One of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world, Sarnath is famous as the place where Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon. From then to the 12th century CE – nearly 1,700 years – it remained a centre of great learning, a place of pilgrimage and a vihara (monastery) for monks and scholars.
Just 10 km north-east of Varanasi, near the confluence of the Ganga and Varuna Rivers in Uttar Pradesh, Sarnath was initially known as ‘Isipatana’, ‘where the holy men landed’ in the early Buddhist Pali text, and ‘Mrigadava’ or ‘deer park’. Legend has it that a Bodhisattva turned himself into a deer and offered his life to a king instead of the doe that the latter was planning to kill. The king was so moved that he created the park as a sanctuary for deer.
The later name ‘Sarnath’ too has a deer connection. It is an abbreviation of the word ‘Saranganatha’, which means ‘Lord of the Deer’. It is considered an epithet for Shiva, who is frequently represented holding a deer in his left hand. A modern shrine of Mahadeva can be seen on a mound at Sarnath.
It is at this deer park, a part of which still exists adjoining the archaeological complex at Sarnath, that the Buddha is believed to have delivered his first sermon after he attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, in the 6th century BCE.
But why did he choose Sarnath? Buddhist texts tell you that the five men who had accompanied Buddha on his journey of asceticism, and later abandoned him, had settled in Sarnath. So when Buddha gained enlightenment, he felt they should be the first to know what he had learned. So he proceeded to Sarnath and preached his teachings here for the first time. Buddha’s first teaching is known as the Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra, the ‘turning of the wheel of law’.
The Sutra is one of the most important sermons in Buddhism and, through it, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths and the teachings associated with it. The first truth is that there is sorrow (dukha) in this world; the second relates to the origin and cause of sorrow; the third explains the cessation of sorrow; and the fourth expounds the Eightfold Noble Path (arya-ashtangika-marga), which leads to the end of sorrow and to the attainment of peace, enlightenment and nirvana.
Many historians believe that Buddha chose Sarnath due to its proximity to Varanasi, which by that time was already a centre of great learning. This would give him a chance to have discourses with learned men and take his learnings to the very doorstep of Vedic orthodoxy. Incidentally, Sarnath later also flourished because of the kings and wealthy merchants based in Banaras (now Varanasi) who patronised Buddhism.
According to Buddhist texts, Buddha also laid the foundation of his sangha or the order of monks at Sarnath. Yasa, the son of a rich householder in Banaras, together with his 54 friends, was attracted by his teachings and became his disciple. With them, and the first five monks, Buddha founded the first Sangha of 60 monks and sent them in various directions to preach his Dharma.
Much of what you see in Sarnath today, however, is from the time of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (r. 269 – 232 BCE). After the famous Battle of Kalinga, when Ashoka embraced the Buddhist faith, he began building several monuments at Sarnath, one of which was the Dharmarajika Stupa, which was crowned by a monolithic railing.
Ashoka also installed a monolithic pillar topped by a lion capital with a crowning Dharmachakra here. This lion capital was later adopted by India as the national emblem. This pillar was inscribed with an Ashokan edict in the Brahmi script, in which the emperor warns monks and nuns against creating schisms or divisions in the Sangha.
The stupa which stands tall at Sarnath today is the Dhamekh Stupa, which also seems to have had its origin in Ashoka’s time. Excavations also revealed more than a dozen railing pillars near the main shrine dated to the 1st century BCE, probably installed by the Shunga rulers (2nd to 1st century BCE). When you look at the Dhamekh Stupa, halfway up the base, there are eight niches which must have held images. Immediately below them runs a broad course of elaborate carving with geometrical and floral patterns combined with birds and human figures.
Sarnath then came under the Kushanas in 1st century CE and many new monuments were added. In the third year of Kushan Emperor Kanishka’s reign, one Bhikshu Bala of Mathura established a colossal Bodhisattva image in red sandstone. This period also saw a new inscription being added to the Ashokan pillar. This second inscription refers to the 40th year of Ashvaghosha, a ruler of Kaushambi, who also held sway over Banaras and Sarnath. There is a third inscription on the pillar, written in the early Gupta script, which mentions the teachers of the Sammitiya school, one of the earliest schools of Buddhism. Sadly, the pillar is in pieces, with some of the pieces on display in the Sarnath Museum and some on site.
Under the Guptas (3rd-6th century CE), Sarnath saw a lot of activity and art flourished. The Chinese monk Fa-Hien, who visited Sarnath during the period of Chandragupta II (390 CE), reports that there were four stupas and two monasteries here. The Dharmarajika Stupa seems to have been enlarged and the Dhamekh Stupa was encased with floral designs carved in stone. The Gupta Empire was greatly weakened by repeated invasions of the Huna people (5th/6th century CE) and this impacted Sarnath, whose structures and statues suffered their wrath.
The north of India then came under the rule of the Vardhana Dynasty (6th and 7th century CE), whose ruler Harshavardhana (r. 606 – 647 CE) initiated the restoration of Sarnath. Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang, who visited Sarnath during this time, has left accounts of its monuments. He saw both the Dharmarajika Stupa and the stone pillar of Ashoka, which he stated was shining like a mirror. He was probably referring to the famous Mauryan polish. He also said that the great monastery had 1,500 resident monks and the main shrine had a big metal image of Buddha in the attitude of ‘turning the wheel’.
Sarnath continued to prosper during the reign of the Pala kings (8th to 12th century CE). But in 1017 CE, when Banaras faced the brunt of Mahmud Ghazni’s attacks, the monuments of Sarnath too were damaged.
After that, efforts were made to resurrect Sarnath. The last great monument was added in Sarnath in the 12th century. Govindachandra (1114-1154 CE) of the Gahadavala Dynasty, which ruled parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, had made himself master of Kanauj, Ayodhya and Banaras. His queen Kumaradevi was a pious Buddhist and she built a large monastery at Sarnath called the Dharmachakra-Jina-Vihara.
Another notable monument at Sarnath is the Chaukhandi Stupa, a lofty brick structure crowned with an octagonal tower. Interestingly, the octagonal tower is a Mughal monument built by Govardhan, son of Raja Todarmal (governor under Emperor Akbar) in 1588 CE. It was built to commemorate a visit by Emperor Humayun to Sarnath.
Sarnath today is a collection of vast ruins. Among these, the remains of the Dharmarajika Stupa stand out. Believe it or not but the stupa was pulled down by Jagat Singh, the Diwan of the Banaras king, Chet Singh, to be used as building materials for the construction of a market place in the city which the king also named after himself.
In 1815, Colonel Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India (who also discovered the ruins of Hampi in Karnataka), started the first systematic excavation of the site of Sarnath. He was followed by Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, who during his excavations found a relic box that seemed to have been displaced by the workers of Jagat Singh. It was a round sandstone box that contained a cylindrical marble box full of bones, gold and silver ornaments, pearls and rubies. Cunningham later presented it to the museum of the Bengal Asiatic Society.
The last major excavation at Sarnath was conducted by Daya Ram Sahni in 1921-22. During all the excavations, a large number of statues, stone umbrellas, inscriptions, bas reliefs and other sculptural panels were collected and these are on display at the Sarnath Museum. Instead of the original ones, the ASI has installed terracotta replicas to provide a sense of what the place would have looked like hundreds of years ago.
Along with the Dharmarajika Stupa, the Dhamekh Stupa, Ashokan pillar, and the remains of monasteries and votive stupas, Sarnath reflects the evolution of Buddhism and its heritage for more than a millennium and a half. It is truly a macrocosm of the Buddhist world in India, and a radiating centre of light throughout the Buddhist world.