Archaeological remains of Sarnath are located at north-eastern tip of the city of Varanasi, a famous town in Uttar Pradesh which is well connected by air, road and railways with other parts of the country.
Sarnath is one amongst the four most sacred places for the Buddhist where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. The event is known as Dharma Chakra Pravartana or setting the ‘Wheel of Law’ in motion. The other three are Lumbini, Bodhgaya and Kushinagar being the places of his birth, enlightenment and nirvana respectively. The very first ‘Sangh’ was also founded over here with sixty one monks including Lord Buddha, his five erstwhile companions and Yasha a merchant of Kasi with his fifty four fellows. Sarnath is equally sacred to Jains being the venue of austerities and death of Sreyansanath, the eleventh Tirthankara.
The archaeological significance of the place was first brought to the notice of modern world by Mr. J. Duncan in 1798 who gave an account of the casket of green marble inside a stone box exposed by the workmen of Jagat Singh, the Dewan of King Chet Singh of Benaras while dismantling the Dharmarajika stupa to exploit building materials. Excavations carried out by Archaeological Survey of India on large scale from time to time has revealed a number of monasteries, stupas, temples, inscriptions, sculptures and other antiquities ranging in date from 3rd century B.C. to 12th century A.D.
The most imposing structure at Sarnath is the Dhamekh stupa, a solid cylindrical tower about 28.5 mts in diameter at base and raising to a height of about 33.5 mts. It is veneered with sand stone upto the height of 11.20 mts and provided with niches in eight directions which must have once held images. Below the niches runs a broad course of beautifully carved elaborate ornamentation which represents high skill of workmanship on stone during Gupta period. Dharmrajika stupa, Mulagandhakuti shrine, Dharma chakra jina vihara and apsidal chapel are some other significant structures in addition to a number of monasteries, shrines and votive stupas. A little west of the Mulangadha kuti are kept the fragments of 15.25 mts high Asokan pillar bearing his edict and two later inscriptions. It was originally crowned by famous four lion capital, the most magnificent sculpture of Mauryan art which is now the National emblem of the government of India.
Another remarkable structure, the Chaukhandi stupa located about half a kilometre south of the main complex is a three tiered (Trimedhi) stupa of Gupta period. It is surmounted by an octagonal superstructure constructed during Mughal period to commemorate Humayun’s one night stay at this spot.
During the reign of Gupta rulers Sarnath developed as a great school of art introducing some new features and spiritual aspect in sculptures.
The antiquities recovered from Sarnath have been preserved in the adjoining site museum maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India.
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