When I was planning a trip to Varanasi it came as a pleasant surprise to me that Sarnath is just 10 kms away. It was like a double bonanza for me. I have immediately added one more day in my travel plan and packed my bags.
Importance of Sarnath in Buddhism
Sarnath is the one of the most important places in Buddhism. It is one of the four places designated by Gautama Buddha himself that every Buddhist must visit. Other places are Lumbini (Birthplace of Buddha), Bodh Gaya (Place where Buddha attained Nirvana) and Kushinagar (Where Buddha attained Parinirava).
It is said that at this very place Buddha gave his first sermon to five of his brahmin disciples (Sar means sermon and Nath means God). This paved way for a religion called Buddhism during 5th century BC. It was a jungle filled with deer then and was called Mrigadava (meaning deer-park). He travelled from this place to all around India to spread his sermons.
Contributions of Emperor Ashoka to Sarnath
The brick structures or stupas which we see now were built by Emperor Ashoka during 3rd century BC to commemorate Buddha’s activities at this location.
This is the most striking and largest structure in the compound of Sarnath. It is cylindrical said to be built at the very place where Buddha gave his sermon. It is approximately 42m in height and 28m in diameter made of red bricks. Buddhist disciples walk around this structure as a mark of respect to Buddha.
We can only see the foundations of this stupa now. Most of this were destroyed by Turks during Turk invasion in India. It is said that many of the relics found at this locations were thrown into Ganges river at Varanasi. Looking at the structures and the patterns around we can safely assume that there used to be a small hermitage where disciples used to live, eat and sleep there. But now all of this is ruined.
The most famous National Emblem of India, the four lions, is derived from this very place. Emperor Ashoka during his reign in 3rd century BC have erected vast number of pillars all over India marking his empire. These pillars were inscribed with edicts preaching Dharma written in Pali and Prakrit languages. Each pillar has an animal erected at the top of it. For the pillar in Sarnath there were four lions erected and this has become the National Emblem.
After Independence in 1947, Government of India has set up a museum just beside this compound. They have moved all the relics, statues, weapons, utensils etc. which were used during Buddha’s and Ashoka’s time era. They have even moved the National Emblem to the museum. Cameras are not allowed inside the museum.
Temple of Tibetan Community
Just a kilometer away from Sarnath we find a beautiful Buddhist monastery constructed by Tibetan community. It was constructed in 1955 when major exodus of Tibetans moved to India. The interiors of the monastery are well maintained and beautiful golden statues of Buddha can be seen (Photography is not allowed inside the temple).
This is on the right side of the road one kilometer just before Sarnath. We see a tall standing statue of Buddha. In addition to this, life of Buddha is inscribed around the statue. The importance of the 4 pilgrimage cities of Buddhism (Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar) were mentioned there.
All in all it is a half a day trip to cover all these places. I have started early at 7 AM to avoid people and traffic. It is better to hire a taxi from wherever you are in Varanasi to this place and get back. It was very fulfilling when I saw all these places and surprisingly Varanasi has become a heart of both Hinduism and Buddhism.