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Sarnath is located about 10 kilometers or 6 miles in the north of the ancient Hindu city of Varanasi. On the day before his passing on to Mahaparinirwana when Lord Buddha was asked about which places he considered most significant in his life time, he mentioned four places. These four places were Lumbini, where he was born; Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment; Sarnath, where he set the Maha-Dharmachakra-Pravartan or the “Wheel of Law” in motion by preaching his first sermon to the five disciples who had earlier deserted him and finally Kushinagar, where he would pass on to Mahaparinirwana just the next day. The four noble truths were part of his first sermon in Sarnath. These places have been the most sacred sites for Buddhists of all schools of thought throughout the more than 2550 years of the religion’s history.
The third Mauryan Emperor, Devanampiya Piyadasi Ashoka (268-231 BCE), converted to Buddhism to atone the killing of thousands of human beings in his own army and in the army of his Kalinga adversaries in the Battle of Kalinga in Orissa in eastern India. He personally visited all the sites that were associated with Buddha and erected commemorative Stupas and stone pillars as well as rock carvings with inscriptions of his message of love and compassion according to the teachings of Buddha. Emperor Ashoka was also the first Indian monarch to preach a religion that originated in India abroad. He sent missionaries to many far away kingdoms. The existence of Buddhism in central, south-east and far-east Asian countries is because of Emperor Ashoka’s endeavors.
In the later part of his life, Emperor Ashoka visited Sarnath and erected a Stupa to commemorate the Maha-Dharmachakra-Pravartan. After him many rulers visited Sarnath and had various structures constructed at this holy site. At the time when Lord Buddha meditated and later came back to preach his first sermon at Sarnath, it was a verdant green forest with thousands of deer in it. That is why it is often referred to as the deer park. After extensive destruction by Islamic invaders and decay with neglect after the eleventh century CE, Sarnath today is a vast archaeological site with ruins of temples, monasteries and the great university.
Chaukhandi Stupa is the most ancient monument in Sarnath that is believed to have been constructed under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka at the spot where Buddha preached his first sermon to the five disciples. It was expanded between fourth and sixth centuries CE under Gupta Dynasty rulers. Govardhan, the son of Raja Todarmal, one of Navratnas (nine important ministers) of Mughal Emperor, Akbar, had the present structure rebuilt in honor of Emperor Humayun’s visit to the place. It has an octagonal tower that is surrounded by a square lower part.
Dhamek Stupa is undoubtedly the most impressive structure at Sarnath. The Stupa has a cylindrical lower structure that is 28 meters or 91.9 feet in diameter and has a height of 43.6 meters or 143 feet. It is constructed of brick masonry work with a lamination of beautifully carved stone. The delicate floral sculptural motifs were added to the Stupa during the Gupta Dynasty period.
Mulagandha Kuti Vihar is a modern temple that was constructed by the Mahabodhi Society. It has very impressive fresco paintings rendered by a famous Japanese painter, Kosetsu Nosu. The imposing building is a temple that also serves as a rich repository of Buddhist literature.
Sarnath Archaeological Museum houses a very significant collection of some very remarkably well preserved Buddhist sculptures including the four headed lion capital that once stood at the top of an Ashokan Pillar and numerous Buddha and Bodhisattva images. This is one of finest archaeological site museums in India. The museum opens daily from 10 AM to 5 PM except on Fridays.
Dharmrajika Stupa and the Saddharmachakra Vihar are some of the other important sites to visit among the archaeological excavations of Sarnath.
There are no tourist hotels in Sarnath. Visitors stay in Varanasi where there are many hotels in various categories.
Distance from Sarnath:
City Kilometers Miles
- Varanasi: 10 Kilometers or 6 Miles
- Varanasi Airport: 25 Kilometers or 16 Miles (33 minutes to drive)
- Lucknow: 331 Kilometers or 205 Miles
- Allahabad: 132 Kilometers or 82 Miles