Sarnath – The First Teachings
Situated 10 km from Varanasi is the site where Buddha delivered his first sermon to his five disciples, preaching the middle path for attaining ‘Nirvana’. Realising the sanctity of the site, emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century B.C. built some of the finest monuments and legacies.
Set in well maintained gardens Sarnath’s ruins are a pleasant place to stroll amongst or meditate in. The main things to see are Asoka’s pillar, the ruins of the Mulagandhakuti and the huge Dharmek Stupa. Further to the east is the modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara with its beautiful wall paintings and behind it the Deer Park. The Sarnath Museum houses some of the greatest treasures of Indian Buddhist art and should not be missed. Asoka’s lion capital and the beautiful Teaching Buddha are amongst the most beautiful sculptures ever made.
The earliest remains here at Sarnath are from the Mauryan period ascribed to Emperor Ashoka the great. The Lion Capital is the national emblem of India. The Dharmarajika Stupa was built by Ashoka, and it was expanded and enlarged several times upto the 12th century CE. The structures here were destroyed by repeated invasions – and by gradual neglect – and what are seen today are the results of repeated reconstruction efforts. The Dhamekh stupa is a cylindrical tower, 143 feet high, and 93 feet high. The stones in each layer were bound together by iron clamps. This tower dates back to the Gupta period. The Chinese traveller Hsuen Tsang who visited India in the 7th century CE, speaks of the glory of Sarnath and of the structures that existed then.
- Dhamekha Stupa
This is the most conspicuous structure at Sarnath. Colonel Cunningham bore a shaft from the top centre of the stupa and discovered a stone tablet on which an inscription is written with the word Dhamekha, and mentions that this is the spot where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. Dhamekha seems to be a distorted form of Dharma Chakra which means turning the wheel of the Dharma. It is also said that at this spot the five ascetics who left Gautama Buddha in Bodh Gaya used to live in huts. The original stupa was constructed by Ashoka. The present size of the stupa is 31.3 m high and 28.3 m in diameter. The lower portion of the stupa is covered completely with beautifully carved stones.
The Dhamekha stupa is considered to be the sacred place where the voice of Buddhism was first heard. Many dignitaries of Buddhist countries visit this place for circumambulation of this sacred stupa and to worship the Buddha. Tibetans Buddhist circumambulate it chanting the mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’. The first discourse of the Buddha was on the ‘Wheel of Law’. The wheel symbolises samsara (world), the eternal round of existence which goes on and on, life after life because of ceaseless cravings and desire.
- Choukhandi’ Stupa
Raised by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1555 A.D., it is believed to be the place where Buddha met his five disciples. The majestic Ashoka pillar records visit of emperor Ashoka to Sarnath. It was originally adorned by a capital of four lions, now housed in the Sarnath museum. The capital became the state emblem of modern India.
- The Digambara Jain Temple
The Digambara Jain temple, southwest of the Dhamekh Stupa, built in 1824, is said to be where Shreyanshnath, the 11th Jain tirthankara was born. Inside the temple are good frescoes, which depict the life of Mahavir, the founder of the present day Jain religion.
- Buddhist Temples
The Mulagandhakuti Vihara is a modern temple built by the Mahabodhi Society in 1931. The silver casket in the temple is said to have the original relics of the Buddha in it. It was recovered from the ruins of the first century temple. The temple has interesting murals depicting the life story of Buddha. The murals were painted by a well-known Japanese artist, Kosetsu Nosu, in 1936. Outside the temple is a bo tree transplanted from Sri Lanka. It is said to be a descendant of the original tree under which Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. There is a collection of rare Buddhist literature here.
The full moon day of Vaisakha (April-May) is observed as the anniversary of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. The full moon in the month of Asadh (July-August) is considered the anniversary of his first sermon.
Varanasi (Babatpur) Airport is the nearest airport. Commercial flights connect Varanasi to Kathmandu, Delhi , Agra and Mumbai.
Varanasi railway station is well connected to important cities.
It is located on the National Highway No. 29 that also connects Varanasi and Gorakhpur.