This is one of the most famous Buddhist centers of India and is located 6 km north of Hindu pilgrimage center Benares – in Uttar Pradesh, near the highway to Ghazipur.
There are four sacred Buddhist pilgrimage centers in the Indian subcontinent. The first of these is the birthplace of Buddha at Lumbinivana, east of Kapilavastu. The second most sacred place of pilgrimage is Buddha Gaya where he attained enlightenment. The third most sacred pilgrimage center for Buddhists is Sarnath or Isipatan where Buddha delivered his first sermon, and the fourth is Kushinara or Kashia in Uttar Pradesh, where he finally gave up his mortal self.
The earliest remains here at Sarnath are from the Mauryan period ascribed to Emperor Ashoka the great. The Lion Capital is the national emblem of India. The Dharmarajika Stupa was built by Ashoka, and it was expanded and enlarged several times upto the 12th century CE. The structures here were destroyed by repeated invasions – and by gradual neglect – and what are seen today are the results of repeated reconstruction efforts.
The Dhamekh stupa is a cylindrical tower, 143 feet high, and 93 feet high. The stones in each layer were bound together by iron clamps. This tower dates back to the Gupta period.
The Chinese traveller Hsuen Tsang who visited India in the 7th century CE, speaks of the glory of Sarnath and of the structures that existed then.
A modern temple to Buddha has been built here in the 20th century, housing several of the Buddhist relics excavated here. On Buddha Purnima, the birthday of Buddha, relics of the Buddha are taken out in procession. The archeological museum at Sarnath houses several Buddhist sculptures and relics. The Mahabodhi library here houses a rich collection of Buddhist manuscripts and writings.
Asoka’s pillars are basically a series of pillars that are spread all over the northern part of the Indian sub continent. These pillars were set up during the time Emperor Ashoka reigned in India. Most of the pillars, though damaged to some extent still stand upright and are protected by the concerned authorities. Out of all the pillars, the most famous is the Ashokan pillar located at Sarnath. Most of King Asoka’s pillars have inscriptions of Ashoka’s Dhamma or philosophies. Read further about the famous Ashoka Pillar.
The pillar at Sarnath is believed to mark the site where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon. It is said to be place where Buddha taught Dharma to five monks. The pillar at Sarnath has an edict inscribed on it that reveals information about Ashoka’s stand against divisions of any sort in the society. When translated, it says “No one shall cause division in the order of monks”. The pillar at Sarnath is made of sandstone and is maintained in proper shape even today.
The appearance of the pillar is quite imposing. At the base of the pillar is an inverted lotus flower which forms a platform for the pillar. At the top of the pillar are four lions sitting back to back facing the four prime directions. Other illustrations on the pillar include the Dharma Chakra (Wheel) with 24 spokes which can be seen on the Indian national flag as well. All illustrations have their own meaning and significance. There are four animals illustrated on the pillar. They stand for the following:
The illustration of an Elephant signifies Lord Buddha’s conception. When Buddha was conceived, his mother dreamt that a white elephant had entered the womb.
A Bull illustrated on the pillar signifies the zodiac sign of Taurus as it is said that Buddha was born during the month of April – May and also attained enlightenment during this time. The Bull also stands as a symbol of Lord Shiva.
The Horse stands for the horse named Kanthaka that Buddha rode when he departed from his palace to practice asceticism and attain enlightenment.
The Lion that is illustrated signifies the attainment of enlightenment.
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