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Sarnath is one of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage destinations in the world. It has special significance because it's the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon.The Buddha didn't start preaching at Bodhgaya though. There were five people he wanted to teach first. He'd previously practiced physical discipline with them, as a means to liberation. They'd left him in disgust after he decided it wasn't the right path to liberation. The Buddha heard that they were dwelling in a deer park at Sarnath, so he headed there. They were so impressed with his newfound wisdom and Four Noble Truths that they became his first disciples.

Buddhism flourished in Sarnath due to its proximity to Varanasi. However, most of the structures were built by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka a couple of centuries after the Bodh religion was established.and he enthusiastically went about constructing stupas and pillars across India to promote the religion.The most celebrated pillar is the one at Sarnath. The national emblem of India, featuring four lions and a dharma chakra (wheel that represents the Buddhist teachings), is derived from it. The chakra also appears on the Indian flag.Subsequent rulers added to the stupas and monasteries that Ashoka built at Sarnath. During the reign of the Gupta dynasty in the 4th century A.D.Unfortunately, Turkish Muslim invaders arrived in the 12th century and destroyed much of Sarnath, along with many other Buddhist sites in North India. Most of what remained of the Dharmarajika Stupa, made by Ashoka, was further demolished in the late 18th century by Jagat Singh (Dewan of Raja Chet Singh of Banaras) and used as building materials. However, this rediscovery of Sarnath prompted British archeologists to excavate the site in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The main attraction is the Dhamekh stupa complex, where the excavated ruins are located. It's set in a landscaped park and contains the well-preserved Dhamekh Stupa (at the spot where the Buddha is believed to have delivered his first sermon), plus the remains of Buddhist monasteries, the Ashoka Pillar and Dharmarajika Stupa. The complex is open daily from dawn until dusk. Sarnath Archaeological Museum, next to the Dhamekh stupa complex, are interesting artifacts dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the 12th century A.D. The impressive top of the Ashoka Pillar is also a highlightThe Chaukhandi Stupa is another major stupa that's in relatively good condition. It marks the spot where the Buddha met up with his five companions. Next to the Chaukhandi Stupa, the Garden of Spiritual Wisdom is a new attraction with sculptures and exhibits related to Buddhism. It has a section with Ayurvedic plants as well.

The eleventh Jain tirthankara (spiritual teacher) Shreyanshnath was born in the area. There's an important 19th century Jain temple dedicated to him close to the Dhamekh Stupa complex.

By Sharjeel

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