Sarnath derives its name from the Sarang Nath or the lord of the Deer. Yes, there is still a deer park behind the monuments and you can see them playing in what they assume to be the forest. I remember my childhood days when we used to visit this place, the place was much more open. Deer could be seen without any barricade between you and them.
Nonetheless, symbolically enough, there are Deer here just like the time when they were when Buddha chose this place to give his first sermon to his first disciples. And set the wheel of dharma rolling that is immortalized in his Dharma Chakra Parivartana Mudra. That is as much a symbol of his association with Sarnath as the philosophy it puts forth.
The place where he first met his 5 disciples is now a stupa called Chaukhandi Stupa, right at the entrance of the town. It is a spiral rectangular structure in red bricks, erected probably during the 4-5th CE or the Gupta period. On top of this structure is an octagonal medieval structure that was erected to commemorate a visit by Mughal emperor Humayun. Walking around the stupa that is being restored as of now, your thoughts go to that meeting that led to the creation of a whole new religion. Behind the stupa is a vast Japanese style park being created. Which if maintained could be one of those places where locals and visitors can sit back and relax.
Dhamekh Stupa or Dharma Chakra Stupa
The Dhamekh stupa, originally called Dharma Chakra stupa is the most important monument in Sarnath. As this is supposed to be erected at the exact place where Buddha gave his first sermon. It is supposed to pre-date Ashoka’s 84000 stupas that he erected during his times. He did re-erect this stupa too after putting the Buddha’s relics here. The current stupa is a recent restoration by the ASI. You can see the pieces of the original carved stones with geometric and floral designs primarily including the swastika. There are one-off bird and animal too carved. There are eight niches in eight directions that must have had Buddha images but lie empty now.
Archeology apart I found the devotion with which Buddhism followers came and bowed before the stupa very enchanting. They usually came in large groups on a bus, with a guide explaining the place using a handheld loudspeaker. They did a parikrama around the stupa, touched it like the most precious thing in life, stuck a small rectangular gold foil as an offering and then clicked their cameras from all angles. And they sat on lawns with the stupa in the background. Read the first sermon with incense sticks in their hands and their expression was a feeling of milestone achieved in life, a wish fulfilled.
The Mulgandha Kuti not too far from Dhamekh Stupa is the place where Buddha used to meditate. This must have been a huge temple built on a strong platform during the Gupta period. It is only a ruin today. The founder of Mahabodhi Society Anagarika Dharmapala constructed an alternate new temple by the same name on the other side of Dhamekh Stupa in mid 20th CE. It is a simple stone temple that claims to replicate the original temple. And has a golden image of the Buddha with his 5 disciples. The original image in stone is in the Archeological museum that I will write about later. This temple is very simple, yet very serene.
Prodigy of Bodhi Tree
A prayer flag-lined path leads to the temple that overlooks the Dhamekh Stupa. There is a prodigy of the original Bodhi tree in the compound that came here from Bodh Gaya via Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. There is a diorama replica of Buddha surrounded by his five disciples. This is where the devotees sit and pray. It was again a delight to see them collecting the fallen leaves of the Bodhi tree as delicately as possible. And storing them away in their bags like a prized possession.
There are new temples built by the Buddhist countries around these primary monuments. With giant Buddha statues and their own style temples, just like in Bodh Gaya. If you have time, you can spend quite some time going around this land of Buddha’s preaching.
Recommend you read following travel blog posts on places to visit in Varanasi.