Saturday, October 1, 2011

Varanasi - Sarnath Tourism Attractions | Sarnath Place to visit near Varanasi | Buddhist Tourist Places to Visit

Sarnath or Sarnatha (also Mrgadava, Megadaya, Rishipattana, Isipatana) is a dear park where Gautam Budha first taught the Dharma or delivered his first sermon, Dhamma Chakka Pavattana to his five ascetics (kondanna, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanama and Assaji), and where the Budhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. Sarnath is located 13 Kilometeres north –east of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, India. Sunghpur a village one km away from the site, was the birth place of Shreyansanath the eleventh Trithankara of Jainism and temple dedicated to him, is an important site.

Isipatana is mentioned by the Buddha, day before  his Niryana, along with Lumbini, Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar, as one of the four places of pilgrimages which his devout followers should visit, if they wanted to visit a place for that reason. It makes Sarnath, one of the most venerated Budhist places. The earliest remains here at Sarnath are from the Mauryan period ascribed to Emperor Ashoka.

Mrigadava means "deer-park". Isipatana is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men (Pali: isi, Sanskrit: rishi) fell to earth.

The legend says that when the Buddha-to-be was born, some devas came down to announce it to 500 rishis. The rishis all rose into the air and disappeared and their relics fell to the ground. Another explanation for the name is that Isipatana was so called because sages, on their way through the air (from the Himalayas), alight here or start from here on their aerial flight. Pacceka Buddhas, having spent seven days in contemplation in the Gandhamādana, bathe in the Anotatta Lake and come to the habitations of men through the air, in search of alms. They descend to earth at Isipatana. Sometimes the Pacceka Buddhas come to Isipatana from Nandamulaka-Pabbhara.

Xuanzang quotes the Nigrodhamiga Jātaka (J.i.145ff) to account for the origin of the  Migadaya. According to him the Deer Park was the forest gifted by the king of Benares of the Jataka, where the deer might wander unmolested. The Midgadaya was so-called because deer were allowed to roam about there unmolested.

Sarnath, from Saranganath, means "Lord of the Deer" and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattava is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the doe the latter is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer. The park is still there today.


About five week after his enlightenment in Bodhgaya, the Buddha went from Bodhyaya to Sarnath seeking his five former companions to join and teach them. He went to them because, using his spiritual powers, he had seen that his five former companions would be able to understand Dharma quickly. While travelling to Sarnath, Gautama Buddha had to cross the Ganges. Having no money with which to pay the ferryman, he crossed the Ganges through the air. When King Bimbisara heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. When Gautama Buddha found his five former companions, he taught them, they understood and as a result they also became enlightened. This event is referred to as "the turning of the wheel of the Dharma" and also marks the founding of the Sangha, or the community of monks  The sermon Buddha gave to the five monks was his first sermon, called the Dhammacakkapavattana Suta. It was given on the full-moon day of Asalha month. Buddha subsequently also spent his first rainy season at Sarnath at the Mulagandhakuti. The Sangha had grown to 60 in number (after Yasa and his friends had become monks), and Buddha sent them out in all directions to travel alone and teach the Dharma. All 60 monks were Arahants.

Besides the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta mentioned above, several other suttas were preached by the Buddha while staying at Isipatana, among them. Other Suttas include the Anattalakhana Suttaand the Saccavibhanga Sutta. The Buddha's central teaching after his enlightenment centered around the Four Noble Truths (concerning the meaning of life) and the Noble Eightfold Path (concerning the right way to live).

Some of the most eminent members of the Sangha seem to have resided at Isipatana from time to time; among recorded conversations at Isipatana are several between Sariputta and Mahkotthita, and one between Mahakotthita and Citta-Hatthisariputta. Mention is made, too, of a discourse in which several monks staying at Isipatana tried to help Channa in his difficulties.

According to the Udapana Jataka (J.ii.354ff ) there was a very ancient well near Isipatana which, in the Buddha's time, was used by the monks living there.

Isipatana after the Budha

According to the Mahavamsa, there was a large community of monks at Isipatana in the second century B.C. It is said that at the foundation ceremony of the Maha Thupa in Anuradhaura, twelve thousand monks were present from Isipatana led by the Elder Dhammasena.

The Emperor Ashoka, who spread Lord Buddha's message of love and compassion throughout his vast empire, visited Sarnath around 234 BC and constructed a stupa here. The Ashoka pillar of Sarnath is the National emblem of India.

Buddhism flourished in Sarnath in part because of kings and wealthy merchants based in Varanasi. By the third century Sarnath had become an important center for the arts, which reached its zenith during the Gupta period (4th to 6th centuries CE). In the 7th century by the time Xuan Zang visited from China, he found 30 monasteries and 3000 monks living at Sarnath.

Sarnath became a major centre of the Sammativa school of Buddhism, one of the early Budhist schools. However, the presence of images of Heruka and Taraindicate that Vaijrayana Buddhism was (at a later time) also practiced here. Also images of Brahminis gods as Shiva and Brahma were found at the site, and there is still a Jain temple (at Chandrapuri) located very close to the dhamekh Stupa.

At the end of the 12th century Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims, and the site was subsequently plundered for building materials. The site was subsequently plundered for building materials and has remained in ruins until the present day. The site was entirely deserted until 1836, when the British began excavations and restoration.
Legendary characteristics of Isipatana

According to the Buddhist commentarial scriptures, all the Budhas preach their first sermon at the Migadha in Isipatana. It is one of the four avijahitathanani (unchanging spots), the others being the Bodhi- Pallanka, the spot at the gate of Sankassa, where the Buddha first touched the earth on his return from Tavatimsa, and the site of the bed in the Gandhakuti in Jetavana. In past ages Isipatana sometimes retained its own name, as it did in the time of Phussa Buddha (Bu.xix.18), dhammadassi Buddha (BuA.182) and Kassapa Budha (BuA.218). Kassapa was born there (ibid., 217). But more often Isipatana was known by different names (for these names see under those of the different Buddhas). Thus in the time of Vipassi Buddha  it was known as Khema-uyyāna. It is the custom for all Buddhas to go through the air to Isipatana to preach their first sermon. Gotama Buddha, however, walked all the way, eighteen leagues, because he knew that by so doing he would meet Upaka, the Ajivaka, to whom he could be of service.

Places to visit at Sarnath

Most of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath were damaged or destroyed by the Turks. However, amongst the ruins can be distinguished:

Dhamek Stupa: The Dhamek Stupa is an impressive 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter. Dhamek (the old Dharmachakra) Stupa still stands erect The Stupa was built in a bright fortnight in the month of Ashar. Buddha revealed his first teaching to the five disciples on this particular site. The Stupa underwent renovations for six times. Its area was also expanding during each renovation. The lower part of the Stupa (500 AD) is built of stone, while the upper part is of brick. The octagonal stupa symbolises the eight paths to salvation. The radius of its bottom is 28 meter. The tapering middle part is 13 meter high. With the cylindrical pinnacle it goes up to a height of 31 meter. The decorative patterns on the walls date back to the Gupta period. But the bricks are from the Maury a times (200 BC). The common belief is that the Stupa contains the bones of Buddha.

Dharmarajika Stupa: The Dharmarajika Stupa is one of the few pre-Ashokan stupas remaining, although only the foundations remain. The rest of the Dharmarajika Stupa was removed to Varanasi to be used as building materials in the 18h century. At that time, also relics were found in the Dharmarajika Stupa. These relics were subsequently thrown in the Ganges river.

Chaukhandi Stupa: This is the first monument to be seen as one enters the Sarnath. It commemorates the spot where the Buddha met his first disciples, dating back to the fifth century or earlier and later enhanced by the addition of an octagonal tower of Islamic origin to mark the visit of Humayun. In recent years it is undergoing restoration.
This site is believed to be the place where the Buddha stopped to let the Five Ascetics see him and welcome him as he entered the Deer Park.

Mulagandhakuti Vihara: The ruins of the Mulagandhakuti vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season. The modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara is a monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society, with beautiful wall paintings. Behind it is the Deer Park (where deer are still to be seen).

Ashoka Pillar: The majestic Ashoka Pillar records visit of Emperor Ashka to Sarnath. The Ashoka Pillar erected here, originally surmounted by the “ Lion Capital of Asoka” (presently on display at the Sarnath Museum), was broken during Turk invasions but the base still stands at the original location.

Sarnath Archeological Museum: The Sarnath Archeological Museum houses the famous Ashokan lion Capital, which miraculously survived its 45-foot drop to the ground (from the top of the Ashokan Pillar), and became the National Emblem of India and national symbol on the Indian flag. The museum also houses a famous and refined Buddha-image of the Buddha in Dharmachakra-posture.

There is also a Bodhi tree planted by Anagarika Dharmapala which was grown from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya.

Sarnath has been developed as a place of pilgrimage, both for Buddhists from India and abroad. A number of countries in which Buddhism is a major (or the dominant) religion, among them Thailand, Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, have established temples and monasteries in Sarnath in the style that is typical for the respective country. Thus, pilgrims and visitors have the opportunity to experience an overview of Buddhist architecture from various cultures.