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Sarnath or Sarangnath (also called Mrigadava, Migadaya, Rishipattana and Isipatana) is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage centres in India. It is also an important place for the followers of Jainism.

Sarnath is situated 13Kms to north-east of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. It is the place where Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon to his five disciples named Kaundinya, Bashpa, Bhadrika, Mahanaman and Ashvajit after he attained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya (in present dayBihar).

Sarnath is, thus, the place where foundation of Sangha, a new order of monks and Dhamma, was laid. It is also a religious and sacred place for Jains. It is the site of the birth of Shreyamshanath, the 11th Trithankara.

In the ancient Buddhist literature, Sarnath has been identified as Rishipatna and Mrigdava or Mrigadaya. The reason for it being referred to as Rishipatna was that after attaining nirvana, Pratyeka Buddhas or Rishis (Sages) fell at this place.

The reason behind the place being called mrigadava (deerpark) is found in the Buddhist Jatakas. As per Jataka, Buddha had been a leader of herd of deer in his previous births had saved the life of a doe and appeared before the king of Benaras and offered himself to be killed in the place of the doe who feasted on the flesh of deer regularly. The king was moved by the sacrificial zeal of Buddha and made a free roaming ground.

The place was also called Dharamchakra or Sadhamacharka pravartana vihar as revealed by the inscriptions of early medieval period (found at Sarnath). The current name Sarnath seems to be a short version of Saranganath that stands for Lord of deer.

Sarnath lost its identity and sunk in oblivion in the 13th century but gained its glory back in 1798. In 1798 Mr Duncan, the resident of Benaras, threw light on a casket of green marble inside a stone box which was unveiled by the workmen of Jagat Singh, Dewan of Raja Chet Singh of Benaras while he was knocking down the Dharmaralika stupa as he wanted to gather building material. This created a lot of buzz about Sarnath and it was then when Sarnath gained limelight.

Thereafter many archaeological excavations were conducted at the site by number of people namely Sir Alexander Cunningham (1835-36), Major Kittoe (1851-52), Mr. C. Horne (1865), Mr. F.O. Oertal (1904-5), Sir john Marshall (1907), Mr. H. Hargreaves(1914-15), and Mr. Daya Ram Sahni (1927-32).

These excavations unveiled carved railing pillars from Shunga period (2nd –1st cent. B.C). With the onset of the Kushanas (1st –2nd cent. A.D.), a new wave of religious and artistic activities emerged in northIndia.Mathurabecame the centre of all the new activities but Sarnath flourished equally during this period.

In the 3rd regnal year of Kanishka, a colossal image of Bodhisattva was imported fromMathura, which has now found a place for itself in the archaeologicalmuseumofSarnath.

Sarnath became a prominent centre of Buddhism in the Gupta period. The abundance of exquisitely carved sculptural art, which was given a new dimension by the Gupta artists, is testimony to this fact. The place, thus, became a main centre of Gupta art and gave rise to the Sarnath School of Art, which is known for its elegance, simplicity of forms and sublimity. The images of Buddha (displayed at Shakyasimha gallery) are a true example of thisschoolofArt. Standing figure of abundantly ornamented Tara is one of the best specimens of Late Gupta sculptural art ofSarnathSchool.

Sarnath became a centre of structural and artistic activities during this period and several structures including Mulgandhakuti, the chief shrine of the Buddha, were erected during this period. One of the most impressive and best preserved stupa is the Dhamekh Stupa at Sarnath. It is a cylindrical tower that measures 28.50 mts in diameter and 33.53 mts in height.

At the time of Chandragupta ll (376-414 A.D.), the famous Chinese traveler Fa-Hien visited Sarnath and saw four stupas and two monasteries here. Hiuen-Tsang has left a vivid description of Sarnath’s monuments.

Sarnath continued to blossom during the reign of the Pala kings. However, the place suffered when Benaras fall prey to Mahmud Ghajni’s invasions. The last remarkable monument at Sarnath that got shape was a large monastery built by Kumar Devi, wife of Govindchandra (1114-1154 A.D.) of the Gahadavala dynasty.

After that the architectural and artistic activities came to a standstill and the world had to wait for long to witness the real Sarnath till archaeological excavations unveiled the glory and heritage.
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