Banaras is a mystic place. Its an epitome of the history, culture, and heritage of Hinduism. The imposing ghats, the vibrant rituals, the passionate devotees, the street food, the sunrise, and the revered waters of the holy Ganges, everything is magical in Banaras and people who visit Banaras invariably fall in love with it. Thousands of visitors throng to Banaras every day, some stay here for weeks but very few of them include Sarnath in their plans. Whether its the ignorance of the visitors or the magic of Banaras, most people do not visit Sarnath.
Sarnath derives its name from a Shiva shrine, Saranganath, the Lord of Deer. However, the place has gained prominence as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Here, Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment under the Mahabodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. Sarnath is 10 km away from Varanasi and can be easily reached via shared autorickshaws from the Cantonment (Cant.) railway station.
I visited Sarnath on the 3rd day of the Banaras trip. I started a little early, around 6:30 AM. In the winter at this time, it is freezing cold in Varanasi with dense fog. I managed to find an autorickshaw to the Cant. station. Here, I had litti chokha at a roadside stall and then got into another shared autorickshaw to reach Sarnath. After about 30 mins, the autorickshaw dropped me at the gate of the Thai Monastery.
The Thai monastery also referred to as the Wat Thai Temple was built in 1933. It has a traditional Thai monastery architecture and has a golden Buddha statue. Outside in the gardens, there is a gigantic Buddha statue in standing posture and also a Bodhi tree that is sampled from the original Mahabodhi tree at Bodh Gaya.
Buddha statue in standing posture
Sarnath Archaeological Museum
Sarnath Archeological Museum is an excellent museum housing artifacts recovered during the excavation at the archeological site. It holds the distinction of being the oldest site museum under ASI and has a rich collection of sculptures, Buddha idols, rock inscriptions, etc. The most important artifact stored here is the original Ashokan Lion Pillar, the national emblem of India. Visitors are required to deposit their bags and mobile phones before entering the museum. However, cameras are allowed into the museum; do carry one if you want to be clicked with the original national emblem.
The Ashokan lion pillar (National Emblem of India)
Next, I visited the Sarnath archeological site which also has the iconic Dhamekh Stupa. This place is under the administration of ASI and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The place is very similar to the ruins of the Nalanda University in Bihar. The complex has ruins of monasteries and rock edicts dated from 3rd century BC (the Ashokan era) to the 12th century AD (Medieval India). The Dhamekh Stupa (originally named Dharm Chakra stupa) stands out among the ruins. The stupa has been reconstructed multiple times the evidence of which is present in the multiple layers of construction of the stupa. Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon and revealed the eightfold path to attain nirvana at this site. Buddhism followers and monks to circumambulate this stupa while chanting mantras. In front of the stupa, there are manicured lawns where people can sit and relax, it also provides a good spot for taking pictures. During my visit, I found multiple groups engaged in group meditation and chanting. Although there are placards describing the monuments, you may opt for a guide, if you are interested in some additional information about the history of the place.
Ruins at Sarnath archeological site
The spot where the Ashokan pillar was discovered
Nearby, there are few other places of interest as well such as the Japanese temple, the Chinese Buddhist temple, Nyingmapa Monastery, etc. However, I didn’t have much interest in visiting those so I skipped them and returned to Varanasi. I hope you liked this post. I would strongly recommend anyone visiting Varanasi to keep a half-day slot in their itinerary to visit Sarnath and spend some time learning about the rich Buddhist legacy and history of Sarnath. Please leave your feedback, suggestions in the comments section below. You can also write to me for any additional information. Travel, Learn and spread Love!