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Birthplace of new orders
Sarnath is one of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage centres of India. After attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, Buddha came to Sarnath and delivered his first sermon to five disciples. It is this place where foundation of a new order of monks (Sangha) and a new order of religious doctrine (Dhamma) was laid. Sarnath is also sacred to the Jains because they look upon it as the site of asceticism and death of Shreyamshanath, the 11th Tirthankara.

Ruins of Sarnath.
According to records, Sarnath passed into oblivion in the 13th century and the veil was lifted in 1798 when Duncan, the then British resident of Benaras, gave an account of a casket of green marble inside a stone box exposed by the workmen of Jagat Singh, Dewan of Raja Chet Singh of Benaras while dismantling the Dharmaralika stupa in order to procure building materials. Later on, excavations were conducted at the site by Sir Alexander Cunningham (1835-36), Major Kittoe (1851-52), C Horne (1865), FO Oertal (1904-5), Sir John Marshall (1907), H Hargreaves (1914-15), and Daya Ram Sahni (1927-32).

Massive Buddha, Sarnath.
Archaeological excavations have brought to light about a dozen carved railing pillars ascribable to the Shunga period (2nd lst century BC). With the advent of the Kushana (first, second century AD) in North India, Buddhism witnessed a new phase of religious and artistic activities. Though Mathura was the centre of this renaissance, Sarnath also flourished and new monuments were raised. The colossal image of Bodhisattva imported form Mathura in the third year of Kanishka is now exhibited in the museum.

Smaller votive stupas in the monastry/temple complex.
During the Gupta period (4th-6th century AD), Sarnath became the main centre of structural and artistic activities. Several structures, including Mulgandhakuti, the chief shrine of the Buddha, were erected during this period. The Dhamekh stupa is the best preserved and most impressive edifice in Sarnath. It is a cylindrical tower 28.50mt in diameter at base and 33.53mt in height. Fa Hien, the Chinese pilgrim, visited Sarnath at the time of Chandragupta II (376-414 AD) and saw here four stupas and two monasteries.

Buddhist monk meditating in Sarnath, where Buddha temple gave his first sermon.
This place continued to flourish during the reign of the Pala kings. But the monuments of Sarnath experienced a reverse when Banaras suffered under the spearhead of Mahmud of Ghazni's invasion. Kumar Devi, wife of Govindchandra (1114-1154 AD) of the Gahadavala dynasty, built a large monastery in Sarnath which is probably the last impressive monument raised here and after which the architectural and artistic activities came to a halt. The glorious heritage remained hidden for a larger period and waited for the archaeological spade to uncover it.

Source: The Times of India [March 26, 2011]

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