Around 12 km from the famed city of Varanasi, sits a small hamlet, once lost and then rediscovered. It was here that almost 2500 years ago, Buddha set in motion what Buddhists call the Wheel of Dharma by delivering his first sermon to the five companions with whom he had sought enlightenment.
Ravaged by Turk invaders in the 12th century AD and then lost to the vagaries of time, Sarnath was rediscovered in 1835 by British archeologists.
It is one of the 4 holy sites sanctioned by the Buddha himself for pilgrimage. The other three sites are: Lumbini (birth); Bodh Gaya (enlightenment); and Kushinagar (death).
If you visit Sarnath from Varanasi as most people usually do, the contrast between the colourful chaos of Kashi and the serene simplicity of Sarnath is evident at once. Although much older and ancient in its inception, Varanasi is still a bustling town, while Sarnath by comparison seems to be the last remnants of a once great civilization.
The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang who visited the area sometime in the 6th century AD describes the place as having close to 30 monasteries with over 3000 monks in residence.
Today, the expansive ruins of the Chaukhandi Stupa are the first to catch your eye as you enter Sarnath from Varanasi. It was here that Buddha is said to have met his first 5 disciples.
Further on, the imposing Dhamek Stupa rears up in your vision. Built around 246 BCE by emperor Ashoka, this is where Buddha preached his very first sermon in the form of Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The Dhamek Stupa is the largest structure in Sarnath an impressive 128 feet in height and 93 feet in width.
Located near to the Dhamekh Stupa, the Dharmarajika Stupa is considered to have the remains of bones of the Lord Buddha. It was built by King Ashoka which was destroyed in 1794 by Jagat Singh (to get bricks for another construction purpose) during which a box with bones was found. The box is still kept safely at the Indian Museum, Kolkata. The contents of the box though were sadly disposed of or looted during this period.
The decaying ruins of the Mulagandhakuti Vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season in meditation, behind which is the Deer Park, which is maintained as an open animal park and still attracts deer.
The Sarnath Museum is the oldest site museum of Archeological Survey Of India and houses antiquities ranging from the 3rd century BCE to 12th century AD that have been found at Sarnath. Among its other remarkable artifacts, it also houses the original sandstone Lion Capital of King Ashoka, which was adopted as the National Emblem of India.
The birthplace of Buddhism and a landmark in terms of India’s cultural identity, Sarnath is a treasure trove for history buffs. Visit Sarnath to find out why this small hamlet in a quiet corner of India, continues to attract thousands of seekers every year from all corners of the globe.