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India, we all know has been the cradle for many religions and cultures. People from the world over have come to our country seeking spiritual enlightenment and knowledge of the Almighty. Gautam Buddha too kindled the spark of Buddhism in this auspicious land and gained the supreme knowledge of ‘Appo Deepo Bhava’ or be a ‘Light Unto Thyself’. No wonder, India today is among the most important pilgrimage spots for Buddhists around the world and Sarnath figures prominently there.
Located about 13 kilometers to the north-east of Varanasi, this ancient city, situated at the confluences of the Ganges and Gomti in Uttar Pradesh is a shining jewel of Buddhist legacy and hosts millions of tourists every year.
The Deer Park in Sarnath is the very spot where Gautam Buddha imparted his first lessons on Dharma and where Buddhist Sangha came into being through the enlightenment of the Kondanna. It would not be wrong to term Sarnath as the birthplace and nurturer of Buddhist religion in its early days.
Sarnath, though has been known by many names through the ages. It has been popular as Mrigadava, Rishipattana and Isipatana. Isipatana is perhaps the name that one comes across most often through Buddhist writings and in Lord Buddha’s discourses as captured by his disciples. In Pali, it means the land where holy men descended. Legend has it that Buddha’s birth was announced to 500 rishis by select Devas, who descended especially for this announcement. Those rishis all rose in the air and their relics fell on the auspicious ground of Sarnath. There are many other tales too, and all of them go on to highlight the religious sanctity and cultural richness of the city.
Not only does Sarnath boast of a rich religious and cultural heritage, it is bestowed with breathless natural beauty as well and overwhelms the tourists who visit the city with its striking contrasts. The Buddhist temple at the Deer Park here has been attacked on several occasions by foreign invaders including Mohammad Ghori. However, on the other hand, benevolent proponents of the religion like Ashoka the Great have helped spread this religion far and wide and created many architectural wonders celebrating the greatness of Buddhism.
Legend has it that in the 3rd Century B.C during the reign of the Great Mauryan Monarch, the great Sarnath Stupa was constructed commemorating Gautam Buddha’s enlightenment. King Ashoka’s inscriptions on these structures till date are some of the most comprehensive records of the origin, doctrines and spread of Buddhist religion. It is from this famous Sarnath stupa, that the Indian republic adopted the “Dharma Chakra’ in its flag and the ‘four lions’ as its national symbol.
Even the famous Chinese traveler, Fa-hien mentioned the stupa in his travelogue on India, which he visited around the 4th century. The Deer Park in Sarnath, the stupa they all find mention in the works of later Chinese travelers to India as well including Huen Tsang.
So, if you are looking for inner peace and self-enlightenment, come kindle the lamp of ‘Aapo Deepo Bhava’ in Sarnath, the cradle of cultures and birthplace of one of the world’s most famous religions, Buddhism.