Sarnath is a place located 10 kilometres north-east of Varanasi city near the confluence of the Ganges and the Varuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh, India. The deer park in Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha came into existence through the enlightenment of Kondanna (Sanskrit: Kauṇḍinya).
Sarnath has been variously known as Mrigadava, Rishipattana and Isipatana throughout its long history. Mrigadava means "deer-park". "Isipatana" is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place where holy men landed.
Sarnath derives from the Sanskrit Sāranganātha, which means "Lord of the Deer", and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Bodhisattva is a deer and offers his life to a king instead of the doe the latter is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer. The park is active in modern times.
The major excavated ruins are listed below, generally in north-to-south and west-to-east order.
Ancient Buddhist monasteries near Dhamekh Stupa Monument Site, Sarnath. The ruins of the original main temple are to the left.
Ashoka pillar is capital of Sarnath.
Most of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath were damaged or destroyed by the Turks. However, amongst the ruins can be distinguished:
The Dharma Chakra Jina Vihar built by Kumaradevi, a wife of Gahadavala Govindachandra . An inscription mentions the building of this massive vihara. It mentions that Govindachandra had protected Varanasi from the Turushkas. This was the last construction at Sarnath before it was devastated
The Ashoka Pillar erected here, originally surmounted by the "Lion Capital of Ashoka" (presently on display at the Sarnath Museum), was broken during Turk invasions but the base still stands at the original location. The Lion Capital now symbolizes the modern state of India. The Lion Capital served as the base of a large 32-spoke stone dharma-chakra, which was found broken into many pieces.The seal of the Supreme court of India displays the Dharma Chakra as it must have originally appeared.
• The ruins of the Mulagandhakuti vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season. This was the main temple marked by the presence of the Ashoka Pillar at the front. The famous Sarnath Buddha in dharmachakra pravartana mudra was found in the vicinity.
• The Dharmarajika Stupa is one of the few pre-Ashokan stupas remaining, although only the foundations remain. The rest of the Dharmarajika Stupa was removed to Varanasi to be used as building materials in the 18th century. At that time, relics (bone fragments) in a casket, were found in the Dharmarajika Stupa. These relics were subsequently thrown in the Ganges river, but the casket is preserved.
• The Dhamek Stupa; it is an impressive structure, 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter.
• The Chaukhandi Stupa commemorates the spot where the Buddha met his first disciples, dating back to the fifth century or earlier and later enhanced by the addition of an octagonal tower of Islamic origin. In recent years it is undergoing restoration.
• Digambar Jain Mandir: while the current structure is from the 19th century, it occupies an ancient spot.
• The modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara is a temple built in the 1930s by the Mahabodhi Society, with beautiful wall paintings with a replica of the famous Sarnath Buddha in dharmachakra pravartana mudra.Behind it is the Deer Park (where deer are still to be seen).
• The Sarnath Archeological Museum houses the famous Ashokan lion capital, which miraculously survived its 45-foot drop to the ground (from the top of the Ashokan Pillar), and became the National Emblem of India and national symbol on the Indian flag. The museum also houses a famous and refined Buddha-image of the Buddha in Dharmachakra-posture.
• There is also a Bodhi tree planted by Anagarika Dharmapala which has grown from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya.
For Buddhists, Sarnath (or Isipatana) is one of four pilgrimage sites designated by Gautama Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar, Bodh Gaya, and Lumbini.