India // Uttar Pradesh //

The main site and the Dhamekh Stupa

Dominated by the huge bulk of the Dhamekh Stupa, the extensive archeological excavations of the main site of Sarnath are maintained within an immaculate park. Entering from the southwest, the pillaged remains of the Dharmarajika Stupa lie immediately to the north: within its core the stupa holds a green marble casket containing relics of Buddha (Ashoka gathered these up from seven original locations and redistributed among numerous stupas nationwide including this one) and precious objects, including decayed pearls and gold leaf. Commemorating the spot where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, Dharmarajika is attributed to the reign of Ashoka in the third century BC, but was extended a further six times.

Adjacent to Dharmarajika Stupa are the ruins of the main shrine, where Ashoka is said to have meditated. To the west stands the lower portion of an Ashoka Pillar – minus its famous capital, now housed in the museum. The ruins of four monasteries, dating from the third to the twelfth centuries, are also contained within the compound; all bear the same hallmark of a central courtyard surrounded by monastic cells.

The most impressive of the site’s remains is the Dhamekh Stupa, also known as the Dharma Chakra Stupa, which stakes a competing claim as the exact spot of Buddha’s first sermon. The stupa is composed of a cylindrical tower rising 33.5m from a stone drum, ornamented with bas-relief foliage and geometric patterns; the eight-arched niches halfway up may once have held statues of the Buddha.