History of SarnathSarnath is 10 km North East of Kashi or Varanasi. This is the birth place of Buddhism. Siddharth descended on earth in Lumbini and attained the divine knowledge in Bodhgaya in 528 BC. Sarnath is the place where he first introduced Mahadharmachakra or the eight paths to Compassion, Knowledge and Nirvana. Sarnath was the ultimate seat of knowledge from the 4th century BC to the 12th century.
Once it was abuzz with 1500 resident Hinayana bhikshus dwelling in the 65 meter high viharand 30 monasteries. Sarnath's worldwide reputation is mentioned in the accounts of the Chinese travelers like Fa Hien (early 5th century) and Hiuen~Tsang(640AD). It was known as Rishi pattan—the name derived from the ashram of rishis or sages. Others claim, Sarnath comes from Saranganath, literally meaning: Nathix chief of the Sarangas or deer. Bodhisattva—in oneof the Jataka tales—was once born as adeer and became the chief of the herd.
There are roaming deer in Mrigo Udyan or the Deer Park built in 1956. Yet another opinion is that Saranganath is derived from the abode of Shiva. The relics of the old temple of Saranganath is near the rai1way station. The Shiva Linga here looks like a deer's head. Saranganatheswara is also called Sangheswara Mahadeva.
Buddha's acceptance of the rice-porridge from Sujata, a chamber maid, offended his five disciples who deserted Buddha and reached here in pursuit of religious studies. A sangha was formed with 60 students. Later they spread out in different directions to preach the great religion. The main Vihara was built in memory of Lord Buddha’s meditation much later, during Ashok's reign. The last monastery in Sarnath was built by Kumara Devi, the queen of Sarnath, during 1114-54. But Buddhism was losing its hold in later years. The first onslaught came from the Huns. The exponents of Bramhinical Hinduism like Sankaracharya opposed Buddhism as it reelected Vedas. Later devout Hindu kings also converted many Chaityas in temples. Repeated Muslim attacks during 11th to 17th century razed Sarnath to the grounds. The relics were discovered in 1794 by Jagat Singh, the Dewan of King Chait Singh. The British archaeologists under the leadership of Major General Sir Alexander Cunningham rediscovered the place during 1834— 1905.
Places of attraction and historical importance in Sarnath
Chaukhandi Stupa: 1 km south of Dhamek was built in 1555. The stupa that looks like a small hillock has an octagonal pillar on the top of it This is the place where Lord Buddha was given a reception again by his five dissenting disciples. The Stupa was destroyed in the later years. But Akbar renovated it in 1588 and built a memorial to celebrate Humayun's visit to Sarnath. The engraving in Arabic on one of its doors still now bears testimony to the event
Dhamek (the old Dharmachakra) Stupa still stands erect The Stupa was built in a bright fortnight in the month of Ashar. Buddha revealed his first teaching to the five disciples on this particular site. The Stupa underwent renovations for six times. Its area was also expanding during each renovation. The lower part of the Stupa (500 AD) is built of stone, while the upper part is of brick. The octagonal stupa symbolises the eight paths to salvation. The radius of its bottom is 28 meter. The tapering middle part is 13 meter high. With the cylindrical pinnacle it goes up to a height of 31 meter. The decorative patterns on the walls date back to the Gupta period. But the bricks are from the Maury a times (200 BC). The common belief is that the Stupa contains the bones of Buddha.
Dharrnarajik Stupa was built by Ashok in the 3rd century BC to preserve the Buddhist articles. Each time it was renovated, it got its area extended. The main stupa was destroyed in 1794 by the Dewan of the Maharaja in search of the bones and pearls secretly preserved in a green stone casket
The 20 meter high Ashok Pillar was built by the Emperor Ashok during 272—232 BC. The Pillar has Brahmi scripts engraved on one side and Pali scripts on the other. On top of the pillar is a statue of four lions in between dharmachakras, an exquisite work of art The four lions having faced in four directions symbolizing each of them is always guarded by the other three. It was later adopted as the official symbol and seal of the Indian government after independence. The bottom part is engraved with a lion as the symbol of fearlessness, the elephant that came in the dream of Buddha's mother, and the horse and the bull that Buddha rode on his journey toward wisdom. Though badly damaged in the hands of Kutb-ud-din-Aibak in 1194, the Pillar still stands erect. The statue of the lions is in the museum.
Buddha sat in meditation at east of Dhamek. The meditation went on for three months at a stretch. The Gupta Kings built Mulgandhakuti Vihar in memory of the meditative Buddha. Later, in 1931, Mahabodhi Society built a61 meter high Mulgandhakuti Vihar. The great initiative was taken by Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist preacher from Sri Lanka. Resembling Bodhgaya, the Vihar is shaded with trees. The frescoes on the wall, depicting tales from Buddha's life, were painted in four long years by Kosetsu Nosu, a Japanese painter, during 1932-36. The chief idol is a golden Buddha. The library here has a rich collection of books. The historical peepal tree (288 BC), the Tree of Wisdom is at its east. The sapling wax brought from Anuradhapuram Sri Lanka and planted here in 1931. The altar beneath the tree has an image of Buddha with his Five disciples—Asmaji. Mahanama, Bhaddiya, Oyappa and Kondanaya. Devotees come from distant places to offer worship on the full moon day of November. A small hillock behind the temple has a memorial of Anagarika Dharmapala.
A little at its east is the Chinese Temple. The temple, built in 1939, has frescoes, depicting tales from Buddha's life. The frescoes are painted in the Chinese style. The idol of Buddha is also exquisite. Sarnath also has a few other monasteries—Thai, Japanese and Tibetan. There is also a Burmese Vihara.
The Archaeological Museum has a beautiful garden in front of it. The image of Buddha (5-6th century) is made of sandstone from Chunar. The Dharma Chakra with the four lions, built by Ashok during 273—232 BC is also kept here. There are other sculptures and archaeological finds from the Maurya, Gupta and Kusana dynasties.There are other gods and goddesses of 9-12th century. Besides there is a stone casket, it is believed to have a golden receptacle in it with the last remains of Buddha. The bones were dedicated to Ganga long ago. But the golden container is lost for ever. The Museum is open from 10-00 to 16-45. It is closed on Friday. Opposite it is the Excavation Site.
At South West of the Deer Park is the beautifully frescoed Sree Digambar Jain Temple in memory of Sreyangshanath, the 11th Jain Tirthankar. The bird house, adjacent to the park, is another attraction.
Lord Buddha's birthday is celebrated during Buddha Purnima in the month of Baisakh (May). Devotees come from different places. The entire place turns into a fair ground. Holy articles related to Buddha are displayed.
How to reach Sarnath
Rikshaw, tonga, auto, taxi, bus is available from Godawlia or the railway station. Share auto and tempos are also available from Godawlia and Lahurabir. Buses go on conducted tours. The passenger trains from Varanasi take 20 minutes to reach Sarnath, The station too is beautiful.
Places to stay at Sarnath
UPSTDC Mrigadaba Tourist Lodge. Ph: (0542) 2595965,
Golden Buddha Paryataka Abas Griha,
Bbia Rest House,
Mahabodhi Guest House.
Restaurants / Food at Sarnath
There are many canteens around. Rangoli Garden Restaurant is the best beyond doubt.
Staying in Sarnath is not necessary. Go by your own by mnay available options or, avail a conducted tour and come back on Varanasi on the same day.
Other places to visit from Varanasi
This article is originally
published in Travel India and India Study Channel