SARNATH - VARANASI
The antiquity of Sarnath at least dates back to Buddha, 6 century B.C. Buddhist monastery, ravaged by the Muslims, stupas, Asokan Pillar, Sarnath museum, Tibetan and Sri Lankan Buddhist temples are the prime tourist attractions of Sarnath. For the Buddhists, Sarnath tourism becomes part of a religious pilgrimage. These monuments of Sarnath are treasure to humankind to get a feel of a prosperous, humane and knowledge oriented society and highly developed art and architectural skills. Hindu rulers had also contributed to the monastery which amply repeatedly displays inherent tolerance of Indian or Hindu culture.
Sarnath, one of the four holiest Buddhist pilgrimages, hold an important place in Indian historical, cultural and architectural developments. Buddhists across the world revere four places the most- Lumbini (birth place of Lord Buddha), Bodh Gaya (place where Gautam got enlightenment), Sarnath (the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon and set on the "Wheel of Dharma") and Kushinagar (place of Buddha's "parinirvan"-death). Sarnath is known in ancient literature as Mrigdav, Rishipattana and Isipatana. The name Sarnath is derived from "Sarangnath". Sarangnath means "Lord of the Deer" and relates to one of Boddhisatva in Jatak stories.
Located 13 kms away from Hindu holy city Varanasi, Sarnath is the place where Shakyamuni Buddha delivered his first sermon after getting enlightened in Bodh Gaya, set on the Wheel of Dharma (Dharmachakra Pravartan) and founded the community of monks (the Sangh). In order to spread his message in the masses, Buddha opted for Pali as language instead of Sanskrit, the language of the elite and the learned. Those sermons are collated in the form of a treatise known as "Dharmachakra Pravartan Sutta". Various historical, literary and archaeological evidences evince that Sarnath was a major centre of Hinayana school of Buddhism. At later stage, as is evident by the presence of images of Tara and Heruka, it became a prominent centre of Vajrayana Buddhism. This Buddhist centre reached its pinnacle in Gupta period (4th -6th century) under the patronage of the then rulers and open-hearted charity of the business class. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Huen Tsang had mentioned that Sarnath was home to 30 monasteries and 3000 monks.
Sarnath was razed and plundered by the Muslim invaders during 12th century. It remained in anonymity and entirely deserted until 1836 AD, when the British unearthed the ruins and restored in its present form. The antiquity of Sarnath dates back to 600 BC. Stupas, monasteries and Asoka Pillar are important monuments reminding the rich past of India.
Among several stupas, Dhamekh and Dharmarajika Stupas are notable. Gigantic Dhamekh Stupa, 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter, was built in 600 BC at the sacred place where Lord Buddha set the Wheel of Dharma in motion. The Dharmarajika Stupa was built by Emperor Asoka in 200 BC. The relics of Lord Buddha are preserved in this stupa.
Adjacent to these stupas is Mulgandha Kuti Vihar where Buddhist relics unearthed from other parts of India are enshrined.
Another prominent monument is Asoka Pillar, topped with a capital with its four back-to back positioned guardian lions. Though the Pillar survived the Muslim invasion but got broken during excavation. The base is still intact with exquisite carvings on it. The lion capital that topped the pillar is still intact and can be seen at the Sarnath Archaeological Museum. The museum houses a vast treasure of Buddhist art, including almost 300 images. The lion capital on Asoka Pillar has been adopted as national emblem of India. The Asoka Pillar of Sarnath is famous for the edicts engraved on it. The inscription on Sarnath Asoka Pillar reads, "No one shall cause division in the order of monks". This indicated that Asoka employed state-power to quell any schism within the Buddhist community.