History of Sarnath
The history of Sarnath is actually the history of Buddha. Five weeks after his enlightenment Buddha went to Sarnath. While travelling to Sarnath, Lord Buddha had to cross the Ganges. The sermon that Buddha gave at Sarnath is called Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The sangha was also established here. The eminent members of the Sangha resided at Sarnath. According to the Udapana Jataka there was a very ancient well near Isipatana( Sarnath) which, in the Buddha's time, was used by the monks living there. Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller found fifteen hundred monks studying the Hinayana at Isipatana.
It is said that King Ashoka builds a stone stupa here. The Divy (389-94) mentions Asoka as intimating to Upagupta his desire to visit the places connected with the Buddha's activities, and to erect thupas there. In the front of it is a stone pillar that marks the spot where Buddha preached his first sermon.
Buddhism flourished in Sarnath as a result of the kings and merchants of Varanasi. During the 3rd century Sarnath was renowned as a centre for arts. It reached the zenith during the Gupta period. During the 7th century when Hiuen Tsiang visited Sarnath, he founded 30 monasteries. Sarnath was the centre of the Sammatiya school of Buddhism. At the end of 12th century, Sarnath was plundered by the Turks. Sarnath, from Saranganath, means "Lord of the Deer". It relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the deer the latter is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer.
Monuments of Sarnath
Most of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath were damaged. Amongst the ruins can be distinguished:
The Dharmarajika Stupa : This is the earliest of the remains here at Sarnath, built on Mauryan period attributed to the Emperor Ashoka the great. The Dharmarajika Stupa was expanded and enlarged several times upto 12th century AD. The structure was destroyed by repeated invasions and negligence. What is found today is the result of repeated effort of reconstruction.
The Chaukhandi Stupa : Chaukhandi is the first monument encountered by the visitors as they enter Sarnath. It is a lofty mound of brick, a structure whose square edifice is surrounded by an octagonal tower. This structure is also said to be raised by Emperor Ashoka.
The Dhamekha Stupa : This is the most conspicuous structure at Sarnath. Colonel Cunningham bore a shaft from the top centre of the stupa and discovered a stone tablet on which an inscription is written with the word 'Dhameka', which mentions that this is the spot where Buddha delivered his first sermon. Dhamekha seems to be a distorted form of Dharma Chakra, which means turning the wheel of the Dharma.
King Ashoka also built the Dhamekha Stupa. The present size of the stupa is 31.3 metre high and 28.3 metre in diameter. The lower portion of the stupa is covered completely with beautifully carved stones. The design consists of a broad band of 'Swastika', carved in different geometrical patterns with a finely chiseled lotus garland, running over and below the Swastikas.
The Ashoka Pillar: The Ashoka pillar is extremely important because on top of the pillar there used to be a statue of four lions holding up a wheel, which is national sign of India now. The wheel stands for 'Dharma'. The pillar is broken now and the 'Lion capital of Ashoka' is in display at Sarnath museum, which consists of a canopy representing an inverted bell-shaped lotus flower, a short cylindrical abacus where alternate four 24-spoked Dharma wheels with four animals (an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion in this order), and four lions facing the four cardinal directions.
The Mulagandha kuti vihar: It is the modern temple erected by the Mahabodhi Society. It has excellent frescoes by Kosetsu Nosu who is famous Japanese painter. Several Buddhist relics are also excavated here. On Buddha Purnima, the birth ceremony of Buddha, relics of Buddha are taken out in procession. The archaeological museum at Sarnath houses several Buddhist sculpture and relics, also a rich collection of Buddhist manuscript and writings.
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