Sarnath is one of the most revered Buddhist Pilgrim centres. After attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, here at Sarnath Lord Buddha preached his first Sermon, sanctified as Maha Dharma Chakra Pravartan (Set in Motion the Wheel of Dharma). During the time of Lord Buddha, Sarnath was called Rishipattana or Issipattana and Mrigdav because it was an ideal place for sages and was a dense forest inhabited by deers. Emperor Ashoka visited here at around 234 B.C and erected a stupa here. Today, Sarnath treasures the most expensive ruins on the Buddhist Trail.
In this blog, I am going to share my experience about my trip from Varanasi to Sarnath and the places you can visit in Sarnath with detailed information you should know about each site.
In The Rich and Eventful History of Sarnath Uttar Pradesh, Sarnath is one of the four most significant Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
After achieving enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, Gautam Buddha travelled here in 528 B.C., marking the beginning of the history of Sarnath, India. He gave his five former buddies his first sermon at this location. Buddhist literature refers to this occurrence as dharmachakra-pravartana, which literally translates to “the turning of the Wheel of Law.” They studied everything the Buddha knew, and as a result, they attained enlightenment as well. The first Buddhist Sangha, or community of monks, was thus established.
The Buddha spent the following wet season at the Mulagandhakuti vihara in Sarnath after giving his first sermon there. The Buddhist Sangha had expanded to 60 members by that point. The Buddha then dispatched the Sangha to spread his teachings everywhere. The assistance of the local rulers and prosperous merchants is largely responsible for the flourishing of Buddhism in Sarnath. When the Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang visited Sarnath in the seventh century, there were 30 monasteries and 3000 monks residing there, according to the History of Sarnath.
By the end of the 12th century, Turkish Muslims had looted Sarnath. The location was heavily looted for building supplies and has been abandoned ever since. After that, Sarnath was utterly abandoned until the British started excavating and restoring this ancient city in 1836.
Sarnath is not just a popular Buddhist destination, but it is also a significant Jains sacred site since Shreyansanath, the Eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism, is thought to have been born there. Even Sarnath has a temple that is devoted to him.
While there are many historic stupas, statues, and buildings in the vicinity of Sarnath, a number of Buddhist temples have lately been constructed that are modelled after Thai, Burmese, Korean, and Chinese temples. These temples offer a distinctive viewpoint of this historic town. Here are a few places you might check out while travelling to Sarnath.
The stupa has great significance in history as Lord Buddha during his first visit to Sarnath after attaining the enlightenments, met his first disciples here who earlier had abandoned him.
The primary archaeological complex in Sarnath is the Buddhist Complex. The enormous Dhamekh Stupa is without a doubt the complex’s major draw. But other stupas, monastic locations, and artefacts can be found scattered around the complex.
The ancient constructions that may still be seen today in Sarnath date from the third century BC to the twelve centuries AD. Buildings were constructed, they were destroyed, and occasionally another structure was built on top of the demolished one. Therefore, it is apparent that not all of the structures in the complex date from the same era.
Let me take you around the ruins and the key structures that make up the Sarnath Buddhist Complex.
The most well-known structure in Sarnath is the Dhamekh Stupa. Originally constructed in 249 CE, the enormous stupa was a creation of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka.
The Dhamekh Stupa is a sturdy, cylindric building with a diameter of 28 metres and a height of 43.6 metres composed of red bricks and stone. It is thought that Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon here after achieving enlightenment. Dharma Chakra Pravartana, or the setting of the “Wheels of Law,” is the name given to this well-known occurrence in the life of Lord Buddha. The word “Dhamekh” may have evolved from the phrase “Dharma Chakra.” The stupa has undergone numerous alterations and additions over time. The area also symbolizes the inauguration of the first Buddhist Sangh. The stupa’s exquisite artwork remnants made it clear that the building may have had lovely embellishments and carvings.
Another stupa in the complex from where two Buddha statues were excavated. The stupa was built by Emperor Ashoka in 3rd Century B.C.
A glass exhibit surrounds the Ashokan Pillar. The bottom part of the original 5.25 m high pillar, which was crowned with the Lion Capital, is all that is left of the pillar. There are three inscriptions on the Pillar. The earliest one is an Ashokan decree written in Brahmi script. The King threatens the monks and nuns with punishment in the inscriptions if they split up the Sangha.
The second and third inscriptions date from the Kushan and older Gupta periods, respectively.
Today, the entire shrine lies in ruins. It seems sensible that when it was at its grandest, the building was large. The main shrine was over 60 metres high, according to the renowned Chinese traveller and monk Hiuen Tsang, who wrote about it in his journal.
This one was built during the time Gupta dynasty and looked like a temple.
Rectangular Courtyard situated between Dhamek Stupa and the main shrine. There are so many votive stupas and shrines one can see here.
The complex has three sites designated as monasteries. Monastery I has an open courtyard and rows of cells on three sides.
Monastery II belonged to the Gupta period. There are only traces of nine cells surviving today in this one. Monastery III dates back to the Kushan period and looked like Monastery II. Monastery IV is not fully excavated. The work is still in process. The exposed portion consists of some cells and the remains of a verandah. There are other remains of monasteries around the complex which you can check while roaming around the ruins.
The first Buddhist Sangha was founded in Deer Park, where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon at Sarnath.
From the Dhamekh Stupa, one can view the current state of the historic Mulgandha Kuti Vihara’s remains. There is a plaque at the historic location that states that Lord Buddha most likely meditated there. Possibly during the Gupta era when the old temple was built. The ASI excavation site’s remains are just next to the rebuilt Mulgandha Kutir Vihara.
Inside the temple is a beautiful golden statue of Lord Buddha. The stunning frescoes painted by Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu inside the temple are its most famous feature. The life of Lord Buddha is shown in these frescoes inside the temple, from his birth until the moment he attained Nirvana. In front of the temple sits a huge bell and inside the temple, a relic of Lord Buddha is treasured and only brought out during Buddha Purnima to seek blessings.
Just one kilometre to the southeast of Sarnath’s primary Buddhist complex is where you’ll find the Vishwa Shanti Stupa. One of the gateways at the Great Sanchi Stupa is replicated at the Stupa’s entrance. The replica Ashokan pillars with lion capitals are also visible when you pass through the gate.
According to legend, Sanghamitra, the daughter of Emperor Ashoka, visited the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, the place of Lord Buddha’s enlightenment, and she removed a branch from the tree and planted it in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Angarika Dharampala removed a sapling from the tree and placed it at this location in Sarnath in 1931 after the branch turned into a tree. The tree currently stands as a representation of tranquilly, offering shade and rest to weary travellers.
There are a few other temples in Sarnath that you can visit that show how Buddhism is practised in other nations.
Buddhism-related items can be found in abundance in the Sarnath Archaeological Museum. Along with other priceless relics, there are many statues and idols of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The Ashokan Pillar’s Lion Capital is also shown inside the museum. India’s national emblem is a lion’s capital.
Sarnath Museum remains open all days except Friday from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening.
Indian – INR 5 pp
Foreigner – INR 100 pp
There are a few good hotels available in Sarnath, you can stay there. The Tibetan Monastery also offers to-stay options to tourists against some donations. Otherwise, you can stay in Varanasi and make a day trip to Sarnath.
You can take a cab or auto to reach Sarnath from Varanasi as it is only a 10 km distance from Varanasi. I would suggest you talk about the places in Sarnath and the rate before the trip. You can bargain as the auto or cab drivers ask little hire price to take you to Sarnath.
Sarnath is a small place and most of the attractions are located within walking distance. You can walk around to explore the places or hire an auto to cover the places.
Sarnath has so many small shops to buy souvenirs but you have to bargain for them. Small Buddhist idols, prayer flags, key chains, and magnets are available at Sarnath. Also, wooden toys and handicrafts are available too.
Yes. You just have to take care of basic rules to be followed by solo female travelers in India. It is a small city so no roaming around at night, dress up according to the local people’s sensibility and enjoy your trip to Sarnath.
I hope you will like the places and find calm and peace while visiting the places in Sarnath. If you liked this blog and found it useful, then please share it with your family and friends.
This trip is in collaboration with Uttar Pradesh Tourism Board but the views and experiences are mine.