The sculptures found at Sarnath can be broadly divided into four major groups. They are: (a) these belonging to Mauryan era (3rd century BC), main examples of which are main shrine, Ashoka column and capitol; (b) those belonging to Kushana era (1st to 2nd century AD) which are chiefly represented by two carved colossal pieces of animals; (c) those belonging to Imperial Gupta (4th century AD). Dhamek Stupa and its ornamentation is a living example of this era; and (d) those collections belonging to latter stage.
Legend: Adjoining the sacred centre of culture, Varanasi, Sarnath was chosen as the fit place to preach the new religion of the Buddha. Additional sanctity is also attributed to Sarnath on account of the wide-spread Buddhist belief that the Deer Park at Sarnath was the scene of one of the Jatakas or previous-life stories of Buddha who was then born as a deer. The Deer Park (Mrigdava) is the subject of a very picturesque and moving legend. There was a herd of deer in the forests of Sarnath. The king of Varanasi daily used to go into the forests, hunt and kill the deer. The leader of the herd approached the king and said that he would send one stag each day for the king’s food and asked the latter to desist from the cruelty of hunting. The king agreed. Now one day, the turn came to a doe big with young. She remonstrated with the leader of her herd saying that though she was herself willing to die, it was unjust that her young one in the womb should also die. The leader of the herd (who was none other than the Bodhisatva in a previous incarnation) felt the injustice of her words and said: “I cannot break the promise I made to the king. I shall go in thy place.” So saying he went and stood in the king’s palace yard. The king was astonished to find the leader presenting himself thus and on being appraised of the reason, was suddenly touched and ordered that henceforth there shall be no inhumanity. It was in such hallowed place that Buddha made his first disciples.
History: The story goes that Gautam Buddha, after his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya, started all alone for Sarnath covering the distance in sixty days. Kaundinya and four other associates were there to receive the Buddha. And to them the Buddha preached his first sermon, exactly at sunset on the full moon day in the month of Ashadha (June-July) in 528 B.C. When two centuries later the Mauryan Emperor Ashok became a convert to Buddhism, he visited Sarnath and erected a huge pillar with a finely carved lion capital at the very spot where Buddha is believed to have sat and delivered his sermon. It is seven feet high and consists of a bell-shaped base surmounted by four lions standing back to back, the middle portion or abacus above the fluted bell being adorned with the figures of a lion, an elephant, a bull and a horse with four wheels in between.
Sarnath fell into oblivion from time to time during centuries of Muslim domination. But recent excavations have laid bare a wealth of archaeological discoveries that reveal the glory of the civilization that has lain buried during the ages. There is a beautiful shrine, the nucleus round which had sprang up a multitude of temples and stupas. Hundreds of beautiful pieces of sculpture have also been unearthed. Sarnath finds in themselves are almost sufficient to illustrate the history of Indian sculpture. These can be seen by the visitors in the Sarnath Archaeological Museum situated amidst the picturesque ruins of Buddhist city carefully revealed to us.
Importance: Today, Sarnath is considered one of the richest places to have antiquities since the Ashok period in the 3rd century BC. Emperor Ashok founded a number of stupas and viharas. Among the monuments, the Dhamek Stupa is most important. The Dharmarajika Stupa was also built by Ashok. In the same campus is Ashokan Pillar with capitol of four lions that forms today the national emblem of India. Sarnath has many ruins of monasteries and stupas. Sarnath has an extremely rich collection of Buddhist statues. These sculptures are the images of Buddha and Bodhisatva. These images are kept in the Archaeological Museum of Sarnath.
Sarnath is one of the four pilgrimages of the Buddhists. Later on Sarnath developed as a prominent Buddhist centre with a grand monastery. Between the 3rd century BC and the 11th century AD, several Buddhist structures were built here in Sarnath. The Muslim invaders in medieval period ransacked and destroyed it. But an inquisitive traveler may still experience the rich past in the remnants of monastery, Dhamek Stupa, Dharmarajika Stupa and Emperor Ashoka's pillar. Standing amongst the ruins, the lower portion of Dhamek Stupa is built of sand stone and the upper one with bricks with a total height of nearly 31.7 meter. The walls of the stupa are intricately carved. To the north-west of the Dhamek Stupa lies a rectangular structural monument known as ‘Main Shrine’. It is made of stone and bricks. The broken part of the sand stone column, the original site of the lion capital, which is still preserved in Sarnath museum, is still standing to the west of the main shrine. Another monument in Sarnath is Chaukhandi. It is an octagonal tower made of bricks lying about 1 km to the south of Dhammeka Stupa. It was built by Akbar in 1588 AD to commemorate Humayun’s halt at this place. It is locally known as Chaukhandi (‘Chav’ means four and ‘Khandi’ means parts).
Also, visit Sarnath museum. Sarnath museum also has the figures and the sculptures from the Mauryan, Kushana and Gupta periods discovered during the excavations at Sarnath. It has a very rich and varied collection of stone sculptures and potteries found in the excavation. The important ones are Lion Capital (3rd century BC); The Wheel of Law (5th century AD); Avalokiteswara Padmapani (9th century AD), etc. The Lion Capital is 2.2 meter high. Four magnificent lions are shown sitting back to back. Four animals — bull, horse, lion and elephant are carved out beneath the lions. This lion capital facing the bull and horse has been adopted as a national emblem by the Union Republic of India.
Several Varanasi tour packages incorporate sightseeing of Sarnath. Don’t miss to visit Mulagandha Kuti Vihar while on a trip to Sarnath. This is a temple which was built by Mahabodhi Society of India, Sri Lanka and Japan, contains various scenes from the life of Lord Buddha. The relics of Buddha are kept in this temple.