Pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a holy land or place. For this reason, thousands of Buddhist followers go to Sarnath each year, to be able to visit the revered place where Buddha was said to have preached his first ever sermon after his enlightenment. About 13 kilometres away from Varanasi, lays this small town, whose name is derived from the word Saranganath meaning “The Lord of the Deer”. The place is considered one of the most important destinations for all Buddhists around the globe and other cultural enthusiasts.
The road to the deer park is quite peaceful and pleasant especially after getting out of the crazy traffic in Varanasi. Lined with beautiful trees, you develop a sense of tranquillity as you pass scattered houses across the dusty land. When you get to the deer park itself, the place is quite a contrast from the bustling activities in the city. Instead of the hustle and bustle of pedestrians, you will see the seemingly calm and serious looking monks walking around and the groups of pilgrims in their white robes.
The Chaukhandi Stupa (stupa, meaning heap) will greet you as you enter the park. This is an octagonal tower sitting atop an earthen mound that is braced by a framework made of bricks. It has been said that this is where the Lord Buddha met his first disciples.
Just adjacent to the historical ruins is the Archaeological Museum, which is considered as one of most noted and renowned museums in South East Asia. Most would definitely agree since the museum holds a very large collection of art pieces and artifacts that serve testament to the rich artistic, religious and historical background of the place. However, the most famous piece in the museum would have to be the Lion capital of Ashoka, a sculpture of four standing Indian lions. This famous artwork, which was carved out of a single block of sandstone, has been adopted as the National emblem of India. Tourists should then not miss this pillar when in town.
Scattered across the sprawling park are ruins and excavations of temples and monasteries such as the Jain temple and Kumara Devi’s temple. Just beyond the temples stand the 98-foot high Dhamek Stupa, which is a solid cylinder of bricks, built in 500 CE and was said to have been enlarged six times. Unfortunately, until this date, the upper part of the stupa remains unfinished. The Stupa is one of the most important areas in the entire park because it was said that the Stupa is a spot of a dear mark where the Buddha gave his first sermon where he revealed the Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana.
One monastery that you should not miss is the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, built by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society which highlights very beautiful paintings and colourful murals depicting Buddha’s life. Seen next to the temple is a life size diorama of Buddha under a Bodhi Tree, giving his first sermons to his disciples. The tree is interestingly a cutting from the original Bodhi tree where the enlightenment of Buddha supposedly happened.
Sarnath holds the key to understanding a culture that is rich in both religious and cultural aspect. It does not only offer sceneries and sights, but also presents the traveller a chance to reflect and contemplate about life. It has been said that Sarnath is where the long journey of Buddha started making it a good place to start a journey to understand one of the worlds’ richest cultures.