Sarnath - Turning the Wheel of Law

Archaeological Survey of India

Archaeological Survey of India

The Buddha and the Devas (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

Sarnath is situated at a distance of eight kilometres 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, who was moved to compassion by the spirit of sacrifice of Bodhisattva born as Nyagrodhamriga. 

Take a virtual walk through history, to the place that marks the beginnings of Buddhism, the Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath.

MahaviraArchaeological Survey of India

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

Scenes from Buddha's LifeArchaeological Survey of India

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.

Asokan Lion CapitalArchaeological Survey of India

Asoka 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. The lion capital is the most notable artefact from Asoka's time to have survived, and has been adopted by India as her national emblem. It is placed in the Sarnath site museum. 

Ashokan Pillar in the grounds of the Sanskrit University BanarasArchaeological Survey of India

Asoka raised several other 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.

Inscribed slab on the pedestal of Asokan pillar in the premises of Sanskrit University BanarasArchaeological Survey of India

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.

Dhamekh Stupa with earthen rampArchaeological Survey of India

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”. 

General view of site under excavationArchaeological Survey of India

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.

Mauryan CapitalArchaeological Survey of India

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.

Detail of Dhamekh Stupa, south-eastern sideArchaeological Survey of India

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.

Buddha and Nanda’s visit to heaven (1959)Archaeological Survey of India

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.

Portion of a horseArchaeological Survey of India

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.

Excavations to the west of the main shrineArchaeological Survey of India

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.

Sculpted stone with horse and riderArchaeological Survey of India

The excavations 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.

Explore the excavated site of Sarnath, around Dhamekh stupa.

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