Two important religious pilgrim centers of Buddhism are located in northern India. Sarnath is the famous spot where Buddha delivered his first sermon to his five disciples after attaining Nirvana. Hence this spot is regarded as the birthplace of Buddhism. Located about 217 km away from Sarnath by road is another significant spot of Buddhism. This is Kushinagar where Lord Buddha died. Together, these two spots form a part of the Buddhist circuit which every devout Buddhist try to visit once in a lifetime.
Location : State/District
Both Sarnath and Kushinagar are located in the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern part of India. Sarnath is located in the Varanasi district while Kushinagar is located in the Kushinagar district.The latitude of Sarnath is 25°22´N and its longitude is 83°1´E. The latitude of Kushinagar is 26°45´N and its longitude is 83°24´E.
Both Sarnath and Kushinagar are pilgrim spots. However, both the spots are visited by non Buddhists as well because they are rich in history and culture.
Since Sarnath and Kushinagar form a part of the Buddhist religious circuit, they are visited by thousands of devotees throughout the year. Families intent on pilgrimage as well as the students and scholars of Indian history and culture must visit both these spots to gain a proper understanding of the Buddhist era. Sarnath especially offers several attractions to those who are interested in archeology.
Located on the vast Ganga plains, Sarnath and Kushinagar enjoy a tropical monsoon type of climate. The summer season is very hot and lasts from March to May. Heavy rainfall is recorded during the monsoon months from June to September. Winters are pleasant and cool though the months of December and January can be quite cold with occasional cold wave affecting the area. The best time to visit both Sarnath and Kushinagar is from October to April. However, a large number of pilgrims also visit these spots during May when the birthday of Lord Buddha is celebrated.
Indian citizens require no special travel documents or permits to visit Sarnath and Kushinagar. However, foreign tourists must carry a valid passport with Indian visa.
Places to Visit
Sarnath is the site of the famous deer park where Buddha preached his first sermon and the first Sangha was founded. A small deer park with an aviary and a crocodile pool is still maintained here. The place of Buddha’s first sermon is marked by a statue of Buddha preaching to his disciples. The most significant point of interest is the famous Dhamekh stupa constructed by emperor Ashoka in 249 BC. It marks the exact spot where Buddha preached the first sermon and has beautiful floral and geometric carvings. Behind the stupa lies the iconic Ashoka pillar. The lion capital originally located at the top of this pillar and now removed to the adjoining museum is adapted as the national emblem of India. The Mulagandha kuti Vihar is the spot where Buddha is said to have spent his first rainy season. The spot is now marked by a modern temple complex and a Bodhi tree which is the offspring of the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. The Chaukhandi stupa is another point of interest where Buddha met the five ascetics. Finally, the small but extremely detailed Sarnath archeological museum definitely merits a visit. It has an impressive collection of relicts unearthed from the site. The pride of place is occupied by the lion capital of the Ashoka pillar.
The Mahaparinirvana temple is the leading place to visit in Kushinagar. This is a modest temple with a 6m long serene statue of reclining Buddha dating from the fifth century. A tall stupa lies at the back of the temple. The Mathakuar temple marks the spot of the final sermon of Buddha and has a 4m tall Buddha statue of blue stone that dates from the 10th century.
The Ramabhar stupa in Kushinagar is 15m tall and lies in ruins. It marks the spot where Buddha was cremated and is a popular area of meditation. Finally, the Wat Thai complex is a beautiful area of elaborately carved temple surrounded by a large garden of bonsai trees. Those who are interested in archeology and history should visit the Buddha museum which contains a number of relicts of the Buddhist era unearthed from the Kushinagar district.
When you visit Kushinagar meditation is an important activity that you can try out. You can see many people meditating around the Ramabhar stupa. Another activity is the holy hike which is organized in the area. This is a 13km walk that takes you through many of the interesting historical and religious sites in the area as well as through a local village and a local school.
When you visit Sarnath, you cannot omit a visit to the Hindu religious city of Varanasi which is located just 11 kms away. It is a city rich in history and culture. A tour of the famous ghats of the River Ganga and visits to the Viswanath temple, Kaal Bhairav temple, Sankatmochan temple and the famed Banaras Hindu University are a must. The fort of Ramgarh is another interesting place to visit near Sarnath.
For the more adventurous, an excursion to the city of Allahabad can be undertaken. It is located about 132kms from Sarnath. Important places to visit include the Allahabad fort and the Khasroo Bagh while a dip at the holy confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati is considered to be sacred.
Food and Accommodation
There are not many restaurants in Sarnath and the few which are there serve typical Indian fare. There are a few budget hotels in this area. They include the Golden Buddha Temple, the Rishipattan Vihar paying guest house, Raj Shanti guest house etc. They charge between Rs 500 to Rs 1000. Most tourists prefer to stay in Varanasi which offers a wide choice of accommodation from hostels to five star hotels and visit Sarnath during the day.
The Vipassana café offers a variety of food at reasonable price in Kushinagar. It is safest to try the ordinary Indian cuisine though a modified form of Chinese cuisine is also very popular here. There are budget and mid level hotels in Kushinagar. The Imperial Kushinagar offers a comfortable stay while the Royal Residency is another mid level inn in the area. The Pathik Niwas hotel is a budget option while the Lotus Nikko hotel is a high price option in the area.
Safety and Security
The area around Sarnath and Kushinagar are more or less peaceful. However, the traffic system may appear highly confusing to the newcomer in this area. Care should be taken while hiring rickshaws or taxis as they may often charge exorbitant rates.
Though Sarnath and Kushinagar are Buddhist religious spots, they are surrounded by Hindu religious sites and proper respect should be afforded to all shrines.
It is best to complete the tours of Sarnath and Kushinagar during the daylight hours as load shedding is a major problem in the area. It is also not very safe to wander in these towns after dark as they become almost deserted.