Buddha came to Sarnath, 10km northeast of Varanasi, to preach his message of the middle way to nirvana after he achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya. He gave his famous first sermon here to a handful of followers in a deer park, which has been recreated. In the 3rd century BC Ashoka had magnificent stupas and monasteries erected as well as an engraved pillar. When the Chinese traveller Xuan Zang dropped by in AD 640, Sarnath boasted a 100m-high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries. However, soon after, Buddhism went into decline, and when Muslim invaders destroyed and desecrated the city’s buildings, Sarnath disappeared altogether. It was not rediscovered until 1835 when British archaeologists started excavations and Sarnath regained some of its past glory.
Today it’s one of the four important sites on the Buddhist circuit (along with Bodhgaya, Kushinagar and Lumbini in Nepal), and attracts followers from around the world. An easy day or half-day trip from Varanasi, Sarnath is a green and peaceful place to spend some time and, along with the Buddhist ruins and monasteries, there’s an excellent museum.