima, the full moon night in April-May, when the birth of the Buddha is celebrated, is the biggest festival at Sarnath. There are prayers, processions and pageantry, with pilgrims coming from all over the world. A big fair also springs up on the occasion. During the first full moon in November an assembly of monks and scholars celebrate the anniversary of the foundation of the Mulgandhakuti Vihara.