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Sarnath Ashoka Pillar Chaukhandi Stupa

Sarnath: Land of Lord Buddha’s First Sermon

Located at a stone’s throw from Varanasi—one of the oldest cities in the world—a trip to Sarnath halts your time. Adorned with ruins, it slowly cajoles you. Your mind questions, relentlessly. It even imagines. After all, Lord Buddha had delivered his first sermon in Sarnath. And then you notice the scattered presence of monks, dressed in turmeric yellow robes, softly chanting mantras. If peace could be felt, this is it.

Lauded as a significant ‘Buddhist Pilgrimage Centre in India’, it has even witnessed the growth of Jainism. In fact, the 11th Trithankara Shreyamshanath was born in a nearby rustic village, located one km away. The Chinese monk Hsüan Tsang’s travelogues revealed the presence of 3000 monks and 30 monasteries during 5th century.

History of Sarnath, dating back to centuries that still crave to be written down, reveals the usage of interesting names. Once upon a time, Sarnath was called ‘Mrigadava’ or ‘deer park’. Later, it was known as ‘Isipatana’, the ‘sacred destination where holy men fell from heaven.’ Eventually, the current name originates from the word ‘Sāranganātha’, which signifies ‘Lord of the Deer’. But all these three names have one thing in common—their link with Buddhist legends.

Unfortunately, the brutal invasion of Turkish Muslims in 12th century jeopardised the monasteries, building materials and stupas. Later, British archaeologist-cum-army engineer Alexander Cunningham had excavated the ruins at Sarnath in 1837.

Interestingly, even today what we know about Sarnath keeps evolving. The Archaeological Survey of India, headed by BR Mani recently excavated sculptures in Sarnath dating back to Gupta period. The edifice of lion capital, India’s prized national emblem is located in the museum, along with 6,832 antiquities.

Following are the main tourist attractions of Sarnath

Ashoka Pillar

Built by Emperor Ashoka himself, it is one of the 19 pillars which were erected in North India during the reign of Ashoka. The structure stretches to a height of 15.24m and weighs around 50 tons.

The capital of the pillar consists of an idol with four lions facing towards the four cardinal directions. The structure stands on an inverted lotus. It is called as the Lion Capital and has been embraced as a national emblem. Images of an elephant, a bull, a lion, a horse and the famous Dharma Chakra are also seen on the pillar. India’s national flag is seen with this Dharma Chakra in the middle of it. 

Dhamek Stupa

This is one of the famous Buddhist shrines in the world. The stupa marks the site where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon after he gained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya. It is a cylindrical shaped brick structure with a diameter of 28m at its base. It is around 43.6m in height and was built during 249 BC. However, additions and modifications to the structure have been done from time to time.  

It is made of red bricks and the outer wall has 8 niches on it which might have held the images of Lord Buddha. Abroad strip runs just below the niches. It has rich carvings of flowers, swastikas, leaves and other geometrical patterns. It is intriguing to know that during the early excavations, a stone tablet was recovered with the stupa’s name etched on it.

Sarnath Museum

In 1904, the Archaeological Survey of India decided to erect a building near to the excavation site of Sarnath. It aimed to preserve the antiquities recovered during the excavation. The structure was completed in 1910 and is today famous as the Archaeological Museum of Sarnath. Partially monastery in its construction plan, the building itself is praise-worthy.

There are five galleries namely Tathagata, Trimurti, Shakyasimha, Triratna Trimurti and Ashutosh christened after their contents. The Lion capital is displayed in Shakyasimha gallery which is the main hall. It also serves as the main entrance to the museum.

Sacred images related to Buddhism and other related objects are exhibited in Triratna Gallery. The Tathagata gallery contains the images of Lord Buddha in different postures and attitudes like preaching Buddha, Maitreya-the future Lord Buddha and other similar forms. Image of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva together called as Trimurti is kept in Trimurti Gallery.

Chaukhandi Stupa

It is located close to Dhamek Stupa and dates back to 5th century during Gupta Period. It is the first structure one encounters when entering in the city. It is basically a shrine built to mark the site where Lord Buddha met his first five disciples.

The octagonal-shaped tower at the top was added during Mughal era to commemorate the visit of 2nd Mughal ruler named Emperor Humayun.

Excursions from Sarnath

Varanasi (11km), Chunar Village (35km), Mirzapur (64km), Allahabad (131km) and Bodh Gaya (256km) are the ideal outings to explore as mentioned by the Sarnath Travel Guide.

Shopping in Sarnath

Being closely associated with Lord Buddha, you can find numerous images and statues of him. The idol made of eight metals called Ashtadhatu is very pious and is a must-buy. Robes made of silk and muslin and devotional items like wheels, rugs, beads and flags can also be bought from the local shops.

When to Reach

October- March is the best time to visit this destination. Buddha Purnima Festival (April-May) is also a sought after time to plan your trip to this city.

How to Reach

Air: The nearest airport is in Varanasi, nearly 24km away from the destination.

Rail: Varanasi Junction (6km) is the closest railhead connected to almost all the major Indian cities.

Road: Buses run directly from Varanasi for the site. Travellers can take auto-rickshaw or a rickshaw to cover short distances within the city.

So, explore the different facets of Uttar Pradesh with Sarnath Tourism. It would definitely teach you new things and help you grow, for today and for always.

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