Sarnath is one of the four main Buddhist pilgrimage destinations along with Bodhgaya and Kushinagar in India, and Lumbini in Nepal. You can find in this village some ruins dating back to the 3rd century BC when the emperor Ashoka built numerous stupas and monasteries. During 7th century AD, Sarnath was home to 1500 monks. After the Muslim rulers captured the territory, the town was on a decline. It was rediscovered later in the 19th century only.
Beyond its historical and religious importance, Sarnath is a green and calm village. It creates a big contrast with chaotic Varanasi which is only 10-15 km away. In this post, I will tell you more about this destination itself and more important, how to reach from Varanasi to Sarnath.
Places to visit in Sarnath
There are two major tourist sites in Sarnath – Dhamekh Stupa and Archeological museum. In addition to these, being a place of religious importance, Sarnath hosts numerous temples. Here is a brief overview.
Sarnath Stupa and Monastery ruins
Dhamekh Stupa (old name Dharma Chakra Stupa) is the most famous site in Sarnath. It is the place where Buddha gave his first preach to disciples after attaining enlightenment in Bodh Gaya. It is a huge construction almost of 44 m tall and 26m in diameter.
Close to the stupa, you will see a huge area with numerous ruins of the monastery. A few centuries back it used to be a lively colony with 1500 monks. Nowadays, both sites are taken care of by the archaeology department. There are Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world visiting it.
In addition to the ruins, there is a well maintained green area with walking paths and benches which tend to be popular among couples. It feels so peaceful to sit on a lawn and relax during hot days.
Ticket price: 200 INR for foreigners, 15 INR for Indians.
Sarnath Archaeological Museum is another famous site which is a place of lion capital from the Ashoka Pillar. It is very impressive standing near the entrance. Side note for international readers – the lion capital has been adopted as India’s national emblem. In addition to it, there are several halls displaying ancient architecture and archaeological founding.
Ticket price: 5 INR for both foreigners and Indians. Sarnath museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm daily except Fridays.
Note: There are people claiming on forums that photography is permitted. During my visit, the security guards asked to deposit camera, mobile, bags in security lockers at the entrance. Try your luck.
Sarnath temple and monasteries
There are numerous temples and monasteries in Sarnath: Tibetan Temple, Thai Temple, Jain Temple, Chinese Temple, Japanese Temple – you name it. Each of them has its own architectural style. But, remember, less is more! Sarnath is about atmosphere rather than following a checklist.
Most of the places are relatively close to each other if you follow either of the streets from the Museum. Note, some temples offer a basic stay on a budget, though you will find many more accommodation options for any taste in Varanasi.
Looking for more Buddhist sites? Check out Bylakuppe – the second largest Tibetan settlement in India.
Despite I’m an architecture and culture sites geek, there is something else in Sarnath that overwhelmed me. It looks clean from both environmental and design points of view!
All Buddhist sites are well-maintained as a rule. Maybe I’m stereotyping, but I can’t find any example from my travels that will prove the opposite.
For instance, Varanasi – a city that witnesses some of the most impressive sunrises and sunsets – is, unfortunately, one of the most polluted places I’ve ever visited. Despite lovely and welcoming people, yoga & meditation activities in the open spaces, thousands of years of history – it couldn’t cover up the impression of city pollution and irresponsible behavior of many local visitors. Nevertheless, both Sarnath and Varanasi have their own vibes, which is hard to compare.
How to reach from Varanasi to Sarnath?
The distance from Varanasi to Sarnath is 10-15 km depending on your starting point. There are two ways you can plan your trip. You can take a personal auto, taxi or go by public transport. A personal auto fare is 300 INR. It is comfortable, yet might be an expensive option for budget solo travelers.
As you will notice there is no public transport in the Ghat area of Varanasi: buses, minibuses, etc. The streets are quite narrow, so the main way to commute is auto.
To be honest, they do overcharge foreigners, since visitors rarely know about the possibility to take shared transport. There are buses available from Varanasi Junction (train station), but I found it quite chaotic with numerous taxi and auto drivers following you. Thus I went with a shared auto option. They go regularly.
Varanasi to Sarnath shared auto fare
If you travel to Sarnath by shared transport, your itinerary will be the following: Ravidas gate -> Varanasi Junction (Cantt) -> Pandeypur -> Sarnath. You can change the starting point. I stayed in the area of Assi Ghat in Varanasi, that’s why I chose to start at Ravidas gate. There are regular shared autos. The cost will be the following:
- Ravidas gate to Varanasi Junction (Cantt) – 20 INR
- Varanasi Junction to Pandeypur – 10 INR
- Paripur to Sarnath – 10 INR
In high season or if there are at least two more passengers going to Sarnath in addition to you, the auto going till Pandeypur will be happy to drop you till Sarnath itself. This will allow you to skip one interchange. It takes roughly 45 – 60 min to reach from Varanasi to Sarnath by shared auto. The time is long mainly because of traffic in the Cantt area.
Other useful information about visiting Sarnath:
- All the visiting places are close to each other, so it took me roughly 2 hours to explore Sarnath.
- Take water and reusable bottle with you. There is a water point near the museum where you can refill it.
- Dress modestly (shoulders & knees covered) to show respect to other culture and religion. Read also my guide about what to wear in India on different occasions.
- One of the most popular times to visit Sarnath is on Purnima (Buddha’s Birthday), which occurs in April or May(depending on the calendar). If you are visiting with a purpose to explore architecture and history, I recommend going during main seasons (end October till the beginning of March). During other times, the weather is unbearably hot.
- There is a well-maintained green area to relax – the Garden of Spiritual Wisdom.
- Overall, Sarnath is a half day trip from Varanasi including sightseeing, traffic and time on the road.
Personally, I liked Sarnath for many reasons shared above. What about you? Have you ever visited this place?