An important Indian Buddhist centre located some 6 miles north of present-day Varanasi, Saranath is famed as the location of the Deer Park, the site of the first discourse taught by the Buddha after his enlightenment. Visited again by the Buddha on a number of occasions later in his life Saranath became an important Buddhist centre until the 12th century ce. Modern excavations have revealed extensive remains of viharas and stupas, including the great Dhamek and Dharmarājika Stūpas, as well as numerous statues of the Buddha.
Mrigadava means "deer-park". Isipatana is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men (Pali: isi, Sanskrit: rishi) fell to earth.
The legend says that when the Buddha-to-be was born, some devas came down to announce it to 500 rishis. The rishis all rose into the air and disappeared and their relics fell to the ground. Another explanation for the name is that Isipatana was so called because sages, on their way through the air (from the Himalayas), alight here or start from here on their aerial flight. Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gandhamādana, bathe in the Anotatta Lake and come to the habitations of men through the air, in search of alms. They descend to earth at Isipatana. Sometimes the Pacceka Buddhas come to Isipatana from Nandamūlaka-pabbhāra.
Huen Tsang quotes the Nigrodhamiga Jātaka to account for the origin of the Migadāya. According to him the Deer Park was the forest gifted by the king of Benares of the Jātaka, where the deer might wander unmolested. The Migadāya was so-called because deer were allowed to roam around there fearlessly.
Sarnath, from Saranganath, means "Lord of the Deer" and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the dove the latter wanted to kill. The king was so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer.
Most of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath were damaged or destroyed by the Turks. However, amongst the ruins can be distinguished:
- ›› The Dhamek Stupa; it is an impressive 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter.
- ›› The Dharmarajika Stupa is one of the few pre-Ashokan stupas remaining, although only the foundations remain.
- ›› The rest of the Dharmarajika Stupa was removed to Varanasi to be used as building materials in the 18h century. At that time, also relics were found in the Dharmarajika Stupa. These relics were subsequently thrown in the Ganges river.
- ›› The Chaukhandi Stupa commemorates the spot where the Buddha met his first disciples, dating back to the fifth century or earlier and later enhanced by the addition of an octagonal tower of Islamic origin. In recent years it is undergoing restoration.
- ›› The ruins of the Mulagandhakuti vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season.
- ›› The modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara is a monastery buiilt in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society, with beautiful wall paintings. Behind it is a the Deer Park (where deer are still to be seen).
- ›› The Ashoka Pillar erected here, originally surmounted by the "Lion Capital of Asoka" (presently on display at the Sarnath Museum), was broken during Turk invasions but the base still stands at the original location.
- ›› The Sarnath Archeological Museum houses the famous Ashokan lion capital, which miraculously survived its 45 foot drop to the ground (from the top of the Ashokan Pillar), and became the National Emblem of India and national symbol on the Indian flag. The museum also houses a famous and refined Buddha-image of the Buddha in Dharmachakra-posture.
- ›› There is also a Bodhi tree planted by Anagarika Dharmapala which was grown from a sapling of the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya.
Dhamekha Stupa The stupa is the most impressive structure in Sarnath. Built around 500AD the excavations have revealed that some earlier construction was present at the site. The stupa is a place where one can see the devoted Buddhists circumambulating the structure, Ashoka might have built the stupa to earmark the Dharmachakrapravartana to five ascetics.
Chaukhandi : The first impression of the ancient Buddhism monuments while one enters Sarnath from Varanasi, this Chaukhandi was built to mark the meet of Lord Buddha with his five companions. Todar Mal added an octagonal tower to the structure to commemorate the arrival of Emperor Akbar to the city in 1588.
Asokan Pillar : This Pillar is the national emblem of India, presents a splendid representation of art during Ashoka's period, and the Asoka Wheel down the base adorns the Tricolor national flag.
The pillar also records the visit of Ashoka to Sarnath. The year of his visit is said to be around mid 3rd century BC. It is interesting to note that at one time, the Ashoka Pillar of Sarnath stood over 17 meters in height. Its capital with the four lions back to back that has been adopted as the official emblem of modern India can be seen in the museum at Sarnath. If you are in Sarnath, don't miss this pillar.
The Monasteries : The Buddhist temple built only in 1931, claims to have Buddha's original relics. Moreover, the temple houses some of the most interesting mural paintings depicting the story of Buddha's life.
The Digambar Jain temple : Associated to Shreyanshnath, a Jain Tirthankar, this temple famous among the Jain community and good for visualizing some interesting paintings and sculptures depicting the life of Lord Mahavira.How to reach
For Sarnath, Varanasi is very convenient centre regarding Air, Rail and Road facilities.
By Air : The nearest Airport is 22 kms from Varanasi and 29 kms from Sarnath. Varanasi is connected with Delhi, Agra, Khajuraho, Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow, Bhuvaneshwar and kathmandu with direct flights.
By Train : Varanasi is a major station in Broad gauge network, Varanasi Cantt. and Mughal Sarai (16 km, one of the main railway stations of Varanasi) are the important rail junctions, that link Varanasi with all major cities of India.
By Road : Well-laid motorable roads connect Sarnath with Varanasi and other important cities.
Buddhist Tour Destinations