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One of the most revered Buddhist pilgrimage centres in the world, Sarnath, is located just 10 km away from Varanasi. It is believed that after attaining nirvana (enlightenment), Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon here, sanctified as the Maha Dharma Chakra Pravartan Sutra. Sarnath has several structures from the time – such as the Dhamekh Stupa, which marks the spot where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon and the Chaukhandi Stupa, where Lord Buddha met his first five disciples.
Dhamekh Stupa is made of bricks in solid and cylindrical shape and has a height of 43.6 m and a diameter of 28 m. The stupa was founded by Ashoka in 249 BCE and rebuilt in the 5th century. It is also known as the Dharma Chakra Stupa. Chaukhandi Stupa lies 13 km from Varanasi and was built like an octagonal tower between the 4th and 6th centuries during the Gupta period.
Among the popular attractions in Sarnath is a metallic pillar established by emperor Ashoka in 272-273 BC that marks the foundation of the Buddhist Sangha. The pillar is 50 m high and has a symbol of four lions on top of it, called the Lion Capital. It is the emblem of the Republic of India. Below the lions, there are four other animals - bull, lion, elephant and horse. These represent the phases of the life of Lord Buddha.
A number of countries in which Buddhism is major religion have built temples and monasteries in Sarnath in the typical architectural styles of their countries. The Thai temple is among the most popular spiritual sites and has a Buddha statue that can be spotted from Chaukhandi Stupa. One can soak in the spiritual vibes of the temple by resting and meditating in the lush garden located outside the temple.
The Tibetan temple is another significant site and has a statue of Shakyamuni, a form of Lord Buddha. Outside the temple, prayer wheels are kept and on rotating them, scrolls of paper containing prayers are released.
A major attraction of Sarnath is the Mulagandhakuti Vihara, which is a 100-foot-tall tower temple. It is believed to be the place where Lord Buddha stayed when he visited Sarnath. A Buddha Walk has been made here with blue stone and a small lake.
The spiritual tour to Sarnath is not complete without visiting the famous Bodhi tree. It is said to be grown from a cut taken from the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. One can also visit the Sri Lankan monastery located nearby.
Sarnath is also said to be the birthplace of the 11th Jain tirthankar (saint) and is regarded as a venerable place by the Jain community.