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Sarnath (formally Isipathana), located 13 kilometres from Varanasi, is the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma, and where the Buddhist Sangha was founded.

Origin of Names

Isipatana is the name used in the Pali Canon, and means the place with the holy men (Pali: ishi, Sanskrit: rishi) fell to earth. The legend says that when the Buddha-to-be was born, some devas came down to anounce it to 500 rishis. The rishis all rose into the air and disappeared and their relics fell to the ground. Sarnath means "Lord of the Deer" and relates to another old Buddhist story in which the Buddha is a deer and offers his life to a kind instead of the doe he is planning to kill. The king is so moved that he creates the park as a sanctuary for deer. The park is still there today.


The Buddha went to Sarnath from Bodh Gaya after his enlightenment. He was seeking his five former companions. Having found them he taught them and they also became enlightened, and hence the Sangha, or community of the enlightened ones, was founded. The Buddha spent the next rainey season in Sarnath at the mulagandhakuti vihara. The Sangha having grown to 60 in number, the Buddha sent them out in all directions to teach the Dharma.

Buddhism flourished in Sarnath in part because of kings and wealthy merchants based in Varanasi. By the 3rd_century Sarnath had become an important center for the arts, which reached it's zenith during the Gupta period (4th - 6th century CE). In the 7th_century by the time Hsuan Tsang visited from China, he found 30 monasteries and 3000 monks living at Sarnath.

Sarnath became a major centre of the Sammatiya school of Buddhism (one of the early Buddhist schools of the Shravakayana (formerly known as the hinayana). However the presence of images of Heruka and Tara indicate that Vajrayana Buddhism was also practiced here.

At the end of the 12th_century Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims, and the site was subsequently plundered for building materials.


All of the ancient buildings and structures at Sarnath were damaged or destroyed by the Turks. However amongst the ruins the Dharmekh Stupa is impressive as 128 feet high, and 93 in diameter. The Dharmarajika Stupa is one of the few pre-Ashokan stupas remaining, although only the foundations remain. The decaying ruins of the Mulagandhakuti vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season while to the east is the modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara with its beautiful wall paintings and behind it the Deer Park (where deer are still to be seen).

The Asokan pillar was broken some time ago but the base still stands. The lion capital, which miraculously survived its 45 foot drop to the ground, became a symbol on the Indian flag, and is still on display at the Sarnath Archeological Museum which also houses some of the greatest treasures of Indian Buddhist art including almost 300 images.

There is also a Bodhi tree planted by Anagarika Dharmapala which was grown from a cutting of the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya.

For Buddhists, this is one of four pilgrimage sites designated by Gautama Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar, Bodh Gaya, and Lumbini.


The first ever discourse was delivered here and is known in Pali as the Dhammacakkhapavathana Sutta. Other Suttas include the Anattalakhana Sutta, and the Saccavibhanga Sutta.

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