Sarnath is a city located 13 kilometres north-east of Varanasi near the confluence of the Ganges and the Gomati rivers in Uttar Pradesh, India. The deer park in Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna. Singhpur, a village approximately one km away from the site, was the birthplace of Shreyansanath, the Eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism, and a temple dedicated to him, is an important pilgrimage site.
Isipatana is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the four places of pilgrimage which his devout followers should visit, if they wanted to visit a place for that reason. It was also the site of the Buddha’s Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which was his first teaching after attaining enlightenment, in which he taught the four noble truths and the teachings associated with it.
Origin of names
Sarnath has been variously known as Mrigadava, Migadāya, Rishipattana and Isipatana throughout its long history. Mrigadava means “deer-park”. Isipatana is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men (Pali: isi, Sanskrit: rishi) landed.
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 (isayo ettha nipatanti uppatanti cāti-Isipatanam). 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 Nandamūlaka-pabbhāra.
Xuanzang quotes the Nigrodhamiga Jātaka (J.i.145ff) to account for the origin of the Migadāya. According to him the Deer Park was a forest given by the king of Benares of the Jātaka, where deer might wander unmolested. The Migadāya was so-called because deer were allowed to roam about there unmolested.
Sarnath derives from the Sanskrit Sāranganātha, which means “Lord of the Deer”, and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva 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 active in modern times.
Gautama Buddha at Isipatana
Before Gautama (the Buddha-to-be) attained enlightenment, he gave up his austere penances and his friends, the Pañcavaggiya monks. Seven weeks after his enlightenment under Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya Buddha left Uruvela and traveled to Isipatana to rejoin 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 had no money with which to pay the ferryman to cross the Ganges, so he crossed it through the air. Later when King Bimbisāra heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. When Gautama Buddha found and taught his five former companions, they understood and as a result, also became enlightened. At that time the Sangha, the community of the enlightened ones, was founded. The sermon Buddha gave to the five monks was his first sermon, called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It was given on the full-moon day of Asalha Puja. 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.
Several other incidents connected with the Buddha, besides the preaching of the first sermon, are mentioned as having taken place in Isipatana. Here it was that one day at dawn Yasa came to the Buddha and became an Arahant. It was at Isipatana, too, that the rule was passed prohibiting the use of sandals made of talipot leaves. On another occasion when the Buddha was staying at Isipatana, having gone there from Rājagaha, he instituted rules forbidding the use of certain kinds of flesh, including human flesh. Twice, while the Buddha was at Isipatana, Māra visited him but had to go away discomfited.
Besides the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta mentioned above, several other suttas were preached by the Buddha while staying at Isipatana, among them
- the Anattalakkhana Sutta,
- the Saccavibhanga Sutta,
- the Pañca Sutta (S.iii.66f),
- the Rathakāra or Pacetana Sutta (A.i.110f),
- the two Pāsa Suttas (S.i.105f),
- the Samaya Sutta (A.iii.320ff),
- the Katuviya Sutta (A.i.279f.),
- a discourse on the Metteyyapañha of the Parāyana (A.iii.399f), and
- the Dhammadinna Sutta (S.v.406f), preached to the distinguished layman Dhammadinna, who came to see the Buddha.
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 Mahakotthita, and one between Mahākotthita 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 Udapāna Jātaka (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 Buddha
According to the Mahavamsa, there was a large community of monks at Isipatana in the second century B.C. For, we are told that at the foundation ceremony of the Mahā Thūpa in Anurādhapura, twelve thousand monks were present from Isipatana led by the Elder Dhammasena.
Xuanzang found, at Isipatana, fifteen hundred monks studying the Hīnayāna. In the enclosure of the Sanghārāma was a vihāra about two hundred feet high, strongly built, its roof surmounted by a golden figure of the mango. In the centre of the vihāra was a life-size statue of the Buddha turning the wheel of the Law. To the south-west were the remains of a stone stupa built by King Asoka. 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. Thus he visited Lumbinī, Bodhimūla, Isipatana, Migadāya and Kusinagara; this is confirmed by Asoka’s lithic records, e.g. Rock Edict, viii.
In front of it was a stone pillar to mark the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. Nearby was another stupa on the site where the Pañcavaggiyas spent their time in meditation before the Buddha’s arrival, and another where five hundred Pacceka Buddhas entered Nibbāna. Close to it was another building where the future Buddha Metteyya received assurance of his becoming a Buddha.
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 Xuanzang visited from China, he found 30 monasteries and 3000 monks living at Sarnath.
Sarnath became a major centre of the Sammatiya school of Buddhism, one of the early Buddhist schools. However, the presence of images of Heruka and Tara indicate that Vajrayana Buddhism was (at a later time) also practiced here. Also images of Brahminist 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.
Discovery of Isipatana
Isipatana is identified with the modern Sarnath, six miles from Benares. Alexander Cunningham found the Migadāya represented by a fine wood, covering an area of about half a mile, extending from the great tomb of Dhamekha on the north to the Chaukundi mound on the south.
Legendary characteristics of Isipatana
According to the Buddhist commentarial scriptures, all the Buddhas preach their first sermon at the Migadāya in Isipatana. It is one of the four avijahitatthānāni (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 Tāvatimsa, 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), Dhammadassī Buddha (BuA.182) and Kassapa Buddha (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 Vipassī 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.
Sarnath is the birthplace of the 11th teerthankar of current tirthankar Shri Shreyansanatha Bhagwan. It is the place of 4 kalyanak of Shri Shreyansnath Bhagwan that are Chyavan, Janm, Deeksha and Kevalgyan.
- Shri Digambar Jain Shreyansnath Mandir, Singhpuri,Sarnath
It is the place of 4 kalyanak of Shri Shreyansnath Bhagwan. A huge ashtakod stoop (octagonal pillar) of 103 feet height is still present showing its historical establishment. As per them it is considered to be 2200 years old. Moolnayak of this temple is a blue colored idol of Shri Shreyansnath Bhagwan of height 75 cm in Padmasanastha position. The artistic work of this temple is unmatched.
How to Get There
Varanasi Airport (IATA: VNS) is 24 km from Sarnath and is the nearest airport.
The nearest major station is Varanasi Junction. (6 km), which is connected to most major cities in the country. Sarnath does have a small 1 train station with local trains from Varanasi serving every 2-3 hr, but most trains terminate in Varanasi City (instead of Varanasi Junction) station. A few express trains also stop here.
Long distance buses usually arrive at the station across from the Varanasi Cantt train station, where you can transfer to a local bus to Sarnath, or take a taxi or rickshaw.
The town is easily reached by taxi or auto rickshaw from Varanasi. If you’re non-Indian and arriving in Varanasi by train, a taxi driver will probably descend on you before you leave your train platform. Make no commitment there! You can negotiate a better rate with an autorickshaw driver, outside the station. If you have tons of luggage though, go with the taxi — it won’t fit in the rickshaw. The route, though once somewhat rural, is now noisy, busy, and almost completely built up till you’re on the road just outside Sarnath.
Ashoka Pillar. Only the base remains.
1 Chaukhandi Stupa, Rishpattan Rd. Constructed in the 5th century, the stupa marks the spot where the Buddha met the five ascetics. The octagonal tower is of Islamic origin and a later addition.
2 Dhamekh Stupa. Constructed by king Ashoka in 249 BCE to commemorate his pilgrimage to the Deer Park. It is believed that the stupa marks the exact spot where the Buddha taught the five ascetics the Four Noble Truths, his first teaching after attaining enlightenment.
Mulagandhakuti Vihara. The ruins of the temple where the Buddha spent his first rainy season.
3 Sarnath Archeological Museum, Dharmapala Rd. 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. Remains closed on Fridays. A small, but impressive collection of artifacts excavated from the site. The sculptures are particularly of interest, including the Lion Capital of Ashoka- the national emblem of India.
4 Sri Digamber Jain Temple, Dharmapala Rd. A Temple near Dhamekh Stupa. Accessible by main road that runs along Dhamekh Stupa. Learn about Digambara monasticism, a branch of Jain Dharma.
Thai Temple, Japanese Temple, Chinese Temple, Burma Mandir, Indonesia Temple are other attractions
1 Highway Inn Restaurant, Ashapur crossing (about 1km from the center), ☎ +91 94541 62836. 8AM–9PM. Recommended for tasty masala lovers and eaters. Dal fry and Aaloo jeera are also fine edit
Holiday Inn, Main road (opposite Mahabodhi Temple entrance). 11.00-18.00. One of 2-3 restaurants in Sarnath. Good food and reasonable prices. Opening hours limited and closed for holidays, weddings, funerals etc.
Jain Paying Guest House. Cheap and spartan, but with great family hospitality. Rs300 per night, possibility of eating breakfast and lunch with the family (and Buddhist guests passing by).
Mahabodi Dharmshala Temple, Thai Temple and the Burmese Temple. All of these temples offer very cheap but spartan accommodation.
Chinese Temple, Sarnath, Varanasi 221007, U.P., India. Tel (Office): +91 5422595280. This temple is nearby the main areas of visit, around 5-10 mins walk to Dhamekh Stupa. Offers small room or big bunk room, depending on availability. Costs 200 Rupee per bed or room. Clean and simple stay.
1 UPSTDC Rahi Tourist Bungalow, Sarnath Station Rd, Ashok Rd crossroad, Baraipur (Near Maha Bodhi Inter College), ☎ +91 542 2595969, fax: +91 (0542) 259-5379. A government run establishment – drab and uninspiring, but conveniently located.
2 Chinese Temple, Sarnath, Varanasi 221007, U.P., India, ☎ +91 5422595280. This temple is nearby the main areas of visit, around 5-10 mins walk to Dhamekh Stupa. Offers small room or big bunk room, depending on availability. Costs 200/300 Rupee per bed or room. Clean and simple stay.
3 The Golden Buddha Hotel (Golden Buddha Marriage Lawn), Sarangnath Colony, ☎ +91-993-503-9368, +91 98074 74018. Probably the best hotel in town. Offers such facilities as Ayurvedic massage, a restaurant serving fresh Indian dishes, a peaceful lawn, and outdoor hot tub. Special rates for backpacking groups. Its walking distance from the main temple. The hotel can arrange a taxi to pick you up from the train station or airport. Rs400 – Rs1200.
In the vicinity of sacred sites:
Wear clothing that expresses respect for the sacred nature of the site.
Circumambulate the stupa and other sacred objects in a clock-wise direction.
Preserve the peace and tranquility.
Do not climb onto statues or other sacred objects.