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Kushinagar, UP Vaishali, Bihar
Sarnath, Varanasi - Buddhist Holy Sites in India
368    Dibyendu Banerjee    12/02/2024

Located just 10 km away from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Sarnath is one of the most revered Buddhist pilgrimage centres in the world, where Lord Buddha is said to deliver his first sermon to his first five disciples Kaundinya, Assaji, Bhaddiya, Vappa and Mahanama, after attaining Bodhi or enlightenment, sanctified as the Maha Dharma Chakra Pravartan Sutra. It is also the place where the Buddhist Sangha first came into existence. It is believed by the Buddhists that, Lord Buddha mentioned Sarnath as one of the four places of pilgrimage, which his devout followers should visit, along with Lumbini, his birthplace in Nepal, Bodh Gaya in Bihar, where he attained enlightenment and Kuhinagar in Uttar Pradesh, where he attained Mahaparinirvana. Also called Mrigadava, Sarnath was nominated for the inclusion in the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1998, which include the Dhamek Stupa, the Dharmarajika Stupa, the Chaukhandi Stupa, the Ashoke Pillar, the ruins of the ancient Mulagandha Kuty Vihara and the Dharma Chakra Jina Vihar.


In addition to the archaeological ruins, there are a number of other pilgrimage sites and places of worship in Sarnath, which include the modern Mulagandha Kuty Vihara, a temple constructed in 1931, by the Maha Bodhi Society.

sarnath varanasi

Around 250 BC, the Maurya Emperor Ashoka constructed the Dhamekh Stupa to commemorate the spot where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. He also erected a 50 feet (15.24 m) tall column in Sarnath, topped by four lions of around 7 feet high, called the Lion Capital. By the 3rd century BC, Sarnath had become an important centre for the Sammatiya school of Buddhism, as well as for art and architecture. The influence of Buddhism continued to grow in India during the Gupta period, which is evident by the accounts of Xuanzang, a 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk, who visited Sarnath around 640 CE and reported seeing hundreds of small shrines and votive stupas, along with a vihara of around 200 feet (61 m) in height containing a large statue of the Buddha.


During Pala period, covering the 8th to the 11th centuries, Buddhist pilgrims and monks from all over Asia travelled to Sarnath to meditate and study, which continued to thrive throughout the 12th century, mainly due to the protection and tolerance of the Hindu Gahadavala rulers. The last and largest monastery constructed before the Muslim invasion was Dharma Chakra Jina Vihara, erected by Kumardevi, wife of King Govinda Chandra of the Gahadavala dynasty, who ruled over Benares during 1114 to 1154. However, in 1194 AD, Kutubuddin Aibak, the Turkic commander of Muhammad Ghori, plundered and leveled the city of Sarnath to the ground and the city became a forest of debris under which the historical ruins remained buried for ages. Of the two great stupas which once adorned the city, only the Dhamekh Stupa of the 6th century remained standing as the mute witness of the brutality. Most of what remained of the Dharmarajika Stupa was further demolished in the late 18th century by Jagat Singh, the Dewan of Raja Chet Singh of Banaras, who dug the mound of the Stupa for the purpose of procuring stones and bricks for the construction of a marketplace in the city.

sarnath varanasi
The Dhamekh Stupa

The Dhamekh Stupa, constructed by Emperor Ashoka, is the most conspicuous structure at Sarnath. Alexander Cunningham, a British Army engineer, who later founded and organised the Archaeological Survey of India, conducted the first systematic archaeological excavations at Sarnath in 1835/36, bore a shaft from the top centre of the Stupa and discovered a stone tablet on which an inscription is written with the word Dhamekh and mentioned in his accounts to be the spot where the Buddha delivered his first sermon.


The massive Stupa, a solid cylindrical tower of about 94 feet (28.5 m) in diameter at base and raising to a height of about 110 feet (33.5 m) is coated with sandstone up to the height of around 37 feet (11.20 m) and equipped with niches in eight directions which probably once held images. Below the niches, a broad band of beautifully carved signs of Swastika in different geometrical patterns, ornamented with a finely chiselled lotus wreath running over and below the swastikas, represents the high skill of workmanship during the Gupta period. However, Dhamekh seems to be a distorted form of Dharma Chakra which stands for turning the wheel of the Dharma.

sarnath varanasi
The Ashoka Pillar, Sarnath

The Dhamekh Stupa complex, a landscaped park containing the well-preserved Stupa, also contains the remains of the Dharmarajika Stupa, the Mulagandhakuti shrine, the Dharma Chakra Jina Vihara, a monastery and living quarters for monks, considered to be constructed at the behest of Kumaradevi in the mid-12th century and the Ashoka Pillar, in addition to a number of monasteries, shrines and the votive stupas. The fragmented parts of the 50 feet (15.25 m) tall Asoka pillar, known as the Lion Capital of Ashoka and bearing his edict and two later inscriptions, are located a little west of the Mulangadha kuti.

sarnath varanasi

Originally, the pillar was crowned by four life-sized lions set back to back on a drum-shaped abacus, adorned with wheels in relief and interspersing them, four animals, a lion, an elephant, a bull, and a galloping horse follow each other from right to left, while a bell-shaped lotus formed the lowest member of the capital. Today, the famous four lion capital, one of the most magnificent sculptures of Maurya art, represents the National emblem of the government of India. Eventually, the capital fell to the ground and was buried, which was excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India and is now displayed in the Sarnath Museum.

sarnath varanasi
The Modern Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

Modern temples and monasteries dotted around the town and belonging to various Buddhist countries include the new edition of the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, located around 656 feet (200 m) east of the great Dhamekh Stupa and opened in November 1931 by the Sri Lanka Mahabodhi Society. The entrance foyer of the beautiful Buddhist temple is decorated by a huge bell, gifted by Japan, while the interior houses a golden statue of the Buddha on a marble platform. The walls of the Vihara are aesthetically decorated with beautiful frescoes, created by the renowned Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu. Situated amidst brick ruins of ancient Sarnath, the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar has become one of the added attractions for the tourists.

Kushinagar, UP Vaishali, Bihar
Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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