This massive stupa is located about 13 km from Varanasi in Sarnath. The stupa dates back to 500 CE, and it was constructed to replace an earlier stupa commissioned by Emperor Ashoka in 249 BCE along with several other monuments. In fact, the emperor had commissioned several stupas during his rule. These stupas contained relics related to Buddha including calcinated bones. Engraved pillars of Ashoka also stand near the site.
The Dhamek Stupa is believed to mark the place in the deer park where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon to his disciples after attaining enlightenment. It is here that he revealed the Noble Eightfold Path that would lead to nirvana or salvation. Even though, the stupa was enlarged six times, the upper part remains unfinished. A Chinese traveller, Xuanzang, who visited Sarnath in the fifth century wrote that during that period the colony had over 1500 priests and that the main stupa was nearly 300 feet high.
Located about 13 kilometres from Varanasi in Sarnath, Chaukhandi Stupa is greatly revered by the Buddhist community. Stupas trace their roots to burial moulds and house relics related to Buddha. It is believed that the Chaukhandi Stupa was originally built as a terraced temple during the Gupta period between the 4th to 6th century to commemorate the site where Buddha first met his first disciples while travelling to Sarnath from Bodh Gaya.
The stupa was later modified to its present shape when the octagonal tower was added to commemorate the visit of Mughal Emperor Humayun.
If you are visiting Chaukhandi Stupa, you may also wish to visit the nearby attractions, such as the site of the pillars of Ashoka, Dhamekha Stupa, Dharmarajika Stupa, Dharmachakra Stupa and Mulagandhakuti Temple.
The pillars of Ashoka are actually a series of columns found in northern India. As the name suggests, these pillars were commissioned by Emperor Ashoka during his reign in the 3rd century. All these pillars averaged between forty and fifty feet in height and weighed about fifty ton each. They were quarried at Chunar, a town near Varanasi and then dragged to the place where they were erected.
Although several pillars had been constructed only nineteen survive with inscriptions to this day. Of these, the pillars of Ashoka in Sarnath are the most famous. They have four lions seated back to back. The symbol has been adopted as the national emblem of India. These four lions symbolise power, courage, pride and confidence. The wheel or Ashok Chakra from the base is placed in the centre of the Indian national flag.
Sarnath is intrinsically linked with the birth and evolution of Buddhism in India. It is here that Buddha delivered his first sermon to his first five disciples and gave the world the principle of dharma, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Later, Emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism and commissioned several pillars and stupas in northern India, some of which were built in Sarnath.
The Archaeological Survey of India has since 1930 carried out excavations here and unearthed several monuments, structures and artefacts in what is known as the Archaeological and Excavation Area. The artefacts found here are displayed in the Sarnath Museum. These include antiquities ranging from the 3rd century BCE to 12th century AD including the finest specimens of Buddhist art. The museum comprises five galleries and two verandahs.
Deer Park in Sarnath is of great significance to the Buddhists because it was here that Gautama Buddha first preached Dharma. It is also here that the first Sangha came into existence when Kondanna, the first arihant, achieved enlightenment and formed the Buddhist Sangha.
If you are visiting Deer Park, you may also wish to visit Singhpur, a village which is about a kilometre away. The village is the birthplace of Shreyansanatha, the eleventh Tirthankara of Jain faith. There is a temple dedicated to him and is an important pilgrimage site for the Jain community. There is also a temple dedicated to him.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been conducting excavations at Sarnath since 1907. Over the years, it has unveiled several facets related to Buddhism history, from its origin to its evolution. The main excavation site comprises several monuments and structures.
The ancient relics have signs and symbols carved on them. These were designed to communicate and spread of the message of Buddha. One of the earliest and most interesting structures to be excavated is the Ashoka pillar, dating to 250 BC. Another point of interest is the Dhamekh Stupa from the Gupta period of Indian history.
Then there are several monasteries dating from 4th to 12th century. The site is of great interest to the historians and the Buddhist scholars who come here to interpret the writings on the pillar and learn about the period in which these monasteries and structures were built.
Being a major Buddhist pilgrim destination, Sarnath attracts visitors from across the globe especially from the Buddhist dominated countries, such as Japan, Thailand and China. Most people from these countries have their temples here.
The Thai Temple has been built by the Thai community and boasts an architectural style that is distinctively Thai. The temple itself is very colourful and is managed by the Thai Buddhist monks. It is set in beautiful landscaped gardens and is a haven of peace and tranquillity.
Set amidst the ancient ruins of Sarnath, Mulagandha Kuti Vihar has a distinct architecture which is very different from that of the other temples. This is because the temple is a more recent addition, constructed by Maha Bodhi society in 1931. The temple is very impressive boasting detailed design and patterns in its interiors; it also has beautiful murals and frescoes made by Kosetsu Nosu, one of the foremost painters of Japan. While frescoes are found in the interiors, the exterior is decorated with murals.
There is also a huge bronze bell at the entrance of the vihar that was gifted by the royal family of Japan. The sanctum houses a magnificent life-size golden statue of the Buddha. The temple also has a Bodhi tree that has been transplanted from a sapling brought from a tree in Sri Lanka. The tree in Sri Lanka originated from the real tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya some 2500 years ago.
It is here in Sarnath that Lord Buddha turned the wheels of Dharma and outlined the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. It is in Sarnath that Buddhism took roots, flourished and then spread to the rest of the world. It is little wonder then that Sarnath attracts pilgrims and Buddhist scholars from several countries, such as Tibet, China, Japan and Thailand.
The people from these countries have also built their temples and set up their centres of learning in the village. One such centre of learning is the Kagyu Tibetan Monastery or the Vajra Vidya Institute set-up by Thrangu Rinpoche. The centre is set near the deer park where Buddha delivered his first sermon.
The Kagyu Tibetan Monastery, the largest in Sarnath, is built in the style of Nalanda Monastic Institute near Bodh Gaya. Currently, the institute has about 15 monks and 4 nuns in residence who are here to study.