Situated 10 km from Varanasi, Sarnath is one of the four sacred places of Buddhism in India, others being Lumbini, Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar. sarnath is the first place where Buddha delivered his first sermon to his five disciples after attaining enlightenment. Realising the sanctity of the site, emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BC, built some of the finest monuments and legacies. Several Buddhist structures were raised at Sarnath between the 3rd century BC and the 11th century AD, and today it is the most expansive ruins of the Buddhist trail. For Buddhists from all over the world who visit India, Sarnath is one of their itineraries.
Sarnath is directly connected to Varanasi by rail and road. The nearest airport is Babatpur, 30km from Sarnath and 22km from Varanasi.
The most remarkable structure at Sarnath is the cylindrical Dhamek stupa, standing at a towering 34.6m with a base diameter of 28m. The stupa is built party with stone and partly with brick. The stone facing the lower part is adorned with delicate floral carvings of Gupta era. At the present form it dates back to 500 AD, but excavations has revealed brickworks belonging to the Mauryan era around 200 BC.
Believed to be built by Emperor Ashoka, Chaukhandi stupa is a lofty mound of brickwork whose square edifice is surrounded by an octagonal tower. One can have a good view of the stupa from the Mughal tower built by Emperor Akbar in 1555 AD.
Mulagandha Kuti Vihar
This modern temple has been erected by the Mahabodhi Society. Its interior is ornate with a series of frescoes by the Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu. The temple is a rich repository of Buddhist literature. A group of statues in the temple shows Buddha giving his first sermon to his five desciples. The ancient Mulagandha Kuti Temple is among the brick ruins of Sarnath. A Bodhi tree growing on the campus is brought from Sri Lanka, from the offspring of the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment.
The Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological museum has a rich collection of Buddhist sculptures comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisattva images, finest specimens of Buddhist art, from Sarnath's Mauryan, Kushan and Gupta periods. The collections also include 9th to 12th century images of Hindu gods.
Another main attraction in the museum is the capital of the Ashoka pillar of four back-to-back lions that has been adopted as the state emblem of India.
Other interesting Places
The Main Shrine: It is the building where Ashoka is said to have meditated. Only the foundations are to be seen now.
The remains of the Ashoka pillar, which stood over 20m high. The capital of the pillar is in the archaeological museum.
Remains of Dharmarajika stupa that was sacked and reduced into rubbles by treasure seekers in the 19th century.
There are Buddhist temples in the Thai, Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese and Japanese monasteries. Visits to these modern temples are worthwhile.
The deer park is located north of the Mulagandha Kuti Vihar. Apart from deer, the park has some birds of Indian origin and waterfowl.
Sravasti, capital of the ancient Kosala kingdom, is where Lord Buddha performed the greatest of his miracles to confound the Tirthika heretics. Sitting on a 1000 petal lotus he multiplied himself thousands of times while fire and water came from his body.
Sravasti was an active centre of Buddhism even during Buddha’s lifetime. Lord Buddha spent many summers here, and delivered important sermons. It was here Anathapindaka, a large monastery for the reception of the Buddha, was built in the garden of Prince Jeta. Later, several shrines and monasteries were added to Sravasti.
Sravasti is situated on the banks of the River Rapti and can be reached from Gonda, 50 km northwest of Ayodhya. The nearest railhead is Gainjahwa. The nearest town is Balrampur, 20km away.
Variously known as Kashi and Banaras (Benares), this city of Shiva is one of the seven holiest centres of Hinduism. Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world and has been a centre of learning and civilization for over 2000 years. The name probably derives from the two rivers that flank the city, the Varana to the north and the Asi to the south. Fascinated by the marvel and inviolability of Banaras, Mark Twain told the world that "Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
Varanasi's prominence in Hindu mythology is virtually unrivalled. For the devout Hindu the city has always been a special place. Besides being a pilgrim centre, it is considered auspicious to die here, insuring salvation and instant access to heaven. Varanasi is the religious centre of the world of Hindus, a city where the past and present, eternity and continuity co-exist.
The city of Banaras is situated on the west bank of River Ganges. Life on the banks of the Ganges begins before dawn when thousands of pilgrims come down to the river to wait for the rising sun, when immersion in the sacred river will cleanse them and wash their sufferings and sins away.
The nearest airport is Babatpur, 22 km from Varanasi. Varanasi and Mughal Sarai are the two important rail junctions. Varanasi is connected to the rest of the country by good paved roads.
Many Indian cities are renowned for their temples. But only Varanasi has its celebrated ghats. Ghats are stone steps those lead down to the river. These ghats line the west bank of Ganges in a great curve for 7km. There are about 100 ghats in Varanasi. Each of the hundred ghats, big and small, is marked by a lingam, and occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city. The ghats present a unique moving site, especially in the dawn hours when the river is bathed in a magical light and thousands of pilgrims come to bathe and offer puja to the rising sun. Most of the ghats are used for bathing but there are also several burning ghats where dead bodies are cremated.
The city extends from Raj Ghat near the major road and railway bridge, to Asi Ghat, near the university. Asi Ghat is at the confluence of the Asi and the Ganges and pilgrims bathe prior to worshipping the huge lingam under a papal tree. It is one of the five special ghats where the pilgrims are supposed to bathe in sequence during Panchatirthi Yatra, the order being, Asi Ghat, Dasaswamedh Ghat, Adi Keshava Ghat, Panjaganga Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat.
Much of Tulsi Ghat renamed after the poet Tulsidas has crumbled. Named after the legendary king who lost almost everything in a fit of self-abnegation, Harishchandra Ghat, is one of the Varanasi’s two burning ghats. An enormous tree distinguishes Chauki Ghat that shelters small stones shrines to the nagas and in Dhobi Ghat clothes are still rhythmically pulverized in the pursuit of purity.
Mansarovar Ghat, named after the holy lake in Tibet, Narada Ghat, honouring the divine musician and sage, Chaumsathi Ghat, where impressive stone steps lead up to the small temple of the Chaumsathi (64) Yoginis are smaller Ghats.
Dashashwamedha Ghat is Varanasi’s most popular and accessible bathing ghat. Man Mandir Ghat is known primarily for its magnificent eighteenth-century observatory, equipped with ornate window casings, and built for the Maharajah of Jaipur. Immediately to the north is Lalita Ghat, renowned for its Ganga Keshava shrine to Vishnu and the Nepali Temple, a typical Kathmandu-style wooden temple. North of Lalita Ghat lies Varanasi’s pre-eminent cremation ground, Manikarnika Ghat one of the oldest and most sacred.
The Vishwanath Golden Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Vishveswara - Lord of the universe. It is the most revered temple in Varanasi. This is the earthly abode of Shiva, whose symbol, a black stone lingam, is enshrined in the inner sanctum. Many times destroyed by invaders in the past, Queen Ahilya Bai of Indore rebuilt the current temple in 1776 on its original site. The 800kg of gold plating of its spires was undertaken by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years later. The temple is located in the old city. Non-Hindus are not permitted into the temple.
The Gyanvapi Mosque raised by Aurangzeb is near the present Vishwanath Temple or the Golden Temple.
Designed in north Indian Nagara style with multiple spires and stained red with ochre, this 18th century temple was built by a Bengali Maharani. The temple is located 2km south of the old city. Parvati, Shiva's consort, as Durga is the reigning deity. It is one of the best-known temples in Varanasi. During festivals, to please Durga, goats are often sacrificed. Because of the frisky monkey population in the temple, it has been locally known as the Monkey Temple. Non-Hindus are admitted to the courtyard, but not to the inner sanctum.
Tulsi Manas Temple
Not far from the Durga temple is the modern, marble Tulsi Manas temple. Built in the Shikhara style, this 1964 temple's two tier walls are engraved with verses and scenes from the Ram Charit Manas, the Hindi equivalent of the great Sanskrit epic Ramayana, written by poet Tulsi Das in 1623. Poet Tulsi Das lived here while writing it. On the second floor of the temple there are performing statues enacting scenes from Hindu mythology.
New Vishwanatha Temple
The temple situated in the premises of Banaras Hindu University, is a modern place of worship planned by Pundit Malviya and built by the Birlas. Open to all, irrespective of caste or religion, the temple's sanctum has a Shiva Lingam and verses from Hindu scriptures inscribed on the walls of the temple. The temple is supposed to be a replica of the Vishwanath Temple destroyed by Aurangaseb.
Ram Nagar Fort & Museum
Situated on the opposite bank of the river, this 17th century fort is the home of the former Maharaja of Benares. The view is most impressive from the other side of the river, which is reached by a pontoon bridge. During the monsoon the bridge is dismantled and replaced with a ferry. Personal collection of the Royal Family is exhibited in the Ramnagar Museum. The collection includes interesting vintage silver and brocade palanquins, howdahs, a replica of the royal bed, an astronomical clock, macabre elephant traps and an armoury of swords and old guns.
Banaras Hindu University
Since the earliest times, Varanasi has been a great centre of learning. Today the Banaras Hindu University, one of the largest in India, upholds that tradition. Built in 1917, it was founded as a centre for education in Indian arts, music, culture and philosophy, and as an institute for Sanskrit study. The Bharat Kala Bhavan in the university campus has a fine collection of Mughal miniature paintings, brocade textiles and a coin collection from 1st to 15th century that includes Kushan, Gupta and Mughal coins.
Bharat Mata Temple
About 3km west of Godaulia, outside the old city, is the modern temple dedicated to Bharat Mata (Mother India) and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. Instead of the customary gods and goddesses, the temple has a huge relief map, in marble, of the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan plateau, with mountains and rivers, all clearly visible. The map is said to be perfectly in scale, both vertically and horizontally. The temple was a gift by the nationalists Babu Shiv Prasad Gupta and Sri Durga Prasad Khatri.