Sarnath: Turning the Wheel of Law

Archaeological Survey of India

The Buddha and the devas

Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh is situated at a distance of 8 km from Varanasi, and is where The Buddha preached his First Sermon. In Buddhist literature, Sarnath is also known as 'Mrigadava' or 'Mrigadaya', the name owing its origin to the fact that herds of deer roamed here freely as they had been granted immunity by the king  moved to compassion by the spirit of self-sacrifice of Bodhisattva born as Nyagrodhamriga.

Sarnath is sacred for the Jainas as well, as it is believed that Sreyansanatha, the eleventh Tirthankara, was born near here at Singhpur.

Jain devi
Asokan Lion Capital

Sarnath was also where The Buddha also laid the foundation of his order of monks, and the first sangha of sixty went forth to spread the Teachings.

Ashoka, the great Mauryan emperor lived about two hundred years after The Buddha's nirvana, and is famous for the zeal with which he spread the message. Tales of his pilgrimages are famous even today, as are several monuments - pillars and stupas - he erected, across the Buddhist world in South Asia.

Asoka raised several monuments at Sarnath, one of which was the 30.4m high Dharmarajika stupa. This stupa was, coincidentally, pulled down in 1794 by one Jagat Singh of Banaras. The Lion-Capital is the most notable artefact from Asoka's time to survive, and has been adopted by India as her national emblem. It is placed in the Sarnath site museum.

Not much is known of Sarnath's history in the post-Asokan Sunga period, and only a few objects of that time have been discovered.

Asokan Pillar on the grounds of a university
Close view of inscriptions
Inscribed slab on the pedestal of an Asokan Pillar
Dhamekh stupa

Sarnath has attracted attention of scholars, archaeologists and those enthusiasts who searched for antiquarian remains for last over two hundred years. 

The earliest such reference is by Jonathan Duncan in 1794 in his account of the discovery of two urns by Babu Jagat Singh “in the vicinity of a temple called Sarnath”. Jagat Singh, the Diwan of Raja Chet Singh of Banaras dug the stupa mound in 1793-94 for the purpose of obtaining building material, both stones and bricks for the construction of a market place in the city after his name.

Dhamekh Stupa with earthen ramp
Excavation to west of Stupa
Details of the Dhamekh Stupa
The Sarnath site

Alexander Cunningham began his excavation in December 1834 and closed it in January 1836. He excavated Dhamekh, Dharmarajika and Chaukhandi stupas, besides exposing a monastery and a temple towards north of Dhamekh. Attached with the temple, he located a chamber with sculptures and also the large block of stone which he identified with the stone mentioned by Huen-Tsang (Xuan-Zang) which was believed to be the stone over which Lord Buddha spread his robe after bathing in the nearby pond.

Mauryan Capital
Portion of a horse
Buddha in Bhumi Sparsha mudra
General view of the site under excavation
Horse and rider

With the advent of the Kushans in north India (first century AD), Buddhism entered a new phase of religious and artistic activity. Mathura was the greatest centre of this renaissance, but Sarnath also prospered, and new monu- ments were added.

In the third year of the Kushan emperor Kanishka’s reign Bhikshu Bala of Mathura established at Sarnath a colossal Bodhisattva image of red sandstone, together with a proportionately large parasol (Chhatra) crowning it.

It was under the rule of the Guptas (fourth to sixth centuries) that Sarnath entered the golden age of its art. Its best images were made at this time, the Main Shrine was enlarged and the Dhamekh stupa was encased with floral designs carved in stone. 

Sarnath's importance as a religious centre also increased. Fa-Hien (Faxian) visited Sarnath at the time of Chandragupta II (AD 376-414) and found four stupas and two monasteries here.

The last major excavation work was conducted by Daya Ram Sahni in 1921-22 when he exposed structures between Dhamekh Stupa and the Main Shrine, the decorated brick stupa and the sub-terranean passage to the west of Monastery I upto Monastery II. The excava- tions continued for five field seasons in the area. Besides sculptures and other objects, ceramics recovered during excavations are preserved in the Archaeological Museum at Sarnath.

Scenes from Buddha's life
Buddha and Nanda's visit to heaven
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