Located 10 kms from the ancient city of Varanasi, India, the tranquil
city of Sarnath is one of the holiest of cities for Hindus. It is also where the Buddha
in his 35th year preached his first sermon in the deer park to the five ascetics who had
turned their backs on him in Bodhgaya, where he had broken the austerities after six long
years. The Dhamekh Stupa in the deer park marks the exact spot of the Buddha's first
sermon, and is literally covered with writings engraved on stone in different scripts. Like
Lumbini, Sarnath also boasts major ruins of stupas, temples and ornate monasteries. In all,
it is believed that the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma twelve times at Sarnath. The wheel
of dharma is also known as the wheel of the law.
Standing opposite to the Dhamekh Stupa, is a four-headed lion pillar errected by Emperor
Ashoka. The pillar is really a column measuring 15.24 metres in height with a lion capital.
Emperor Ashoka became a convert to Buddhism when he witnessed a massive slaughter
on the battlefield while ruthlessly invading a neighbouring Indian kingdom in 260 BC
to further expand his recently inherited empire. In all, Ashoka built 84,000 stupas across his empire
to house the many sacred relics of Gautama Buddha. The magnificient lion pillar at Sarnath
is a lasting testimonial to the emperor's miraculous change of heart. Thanks to the
chance conversion of Ashoka, the dharma became a strong moral force in
3rd century India, with Sarnath becoming one of the main destinations for
newly converted Buddhist pilgrims.
When the Buddha gave the first turning of the wheel in the deer park at Sarnath, he taught
the middle way which by necessity avoids the extremes of austerity and pleasure. He also
taught the four noble truths and the eightfold path. It is said that Kaundmya was the first
of the five ascetics to understand and internalize the gist of Buddha's teachings, and that
Ashvajit was the last. All five ascetics eventually became arhants and rejoiced in the
bodhisattva Gautama's miraculous awakening. The teachings included in the collection known
as the first turning of the wheel would extend over a period of seven years.
began teaching the law at Sarnath not for debate purposes, but out of genuine compassion
for his fellow human beings. He wanted all sentient beings to overcome their sufferings, and
to live fuller lives until it was time for them to enter Nirvana. His message was mainly one
of love, equality and non-violence.
Today the actual site of the Buddha's first moral discourse at Sarnath along with several
prominent ruins in the area have been enclosed in a pleasant park. Nearby, a well-planned
museum houses a number of unearthed statues, many barely damaged, as well as other
interesting findings from the site. The museum's entrance is dominated by the famous lion capital from
Ashoka's pillar, which incidentally, has been adopted as the Indian national emblem.
The wheel design on its base has also become the central figure of India's flag.
Sarnath has come to be known as the craddle of Buddhism in India and around the world.
Many Buddhist dignitaries visit the site to circumambulate the Dhamekh Stupa to
chant Buddhist mantras and pay homage to the place where the voice of Buddhism was first
heard. As mentioned earlier, Emperor Ashoka, realizing the sanctity of the deer park site,
built several fine monuments there in the 3rd century BC. His Dhamekh Stupa contains
some of the ashes and other cremated remains or relics of Lord Buddha. From 600 BC to the 12th century,
Sarnath remained a Buddhist education centre of world repute; however, it was forgotten for centuries
after the muslim invasion, until British archaeologists excavated the site in 1836.
Due to its location near the Tropic of Cancer, Sarnath enjoys a comfortable
winter but a very hot summer. The months of April, May and June are considerably
appended and edited @buddhavision